“If someone had asked me my name right then I wouldn’t have known. I wasn’t Samwell Tarly anymore. I wasn’t a steward of the Night’s Watch or a son of Randyll Tarly or any of that. I was nothing at all. And when you’re nothing at all, there’s no more reason to be afraid.” – Samwell Tarly on killing a White Walker
If there is a message underneath the unforgiving brutality of Game of Thrones it is that a moral code has no power outside of those who believe it. The most shocking deaths that have made this show so ubiquitous all come as a surprise because in our hearts we want things like honour, faith, and justice to have mass. Unfortunately, they don’t.
The power of “The Watchers On The Wall” is that, after 38 episodes of being told again and again that good people are weak because of their codes, we are finally shown hope in the most unlikely of places.
This week, at Castle Black, loyalty and brotherhood defeated the lumbering giant of wild chaos. It subverts the bleak message of past episodes showing us that yes: when you’re alone, all you can count on is yourself, but in the company of family, love, and duty can hold incredible power.
I am tempted to say that, for this reason, “The Watchers On The Wall” is actually the best episode of the series. It’s at least the best of season four and is certainly a thematic milestone.
It can’t stand alone in greatness, since the bleak outlook of every preceding episode is necessary for it to be truly cathartic, but it most certainly is the tightest, most affecting piece of storytelling showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have managed with the Song of Ice and Fire source material.
Running a full ten minutes shorter than the average episode, “Watchers” finally pits the men of the Night’s Watch against the bowel-voidingly massive wildling horde led by Mance Rayder. Cannibals, barbarians, and giants riding woolly mammoths rally behind the largest fire the North has ever seen, ready to take on 102 of the loneliest boy scouts in Westeros. It’s as close as Game of Thrones gets to a bottle episode and about as symbolically touching as anything you’ll find on TV that also regularly features zombies and dragons.
The episode begins with two scenes about sex and arrows. Samwell Tarly and Jon Snow are atop the wall, where they have been sentenced to the night watch of the Night’s Watch. Sam has two things on his mind, his possibly dead girlfriend and his likely impending death, so he wants to know what it’s like to have sex.
Seeing Tarly’s regret, Jon asks his brother in arms if he would have broken his vows had Gilly offered to love him back. Sam cleverly deconstructs the oath that they’ve taken. The Night’s Watch has vowed to not take a wife and to not father a son, but “other activities” are still on the table.
This little parsing of the vows works twofold. First, it’s a great glimpse into how Sam’s mind works as we go into an episode in which he will be sharing top billing with his buddy. Secondly, and most importantly, this is Jon’s friend and brother absolving him of his oath-breaking.
As the two walk down to the elevator, Jon responds with the best explanation he can of what he thinks it’s like to be with a woman:
“There’s this person. This whole other person and you’re wrapped up in them. They’re wrapped up in you.”
He admits he knows nothing about being poetic and goes on to regret the arrow wounds he received as a result of his forbidden love. To this, Sam brightly comments that they’ll all have arrows of their own soon enough.
A sneaky owl lands on the battlements as Sam descends to get some sleep and we cut to the white eyed cannibal-warg controlling it.
The wilding raiding party outside of the South Gate is getting ready to kill those boys, gathered around a fire as Tormund Giantsbane retells the story about the time he fucked a bear.
Ygritte stops him, preferring to continue making arrows for crows than listen to Tormund’s old tale of beastiality. The bald Thenn sitting at the same fire challenges her. She has more words about killing than arrows.
True to form, Ygritte stands right up to his asshole’s face when he implies that she doesn’t have it in her to kill her ex-lover.
“Jon Snow is mine,” she says right in his stupid face. “Anyone else tries to kill him: I’ll have an arrow for them.”
We cut to the library, where Samwell is wasting candles instead of sleeping, reading a book containing accounts of what wildlings do to the people they kill. Maester Aemon berates him for this and continues the episode’s thematic discussion of love.
“Love is the death of duty,” he tells Tarly, noting that the boy clearly loved Gilly despite his constant denial.
Maester Aemon talks about his days as a young Targaryen, back when his eyes worked and he was more or less like Sam. He talks about the first woman he fell in love with, settling on the idea that, to him, this woman of the past is more real than this Night’s Watchman hiding away in the library worrying about what might have happened.
We, of course, know that all of Sam’s fretting and guilt is unnecessary: Gilly and her child having been spared by a generous Ygritte during the raid on Mole’s Town. In fact, she is actually at the South Gate as Sam passes.
Pyp is on guard duty and is holding fast against her seige of pleas. Sam swears at his brother, and the woman and child enter just as the horns start to blast.
Sam takes another vow, to go wherever she goes.
“It’s time,” says the warg with the pet owl, and the big episode nine battle sequence on which everything else is draped begins.
Atop the wall, Ser Alliser and Jon are given the view Mance Rayder promised: the biggest fire the North has ever seen. The old hard ass in command admits to Snow that they should have sealed the tunnel, but that leadership requires that he not second guess himself.
That’s right: a man of authority just told Jon Snow that being stubborn is the mark of a leader. It’s the second conversation atop the wall that affirms his character and is punctuated with assurance that this is not the end for the watchers of The Wall.
Meanwhile, Sam is hiding Gilly and the infant in the meat cellar. When he attempts to leave, she is floored by the idea that he’s so quickly ready to abandon her again. He parses the words he used, then invokes his duty as a man of the Night’s Watch before smooching Gilly right on the lips and promising he won’t die.
Tarly catches back up with Pyp, who is soaking arrows in oil and just plain old freaking out. He’s never even held a real sword before, how is he supposed to defend Castle Black?
He asks Sam how he killed a White Walker if he’s so afraid of the wildlings. Sam further ascends into his heroic role, with a touching few lines about how he used to be nothing, and now he’s afraid because he’s not nothing anymore. It’s a heavy monologue that serves as one of the better examples of characters expressing the big ideas of the show.
What comes next is the first of the episode’s cinematic flourishes: an aerial pan across the battlefield, from the raiding party at the South Gate, over Castle Black, to the intimidating inferno north of The Wall. It’s executed with confident rhythm and is incredibly necessary in keeping the rest of the episode from becoming a confusing jumble of fighting.
Starting here, “The Watchers On The Wall” is exceptional in the way it handles the camera during its featured epic battle. It’s a testament to the show’s way of working with a TV budget on a TV schedule without sacrificing filmic integrity.
When the stakes in an episode are so immediately tied to the defense of a location there is a risk that fight-scene set pieces and flashy CGI are going to distract from the actual sense of what’s happening. Not here. The camera is held steady at a safe and courageous distance, letting you see everything and coming out better for it.
Oh, also, this sequence reveals that the wildlings have giants riding woolly mammoths, unapologetically highlighting that this is high fantasy we’re watching.
The men on The Wall loose some arrows as the Southern Gate behind them is attacked. Alliser leaves Janos Slynt in charge of the northern defense, heading to the courtyard for an inspirational speech and some fighting.
All of Slynt’s bragging about his time as the Commander of the King’s Landing City Guard falls flat now that he is faced with real responsibility. He tells the boys at his side that this whole thing is really no biggie, at which point Jon Snow hammers home the severity of what’s going on:
“Those are giants riding mammoths down there!”
Janos is simply not capable of processing this, assuring himself that there’s no such thing as giants. Grenn saves the day here, relieving the coward from his responsibility with a false message that he is needed in the courtyard with Thorne. This leaves Jon in command of the defense. Boy, they sure do grow up fast these days, don’t they?
The wildlings start climbing and some flashy things happen. A few Night’s Watchmen use harnesses to stand on the vertical surface of the wall and fire at the climbers while one of the giants makes like a monstrous living ballista and starts loosing massive arrows at the battlements.
Inside the walls, the raiding party is making things bloody and complicated. Janos locks himself in the cellar with Gilly while Ygritte is murdering crows left right and centre, landing an arrow in Pyp’s throat.
Sam is left to comfort the boy as he drowns in his own blood.
The giants start physically attacking the wall (like, literally punching holes in it) and attach chains so that they might pull the gate from its foundation. This happens as Alliser faces off against Tormund, in the battle of the Jon-haters. Thorne is seriously wounded but escapes.
Sam makes to the elevator to update Jon, but the kid who operates it, Olly, is understandably crippled with terror (these invaders killed and ate his parents). Tarly continues to use his gift for inspiring morale, telling the little guy to get him to the top, bring him back down and then to find a weapon and fight.
Flaming oil scatters the giants and their mammoth, giving the boys in black a clear shot with a ballista. A harpoon kills a giant and the remaining one just starts trying to lift the gate above his head on his own, slowly succeeding and prompting a dispatch of boys to defend the tunnel. This is what it’s like when giants cry.
Edd is placed in charge as Jon is brought down to lead the men in the courtyard.
Grenn and five other brothers make it to the tunnel. They are there to hold the gate. Together they leave their gods behind, reciting their oath as the giant charges. This is the story we’ve been told again and again. Courage doesn’t matter in the face of angry giants, and the gods don’t care if you die.
The boys hold fast and the camera cuts away, leaving us to connect the gory dots.
Jon joins the fight in the yard as Sam releases Ghost. The second cinematic flourish happens here, with a steady shot panning around the whole courtyard, giving a complete picture of what’s happening. Again, the stillness of the frame combined with the distance pays off, drawing a perfect picture of Castle Black and the mayhem inside.
The Thenn who wants Jon for himself (just to spite Ygritte) gets a hammer to the head just in time for the lovers to be reunited.
She has him in her sights and Jon gives her a relieved smile before she catches an arrow in her back. Olly takes credit with a nod to the bastard, as if to say, “No worries bro, I got your back.”
Jon holds Ygritte as she dies, wishing that they had stayed in the cave where they first wrapped up in each other. He says that one day they will be there again.
She responds with the familiar and potent, “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” and he mourns for us in slow motion.
After the dropping of “the scythe” – a swinging anchor that shaved the invaders off The Wall like so many stray hairs – Edd declares that the wildlings have had enough for one night. The good guys won. Finally.
The next day, Sam and Jon walk the grounds. Lord Snow knows that the only way to beat back the horde is to cut off its head: Mance Rayder. Jon will be going North of The Wall to kill the former Night’s Watchman and scatter the wild tribes that have rallied under him.
In the tunnel, Jon and Sam find their six brothers and a giant, all dead. Despite the odds, these boys triumphed in the face of brutal destruction, pulling strength from their promises to each other. Surrounded by enemies, duty means nothing, but in the company of family it can turn boys into giant killers.
Observing an old promise to Jeor Mormont, Jon gives Sam Longclaw (in case he doesn’t come back) and goes out to save the world. Without Ygritte he’s nothing at all. There’s no more reason to be afraid.
– Ygritte draws her bow and then aims. As badass as she is, Arya would have some killing tips for her courtesy of The Brotherhood Without Banners.
– Nominations for the nights most metal moments: giants riding mammoths, giants shooting arrows, and giants punching holes in the wall. Just giants.
– It’s so refreshing having a single sustained narrative for an episode. Normally, even in the most thematically distilled episodes, Game of Thrones can feel unfocused thanks to its need to juggle so many storylines at once. Just like season two’s “Blackwater” this episode’s strength comes from containment. Imagine how undercut Grenn’s victory would have been if we had to go southeast and watch Jorah cry about losing his job.
– Nothing like old assholes admitting they were wrong to endear them to you before they die.
– Anyone else notice that Battlestar Galactica style focus-adjusting right before Edd dropped the scythe?
Too Much Information Award: “How big were her feet?” – Samwell Tarly
It’s Too Cold Out Here To Blush Award: “I don’t know, I’m not a bleeding poet.” – Jon Snow
The Twilight Zone Award: “Thousands of books and no eyes to read them.” Maester Aemon
“Just When I’m Starting To like This Asshole” Award: “This is not the end. Not for us. Not if you lot do your duty for however long it takes to beat them back.” – Alliser Thorne
Tempting Fate Award: “I promise you I won’t die.” – Samwell Tarly
The “Finally Someone Figured it Out” Award: “Gods aren’t down here. It’s the six of us, you hear me?” -Grenn
Fuck Off Sam Award: “You’re right, it’s a bad plan. What’s your plan?” – Jon Snow
Famous Last Words Award: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” – Ygritte