Feature film director Neil Marshall returns to Game of Thrones for the second time to tackle the battle for the Wall.
Let’s bitch it out…As fans of Game of Thrones know, the ninth episode of any given season is the big one. It’s the one where Ned got decapitated, the one where Cat attended a nasty wedding and – in arguably the biggest episode the series has ever produced – the battle of Blackwater was fought. The decision to bring back the same director that handled that memorably epic battle is a wise one as Neil Marshall is now two for two when it comes to handling large set pieces on a made for TV/HBO budget.
‘The Watchers on the Wall’ is basically an hour-long battle. It’s also another huge success for the fantasy series. By once again focusing on a single location, co-creators / writers Benioff and Weiss wring the maximum impact possible out of the anticipation of the impending attack and adrenaline of the battle. At the forefront are Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) – the hour is essentially dedicated to their journey to become the heroes that we’ve always known them to be.
We’ve spent less time with the men of the Night’s Watch this season, so it’s integral that we get a good dose of both Jon and Sam before the battle begins to get a reminder of what’s at stake. Key on Sam’s mind is his love affair with Gilly (Hannah Murray), which is nicely compared and contrasted by Jon’s doomed star-crossed love affair with Wildling Ygritte (Rose Leslie).
Sam’s discussion with Jon and Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan) about love and how it does (and does not) fit within the world of the Night’s Watch is important for understanding his motivation throughout ‘The Watchers on the Wall’. He’s not just interested in fulfilling a hokey promise to Gilly that he’ll survive; this is his defining moment of manhood. Sam needs to fight because it is his duty and he swore an oath, but also so that he can become the man he feels Gilly deserves. Unlike when he killed the White Walker by accident in 3×08 ‘Second Sons’, Sam wants to prove that he can protect Gily. This point is nicely emphasized when Sam discovers Janos Slynt hiding in the cellar with Gilly at the end of the episode. He couldn’t be that man – the one who flees and hides when danger arrives – and now she understands.
Jon’s story is less about love than it is about assuming the mantle of leader of the Night’s Watch. We’ve spent the majority of the season watching Jon struggle under the mismanaged leadership of Ser Allister and although the master-of-arms ends up delivering some stirring speeches and has a mildly epic battle with Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), Jon is the true hero of the day. He takes control of the men when they are rudderless, and even inspires five men to sacrifice themselves defending the gate against a giant. By episode’s end, Jon has realized the sheer impossibility of surviving more than a few days against such an army and, like a natural born leader, he takes it upon himself to venture into the wild to meet and negotiate with his enemy, Mance Ryder.
Unfortunately for Jon’s ascension to occur, Ygritte has to die. In some ways the resolution of Jon and Ygritte’s three season love affair is one of the most conventional things that Game of Thrones has ever done: a pair of mismatched lovers fall in love and then one must kill the other to accomplish what they were meant to do. And yet, as much as we expected this outcome, the execution is still effective, primarily because Rose Leslie and Kit Harrington made the pairing passionate and romantic. The cliche of dying in the arms of your lover has been done to death, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a little. We even get to hear Ygritte utter her catchphrase one last time. RIP fire Wildling.
- A battle is more difficult to recap than to watch, so let me just say that Marshall does an excellent job of bringing an appropriately massive scope to the proceedings. My two favourite scenes include the memorable crane shot that begins at Ygritte’s camp, moves up the Wall, and ends with a extreme long shot of the approaching Wildling army with the burning woods in the background. The other amazing scene that caught my eye is when Jon exits the lift and we slowly pan – in a single long take – across the courtyard, ending as Sam unlocks Ghost. I have love-affair with long takes (shout out to Children of Men), and ones that involve coordinated battles are always awe-inspiring.
- Mammoths! Giants! The special effects are mostly well-done, so although both of the plus-sized combatants look a little fake, it’s a small complaint to make considering how great the action near the gate is. One nitpicky detail: why did the men at the top wait so long to push the burning oil onto the mammoth?!
- Favourite kill obviously has to be the swinging scythes along the Wall that left only a single hand clinging to an ice pick, though Jon’s dispatch of Styr with a hammer to the brainpan is also pretty awesome.
- Finally, I’m happy to see that Tormund survives the battle. Game of Thrones did a great job making us care for both Ygritte and Tormund during Jon’s time among the Wildlings, so if we had to lose Ygritte, I’m glad Tormund is still around.
- Ygritte (talking about killing Jon Snow): “The only left gonna be his fun bits hanging around me neck.”
- Sam (after the watchman says he’s never heard Sam swear before): “Yes, well you better get used to it.”
- Sam (discussing how he was able to kill the White Walker): “When you’re nothing at all, there’s no reason to be afraid.”
- Sam (when his partner says they’re going to die): “If we keep missing we will”
Your turn: did this ninth episode live up to your expectations? Were you sad to see Ygritte go? Happy to see Sam and Gilly survive to love another day? Was there a particular battle scene that caught your eye? And how will Jon negotiate with Mance? Sound off below.
Game of Thrones airs its fourth season finale next Sunday at 9pm EST on HBO