Game Of Thrones has only committed to one location for an entire episode once before: "Blackwater," the penultimate episode of the second season that brought together Stannis Baratheon's forces with a capital defensive force led by Tyrion Lannister, truly fighting for the first time. That hour was also directed by The Descent director Neil Marshall, who has apparently become the series' go-to big-time action director—and with good reason. "The Watchers On The Wall" is equal to the cinematographic triumphs of "Blackwater" in almost every way. It's a visual extravaganza, featuring incredible perspective-change shots—the archers lowered over the edge of the Wall to shoot at climbers—masterful swordfight choreography, and a breathtaking long take that encompasses the scale of the entire battle as it circles around the fight on the south side of the Wall. (There's even a great "That's not a knife…THIS is a knife" moment between a giant and a regular Wildling wielding bows.)
But while "Watchers" matches the visual intensity of Game Of Thrones' previous battle-heavy peak, it doesn't come close to reaching the same level of narrative value or thematic impression. At its best, the Night's Watch plot within A Song Of Ice And Fire conveys the message that no matter how much a skilled manipulator in the south connives in order to make it to the top of a pile of bloody corpses in order to seize power at King's Landing, there's a storm coming to claim everyone. "Winter Is Coming" was the first and most memorable tag line for Game Of Thrones—and that meteorological threat continues to loom over Westeros, underlining how insignificant all the political machinations seem when compared to the cycle of an entire world. Mere mortals fade over time, the forces of nature reign supreme. The Lannisters rule in King's Landing, but the Night's Watch attempts to hold forces that would destroy nobles and commoners over an entire continent.
That's where it gets annoying, because so often the Wall sequences—and Jon's journey beyond the wall, including his tryst with Ygritte—deal with the emotions of a few characters, and not the giant existential threat to the world. And even when the show does confront the doomsday elements, it's often bogged down in bureaucratic squabbling as the interim Lord Commander continues to hold Jon Snow back from achieving his true potential. This is supposed to be where the rubber meets the road, humanity taking a stand against the otherworldly forces nobody south of a frozen sheet of ice and stone even thinks about. That is the power of the Night's Watch plot line, no matter how thrilling it may be to see Jon Snow finally assume a leadership position and succeed in battle. It may seem like a buzzkill, but it's a strike against all the petty backstabbing everywhere else in this world. It's an "Ozymandias" reminder that nothing lasts, everything turns to dust, and that constantly climbing the ladder or fighting in the pit doesn't guarantee lasting significance in the face of time's swirling sands.
"Watchers" works as a visual feast, providing everything from amazing kill shots—Jon's use of a blacksmith hammer, as well as the kitchen staff getting in on defense were particular highlights—to rousing speeches from an unexpectedly steadfast interim Lord Commander. From a story arc standpoint though, this was a bit lukewarm, since there's nary a Ciaran Hinds to be seen, the Wildlings don't even send the entire force to the battle (it's a first strike to test defenses). An hour devoted to one battle on one night, and there's still part of the story left over for the finale, as Jon and Sam exchange some meaningful words before Snow heads out to meet Mance Rayder for a final showdown that will seemingly rob the show of the true showdown between giant armies. (Not that a television budget, even one as expansive as HBO allows for this show, would be enough.)
"Blackwater" had Tyrion overcoming his fear of being overmatched and executing a daring plan to save King's Landing from Stannis Baratheon's superior forces. Bronn's arrow igniting the Wildfire remains one of the most exciting shots in the history of the series, kicking off a giant battle that rightfully drew comparisons to the Helm's Deep sequence in Two Towers. But, again, there's a bit too much repetitive material here. It's another chance for Marshall to show off what he can do with a battle scene at night, and sure enough, it recalls Helm's Deep once again. So much of this season has focused on feuding and machinations among the current generation of Lannisters in King's Landing—and so much of that traces back to roots in "Blackwater," with Tyrion fighting bravely, Joffrey cowering like a child, Cersei presuming to save Tommen from a more grisly death, and ultimately Tywin taking the glory away at the end.
The near-mandatory comparisons between the episodes can't extend to the storytelling significance, because the only characters affected by this heavy time devotion are Jon and Sam. Don't get me wrong, I don't share the same misgivings about Jon that a sizable portion of viewers do, and freeing him up by allowing him to finally grasp leadership in some meaningful capacity makes the character significantly more interesting. But there aren't the same kind of interconnected threads between what happens at The Wall and what goes on in the south or across the sea in Essos. This should be a battle between a guardian force more concerned with the White Walkers, a far more cataclysmic threat. Instead, it's two mortal forces clashing in a way that heavily suggests barbarian Scots attacking Roman forces along Hadrian's Wall.
If there's another positive to go along with the sumptuous images, it's the comedy littered throughout "Watchers." The way in which Jon assumes a leadership role—after Grenn fakes that Alliser issued an order for the cowardly former Kingsguard commander to join the battle below—is particularly inspired. And Sam's retorts back to Pyp as he loads crossbows also offer a good amount of laughter as well, at least before Ygritte sends an arrow through Pyp's throat.
There are other emotional characters deaths, to be sure, particularly Ygritte—though since it was from the bow of that one little kid (let's call him Westeros Batman after what happened to his parents) it felt a bit cheaper. Still, the unknowing revenge factor played into that ending, and at least Jon and Ygritte got to exchange a few parting words before the final "You know nothing…" ended the run of a compelling and at times painfully funny female character. There haven't been many of those in the north since the beginning of the show. Alliser's fate is also uncertain, but going along with the rule from comics, even though he's been sliced open, we never see a confirmed dead body, so he's not gone just yet.
As the penultimate episode of this season, "The Watchers On The Wall" delivered an hour of heart-pumping action that in the moment impressed with adventurous battle sequences, constantly one-upping the previous highlight with something more daring. It's going to be tough for the show to match the thrill of Ghost's release (though any episode could always use more direwolf violence), the giant's arrow, Jon killing the lead Thenn (who always looked like a rejected extra from a Blue Man Group show), and blowing up wooly mammoths with fire barrels. But when all the dust (ice?) settles, what's left is a small step for Jon Snow, a happy but complicated pairing for Sam and Gilly (especially after Aemon's…revealing monologue in the library), and a lot of dead crows. "Blackwater" managed to pair action highlights with events that rippled throughout subsequent seasons, punctuated by character beats that significantly affected future arcs. For that reason, "Watchers" ranks as a close second for Neil Marshall's contributions to the series.