Game of Thrones Revisited: 4.09 The Watchers On The Wall
Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And this year, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros and the rest of the world, continuing with the biggest battle at this point in the show's history.
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
Like season two's Blackwater, the ninth episode of Game of Thrones season four devotes the entire story to the build up and act of one huge battle. As with Blackwater, Neil Marshall returns to direct this explosive instalment that sees Mance Rayder's Wildling army finally reach the Wall and the attack on Castle Black begin.
It's an episode that has been a long time coming; Jon Snow 'joined' the Wildlings at the end of season two to learn their motives and it has been a whole season since he betrayed lover Ygritte and fled back to his people to prepare for battle. That long wait is worth it though, as this episode offers some of the best work the show has ever done. It doesn't quite have the emotional intensity of the build up to the battle that Blackwater has, but when the fight begins, this delivers the finest action to date. There is a shot late in the episode tracking across the courtyard and walkways of Castle Black, which not only is a testament to the epic fight choreography and direction put into The Watchers In The Wall but a jaw-dropping spectacle for the audience too.
While Jon gets plenty of great action in this episode, it is also Sam's too, as he really shows his grit in the face of overwhelming odds. He makes a promise to protect Gilly after she makes it to Castle Black alive and then becomes a surprise mentor to Josef Altin's Pypar as they prepare for battle and then man the ramparts against the wildling assault on the castle gates. Act like you've got nothing to lose he advises, recalling how he destroyed a White Walker to save Gilly.
While he continuously forces down a sense of overwhelming terror, there is also a real sense of conviction in Sam this episode too, imbued by John Bradley's terrifically endearing performance, and he really emerges as a hero in the battle that ensues. That being said, he also gets two humbling moments, first as he is mocked by Maester Aemon before the battle for not believing he could have been in love (and confirming his Targaryen heritage) and later as Ygritte kills Pypar with an arrow to the neck, leaving him bleeding in Sam's arms.
The focus on the Wall gives other recurring characters moments to shine where they might otherwise have been lost in the flitting between locations. Peter Vaughan is a delightful presence as master Aemon, full of wisdom and wit in his interactions with Sam as his past is explored. Owen Teale's Alliser Thorne makes for a surprisingly effective leader, rallying the Night's Watch atop the Wall and leading the fight against the Wildlings at the gate. His fight with Tormund is exciting too and while he stumbles in battle, this is the first time he comes across as heroic. True to his word too; I loved the moment with Jon where encourages him one moment and then confirms he'll be back to beating him down the next.
Dominic Carter's Janos Slint makes for an even more despicable character than we have seen before. Whether its denying the existence of giants as they literally march atop woolly mammoths against the Wall below them or cowing away in a locked room once he encounters what a battle really looks like. The tragedy of the episode isn't that he survives a horrible death, something that unfortunately befalls some much more likeable characters. The joy of Josef Altin's Pypar at shooting a single wildling dead is cut brutally shot as he is slain by Ygritte, while Mark Stanley's Grenn, another key ally of Jon's leads a noble attack at the giant at the gate only to meet a grizzly end by the time the battle is done.
Ben Crompton's Eddison Tollett is one character that thankfully survives, taking charge atop the Wall as the Wildlings scale it. From the firery assault against the mammoth and the take down of the elder giant, to releasing the chain and a deadly huge scythe cutting through the Wildlings on the Wall, there are plenty of nail biting, dramatic moments to keep the audience on the edge of their seat, even on repeat viewing.
Along with Sam, this is the episode that allows Jon Snow to truly prove his worth. Kit Harington adds a dash of pure heroism as he rallies the men on the Wall and leads the charge in the battle below. Jon has always found himself out of his depth both in the Night's Watch and among the Wildlings but his courage and leadership helps his men survive the night. From the thrilling, brutal hand to hand combat with cannibal wildling Styr of the Thenn to forcing Tormund Giantsbane down after he becomes the last survivor of the wildling assault on Castle Black, the episode is filled with so many great moments for the character.
And it's also the end to Jon's doomed romance with Ygritte; finally coming face to face once more, there was hope of a reconciliation when she failed to put an arrow in him. The sight of her dying in Jon's eyes after young boy Olly hits her with an arrow is as tragic as the deaths of Pypar or Grenn.
The Watchers On The Wall is another momentous episode of Game of Thrones, finally paying off on almost three seasons of storytelling with the biggest battle in the show's history to date. It makes true heroes of Jon and Sam in a dazzling, action-packed affair. It does pale somewhat compared to Blackwater and The Battle of the Bastards, possibly because of the abrupt ending with Jon marching out to meet with Mance Rayder. The emotional pay-off of that encounter and Stannis's arrival in the next episode robs The Watcher's of the Wall of a proper climax.