Early in "The Watchers on the Wall," the ninth episode of Game of Thrones' fourth season on HBO, Night's Watchman and round mound of rebound Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) accidentally blurts out the show's central message: "We're all gonna die a lot sooner than I planned." More than anything else that body-count rubbernecking keeps people invested in David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Over and over again, we're reminded that no matter how important they seem, no character is ever safe. This kind of cast fragility and character expendability is fairly common in huge, multi-volume fantasy epics, but it's rare in big-budget, serialized television. Yet lots of folks — especially folks like me, who don't plan on reading the five enormous novels that have provided most of the story so far — can't get enough of it.
Although I tend to watch more movies than TV shows, what has intrigued me ever since Quentin Tarantino guest-directed an episode of ER in 1995 are the ways in which filmmakers adapt their technique and their sensibility to the small screen. It's tough to do, but when it works, it works really well.
Ironically, director Neil Marshall's handling of the battle between the Night's Watchman and the Wildling hordes in "The Watchers on the Wall" reaffirms his status as an overlooked action-film auteur. Marshall's specialty has been constricted, close-quarter combat; I've long admired his claustrophobic 2005 horror film The Descent, and I liked his apocalyptic action epic Doomsday — one of the few movies that properly deployed steely wonder woman Rhona Mitra. Plus, Marshall's helmed the coveted ninth episode of a Game of Thrones season before; he directed season two's justly celebrated "Blackwater," which gave Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), aka "The Imp," the briefest taste of glory.
Like "Blackwater," the stripped-down, torch-lit "Wall" is as craftily structured as those Game of Thrones episodes that juggle multiple locations and subplots. "Wall" spends 15 minutes on idle chatter and worried stares before a cannibal Kevin Greene-type mutters, "It's time." After 30 solid minutes of expanding and escalating carnage that includes a funky long take that reminds everyone of the bad blood between Watchman Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his flaming redhead Wildling ex-lover Ygritte (Rose Leslie), it finishes with five minutes of necessary breath-catching.
A multilevel assault staged with Marshall's economy and visual verve is effective enough, but it's more tense in Game of Thrones-land because the principals involved, like Snow, Tarly, and Gilly (Hannah Murray), are just the sort of bland goody-two-shoes most likely to catch an arrow in the neck. And, as the fight rages on, the risks increase as each side busts out its heavy artillery. The first arrow shot by a Wildling giant shatters a wooden lookout post on the Wall; the second one recalls a good gag from the Warner Brothers cartoon "Bully for Bugs." Not to be outdone, Tarly, in one of the episode's few optimistic moments, remembers a secret weapon of the Night's Watchman: an enormous white direwolf in a wooden pen.
Yet, despite all the heroism and boldness on display here, "Blackwater" is probably the stronger episode of the two. The most remarkable aspect of "The Watchers on the Wall" might be its refusal to acknowledge the potentially grim fate of another major character, unseen for the entire episode: I'm all for the sight of archers hanging off the side of two vertical miles of ice, but the producers aren't going to kill off the Imp, are they?
Game of Thrones
Season 4 Finale, Sunday, June 15th, 8 p.m.