“Game of Thrones” has been around for long enough now that certain numbers have taken on special significance to regular viewers. The ninth episode of each season has customarily been given over to events of major impact: Seasons 1 and 3 saw noble, doomed House Stark lose its patriarch, first Ned and then Robb (along with his wife and mother). Season 2's ninth episode, "Blackwater," saw the massive, thwarted siege of King's Landing, and now Season 4 sees a similar, if even more lopsided siege of the Wall by Mance Rayder's Wildling coalition.
With "Blackwater" director (to say nothing of the rest of his respectable career in genre film) Neil Marshall returning, “The Watchers on the Wall” promised to be EVEN BIGGER than his previous. Which is precisely where the problem with this oddly muted and inconstant episode lies: Its scale as a piece of logistics is a bit out of proportion to its dramatic impact. For better or worse, the storyline at the Wall hasn't been as consistently compelling as the action further south, despite Jon Snow being the closest thing to a traditional hero the show has yet to find a way to kill.
So, Tyrion Lannister's cunning defense of the city, ultimately obliterated in posterity by Tywin's theatrical last-minute entrance, was considerably more compelling in "Blackwater" than the Night's Watch barely pushing back the first exploratory test of their defenses by the Wildlings -- especially considering the way it ends in Jon Snow's half-heroic, half-despairingly-suicidal journey to parley with Mance Rayder. Intellectually, it's a nifty and nuanced bit of business. But there's still something emotionally hollow about it.
Why exactly that's the case is a bit mysterious, considering that the action that preceded it was a battle lasting about three quarters of an hour with all the bells and whistles money can buy. Marshall creates gorgeous images, blocks actors well in the frame, and cuts with relentless drive and seamless rhythm; in short, everything one could possibly ask of the director charged with a massive battle scene.
The combination of resources and talent should, one would think, yield awe-inspiring results, especially considering the inclusion of giants and mammoths and giants riding mammoths this go-round. And, it's true, everything involving the giants and/or mammoths was as tremendous as things involving giants and/or mammoths should be.
And all the things with normal-sized people cutting each other apart with swords was as engrossing as people cutting each other apart with swords should be. But there was still something missing, something ultimately hollow about the proceedings, something that can neatly be summed up as "people."
It is not always an actual prerequisite to care about the characters in a movie or TV show, despite the maudlin burbling to the contrary one can't help but step on accidentally when reading reviews. So it may seem an odd bit of contortionism to turn around and assert that the problem with “The Watchers on the Wall” is that there are no people save Jon Snow, Sam, Gilly, who arrives at Castle Black with her baby just before the attack, and (depending on one's level of sentimentality) Ygritte to care about in the proceedings.
But, as alluded to just now, the show's script (by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) goes out of its way to frantically throw out scenes to make the audience emphasize with the as-yet underdeveloped men of the Night's Watch, and carve out emotional death moments in the battle for such series stalwarts as That Guy, That Other Guy, The Dude With The Beard, Jon Snow's Asshole Commanding Officer, and their brethren. (Maester Aemon disappears early on and probably survives, if the books are anything to go by).
The low point, shamefully, was the death of Ygritte, which played out according to some rote (albeit well-directed) action beats: her hesitating for about three hours in the middle of the battle before putting an arrow through Jon Snow, which then led to the random non-canonical kid (who Sam earlier encouraged to pick up a weapon and be brave) putting an arrow through Ygritte's heart. Cut to a slow-motion muted-background-sound death in the middle of a raging, savage battle ten feet away, and one final “Yeh know nooooothin Jon Snew” before dying in Jon Snow's arms.
It's especially jarring because no one else in Westeros gets a death with the crusts cut off like this, and Ygritte's given what, out of context, would be a perfectly normal industry standard melodramatic TV death... with a hundred people cutting each other up with swords RIGHT THERE, whose pointy ends evade Jon Snow as he dutifully emotes over the death of his one true love. Jon Snow, admittedly, is not a problem in this episode. Jon Snow is awesome. He kills people well and has matured into leadership with flair. It's not his fault that he's one of the only developed characters in his garrison, and after reflecting over a few hundred words, the ending where he heads off to parley with Mance is pretty cool.
In fact, "The Watchers on the Wall" being an unsatisfying episode makes no sense when its tangible assets are laid out. There were giants riding mammoths, for heaven's sake. How is that not the greatest thing ever? I have no answer to that question. Giants riding mammoths should (literally) outweigh thin character development, in terms of entertainment value if not literary merit. Maybe I'm wrong. Feel free to argue so in the comments.