Game of Thrones: The Watchers on the Wall

By Marc Price on Jun 13, 2014 to Game of Thrones

“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all nights to come.”

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Yup, an entire episode that takes place at the wall.

And you know what? Considering the grief Jon Snow gets, he held himself pretty well through this episode. For all the impending doom Tyrion is facing, all the dragons that we don’t get to see eat people, missing out on Petyr being a conniving trickster, and not getting to see the Hound show a little girl how he does things (that didn’t come out right) this was a fun episode. It had all the medieval action the commons could desire on top of some very cool looking fantasy creatures and hardware, including the world’s most inventive back scratcher.

After almost four complete seasons of buildup, Mance’s army of 100,000 Wildlings has reached the Wall, at which only 103 Night’s Watchmen are keeping guard over Castle Black. With their backs (literally) to the Wall, Tormund’s raiding party, now joined by a pack of Thenns (the cannibals with scarred faces), can flank the castle while the men inside are distracted. Meanwhile, Ygritte has a score to settle with the Night’s Watch, as she’s still torn up about Jon Snow abandoning her to rejoin them after gaining her trust and affection. Men, monsters, giants, and worse have begun to descend on the wall, all of whom are spurred on by what terrible nightmares loom behind them; the White Walkers.

Aside from the action porn, there are only two really important moments to this episode, both of which occur in the last twenty minutes. Out of sequential order, first is Jon leaving beyond the Wall for a second time in order to confront, and in so doing attempt to kill, Mance. Pretty straight forward. Second, is the moment after the arrow pierces Ygritte’s chest, as she dies in Jon’s arms. It’s a very Romeo and Juliet moment, as two people from opposing clans find love through the (again, literal) warring feud between them. The arrow which pierced her heart served as a metaphor for the inevitable fact that caring for each other would only lead to more pain. Then she said it, that phrase which she had originally said as she just met him:

“You know nothing, Jon Snow…”

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Why, why, why would she say that phrase again? That phrase took all the power away from the moment. With an anger fueled obsession for Crows from Jon’s abandonment and betrayal, she took to killing villagers and Rangers as more than just a raider, but as individual acts of revenge. Finally confronting him in Castle Black with an arrow docked and drawn in her bow, her moment’s hesitation offers a glimpse at the grief, guilt, and even love she still had for Jon. Loving him and still keeping with her people was what made her interesting and even more tragic as she inevitably had to fall for how many casualties she rang up by the time she got back to Jon. It just doesn’t flow with the moment to have her say it, even as an attempt to call back to when they first met each other. Their incompatible lifestyles clashing and colliding, all the struggling they endured, and their relationship ends on a note of extreme melodrama.

Honorable mentions goes to Alliser Thorne and Jon Snow finding a begrudging respect for each other in the moments before the fighting began and Samwell showing true courage through the battle for how he helped to turn the tide in the Night’s Watch favor.

But, the most prominent question: Was this episode better than Blackwater?

Cop-out answer: In some ways, yes. In others, no.

Stannis’ attempt to capture King’s Landing in the second season, like this episode, took place entirely in one location, and that siege, like now, was the entire plot of the episode. Each episode (save for rooting for the group on defense i.e. Lannisters and Night’s Watch) plays inverse to the other in a sense. Big, epic battles confined to small locations that offer the future of the series in just a few minutes short of an hour. One takes place far inland, the other on the bay. One has a focus on the variety of “good guys” (Lannisters… fine Tyrion, and possibly the Hound depending on how you see him now), while the other has had full episodes differentiating and refining just who the different wilding sects are. In order to properly compare and see which episode comes out on top, let’s take a few topics and expand on them with specific aspects of the episode. Starting with…

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Character Arcs (Sandor Clegane “The Hound” vs. Samwell Tarly)

A love of death versus a love of life might be a better way to describe these two. The Hound’s adventures outside the mud gate proved that even a killer can be shaken while Sam’s showed that even a coward can find courage. Ironically, both find the nothingness within themselves to do so. However, the Hound had a more complete arc than Sam. He started the episode a hard man, confident in his ability if not his capability to survive the night. However when a man on fire charged him he froze, only to find himself saved by one he had confronted earlier. He finally discovered a distaste for the killing. With the brutality he faced from his older brother fresh in his mind along with a callous understanding of how the world works, he fled. However, and it may seem like I’m selling him short, but Sam’s character seemed to have finished his arc when he killed the white walker. That’s not to say he isn’t cool, but having already found his bravery this was only an opportunity to see if it would get him killed this time.

Winner: Sandor Clegane, Blackwater

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Spectacle (Wildfire vs. The Scythe)

This is actually a hard one to decide; where the green fire is ostentatious and big, the scythe scraping along the Wall is minimal and gritty. The wildfire decimated Stannis’ fleet, and the massive anchor chained to the wall only killed a few squads of Wildlings. However, this is spectacle, and it should be decided on what was more exhilarating to watch. Considering the build-up the wildfire strategy got in comparison to what was mentioned of the scythe, it was somewhat expected that something along the lines of a green mushroom cloud would happen. But the scythe was a surprise. With no reference point for what was happening, to see a giant steel flail come swinging down along the Wall was neat. I’ll probably catch some flak but…

Winner: The Scythe, Castle Black

 

Best Kill (Cut in Half, Crushed Head vs. Giant’s Arrow, Hammer Head)

Tag team match, if only because it’s difficult to decide on one in either episode. The Hound was definitely more fun to watch than Jon Snow, considering their massive disparity in strength and brutality. It showed just how crazy strong and bloodthirsty he really was when offered the chance to kill a lot of people. A man’s head exploding in front of Stannis was just really shocking to see.

Meanwhile, it was a funny contrast to watch the normal Wildling’s arrow impotently fall from the sky as the giant kneeled down next to him to loose what was essentially a two by four into the chest of an unlucky Ranger. Having built him up since his introduction at the beginning of the season, the Thenn leader Styr was certainly a force at the siege of Castle Black. His death by ballpeen hammer was completely unexpected next to the red herring foreshadowing by Ygritte that she would kill him if he went after Jon Snow.

This one goes to Castle Black, even if the physics of an accelerated plummet from 800 feet high don’t exactly jive with the landing (based on minimal understanding of human physiology he should have liquefied on impact).

Winner: Giant’s Arrow & Hammer Head, Castle Black

 

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Best Coward (Joffrey Baratheon vs. Janos Slynt)

Cowards are cowards no matter what regal title or authority they may possess. When push comes to shove you can count on these guys to be far away from anything even remotely dangerous. Then afterwards, I’m sure you can count on them to take way too much credit for the way things worked out. As luck would have it, cowards tend to live longer than the ones who throw themselves into the fray, muddling the truth of what happened exactly enough that whatever they say can quickly turn into gospel. At least at Castle Black, Janos was smart enough to run and hide will Gilly, whereas Joffrey had no idea what he was doing until deciding to leave at the worst possible moment.

Winner: Janos Slynt, Castle Black

 

Best Speech (Tyrion vs. Alliser Thorne)

Tyrion. Seriously? Tyrion.

Winner: Tyrion, Blackwater

Totals:

Blackwater: 2

Castle Black: 3

WINNER: The Siege of Castle Black

I don’t hold any of this as indisputable fact, just some observations on what are the two most alike episodes in this series so far. There’s no greater purpose to be had from these episodes except enjoying the carnage at hand and waiting to see what will happen to Tyrion in the season finale this coming Sunday. The fate of all Westoros may hang in the balance, but that seems to happen in every episode after a while. Feel free to call me out on any of this in the comments.

Reminder that the finale episode is going to be fifteen minutes longer this week!  Check out our preview here.

  • VL Vanderveer

    Marc, I have to disagree about the Siege of Castle Black being better than the Battle of Blackwater Bay. I have read the books, so forgive some bias, but Blackwater had several POVs: Sansa, inside with Cersei and then alone in her room later; Davos Seaworth, up until his ship exploded with the wildfire; and Tyrion, up until he was nearly killed by Trant. All of those are tired together in the second book, one after the next until you didn’t know what was going to happen. It was so exciting to read! And it was a flawless episode! The Hound did things a bit differently, but his nine word response to Tyrion was fantastic. He may not be a good guy, but he’s the kind of guy you don’t mind rooting for, whatever his intentions.

    Now, with the Siege of Castle Black…. Oh boy. Where do I start? Too many people who are still alive in the books are killed in the show. The battles for Castle Black – note the plural, battleS – were spread out over about three of Jon’s chapters. Ygritte’s band came first, but Jon and the boys were ready because Jon knew how they would attack. When Ygritte said, “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” it was not to recall her first words to him. Jon had promised she would live: Maester Aemon would heal her, she could be free, they would go back to that cave. He was trying to calm her and didn’t want to believe she was dying. Ygritte knew, though, so she told him what she always told him: he knew nothing. She was dying in his arms and he couldn’t accept it. Remember: for the show, everyone is aged up about three years. In the books, Jon is around 15, maybe almost 16, at this point. The only woman he ever loved is dying in his arms. He couldn’t accept it, but Ygritte could. That’s why that line was used again. And even in the show, he’s still very young and has so much to learn about life and death. She was just a part of the lesson. Also: her death was the end of the first chapter about the Battle for Castle Black.

    Next, Jon and what remained of the Watch went to the top of the Wall to prepare for Mance. The tunnel through the Wall had actually been sealed, so I don’t understand why that needed to be an issue here. But, even with it sealed and frozen with ice, it took many men to hold it after one giant got mad and tried to open it. Very sad. The Watch fought against Mance for several nights and days (mostly nights, so Mance could sneak men up close). Eventually, Stannis arrived and routed the Wildlings, who ran away terrified in all different directions (except south). The best part is that Jon fights the Thenns, Tormund’s group (including Ygritte), and Mance with only a few men. The most awesome part of all this is that Jon did it without the garrison: he only had a handful of men – those considered too young, weak, or old who left behind from the ranging north of the Wall at the end of book one and the few men who had returned from that ranging. For me, the episode was too much at once, too many things crammed together for it to make sense. Even the background fighting behind Jon and the Magnar looked pathetic. These guys were just trading weak blows while we watched Jon hammer away at the Magnar. I was hoping this would have been spread out across three episodes, each dedicated to one or two chapters of Jon’s POV in the third book, but no such luck. I would have to give the win to Blackwater, though. Slynt was made a lord before being sent to the Wall while Joffrey was the KING. King cowardice outweighs former lord/Commander of the City Watch cowardice every day and then a few. The scythe was pretty awesome (not a part of the books, but a really neat addition). I come up with a tie for the character arc. Sam was added to this episode – he wasn’t there in the books – and the Hound is just awesome, and his book self is pretty good in the Blackwater battles, too. I don’t know if he wouldn’t be just as big a coward as Joffrey, though.










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