“Game of Thrones” spends a great deal of time showing us how the harsh conditions of Westeros and Essos age people before their time. Childhood does not protect girls from being sexually abused, or boys from being castrated as part of the process that turns them into slaves. Adulthood, and the responsibilities that come with it, arrive early for those placed on thrones or shipped off to service in the icy prison that is the Wall.
“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.
The men of the Night’s Watch are all so young, in so many different ways. Sam (John Bradley), in his bookish, inquisitive way uses his last night before the attack to badger Jon (Kit Harington), and to play the lawyer. Later, with an awfully nice sense of dramatic timing for someone who lives in a fictional universe without film, Sam steals his first kiss from Gilly (Hannah Murray).
“What was it like to have someone? To be with someone? To love someone and have them love you back. We’re all going to die a lot sooner than planned. You’re my last chance to know,” Sam says wistfully, trying to find a loophole that might let him and Jon dream of love if they survive. “The interesting thing is, our vows never specifically forbid intimate relationships with women…What our vows have to say about all the activities is open to interpretation.” Jon, the more experienced of the pair, is still a bit shy when, describing “having someone,” he tells Sam “For a little while, you’re more than just you. Well, I don’t know,” retreating into the gruff disclaimer that “I’m not a bleeding poet.”
It is not all about love, either. In the tunnel, facing their deaths, Grenn (Mark Stanley) chants the words of his vows to his brothers to restore their courage. Their poignant recitation is the essence of ritual, silly when it is not necessary, but of vital importance when you need to transform yourself into the most powerful form of that “nothing” Sam became when he killed the White Walker. (And it is not only boys who hold onto childish things. Ygritte (Rose Leslie) may kill as many Westerosi people as the nastiest Thenn warrior in battle, but she is desperate to kill Jon herself, both to prove herself to the men who doubt her, and to avenge her hurt heart.)
Because they are boys, they need their teacher. One of the best things about this episode — an illustration of what “Game of Thrones” can do when it has the leisure to linger in a single location for an episode — was the way “The Watchers on the Wall” handled Ser Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale). Thorne is a cantankerous character, and his clashes with Jon Snow have been bitter since they first met. But when Thorne takes a moment to confess that Jon was right in his report about the wildlings and to confide in him atop the Wall, we can see the merit in Thorne for the first time.
“The Watchers on the Wall” does not stop there. Ser Alliser has never been interested in nurturing the boys entrusted to him, but when the wildlings come, it turns out that was not what they needed from him. When he has command of the Wall, they hold their discipline. When Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter) takes the Wall, the men fire their arrows too early, wasting precious resources and showing the wildlings the limit of their range. Slynt complains about the Brothers’ training and discipline, but the contrast between the two men’s brief commands of the Wall is a neat illustration of what makes for real leadership. It is Ser Alliser who takes the risk of going down to lead the fight at the gate, telling the frightened fighters: “A hundred generations have defended this castle. You’ve never fallen before. You will not fall tonight.” Thorne may have made mistakes that hurt the Night’s Watch out of pride and foolishness, but he is badly wounded defending the Wall, encouraging his Brothers to hold the gate even as he is dragged off to be tended to.
As the teacher falls, so fall the students, and the students’ childhoods. In a change from Martin’s novels, Jon loses two of his best friends in the Watch in this battle. Grenn dies holding the gate, while Pyp takes one of Ygritte’s arrows in the neck. Ollie, the little boy who brought the first warning of the wildling’s ranging south of the wall, picks up a bow and kills Ygritte while she threatens Jon Snow. When Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) calls Jon “boy” as Jon orders him dragged off in chains, Jon’s face says what he could never admit in words: He is not a boy anymore.
But while I appreciated the thematic coherence of this episode, one change from Martin’s novels struck me as an alteration for the worse. Benioff and Weiss are not afraid to have director Neil Marshall, their go-to for major battle sequences, show a man get shot off a wall by a giant arrow. They do not shy away from bodies impaled on stakes, eyes gouged out, cleavers and boiling liquid as weapons, or the sight of Jon Snow bashing in the Magnar of Thenn’s skull with a blacksmith’s hammer.
For some reason, though, they were afraid to preserve a key moment from Martin’s novels: Jon’s belief that it may have been his arrow that killed Ygritte, the woman he loved. In the books, that uncertainty reinforces Jon’s loyalty to the Night’s Watch and what it has cost him. Here, that task is given unambiguously to a child. When Jon holds a dying Ygritte in his arms, there is no fear or anger that either of them need to push aside. In an episode about the end of boyhood, “The Watchers on the Wall” preserved a boyish fantasy, and preserves Jon as a relatively unambiguous hero for episodes to come.
“Game of Thrones” can use violence of all sorts very effectively to reinforce its point about characters’ emotions and the society that they live in. The sight of Joffrey Baratheon’s (Jack Gleeson) face as he died of a poisoning served to reinforce his youth, and to suggest that as he died, we joined him in a sadistic enjoyment of a youth’s intense pain.
But that calibration can feel misapplied. Do we really need to see the viscera of the men the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) kills for practice to know his strength? Do we need to watch the ruin of Oberyn Martell’s (Pedro Pascal) face at such length, when Ellaria Sand’s (Indira Varma) shrieks of agony and Tyrion Lannister’s (Peter Dinklage) empty face remind us that Oberyn’s pain ends with his death, but others will have to live with the consequences of his defeat?
Earlier this season, “Game of Thrones” had the good sense to linger on Theon Greyjoy’s (Alfie Allen) face as his crazed master fed a living girl to his dogs earlier. The expression that forces its way up through the muscles Theon has learned to leave slack if he wants to survive, and the sounds of the death he was witnessing, told us everything we needed to know. The Watchers on the Wall know a lesson “Game of Thrones” could sometimes stand to learn: Sometimes the worst things are the ones you cannot see clearly.