The Battle of Castle Black is bigger, better, and more exciting than Season 1’s Battle of the Blackwater, which Neil Marshall also directed. If I had to rate “The Watcher’s on the Wall,” I would fly in the face of some critics and give it a ten. The emotional heart of the episode parallels that of many real wars: love.
~~Warning: This post contains the odd violent animated giff.~~
When you read about the wars of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, it’s surprising how many men went to war for love: to better their families, feed their families, and protect their families. In some cases, men fought in wars to safeguard their families’ inheritance. The two themes of “The Watchers on the Wall” — love and war — aren’t as odd of a pairing as they might initially seem.
Tonight’s episode was masterful, primal, and vital. For Jon and his friends, the relatively green newly graduated recruits of the Night’s Watch either became men, or they die.
This is the HBO preview:
The Prelude: Talk of Love
The episode opens with talk of love. Sam and Jon are on duty on top of the Wall. Convinced they are on the verge of death, Sam wants to know what it is like to be with a woman.
After Sam pleas he may be killed in hours, Jon reluctantly tries to put making love into words. Exasperated, Jon claims he’s not a poet. Still, Jon speaks of a near joining of souls – “for a little while, you’re more than just you” — and not the physical sensations. Jon cuts himself off, however, after remembering how it ended with Ygritte: “What did I get for it? An arrow six inches from my heart.”
Sam is still grieving over what he believes to be Gilly’s inevitable death in the Mole’s Town raid. Sam leaves Jon to pour over books by candlelight in the library.
In a scene that is certainly a nod at any historian, we learn that in Westeros — just like our world — chroniclers’ accounts are not always reliable. Fretting about Gilly’s likely death in the Mole’s’Town raid, Sam is reading a chronicler’s report of a Wildling raid. Maester Aemon comes upon Sam. The maester chastises Sam for wasting candlelight and abandoning his watch to read about the terrible things that might have happened to the woman he loves. Maester Aemon also points out that the chronicler had never been near a Wildling in his life and the stories are likely exaggerated.
Maester Aemon tells Sam that, although he is old, he knows what it is like to be in love. Quite evocatively, the centenarian tells us he can still remember his first love all those years ago: “I can see her right in front of me. She is more real than you are.”
After Sam leaves the library, he discovers Gilly who survived at the gates. But just then the war horns start going off.
Meanwhile Ygritte, the Thenns, and Tormund sit around a crackling fire, sharpening arrows, waiting for the war to begin, and telling tales. Specifically, they are waiting for the Thenn’s warg to come out of his trance and tell them Mance has signaled it is time for them to attack.
Like the men on the Wall, Tormund speaks of love, but love of a more earthly nature. He spins a yarn about the time he had sex with a bear, his “Sheila.” Clearly on edge, Ygritte wrecks his story, “I know you never f——d a bear” — and proceeds to get into a standoff with Styr, the Magnar of the Thenn.
But, first, we learn the backstory of the conflict between the Wildlings, or Free Folk as they call themselves, and the men on the other side of the Wall. In this respect, Ygritte is the spiritual voice of her people: “When they came up here to our land and put up a big wall and said it was theirs. Then they started hunting us down. This time we’re going to do the hunting.” Ygritte is going to war because of love: love for her people and love for Jon Snow.
Styr challenges Ygritte, saying she will lose her will when she sees Jon Snow. He knows that Ygritte, the crack shot, missed Jon deliberately. Styr snarls that when Ygritte sees Jon, she will serve him up a nice bit of “ginger minge” (a term I naively had to google — see here if curious). Styr has questioned her resolve, made her look weak, and she won’t let it go answered.
Despite being a foot and a half shorter than Styr, Ygritte cranes her neck to look up at him, stares him unflinchingly in the eye, and warns him that if he or anyone else kills Jon Snow before she has a chance to she will have an arrow for them – and “not one of your bald friends is fast enough to stop me” she warns Styr.
The Thenn warg emerges from his trance: a war horn sounds and it is time for the battle to begin.
The Battle Begins
From on top of the Wall, Jon’s worst fears are realized: Mance’s army is so large that he set a forest on fire to signal the scattered tribes it was time to begin their assault. Why does Mance need such a large fire?
An army that is the size of a city can’t fit into one localized spot and Mance needs flames so the various tribes can see it is time to attack.
On top of the Wall, commander Ser AlliserThorne rallies the men, in his typically contemptuous way. Frantically the war preparations kick into high gear: the men begin arming their anti-siege weapons and the archers assemble at their stations.
After staring bleakly at the massive signal fire, Ser Alliser finally believes Jon – “a 100,000 you say?” — but it is too late. Ser Alliser acknowledges that they should have sealed the North gate tunnel with ice like Jon suggested. (The North gate is crucial to their defense since it is on the side where the bulk of Mance’s 100,000 person army is located. If the gate goes, Mance’s army will flood the entire castle and seize the stronghold.) Still despite the odds, Ser Alliser refuses to give up.
Meanwhile, down below at the castle, the once cowardly Sam is hiding his love Gilly in the larder. Thrilled to be reunited with Gilly, whom he now realizes he loves, he isn’t chancing losing her again. Still, when Gilly tries to persuade him to stay with her, he refuses and reminds her he is a man of the Night’s Watch, he swore an oath, and he must fight with the other men “because that’s what men do.” Subtly, perhaps unbeknownst to even him, Sam is no longer the “craven” (cowardly) little boy.
In case we needed more proof, we get it. Shy Sam kisses Gilly! He really has become courageous. And, if there was any doubt, Sam goes back up to the top of the Wall and encounters fellow recruit Pyp, who is terrified. Suddenly, Sam is the brave one. Sam has killed white walkers whereas poor Pyp has never even wielded a sharpened sword before.
As the siege starts and masses of Wildlings descend on the Wall, it is truly overwhelming. Hoards of people, torches as far as the eye can see, and not just war elephants, but giants riding war mammoths.
The flaming arrows start to fly. There’s some very humorous fumbling around as the untried men who were recruits just yesterday try to defend their stronghold. Plus, the Night’s Watch soon have a war on two fronts: on the North and South sides of the Wall. Not good.
The “undisciplined” hoards of Free Folk quickly break through Castle Black’s defenses and penetrate the outer walls into the courtyard/training area. Even though the Night’s Watch have the high ground, the scant men on the Wall have mediocre archery skills and fumble with cross-bows.
Throughout all of this fighting, Ser Alliser Thorne yells “Nock, Draw, Loose” at the archers. Nock is a verb and it means to put the arrow in the bow string.
It quickly becomes clear that all the men possible are needed below. Even though he is an abrasive asshole, Ser Alliser truly lives up to what he tried to inspire in the recruits and his courage never once falters.
Ser Alliser leaves Janos Slynt in charge and hastens downstairs where his fighting skills are the most vitally needed. Ultimately, Tormund slices open Ser Alliser’s belly, but Ser Allliser never gives up. Even when wounded, he bellows at his men, “Holding the f—-ing gates.”
On the other hand, the former City Watch commander Slynt is paralyzed with fear and cannot lead the men. Grenn gives Slynt the opportunity to gracefully take his leave. The cowering Slynt hides in the larder, where he encounters a surprised Gilly.
After Slynt scuttles away, Jon takes command over the archers and men atop the Wall because frankly, after Ser Alliser, he’s the only one who can do it.
Ygritte is a superb warrior and phenomenal shot. Crouched in a top corner of the stairs in the courtyard, she picks off of the Night’s Watch with ease. Ygritte shoots Pyp through the neck with an arrow and he dies a bloody gurgling death across Sam’s lap.
The Giant and the Gate
The “undisciplined free Folk” have more than just numbers – they also have giants who appear to be about thirty feet tall (~10 m). One giant shoots a massive arrow — as long as a telephone pole — and it might as well be a missile. The arrow impales a man in the belly and sends him flying the a wooden roof into the night sky.
Jon has to make his first hard decision of war – he sends one of his friends Grenn, and five others, off to hold the gate – and possibly to die. Jon commands they hold the gate no matter what.
As the giants and other Free Folk try to breach the crucial North gate, the men on the Wall release first barrels of burning oil on them and then impale the elder giant. Big mistake.
In a grieving fury, the surviving (younger son?) giant lifts the massive iron Northern outer gate with his bare hands.
As the massive giant comes barreling down the tunnel towards them, Grenn and the others face certain death. Their courage does not falter. They draw their swords and hold fast. They do their duty. This is by far the most moving moment of the show.
Jon Joins the Battle in the Courtyard
After Pyp dies, Sam encounter warriors coming out of the elevator who tell him to ascend to the top of the Wall and ask Jon for men. at the top of the Wall again to warn Jon the castle is about to fall – they urgently need more men.
Jon and a few of the men from the top of the Wall arrive at the bottom, in the courtyard, where they encounter Sam. Jon forbids Sam to fight in the fray. But Jon asks him to release Ghost – he needs the dire wolf’s sharp fangs.
While Ghost makes the Wildlings into ghosts, Jon goes head to head with Styr, Magnar of the Thenn. Styr towers over Jon and his reach is nearly half Jon’s height. Styr’s enormous war axe sweeps in a huge and heavy loop. As skilled a swordsman as Jon is, Styr is just cleaning the floor with him. The magnar even smashes Jon’s head against an anvil and Jon’s death looks imminent. But then Jon fumbles behind for a weapon, finds a ballpeen hammer and smashes it deep into Styr’s skull – killing him instantly.
Duty is the Death of Love
For Ygritte and Jon, who fell in love in Season 2 when Jon masqueraded as a Wildling, duty killed their love. After Jon kills Styr, Ygritte has Jon in her sights. She wavers for a second. And, in that second the little boy Olly shoots her with an arrow. The shot is true and pierces Ygritte’s heart.
Instantly, and far too late, they both realize they love each other. Jon runs to her and, ultimately, Ygritte dies in his arms.
If Ygritte had only remembered her duty and taken the shot on Jon, she might have lived.
Knock the Wildlings Off the Wall: The Scythe
When Jon departs from the top of the Wall, he leaves Edd in charge. Jon commands Edd to stop the Wildlings from climbing the wall and stop the giants. Edd and his men figure they might as well go for broke. They shoot the flaming arrows.
Then they release a wonderful anchor-like thing they call a scythe. When the men release the scythe, it swings on its chain in an arc, sheering ice and climbers off the Wall. Highly effective.
The men are exuberant that it worked and then the Wildling torches go out, which means the Wildlings are packing it in for the night. Yet, the Wildlings still outnumber the Night’s Watch a thousand to one. Meanwhile Sam goes to find Gilly. And, discovers the terrified former City Watch commander in the cold storage with her.
The Denouement in the Courtyard and Elsewhere
The next day Jon and the other survivors are in the courtyard. The battle is not over yet. The Wildlings will be back that night with more giants, more men. With a thousand Wildlings for every surviving man of the Night’s Watch, the Wildlings can easily starve them out.
Jon leaves the castle to try to treat with Mance – or kill him. Mance is the only thing holding the Wildling armies together. The risk of Jon being flayed to death is extremely high. However, he figures they will die anyway if he doesn’t try so he leaves Sam to burn the dead.
As Jon leaves through the North gate, he finds Grenn and his five men lying dead. Grenn and his men didn’t falter. They held the gate and slayed the giant. Regret passes over Jon’s face; he has to live the fact his order caused their deaths.
Ultimately, duty does triumph over love.
This is the best Game of Thrones episode I’ve ever seen. I realize many people may disagree. There’s certainly been sniping on the Internet about deviations from the books, and even some of my close friends didn’t like this episode. So, I’m well aware that I may have the minority opinion, but this episode – with its underlying theme of the human cost of war – is what Game of Thrones is all about: love, tests of courage, the struggles of leadership, oaths, war, and duty coming together in one thrilling episode. “Blackwater” is also a brilliant episode, but the “Watchers on the Wall” episode packs an emotional wallop like nothing that’s come before. Bravo HBO!
My only grievance is: “Where is Ciarán Hinds?” (aka Mance Rayder). You can’t tease us by casting an actor of that caliber – he was Julius Caesar in Rome for Pete’s sake – and not give us more of him. Seriously HBO, let’s get him out on the screen.
By the way, Nerdalicious has a different take, so check out:
The Real Game of Thrones: The Watchers on the Wall
The Real Game of Thrones: How Tormund Giantsbane Made Love to a Bear
Game of Thrones Season 4: Inside the Episode #9 Plus Extras
By Jamie Adair