Game of Thrones: “The Watchers on the Wall”
Season 4, Episode 9TV Reviews Game of Thrones
Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
Well, my goodness.
First, I have to wonder—when we realized we were getting an entire episode at the Wall (only the second episode to be set entirely in one place, after the Battle of Blackwater), how many non-readers spent the entire hour TERRIFIED that the tradition of ninth episode sucker punches would continue with Mr. Jonathan Snow? We all know the history: Ned Stark lost his head in Season One, Episode Nine, and Robb got Red Wedding’ed in Season Three, Episode Nine. Even in the famous “Blackwater” episode, Tyrion gets knocked unconscious and his fate is up in the air. Granted, we got sucker punched last week with Oberyn’s gruesome death and two in a row would be a bit much even for the likes of George R.R. Martin, but still—the Jon Snow terror alert level must have been bright orange last night (or whatever the highest color is…I’m a bad patriot).
“The Watchers on the Wall” was essentially an hour-long battle scene with a very short prelude (that included some pretty hilarious lines from Sam as he prodded Jon for information about what sex is like…”I’m not a poet,” Jon says, which Sam quickly and cuttingly confirms: “No, you’re not.”). And what an incredible battle it was, done in true Game of Thrones style with elements of darkness, chaos and individual heroics. There were an awful lot of good fighters in this battle, including a pretty badass turn from Alliser Throne, who, despite being a total dick, can walk the walk of his dour talk. He was felled eventually, but anyone who stands toe to toe with Tormund Giantsbane and lives to tell the tale deserves some serious plaudits. If I were in that battle, my main goal would be avoiding Tormund at all costs, not directly challenging him without backup.
And Jon Snow was spectacular. We already knew he was a leader in spirit, but the battle brought out the leader in practice. Not before he got some great advice from Thorne, though—when a leader begins to doubt himself, it’s over both for him and the men he leads. After the coward Janos Slynt goes to hide and Thorne goes down, Snow is the de facto commander, and he makes the wise choice to send a quintet into the tunnel to defend the gate, delegates the top of the wall to an able second in Eddison, and leads a reinforcement party against the wildling raiders. It was a critical turning point both for his snow and the others at the wall; his leadership can’t have been lost on them, and you get the feeling he’s destined for greater things.
Poor Ygritte, though. For all her tough talk, she couldn’t pull the trigger when Jon was fighting the creepy flesh eater guy, and she died without us ever knowing if she could have killed Jon at the end; young Ollie got her, motivated by Sam and expecting Jon Snow to be very pleased. Oops, Ollie, you just killed the only girl he ever slept with! I mean, you did the right thing, but there are some serious emotions at play now. You might want to just slink back into the shadows for a minute or two. Anyway, Ygritte’s death didn’t hit me too hard, and weirdly, I think it’s because of the melodramatic choice of the TV show. In the book (and it’s weird that I remember this little detail), she dies in the battle and Jon only finds her body the next day. He checks to see if the arrow that killed her was his—it wasn’t—and somehow, with that distance, it really felt tragic to me. Instead, we got the “you know nothing, Jon Snow” Jon Snow finale, which may be the most predictable death line in TV history, and it left me a little cold.
But it’s about the only thing that left me cold. Otherwise, the storytelling was brilliant, and one of my favorite choices was the way they dealt with the giant storming the inner gate—showing the moment of impact, and resolving it with the beautiful shot of all of them, giant and men alike, dead in the tunnel, implying everything that happened while the battle raged outside.
Speaking of which, we lost both Grenn and Pypar! In the same Wall “class” as Jon Snow. That’s kinda sad, right?
Now, going back to departures from the book—holy shit, Jon Snow’s going on a crazy assassin mission? That didn’t happen in the text! I’m super, super curious to see how this plays out. It’s definitely one of the main divergences we’ve seen so far, right?
Okay, I’ll kick it back to you. This episode was so good that I haven’t even mentioned Sam very much, and he arguably stole the show!
Yes, Jon Snow was THE MAN tonight—it’s hard to remember that kind-of-whiny kid from Season One. But so is Samwell Tarly—finally going in for the kiss, calming a frightened brother, freeing Ghost and keeping his promise to Gilly. I love how thoroughly he thought about the loopholes in the Oath—he’ll take no wife, father no children, but there’s plenty of room for other activities in there. Still, after kissing Gilly and tucking her safely away, he wasn’t going to abandon his brothers to the fight. Because that’s how a MAN acts, Shane. He even killed a Thenn in the process.
And yes, Game of Thrones takes its massive battle scenes seriously. Blackwater remains one of my favorite episodes and the “Watchers on the Wall” didn’t disappoint. To show the battle in all its glory, step one was throwing math out the window. Last week we learned there were roughly 104 men of the Night’s Watch? I think we saw 150 of those 104 die just at the hands of Styr, Tormund and Ygritte. We saw their chests ripped open. We saw them skewered and sent flying from the wall. We saw them blow themselves up and have their skulls cracked open. And that was just the Night’s Watch. There was so much gore this week that HBO didn’t even try to shoehorn in a random sex scene.
I’m glad you confirmed that Jon Snow’s departure wasn’t in the book. I couldn’t remember where his solo mission north of The Wall was going to lead, but it may just be a short detour rather than a massive departure. I have a feeling we’ll have to wait until next season to find out. The other big departure, Ygritte dying in Jon’s arms, was a little sappy but sweet. Nobody would have bet against those last words, but the writers couldn’t resist. “You know nothing, Jon Snow” had become too iconic.
A little humanity from Allisair made him a more interesting character. He gave Tormund a good run, and as you say, was brave enough to challenge that hulking beast of a man. He was definitely better than the idiotic coward Janos Slynt. I don’t remember any such redeeming qualities in the book.
I’m just glad the TV version of Samwell got that kiss.
With all the action at the Wall, there’s plenty left to resolve (or to leave unresolved) in next week’s season finale? Were you at all disappointed not to be in King’s Landing this week? Or the Eyrie where Arya and the Hound are so close to her sister? Or do you just miss Brienne and Pod?
I was going to mention the death count in my email, and I’m glad you picked up my slack. Seriously, I think Tormund killed at least 20 Night’s Watchmen alone, and the flesh-eater got 20 more. Five died in the tunnel, at least ten more on top of the wall from arrows or being immolated after the oil accident, and we saw Ygritte kill about 15 with her rapid-fire shooting. Even if we saw every single victim from those three plus the top-of-the-wall bungling, that’s 65 deaths. Pretty sure, and we’re not even counting everyone who died by the hand of normal wildlings.
Speaking of unrealistic elements, I also loved that Grenn used the classic “hey, Alliser wants you downstairs” tactic on Janos Slynt to get rid of him. I call this the “annoying younger brother maneuver,” where you’re seriously annoyed and say something like, “hey, I just heard mom call you, better go or she’ll be upset.” It was especially great here because Grenn hadn’t been down from the wall, and there’s no way Alliser could have communicated to him. Next time there’s a battle they’ll need a new excuse to get rid of him, and I recommend another kid brother classic—take him to a remote part of the castle, tell him there’s a massive game of hide-and-seek about to start, and that he needs to stay perfectly still and quiet or he’ll lose.
On the topic of Sam being a MAN, it did make me laugh that originally that meant following Pypar around and loading his arrows for him while hiding behind obstacles and essentially heckling him. Granted, he came through in the end with actual heroics, but he was more “arrow boy” than “man” at first. Still, Sam was terrific this episode, by turns a protector, an intellectual, and a warrior. I thought they hit all the right beats with his story, and it’s safe to say the battle wouldn’t have been won without him. Also, he killed Ygritte by proxy when he encouraged young Ollie to take up arms. Hopefully Jon never finds that out.
You mentioned his kiss, which was a great moment, but it made also made me consider that I’d rather not see the scene when he first has sex. Or maybe I would! I don’t know! Anyway, here’s my list of the top ten male characters whose sex scenes I never want to see.
10. A giant—too much panting
9. The Mountain—similar reasons
8. Tywin Lannister—I feel he’d be making arch comments the entire time
7. Grandmaester Pycelle—I hate myself for making this list
5. Ramsay Snow—he’d make Joffrey look vanilla
4. Theon—at this point, he probably just weeps a lot
3. Tormund Giantsbane—he has sex with bears, apparently
2. Hodor—you’re supposed to say the OTHER person’s name, Hodor!
1. This guy
Who am I forgetting? Have I ruined this email exchange by putting awful thoughts in everyone’s heads? On a totally different note, how badass was the scythe? Back your way sir.
Um, wow. This one went off the rails quickly. But I think you got everyone except my #1 on that list, Walder Frey, mostly to spare us seeing the poor girl he married next.
So let’s talk about that scythe! There are plenty of haunting deaths in Game of Thrones, but there’s a fair share of holy-crap-that-was-awesome! deaths, as well. And few have bettered the the giant scythe frozen under the ice. The Night’s Watch might be a shell of what it used to be, but they’ve been preparing for this eventuality for 1,000 years. I’m sure Eddison never imagined he’d be the one to unleash the most badass weapon in all of Westeros (at least while the dragons remain in Essos). The dangling hand still pinned to the wall was a little silly, but it did make me chuckle. If I’m Mance Rayder, all my energies go back into taking the gate.
Regardless, it’ll likely be late 2014 before we see anymore of Jon Snow, who actually seems to know quite a lot these days, but is still embarking on what sure sounds like a suicide mission. Samwell’s suggestion that he’ll probably be flayed alive and tortured for days doesn’t sway him in the least.
In the meantime, we’ve got one more week to revisit King’s Landing and the fate of poor Tyrion. At least there’s no flaying involved.
As always, please don’t die George R.R. Martin.
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