'Game of Thrones' TV Book Club: Watching 'The Watchers on the Wall'

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Clatter! Clash! Sword fighting noises!! Welcome back to the Game of Thrones TV Book Club, a discussion space for Thrones viewers who have also read the five books (so far) of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This week, Darren Franich and Hillary Busis take a deep dive into the episode-long Battle of Castle Black, an epic hour long on action but curiously short on just about everything else (whither Mance Rayder?). Check out Jame’s Hibberd’s full recap of the episode, then join us as we venture into the narrative borderlands of A Storm of Swords (and beyond) below. (You know there’ll be spoilers for both the books and the show, right?)

DARREN: “The Watchers on the Wall” is clearly intended as a spiritual sequel to season 2′s “Blackwater.” Same director (Neil Marshall! The Descent!) Same basic structure: Shadowy before-the-battle scenes escalating into an attack and then all-out warfare. But whereas “Blackwater” drew very directly from GRRM’s source material in A Clash of Kings, “Watchers on the Wall” stitches together a couple of different events, throws in several characters who were absent in the book, and has to figure out what to do with a mammoth and a couple of giants.

Maybe that’s why this episode felt comparatively unwieldy. Like, is it me, or was Sam the main character of this episode? He got all the best lines. (“I think we’re gonna die.” “IF YOU KEEP MISSING WE WILL!”) He got the Romance Cover moment, finally kissing Gilly after two seasons of snow-trudging will-they-or-won’t-they misery. He even got a Cradle-A-Dying-Loved-One-In-Your-Arms moment (farewell, Pyp!). All that was missing was a Big Speech. Because the Big Speech belonged to…ALLISER THORNE! And can we talk about how Alliser Thorne almost walked away with this episode? The character has spent most of this season basically playing Val Kilmer in Top Gun, saying lots of snide remarks to Jon Snow. But up on the wall, he got a nice speech in about being a leader. Then he held his own in an Errol Flynn duel with Tormund Giantsbane. Not bad for a guy who spent most of Storm of Swords at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea!

How did you feel about “Watchers,” Hillary? Did this episode pay off a long season of stall tactics up at the Wall? And be honest: How many members of the Night’s Watch who died last night could you actually name?

HILLARY: To answer your second question, bluntly: No. Don’t get me wrong; “Watchers” was technically and visually impressive, from that enormous, battle-catalyzing blaze (presumably set by an absent Mance Rayder) to those awesome giants (presumably sent by an absent Mance Rayder) to the final shots of Jon’s heroic journey north (to parlay with an absent Mance Rayder). And that, in a nutshell, is why the Battle of Castle Black was less resonant, less poignant, and ultimately less vital than the Battle of the Blackwater.

While the show’s previous war set piece came as the culmination of nine weeks of mounting tension between two factions — three, if you count the remnants of Renly’s army joining up with Joffrey’s — who had each gotten large amounts of screen time, this one didn’t really feel earned. We knew why Stannis was making a move on King’s Landing; it’s less clear why the show’s Wildlings are suddenly attacking the crows they’ve begrudgingly lived adjacent to for centuries, largely because TV Mance is a nonentity. We haven’t seen Ciaran Hinds’s take on the King Beyond the Wall since season 3, episode 3 — which took place relatively recently in Thrones‘s own chronology, but aired in our world over a year ago. (And even so, the character’s total screen time measures much less than, say, Hot Pie’s — I’d be surprised if many Unsullied viewers even really remember who Mance is.)

“Watchers” would have been a lot more successful if it, like “Blackwater,” had hewed closer to George R. R. Martin’s narrative. In A Storm of Swords, the fight for Castle Black begins almost right after Jon’s escape from the Wildlings, which gives the battle an added layer of urgency. It also starts smaller and builds; the giants and the mammoths and such don’t arrive until after there have already been a few other, slightly less aggressive attacks, courtesy of the Thenn and Mance. I don’t want to say that the show’s version of the battle seemed less realistic — because, uh, we’re talking about ice-mammoths and giants here — but its grand, sweeping, epic qualities couldn’t disguise its relatively hollow core. Would you agree, or were you more impressed than I was? Also: Am I the only one who was surprised by how much she ended up missing Donal Noye?

DARREN: I definitely missed Donal Noye — he’s like the Davos of the North! — but I loved the moment of self-sacrifice that they transferred from Book-Donal. The scene where the six Night’s Watch stare down a giant, knowing full well that they are the only people standing between their civilization and destruction: Wow! And I loved how the camera cut away right before the giant struck. It felt like a moment that undercut all the bombast in the rest of the episode. The point wasn’t the action; it was the decision made by a group of people to stand together for something larger than themselves.

This feeds into something I’ve been thinking about all season, actually. On the page, Jon Snow really popped for me. I always loved getting to his chapters, because his struggles (both moral and giant-al) were so distinctive from the throne-swapping down south. I sometimes think the best way to understand A Song of Ice and Fire is to read it as several different fantasy epics all mashed together, and Jon Snow’s quadrant always felt a little bit like Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. That saga starred Taran, a hero with a purposefully unglam job — “Assistant Pig-Keeper” is almost as bad as “Celibate Glacier Warrior Monk” — and like Jon, Taran was always learning tough lessons about responsibility that gave all his victories a very bittersweet tone. Like Taran, Jon constantly has to make decisions that seem to run against the usual fantasy-genre romantic-heroic trend. Don’t ride south to fight with Robb. Don’t stay with the wild warrior girl who loves you. Don’t become the legitimate son of Ned — and don’t become Lord of Winterfell.

It’s a very internal journey, and I wonder if part of the problem is that Jon is such an INTERNAL character — thus, long seasons of Kit Harington walking over snow dunes and pouting. So last night’s episode could have a lot of fun with awesome fight scenes — hammer in the head! — but weirdly, all that noise kind of drowned out the character at the center. I wonder if there was a way to forefront Jon more — if, given how important their relationship was to the show, there could have been an actual Bill-vs.-The-Bride showdown between the two of them. Or anything, really. Do you think the show has a Jon Snow problem, Hillary? And why do you think Mance was a non-entity this season — and could that imply that they’re taking his story arc in a different direction? Or just ending it early?

HILLARY: I think you’ve hit the nail on the Muppet wig, as it were. Your comparison to Lloyd Alexander makes sense on a narrative level, but in terms of personality, I think Jon Snow is more like a classic brooding Byronic hero — like, almost to the letter, and to a degree that I didn’t even understand until I Googled “Byronic hero” just now: “A man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.”

The only parts of this description that don’t ring true to Jon Snow are the cynicism and misanthropy — perhaps uncoincidentally, two qualities displayed by nearly everyone else on Thrones. Could it be, then, that Jon is just too unfailingly good to be a compelling hero? (I know some people who’d argue that of Book Jon as well as TV Jon; personally, I think he falls under the same umbrella as Robb Stark, who was also generally the least interesting thing about any scene in which he appeared.)

Mance, however, is a fascinating character, both on the page and potentially on the screen — that is, if Thrones were interested in digging into him the same way it dug into, say, Oberyn Martell. I can’t quite understand why the TV series seems to have dropped the ball on this character, unless it has something to do with Ciaran Hinds’ availability. Focusing more on Mance throughout season 4 would have a great way to bulk up the few Wall scenes we did see; as it is, though, I have to wonder if he’ll even end up being a player going forward. But if Mance is either reduced even further or excised entirely, who will stand in for the King Beyond the Wall during the Wildlings’ “Arya Stark” rescue mission? And does this mean that A Feast for Crows‘ Great Baby Swap is now off the table entirely?

We should also discuss Ygritte, who met her sticky end in a slightly different way than you may have expected – though it’s not clear in the books whose arrow strikes her down, on the show, she’s killed by Olly (the young boy whose father, in turn, was killed by Ygritte earlier this season). I liked the poetic justice of that change, and also thought that Ygritte and Jon’s last moments together were the highlight of the episode; the pair’s onscreen relationship has emotion and weight that their book relationship lacks, thanks mostly to the chemistry between Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie. (And that last “You know nothing, Jon Snow” was really a kick in the gut, even if we all knew it was coming.) Were you moved by Ygritte’s end?

DARREN: Ygritte always read to me on the page like a scrappy type: a Dickensian orphan in a Conan the Barbarian universe, a back alley brawler who happened to hang with mammoths. It made sense that she was Jon Snow’s first-and-only: Jon’s so inside his head with residual Stark honor/melancholia, he needed a girl who took the first, second, third, and seventh hundredth step for him. The show glamourized Ygritte a bit — she was a murderous Arctic riff on the Warrior Princess archetype — and I loved the reinterpretation. A lot of it came down to Rose Leslie’s ability to play Ygritte as a ridiculously cynical soldier who also believed in endearingly simple, even naive notions — freedom, a better life in the south, maybe even love.

I feel like there’s a version of this season that really built up the Jon/Ygritte thing: Where you really got the sense of them moving back together, not sure whether they were going to kiss or kill or run off together to their cave. Honestly, I only really felt all that in their last moments together. But I give the show a lot of credit for building up that relationship, even if there’s a part of me that wishes we could’ve lost Kit Harington instead of Rose Leslie.

I’m sure there were a host of practical reasons why Mance stayed offscreen for so long, and maybe he’ll be season 5′s Guy In A Jail Cell. (See also: Jaime season 2, Tyrion season 4.) But Jon set off last night with a pretty clear mission statement: Kill Mance. I feel like, no matter how it plays out next week, this plotline will speak volumes about how the show will handle the (problematic, bureaucratic, overextended) drama at the wall in Book 5.

I want to end this week’s chat with a question, Hillary. Between “Blackwater” and “Watchers on the Wall,” we’ve seen Game of Thrones develop its own kind of bottle episode. I’m using the term loosely: Both episodes feature big battles, but they also focus in on a single location. If you could conjure up your own bottle episode for Thrones from any incident or series of incidents in the books — the only main requirement being that it’s all set in one city or palace or boat — what would it be? This might sound crazy, but I’d opt for Meereen. Specifically, I’d want almost everything that happens to Dany in Dance with Dragons focalized into one episode, so you slowly track her making hard choices and generally becoming miserable in her rule — all of it building up to the sudden end-of-episode Dragonriding moment. It’d be a great chance for Emilia Clarke to do something besides declaim royally. Even better: The extra time in Meereen would let the show give Quentyn Martell the two minutes of screen time he deserves!

HILLARY: I’m going to pretend like I read your great question but not your ludicrous answer. (You really think you could stand a whole episode of nothing but Meereen? I’m gonna start calling you Patchface, because you crazy.) Honestly, at this point in the show’s narrative, I can think of a few past incidents that may have made good “bottle” episodes (Theon conquering and slowly losing control of Winterfell; Arya becoming the Ghost of Harrenhal), but not many future ones that might work. That’s mostly because ASOIAF books 4 and 5 get ever-more sprawling and unfocused, indulging in extended sequences featuring factions we barely care about instead of focusing on previously established POV character. (Granted, this is partially thanks to the fact that many of those POV characters are dead now, but still.)

I can maybe see a compelling bottle being spun out of Ramsay Snow-now-Bolton’s wedding to “Arya,” since a) Thrones looooves weddings, b) we haven’t seen Winterfell in seasons and seasons, and c) it’s probably the most exciting chapter in A Dance With Dragons. But an hour focused just on the Martells, or, Seven forbid, the freaking Greyjoys? Either one would be the height of trollery. Which means, actually, that I’m sort of curious to see what Benioff and Weiss would do with bottle episodes focused on those families; if anyone can make them interesting, it’s these guys. Actually, wait, I take it back: The true height of trollery would be focusing 60 minutes on Bran and the Magical Weirwood, which looks like it’s going to make its first appearance in next week’s finale.

Speaking of: Season 4 ends Sunday! I can hardly contain my excitement — and I’m guessing I’m not alone. So readers, I’ll leave you with another question in addition to Darren’s: What are you most looking forward to seeing in the season’s last episode? For me, it’s a tie between Tyrion murdering Tywin and, assuming the show goes there, Lady Stoneheart’s grand entrance, which is going to make the Unsullied go absolutely bonkers.

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