Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 9 recap & review
The Watchers on the Wall
As this contains a recap, there are SPOILERS below.
Typically, the ninth episode has been the penultimate entry for the first three seasons of “Game of Thrones.” However, every episode so far this season has ended with an epic/ game-changing sequence making each episode important in its own regard. With this season’s ninth episode, “The Watchers on the Wall,” HBO’s most-watched program ever took a calculated risk (even if it didn’t seem like they did) and it paid off in spectacular, grand fashion. Most of the series’ more casual viewers tend to get caught up in the proverbial “game” of thrones happening around King’s Landing and the more political characters like the Lannisters, Varys, Littlefinger, etc. Just like the political characters, many viewers lose sight on what is really more important than the Iron Throne—defending the wall from white walkers and wildlings alike. One never hears of many viewers who are fans of the Night’s Watch story arc. Jon and Sam aren’t caught up in the power grab, so why should you? 100,000 wildlings (Thenn, Giants, mammoths, etc.) are coming, so what it does it matter who sits on a throne? Needless to mention but most primary characters have the week off in favor of Jon. Anybody who read the opening titles saw that.
“The Watchers on the Wall” takes its setting entirely at the Wall and Castle Black. There hasn’t been an episode of GoT with one setting since season two’s “Blackwater,” which was also a ninth episode. “Blackwater” had a few more things going for it than “The Watchers on the Wall” had going for it coming into Sunday night. For example, “Blackwater” featured Tyrion, Sansa, Davos, Stannis, Cersei, and Varys where “The Watchers on the Wall” pretty much relies on Jon and Sam to take us all the way to the end. Jon and Sam have fans, but not the fan base that Tyrion could flaunt. The whole point of the second season was to build up to the Battle of Blackwater Bay right from the introduction of Stannis in the first episode of the second season. The fourth season hasn’t really devoted itself to one arc above the rest, instead taking the path of its seasonal theme “Valar Morghulis—All Men Must Die” and featuring extended, penultimate sequences at the end of each episode. “The Watchers on the Wall” has been building up ever since Jon killed Quorin Halfhand and infiltrated Mance Rayder’s army in Season Two. In fact, this episode felt like one big, sweeping sequence that never let up.
Director Neil Marshall (The Descent) opens his Westerosi Magnum Opus with a quiet, simple scene between our two favorite brothers in black at the Wall. It’s windy atop the 700 foot high, 300 mile long, 8,000 year-old ice formation (maintained by a mere 100 crows) and Sam asks Jon to tell him more about Ygritte as he wants to know more about love and sex if he is to die sooner rather than later. Jon admits that he isn’t much of a poet, but all he got from loving Ygritte was an arrow next to the heart. The scene closes when Sam points out that the wildlings took everything he loves when they killed Gilly in Mole’s Town. Unbeknownst to him, but knownst to us, Gilly and her baby are still kickin’. Jon dismisses Sam to rest for the night as he will continue the watch alone.
Marshall then takes us to the campsite for the wildling raiding party: Ygritte, Tormund, and a whole host of Thenn. Tormund tries to rally his troops by telling the story of the woman he bedded who turned out to be a bear. Ygritte doesn’t want to hear such folly before a fight and lets it known. The enormous (seemingly Styr, Magnar of) Thenn approaches Ygritte and tells her that Jon Snow is probably still alive and that he will be the one to claim his life. Ygritte immediately shoots this down with some tough talk of her own and claims Jon’s life as hers if he is, in fact, at Castle Black.
The camera takes us back to the library at Castle Black. Sam didn’t go to sleep, instead finding solace in the yellowed pages of the old texts of the Night’s Watch. Maester Aemon enters and inquires about what he’s reading. Sam says he’s reading wildling history. Aemon instead wishes to talk about Gilly and past loves of his own. He instructs Sam to go to bed as Jon had, but on his way to his chambers, Sam hears a baby crying. Sam runs to the gate to find Gilly and baby Sam alive and seeking shelter. After cursing for the first time at Pyp, Sam has him open the gate and Gilly enters. He promises that he’ll go wherever she goes and leaves to answer the horn.
An owl squawks atop the Wall and the camera cuts to a Thenn warg coming out of a trance. “It it time,” he notes, and the camera jumps back atop the Wall where Jon sees the forest burn like Mance mentioned early in Season Three. The torches and ammo get set and Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) gets a redemptive moment apologizing to Jon through explaining the hardships of leadership. After this, Sam takes Gilly down to a pantry deep inside Castle Black where he promises to check in on her when possible. He takes his leave to uphold his oath, but not before he kisses her. He promises her he won’t die, but Oberyn Martell told Ellaria Sand the same thing last week. As Sam leaves the bowels of the castle and enters the frenzy of crows preparing to fight, he grabs Pyp and explains what it was like to kill a white walker—how he had to become nothing. John Bradley’s performance as the resolved, brave Samwell Tarly stood out in an episode featuring classic leading man charm and strength from Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow as well.
Then we follow Ygritte spying on Castle Black. She lets her troops know they can handle ‘em. On the other side of the Wall, the rest of Mance’s army comes into view—primarily giants and mammoths, or giants on woolly mammoths. Following this display of power, Thorne gives the order to start shooting arrows. Janos Slynt appears and freaks out atop the Wall to tell Alliser about the troop below attacking. Thorne joins the fighting below, giving the men an Aragorn-esque war cry to keep fighting and defend the Wall. “When the sun rises, I promise you, Castle Black will stand! The Night’s Watch will stand!” I truly enjoyed this week’s display of the difference between Thorne and Slynt—Jon’s two antagonists. Thorne owned up to his wrongdoings and bravely fought, where Slynt took a coward’s path. The wildlings breach Castle Black and Tormund Giantsbane makes his way to the bridge where Sam had just bailed. Slynt continues panicking atop the Wall, completely unable to give a legitimate command, going so far as to deny the existence of giants as they visibly try to break through the gate below them. Finally, Slynt’s job takes him elsewhere to get rid of him in favor of Jon to start giving orders and believing in giants. Slynt instead, options to hide out with Gilly in the pantry.
Sam and Pyp find a good place for Pyp to pick off the invaders while Sam loads the crossbows for him. After Pyp finally hits a bad guy, Ygritte hits him. Sam comforts Pyp as he dies. Back on top of the Wall, Jon’s orders prove to be the right move no matter which order you choose. He sees the giants begin to break the gate open, so he orders Grenn to hold the gate because it’s the last thing keeping them from invading. Down below, Thorne continues owning bad guys until Tormund shows up to thrown down. After their swords clash a few times, Thorne is hit, Giantsbane escapes, but Thorne continues to rally his men as he’s carried away.
Sam lays Pyp down as the danger draws even closer. On his way to join the fighting on the ground, he manages to kill a Thenn invader. He runs into Grenn on his way to defend the gate. Grenn’s party sends Sam up to request more men from Jon. Before this, however, a kind moment is shared between Sam and the young orphan charged with raising and lowering the elevator. Oil barrels are dropped on the giant/ mammoth envoy below, thwarting their plans by killing a giant. This enrages the other giant so greatly, that he begins ripping the gate apart with his bare hands. The barrel with his name on it explodes atop the Wall, killing several crows. Sam enters and tells Jon about the wildling breach. Lord Snow hands command of the Wall over to Edd. Edd simply commands his men to light ‘em up with flaming arrows. We then catch up to Grenn’s party waiting for whatever comes their way. Probably giants. This sequence was one of the most chilling and epic collection of shots ever put together for “Game of Thrones” as Grenn and his men stood bravely facing certain death in the form of a fantastical, mythical giant. As they began to recite their vows for dying words, who didn’t get covered in goose bumps?
Jon and Sam enter the fighting. Sam pleads to fight, but Jon won’t have it, instead choosing to give Sam the key to unleash Ghost on the wildlings. The POV shot for Ghost looked spectacular as the extended take began with an optimistic Sam and ended with Ghost chomping down bad guys, but wasn’t as legendary as Marshall’s 360 degree pan of the fighting right before it. Jon mows down wildlings left and right before engaging the probable Magnar of Thenn in a grisly combat that ended with a hammer in Styr’s noggin. As Styr falls, Jon looks up to see Ygritte drawn on him. He doesn’t notice and smiles at her. She hesitates and before she can finish a smile, an arrow pierces her heart. The little boy at the elevator recognized her as one of the wildlings earlier in the season that massacred his family and fired at her, thinking he saved Jon Snow. We’re gonna miss Ygritte, but one certainly can’t blame the little boy for defending a brother from a wildling. Ygritte’s death was predictable, but not as predictable as her dying words to Jon in his arms.
As the wildlings climb closer, Edd orders a gigantic scythe to be swung and annihilate the climbers. After it swings, the proud men atop the Wall revel in their accomplishment of defending the top and winning the night to see the morning. The camera takes us below where we see the night is won at Castle Black as well. Tormund stands cornered, full of piss and vinegar—ready to fight to his last breath. Jon shoots his leg, putting him down. They haul Giantsbane away in chains as he declares his intention to throw Jon off the Wall. Sam and Gilly share a nice moment in the pantry that’s awkwardly interrupted by the cowering Slynt. A funny moment after a heavy night.
Dawn breaks as Jon and Sam survey the carnage and wreckage. Sam remarks about their remarkable victory, but Jon knows Mance Rayder better than his friend. They enter the tunnel to find all six of Grenn’s men and the giant slain. Jon intends to kill the King Beyond the Wall and send the warring tribes off to war again, but Sam notes that Jon would never get that close to Rayder. Jon agrees. His final instructions to Sam are to raise the gate and immediately lower after he crosses. Jon hands Longclaw over to Sam in case he doesn’t make it. Sam instructs Jon to return alive.
“The Watchers on the Wall” stands as one of the best “Game of Thrones” episodes of all time, standing out as a true penultimate of penultimates among this season’s episodes. Neil Marshall brought a cinematic perspective to a television series. How many 360 degree shots normally appear in a one-hour drama? Even the shot with the giant’s arrow sticking the guy all the way back to the courtyard shocked audiences. Ygritte literally died in Jon’s arms, a finality to the classic narrative tradition of love and death. None of the Starks died in surprising circumstances, instead the only Stark (Jon) to appear survived and thrived till the break of light. Next week’s episode, “The Children” has the producers promising the best season finale by far from GoT. Until then, George R. R. Martin joined Twitter, so follow him.