This post contains SPOILERS for all aired episodes of Game of Thrones, including last night’s Season 4, episode 9, “The Watchers on the Wall.” Enjoy!
One of the drawbacks of being a lifelong fan of epic fantasy is that it often involves epic battle scenes, and after a few minutes of marvelling at the CGI and the VFX, epic battles tend to bore me. In order to swallow the bitter pill of stuntmen hacking at each other with swords, and CGIs of mammoths and things exploding, I need to have quiet moments with characters I care about. And this is why Season 2's “Blackwater” worked so well for me, and Season 4's “The Watchers on the Wall” had me looking at the time on my phone every thirty seconds.
It’s not that the show deviated from the books (though I hasten to assure non-readers that Pyp and Grenn are still alive and well in the books and the population of Mole’s Town was, in fact, evacuated TO the Wall and participated in its defense, rather than being butchered down to the last whore); it’s because there was no internal conflict for me in this episode, the way there was with “Blackwater.”
In that episode, I was rooting for both sides, and the impossibility of both sides winning was what gave the episode so much tension and pathos. I didn’t want Davos and his son to perish, and I wanted Sansa to escape with the Hound, but I didn’t want Stannis to win and Cersei to poison Tommen. I wanted Tyrion to save the day, but I didn’t want him to save it for Joffrey. The story at the Wall this season had none of that conflict, thanks to the Thenns being out and out evil (is anyone rooting for the cannibals?) and Ygritte butchering innocents without a second thought, and Tormund sitting back and enjoying all of this, “Watchers on the Wall” was a much more straightforward conflict of good and evil than is usually the case with this show.
Unfortunately, by making the Wildlings so unsympathetic in general, the idea of Team Humanity vs. Team White Walkers has gotten blurred. Because the Thenns are so unabashedly evil, so that the conflict has become Night’s Watch vs. Cannibals, it’s easy to forget that the Wildlings are coming south because the White Walkers are raising a zombie army bent on the destruction of all mankind, and as a sideline, enjoy making concept art out of Wildling body parts. Mance Rayder and his armies (comprised not just of fighting cannibals and wargs, but also of women and children) are not being driven by mere ambition for the lands south of the Wall, as Ygritte’s dialogue would have us believe. The story of the Wildlings and the Wall, the way in which ambition and greed for power and centuries of inertia have diverted the Night’s Watch attention from the true threat that faces them, parallels what's going on in King's Landing and even in Essos: humankind is seemingly doomed because they can't get their act together to face the common enemy (in fact, the vast majority of them don't even realize there's a common enemy to be faced). Until they stop wasting all their energy on hating one another, the White Walkers will have easy pickings.
There’s also the matter of pacing; although there were things I didn’t love about Season 2, the buildup to Stannis’s attack on King’s Landing wasn’t one of them. The sense of urgency and foreboding, the sense that King’s Landing was doomed, was very much present throughout all of season 2. Meanwhile, Mance Rayder has been slouching towards the Wall for the better part of two seasons, and any urgency in wounded Jon’s desperate warning of imminent attack has long since worn off. We haven’t seen much of the Wall preparing for the attack (the equivalent of Tyrion seeking out the caches of wildfire in King’s Landing was the Night’s Watch setting up barrels of pitch they could set on fire) and most of all, we just don’t know or care about most of the characters at the Wall to the degree that we knew and cared about King’s Landing. Pyp, Grenn and Dolorous Edd are/were all nice enough, but my sense of their personalities was limited to their being “the skinny dark one,” “the big, burly one” and the “sarcastic one with the greasy hair.” Contrast this to our far more in-depth knowledge of characters such as Tyrion, Stannis, Davos, Cersei, Sansa, Sandor, Joffrey, Bronn, Shae; love them or hate them, we really had a strong sense of who they were in “Blackwater.”
The pacing of the show and specifically Jon’s story at the Wall also affected the one tragic moment that should have been a Really Big Deal: Ygritte’s death. Again, because the last time we saw them interacting was nine episodes ago, the quite genuine love and passion they had for each other has dissipated. Jon might talk about Ygritte to Sam and Ygritte might mention how much she hates Jon to Styr and Tormund. Thanks to all the telling and very little showing, for me Ygritte’s death was a bit of an anti-climax (I was more concerned that someone was going to whack Jon upside the head while he was holding her body out there in the open than actually weepy over her demise.)
With all that said, there were a lot of things I liked in the episode:
- Alliser Thorne was magnificent (I honestly never thought I would write those lines, but there you go! Owen Teale made the most of his screentime and I’m all for making him Lord Commander in truth, not just “acting”—provided he’s survived the battle. I wasn’t too clear on that!)
- The CGI/VFX/whatchamacallit was fantastic: I loved the mammoths and the giant who came into the tunnel.
- Speaking of the tunnel, the Night’s Watch boys with Grenn reciting their vows as they faced certain death was deeply moving. (Sure, maybe it’s a bit of a cliche, but they did it beautifully!)
- I loved that the little boy whose family was butchered got to kill Ygritte in return even if it was a little bit more “on those nose” vengeance-wise than is usually the case with this show.
- Sam and Aemon were fantastic together; really, any scene with Maester Aermon is always a plus (and I couldn’t help but think that the girl Aemon rememberd so fondly was Olenna Tyrell!)
- Gilly getting ready to whack someone with a frozen leg of mutton reminded me of a fantastic Roald Dahl short story.
- I’m glad they didn’t kill off Tormund Giantsbane.
- It was fantastic to see Ghost again, however briefly. The direwolves have been generally so useless of late (honestly, Ghost AND Summer getting captured by the Night’s Watch Mutineers—they should be ashamed of themselves!) it’s good to see that they can be terrifying killing machines too.
- Jon’s weary decision to go kamikaze on Mance Rayder, brought about both by the sight of Grenn—whom he sent to die in the tunnel—and the death of Ygritte whom he loved. I am not the biggest fan of Kit Harrington’s acting chops, but he did that scene very well!
Next week: Will Jon kill Mance? Will Tyrion be executed? Will Arya meet up with Sansa at the Vale and undergo a wardrobe change of her own? And was that Jaime and Cersei I saw K-I-S-S-I-N-G in the promo?
Regina Thorne is an avid reader of just about everything, an aspiring writer, a lover of old movies and current tv shows, and a hopeless romantic.