Genre: Historical Fantasy
Watched: Episode 39 – June 8, 2014
Title: The Watchers on the Wall
Summary: Awesome fight, awesome ep
Episode 9 is always a doozy in Game of Thrones. First it was Ned’s head attachment problem, then Blackwater, then the infamous Red Wedding. This week isn’t quite so shocking (even compared to last week), but for only the second time (since Blackwater) we have an episode with only a single main arena of conflict: in this case, Castle Black and the wall.
I have to admit, I had my trepidations. In the books the whole book 2-3 Jon Snow narrative was among my favorites (along with Arya), but in the show it just hasn’t resonated as well. Plus, after last week’s evil fun the idea of two weeks off from Tyrion and crew was a tough pill to swallow.
The episode opens with a big establishing shot of the fortifications atop the wall and the forest beyond. We’ve come a long way from the tight and static constructions of season 1. The camera nimbly points out the giant horn used to alert the castle of approaching invaders. Sam and Jon share a watch and the big guy gets to asking Jon about Ygritte, vows and all that. This is some delightful dialog, particularly as delivered by Sam. His little legal analysis of their vows and the technical omission of other activities is good fun and good character building. A telltale owl is joined to…
A white eyed Thenn back in Tormund’s camp. Again, even after about 5 reminders I wonder if the noobs understand the whole Warg thing. Tormund is telling Ygritte about the “bear he fucked” and she’s not in a good mood. She goes a long way to emphasize her zeal for killing Crows and Big Thenn takes the opportunity to question her loyalty. She gets right in his face and lets everyone know that killing Jon Snow is her privilege alone. On the ridge above, Gilly creeps by.
Sam talks to master Aemon in the library. He’s clearly obsessed with Gilly and the ancient Maester knows it. Both these actors are excellent and Aemon says the same thing to Sam that he did to Jon, “Love is the death of duty.” But he admits he had a tryst when he was young. Sam goes outside and hears Gilly at the gate, forcing Pyp to let her in. He swears to stay by her side and keep her safe — but then they hear the horn.
The Warg owl hears it too and lets the Thenn/Tormund party know it’s time. Mance is coming. Atop the wall, Jon and the brothers watch the whole forest burn. They hastily man the defenses, dragging barrels into place. Thorne admits to Jon that he should have sealed the tunnel. This is typical of GOT, in that Thorne’s little speech shows a good side to an unlikeable character. Throne may be an ass, but he’s a patriot too, loyal to the Watch. Jon is respectful too. He’s grown up.
Sam hides Gilly in the larder and she tries to stop him from fighting. But Sam too has come a long way from the cowardly fat boy. He has a duty he needs to serve, even if that means leaving her — but he does leave her with a kiss (we knew that had been on his mind). He then joins Pyp in manning the South Gate. They discuss fear. Sam has found his place. He’s a brother now, and that buffers him from his terror.
Outside, Ygritte is watching, and then sneaks back to camp. She knows it’s a thin crew and tells Tormund. They arm up and charge. This is told in an awesome areal shot that establishes the field of battle, rolling past the castle, up and over the wall. This is a complex battle with several main locations: the gate, the courtyard of Castle Black, the top of the wall, the wall and its approach (including the outer gate) and then tunnel to said gate. The direction in the episode does an excellent job setting this up and conveying the dynamics between.
North of the wall Mance’s army emerges from the woods. They hired a lot of extras, and grafted in 2-3 giants and a huge mammoth. Does it feel like a truly enormous army? Well… close but not quite. But for TV, this is as good as it gets. The giants and mammoth (singular) look good.
Thorne oversees from above, giving a rousing speech. He’s a dick, but again, you can’t help but admire his commitment and courage. In battle, he’s a solid leader. But the crew makes a few errors (dropping a barrel, etc). He yells them into shape and they fire arrows at the oncoming army.
Below Ygritte and company storm the gate, charging into the light arrow fire, then lay siege to the gate with grappling hooks.
When it’s clear the castle below is bing attacked, Thorne gives another good speech, puts Slynt in charge and heads down the elevator. Below it’s total chaos. Tormund breaches the gate and a big melee ensues. Sam flees the gate tower just before it’s overwhelmed. The castle and the fight look good. They built a serious set and put it to good use. No easy feat given all the night shooting!
On top and over, as the Mammoth charges, Slynt falls apart and the gang tricks him down below. Jon takes over, marshaling the defense. Arrows are loosed and guys are hung out out to shoot down on climbers below. This all looks pretty defensible until a giant with a monster arrow starts picking off guys at the top.
Thorne does a great job fighting until he runs into Giantsbane. They duel for a while until Thorne is wounded and escapes. Slynt arrives below to find the Thenns (and a sharp shooting Ygritte) laying waste to the defenders. Unlike Thorne, he doesn’t have a likable bone in his body and instantly flees, finding his way into the larder with Gilly… uh oh.
Pyp and Sam snipe with crossbows from above until Ygritte puts an arrow through Pyp’s neck. This episode takes out a lot of regular characters and Pyp is the first. Soon Jon won’t have any friends left :-(. Sam flees toward the elevator and a Thenn comes after him, at the last minute, he pulls it together and puts a crossbow in the bad guy’s face.
The giants and their mammoth are setting up to pull the outer gate out of its socket. They might look dumb, but they know their business. Jon sends Grenn down to “hold the gate” and proceeds to fire bomb the giants with some success taking out one and the mammoth. But the other is pissed, and starts lifting the gate himself. Plus, a jammed firebomb goes off up top and leads to the death of several defenders.
Sam has come up from below to warn Jon, so he passes command to Edd (his last core friend up top) and heads down.
Grenn’s crew is in the tunnel, but so is the giant. Despite their terror, they hold fast, reciting their oath as the giant charges. As always when the oath is pulled out, it’s an emotional moment.
Jon and Sam arrive below and Jon tears into the invaders. The camera pans about revealing the scope of the melee — and Ygritte nearby. Plus Tormund and Big Thenn going to town. Sam, on orders from Jon, releases Ghost, who starts ripping throats. Giantsbane takes an arrow but barely slows. Big Thenn hones in on Jon and they too get into one of those duels. I might say that’s Hollywood, but actually this kind of thing happened in ancient warfare at least. At the battle of Granicus Alexander the Great was said to have dueled several Persian noblemen in the center of the field.
Anyway, Jon is getting his ass handed to him by Big Thenn until he manages to grab a hammer and bash in the ugly scarred skull (exit another minor character). But Ygritte is waiting, bow drawn. When it comes time to shoot, she can’t — or at least doesn’t get the chance, because the elevator boy Olly puts an arrow through her heart. Now this next is all Hollywood, or at least subjective direction, as the battle fades and they have their final emotional moment. She tells him they’ll always have Paris — oops, I mean they should have stayed in the cave. He says they’ll get back there. And here it comes: “You know nothing, Jon Snow” -> blank stare of death. I guess in this case “duty is the death of love.” I’ll step aside for a second to comment that the structure of the show and watching it as it’s released mutes the emotionality of this parting. We haven’t seen them together since last year, and we haven’t seen any soft Ygritte (except maybe saving Gilly) at all this season. It’ll be interesting to see how it feels watching them all back to back of blu-ray or the like. More painful for sure.
Back on the front of the wall the men atop take out the climbers with some well timed avalanches and a giant hook that sweeps through their ranks. This episode has been pulling out a lot of BIG SCALE shots. And the tide is turning.
Below Jon and crew round up a trapped Tormund acting very much like the cornered bear he described at the beginning. Jon, still in charge, throws him in chains. In further mop up, Sam rushes into the larder to check on Gilly to find her find — and a pathetic Slynt cowering in the corner. Jon and Sam take survey and Jon announces a crazy plan to confront/challenge/assassinate (it’s not clear) Mance before he can attack again.
He and Sam enter the tunnel and find everyone dead, including Grenn and the Giant. I had been hoping we would see the Giant fight in more detail, and probably for cost reasons they left out the blow by blow — still the book ends we got were emotionally effective. Sam lets Jon out into the great white beyond.
Wow, all in all, this was a different but massively successful episode. It managed to effectively capture a large scale multi-theatre battle both effectively and emotionally — and make it feel big. Plus it delivered fairly well on character, motivation, and all that good stuff. The team is pretty amazing as this would have been a tough episode to write, even tougher to direct, and probably crazy hard to orchestrate.