Episode 9 - The Watchers on the Wall
6 April 2015
Synopsis: Gilly makes it to Castle Black while Ygritte promises to kill Jon. A large section of forest is set on fire north of the Wall and an attack begins both on Castle Black and the Wall. Alliser Thorne is killed defending the Castle while Janos Slynt hides with Gilly. The attack on the Tunnel is repelled despite many casualties. The attack on the Castle is too but Ygritte dies in Jon's arms. Giantsbane is taken prisoner and Jon heads out of the gate to kill Manse.
The Good: If I was grading on production values this would be as good as it gets. The whole episode looked spectacular and the various attacks on and from the Wall including the mammoths and giants were very special. Inside the Castle things were generally staged well and obviously I applaud the decision to give the whole hour over to one epic battle.
I was surprised just how sad I was when Ygritte died. I think credit has to go to the actors on this one. The story turned out to be exactly what you would have predicted. Ygritte hadn't stopped loving him and couldn't pull the trigger when she saw him. But her performance throughout was strong and I still think her flirtatious introduction in Season Two made a real impact. The dynamic between them was good too, the one sparky and defiant, the other reserved and dedicated. Whatever combination it was their mini-Romeo and Juliet story was pretty effective and once more left you wondering how much better life would be without all these wars. To underline that feeling it's Olly who shoots her. In the story of his life this moment is justified revenge for the murder of his family, regardless of Ygritte's true nature.
I enjoyed the pre-battle buildup. Sam discussing the specifics of their vows with Jon felt like a conversation I heard many times when growing up in church circles. While the gentlest of explorations of Maester Aemon's blindness was enough to make his chat with Sam feel emotive. During the battle there was plenty of opportunity for individual moments too. I liked that Alliser was shown to be a competent and brave man when the time came. I was equally pleased that they got full comedy value out of Slynt's cowardice with the expression he pulled when Sam discovered him. You knew someone had to kill the lead Thenn in a satisfying manner and Pyp and Grenn both died heroically.
The Bad: There were only two moments where I felt the staging let the characters down. Both surrounded the attack on the Tunnel. The Nights Watch seemed to just stare at the Mammoth as it was harnessed to the outer gate. They only dropped pitch on it after it had already begun to weaken the structure. Similarly when the Giant makes its way into the tunnel I was suprised that no one had brought a bow and arrow to shoot at him. The line was there to suggest that it had already withstood a number already. But surely a few more couldn't hurt. It was a climactic moment for Grenn to once again call on the order's oath to imbue his comrades with courage. But it was slightly awkward that they stood right in front of the gate as they did so. If the Giant had smashed the gate off its hinges then surely he would have squashed them all right there?
The Unknown: Those really are minor issues in an otherwise very well structured episode. I was tense throughout most of the attack although not nearly as severely as I was during the Purple Wedding. The difference in feeling reflects certain interesting wrinkles in the story. Jon Snow (along with Dany) seems like the character who is least likely to die. In part because there are so few truly good people left but more because of the mystery surrounding his birth. So despite the two Weddings and Oberyn's example it still seemed likely to me that Castle Black would not fall. In order for it to do so Gilly and Sam would have had to die or been captured. Despite all the shocks the show has delivered I still couldn't countenance the creation of two total innocents only to serve them up to slaughter.
All of that is to say that this succeeded at being a more traditional action movie-like episode. The Nights Watch clearly deserved our cheers (even if the Wildlings are not totally villainous) and they came through. It made for good television and a satisfying episode. But it does lead to a scenario very similar to the one I faced after "Blackwater." This battle, like that one, doesn't seem to have delivered much in the way of consequence. Perhaps that's an unfair way to phrase it. But it still feels like the fate of Westeros hangs on something off screen rather than on it.
If the Wildlings were to attack another part of the Wall they would make it over fairly easily. Even if they attacked Castle Black the next night they might break through. Therefore something has to intervene to protect those innocent or unkillable characters from certain death. Before the episode it seemed like those two things would be either Stannis' army or the White Walkers. Now I suppose we have Jon himself heading out to attempt assasination. It's hard to know how to feel about that. If Manse lets him get anywhere near him he would be a total fool. But does the idea of Jon going through the same treatment that Theon faced seem likely? On this show who can say. Jon remains a tough character to feel much for. He is such a straightforward, almost dull, hero. It's not hard to like him but I don't feel for him the way I do for Tyrion. Again though it feels like the real narrative is off screen. It feels like Jon's fate and the fate of the Nights Watch rests on something not present in this episode. That's a slight drawback for me.
Best Moment: Ygritte wishing that she and Jon could have stayed in the cave. So sad.
Conclusion: A spectacular looking episode that delivered a very satisfying battle with loads of enjoyable moments.
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