There are a handful of Doctor Who episodes which I balk at watching. Not because they’re bad, but just because of how emotionally wrecked I always feel after watching them. Among them are Vincent and the Doctor, Turn Left and this one. The Girl Who Waited, at least to me, is one of the most emotionally torturing stories of the entire run of Doctor Who. It’s one of the few stories of which it can certainly not be said that it ended happily or satisfyingly, as we’re left devastated by the episode’s tear-jerking concluding moments. At the same time, while it’s a disturbing story, it’s also a beautiful story illustrating the strength of the relationship between Amy and Rory, showing, as it does, what Amy is prepared to sacrifice for Rory’s sake. The result is one of the most memorable episodes of Matt Smith’s era, and one of the most distinctive, unique stories of all.
It’s the ingenious conceit of Amy, and Rory and the Doctor being split up into two separate time streams progressing at different rates that sets up this brilliant story premise. To no small extent you can pin the blame for everything that went wrong here on the Doctor, who messed up the first stage of the rescue mission when he locked onto the wrong point in Amy’s time stream. Thus Rory finds himself face-to-face not with his perky, gracious young wife flinging herself into his arms, eager to hop back into the TARDIS as if nothing had ever happened, but with the time-worn, hardened version of Amy who’d lived more of her life inside this hellish complex than outside of it. Rory was justified in venting his frustration at the Doctor. And old Amy was certainly justified in the sentiments expressed in her words, “I think I can now definitely say I hate him. I hate the Doctor. I hate him more than I’ve ever hated anyone in my life.” It’s so disquieting to hear a companion say she hates the Doctor and mean it, but it was effective in getting that powerful message across: the Doctor stuffed up; the Doctor ruined his friend’s life; the Doctor deserves his friend’s animus.
It’s profoundly disturbing when we see what has become of Amy after Rory finds her — how badly the Doctor has stuffed up. She’s an embittered, thwarted shadow of her former self, something very different from the Amy we know. When Rory and, vicariously, the Doctor turn up, she’s determined to resent them both. She refuses to meet Rory’s eyes at first, stubbornly determined to keep chewing on 36 years of pent-up resentment, lest she soften under the gaze of her sweetheart. When the two Amys finally meet it’s striking how different they are. Young, vivacious, spirited Amy and old, haggard, hardened Amy. Karen Gillan portrayed well older Amy’s shock at seeing herself as she used to be, as if she’d forgotten what it was like to be the girl she used to be. “I’d forgotten how much I loved being her. Amy Pond, in the Tardis, with Rory Williams.” It’s touching, at least, to see older Amy slowly soften under the charm of Rory and the Doctor, as she lapses increasingly back into her old self, flirting with Rory, admitting her sonic “probe” is a screwdriver. In any case this episode added layers to Amy’s character, showing us that, stripped of all that we love about her, almost unrecognisable as the companion we know, what remains with Amy is her undying love for Rory.
Karen Gillan was exceptional. She really got the chance to show off her acting chops here, and seized the chance to deliver a consummate performance. She acted sublimely older Amy’s bitterness, anger, weariness, as well as her fond reminiscence, sympathy for Rory in spite of herself, and ultimately her teary resolve when wishing her farewell to Rory at the end. There was a particularly powerful moment that showcased Gillan’s talents when young Amy first materialised in Rory’s time stream, and Rory and Amy embraced each other, and old Amy looked dejected and embarrassed, and then Rory and young Amy gave old Amy an almost accusing look. It was like, to them, the older Amy was the anomaly, the accident, the inconvenient by-product of an experiment gone wrong, which, now that younger Amy was back, would need to be cleaned up as soon as possible. Older Amy’s look of disappointed dejection, and younger Amy’s look of accusation, or whatever it was, were both subtly affecting.
If this story does anything right, it’s in reinforcing Amy and Rory’s love for each other. Older Amy initially has zero sympathy for the younger version of herself. It’s not for herself that she eventually yields, but for Rory. “Rory’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever met.” That’s touching. Even after 36 years of feeling abandoned, Amy is prepared to sacrifice herself for Rory’s sake. She partially backtracks, but, ultimately, this is what she ends up doing when it becomes clear that the Tardis can’t sustain the paradox of two Amys from two different time streams. It’s a torturous moment when Rory is forced to choose between which of the two versions of his wife he wants. No matter what he does, he has to leave Amy behind. Arthur Darvill was magnificent in this moment; you could really see the agony and torment etched on his face, a bracingly evocative performance. Watching Rory and older Amy being forced to say their tearful farewell to each other felt like having your insides seared—that’s how painful it was. Amy, out of love for Rory, makes his choice for him, sacrificing herself for him. Greater love hath no woman than this.