"You're right, it is about blood."
That's what Jon Snow says to his loyal pal Samwell Tarly near the end of last night's episode, "The Watchers on the Wall." Technically, they're talking about the blood-drenched ways in which the Wildlings and Mance Rayder will terminate Jon if his mission to find and assassinate Mance doesn't go as planned, but they might as well be discussing the episode on the whole.
Wholly dedicated to the Wildlings army charging at the Night's Watch at the Wall blocking Westeros from the Wildlings and those enigmatic but deadly White Walkers, "The Watchers on the Wall" easily sets the record for the highest body-count in any TV episode ever, making the gruesomest Sons of Anarchy episode seem like Girls. The blood flowed like Tyrion's beloved wine, with heads getting lopped off, mallets lodging into skulls, and arrows piercing through necks and hearts.
Directed by action master Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday, and GoT's similarly battle-heavy season two episode "Blackwater"), season four's penultimate hour was a towering achievement in small-screen entertainment, the latest bit of proof that Game of Thrones is next-level television. You won't see mayhem this inventive and masterfully executed on any other TV show:
But the rampant death, supercharged violence, and that gnarly woolly mammoth aren't what sets "The Watchers on the Wall" apart from the show's best episodes; to challenge Jon Snow's opinion, it's not about all of the blood. It's about how, for the first time ever, Game of Thrones scaled back.
Well, back as much you can in an episode that features one of these:
What's always given Game of Thrones its incomparable muscle is its overwhelming scope. There's a reason why the show's regal opening credit sequence is longer than some music videos—the cast is larger than the entire Wu-Tang Clan's extended family tree in the hip-hop conglomerate's heyday. Yet Game of Thrones somehow never feels too congested for its own good, like, say, True Blood, The Walking Dead, or, to a lesser degree, Boardwalk Empire.
Co-showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff continually do the impossible, expertly managing a roster of major characters that far exceeds a dozen. Sure, the Ramsay Snow/Theon Greyjoy plot-line is only minimally intriguing, and the show hasn't exactly afforded Bran Stark, who's occasionally seen with his merry band of underdeveloped travelers, many opportunities to rival Arya in the "Favorite Stark Kid" competition. But whenever Weiss and Benioff do check back in with Theon or Bran, the brief visitations are crucial to the show's overall narrative.
In "The Watchers on the Wall," though, Weiss and Benioff wisely pushed a good 80% of the show's cast aside to centralize the hour's narrative in one place, a move that The Walking Dead has recently been doing with mixed results. It's not the start of a common occurrence in Game of Thrones, as evidenced by the quick preview of next Sunday's season finale and its glimpses at Tyrion, Cersei, Daenerys, Jon Snow, Arya, and all of your other favorites. But perhaps it should be. Finally given more room to breathe, Sam, who's always been lovable yet one-dimensional, emerged from "The Watchers on the Wall" as a full-fledged character, a budding warrior with something to protect (Gilly and her baby) and a newfound confidence that he'll be able to successfully do so. That's the advantage of a "bottle episode." Not interrupted by the rest of show's storylines, actor John Bradley-West had the chance to evolve the character from merely being Jon Snow's lovesick sidekick into a legitimate hero.
Just think how much more you'd root for Bran if he'd ever had such a dedicated episode, or how interesting Ramsay Snow's obsession with belittling Theon, a.k.a. "Reek," would be if Weiss and Benioff were to ever stick with them for an hour. His send-off last week was one for the ages, no doubt, but Oberyn "The Red Viper" Martell's death would've been even more traumatic had viewers known him as something deeper than Westeros' orgy-loving cool guy.
The most in need of his or her own Game of Thrones bottle episode, however, is Daenerys, the once-riveting Mother of Dragons who's gradually descended into indifference. Instead of momentarily watching her work through Supreme Queen Boss problems like a stoic Supreme Queen Boss, you'd go behind the curtain to see how she's coping with those unruly dragons, Jorah Mormont's deception, and her growing attraction toward Daario. Daenerys' life involves more than simply sitting on that throne and entertaining requests—it's about time viewers see for themselves.
There's a practical reason why Game of Thrones' producers can't regularly make bottle episodes like "The Watchers on the Wall": The show's massive price tag, needed to effectively render its elaborate sets, costumes, and altogether epic intentions, means HBO can only give Weiss and Benioff a 10-episode-per-season space to adapt George R.R. Martin's over-1,000 page A Song of Fire and Ice tomes. Too much story, too little time to tell it. Spending a complete hour on the Night's Watch defending the Wall is necessary because keeping the Wall protected is arguably the most important task on all of Game of Thrones. If the Wall goes down, and the White Walkers then have a clear path to Westeros, all of the show's characters, whether richly drawn or Bran-like thin, would be royally screwed. There wouldn't be much time left to care about any of them since, you know, they'd be White Walker chow.
Still, it's tough to bask in the excellence of "The Watchers on the Wall" and not wish that Game of Thrones would narrow its focus more often. Samwell Tarly's spoils shouldn't be exclusive.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who longs for an all-Hodor episode. He tweets here.
[GIFS via Warming Glow]