It’s a well known fact that the ninth of any season of “Game of Thrones” is always the most shocking, craziest, bat-shittiest, most traumatizing episode of the season. Many a beloved main character (usually a Stark, in odd-numbered seasons) finds themselves offed in a horrible and bloody way. Season 1: Ned Stark gets liberated from his head. Season 2: Stannis attacks King’s Landing and Tyrion Lannister proves himself in the Battle of Blackwater. Season 3: well, we’re all still recovering from the Red Wedding, aren’t we? So if patterns hold, and this is an even season number, it stands to believe we won’t lose a Stark this go round, right? And while “The Watchers on the Wall” is a jam-packed bloody affair, it brings less of the shock factor than previous ninth episodes have.
Directed by Neil Marshall, who helmed “Blackwater” back in Season 2, “The Watchers on the Wall” is what they call a bottle episode: an episode that takes place all in one setting (in this case, The Wall), without diverging from the action in that place or to any other storylines or characters at all. And for the most part, it works in spades. Marshall, a talented action director, is given essentially an hour-long action sequence to unfold, and with the stakes that he is able to build and pay off throughout the episode, it makes for a profoundly engaging, suspenseful, and entertaining hour of television.
It’s not all broad swords and flaming arrows (though there’s a lot of that), as there’s real, profound character development, bittersweet touching moments, and even a few funny or humorous lines, despite all the death and destruction. If anything, the episode also makes the argument for the possible award nomination of John Bradley, the actor who plays Samwell Tarly, the best friend to Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Tarly’s always been a delight to watch, and one of the characters easiest to root for in a show full of characters one feels conflicted about rooting for, and Bradley has always played the role with sensitivity and aplomb. But this episode, he gets his hero moments a few times over and it’s damn satisfying to say the least. #EmmyForJohnBradley starts now, Team GOT.
We open at the top of The Wall, where Sam is asking Jon to tell him about his escapades with Ygritte (Rose Leslie). See, Sam doesn’t think they’re going to make it out alive, and he wants the deets on sexy time. He’s never had the opportunity with Gilly (Hannah Murray), but Sam has deeply read between the lines of their vows of “celibacy,” and he thinks as long as he doesn’t take a wife or father a kid, they’re in the clear (always thinking, Samwell Tarly). There’s not enough time to talk about missed or lost loves, however, there’s a Wall to be watched. And an owl on said Wall, which is being warged into by one of the Thenn cannibals lying in wait.
Down at the Thenn/Wildling camp, Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) is also telling erotic tales, this time about his exploits with … a bear? There’s no way, and Ygritte ain’t buying that story. Her anger at how the Wildlings were invaded and hunted down serves as pretty much the only motivation for why these disparate tribes might be so bent on destroying Castle Black and the Night’s Watch, though we all know she’s got a vendetta against Jon too. Though she gets called out by the Thenn for letting Snow live, she claims his imminent death as her own (we’ll see about that).
Sam and Maester Aemon Targaryen (Peter Vaughan) run into each other in the library where Sam’s reading up on Wildlings. Maester Aemon has guessed that Sam’s in love with Gilly, which is why he’s obsessed with reading up on the torture practices of the Wildlings. Aemon’s also been in love, in his previous life as a future king. Nothing like imminent death to make lost love sweeter, right guys?
It turns out that Sam’s love isn’t lost at all, though. Gilly is at the gate, having escaped the massacre at Mole’s Town, thanks to Ygritte, and Sam yells at Pyp (Josef Altin) to let her in. He apologizes for sending her there, separating them, and promises her that from now on, “wherever you go, I go too.” It’s a sweet moment, punctuated by the sound of the alarm horn blowing. That’s the signal that Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds) has lit the massive bonfire that heralds the attack on Castle Black. As everyone rushes to their stations atop the Wall, Jon encounters Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) who admits Jon was right about sealing the tunnel. Thorne gives him a chat about leadership that isn’t that inspiring at all (thanks for the pep talk, coach).
Sam spirits Gilly into the a basement pantry, and she’s pissed he’s leaving her, again. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, which is defend the castle. Sam’s speech inspires him to plant a smooch on his lady. Hoorah! Finally! He promises her he won’t die. Then it’s off to stock arrows with a very, very nervous Pyp. Sam, having killed a White Walker, knows that fear is just a mind game, and letting go of fear is only a matter of letting go who you are. And yet, he’s got to remember he’s got a lot to fight for now.
The Wildling army starts the march on the Wall, giants and mammoths leading the charge, with Ygritte, Tormund and the Thenn sneaking up on the side. The Night’s Watch unleashes volleys of flaming arrows, but they can’t hold off both at that perch. Thorne heads down to protect the Southern gate, and puts Slynt (Dominic Carter) in charge. Down in the yard, Thorne gives one heck of a fired up wartime speech to his men, rushing into hand to hand combat with the Thenn and other Wildlings.
On the Wall, Slynt is proving himself useless, and doesn’t even believe that giants are down there fixing to pull down the gates of cold-rolled steel, so Grenn (Mark Stanley) lies and tells him he’s needed downstairs, leaving Jon in charge. Finally, some effective leadership around here. They even lower their archers down at a 90 degree angle to the Wall to knock down the brave few who have started the summit. And yet, there’s a giant loosing arrows the size of missiles at them. This ain’t over by a long shot.
Slynt sneaks through the bloodbath of the yard, which is a flurry of arrows, spears, axes, cleavers and other weaponry smashing through leather and bone. He makes his way down into the kitchen pantry where Gilly and her baby are hiding. This Wildling warfare has proved too much for the King’s Landing boy Slynt.
Pyp finally manages to kill an enemy with the crossbow Sam’s been loading for him, but just when he’s feeling alright, Ygritte drops him with her signature move, an arrow right through the throat. Sam comforts his dying friend, but the kid’s a goner. Sam’s gotta take up the crossbow and make it across the yard, in the face of oncoming Thenn, managing to take one down with an arrow straight to the dome (hero moment number infinity for Sam).
MEANWHILE, at the Wall, a giant is punching a hole in the front gate and trying to pull the thing down by attaching it to a mammoth. Jon sends Grenn and five men down to the inner gate and leaves him with the only instruction to hold the gate. The gate’s on everyone’s mind, because as Tormund and Thorne are battling to the death, and Thorne is beaten down into the ground, all he can shout is to “hold the fucking gate.” Sam finds the little boy Oli, who’s been quaking in the corner, to take him to the top of the Wall to inform Jon of the proceedings, and then instructs Oli to find a weapon and fight them off.
Progress is being made against the broaching of the gate, as the Night’s Watch drops a few of their barrel bombs, spooking off the mammoth, and felling the giant with a massive arrow to the chest. The giant’s other giant buddy now has to work on the gate alone. Jon heads down with Sam, leaving Eddison Tollett (Ben Crompton) in charge. There’s been a lot of turnover at the top of the Wall, to seemingly diminishing returns, but Tollett takes to the role eagerly. Down at the inner gate, Grenn and the others recite their vows as the giant broaches the outer gate and bears down on them, launching into the cold-rolled steel with a full body weight slam. It might be the most spine-tingling moment of the episode full of them.
As Jon Snow finally readies himself to get into the mix, he tells Sam he doesn’t want him getting into it, and hands him a key saying, “I need him more than I need you.” As he somersaults and kicks his way into the action, director Marshall unleashes an impeccably choreographed action tracking shot around the yard of Castle Black, the camera floating while showcasing and connecting each individual battle rumbling their way through the different levels and structures. Serious props to the stunt coordinators, and fight choreographers here (and stunt people, and foley artists, and sound editors, and everyone, etc., etc.)
Oh and that key? You know what that means … Ghost! Yay! Sam sets him free for some dire wolf throat-ripping dirty work. Jon comes face to face with the leader of the Thenn, who is swinging an axe the size of our dear petite JS. His sword is knocked away by the cannibal beast, who even head butts his pretty face directly into an anvil (not cool, bro). Ygritte is looking on, arrow drawn, quite able to take out Jon, but of course she can’t bring herself to do it. But Jon takes care of himself, driving a hammer straight into the dude’s scarified skull (gross).
Ygritte’s got her arrow trained on Jon, but she’s frozen. He even starts to walk over to her with a smile, but her paralysis is her downfall. She’s suddenly driven through with an arrow shot by little Oli, fair retribution for the arrow she put in his dad’s neck. Jon grabs her, and they reminisce about their sex cave. Her last words, of course, are “you know nothing, Jon Snow,” and he cradles her dead body in a moment lit by the fire, blood and chaos raging around them.
On the Wall, the industrious Wildling mountain climbers are making their way up, which means it’s time to drop the scythe, a massive blade frozen into the wall on a chain, leaving bloody severed hands in its wake. This is cause enough for Tollett to deem it enough battling for the night at least, though it’s no cause for cheering, as while they may have held the Castle tonight, they’re still super fucked on the numbers front, tomorrow, after the Wildlings have licked their wounds and regrouped.
In the yard, Tormund Giantsbane is still raging about, stuck with arrows, flailing about like a massive ginger King Kong (God, I love that dude). Jon has him chained up, and Tormund is (loudly) ruing the day he decided not to throw Jon Snow off the Wall. Yeah bro, yeah. Who’da thunk?
Jon and Sam are surveying the wreckage left by the battle, and while it’s impressive they held the massive army off, it’s no victory, knowing that Mance will hit them back again and again with giants and mammoths and other numerous Wildlings. So, Jon’s plan is to go off and find Mance, and presumably kill him, cut off the head of the snake, etc. It’s a terrible plan and they know it, but it’s the only plan they have.
Down at the inner gate, they find the bodies of Grenn and their buds, along with the giant. Mission accomplished: they held the gate. Snow takes off his sword, keeping his promise to Mormont to never lose it again, and heads off into the snowy unknown. Sam leaves him with only the request to “come back.” And geez, don’t we hope he does too!
What are your thoughts on the episode? Did you enjoy the one setting format? At which point did you scream? (I totally screamed when the giant body-slammed the gate). How many deaths did you count? (We got 96.) Whose death are you saddest about? RIP Pyp, Grenn, Ygritte, Alliser Thorne, and maybe not RIP for the main Thenn dude. Leave your thoughts in the comments below!