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In fact, despite sharing a director (the cinematic and dependably creative Neil Marshall) and that the events of the episode focused entirely on a single location, comparisons with Blackwater are not applicable. Nor should they be. The minute the writers or the audience starts judging the rest of the series against that one episode is the minute the series starts to fall under it's own shadow. Watchers established it's own rhythms, it's own path, and never tried to be anything but itself.
Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that are a source of irony, if nothing else.
Despite the Wall side of the story being firmly focused on Jon, this episode was not about him. He has already had ample opportunity this season to develop beyond the whining brat he started out as. His arguments earlier this season with Ser Alliser about Mance's forces, his leadership when ranging north of the Wall to defeat the turncoats, his general hardening and more adult disposition have elevated him into a character that commands respect. Both from the viewer and his fellow characters. He's as close to the leadership Mormont intended for him as he's gotten. So this episode needed be his trial by fire, he's already been through that. The writers wisely recognized that this was an opportunity to put Sam in the spotlight.
And spotlight him they did. Sam carried this episode, setting aside his craven disposition in favour of genuine fervor. As he tells Pip, when you are a nobody, you don't need to be afraid. His problem to this point was that he had never experienced real fear, real honest terror. He was afflicted with a stress disorder, which made him imagine danger in every corner. This episode went to lengths to show that having a purpose and direction in life, and being able to embrace real danger and turn that into motivation gives you strength. They haven't used the insult Sam the Slayer much on the show, but in this episode he earned that name with selflessness and cunning.
The episode merged two separate incidents from the novels: the Battle of Castle Black, and the Battle of the Wall, which in honesty is really more of a siege. The episode did it's best to accommodate both, but because of the time constraints, both within the hour and within this season, the siege became a raid, and the Battle of Castle Black took priority. And in many ways, it showed an emotional mature "giant battle episode." It shows how far the writers have come in the seasons since Blackwater. And how much more comfortable Marshall is with what I can only assume is a larger budget this time around. Last time, he had ti use tricks to make limited resources appear to fill space. This time, he had larger sets, more extras and more time to not only pull the camera back for a wider shot, but to dig the camera into the muck and really see the carnage. Blackwater was a passive battle, told from Tyrion's perspective of safety behind the gates. This episode is told from Sam's perspective, in the thick of things.
This season has suffered from the fewest pacing problems of any year since the first, but that isn't to say there haven't been some. And from the Wall's story, the pace at which Tormund's raiders approached Castle Black, and Mance's army from the North, was ponderous. Because of that, they were constrained by what could and couldn't happen in this episode. And because the literary siege is a sequence of events rather than one large calamity, that made it difficult to incorporate into a single episode. The writers, rather than base the episode around a single physical event, like Blackwater's wildfire explosion, instead focused on the emotional repercussions of the battle. For Jon, that included assuming command, sending his friends to their deaths, and being reunited briefly with Ygritte. For Sam, it was the aforementioned maturation. I can understand how those hoping that it would be another gunpowder plot would feel like it was an anticlimactic episode. It lacked the grand finale that other episode nine's have possessed. There was no hammer to the audience's head.
Instead, it used two deaths to dig into the core of the two principle characters of this setting. Pip's surprise death only fortified Sam into ensuring his own survival. He might still take comfort in his books, but now he knows that when it comes down to it, he is willing and able to step up. Even more so than his stabbing of the White Walker last year, as a defining moment for Sam, was when he dispatched the Thenn at point blank range, nodded, and moved one carried by pure purpose. The battle made Sam stronger. The opposite is true of Jon. Ygritte's death reminded him only of everything that he could have had if it weren't for the stubborn Stark nobility. He said words, and felt duty bound to honour those words even if it meant sacrificing his passions. And it meant exactly that. With Ygritte gone, and no hope in sight for the Wall's continued survival, Jon has been hollowed out. The big wham moment of this year's episode nine was the gutting of Jon Snow, the destruction of his hope, and the loss of his sense of self preservation.