There was no shortage of heart-stopping, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring moments in “The Watchers on the Wall,” Sunday’s night episode of Game of Thrones—which, like “Blackwater,” the penultimate hour of Season 2, depicted a single battle in its bloody, disemboweling entirety, without any pesky Hot Pies to distract from the carnage.
But the moment that stuck with me—the moment I kept reliving in the hours after the episode ended—was so quick and subtle that I almost missed it. Ygritte, the red-headed wildling archer who once loved (and lost) Jon Snow, has breached the walls of Castle Black. She’s angry—so angry, in fact, that she has sworn to kill her Crow ex and wear his “fun bits around [her] neck.” She leaps from ledge to ledge, platform to platform. She’s searching for her prey. Suddenly, the camera cuts to Ygritte’s perspective. The clanging of swords subsides. The screaming of men dies out. We see her shoot one arrow, then another, then a third. Each finds its mark. And the only sound we hear—for those few short seconds, at least—is her breathing.
This moment—more than any other, I think—is emblematic of what made “The Watchers on the Wall” such a stirring episode. Scratch that: stirring is too weak a word. The truth is that Sunday’s installment of GoT was the best hour of action filmmaking I’ve seen so far this year—in theaters or on television. And the reason why is simple: It never once forgot to make its action human.
The big death at the end of the episode is, of course, the obvious example. But I’ll save that scene for later. (Stop reading now if you want to avoid spoilers.) First, let me explain why GoT’s handling of the Battle of Castle Black was so refreshing. In some very real sense, 21st-century Hollywood has forgotten how to use living, breathing Homo sapiens in action movies. Think about it. You’ve got gargantuan vehicles that “transform” into gargantuan battle robots. You’ve got a gang of mutants who can control metal and morph into Richard Nixon, among other things. You’ve got a gigantic lizard duking it out with a massive whatever-the-heck-this-is. You’ve got Legos, for chrissake. And even when the rare human does get in on the action, the cuts are so quick, the choreography is so disembodied, and the characterization is so shallow that it’s basically impossible to feel any real connection to what’s happening on screen because you don’t feel any real connection to who it’s happening to.
Action wasn’t always this way. Die Hard. Raiders of the Lost Ark. True Lies. Gladiator. In each of these movies—and in many more from the not-too-distant past—human beings fought other human beings in recognizably human ways, and it was awesome. But nowadays, CGI is dominant. Foreign markets are ascendant. And tentpole brands have replaced tentpole stars. So Hollywood has basically given up on hominal action in favor of superhuman special-effects extravaganzas that are easily exportable to every corner of the globe.
For the last 15 years or so, “premium” television has been filling the gap that the movie industry left behind when it abandoned mid-budget dramas about adult human beings. But a credible action sequence is much more expensive to produce than, say, a Mad Men ménage à trois, so for years it was difficult to imagine that a TV show would ever rival Gladiator in the battle-sequence department. Then along came Game of Thrones—and its $6 million-per-episode budget—to prove that cable can take over classic human action as well.
Which brings us to “The Watchers on the Wall”—the show’s most sophisticated and stunning action episode yet.
Great battles only take narrative shape in the history books. In real time they’re almost pointillist, unfolding for the combatants as a series of unbearably personal moments—moments of fear and longing, of nostalgia and hope, of bravery and resignation. The genius of “The Watchers on the Wall” is that this is how it unfolds as well.
As Mance Rayder and his army of 100,000 wildlings, cannibals, and mammoth-riding giants descends on The Wall, outnumbering the brothers of Night’s Watch “a thousand to one,” we see Samwell Tarly, now convinced that he’ll die a virgin, asking Jon Snow what sex is like. Jon Snow tries to explain—then gives up in exasperation because he’s “not a fucking poet.”
We see Tarly and Maester Aemon sitting up by candlelight, “trading tales of lost love”—until Aemon cuts them short. “Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit,” he mutters, “than the prospect of imminent death.”
We see Alliser Thorne of the Night’s Watch, admitting that Jon Snow was right about Mance Rayder’s army even as he insists that, after tonight, “you [will] get to go on hating me and I [will] get to go on wishing your wildling whore had finished the job.”
And we see a band of brothers standing arm in arm and reciting their vows as a bellowing giant charges the gate they promised to hold, as if good intentions can somehow defeat brute force.
When there’s a sword fight—like the one between Alliser Thorne and the bearded wildling leader Tormund Giantsbane—it is visible and visceral. No wobbly, impressionistic camera. No obfuscatory edits. Just the action.
When there’s a special effect—like the so-called Scythe sweeping across The Wall, anchor-like, and wiping out a dozen ascendant wildlings—it feels like something that could actually happen. It adheres to the laws of physics.
And when characters grow—when they become something greater than they were before—we never doubt that they’ve earned it. Samwell Tarly starts the episode his same old pining, cowering self. But after his wildling girlfriend Gilly reappears at the gate, he begins to grow up. First he vows never to leave her alone again. Then he refuses to hide during the battle. “I made a promise to defend the wall,” he says, “and I have to keep it because that’s what men do.” Soon he’s pushing his partner to fire more arrows and, when his partner dies, he’s firing them himself—right into the face of a charging cannibal. “I’m not nothing anymore,” he realizes.
Jon Snow is a similar story. As his elders fall away, he’s forced to assume the leadership role for which he’s always seemed destined; he’s forced, finally, to be his father’s son. He's been itching for this opportunity for several seasons now, and he doesn’t disappoint: commanding his troops atop The Wall; slicing at wildlings like a Millennial Errol Flynn; smashing a hammer into the skull of a particularly irritating cannibal.
But the true test of Snow’s heroism comes when he finally—inevitably—encounters Ygritte. She pulls her bow back. They lock eyes. He smiles, succumbing to his fate. But then she hesitates, and an arrow pierces her heart.
“Remember that cave?” she whispers. “We should have stayed in that cave.”
“We’ll go back there,” he replies. The cinematography here is stunning: The camera pulls back, in slow motion, to reveal the two lovers silhouetted by fire—alone, together, at peace, with chaos raging all around them. It’s a perfect visual metaphor for love.
“You know nothing, Jon Snow,” Ygritte says. For the last time.
But now Snow does know something—he knows himself. He knows that he can lead. He knows how it feels to lose someone. And he knows that he will lose even more if he doesn’t take action. So at the end of the episode, he sets out to kill Mance Rayder and, by killing him, to divide the wildling army. The odds are still against Snow and his men. The enemy still outnumbers them a thousand to one. And on Game of Thrones, it's never wise to bet on good intentions over brute force.
But for now, at least, Jon Snow is still breathing. We could use more action heroes like him.