In the middle of its biggest battle since Season Two’s carnage at Blackwater, Game of Thrones takes us on a tour, via tonight’s episode, of Castle Black. Our guides just happen to be busy killing people.
We start with Jon Snow. He’s just brought reinforcements to the castle’s courtyard from the top of the Wall, and after killing his way through half a dozen wildlings, he pauses to survey the carnage. As he runs down the stairs to resume the fight, the camera leaves him, swooping across the chaos of the courtyard until it finds Jon’s former lover and would-be killer — the archer Ygritte. She draws and looses, and the camera moves on again to the axe-wielding, bald-headed barbarian Styr, leader of the cannibal Thenns. The camera moves again, and it’s back up another flight of stairs with Tormund Giantsbane, the red-headed ringleader of the raiding party. Then we take one last pass across the courtyard and its countless killings until the camera at last finds Sam Tarly, on a mission to free the great white wolf Ghost and even the fight.
It takes 43 seconds to make the circuit of Castle Black – 43 seconds involving dozens of performers and stuntmen arrayed across a multi-level set, shot without a single cut. Like all great action filmmaking, that shot rooted us in a specific environment, and did so clearly enough that you could practically give a tour of it yourself now if you were paying close attention. The stakes of every sword stroke were crystal clear – kill your man or you lose this patch of ground, and this one, and so on until there’s no more left to lose. It’s not just a choppily edited jumble of indistinguishable hacking and slashing; it’s the battle for Castle Black, and you are there.