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by Danny Bowes
June 9, 2014 5:44 AM
12 Comments
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Review: 'Game of Thrones' Season 4, Episode 9: A Rule-Breaking Penultimate Episode Includes Many Deaths, But Something's Missing

Kit Harington on 'Game of Thrones' Helen Sloan/HBO

“Game of Thrones” has been around for long enough now that certain numbers have taken on special significance to regular viewers. The ninth episode of each season has customarily been given over to events of major impact: Seasons 1 and 3 saw noble, doomed House Stark lose its patriarch, first Ned and then Robb (along with his wife and mother). Season 2's ninth episode, "Blackwater," saw the massive, thwarted siege of King's Landing, and now Season 4 sees a similar, if even more lopsided siege of the Wall by Mance Rayder's Wildling coalition. 

With "Blackwater" director (to say nothing of the rest of his respectable career in genre film) Neil Marshall returning, “The Watchers on the Wall” promised to be EVEN BIGGER than his previous. Which is precisely where the problem with this oddly muted and inconstant episode lies: Its scale as a piece of logistics is a bit out of proportion to its dramatic impact. For better or worse, the storyline at the Wall hasn't been as consistently compelling as the action further south, despite Jon Snow being the closest thing to a traditional hero the show has yet to find a way to kill. 

So, Tyrion Lannister's cunning defense of the city, ultimately obliterated in posterity by Tywin's theatrical last-minute entrance, was considerably more compelling in "Blackwater" than the Night's Watch barely pushing back the first exploratory test of their defenses by the Wildlings -- especially considering the way it ends in Jon Snow's half-heroic, half-despairingly-suicidal journey to parley with Mance Rayder. Intellectually, it's a nifty and nuanced bit of business. But there's still something emotionally hollow about it.

Why exactly that's the case is a bit mysterious, considering that the action that preceded it was a battle lasting about three quarters of an hour with all the bells and whistles money can buy. Marshall creates gorgeous images, blocks actors well in the frame, and cuts with relentless drive and seamless rhythm; in short, everything one could possibly ask of the director charged with a massive battle scene. 

The combination of resources and talent should, one would think, yield awe-inspiring results, especially considering the inclusion of giants and mammoths and giants riding mammoths this go-round. And, it's true, everything involving the giants and/or mammoths was as tremendous as things involving giants and/or mammoths should be. 

But there was still something missing, something ultimately hollow about the proceedings, something that can neatly be summed up as “people.”

And all the things with normal-sized people cutting each other apart with swords was as engrossing as people cutting each other apart with swords should be. But there was still something missing, something ultimately hollow about the proceedings, something that can neatly be summed up as "people." 

It is not always an actual prerequisite to care about the characters in a movie or TV show, despite the maudlin burbling to the contrary one can't help but step on accidentally when reading reviews. So it may seem an odd bit of contortionism to turn around and assert that the problem with “The Watchers on the Wall” is that there are no people save Jon Snow, Sam, Gilly, who arrives at Castle Black with her baby just before the attack, and (depending on one's level of sentimentality) Ygritte to care about in the proceedings.

But, as alluded to just now, the show's script (by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) goes out of its way to frantically throw out scenes to make the audience emphasize with the as-yet underdeveloped men of the Night's Watch, and carve out emotional death moments in the battle for such series stalwarts as That Guy, That Other Guy, The Dude With The Beard, Jon Snow's Asshole Commanding Officer, and their brethren. (Maester Aemon disappears early on and probably survives, if the books are anything to go by). 

The low point, shamefully, was the death of Ygritte, which played out according to some rote (albeit well-directed) action beats: her hesitating for about three hours in the middle of the battle before putting an arrow through Jon Snow, which then led to the random non-canonical kid (who Sam earlier encouraged to pick up a weapon and be brave) putting an arrow through Ygritte's heart. Cut to a slow-motion muted-background-sound death in the middle of a raging, savage battle ten feet away, and one final “Yeh know nooooothin Jon Snew” before dying in Jon Snow's arms. 

It's especially jarring because no one else in Westeros gets a death with the crusts cut off like this, and Ygritte's given what, out of context, would be a perfectly normal industry standard melodramatic TV death... with a hundred people cutting each other up with swords RIGHT THERE, whose pointy ends evade Jon Snow as he dutifully emotes over the death of his one true love. Jon Snow, admittedly, is not a problem in this episode. Jon Snow is awesome. He kills people well and has matured into leadership with flair. It's not his fault that he's one of the only developed characters in his garrison, and after reflecting over a few hundred words, the ending where he heads off to parley with Mance is pretty cool. 

In fact, "The Watchers on the Wall" being an unsatisfying episode makes no sense when its tangible assets are laid out. There were giants riding mammoths, for heaven's sake. How is that not the greatest thing ever? I have no answer to that question. Giants riding mammoths should (literally) outweigh thin character development, in terms of entertainment value if not literary merit. Maybe I'm wrong. Feel free to argue so in the comments.

Grade: B-

"Game of Thrones" S4 E9 HBO
"Game of Thrones" S4 E9 Helen Sloan/HBO
"Game of Thrones" S4 E9 HBO
"Game of Thrones" S4 E9 HBO

 


12 Comments

  • Karen Dawn | June 13, 2014 1:34 AMReply

    I adore Game of Thrones because of the rich characters, the dialogue, the intrigue. I was bored during this episode for the first time all season, and went to look at reviews to see what others thought. I read a few reviews that described it with words such as "masterful." I felt so alone in the world. Then, thankfully, I came across your review. You were kinder to it than I would have been. What a snooze fest.

  • Fifi | June 11, 2014 8:15 AMReply

    Glad Ygritte is gone. She jarred me from the beginning.

  • Georges | June 11, 2014 12:37 AMReply

    The battle scenes were good, but too long. We deserved a little Knights Landing and Lannister perfidy, especially after the last episode. There was little emotional connection with the guards, other than Jon Snow. Ygritte will be missed.

  • Ann Shaw | June 10, 2014 10:18 AMReply

    Completely disagree. While "Blackwater" was and still is one of the finest episodes in every possible way, "The Watchers on the Wall" took things to another level. In "Blackwater" a bunch of nameless guys died. It was the people behind the scenes and what they were going through that brought the emotion, despite the magnificent Wild Fire scene. "Watchers on the Wall" was thrilling. Many people that I personally have come to care about were in great peril. Jon, Ygritte, Sam, Pyp, and the other men dedicated to defending the Wall. And it was up close and personal.

  • robert james | June 10, 2014 5:18 AMReply

    I definitely agree with your review, it was all show and no go on this one, to be fair even the battle scenes, save the giants etc, were pretty standard fare. And i def agree with comments below on Sam's arc and ygrittes death, however what is more at issue here is did we need to spend the entire episode at Castle Black, i don't think it warranted the time spent. if put together there were at least 20 minutes of hemming and hawing from the incompetent night watch guys, it was immediately clear that they were ill prepared and could possibly die, point taken, lets move on and get to thw grit f the episode. Even pouring the bloody oil on the mammoths took ages, furthermore, the giant breaking through the gate was set to be an incredible scene from an action standpoint, and you dont see what happens!!!!! it felt the weakest episode of the season. poor pacing, lazy editing, poor emotional connection and no payoff for some really big scenes….

  • Olga | June 9, 2014 3:08 PMReply

    I agreed with the reviewer regarding Ygritte's death. No other character in the series has had the luxury of last words, amends, regrets or anything of the sort. That melodramatic exchange lessened the episode. It would have been a much more compelling scene if after the arrow pierced her heart, she would have died looking at that smile John couldn't help giving her. It was enough foreboding to go through that very unlikely camp fire scene (all those males having nothing better to do than to speculate about her resolve to kill her ex lover? really?) to know that she wasn't going to go through with it. A most effective scene would have been Ygritte dying with no words, just that desperate wounded love on her face looking at John, both of them understanding at that very moment the intensity of their bond... just to lose it. That loss is fuelling John's suicidal mission to look to Mance.

  • Kent | June 9, 2014 2:27 PMReply

    I think it all depends on who you care about. I guess it's true for many people that there's a bunch of nameless guys with beards on this show and, by extension, that it's hard to care about any of them. But for me, this episode was deeply emotional and highly resonate. I cared a lot about Pyp and Grenn. I'm hugely sad that they're dead now. And, just as a side note, I watched the episode twice last night and both times teared up when Grenn and the other guys inside the Wall recited their vows. Though, to be fair, I tear up every time anybody recites that thing. Sam was astoundingly good in this episode. He became a man. And not just any man, but a highly capable and valuable leader of other men. Ygritte's death was the most heartbreaking death for me since Robb was killed. I don't care if there were melodramtic tropes in use because I was invested in her and am supremely invested in Jon Snow, who very clearly lost something when she died. And I think that's the running theme here for me. Even if I didn't already care about these guys on their own merits, they all matter to Jon and, for me, there's emotional resonance in there.

  • Gage | June 9, 2014 1:28 PMReply

    Unfortunately I have to agree with this review. On a technical level the episode was great. On an emotional level the episode was severely lacking.

  • ralch | June 9, 2014 12:15 PMReply

    I liked this episode, and largely due to Neil Marshall's skills as director, but the problem, I think, lies in the fact that Mance is not felt to be a real threat to Westeros (or even that tall, big Wall) in the long run, giants and mammoths notwithstanding. Like Jon Snow himself established in season 3, a king from the North has invaded the south in previous occasions, and won none of them. In Blackwater, on the contrary, Stannis was a real threat to King's Landing, and Tyrion came off like the underdog hero that could.

  • kait | June 9, 2014 11:40 AMReply

    The episode felt like a run-on sentence. No scene really seemed to have an end which would have helped in stacking the blocks for the emotional impact at the end. It was one 50 min battle scene that kept losing momentum.

  • bohmer | June 9, 2014 10:52 AMReply

    That thing missing is apparently being kept for ep.10 opener and I frankly don't get why they didn't close this ep. with it. I mean this episode was 51 min. and next week if 66 min. Why wouldn't you put that scene in the end of ep. 9 and be done with the wall for season 4?!

  • Rick | June 9, 2014 10:46 AMReply

    I feel the episode may settle better after a second watching. It was definitely awesome, but I think it's impact was subdued by the intense shock from the episode prior, thereby everything becomes melodramatic in comparison rather than epic or riveting. As Sam mentioned earlier on, he felt like nothing, and that's perhaps what this episode was, nothing in the end, the wall still stands and the battle rages on.