Game of Thrones Review: “The Watchers on the Wall”

jon snow

For anyone who has been following Game of Thrones since the beginning, it’s obvious that last night’s episode was meant to be a sequel of sorts of season two’s famous “Blackwater,” the massive battle at King’s Landing where the Lannisters held off the invasion of Stannis Baratheon, mostly due to Tyrion’s genius.

That was one of the series’ best episodes, but I can’t say the same for “The Watchers on the Wall,” despite all the similarities. In fact, I think it could be argued it was one of the lesser episodes of the season.

Yes, it’s extremely impressive that Game of Thrones can manufacture these LOTR-style sieges on a TV budget (granted, a big TV budget), but Game of Thrones is at its best when interesting things are happening to its characters, not necessarily when there’s simply loads of action going on. Though the episode was well directed, it felt rather empty compared to what the show usually contains.

The Wildlings attacking both sides of the wall is certainly one of the most exciting things to happen in the series’ history, but unlike “Blackwater,” the stories being told during the battle were few and far between.

“Blackwater” represented a huge clash of a number of characters, and there were pivotal moments for many of them during the course of the night. We saw the cowardice of Joffrey and the Hound, the bravery and intelligence of Tyrion and Pod, the terror of Cersei and Sansa that they would die that night. It was a key turning point for both Stannis and Davos, and Tywin Lannister swooped on with Loras Tyrell to save the day, ushering in that new era of collaboration.

We saw only a little of that here, the only two major players being Sam and Jon. Sam hides Gilly, watches his friend die, and shoots a wildling. Jon takes command when its thrust upon him, watches Ygritte die, and then marches out to meet with/try to assassinate Mance Rayder by himself.


I don’t think this was really a turning point for Sam, nor did he do anything terribly useful during the battle. He spent half his time talking to Jon and Aemon about girls, and I don’t think his love story with Gilly has been terribly compelling.

As for Jon, being in command didn’t feel like anything new for him. Other than his dick-ish overseers, he’s always had the respect of the men, particularly now that he went to Craster’s Keep and pretty much killed all the Crows who weren’t his friends already. And while it was sad that Ygritte died in his arms, that story has been too spread out to be compelling, and I thought it was pretty obviously telegraphed what they were planning with that kid archer taking her out (thanks, “previously on” scenes, for spelling that out ahead of time). Ygritte is a major death, but to me it was actually less sad than watching Pip die, or Jon’s bearded buddy who took on the giant in the tunnel.

While Joffrey and the Hound’s cowardice was pivotal for their character progression, Janos Slynt running and hiding doesn’t quite have the same effect. Really, there aren’t enough interesting characters in the north to make this as compelling a battle sequence as the Blackwater, even if there’s arguably just as much at stake if the Wildlings take Castle Black.

The end was awkward, with no clear victory and a weirdly sudden shift in the tide of battle to favor the Crows. At the end, Jon remarks that it’s only the first night of the siege, which seems strange given the fact that the entire episode is devoted to it. The battle ended far differently than I thought it would, but I’ll have to discuss that more in the book section.

Next week’s finale should get us back to globe-hopping. Blackwater was a great experiment in the show staying in one place, but I just don’t think it worked as well here in the north this time around. Did you?

Book Stuff (spoilers ahead, mark comments as such)

– I don’t understand why they didn’t make this a more decisive battle, and just insert the bit about Stannis riding in to save them all as the capstone on the evening. That would have been a more conclusive ending, and it seems weird to save that for next week (which I assume is what’s happening).

– It’s really weird to have an entire battle with a Wildling siege and not even show Mance Rayder at all. I do like how they set the giant fire behind them to shield themselves from the White Walkers, however, which many may miss. The giants/mammoths were cool, but do seem out of place onscreen compared to everything else in the series, save the Walkers and dragons.

– The Jon/Ygritte relationship wasn’t handled very well in the show or the books in my eyes, and neither was her death. This made it a little more dramatic with her literally about to shoot Jon here, I suppose, but not by much. Her final words were a little melodramatic for my taste, though I don’t recall if it was a direct quote from the book.

– F***ing Janos Slynt. I can’t wait to see his head come off next season.

  • Emilio Sánchez Lihón Mayorga

    Books info, so be warned:

    I dislike very much how the Jon-Ygritte storyline was handled: In the books, their love and her demise are way closer, so you could feel Jon’s sadness when he finds her corpse. In the show it has been ten episodes or more since they share time together (more than a year, since they been aired), so it feels cold and meaningless… I felt terrible after Ygritte’s death because we learned through her eyes the wilding’s view of the world, so much closer to the modern values of the reader than the rest of Westeros (they empower females, they respect diversity). In the show she has been just a killer this season, so her dying wasn’t half as sad as her death in the books. I like the show very much, but I guess this story had to be sacrificed to put some order into other events.

    Man, I still miss Ygritte in the books. There is no character as her in the next books, no one can produce the feeling of hope as her. Not even Daenerys.

  • Lucas Tetrault

    Could not agree more @paultassi:disqus … I feel as though we were cheated an episode. They could’ve shown multiple nights of raids on Castle Black and made some of the deaths a bit more impactful.

    And what happened to the “leader” of Castle Black who was drug into a room by some of the crows…? Is he dead?

    You would’ve thought that with such a key point in the story happening the week before and Tyrion’s life hanging in the balance we would’ve had some glimpse to what was going on!? I agree – Blackwater worked – Castle Black siege did not.

    Here’s hoping next week is actually epic.

  • Mike

    I have to disagree about Stannis. Everyone is clamoring about how he needed to come save them. Well, after all the big events that happened, you can’t just have Stannis show up with his big moment. That would weaken the entire episode from last night. His moment is coming and to have it happen last night would ruin everything.

  • ferryman

    Spoiler warning:

  • Mike Hewitt


    My biggest fear right now is that they will stretch out the siege through the entirety of the next season and have Stannis come riding in at the end of the season. This season’s story at the wall was nothing but filling time and it bothered me every time they went there.