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What did “The Watchers on the Wall”, the ninth and penultimate installment of this fourth season of Game of Thrones, give its viewers?
Some obvious things: the first one-setting episode since “Blackwater” in Season 2; a (very) temporary reuniting of Jon Snow and his Wildling lover Ygritte; a massive arrow launched from one side of The Great Wall to the other by a giant, picking up a passenger along the way via chest cavity.
But digging a little deeper, this hour didn’t just display the power of a mammoth or a Wildling army; it expressed the power of the show itself. With its landscape-obliterating tracking shots, stunning special effects (the aforementioned giants and mammoths, particularly), and ability to dart from heart-felt to gut-revealing, “The Watchers on the Wall” shows that Game of Thrones’ producers can wield their vision (and camera) like a pre-handputation Jaime Lannister could a sword. In that regard, the show is unmatched.
Yet, there is a chink in the armor of this power-displaying episode. While it is a fantastic hour of television, it isn’t a particularly satisfying episode of Game of Thrones—at least for those eager to see the show’s plot move forward. In that sense, it accomplishes almost nothing. By the time the battle is over, nothing has changed, save for the body count, and Jon’s resolution to seek out Mance Rayder is as viable as it would have been before losing so many of his friends and the woman he loved.
With each season of this fantastic series, we’ve seen the number of “major developments” dwindle. This season, I’d posit that the only two have been Joffrey’s murder and the subsequent trial (one could also make the argument that Lysa Arryn and Littlefinger’s involvement in the murderous prologue to the series as “major”—I would, too—but I’m filing that under a “reveal” rather than a “change”). Outside of that, really, not much has changed, especially for a show that prides itself on the prospective danger any and all characters find themselves in. Of course, this may not be a fault wholly attributable to the show’s creators, but to the source material: from what I understand, as the books have gone on, more and more plots are losing page-time to descriptions of clothing and foodstuffs; trying to maintain my objectivity to the show, I’m not a book-reader, so I’ll have to take message board posters’ ALL CAPS words for it.
Still, as a contained hour of television book-ended by credits, it was more than pleasurable.
Despite being the most battle-centric episode in two seasons, the central theme of this episode is love between man and woman. Particularly, Jon Snow and Ygritte, and Sam and Gilly (you could throw in Tormund and his soft-below bear in there, too, depending on whom you believe more, him or Ygritte).
In the opening scene, Jon and Sam stand watch atop the wall, before the portly one begins a line of questioning not unlike one delivered to Ron Burgundy by his news team. Sadly, Jon isn’t so familiar with Starland Vocal Band and can’t quite find the words to placate Sam (“I don’t know, I’m not a bleedin’ poet.” “No, you’re really not.”), but the message is understood, mostly because Sam is perhaps the only other young crow to know how Jon feels.
Perhaps fueled by the visibility of Jon’s lovelorn longing, but most likely fueled by his thinking his love was lost forever, Sam refuses to blow his second chance with Gilly, despite her terrible timing. Minutes before the onslaught on the wall begins, she arrives, baby in tow, to the front gate, and for the first time on screen Sam is assertive and displaying testicular fortitude: “Pyp! Open the fucking gate!”; “Anyone who tries to throw you out will be having words with me”; “I made a promise to defend the wall, and I have to keep it. Because that’s what men do” (kiss).
In discussion with Sam in the wall’s library, even Maester Aemon gets in on the mushy-gushy talk, telling of his own lost love, and that to him, she’s more real than the fat boy sitting feet away from him. But he’s quick to remind Sam and the show’s viewers what they came for: “We could spend all night trading tales of lost loves. Nothing makes the past as sweet a place to visit than the prospect of imminent death.” Oh yeah, that.
That prospect of imminent death reveals to us sides to a few characters we’ve yet seen on Game of Thrones. Ser Alliser is both thoughtful and almost magnanimous when telling Jon Snow that the squire was right about sealing the wall’s tunnel, and offered a mini-monologue on what it means to lead—a particularly meaningful lesson considering positions of command were being handed down all episode like Mormon overalls. Couple this hard-and-fast lesson with his immediate return to scorn for the young bastard and some pretty badass swashbuckling and speech-delivering, and for the first time I don’t hate Ser Alliser. He takes a sword to the gut from Tormund, but one has to assume that because we don’t witness his actual passing, Alliser is in recovery.
Others step up when called upon in the face of doom: Kevin Love’s little brother Grenn seems right at home in the leadership role, taking five men down to the tunnel to defend the inner gate, shouting obscenities of encouragement. Jon stresses the importance of holding the gate, and the six men give their life to do so at the hands (and falling carcass) of a giant. Pypar grows a pair at the encouragement of Sam of all people, but makes the mistake of smiling on the battlefield—ask Oberyn Martell how that works out.
- I don’t mean to break thousands of years of protocol or anything, but here’s a new rule for the men of the Night’s Watch: if you’re going into battle soon, and there’s an owl straight chillin’ on top of the wall and looking around, put an arrow through it. Worst-case scenario, you’ve got yourself a meal. Best-case scenario, you’ve limited your attackers’ sight-by-warg.
- Sad as it was seeing Ygritte and Jon’s reunion cut short, it did feel good to see Olly gain some measure of satisfaction in killing the woman that killed his father. Kid’s life has been a shit hole: one day he’s getting ready for (apparently) the best rabbit stew in all the land, and the next thing he knows his parents are getting cooked in front of him and he has to live with a pack of rapers that don’t even know how to fight.
- It’s good to know that Tormund is still alive, not sure what I’d do without the guarantee of his eyes striking fear into my heart in every episode. Loaded up with arrows or not, however, I wouldn’t take my chances with only two men hauling him off.
- The various instruments of wall defense were delightful, including falling barrels of exploding oil and a giant-size crossbow mounted atop the wall. But none are as cool as the fishhook on steroids scraping bloody life off the wall in icy swoops.
- Jon Snow continues to add to his list of boss-level villain kills, this time claiming Styr, Magnar of Thenn, via a hammer to the cranium.
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