“Blackwater.” “The Watchers on the Wall.” “Hardhome.” “The Battle of the Bastards.” It’s rare enough for characters on a TV show to become household names, but on Game of Thrones, all it takes is a major battle for an episode title to lodge into pop-culture consciousness – like a sword plunged through steel armor.
So far, HBO’s smash-hit series has served up a quartet of colossal clashes: the episode-spanning fights for King’s Landing and Castle Black that served as climaxes for Seasons Two and Four, and the shorter but no less striking struggles against the White Walkers and House Bolton that served a similar function in Seasons Five and Six. Each involves filmmaking on a scale rarely if ever seen on television before, and each represents a threat to the characters and a turning point in the overall storyline as big as the battles themselves. Now that last night’s showdown between Jon Snow and Lord Ramsay has entered the history books, it’s the perfect time to take a look at the similarities and differences between all four battles, analyzing how they work–and what they have to say.
When it comes to the Big Four, the most obvious difference is directorial. “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall” were both helmed by Neil Marshall, the auteur of intelligent big-screen genre fare from The Descent to Centurion. As much a tactician as a technician, Marshall made his battles things of terrible beauty and precise calibration. He gave his attackers concrete goals – storm this wall, breach this gate – and based his battle choreography around them, making the spacial relationships and physical stakes involved in each physical clash easy for audiences to grasp. Nothing demonstrated Marshall’s clarity of action better than the stunning 360-degree swing around Castle Black during the fight for the Wall – shot in a single unedited take that revealed the location of every major character mid-battle, it involved moving the camera so quickly that the director worried someone might be struck in the head and killed. But his use of CGI is every bit as ambitious as his more practical effects; from the massive scythe and chain released from the Wall to sweep away its attackers to the enormous emerald-green wildfire explosion that sets Blackwater Bay alight – in terms of sheer scale, it’s still the show’s most jawdropping special effect – Marshall is a master of spectacle as well as mise-en-scène.