Sunday, 15 June 2014


Well, that was all very shouty and stabby, wasn't it? It wasn't hard to understand why the showrunners decided they wanted Neil Marshall back after his work on "Blackwater" twenty episodes earlier, and he certainly put a lot into "The Watchers on the Wall", too.

And yet plenty of people aren't actually all that happy with the results. Thoughts on the hows and whys of this follow after the fold. As always, TV spoilers abound, but book spoilers have been banished behind a 700 foot wall of ice, and we don't expect any trouble from them.

I don't want to spend too much time talking about the battle itself. Not because I didn't enjoy it, but because of the obvious futility of spilling much ink on so visual and visceral a spectacle. Yes, the mammoths were cool. Yes, the giants were cool.  Yes, the scythe was utterly badass. But whether you agree with me on all that or not, it doesn't seem to me that much in the way of interesting digging can be done there.

I'm much more interested in pinning down what those who didn't like it felt was missing. I mean, in some cases that's not particularly interesting either. Contra every slavering die-hard on the internet ever, it is entirely possible for two people to hold radically different ideas on whether a given effect looks good or a given moment of chaotic combat is impressive without either side being deranged, lying or blind.  I'm not dismissing the opinions of those who just didn't think the fight was staged all that well, then, I'm just not seeing any way to respond to those opinions other than "I respectfully disagree".

But others, like SEK over at RawStory, have a more specific complaint, namely that the Battle of the Blackwater was the conclusion to a ramping up of tension that was carefully meted out over a whole season.  The Battle for Castle Black was something we were periodically reminded would be a thing in northern scenes sandwiched between the plottings and murders of Kings' Landing. Blackwater was a direct threat to the top-billed character in the show, Castle Black was a distraction from the the threat that character is under.

With regards to Tyrion, there's not much to be said here but "fair cop". I suspect some people holding this opinion will find their attitudes softening once they've seen the season four finale, and can look back at this episode without a nagging sense of being fobbed off.

So what about the idea that there's been no ramp-up this year, rendering Marshall's second episode adrift in a season that had nothing to do with it?  I think on balance it's hard to argue with the idea too much, but I also think it's at least slightly unfair, and it's worth going into a little detail about why.

The problem with this line of reasoning m(to the extent that I have one) is the narrative thrust of the two battles.  Blackwater is an ever-approaching threat that the people of King's Landing - in particular Tyrion - have to work to mitigate before it comes crashing against the city to kill everyone.  It's a race against time. And crucially, it's a race against time for the Lannisters to save themselves.  They weren't the only reason this war kicked off (let us all take a minute to chant in unison: DAMN YOU LITTLEFINGER!) but between Operation: Brotherfuck and letting the king drink himself to death in a rather faster and more original manner than that phrase tends to invoke, this is clearly primarily their mess, and season two is about scrambling to ensure they avoid karmic retribution.  Of course tensions keep ticking ever higher; ticking is what a countdown does.

The nature of this week's battle is very different.  The sense of impending doom is still there, obviously - I don't doubt Stannis would have killed for the kind of resources Mance Rayder pissed up against the Wall this episode; in fact, given the laws of physics and biology, Mance might have been more successful at breaching the Wall if he actually had pissed on it.  But it clearly isn't a race against time. When Jon and Sam returned to Castle Black, the Wall was already as prepared as possible for the coming assault.  The amount of time they had to go was completely irrelevant from a planning perspective.  They have the men they have, and they have the weapons and resources they have.  There's nothing to do except sit around and wait for the inevitable.

Or is there?  Remember that whatever Cersei might want to tell herself in private, the Lannisters needed to defend King's Landing to keep themselves safe. The Night's Watch are trying to keep everyone alive.  Which means that whilst Cersei spent season two begging her father to come protect her, the Watch spends season four glumly staring at the fact that there are people they should be protecting, but can't for fear they'll lose too many men to defend the Wall.

This is a completely different set-up.  Season two was about the Lannisters were united in their desire to survive, but that their desire to help others in the process seemed to be inversely proportional to how much those others actually liked them. It was about the utter unfairness of Tyrion being loathed by the people he alone had any interest in trying to keep alive (Tyrion was nice enough to remind us of all of this at his trial, of course). The Watch's plot this year has been about the difficulties in command, when you want to help everyone and you know you can't.  Indeed, this has been the plot oop north for three years, ever since Jon got pissed off at Craster's terrible choice of daycare and Sam starts pontificating on the kinds of places a Gilly flower should and shouldn't grow.

So of course the fight for Castle Black doesn't get the same kind of ramp-up. That isn't it's job.  It's job is to promote hard choices in the shadow of its arrival. All the interesting decisions get made in the days and weeks before. And it's just horrible. They can't save the outlying villages.  They can't save Moletown, even with Gilly there.  They just have to stand still and suck up the fact that this isn't a story where you can guarantee success just by choosing the most noble and self-sacrificing option possible. Quite aside from anything else, this is the next lesson Jon needs to learn as he gradually discovers more and more about the nature of command. Mormont's death might mean he's no longer being groomed to lead, but he's still learning how to do it despite himself.  Save who you can, but don't risk thousands in the future for one person now.  Jon completely failed to process this in the early days of season two, but he gets it now, and the result is the latest in Martin's seemingly endless series of trope inversions. The result is that the battle has to happen in order for the choices made in anticipation of it to not ring false. The Battle of Castle Black is a promise kept, and a very different kind of promise to that kept in "Blackwater".  The brief here is not to release the pressure gauge, but to explore how well the gamble the Night's Watch took in letting the raiders south of the Wall murder, pillage and cannibalise actually paid off (see also the arguments over sealing the tunnel.)

There are, however, two problems here. Three, if we include the obvious point that understanding why a battle isn't being used in the standard action finale role we're used to doesn't mean it's automatically working in the actual role it's been given.  The first problem is that whilst the effects of being torn between two courses of action and choosing the one where you do nothing and people die is a very brave stance for a show with few enough clear heroes in it, it doesn't follow that this makes for gripping television. Simply being able to note that this is the kind of no-win choice commanders face in the real world doesn't change the fact that we're still watching scenes of people doing fuck all and feeling really bad about it. The sympathy, at least for me, is intellectual rather than emotional, and it's not really helped by the fact that Kit Harrington's acting range doesn't really include responding to such complex moral choices with more than his by now easily recognisable Standard Sulkyface. The text just can't get out what it wants to say.

The second problem is by allowing Jon, Grenn, Locke and company to head north to murder Burn Gorman, the show attempts to both have its cake and eat it. Yes, the underlying logic here - can't save people, can prevent intelligence from falling into the hands of the enemy - is basically sound, or at least it is so long as you don't think too hard about how a man who belonged to the Night's Watch until a few decades ago and who has seen the carnage wrought at the Fist of the First Men could possibly not know just how dire the straits are for the crows right now. But thematically it's a big problem, because it returns Jon to a traditional hero role at the exact instant the show is trying to distance him from that.  He killed a comrade, he screwed a woman, and now he's refusing to help innocent civilians desperate for aid.  Because he isn't perfect, and because neither is the world, and things get messy and complicated and unpleasant.  Letting him spend two episodes gallivanting around the north chopping up rapists - who I confess I'd assumed were already dead - makes sense if you want to inject some action into an otherwise staid Night's Watch thread for the season, but it works completely against what is going on elsewhere.

None of this is to say that I don't understand why the vengeance raid against Craster's keep was dreamed up (it doesn't exist in the books, and Jon escapes from the Wildlings much sooner to Mance's attack, meaning there's no need for filler in between); a season of the Watch shrugging their shoulders while they wait for Episode Nine would have taken an awful lot of flak, and cutting them out entirely would simply have exacerbated people's annoyance over the "unearned" nature of the battle, on top of all the other obvious problems with excising the story of Castle Black from eight whole episodes. But understanding how a given combination of factors doesn't make the end result actually any more enjoyable, and what we're ultimately left with here is two impulses running directly into each other and leaving their surroundings frankly something of a mess.

I still say the battle was awesome, though.


Tomsk said...

The battle was enthralling. The mammoths were a bit too Tolkein-Jacksonesque for my money but everything else was proper edge of the seat stuff.

I did find the night watch plot pretty boring up till then. The impending doom never really seemed as doom-laden as it should have. Maybe showing some buildup of the opposing forces might have helped with the missing tension.

SpaceSquid said...

Fair point, though I think this was the season where I'd find it hardest to think of scenes that could have been removed to make time for the Wildlings. Grey Worm getting his lack of rocks off, maybe?