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.
Every great season of TV has at least ONE. One episode that just doesn’t quite live up to the rest. Season 3 of Game of Thrones has been fantastic, possibly even uniformly the best, given how much the people behind the scenes have to juggle. So it’s a bit ironic, I think, that the most uneven episode of the season was written by George R.R. Martin himself.
This week’s episode takes a breath from the fallout of the last two weeks, and begins to build up to the paradigm changing events to come.
The episode begins with a quiet scene between Sam, Gilly, and Gilly’s newborn son. If it wasn’t already apparent, the fact that Sam is in way over his head was illustrated even more as he tried to build a campfire and Gilly had to tell him how to do it properly. The scene ends with Sam singing the newborn a lullaby about traditional gender roles. It’s obvious that in Sam’s mind, it’s his responsibility to protect Gilly and her baby, and it’s hard to fault him for that given the time period and his highborn upbringing. He’s lived his entire life with the stigma of being a coward, so for him, guiding Gilly south through the forests to the Wall is an act of bravery.
After checking in on Sam and Gilly, we catch up with another group, this one heading North toward the Wall. Meera Reed and Osha are skinning rabbits, and having an argument over who is better at it while Bran tries to foster a truce between the two. Once again we have a statement on gender roles in Westoros. This group is made up of four males: Bran, who is a cripple, Rickon, who is around five or six years old, Hodor, who is simple minded, and Jojen, who is sickly and prone to seizures. The two most capable people in this group are Meera and Osha.
Once Bran negotiates a cease fire and gets the two women to stand down, Jojen has a seizure as he dreams. When he awakens, he tells the group that he has seen Jon Snow, “on the wrong side of the wall and surrounded by enemies.”
This offers the perfect segue way into Jon’s story, where he, along with Ygritte and a number of Mance Rayder’s Wildlings, are preparing to climb the wall. Jon and Ygritte discuss last week’s dalliance, with Ygritte teasing Jon about “that thing (he did) with (his) tongue.” The conversation takes a darker turn, and their relationship deepens in a much more mature way, when Ygritte reveals that she knows Jon is still loyal to the Night’s watch. And she doesn’t care. They’re both pawns to their respective masters, soldiers in someone else’s war that can easily be replaced.
We return to this story midway through, in what could be considered the action set piece of the episode. As they are climbing the Wall, a section of its surface cracks and most of the wildlings are killed. Ygritte and Jon find themselves in a precarious position, dangling freely by their safety lines. One of the wildlings, who has no trust in Jon, tries to use the opportunity to get rid of him, and Ygritte. Jon recognizes what’s about to happen and struggles to find a foothold. It’s a very well conceptualized and executed scene that provides a thrill while further driving Jon and Ygritte together. I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene, coupled with Ygritte’s reveal that she knows about Jon, isn’t leading to a major departure from the novel. Part of me hopes it does.
In another major departure, Melissandre, who we last saw leaving Dragonstone to find the “blood of the king”, arrives in the Brotherhood’s camp. Here, the Brotherhood sells Gendry (who is Robert Baratheon’s bastard son and true heir to the throne) to Melissandre for two bags of gold. It’s gut wrenching to watch, after Gendry gave his reasons for staying with them last week. Arya stands up to her, and in my favorite moment from the episode, tells her that she see darkness in Arya, and in that darkness, eyes staring back: eyes that Arya will shut for good. Given Arya’s story so far has involved lots of revenge seeking and shape shifting assassins, I can’t wait to see what Melissandre means.
A large part of this episode deals with negotiations, and people making decisions for other people. At Harrenhal, Roose Bolton reveals that he will allow Jaime to return to King’s Landing, given that Tywin Lannister understands that he had nothing to do with Jaime’s maiming. What’s so disheartening about this is that Roose is supposed to return Jaime to Robb, meaning another blow to Robb’s cause that he unfortunately doesn’t know about yet.
Speaking of Robb, the King in the North meets with Walder Frey’s men to try and make up for the wrong of breaking his deal to marry one of Frey’s daughters. The price Frey demands is that Robb’s uncle, Edmure, marry one of his daughters. It’s difficult to sympathize with Robb here, as he expects his uncle to pay for his transgression. It also serves once again to remind us that the Game of Thrones has little to do with winning on the battlefield.
Which leads us to Tywin, who is busy securing Lannister dominance throughout the seven kingdoms with a pen…or a broken pen, as the case may be. Lady Olenna has been a bona fide verbal bad-ass since she was introduced, steamrolling her way through Westerosi politics with cunning wit and common sense. She meets her match this week, however, in Tywin Lannister, who threatens to end the Tyrell line by assigning Ser Loras to Joffrey’s Kingsguard, thus ensuring he will never marry and never sire an heir. Olenna, knowing she’s beat, retreats, and the fates of Sansa, Loras, Tyrion, and Sansa are sealed.
The final sequence of the episode begins with Petyr Baelish studying the Iron Throne. It’s a creepy image, and you can just see the wheels turning in Littlefinger’s head, plotting his path to be seated on the ugly thing. As he stares at it, Varys enters and recites the legend of its forging. Littlefinger tells him that the legend is a lie they have told themselves for so long they forget it’s just a story. He then informs Varys that he knows about Ros’ role in keeping Sansa Stark out of his hands. Varys claims to be acting in the best interest of the realm, to keep it from descending into chaos, which he likens to a dark pit.
“Chaos isn’t a pit,” Littlefinger says. “But a ladder.” It’s a sentiment that sums up the series succinctly, as most of the chaos in Westeros has been caused by the machinations of people making grabs for more power.
The speech that follows overlays a sequence that reveals the ultimate fate of Ros and ends with Ygritte and Jon reaching the top of the Wall. It’s an effective juxtaposition of images, the ugliness of Ros’ death and the beauty of the sunrise over the wall that culminates in an old school Hollywood make out session.
Unfortunately, the lyrical nature of these last few moments, as well done as they are, seem out of place in the grand scheme of things. That sunset steps just a little bit past that line of cheese I warned about in my review for “Kissed by Fire”. But then again, if I had just nearly died and found myself standing on the edge of a 700 foot drop next to a smoking hot red-head at sunrise, I’d probably engage in an old school Hollywood make out session, too.