There are two sides to every battle, and a hundred stories on any battlefield. This is a concept that came through brilliantly on last night’s Neil Marshall directed episode of Game of Thrones, “The Watchers on the Wall”, which took leave from its usual globetrotting ways to focus solely on the events at Castle Black.
This is a brave decision, as I imagine much of the audience is much more interested in what’s going on at King’s Landing and wants to know what fate awaits Tyrion. For many, the events surrounding Jon Snow may be the least interesting, but what one must realize is that, in the long run, these events (and anything involving Daenerys) are like to be the most important.
One of the most important ‘long run’ ideas this episode shows us is that, while the members of the Night’s Watch might be brave, they aren’t exactly the best fighters in the world. Several things go wrong over the course of the battle that needlessly whittle their already waning numbers down, such as a barrel of pitch getting stuck and exploding before it can be dropped. Another important little piece of information dropped is Janos Slynt’s reaction to seeing ‘giants riding mammoths’.
“Giants aren’t real,” he says, watching giants ride across the tundra to attack the wall. “They’re just stories meant to frighten children.” If this is indicative of the mindset of the rest of Westeros, to deny the truth even when it’s staring you in the face, then Westeros is well and truly screwed when the White Walkers show up.
And the White Walkers are a pretty important element here, even though they aren’t shown on screen and are only mentioned once or twice, and not in connection with the battle at hand. The Wildlings aren’t the real threat, and they aren’t evil. Well, most of them aren’t. That one guy, Styr, he’s pretty messed up, but then so was Karl of Gin Alley. They’re just desperate. They’re the only ones who really know what’s marching from the North, and there’s this giant wall in the way. It’s easy to sympathize with them, and I think director Neil Marshall does a pretty good job of showing that there are heroes on both sides of the battle.
One of the best moments of the episode involves a giant, enraged by the death of his comrade, lifting the gate to the tunnel that runs under the wall and storming in by himself. Waiting for him are six members of the Watch, led by Grenn, who rallies his meager squad by reciting their vows. We don’t see the fight, but we see its aftermath: both the giant, and all six men of the watch, dead at the foot of the inner gate.
There’s another great shot that illustrates the idea of a hundred stories on every battlefield, a sweeping camera move that follows key characters through the battle in the courtyard of Castle Black, offering quick little vignettes to help make sense of the chaos.
The episode has several other great moments as well: Alliser Thorne, so easy to hate because he’s a douche, turns out to be a competent leader and brave fighter who suffers a major wound at the hand of Tormund Giantsbane. I’ll admit I didn’t know who to root for during that fight.
Then you have Ygritte, with a quiver full of arrows specially made for killing Crows. And killing Crows she does, storming Castle Black and doing her best Legolas impersonation as she looses arrows left and right, and even dodges a few. She even takes out Pyp along the way. Her killing streak comes to an end when she comes face to face with Jon Snow (fresh off a killer one on one with Styr, more on that in a bit) and hesitates. She gets taken out by Ollie, the boy who’s father Ygritte sniped a few episodes back. Were this any other character, we might cheer little Ollie on when he gives Jon a little victory nod. She falls into Jon’s arms and their little Romeo and Juliette act plays out, and manages to stay just shy of hamfisted as Ygritte gets in one last, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
Jon versus Styr: good lord, Styr was a lot bigger than I thought. That was my main thought while watching the fight. The fight itself was well done, showing Jon is still probably the best swordsman in the Watch, and although he does get disarmed and put on the defensive, he manages to brain Styr with a blacksmith’s hammer. Nasty.
Jon as a character was utilized well here, too. He often gets derided as being whiny, boring, emo, whatever other criticism gets leveled at young actors these days, and Kit Harington does a good job with the action here. But here we get to see a little bit of what Lord Commander Mormont saw (so to speak) when he assigned Jon as his personal assistant: an ability to command. With Thorne injured, and Slynt showing his ass during the battle by hiding in the cupboard, I imagine Jon has sewn quite a bit of respect among his fellows in the Watch.
There were quite a few other cool little bits as well: archers on the Wall being held by straps so they could shoot straight down; a monstrous pendulum that shaves away the surface of the wall, dropping ice on anyone trying to climb it; a giant riding a mammoth; another giant firing an arrow…nay, a spear, up the height of the wall, impaling a Watchman and sending him rocketing into the sky; Sam letting Ghost out of his kennel to join the battle; Tormund telling a story about how he fucked a bear, and Ygritte telling him she didn’t give a shit.
And finally, Samwell Tarly. Sam can be an infuriating character: he means well, but his ‘goodness’ can be trying in a story where ‘goodness’ more often than not gets people killed. He describes himself as a coward, but this episode showed him as anything but (an illustration made clear when compared with Janos Slynt). He acquits himself admirably throughout the battle, never taking part directly (except to kill a raging Thenn with a hastily fired crossbow) but carrying out other important tasks. The episode also thankfully clears the air between him and Gilly.
The episode ends with the battle won, but Mance Rayder and his army of one hundred thousand still at the foot of the wall. Jon knows that they will eventually overrun the Wall through sheer numbers, and that the only way to send the Wildlings packing is to kill Mance himself. He sets out on a suicide mission as the episode fades to white. It isn’t as dramatic as other notorious “Ninth Episodes”, which have become synonymous with ‘serious shit goes down’, but it does what it needs to do and leads us into the season finale. I’m not exactly sure what we’ll see in the finale, but there are two big events I’m pulling for.
**CRYPTIC BOOK SPOILERS FOLLOW**
We’ll likely see the resolution of Tyrion’s incarceration…that’s a given. But I’m also holding out hope we’ll see the resolution of the Wildling threat as well as the return of a certain character that’s going to make non-readers lose their minds. What better way to end this fantastic season?