Game of Thrones S4E9 “The Watchers on the Wall”
I will preface this review by letting you know, I’m a huge fan of Jon Snow so naturally I’ll probably be more invested in the happenings at the wall than the average viewer would be. “The Watchers on the Wall” may lack the intensity of “Blackwater” but the fault in that really lies with the buildup this season rather than the episode itself. Might it seem odd that such a King’s Landing heavy season has its penultimate episode (which has been the most dramatic episode of each season so far) dedicated to a single location battle away from the capital? Maybe, but again, that’s the fault of the season, not the episode. “The Watchers on the Wall” stands on its own as an excellent hour of television with brilliant action set pieces, great visuals and emotional moments and since every episode I’ve reviewed has been graded as an episode, so will this. With all that out of the way, let us actually talk about the thrilling Battle of Castle Black.
Like “Blackwater”, we start “The Watchers on the Wall” with a few calm before the storm scenes. Atop the wall we find Jon and Sam making patrol rounds and Sam is badgering Jon about what it was like to be with a woman. Jon kind of struggles to say anything particularly insightful and then Sam brings up a technicality in their vows. While their vows do specifically state that they can’t father children or take wives, there’s nothing in there saying they can’t lay with a woman. It’s nice to see Sam try to defend anything that may happen with Gilly but Jon says that Thorne won’t like these “open interpretations” if he were to find out. Jon tells Sam that he’ll cover the rest of the shift and he should go down and get some rest.
Sam heads down to Castle Black but instead of getting some sleep, he heads to the library. The blind Maester Aemon approaches Sam and correctly identifies it’s him, saying that Sam is the only one who would waste candles by reading in the middle of the night. He asks what Sam is reading and Sam reveals it’s reading on wildlings and what they do to victims of their raids. Aemon correctly guesses that Sam is getting himself worked up over that because he loves Gilly and wants to know what may have happened to her. Aemon says he knows how he feels and he too was in love in his youth, saying that his former love is more real than Sam is, even after all these years. Aemon tells Sam to get some rest and Sam exits the library.
As Sam enters the courtyard, he sees someone begging to come in but Pyp not allowing entrance, saying he has strict orders from Thorne to let no one in. Sam recognizes that the voice belongs to Gilly and he roars at Pyp to let her in. Sam gets his way and he shares his amazement that Gilly is alive. He apologizes for sending her away and promises that she will go wherever he goes from now on. Their reunion is cut short when the horn is sounded twice, indicating the wildling attack is imminent. Sam rushes to find Gilly a safe place to wait out the battle and brings her to a storage room. Gilly wants Sam to stay but Sam insists he has to keep his oath to defend the wall. The two finally share a kiss and afterward, Gilly makes Sam promise that he won’t die. Sam leaves and joins Pyp and a small group of other men who are preparing to guard the pathetically weak southern wall.
Up top, Jon bears witness to Mance keeping his word, as he sees an enormous fire north of the wall. Jon and Thorne then share a rare honest moment where Thorne admits that Jon was right and they should have barricaded the northern tunnel. Jon defends Thorne and says it was a tough decision and Thorne then tells him about leadership. Being a leader means everyone gets to second guess you, but the second you begin to second guess yourself, then it’s all over. Thorne tells Jon that if they win, they can go back to hating each other but for now, it’s all about defending the wall. Thorne gets his archers ready but is then told that the immediate threat is actually down below as Tormund’s group is attacking Castle Black. Recognizing the need for leadership down below, Thorne decides to lead the defense of Castle Black himself and leaves Janos Slynt in charge of the defense of the wall.
The wildling army on the north side of the wall marches closer and closer to the wall and we see that giants and mammoths are part of the army as well. Slynt, who really isn’t much of a leader, breaks down when he sees the army and struggles to hand out any orders. Grenn knows Jon would be much better suited to lead the defense of the wall so he lies to Slynt and tells him that Thorne needs him down below as he’s the “most experienced man we’ve got”. Slynt is more than happy to leave the fight up top but rather than join the fight down below, he runs away and hides in a storage closet, the same one that Gilly is in. How cowardly.
In the courtyard, Thorne delivers a passionate speech to his fellow brothers and tells them when the sun comes up tomorrow, Castle Black will stand. At that moment, the wildlings breach the gate and enter Castle Black. The fight in the courtyard is an intense one and is highlighted by Thorne’s one on one duel against Tormund. The two fight on the battlements, matching each other swing for swing but Tormund eventually gets the better of him and lands a nasty blow to Thorne’s side. Thorne lives by rolling off the battlement and being taken to safety but the night’s watch is now down their best fighter.
Also happening down below is Sam and Pyp guarding the gate with a crossbow. It was nice to see Pyp get better as the episode went along, considering that he admitted to having zero fighting experience at the start of the battle. Pyp getting a kill would have a great moment if it wasn’t immediately followed by Ygritte putting an arrow through his neck from long distance. A shocked Sam hold Pyp in his dying moments and realizes that he has to move or he’ll be next. Sam takes the crossbow and heads across the courtyard but is spotted by the wildling warg. The warg charges at Sam while Sam frantically tries to load his crossbow and does so just in time, sending a bolt right through the warg’s head. Sam quickly assesses the situation and realizes that they need more men down here. Sam tells Olly (who’s just a kid) to send him up the lift and tells him to grab a weapon and join the fight.
Jon and his group are able to take out a good portion of the wildlings attempting to breach the tunnel, even driving back the mammoths. One giant decides to take things into his own hands and tries to break open the tunnel gate himself. Jon quickly realizes that the giant is going to make it through and when he does, it’s all over. He asks Grenn to go with a group and go down to the tunnel to hold the gate. Grenn complies and takes a group of six down to the gate. Most of the group gets scared when they are confronted by the giant but Grenn reminds them of their duty and starts reciting their vows. In what turned out to be a surprisingly emotional scene, the entire group quickly joins Grenn in reciting the vow and by the end, they’re ready to die if it means protecting the gate from the giant. This proved to be quite the powerful scene.
Sam reaches the top of the wall and tells Jon that they need more men down below. Jon personally leads a group down and gives control of the wall to Dolorous Edd. Edd basks in the roll and kills the wildlings that are climbing the wall by dropping an awesomely large scythe onto the wall and the thing kills each climbing wildling it comes into contact with. Let’s give credit to whoever came up with the scythe idea.
Down at Castle Black, Jon and his group arrive and they get to work quickly, killing wildlings seemingly by the second. Styr spots Jon and confronts Jon, wanting to personally take Jon out himself. It turns out to be a brutal duel. Styr gains the upper hand when he disarms Longclaw from Jon and then throws him head first onto an anvil. Styr is then able to grab Jon and prepares to strangle him, but Jon pulls a trick out of Karl Tanner’s playbook and spits at Styr, causing him to let go and step back. Jon picks up a nearby hammer and strikes it through Styr’s head. Jon turns the corner to get back in the fight but stops dead in his tracks when he sees Ygritte right in front of him, ready to fire an arrow at him. Jon smiles at her but before either one of them can say anything, Olly shoots an arrow right through Ygritte’s heart. Jon holds Ygritte in his arms as she reminisces about the cave with the hot springs and how they should have stayed there. Jon comforts her by saying they’ll go back as she succumbs to her injury and dies. I usually don’t like slow motion, but it was used very well here along with the muted sounds of the battle to show things through Jon’s perspective. Ygritte dying is the only thing that matters to him right now and both the muted sound and slow motion are used excellently to show that.
It seems as though Mance was only testing the night’s watch’s defense and has decided to call back his forces. Up top, the brothers start celebrating but Edd reminds them that they are still greatly outnumbered and a second attack is coming the next night. Down below, Tormund is the only wildling left and is committed to going out fighting, even though Jon urges him to stop. When Tormund ignores Jon’s advice, Jon takes a crossbow and fires a bolt at Tormund’s leg to disable him. Tormund is taken prisoner and Jon coldly agrees with Tormund when he says he should have thrown him off the wall when he had the chance.
Jon and Sam are assessing the casualties suffered the next day and talk about what is to come when Mance and his army strike again. Jon’s got a plan to end things once and for all, but it’s a suicidal one. Jon tells Sam that the only reason the wildlings are unified enough to fight the night’s watch is because Mance brought them together. No one else has been able to do that, so if you remove Mance, the wildlings will go back to hating each other. Sam figures out that Jon means to kill Mance himself and tries to convince Jon against it but Jon says they’ll all die anyway if they decide to just keep testing their luck defending Castle Black against the wildlings. Jon will most likely die trying to kill the King Beyond the Wall, but at this point, the remote chance of succeeding is better than the zero percent chance of succeeding that fighting the wildlings again will provide. Sam opens the northern gate when he realizes Jon won’t be convinced otherwise and Jon gives Sam Longclaw after remembering his promise to Mormont that he wouldn’t lose the sword again. Sam tells Jon to come back and the two share a smile before Jon departs for Mance’s camp.
Tyrion was a no show this episode (duh). His fourth miss in 39 episodes and no bye week has been more dramatic than this one, considering last episode ended with him being sentenced to death. Rest assured, he’ll be in the finale.
If you were wondering why the southern gate was so weak, it’s because the night’s watch doesn’t take part in political issues so they should never need to prepare a defense from an army anywhere in Westeros. Guess they never figured wildlings would climb the wall and attack from this much weaker side.
I think Pyp is right. Was that the first time we’ve heard Sam curse? I’d imagine so
Awesome to see Ghost get involved in the battle. Always down to see more direwolf action, something we really should get more of in the show.
Grenn and his group unfortunately did die in their attempt to hold back the giant. They successfully held him back and went out like heroes so rest in peace to Grenn and the rest of the group.
I don’t know if the physics of flaming arrows would actually work, but no one can deny they make great visuals, especially because this is a night battle.
How cool was that one scene where the giant shot his giant arrow all the way up the wall, through the makeshift deck, through the one night’s watch brother, all the way down the other side of the wall, and land sharply into the ground? The answer is very cool.
Great idea to use pulleys on top of the wall to send some night’s watch archers just over the wall so they could get a proper angle to shoot the wildlings climbing the wall.
Great cinematography throughout the episode but the standout shot had to be the 360 degree tracking shot of Castle Black. It laid out the geography of the battle extremely well and just looked incredible.
“The Watchers on the Wall” dedicates itself entirely to the Battle of Castle Black and delivers a stunning episode filled with brilliant action, visuals, and emotional moments.