HBO’s Game of Thrones mades an unprecedented move in last night’s penultimate episode of the season, “The Watchers on the Wall,” by setting the entire hour in and around Castle Black. With a sprawling cast and multitude of settings, its rare that one group gets a large chunk of a single episode, let alone the full installment. Yet by lingering during a very important time, it allows some great character development and an easier way to get lost in the world. It’s a bloody, moving episode, memorable even in a season that’s already had so many major moments.
At the start, an Alamo-esque situation presents itself. There are barely more than 100 men of the Night’s Watch at Castle Black as the enemy approaches from both sides. It may be true that there’s a giant Wall between the soldiers and Mance Rayder’s (Ciarán Hinds) 100,000 men, but fierce Ygritte (Rose Leslie), brave Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), and the brutal Thenns are on the south side, where the fort is lightly defended. They must be held off while keeping the giants and others who would break into the tunnel at bay.
Game of Thrones has departed more from the books in the past few weeks than in the last few years combined, but most of the differing choices make good sense. For instance, Tormund and his crew attack separately, before the vast army, in the novels. However, a coordination is good battle strategy, and it allows for a very big battle. Tormund and his ilk are the more immediate threat, and so most of the recognizable faces spar with them, rather than the larger army, but there will surely be more combat to come.
Those disappointed that we only get a few establishing shots of the huge fighting force and then a handful of close ups of a couple of giants should take comfort in the fact that this war is far from over. While the Night’s Watch defeats the Thenns, capturing Tormund, stopping a single giant in the tunnel and knocking a bunch of climbers off the Wall is hardly enough to send the army fleeing for good. The Wildlings are disorganized and break when the going gets tough, but their survival is on the line and they remain near by. “The Watchers on the Wall” is merely the first night of the fight, unless budgetary concerns prevent a truly epic showdown.
More important, though, are the personal stories in this episode. Sam (John Bradley) finds what it takes to be a man. He tells Pyp (Josef Altin) that he isn’t himself when killing a Walker, but in “The Watchers on the Wall,” Sam is fully cognizant of what he’s doing. He doesn’t hide away with Gilly (Hannah Murray) and her baby, as does the traitorous Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter), who is supposed to be a seasoned soldier. Sam doesn’t give up when Ygritte shoots Pyp and Pyp dies in Sam’s arms. Instead, he rises to the occasion, proving himself a worthy member of the sacred order.
It will be interesting to see if Sam stays in the Watch, though. He takes his vows seriously, but he also looks for a loophole in order to be with Gilly. Seeking love advice from Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan) reveals Sam’s desires. And while Gilly claims Sam is abandoning her when he joins the fight, surely she will respect him for his bravery and commitment now that he has survived.
Jon has an even better-defined emotional journey. Taking command by default after Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) is wounded and Slynt hides, Jon has to rally the troops. It’s telling how quickly the men around Jon fall in line to his orders, even if no one is sure Jon has the power to back them up. He’s a born leader and can make the hard decisions. Even his choice at the end, to go beyond the wall and deal with Mance one-on-one, is not an abandonment of his position, but rather, the difficult choice that must be made in desperate times.
Amidst all this, Jon does get one last encounter with the woman he loves, Ygritte, as she pulls her bow on him again. This time, she doesn’t shoot, and for a second, it looks like there could be a reconciliation, or at least a peaceful parting of ways, even though Ygritte has killed Jon’s friends. Then, one of those clever Game of Thrones twists reveals itself and the very boy whose life Ygritte spared a few weeks ago kills her, giving her a moving death scene in Jon’s arms, far more powerful than her demise in the books.
This actually sets up Jon well for the continuation of the story. He now doesn’t have any romantic ties, freeing him up to be the leader he must be. At this point (ignoring what I already know from reading the books), it’s not clear whether Jon will command the Night’s Watch or not. But it is certain he has a role to play in the direction of the group, having proven himself in battle, in front of the other men. Jon has a destiny to fulfill, and as much as I and most viewers like Ygritte, she stood in the way of that.
As regrettable as it is to lose a few familiar faces in “The Watchers on the Wall,” including Grenn (Mark Stanley), this is only a precursor for next week’s season finale, which will likely see a higher body count, and with more prominent characters. Part of the draw of the series is seeing who will die next, but couched in a compelling tale with high stakes and well-developed characters, Game of Thrones is much more than that, an excellent series newly defining a genre. “The Watchers on the Wall” may be a ‘very special episode,’ but it furthers the groundwork already established in new and interesting ways, keeping the spirit and tone of the show and hammering it home more than ever. Great job, all involved.
Game of Thrones concludes its fourth season next Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
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