The 9th episode of any Game of Thrones season can pretty much be assumed to mean one thing – epic. This is the time of big events, of spectacle, of “Blackwater”. And Benioff and Weiss turn to the man who directed that episode, Neil Marshall, to helm (no pun intended) “Watchers on the Wall”. Marshall is a fairly big name (he wrote and directed Dog Soldiers, among other films) and he’s pretty much a sure bet for this sort of large-scale showpiece. The episode looks every bit as great as you’d expect it to – the CGI and physical effects are top-notch, the camera work superb, the blood very red and the terrified faces of the dying boys on the Wall very white.
It’s always a bit of a change of pace for GoT to spend an entire episode at one location, but I don’t really see that they had much choice here. As with “Blackwater” it would have felt absurd to cut away from these events to see Dany playing Goddess or Arya and Sandor bickering like an old married couple. For most viewers I don’t think there’s as much emotional investment in the Wall as there is in King’s Landing, and I wouldn’t put this episode on a par with “Blackwater” in terms of overall impact. But it’s nice to see the Wall – and it’s inhabitants – finally get the glamour treatment. This is one of the settings that’s been a bit shortchanged by GoT as opposed to A Song of Ice and Fire.
There’s not a whole lot to interpret in WotW, and I don’t want to turn this into a list of likes and dislikes – and while I will touch on some of the changes from the book version, as always that’s dangerous ground. I’ll just point out a few things that stand out, starting with every scene with Aegon. He’s a wonderful character, and his conversation with Sam was one of the best moments in the episode. Indeed for all the spectacle and gore, the quiet moments among the young men – effectively society’s castoffs – as they wait to die far too soon are what really stand out for me.
I also liked seeing Ser Alliser Thorne reveal that in crisis – while he never stops being an arrogant prick – has balls of steel. He admits to Jon his mistake in taking the threat too lightly, reminds him that he loathes him, and sets about trying to do a job he knows is probably hopeless but must be done anyway. When the chips are down he takes on the suicide mission of defending the South Gate from Tormund’s army and does so with both skill and courage – making a stark contrast with Janos Slynt, who he unwisely leaves in charge of the Wall. He proves himself to be utterly useless and a craven coward, and when Grenn concocts a story to get him off the Wall so that Jon can take command, Slynt goes off to hide (in the hidey hole where Sam has stashed Gilly and the baby, miraculously alive after all – thanks to Ygritte).
As for changes, boy, there sure are a lot of them – some of them in the parts of the story I’ve already talked about. There are a couple of deaths here that certainly weren’t here at this point in ASoIaF, and they seem to have entered on the wings of butterflies – that’s going to be interesting to watch play out. Not among them was Ygritte, who died more or less at the same moment she did in the book – but the manner of her death was quite different, in what I think could be a very significant way. Here, the honor is given to Olly (you knew when Sam told him “Find a weapon!” something was going to happen), the boy whose family was murdered by the Wildling army now ransacking Castle Black. In the books (and I don’t consider this a spoiler because it’s already happened in the book version by this point, but just in case…)
As we leave the story, the Wall and Castle Black both have fought their attackers off for one night. Tormund is alive but captured – Thorne wounded and possibly dead. At this point Jon takes it on himself to try and change the course of events, because he knows that this was only a test run for Mance, yet the Watchers have survived by the skin of their teeth. His plan? Go off and kill Mance Rayder himself, since he’s the only thing holding the Wildling army together. “It’s a bad plan.” he admits wryly to the protesting Sam. “What’s yours?” Upon hearing no answer he enters the tunnel where Grenn and five other men have died defending the gate on his orders, pauses long enough to order their bodies burned and proceeds to walk out into the wilds North of the Wall, where an amy of giants, mammoths, 100,000 men and one King await him.
Rest assured, next week’s episode is going to be anything but boring. I certainly don’t know exactly what’s going to happen now and what will be saved for (sob) next March, but it appears as if the episode is going to focus on children (and their parents) which should give you a pretty good idea of what sort of themes we’re going to be seeing.