TV

Recap: Game of Thrones’ Biggest, Most Expensive Episode To Date

The director of season two's epic 'Blackwater' returns for the Battle of Castle Black.

Spoiler alert: this is a recap of the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

Hey, Mance Rayder – you ever play roulette? Well, let me give you a word of advice: always bet on black!

I’ve just returned from a weekend away with friends, during which we spent hours discussing Game of Thrones. That’s because there’s so much to say about the rich and allusive world of this show that you want to spend time with it, rather than shuffling between characters and settings in the same whistle-stop manner as the opening credits.

And that’s why it’s such a treat when occasionally an entire episode follows a single plotline. Scheming is intriguing enough — but this was almost entirely bombastic action. Neil Marshall, who directed season two’s ‘Blackwater’ episode, returns to give the Battle of Castle Black the same kinetic treatment.

This episode needed to be big, because it cathartically resolves plotlines that began back in Season Two and have since been simmering – or, if I’m being less generous, going off the boil – in the background. I was glad to see Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly emerging as bona fide leaders, rather than the petulant youths we met back in the first season.

Misty water-coloured memories of their terrible hair.

Misty water-coloured memories of their terrible hair.

So it was deliberately cinematic. In terms of both filming logistics (which included a bigger-than-ever ‘top of the Wall’ set, completely surrounded by green screen) and the amount and complexity of CGI and other visual effects, it was the show’s largest-scale and most expensive episode to date.

And the cinematography is full of exhilarating flair. Around the 40-minute mark is a masterful 360-degree tracking shot that moves fluidly between various characters as they fight in the castle courtyard. Then there’s the low point-of-view handheld shot of the Thenns storming the south gate. The volleys of flaming arrows – including the one that lights Sam’s terrified face as it lodges in the door he’s about to open; the giant’s arrow that bowls a Night’s Watch guy clean off the Wall to land gruesomely in the courtyard.

And the awesome giant scythe that reaps wildling climbers off the Wall, leaving their severed hands dangling.

And the awesome giant scythe that reaps wildling climbers off the Wall, leaving their severed hands dangling.

Given ‘Blackwater’ had such a galvanising effect on audiences, it’s easy to see why another similar episode would seem like a good investment. And not a moment too soon. Just last week I remarked that the show’s reflexive recourse to shocking violence is getting a little wearying, so what will lift the mood again after last week’s… resounding thumbs-down?

But I began by quoting the delightfully corny 1992 Wesley Snipes air-hijack thriller Passenger 57 because this episode is ‘cinematic’ in the same gestural way as an impeccably generic action film. Just as it doesn’t really make sense for Wesley to shoehorn in a gambling metaphor purely to make a badass quip, this episode is full of moments that seem there purely to provoke emotional peaks or to baste characters in cool.

“I am a man of the Night’s Watch, Gilly. I made a promise to defend the Wall, and I have to keep it. Because that’s what men do.” Cue the corniest zoom ever.

And you know what else men do?

And you know what else men do?

“Promise me you won’t die!” Gilly demands. And with a completely straight face, he does, even though Team America: World Police already took the piss out of precisely this scene.

Elsewhere, the episode asks the questions that obsess action movies. What is loyalty? What is courage? What is honour? What is sacrifice? What is leadership? Well, Ser Alliser Thorne knows that last one. “It means that the person in charge gets second-guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth.”

Some beautiful side-eye work there from Lord Snow.

Some beautiful side-eye work there from Lord Snow.

Ser Alliser is a recognisable brand of jaded boss who hates our hero from the beginning. But he’ll bravely rise to the occasion when it counts – unlike Janos Slynt, who plays the combined role of Craven Hiding Guy and Hysterical Panicking Guy. And all Ser Alliser’s cuntishness is channelled into giving an excellent pep talk and then whaling on the bad guys.

“Tonight, we are cancelling the apocalypse!”

“Tonight, we are cancelling the apocalypse!”

He also enjoys a duel with Tormund Giantsbane. Where the Polite Turn-Taking Melée signifies the action hero’s resourcefulness and tenacity, hand-to-hand combat is the action genre’s ballet: the expression of an almost erotic antagonism. We saw it consummated in blood last week with the Viper and the Mountain.

This week, Ser Alliser and Tormund are just an undercard bout. Styr, the Magnar of Thenn, lights up when he sees Jon Snow – this won’t just be another run-of-the-mill abdomen-axing. But Ygritte has already claimed Jon’s death in the same way she claimed him as a lover: aggressive, and sexual.

In what way does Styr wish to taste her ginger minge?

In what way does Styr wish to taste her ginger minge?

This episode ends on a strange, uncomfortably unresolved note. Yes, the Night’s Watch won – Castle Black didn’t fall. Yes, Jon, Sam, Dolorous Edd and even lil Olly have risen to the occasion; yet Jon can only look on in horror at Olly’s cocky “I got ya, buddy!” nod when Olly has just murdered the love of his life.

Ygritte can’t die without one final repetition of her catchphrase, but perhaps Jon’s well-publicised ignorance has extended to his faith in the noble aims of the Night’s Watch. Hopelessly outnumbered last stands are the way action films express honour, solidarity and sacrifice. But with the exception of Grenn and his five valiant defenders of the gate, this episode’s deaths are squalid and pointless. Grenn and Pyp, Jon’s original buddies, are lost, and Castle Black will probably still fall.

So, when a grim-faced Jon strides out the gate to treat with Mance Rayder, he’s deciding to disregard the way the Night’s Watch has always done things. It’s quite a turnaround for the guy who was tutting at Sam at the start of the episode for trying to find a sex loophole in his vows.

The question is: how will his grieving brothers, who take solace in the posturing of action heroism, react to what Jon does next?

Game of Thrones airs on Showcase at 3.30pm AEST on Mondays, fast-tracked from the US.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic, and author of the book Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.

Follow her Game of Thrones recaps here.