I was planning on saving myself when it comes to writing about Game of Thrones because whatever my opinion of the season was going to be, I believed it would be incomplete without the benefit of having seen all of it. Though some critics recap episode-by-episode anyway, I’ve never been comfortable with it. It’s the one downside of serialized television. All of a sudden, you don’t have episodes telling their own story with a recognizable beginning, middle, & end that you can talk about in a relative vacuum.
Rest assured, that comprehensive analysis is still coming, but for now, I’m breaking my rule to discuss this one particular episode – S4/E9, The Watchers on the Wall. There will be spoilers for the episode itself and for the season’s previous plot points concerning the Night’s Watch, but there will be no book spoilers or any kind of projection unto what happens next week.
The battle displayed here has been a long time coming; too long, in my opinion. Mance Rayder and his army of 100,000 wildlings were sure taking their sweet time getting there, even though they were pretty much at the wall already, as evidenced by the midpoint of the previous season before the climb. Yet while they were ostensibly preparing for about twelve episodes’ worth of time, Jon Snow returned to the wall, took a group all the way back to Craster’s Keep, came home, and then still managed to prepare. Meanwhile Samwell Tarly returned with Gilly.
As you can see, I’d have preferred for this battle to have started two or three episodes ago.
With all that said, The Watchers on the Wall is excellent; by far the best episode of the season and a highlight for the whole show. It’s tight, character driven even in the thick of battle, big, bloody, memorable, and extremely well-composed in just about every scene.
When you save a battle like this for the climax hour of your season and advertise it as one crazy night (in the book, it was a siege that lasted a fortnight and involved more politics than you’d expect), you risk rushing all of it by default. Fortunately, it seems director Neil Marshall (who directed this Sunday’s spiritual predecessor and my favorite episode – Blackwater) was fully aware of that, and he sidesteps it in just about every way. He does it by tightly focusing on the interplay and decision-making of just a few key characters and using the overall battle as a time accelerant to their story, trusting that circumstances have already put them in the headspace they need to be in. And it works.
The overall progression is as you’d expect – the first fifteen minutes are very much the deep breath before the plunge, and the time is wisely used to characterize, and even re-characterize the key individuals at play here, and after that it’s a battle till the end. It begins with Jon and Samwell Tarly having a brotherly moment, discussing their respective relations with women and what it means to them.
Sam has had Gilly and her baby at the front of his thoughts for quite a while, and Maester Aemon sees straight through him when he catches him in the library reading about the horrible things she might have suffered through. “Love is the death of duty,” Aemon asserts with pride, even when he admits that he loved a woman once in his life before the Wall. But Sam isn’t going to have any of it.
When Gilly shows up, Pyp is under strict orders not to let her in but Sam breaks out the f-bomb like a boss and Pyp complies out of shock. Indeed, this is the first time he’s ever cursed, and that’s not an insignificant character change for Samwell Tarly. The pain of being away from her, coupled with the uncertainty of whether or not she made it out of Mole’s Town have eclipsed his fears. When he has her back, he swears to see her safe, for he can only treat her and the baby as an extension of his duty as a brother of the Night’s Watch. The code, as he discerns, is just flexible enough for him to do that. He can be a lover to Gilly and a guardian for the child without making a claim and he wouldn’t be breaking his oath. Not only that, but with her, he can finally feel like a man. He takes her to a basement but refuses to stay with her, for he cannot abandon his brothers. Through his finding love and reconciliation of that with his oath, that shaking and weeping cowardly boy we met in the first season is gone. The Samwell of the present has found the courage to kiss the girl, tell her no, and fight like a man that belongs on that Wall.
Love is the death of duty? No. Without love, Sam couldn’t do his duty.
Equally good is the treatment of Samwell’s fear, spun from the book but stylistically more suitable to the show. Sam lost himself when he attacked the White Walker. That wasn’t courage; that was suicidal luck. In that moment he became – in his own words – “nothing,” which was what his father always said of him. But Gilly and the Wall reestablished his purpose as a man. He’s something and someone to his world now. With that comes fear, but remember the words Ned Stark once told Robb. The only time a man can be brave is when he’s afraid. Sam’s courage is so profound, he even inspires others.
John Bradley’s acting is the best that it’s ever been in the whole show. He was always a well-cast but underrated talent in the menagerie of stars and superstars, but here, he breaks through. Whatever faults may lie with this season, the character arc of Samwell Tarly is nothing short of a triumph.
At the same time, Ser Janos Slynt has lost his resolve entirely. He has always talked a big game, but he has never been good at much of anything besides betraying Hands and brutalizing the helpless. When the fighting starts, Slynt proves to be as frail and useless as Maester Aemon, and his cowardice not uncoincidentally leads him to the same basement that Samwell hid Gilly.
From Slynt’s departure comes Jon’s stepping up to leadership. An intriguing conversation prior had Alliser Thorne bitterly admit that Jon was right and that they should have sealed the tunnel when they had the chance. Jon doesn’t rub it in, but Alliser then reveals his secret to leadership in this job. The moment you second guess yourself is the moment everything falls apart. This is Thorne’s version of a temporary truce. Hating Jon is what they do on a good day. It’s so compelling that when Thorne hits the courtyard and gives a rousing speech, we, the audience – perhaps for the first time – actively cheer him on.
Jon commands the archers up top about as well as anyone can, but the situation gets (pardon the pun) icier when the giants and the mammoth break down the outer gate and Alliser falls in the courtyard. Jon has to give command of the Wall to Dolorous Edd, send Grenn and five brothers to their certain death holding the inner wall, and take Alliser’s place at the courtyard…where Ygritte is waiting for him.
Ygritte herself is as tired of her fellow wildlings’ B.S. as we are, and she plays the part of a hell-hath-no-fury scorned woman well. Too well, actually, as if she’s trying to convince herself. Of course, we know that she’s not blindly driven by vengeance and blood – having seen her let Gilly and the baby live in the previous episode. Ygritte doesn’t actually know what she wants besides to kill Crows. She just doesn’t want anyone getting in her way when she gets it.
The confusion stays her hand at the critical moment. Jon is unarmed after killing one particularly tough Thenn. Upon their eye contact, he smiles, thrilled to see her again. And when Ygritte fails to loose her arrow, someone else’s arrow finds her. It comes from the boy to whom you earlier see Samwell give a fighting pep talk. Jon runs to Ygritte and holds her. She hearkens back to the cave and says they should have stayed there. And her final words are, of course, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” The bewilderment in his eyes reflects the truth of that statement like nothing else. Her death is beautiful and tragic; Jon had been in denial of how his feelings for her remained even after leaving, and now it’s as if his entire world is shattered. He’s tired, as you see by his treatment of Tormund Giantsbane – the last wildling in the courtyard standing.
This battle is no victory for Jon, nor is it over for any of them come daybreak. So Jon decides to end it himself by seeking out Mance Rayder and killing him. It’s a bad plan, but Jon doesn’t care. As he prepares to leave, he and Sam look at each other, as if a lifetime has passed on this one night and they have so much more to say. But all Sam can say before the screen fades to white is, “come back.”
The Watchers on the Wall isn’t just one of the best episodes of the show because of its fantastic battle cinematography, great music, and Marshall’s expert composition of timing, scope, and intimacy. The seams of its story’s character actions played off of one another, developed and progressed naturally with the characters themselves, and added up to their own climax. It isn’t just a great battle. It’s a great example of storytelling about people weathering great struggles, which is exactly what this series has always been about in the first place.
Of course, as you’ve probably surmised from the finale’s preview, this battle is a long way from being over and another critical moment approaches. For now, however, this is the second best episode of the entire show, one of the best hours of television in history, and one I’d recommend even to the anti-show book snobs as an example of how good the show can be when it gets its material and its direction right.
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