In the middle of its biggest battle since Season Two’s carnage at Blackwater, Game of Thrones takes us on a tour, via tonight’s episode, of Castle Black. Our guides just happen to be busy killing people.
We start with Jon Snow. He’s just brought reinforcements to the castle’s courtyard from the top of the Wall, and after killing his way through half a dozen wildlings, he pauses to survey the carnage. As he runs down the stairs to resume the fight, the camera leaves him, swooping across the chaos of the courtyard until it finds Jon’s former lover and would-be killer — the archer Ygritte. She draws and looses, and the camera moves on again to the axe-wielding, bald-headed barbarian Styr, leader of the cannibal Thenns. The camera moves again, and it’s back up another flight of stairs with Tormund Giantsbane, the red-headed ringleader of the raiding party. Then we take one last pass across the courtyard and its countless killings until the camera at last finds Sam Tarly, on a mission to free the great white wolf Ghost and even the fight.
It takes 43 seconds to make the circuit of Castle Black – 43 seconds involving dozens of performers and stuntmen arrayed across a multi-level set, shot without a single cut. Like all great action filmmaking, that shot rooted us in a specific environment, and did so clearly enough that you could practically give a tour of it yourself now if you were paying close attention. The stakes of every sword stroke were crystal clear – kill your man or you lose this patch of ground, and this one, and so on until there’s no more left to lose. It’s not just a choppily edited jumble of indistinguishable hacking and slashing; it’s the battle for Castle Black, and you are there.
Tonight’s episode — “The Watchers on the Wall” — isn’t the first time Game of Thrones has dropped its around-the-world-in-60-minutes style of cutting from storyline to storyline in favor of focusing on one big battle in one specific place. But the acclaimed “Blackwater” episode had advantages that tonight’s episode lacked (even if you don’t count Tyrion’s wildfire): a much larger and cooler cast of characters. The fates of Tyrion, Cersei, Joffrey, Bronn, the Hound, Sansa, Varys, Stannis, and Davos all hinged on who ruled King’s Landing when the green-tinted smoke cleared. This time around? It’s a safe guess that beyond Jon and Sam and their wildling love interests Ygritte and Gilly, a wildling-army-sized chunk of the audience couldn’t cite another involved character by name.
So writers/showrunners David Benioff & Dan Weiss and returning “Blackwater” director Neil Marshall made the best of an interchangeably black-clad and bearded situation. Giants and mammoths aside, the warring parties were far more poorly equipped than the clash of kings, so there was nothing quite as spectacular as the wildfire explosion. Instead, there was simply an object lesson in memorable action-filmmaking, one in which the individual beats of the battle had such clear and obvious consequences that the action helped sell the character work, even if you came in un-sold.
To pick a random example: drill sergeant and acting Lord Commander Alliser Thorne. The Night’s Watch’s answer to R. Lee Ermey has been little more than an antagonist to Jon and his friends, and he crows to Jon that he’s looking forward to resuming that relationship when the battle’s over. But tonight, he’s one of the Watch’s few genuinely fearsome fighters. The choreography of his swordfights, and the ferocity of his one-on-one duel with Tormund, drive home his value to the Watch; when he’s wounded and dragged out of the battle, that’s a real loss, and the fighting made you feel that way more than some lecture about his importance ever could.
Same with the passing of Jon’s old friends Pyp and Grenn. Would Pyp’s death from an arrow to the throat feel half as hard to take if he hadn’t just successfully defended the Wall and the Watch for the first time seconds earlier? And Grenn, the bearded blond brother who’s been a constant presence since Season One, is literally surrounded by characters we’ve never even seen before when he marches to his death in the tunnel at the root of the Wall. The mind-boggling size and strength of the giant barreling toward them – established first when he marches to the gate with a motherloving wooly mammoth – makes for a tremendously cool visual effect and creature-feature moment, yes. But it also charges the words of the oath Grenn and his men recite with real, life-or-death power.
None of this is to say that the action wasn’t simply fun on its own terms. You’d be hard pressed to find a more humorlessly pacificist interpreter of this material than this reviewer, but when the giant’s giant arrow hoisted that dude clear into the sky? Let the monster-truck-rally hootering and hollering commence! Ditto the scythe that swings out of the ice and pulps the wilding climbers like the Gallagher concert of the gods. (A quick note to book purists who complained about Benioff, Weiss, and Marshall dropping a certain element from the Blackwater battle: How’s that for a chain?)
Nor is it to deny the more purely character-based pleasures of this episode: Sam shooting down Jon’s rote description of his ex-girlfriend’s appearance by sarcastically asking about the size of her feet, insisting on finding out what it’s like to love and be loved, was perhaps the show’s sharpest work yet on the subject.
It’s simply to argue that in the hands of talented filmmakers, action doesn’t entail checking your brain at the door. It doesn’t detract from the impact of plot or theme or character; it enhances it. You can get an indelible scene where a woman hesitates to fire a killing shot in order to spare someone she loves, then dies at the hands of a boy who’d only seen a far crueler side of her, leaving everyone involved changed forever. You think that’s just pulp? You know nothing, Jon Snow.
Previously: Head Like a Hole