The news that, at least according to the network’s calculations, “Game of Thrones” this week passed “The Sopranos” to become the most-watched show in HBO’s history filled at least a few TV critics with ambivalence. There’s no question it’s become one of the most solidly put-together shows on television, especially as its burgeoning popularity has drawn ever more impressive talent on- and off-screen. But it’s also a show that leaves you with precious little to chew on once each week’s credits have rolled beyond, at least beyond which character might be the next to get the (sometimes literal) axe. The downside of the “No one is safe” credo established by Ned Stark’s execution at the end of season one is the same that befalls paranoid thrillers which teach you that no one is to be trusted: When you suspect everyone, it’s impossible to be surprised. Sure, it was a shock when Oberyn Martell’s head went splat, but anyone who’s genuinely taken aback by any “Game of Thrones'” character’s death at this point can’t have been playing very close attention.
But credit where it’s due: Although the news that this week’s episode would be set entirely at The Wall occasioned some eye-rolling among the show’s audience, “The Watchers on the Wall” was one of the series’ best, and an accomplishment it’s hard to imagine any other current show having the resources or the wherewithal to pull off. Where the second season’s “Blackwater” felt like the show was punching above its weight, stage a full-scale attempted invasion on the cheap, the Battle of Castle Black was grippingly staged, establishing clear objectives for the handful of Night’s Watch seeking to repel Mance Rayder’s wildling hordes: Keep one group of wildings from scaling the wall in a frontal assault; prevent another, including Ygritte, Tormund and Styr, from breaching the South Gate; and stop a third, including a pair of giants and a wooly mammoth, from opening one of the tunnels beneath The Wall. Amid that, “The Watchers on the Wall” found time to pay off relationships and conflicts that had been building for a season or more, finally giving chubby Samwell Tarly a chance to do more than cower and bringing Jon Snow and Ygritte together for one final embrace and a word of warning: “You know nothing.”
The Battle of Castle Black falls short of “The Two Towers'” Helm’s Deep, the inevitable yardstick for the modern siege-warfare sequence, but not by a lot; like Peter Jackson, “The Watchers on the Wall” director Neil Marshall boiled his areas of interest down to a handful of representative characters and stuck close by them, even if a few of them were little more than vaguely familiar faces. (You died a brave death, guy in the tunnel, and you, Samwell’s buddy.) You always had a sense of how the battle’s overall momentum was shifting, and a feeling, even before Jon Snow made his decision to go off Mance-hunting, that the victory came at too high a cost to be sustained for long.
More reviews of “The Watchers on the Wall”
Andy Greenwald, Grantland
“The Watchers on the Wall” delivered all the dopamine-soaked CGI thrills of a $200 million summer blockbuster in half the time (and, presumably, less than half the cost). To see something so visually stunning and so relentlessly, unfathomably, occasionally uncomfortably huge on the same box that delivers “Sex Sent Me to the ER” was both astonishing and deeply gratifying.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
The only way it could have been more blatantly “Blackwater 2: Black Harder” would have required Podrick to improbably make it all the way north so he could be the one to kill Ygritte and save Jon Snow’s life.
Marshall Crook, Wall Street Journal
Even if tonight’s episode didn’t achieve the same high drama as “Blackwater” — hard to top General Tyrion and the wildfire trap — it had plenty of character defining moments, stellar sweeping action, solid CGI monsters, and a whole lotta’ blood.
James Poniewozik, Time
We may have a rooting interest here, but when it comes down to it, it’s a battle of have-nots pitted against each other for the sake of survival. And as Jon essentially says, a brave night and a few neat tricks with burning oil won’t change that. This is an army that will fight as if it has nothing to lose, because it does. And yet if the episode took us to the Wall for a full hour without settling anything, it looked damn pretty doing it.
Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post
“The Watchers on the Wall” was at its best when it made a different point: that for all the hardening experiences the young men at the Wall have been through, they retain some of the boyishness of their former lives. It was at its worst when the show served up a reminder that while David Benioff and Dan Weiss relish presenting us with the physical violence of Westeros, they sometimes shy away from the emotional violence that makes George R.R. Martin’s novels so striking.
Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club
On a purely technical level, this is maybe the series’ finest achievement yet. On a storytelling level, however, it mostly left me cold. A large part of this stems from the fact that Jon Snow has always been the most boring of the series’ major characters, on both page and screen. That’s the sort of subjective thing where if you’re a huge Jon Snow fan, you’ll likely disagree. But even the biggest Jon and Ygritte ‘shippers, say, would be hard-pressed to find the moment when the latter dies of an arrow through the heart to be as powerful as it might have been.
Alison Keene, Collider
“The Watchers on the Wall” was disjointed in the flow of the season. It felt saved for the penultimate episode just because there’s an expectation that that is where it should go, because that’s what prior seasons have done, rather than it being the best place for it. “Game of Thrones” is (in)famous for throwing viewers off track, with shocking twists and surprises at every turn. Why not mix it up here?
Christopher Orr, the Atlantic
Rose Leslie has been one of a handful of performers on the show who’ve really elevated their characters above what they were in the books. But Ygritte’s death, which was among the saddest moments in the George R. R. Martin novels, felt as though it got short shrift here. Like the calamitous outcome of Oberyn’s duel with the Mountain last week (but to a considerably greater degree) the scene felt rushed.
Myles McNutt, Cultural Learnings
“The Watchers On The Wall” needs to be a self-starter, building anticipation for and delivering action that the episode’s pedigree has promised. And while a visceral piece of action filmmaking and a spectacle worthy of “Blackwater,” it proves less a climax so much as long-delayed rising action to finally bring The Wall into play in the season’s narrative.