Holy Neil Marshall, ladies and gentlemen.
If you’re going to have someone direct your big, broad, totally gory Helm’s Deep knockoff Episode, it might as well be the director of Dog Soliders, The Descent and Centurion (not to mention the mastermind behind Season Two’s epic, “Blackwater”). Marshall doesn’t just get to go really HUGE (sporting what appears to be a much bigger budget than his previous set of war games), but is also tasked with delivering a reminder that Game of Thrones can actually be “fun”. Despite being mostly effective from a storytelling perspective (Jaime’s weird rapeiness aside), this season has seen probably one too many grim moments; an emotional barrage that has left a good portion of the audience (readers and non-readers alike) slightly jaded. Marshall’s injection of the fantastical (giants! wooly mammoths!) is a much-needed breath of fresh air and a welcome respite from the seemingly all-encompassing cloud of gloom that has hung over much of Season Four.
Out of the Ninth Episode’s fifty minutes of runtime, about ten are devoted to somewhat cliched setup (foxhole hound-dog stories, comrades calming each other’s fears) while the bulk of the back forty make up a rather elaborate set piece. Gilly shows up at the gate just before battle, and Sam stashes her away down below in a storage bunker before running back to “uphold his oath” (not before declaring his love for the girl with an overly dramatic kiss, naturally). Meanwhile, Ygritte has to defend her honor against comrades who question her heart’s ability to allow her to kill Jon Snow. And Allister admits he just might have been wrong about not walling off the tunnel to keep Mance Rayder’s horde at bay, but he still hates Jon Snow and is sticking to his guns on that feeling.
Then the signal sounds and Hell is unleashed. Marshall films the fracas with a kinetic sense of cinema that the show often lacks. He goes in for the one-on-one battles, capturing them in all their forehead-smashing, limb-lopping glory (Allister’s face-off with Tormund Giantsbane is an incredibly choreographed moment of brutality). Yet the battle isn’t all vignetted hand-to-hand intimacy, as the director takes a step back and lets a selection of medium/wide long shots deliver a sense of controlled chaos that is wholly thrilling. One particular side-scrolling Steadicam glide (that apparently was completed practically using five takes) is an impressive bit of stylistic bravado, tracking almost the entirety of Castle Black as many of the Night’s Watch die defending it.
Marsall also knows how to pace the action accordingly, stopping for tiny character breaks that feel completely earned. Watching Janos Slynt quiver in cowardice as the carnage occurs around him is a choice that reinforces the horror of battle without seeming heavy-handed. In fact, many of Slynt’s moments felt like a medieval take on Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) fumbling his gun in Saving Private Ryan, as the man runs and hides instead of mustering the courage to aid his fellow oath-bearers.
Kit Harington has certainly stepped up his game over the course of four seasons, with “The Watchers on the Wall” feeling like a culmination of his growing talents as an actor. Not only does he get to bark commands and inspire the other knights in black with ease, he’s given a particularly splattery punchline to his terrific hand-to-hand fight with Styr. Harington has taken a bunch of flak over the last few years, his somewhat slack jaw never helping to bring Jon Snow to proper life. Here he’s finally a superstar, unleashing direwolves before heading out to assassinate Mance after he and his successfully hold off the Wildlings. I reckon this is the last time we see Young Mr. Snow until Season Five and it’s a hell of a cliffhanger to be left on.
Of course, Game of Thrones is still Game of Thrones, and that means we can’t be let off the hook with just being 100% entertained. There are several minor deaths (mostly Watchmen we’ve come to know and love) before Ygritte is shot down by Ollie (whose father Ygritte murdered at the season’s beginning, marking it as a vengeful bit of bittersweet justice). Jon Snow is there to catch her and ease her into oblivion as his former Wildling lover informs him that she wishes they had never left the sexy-time cave. “You know nothing, Jon Snow…” she whispers before expiring and it’s a gut punch of a moment. Even Neil Marshall is taking his marching orders from George R.R. Martin’s original texts as his sense of full-scale fun is slightly undercut by this overtly soapy occurance. Still, “The Watchers on the Wall” is an absolute blast to behold and a reminder that the series can be truly engaging on a rousing, adventurous level.