WARNING: Heavy spoilers for the reviewed episode and past episodes.
Episode 9 in Game of Thrones has historically been one where the showrunners go all out; the Blackwater episode was the most expensive episode of the show, until Watchers on the Wall came along.
This episode was great, one of the best in Game of Thrones and will enter the annals of television as such. This does not make it without any shortcomings, in fact, one of its shortcomings was the fact that is was episode 9.
Watchers on the Wall is set completely in the Wall, in case the title didn’t give you a hint. The Wall has been the setting of one of the weakest storylines on the show, even though it had major badass, Jon Snow. The looming threat of wildlings led by Mance Rayder was introduced a long time ago, and so this arc feels stretched out.
The episode starts out on a lighter note, with Sam and Jon having a conversation about their vows and laying with women. Sam, much like a present day lawyer, finds a loophole in their oath that allows them to lay with women. He is also keen on knowing about the experience of being with a woman from Jon. This scene hilariously introduces the episode, and only builds up anticipation for the coming battle. Sam descends the wall and leaves Jon, with an owl atop the Wall.
The owl turns out to be controlled by a Warg in Tormund’s camp. Ygritte and the Thenn leader exchange a few words about killing Crows. Ygritte seems bent on killing Jon. Rose Leslie portrays the jilted Ygritte perfectly, and when she talked about her ‘ginger minge’, I couldn’t help but feel afraid. A hooded stranger is also seen hurrying away from the wildling camp. Keep in mind that the stranger wasn’t in the scene for nothing.
The next scene seems to have been created out of cruelty, as it only delays the epic battle. Sam and Maester Aemon have a conversation about love. Also, we are reminded that his full name is Aemon Targaryen and that he had a chance to become the king. Aemon’s character progression was largely augmented by this scene, as he has been a largely static character in many episodes. The takeaway message of this scene was that Sam is indeed in love with Gilly.
Well, speak of the devil, because Gilly now shows up at the door of Castle Black, and is revealed as the hooded stranger who scurried past the wildling camp. Sam channels his inner Ygritte, as he barks at Pyp to let her in, regardless of orders. Meanwhile, the Thenn Warg declares that it is time, and the Wildling army has set an entire wooded area on fire, implying that the Crows will burn. The Crows are preparing for the battle as they light up the entire Wall with torches. Jon and Alliser have an interesting conversation about leadership, and Alliser’s death is heavily hinted when he talks about a man second guessing his own actions. I’ve always thought and said, that the Alliser character was a little forced in his motivations and seemed overdone. This scene did nothing but enhance this notion, as I found myself waiting for Alliser to die.
Sam and Gilly have an extremely familiar talk as he tells her that she isn’t safe. Why is it familiar? Well, because they’ve had it before. But on the bright side, they finally kiss, so that’s something. Sam is such a lovable character, and I’m glad he’s being portrayed as such. The scene also shows some character development for Sam from the coward in previous seasons to a hardened brother of the Night’s Watch. The best part is that this transformation doesn’t hit you in the head too hard, just as Sam reminds us that he is indeed scared.
The wildling army is finally revealed by the fire that Mance warned Jon about. The army has giants and mammoths and thousands of united wildings. But the Night’s Watch faces a problem as the wildlings are approaching the North face of the Wall while Tormund’s pack is approaching the south of Castle Black. Alliser, in a moment of heroism, decides to face off against Tormund and his wildlings while Janos is left in charge of the ranged attack on the other wildlings. Janos is ineffective and looks like he would rather give up than lead the men of the Night’s Watch, so Grenn makes up a story about Alliser needing him, to get him to leave. And finally, after 4 seasons, we have Jon step up as the leader of the Crows atop the Wall. Jon’s leadership has long been awaited, and I’m glad that the showrunners took this convoluted, yet necessary step in his character development. The series had handled this neatly, but I’m just as satisfied with this version.
As Alliser rallies his men, he gives an Aragorn-esque delivery about protecting the order of the Night’sWatch. The battle breaks out below the Wall, and I can’t decide who kicks more ass; Alliser or Tormund. Both kill a number of their enemy forces while Pyp and Sam unsuccessfully try to kill some wildlings. Ygritte is also shooting arrow after arrow into the Crows. Janos arrives and hides in the cellar, where he finds Gilly. Ygritte kills Pyp while Sam looks on. Styr also seems bent on building an appetite for the Crows, as he is one of the cannibalistic Thenns. The action is over the charts here and I felt the inner eight – year old in me squeal in delight at the swordplay seen at Castle Black.
Jon realizes that the giants can’t be kept out for long and so he sends Grenn and a handful of other men to guard the gate from the giant. Sam arrives at the top of the Wall and briefs Jon about the situation at the bottom. Jon leaves the Wall in the hands of Edd and decides to descend and put an end to the wildling party down below. Grenn and his men face one giant, enraged at the death of its comrade thanks to some spiffy archery, and are terrified at this prospect. Then, in one of the best scenes, Grenn allays the fears of his men and recites the oath of the Night’s Watch. While Grenn and Pyp are minor characters, they are still some of the most solid ones at the Night’s Watch, and I like their presence. The scene with Grenn was awe-inspiring as the audience could get a sense of what was at stake; men were willing to lay their lives down simply to prevent their gates from being breached, so that their peers could be safe. The themes of loyalty and friendship are scarce in the backstabbing world of Game of Thrones, yet scenes like this one reinforce such themes.
Jon arrives at the bottom and in true hero’s fashion, kills a bunch of extras. Then, in something straight out of a video game boss fight, he battles Styr, who seemingly gains the upper hand, only to be eliminated by Jon. Jon turns around to find Ygritte pointing an arrow at his heart. As Jon smiles, Ygritte lowers her guard, which turns out to be her downfall as Olly, the little boy whose parents were killed by wildlings, shoots her with a crossbow. Then, Ygritte reminds Jon of the cave where he ‘had a slice of ginger minge’ to which he replies that they shall return to. And then in quite possibly the best death of a character ever, Ygritte dies saying, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Kit Harrington’s great acting deserves a shout out here as he nails the introspective Jon, grieving the death of his only lover.
Atop the Wall, Edd orders his fellow men to release the scythe, which turns out to be just that: a huge scythe in the ice of the Wall. The scythe slices the wildlings climbing the Wall and discourages others. The shot of the hand holding the rope was a classic Game of Thrones that was just the icing on the cake that is ‘Watchers on the Wall’.
Tormund seems to be the last wildling standing as Jon orders him to be chained up. The wildlings to the north of the wall have given up for the night. The Crows thus emerge victorious from this first battle, although the wildling army is more than prepared to launch many more. Mance Rayder was just warming up as Jon points out, and he reckons that the Wall can only stand a couple more days. Jon decides to leave, despite Sam’s protests, beyond the Wall to assassinate Mance, hoping to disband his wildling army.
And so concludes the best episode on the Wall yet. I loved it, although I found it to be imperfect. For starters, I missed all the Home Alone tricks that the Crows pull like setting up straw brothers to appear more numerous than they were. I missed Donal Noye and his competence. I also have no idea how Pyp and Grenn were killed in the battle, considering that they were very much alive in the books. These complaints that the purists have can be overlooked, considering that the same end was achieved to a large extent. The deaths of Pyp and Grenn reminded fans that no one is safe on Game of Thrones as characters alive and kicking can end up kicking the bucket on the show.
I also think that the episode overcompensated with the action as we got more footage of Crows fighting than we did in the other 3 seasons. However, the mellow introduction to the episode helped as the viewer wasn’t overwhelmed with swords, arrows and shouts.
As an ‘episode 9’, this one succeeds, and definitely ended in a cliffhanger, leaving the viewers wondering whether Jon makes it back alive. As he is a fan favorite, Jon’s presence was capitalized by this episode and only made him more popular. It also featured some great acting from Kit Harrington, Rose Leslie, Mark Stanley, and Owen Teale. The guest stars shine in their roles and I could feel the emotion of the various characters, which absorbed me in this episode even more.
On another note, I can’t wait for the season finale as there is sure to be shocking reveals and storylines involving Tyrion and crew in King’s Landing, Jon beyond the Wall, Stannis and his newly purchased men, and many other characters across Westeros. Don’t forget to watch the season finale!