Prestige television has some inherent advantageous over movies: With dozens of hours to tell a story, TV can develop characters with the same depth as novels.
But, now and then, television also can beat movies at their own game: Delivering a blockbuster thrill-ride. Sunday's "Game of Thrones" episode, called "The Watchers on the Wall," was one of those times.
Just as they did for Season 2's best episode "Blackwater," HBO show-runners brought in Neil Marshall to direct what was essentially an hour-long war movie. The musical score, scale and cinematic ambition of the episode were downright impressive.
I love it when the show does this. Rather than jumping from city to city all over Westeros following various storylines, focusing on a single set of characters – in this case Jon Snow and the Night's Watch in the fight against the wildlings – was very satisfying as a viewer.
The whole episode had the feel of a "Lord of the Rings" movie.
The show's action took place entirely in or near Castle Black. A massive army of 100,000 wildlings has amassed north of The Wall, while a smaller crew of enemies – including Ygritte and the human-eating Thenn – planned to attack from the Night's Watch's south.
As the episode opened, Sam told Jon: "We're all going to die a lot sooner than I planned."
Gilly and her baby returned to the castle, minutes before the horn of war sounded.
Much of the episode focused on the theme that ordinary people have extraordinary courage inside themselves. Sam kissed Gilly hard on the lips and went to war.
Approaching the wall as part of Mance Rayder's army were giants (!) and a mammoth (!). (Remember, the land north of the Wall is a magical, nightmarish place.) But Alistair Thorne gave the Night's Watchmen a rousing speech. He headed down to fight those wildlings attacking from the south, while Jon ended up commanding at the top of the wall.
All hell was breaking loose. Night's Watchmen, using ropes, leaned over the wall to fire arrows at the wildlings scaling it. A giant shot arrows with incredible force skyward. The cannibal Thenn were brutal in their slaughter. Ygritte was deadly accurate with her arrows.
One giant began to make his way through the tunnel underneath the wall after his mammoth was scared off by the Night's Watch's fire attack. Jon dispatched men to stop them. They all died in the struggle.
Jon headed down to fight the wildlings attacking from the south; Sam released Ghost to wreak havoc; and after a brutal exchange, Jon killed the leader of the Thenn with a hammer. (Here's hoping Jon has a hammer handed if he ever encounters The Mountain.) Ygritte was a close to shooting Jon, but a young boy fatally shot her in the head.
As she was dying, the battle faded from Ygritte and Jon's consciousness.
"We should have stayed in that cave," she said, tenderly.
"We'll go back there," he said.
"You know nothing, Jon Snow," she replied. (I almost got teary-eyed.)
Jon and Ghost's fighting helped turn the battle, and the Night's Watch captured Tormund Giantsbane.
The Night's Watch had won the day and held the gate. But there were still 100,000 wildlings waiting to attack. The episode ended with Jon Snow leaving the safety of Castle Black to walk to the wildling camp. He planned to assassinate Mance Rayder, the wildling king, hoping the crowd would scatter without leadership.
Sam doesn't think well of the plan.
"Jon," he said meekly. "Come back."
Episode grade: A