'The Watchers on The Wall' is the second time that Game of Thrones has stalled all other stories so as to focus in on one particular location and set of characters for an entire episode. The first was season two's epic 'Blackwater', and once again Neil Marshall is drafted in to helm one of the show's huge and technically tricky to pull off battle sequences. And once again, he excels.
For his part, Marshall has constructed another TV epic that would put many cinematic releases to shame. In terms of the battle and spectacle, it probably usurps 'Blackwater' as the series' crowning jewel, but where it suffers is in some of the characters at its disposal, and a lack of screen time that many of them have experienced this season.
The structure of the episode runs very similarly to that of 'Blackwater', with a sombre opening that depicts the calm before the storm, as Jon, Sam, Ygritte and everyone else trade stories and confessions to one another in the face of probable death. It's interesting that everyone seems to be framing this battle in terms of love: loves lost; loves betrayed and loves never experienced. And, in Sam's case, a love that he daren't even admit.
And 'The Watchers on The Wall' is very much Samwell Tarly's episode. It's curious that he seems to take the main focus, given what an obvious hero Jon Snow is, but it works, largely due to John Bradley's vulnerable, relatable performance. Sam lives vicariously through Jon, asking what it's like to be in love, before a chat with Aemon leads him to finally accept that he's already right there with Gilly.
It's a revelation that sees Sam finally come into his own: he's started swearing; he kisses Gilly properly, on the mouth; and even goes all Team America and promises that he won't die - an act which should have set alarm bells ringing for anyone who's ever seen this show before...
But, thankfully, Sam keeps his word, and emerges unscathed from the battle. He may not have swung a sword, but he gives courage to those around him. He's not a nobody any more: Gilly has given him self-belief and something to fight for. Sam has a purpose, now. He's the hero of the hour, without ever really being heroic. His evolution is totally believable, and Bradley nails it throughout.
Less heroic is Janos Slynt, who shows himself to be the useless slug of a man we know he is when Ser Alliser puts him in charge atop The Wall. Ser Alliser, despite Owen Teale's gravitas in the role, has suffered from some spotty writing this year. Essentially, he's a pain in the arse. But he's supposed to be a pain in the arse, and that's fine.
The problem is that his resentment of Jon hasn't really been justified, and as such he seems like he's there to shoot Jon down just because the writers needed somebody to shoot him down. At least when it comes down to it, unlike Slynt, Alliser Thorne can swing a sword and lead men with the best of them. His duel with Tormund Giantsbane is one of the episode's visceral highlights.
As for Ygritte, who's arguably the biggest casualty of the episode, her exit suffers from the prolonged delay between her and Jon's separation and tonight's events. Jon and Ygritte were a well-written pair, but we haven't seen them together in such a long time that it feels like a struggle to recall why we should care about them as a couple.
That's not to take away from the moment Ygritte takes an arrow, which features the wonderful moment when Jon Snow disarms her blood-lust with a simple smile (and the darkly funny "you're welcome" nod from the little boy). The moment she utters her catchphrase for the last time is effective, but it might have been more-so had we either seen more of her this season, or had less time between the well-written build-up and breakdown of their relationship and this tragic but all-too-distant coda.
Going out in a far more satisfying manner was Jon's loyal friend Grenn, who gets arguably one of the most rousing moments of the entire series to go out on. Reciting the Night's Watch oath as he and five brothers are all that stand between a charging giant and the realms of men is spine-tinglingly, fist-pumpingly awesome. That he manages to hold the gate and kill the giant before succumbing is even better.
Meanwhile, the technical team do a marvellous job in depicting the size and power of the giants and mammoths in Mance Rayder's army - although Mance himself is conspicuously absent throughout - and in again conveying the sheer scale of The Wall itself. The Night's Watch utilize all manner of inventive tricks to defend themselves, with the highlight being the gloriously ludicrous notion of a giant scythe to swing across the face of The Wall and deal with any climbers (the power of a giant's bow and arrow follows a close second on the scale of awesome).
Neil Marshall and team keep the action flowing and coherent, with the pinnacle of the episode featuring a virtuoso 360° shot of the battle in the courtyard of Castle Black that shows clearly who's fighting who and what's going on. It's a stunning shot that features action on every inch of the screen, and must have taken a hell of a lot of preparation to set up, but it was emphatically worth it. If the show ever has another huge battle to depict, let's hope Marshall's kept on retainer.
But where the Battle of the Blackwater depicted a whole battle, here, this is only day one. A whole episode dedicated to surviving the assault on The Wall, and dozens are dead, the defenses are half-shot and yet this was only the beginning. Mance's army is still huge, and it's going to keep coming. That's a frightening prospect, but it's also one that detracts any sense of resolution from the episode. Having Jon Snow march out alone to try and deal with Mance personally gives us a nice set-up for next week, but it leaves this episode feeling like it has an act missing. For an event episode like this, you'd hope to see the whole event.
Some viewers will doubtless be upset that The Wall was gifted an entire episode to itself at all, given that most of the fan favourites - and most of the plots we've been focused on all season - are down in King's Landing. The fate of Tyrion Lannister, sentenced to death last week by Oberyn's failure, is a particularly tantalising thread to leave hanging for another week.
At the start of this piece, we said that the other stories "stalled" to make room for this, but that's not quite accurate. It's important to note that this huge, epic battle - this last-ditch defence of the only thing that protects the rest of the world from the unknowable savagery and horror of the North - is going completely unnoticed by the rest of the world. Everyone else is carrying on in blissful ignorance of this threat.
While the nobles in King's Landing are busy trying to out-manoeuvre one-another, the most important thing in the world is happening up North. The duel between Oberyn and The Mountain was so great because we were so invested in everyone that was involved in it, but in the grand scheme of things, it was tiny. This? The potential breach of The Wall? That's big. That's world-shatteringly big. And yet the rest of the world isn't paying attention.
Whatever happens to Tyrion, Jaime, Arya and the rest won't matter an ounce if Jon and company fail. And if the show's most compelling characters are elsewhere in the world, then the fight at The Wall is compelling enough in a macro sense to justify the hour.
The best episodes of Game of Thrones blend impressive action and production values with smart dialogue and well-drawn characters. 'The Watchers on The Wall' doesn't blend those aspects as well as 'Blackwater' did. On the other hand, the technical feats on display here are by far the greatest the show has ever achieved, and that's a trade-off that's okay once in a while if it means we get something this big and this cinematic on television.
But, as much as we love mammoths and fiery arrows, let's just hope the conclusion next week can bring some of the more personal, emotional weight back to proceedings.