Spoilers through Season 4 of ‘Game of Thrones’ and the corresponding novels follow.
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Not since Season 2′s battle of the Blackwater have we encountered an episode of Game of Thrones so entirely devoted to the art of war. Sunday night’s ‘Watchers on the Wall’ had very little politicking. There weren’t any games to play, just swords to swing and heads to hammer.
In a sense, the honesty of battle is almost a breath of fresh air compared to the ludicrous shenanigans at the court in King’s Landing, and all the ugly, cowardly betrayals we’ve seen from the Eyrie to the Dreadfort.
So much of the power in Westeros belongs to those who send others off to die, or who scheme and lie, that when battle actually does happen it’s almost a surprise. This is why we admired Robb Stark. The King in the North fought battles and he won them, against the much more experienced Tywin Lannister. By comparison, Renly Baratheon called himself king but did little to stake his claim. Stannis fought, but he lost to Tyrion’s genius.
But even Tyrion, when pressed, went out onto the field and held his own in battle—if only just barely. So many of the schemers in Game of Thrones play entirely from the shadows: Littlefinger, Varys, Cersei, the Queen of Thorns—even, to some extent, Tywin himself.
When a man, no matter how vile, is tasked with actually fighting, we see a new side of him (or her.) In Sunday night’s episode, we saw this new side in Alliser Thorne, the commander of the Night’s Watch following the murder of Jeor Mormont, the Old Bear, and father of now-disgraced Jorah Mormont, Dany’s adviser these many seasons.
Thorne is a petty man, filled with jealousy and resentment. He’s not wise, and his pride tarnishes his leadership. Basically, he’s the worst sort of boss to have, the opposite of Mormont in almost every way.
And yet, when pressed on the battlefield, Thorne holds his own and then some. He’s able to inspire the men under his command. He leads the charge. He fights with skill and bravery. All that pettiness is, for a moment, forgotten. Thorne is a ranger of the Night’s Watch, and mighty good with a sword.
Then there are men like Janos Slynt, former commander of the City Watch in King’s Landing. When faced with an actual fight, rather than bickering and sneering at Jon Snow, Slynt flees and hides, only to be discovered later by Sam Tarly.
Some men surprise us, others only disappoint.
Tonight’s episode of the Game of Thrones was the most expensive to date, boasting the most CGI, the largest green-screen in Europe, and even the largest piece of Styrofoam known to man. And the money was well spent.
It’s risky to focus entirely on one event in an episode of a show like this. We’re accustomed to seeing lots of things going on, multiple viewpoints explored. Viewers keep waiting for the jump to Tyrion’s upcoming execution, or the next witty banter between Arya and the Hound. But tonight we bounced primarily between Jon Snow, Ygritte, and Sam.
Sam is reunited with the escaped Gilly, whereupon he promises to never leave her side, and even kisses her…before leaving her to go help fight. Jon and Alliser have a bonding moment atop the Wall. And Ygritte kills what appears to be dozens of Crows, as none of the Night’s Watch appear to care enough to stop her.
Fortunately for Jon’s sake, the boy who escaped a Northern village a few episodes back puts an arrow through Ygritte just before she puts one through Snow. Maybe. We’re not quite certain if she could have actually done it or not, and she dies in his arms, managing to pull off just one more “You know nothing, Jon Snow” before kicking the proverbial bucket.
Alliser Thorne is wounded, dozens of rangers slain, and at least a couple giants brought down. I do wish we’d seen a bit of the fight in the tunnel where six of the Night’s Watch die at the hands of one of the gargantuan creatures, bringing him down in the process.
Grenn and Pyp both die, yet another departure from the books. I’m a little puzzled by this, though it certainly packs something of a punch, and there are still others loyal to Jon left standing.
In many respects, ”Watchers on the Wall” is about these young men, barely more than boys, facing their end. Having to grow up and die all in the same heartbeat. Sam tells Pyp that the only way he could kill a White Walker was to become “nothing.” We see that again as the Crows chant their vows in the face of the charging giant, and in the resignation on Jon’s face when he sees Ygritte.
In the books, of course, Jon is never certain who kills her. He thinks it might have been his own arrow, and there’s an entirely new and more complicated layer of grief for him to face. I think that’s more powerful than simply having a bit-part character do the deed while Jon’s watching. But maybe Jon has enough internal demons to contend with already.
We certainly can see now just how brittle the Wall’s defense has become. Should Mance Rayder send more shock troops over the wall a few miles in either direction, he could take it easily without having to assault the gate at all. As it stands, he has more giants and more mammoths and can send a never-ending stream of bodies at the Night’s Watch. Things do not look good.
So Jon heads out to find Mance and, somehow, put an end to this nonsense. What diplomacy he could wield potent enough to turn back Mance remains to be seen. And if he plans to fight the former ranger, he’ll be killed himself, whether or not he wins.
While “Watchers on the Wall” makes one or two odd deviations from the books, and while it’s a more straightforward episode than we’ve come to expect lately, it was also a nice change of pace, thrusting us into the north once again after not spending much time with Snow since his assault on Craster’s Keep.
This leaves us with just one episode to go, and so very many plot threads to wrap up. Of course, given the show’s myriad departures from the books, anything could happen next week. Where the third book ends and where the fourth season end may be two entirely different places.
I’m hoping we get somewhere with Bran’s story, personally. We shall see come next Sunday. And then? Another nine or ten months of waiting. Hey, it beats waiting six years….
Read my review of last week’s episode, The Mountain and the Viper, here.