4.9 “The Watchers on the Wall”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Neil Marshall
This is one of those rare episodes where the entire thing takes place in a single locale; I think only this one and “Blackwater” did that so far. Here, the battle the Night’s Watch have been either dreading or thinking won’t be a big deal (depending on how stupid they’re written) descends on Castle Black. Interestingly, this choice makes it so the really big shocks at the end of the season actually happen in the finale instead of just before it, which I don’t think has been the case yet. Ned lost his head in 1.9, the Battle of the Blackwater was 2.9, and the Red Wedding was 3.9. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been big moments in the season finales, just that the really big oh my god moments have tended to happen in episode 9. Here, only the Wall gets its oh my god moments while the rest of the kingdoms have to wait.
Tensions are high at both Castle Black and the wildling camp south of the Wall. Jon and Sam discuss Ygritte and Gilly, and Jon is really especially bad at talking about his feelings. Sam assures him (and himself) that while the vows say they’re not supposed to marry and have children, there’s nothing in them about activities that don’t involve marriage and children. Both are despondent about losing their loves; Jon because he got shot and Sam because he still thinks Gilly’s dead.
Jon sends Sam to bed, but of course Sam doesn’t go; instead, he heads to the library and reads until Maester Aemon finds him and gives him a very similar “love is the death of duty” speech he gave Jon way back in “Baelor.” I suppose the writers either a) forgot they already did this; or b) thought we needed a reminder, because a good part of this episode also deals with love and duty conflicting, and love wins every time.
After a reminder that Aemon was a young man in love once, Sam heads down to the courtyard, where Gilly is at the gate, but Pyp won’t let her in. Pyp does his duty; Sam lets love cause him to shirk his duty and open the gates while they’re right on the cusp of battle and it’s entirely possible the rest of the wildlings are waiting for this moment to charge. He also swears that he’ll never abandon Gilly again, putting his vows to the Night’s Watch in direct conflict with his promises to Gilly.
At the southern wildling camp, Ygritte is still fletching; she has enough arrows to outfit the entire war band at this point. Tormund tries to tell them his story about the time he had sex with a bear (it’s done better in the book when he tells it to Jon early in their relationship), and Ygritte yells at him that nobody wants to hear this stupid story again. Styr doesn’t think she’ll be able to fight the Night’s Watch, and she yells at him that she’s killed just as many northern villagers as him and she’ll kill any crow she sees. Styr points out that none of those northern villagers were Jon and if she sees him, she’ll probably just have sex with him again. Ygritte gets right up in his face and yells that if anyone else kills Jon, she’ll kill them, because Jon is hers.
A horn blows at the Wall, and everything is poised on a knife edge. Sam hides Gilly in the larder; she gets mad that he’s leaving her already and I hate this moment because it makes Gilly so needy/whiny and completely unreasonable. Sam’s got to go fight, she’s got a baby and no training, what does she expect him to do? Hide in the larder with her? She makes him promise not to die, which he does, and then he heads out.
Jon and Alliser look at the “biggest fire the north has ever seen”—the entire Haunted Forest on fire. Now that Alliser sees the Wildling army, he admits to Jon that he should have sealed the tunnel on Jon’s advice, but says that leadership means never second-guessing yourself because that gets people killed. Not changing your mind or tactics when you get new information will also get people killed, but whatever. Note that in the books, Alliser isn’t here until late in the battle, and Donal Noye, who’s more-or-less running things, isn’t nearly as incompetent as Alliser.
Ygritte comes back from scouting (which, why, if they have a warg?) and tells the warband that it’s time to go.
From this point, the episode is pretty much solid, wall-to-wall action. Alliser turns out to not be a terrible leader in the heat of battle; Janos continues to be the cowardly idiot he always is. At one point, Alliser leaves Janos in charge of the Wall while he goes to help defend the Castle; Grenn manages to lure him away before he does any more damage than he already has, and Jon ends up in charge of the Wall for a good chunk of the battle. Janos, of course, goes and hides in the larder with Gilly.
The fighting is worst down at Castle Black, where Pyp takes one of Ygritte’s arrows through the neck and dies in Sam’s arms. Alliser fights Tormund and is wounded, but dragged away before Tormund can kill him. Sam shoots a Thenn in the face with Pyp’s crossbow and we will never hear the end of this. Olly’s out in the courtyard for some reason, completely freaking out, and Sam yells at him to find a weapon and fight. Sam gets Jon down from the Wall and they let Ghost out of his cage. Jon kills Styr, then spots Ygritte, who hesitates in shooting Jon and ends up being shot by Olly instead, who has no idea what he’s just done, of course.
Up on top of the Wall, Jon gives a few orders before leaving Edd in charge to go down with Sam. A few Wildlings are actually climbing the Wall, but having done it himself, Jon knows they won’t make it before dawn and are seriously the very least of the Watch’s problems right now. The real problem is the mammoth and pair of giants who are working to pry the gate out of the tunnel, so Jon sends Grenn down with a group of men to deal with that. Before they get down there, the men on top of the Wall manage to set everything on fire and then spear one of the giants with a ballista. The other one—we find out later his name is Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg—freaks out and starts manually separating the gate from the ice, so by the time Grenn and the others make it, he’s already through the first gate and headed for the second. Grenn and the others stand and fight, taking out Mag Mar but also all dying in the process.
The Wildlings north of the Wall retreat after the giants are taken out and Edd orders “the scythe” dropped, which sweeps all the climbers off the Wall. The fight at Castle Black ends with Styr dead and Tormund captured. Sam retrieves Gilly from the larder and almost takes a ham to the face (and spots Janos).
Jon decides that there’s only one way to keep the northern Wildlings from attacking over and over until they get all the way through the Wall, and that’s to go parley with Mance. So he gives Sam his sword and heads out the gates.
If there’s one thing this team does very well, it’s huge action sequences. “Blackwater,” “Watchers on the Wall,” and “Hardhome” are all visually stunning episodes (“The Battle of the Bastards” has too many tactical issues for me to add it to this list). The narrative problems here are pretty much continuances of problems they’ve already set up and aren’t quite to a head yet, so I won’t discuss many of them here. The one major one is removing Donal Noye as acting commander, who then gets killed in the tunnel under the Wall (instead of Grenn), leaving a power vacuum that the upcoming vote for Lord Commander is meant to fill. Having an incumbent—Alliser—still in place after the battle (rather than grabbing power after the battle) skews the politics all to heck, and as I’ve already said, Benioff and Weiss are remarkably bad at writing politics, so leaving out a lot of Martin’s foundation makes Jon’s ascent to Lord Commander an entirely different animal than it is in the books.
Olly’s existence is also just starting to become a problem. In the books, Jon doesn’t know who killed Ygritte, only that it wasn’t him (the fletching on the arrow is wrong). While he does get to hold her while she dies, that happens after the battle, not during when he could still totally wind up stabbed in the back or something. While it might add more drama for Jon to actually witness Ygritte’s death, I think giving Jon concrete knowledge of who killed Ygritte rather than just “she died in battle” makes for some really weird dynamics later, especially when he takes Olly on as his steward. The whole Olly thing gets weird and then bad later, but we’ll get there.
Jon choosing to go talk to Mance also plays into the skewing of the political climate of the Night’s Watch, as in the books Jon is sent out by Janos (who’s assumed command of the Watch) in hopes that Mance kills him—not to parley, but to kill Mance. But in the books, Jon hadn’t stood trial for his time with the Wildlings; he explained to Donal Noye what happened and Donal accepted his story. Janos didn’t find out about any of it until after the battle, so his decision to send Jon was a heat-of-the-moment one, a prove-your-loyalty order, not a carefully calculated attempt to get him killed like the trip back to Craster’s Keep was in the show. In the books, Jon doesn’t take leadership upon himself or even challenge the leadership of the Watch very strenuously.
Some of the issue here comes from pacing; they accelerated Jon’s time with the Wildlings in season three, then stretched the lead-up to the fight in season four, then threw the whole days-long, two-front battle into a single fight in this episode. So rather than running away from the Wildlings in one chapter, arriving at the Wall and warning them in the next, finding out about Mole’s Town and fighting the southern front in the next, and then fighting the northern front for the next two—bam, bam, bam—we get a whole lot of sitting around and arguing about who’s in charge of what and which brothers are With Jon and which are Against. There isn’t time for all this petty jockeying for power before the battle in the books; all of that happens after Stannis rescues them, when the stakes are momentarily lower.
Like most changes to the plot and pacing for the show, these pile up until it’s an avalanche of changes that force the plot and characterization into a track that no longer entirely makes sense.
Mag Mar Tun Doh Weg
Next week: Stannis to the rescue. Dany makes a choice. Bran finds the Children. Clegane vs. Tarth.
All images from screencapped.net