Game of Thrones 4×09, ‘The Watchers on the Wall’: A bad goodbye to Castle Black

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This week treats us to one of the series’ extremely rare focused episodes, with the entirety of the episode centering on the Wildling army’s grand march on Castle Black.  It’s a beautifully shot episode, with cinematography and pacing worthy of any Hollywood offering, and the events that unfold change the landscape of Jon Snow’s story forever.  However, within the context of the greater Game of Thrones saga, the Battle of Castle Black is undercut by what’s become a recurrent problem with this show’s narrative momentum: a lack of discernible stakes or clear supportable protagonist.

IN THIS EPISODE: Um . . . we’re at Castle Black.  The whole time.  The mixed coalition of Tormund’s tribe (feat. Ygritte) and the cannibal Thenns provide the second front on the castle’s main gate while Mance’s army attacks the Wall; Sam and Gilly get all smoochy; Gilly hides in a larder, and is later joined by the cowardly Slynt; Commander Thorne makes himself almost likable and avails himself in battle like a baawss, but eventually gets killed anyway; The Jon Snow Five is whittled down to The Jon Snow Three as Pyp and Grenn take an arrow to the neck and a giant to the everything, respectively; The Night’s Watch successfully fends off Mance’s first night of assault, but at a terrible cost to personnel; Tormund takes, like, five arrows but doesn’t die because they probably didn’t even penetrate his first layer of luxurious body hair, and is taken prisoner by the surviving Crows; Ygritte’s wishy-washy ways catch up with her as she hesitates while drawing down on The Man Who Knows Nothing, and winds up like the Waco Kid, only deader; Jon does some quick math and surmises the remaining dozen or so Night’s Watchmen probably won’t fare well against the eleventy bajillion Wildlings at the Wall, so he heads out to treat with and/or kill Mance Rayder.  Naturally, he leaves behind his sword.

source: HBO

source: HBO

Thankfully, this week allows me the opportunity for criticism that doesn’t require addressing of the rampant misogyny marbling the world of Westeros like a fedora-shaped ribeye, so that’s a relief; I’m sure you’re getting as tired of reading it as I am of having to write about it.  Not that we’re entirely free of it, mind you, there’s no way we’re getting let off that easy — we gotta listen to the Thenn leader talk about sexually assaulting Ygritte just to meet our weekly quota.  However, we’re spared our usual theater of chauvinism to focus more broadly on blood and guts and mammoths and stuff, so that’s fun.  It’s legitimately a good episode, I promise!  I like so much when this show chooses to create a real sense of narrative urgency, which is nigh impossible when you’re devoting three minutes a week and four episodes a year to certain subplots.  We’ve tiptoed for seven episodes about the impending assault from Rayder’s army, and now we get to finally get to it.

source: HBO

source: HBO

However, the episode still has some narrative problems, mostly stemming from the unifocal nature of the story being told here.  Largely, we’re witnessing the battle through the eyes of Jon Snow, and while that is a mighty battle, it’s mostly just a clash of iron against iron.  People fight, people scream, people die . . . but there’s not really a story being told deeper than “These guys are attacking these other guys.”  Yes, we see that Slynt is the crapsack coward we always figured him to be, and yes, Thorne earns a bit of redemption in his performance against the onslaught and his quasi-apology to Jon, but largely the battle is devoid of any major portent or subtext, and the victories won here are hollow.  Admittedly this show has painted itself into a bit of a no-win situation, as people complain when the battles are glossed over and people complain when the battles are shown, but I think more than anything what I would like to see is the focusing on shifts in the narrative dynamic.  What we get here, rather, is more a whittling of future plotlines through attrition; we’re not likely to see any more stories about the Jon Snow Five, we’re not going to have to worry about Jon butting heads with the Castle Black leadership, we’re not going to have to go back to Tormund’s gang, and we can stop wondering about the ill-fated romance between Jon and Ygritte.  The story of Jon Snow has been sanded down for speed, and to that end the episode succeeds with aplomb.  However, that perfunctory hacking away at extraneous storylines gives the episode a feeling of being little more than long-form exposition.  It gets us from A to B, it explains why from here on out we likely won’t see certain characters and locations, but it doesn’t have any interest in investing us emotionally.  As Ebert argued, it’s not about what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it; or maybe you prefer Mike Judge, and think we need to know whose ass it is and why it’s farting.

source: HBO

source: HBO

That’s what’s missing here: emotional connection with the characters.  It’s a shame, too, since I’m already predisposed to like characters such as Jon and Ygritte, or Sam and Gilly.  They’re nice people.  Brave people.  Heroic people.  Complex people.  However, this conflict they’re embroiled in, the Night’s Watch vs. The Wildlings, is hollow and empty and pointless and dumb.  Castle Black is home to a collection of outcasts, led by incompetent jerks, who refuse to even try to perform their stated duty of defending against the coming zombie horde.  The conditions that force people to take the Black are not the stuff of heroes, and the effect of that makes those “sacred” vows meaningless in the face of more pragmatic challenges.  I don’t care if Jon or Sam forsake their duty; their duty is irrational.  Conversely, I don’t really know why Mance Rayder is worried about assaulting northern Westeros when he knows full well the horrors of the White Walkers; if he can bring together warring tribes and a hundred thousand soldiers, why not go after the existential threat on his doorstep instead of taking up a quixotic fight against a bunch of old men and outlaws?  It puts everyone at cross purposes, and makes them all look foolish for not having more pragmatism.  Much like Dany and Tywin far to the south, we’re left to watch leaders with great power and influence squander their leverage with bickering and vanity.

It’s frustrating.

 

 

Next week: IT’S OVER!  Hit me up in the comments and we can talk about how much we’ll miss Ygritte.  :(

Atomika D.

is a writer and critic of TV and film since 2006, an alumnus of NYFA’s school of celluloid direction and production, and she once ate seven burritos on a dare. It was not pleasant. Read all about it on Tumblr.

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