“I am a man of the Night’s Watch. I made a promise to defend the Wall, and I have to keep it. Because that’s what men do.”
Another episode 9 directed by Neil Marshall (Blackwater), and like his previous effort, it didn’t stint on the action. Also like that episode, it was virtually a self-contained story, covering only the plot thread where a massive, epic battle was due so as to show the events of the battle in detail. The action was furious, breathtaking and satisfying. The emotional drama, which is what Game of Thrones stands or falls on? Well, that depends on how invested you are in these characters in particular.
Having read a number of internet discussions since I saw the ep, I know that it’s your opinion of the characters involved that will form your opinion of the whole. Nobody’s doubting the quality of Marshall’s action sequences (a “battle-gasm” as my friend Tim Davis described it), people seem to like or dislike the episode on the basis of whether they find the characters interesting in Benioff and Weiss’ script.
As ever, the showrunners have written the majority of the episodes this year (7 out of 10), so the ball’s very much in their court as to how the characters are portrayed. But not every viewer’s going to find the same ones interesting. I must confess, I’ve been quite bored with the Night’s Watch this year; yes, we’ve been aware the whole time that a massive attack is coming from both the North and the South, but the scenes at Castle Black have failed to convey much of a sense of urgency or imminent threat. Instead, we’ve just had a surly Jon Snow clashing with his sneering commanders like a whiny teenager with some ill-tempered teachers.
For me at least, this episode mostly made up for that, putting some fire back into Ned Stark’s bastard and giving him back some emotional investment in his tragic reunion with Ygritte. It also took a new direction from the books (again, in my view, a better one) by revealing that, under his bilious contempt for Jon, Ser Alliser Thorne is a superb and capable battle commander who genuinely inspires his men when he needs to. Janos Slynt, conversely, stood revealed as just the snivelling wretch we thought he was – only now, everyone’s actually seen it. Both Owen Teale as Alliser and Dominic Carter as Janos were excellent this week – it helped that the script actually gave both something to do for once.
I didn’t find it all good news on the character front, mind. I love Sam Tarly, and John Bradley was better than ever in this ep as a genuinely ordinary man caught up in momentous events and doing the best he can. Unfortunately his exchanges with Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan, magical in a brilliantly written contemplative scene) and Pyp (Josef Altin as another ordinary man, who’ll be missed) resonated far more than his resolute love for Gilly. This is because, much as I love Hannah Murray, the character hasn’t been written to have any kind of personality whatever. She’s only defined as ‘Sam’s love interest’ – something true to the books that ideally could have been improved on.
The script certainly had depth of character on all sides, but in essence, it was an old-fashioned war movie. And like any old-fashioned war movie, there were plenty of clichés, marking certain characters out for death very obviously; though again, there was fun to be had by trying to guess them. Pyp was obviously for the chop, but not before a last-minute demonstration of resolve and courage after his earlier cowardice (see also Hudson in Aliens and the many predecessors he was modelled on).
Equally obviously, the terrified little boy manning the lift up the Wall pulled himself together into a fierce fighter at the end – perhaps to Jon’s regret. And I wasn’t remotely surprised that the defiant fivesome sent to the tunnel to fend off an enraged Giant turned up dead at the end – having taken the giant with them. As a longstanding regular, Mark Stanley’s Grenn may be missed, but to be honest he’s never had much depth on his own, working best as a foil for Dolorous Edd Tollett. Edd, thankfully, survived, after showing some predictable mettle during the battle. Unlike Grenn (and, sadly, Pyp, who I took a bit of a fancy to), Edd has some real meat on the bones of his character. And he’s fun too, like Game of Thrones’ own Marvin the Paranoid Android.
It wasn’t all predictable, though, and I suspect Benioff and Weiss were playing with our expectations from time to time. Janos Slynt, as the weaselly coward, and Alliser Thorne, as the villain turned hero, would normally die in this kind of plot. That they didn’t was against my expectations – but they likely have roles to play in the fallout from this week’s events.
Like the better war movies, the ep showed the conflict from both sides – though we didn’t see any actual characters in the Wilding army North of the Wall, we got to see the perspectives of those we’ve been following in the South. Since we followed them (with Jon) scaling the Wall last year, there was as much admiration for their courage as that of the Watch. Again, fun was to be had by trying to second guess which ones wouldn’t make it; in the event, a higher proportion of casualties than the Watch, but then there fewer given names and details to begin with.
It was obvious that Yuri Kolokonikov’s genuinely terrifying Thenn leader Styr was the major ‘baddie’ here (insofar as the show draws such simplistic depictions) so his death felt like a foregone conclusion. The survival of Tormund Giantsbane – even peppered with arrows was more of a surprise. But again, this is a character I’d hate to lose – if only to see Kristofer Hivju finish his very detailed tale of having sex with a bear.
Ygritte could have gone either way, but ended up in a tragic and lip-trembling death which at least gave her the chance to utter her catchphrase (“You know nothing, Jon Snow”) one last time. The ambiguity of what might have happened had little Olly not shot her before she could let the arrow fly, or put down the bow, had a hefty dramatic thump. I’m betting this will be haunting Jon Snow now, and may even be part motivation for his apparent suicide mission to take out Mance.
As to the action itself, the script was nicely paced. Again like a classic war movie, we got to see the fearful buildup (from both sides), but when battle was joined the editing, camerawork and music went into overdrive for a relentless, seemingly endless pummelling of action. Things like the Giants and their mammoths made it unavoidably reminiscent of the big battles from Lord of the Rings (as were these scenes in the books, to be fair). But the sheer pace, and violence that Marshall gave the second half of the episode made it every bit a match for them. The undoubted highlight was a seemingly endless tracking shot around the courtyard, the camera travelling slowly enough to lovingly catch the detail of the mayhem unfolding in every corner. It looked amazing, and must have been a bitch to choreograph.
Sex and violence
No sex. Are you kidding? There was too much violence to cram in!
The violence too was pretty relentless, though the hazard is that a non-stop parade of beheadings, disembowellings and throat slashings means that you tend to be less impressed with each individual one.
Highlights, however, included Jon’s final defeat of Styr by means of a handy hammer to the skull:
And on a more emotional level, poor old Pyp in Sam’s lap, gasping out his last with an arrow through his neck and a convincing torrent of blood oozing from his mouth.
A storming episode action wise then, though the cliffhanger ending meant that it felt less self-contained than Blackwater. After all, that battle was decisively won, but this is just a breather; as Jon said, they’ll try again the next night. As I said, how much you enjoy it probably depends on what you come to Game of Thrones for – the political wrangling, the deception and backstabbing, the epic battles with an undefeatable supernatural evil from the dawn of time. And which of the characters are your favourites, which may depend on your choices from the above.
For me, I’ve been rather bored with the Night’s Watch this year, so I’m glad to see them finally get some action. The lack of conclusion means there’s either even more to cram into next week’s final episode than I was expecting – or that the cliffhanger won’t get resolved till next season, leaving some of book three unadapted even while the show plunges headlong into books four and five. Either way, this was another storming episode 9 from at least an action perspective, and – for me at least – pretty satisfying from a dramatic perspective too.