As with Blackwater, the battle at the Wall is afforded an entire episode over which to play out as tension mounts within the Night's Watch. The narrative takes place over three main acts that takes in the pre-battle nerves, the outbreak of fighting itself and the bloody aftermath. Perfectly paced and elegantly constructed, Benioff and Weiss utilise the established camaraderie between Jon Snow, Sam, Grenn and Pyp and the angry figure of Ygritte to form the emotional threads of the episode, building the rest of the action around them and thus ensuring that the violence carries more of an impact.
Much of the tragedy and humour arises from how young and inexperienced these men are; Ser Alliser chastising them all on the misinterpretation of 'nock' is particularly entertaining. Sam feels this more than most with his guilt over losing Gilly which pushes him to question Jon about sex with Ygritte. The awkward humour is played beautifully between John Bradley and Kit Harington whose chemistry often makes these scenes stand out. Their interactions throughout the episode are tinged with sadness and it is here, in this first scene, that a sense of playfulness is allowed to come to the fore, adding a much needed humour to the proceedings.
That chemistry also extends to Pyp and Grenn. Both get their own triumphant moments; Grenn's recitation of his vows in the face of an oncoming giant certainly gets the blood up whilst Pip manages to fell a wildling before being struck down by Ygritte. Even Ser Alliser, still hating Jon to the last, gets to have his own heroic speech, leading the charge to defend the South gate. The time taken to affirm these relationships make the battle all the more affecting as it happens. These are characters we've known for a long time and whilst Pyp and Grenn may not carry the emotional weight of someone like Oberyn Martell, it is still galling to see them lost.
In the midst of it all is Jon Snow, offered the chance to prove himself as both a leader and a soldier. Harington rises to the occasion, the torment of every decision etched onto his face as he directs his friends to different parts of the battle and often to their deaths. Jon's always had a sense of being displaced, but after relieving Slynt of his command, he settles into a role and does it well, largely responsible for seeing the men through the night. His sense of honour and sacrifice is a defining trait of the Stark family (and one that usually gets them killed) and his decision to take on Mance by himself seems at once both extremely clever and foolish. Handling the emotional moments well (the last meeting between Jon and Yrgitte is particularly tearjerking), Harington does even better with the action sequences, getting to cut a swathe through the wildlings on the ground.
As you would expect from a top notch director like Neil Marshall, the action sequences are simply stunning, but none more so than a glorious unbroken crane shot through the battle on the ground. In this one moment, coupled with a haunting variation on the series' main theme, it's Game of Thrones at its most cinematic. As the camera whirls round, we see various pairs fighting, archers firing and men dying. It's a brilliant portrayal of the carnage reeked by the wildlings and manages to add an impressive sense of scale to a claustrophobic setting. It's such a feat of technical prowess that it almost overshadows the rest of the action, which is superb in its own right.
What is particularly impressive is how Marshall manages to make the battle feel huge at each front, both north and south. The wide shots of the oncoming wildling attack from the north emphasises that sense of the Night's Watch being outnumbered and he clearly has great fun using the 'scythe' defence. In the courtyard, the focus is much tighter and much more personal. There's a sequence from Ygritte's perspective as she looses arrows from the upper story of the courtyard. Even Ghost gets a look in here. Elsewhere, Marshall gets right up close and personal to the action as it plays out; there's eye-gouging, beheading, stabbings - virtually any appropriate bloody death you can think of gets a look in.
It's the finest episode of this season to date and probably one that will rank alongside Blackwater as one of the best of the entire series. Marshall's cinematic pedigree is excellent for such occasions and the combination of brutal action with smaller character moments is in a perfect balance. Another ninth episode, another triumph.
You can read Becky's review of The Mountain and the Viper here.
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