Well, HBO has thrown us a Clayton Kershaw worthy curveball: They’ve given us an episode 9 of “Game of Thrones” that focused on one plot line, kept us close to a single group of characters, had no real surprise deaths, and in the single most expensive episode ever filmed in the series, did absolutely nothing that I’ve been haughtily (if silently) predicting all season for this particular episode.
Find out what unfolded with “The Watchers on the Wall,” after the break!
First, let’s discuss what happened in Kings Landing, The Aerie, the Riverlands, The Dreadfort, and across the narrow sea…
That’s right, no idea. Because this episode, just like the Season 2’s “Blackwater,” focuses only on a single battle. And oh, what a battle, filled with enough cannibals, cowardice, cruelty, giants, mammoths, ice-falls, and vengeful red-heads to make you momentarily forget about eye-gouging, exploding Oberyn heads, and Sansa’s sudden desire to show cleavage and exchange creepy smiles with her Uncle Petyr Leery-finger.
Our episode opens on the Wall, Jon on watch and Sam following after him posting the question asked plaintively by virgins everywhere…”What was it like.” Jon, for his part struggles, stumbling trying to describe the feelings that poets have tried for a millennia to capture, before irritatingly sending Sam below to rest. The scene juxtaposes nicely with the next, as Thorvald sits in camp after the sack of Molestown, crudely telling tales of his bear-loving days, much to the chagrin of the driven Ygritte. She provokes a confrontation with the disgusting Thenns. The Thenns seem to provide the Game of Thrones requirement of reminding us for every source of disorder (The Wildlings), there is always someone worse.
We see some of our characters grow a little more into themselves in this episode, none more so than Sam, whose heart to heart with Maester Aemon reveals not only Sam’s love of Gilly (like Duh), but also that fact that Maester Aemon is Aemon Targaeryn, and he could have been King. When Sam finds Gilly outside the gates, begging for entrance, he orders the guard to let her in, showing a great deal of backbone. He makes a pledge to Gilly, to never leave her, smuggles her deep within the keep, and kisses Gilly, making her understand his pledge to not leave her doesn’t mean abandoning his brothers. Later still, he talks down a nervous Pyp, sees death up close and tells Pyp a beautiful lie when he takes an Ygritte arrow to the throat, and then takes out one of the giant Thenn with one well placed cross-bow bolt. Perhaps his most important action is giving inspiration to the young man in charge of the Wall Elevator, urging him to pick up his weapon and fight. It’s a great example of how Sam is becoming a man, with a spirit as big as his belly.
Other secondary characters proved great case studies, including current Watch Commander (and perpetual Thorn in Jon’s side) Ser Alliser.
Alliser, watching the bonfires of 100,000 Wildlings, reflects on the bad decisions he made, especially not shutting down the gates, and with the face of a man swallowing a mouthful of gall, explains as much to Jon, telling our young Lord Snow that someday he’ll have to make the bad decisions, and when you start second guessing them is when it’s time to go. I really thought he was going to step off the wall at that point, instead he gives an inspired speech and tries to rally the inept band of crows. It’s a great interplay between characters, a realization that Alliser recognizes Jon’s potential and his own limitations. Later still, he returns to the battle on the south side of the wall, giving another rousing speech, and kicking serious Wildling ass. He eventually runs into Thorvald, and gives the Red-Headed Bear-lover a good fight, before the powerful Wildling slashes him across the belly. Interesting discovery that Alliser, while a terrible planner and even worse leader, was a true warrior and a man of courage.
The same can’t be said of Janos Slynt, the former commander of Kings Landing city watch that Tyrion had sent to the wall way back in Season 2. Slynt, who pretty much only acted as Thorne’s yes man and toadie through the last several “Wall” episodes is left in charge of the wall, where his indecision will likely lead to disaster. Luckily, some quick thinking and a well placed lie by Renn sends Slynt to the base of the wall, where he flees and hides himself in the same root cellar that Sam placed Gilly. Slynt’s departure puts Jon in charge and only then do the Watchmen atop the Wall really start working together.
Arrows that were haphazardly shot under Thorne, suddenly begin to find their mark. Barrels roll off the wall, some filled with fire, that send giants and mammoths stampeding away, and when he sees that one giant remains and is pulling down the outer gate, he does the hardest things any military leader must do: send good men on a mission of certain death. He instructs Renn, to hold the gate. He does this all with the skill and strength of a Stark. Later still, when it’s time for Jon to fight on the ground and make more difficult choices, sending Sam to release Ghost (“I need him more than you” he tells a shocked Sam), before whirring into action, taking down Wildlings like a scythe through wheat.
Meanwhile, Ygritte is doing the same on the wild-side of things, plugging anything that lives south of the wall with an arrow or three. We have a couple awkward seconds when she started doing that Legolas thing, shooting arrows at machine gun rate, but for the most part we get the driven woman fighting for her side, and when Jon takes on one of the monstrous Thenn, whose strength and brutality almost gets the best of him, I kept waiting to Ygritte to fulfill her promise she made to anyone who tried to take Jon Snow from her. Instead, it’s Jon who makes his improvised weapon roll and puts a blacksmith’s hammer through the Thenn’s skull. A moment later, dazed and exhausted, he nearly stumbles into Ygritte, who draws on him. The moment spins for a wonderful eternity and you wait. Will she release the arrow and end Jon’s life? Will she turn her back on her rage and her people. We’ll never know, because at that moment the kid that Sam inspired earlier in the episode had picked that moment to pick up his bow and put an arrow through our fiery red-head’s chest. Ygritte dies in Jon’s arms, her last words to him “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
The rest of the episode plays mop-up. Somewhere off-camera the Night’s Watchmen miraculously killed a lot of Wildlings and left only Thorvald, filled with bolts and still fighting. Jon puts a bolt into his leg and orders him placed into chains. Later, he and Sam enter the gateway and find Renn and Company dead next to the body of a giant, killed as it tried to break through. He closes Renn’s eyes and murmurs, “They held the gate.” As they reach the end, Jon orders Sam to raise the gate, for he is going to find Mance Rayder and end the siege. The episode ends with Jon marching into the blinding white of the wall.
All in all, while admirable for its grand scale and continued excellence in acting, not my favorite episode nine, as it lacked the big surprise moments found in Seasons’ one (Ned’s death) and Three (Red Wedding), or even the sense of impending doom and mixed alliances of Blackwater Bay in season 4.
And now there is one. And where will this episode end? What happens with Jon in the North? How big an error is he making and what choice does he have? Will they really kill off Tyrion in Kings Landing? Will the Khaleesi find new love down in Mereen? When the Hell is Stannis going to show up, didn’t he commit to going North like six episodes ago? What’s plan B for Arya and the Hound? They have a lot to wrap up in an hour, hope we find it all out then!