Warning: Full Spoilers for Season 4 Episode 9 to follow.
Way back in 2012, when Game of Thrones was in its second season infancy, director Neil Marshall was tasked with creating one of the greatest action scenes ever to grace the small screen. After the fan outrage from skipping over the big battle of the first season, Blackwater was a tremendous success and easily the highpoint of season two, allowing the full length of the episode to be devoted to one location and one tremendous battle. Now the show is twice as old and Neil Marshall has been dragged back to the director’s chair to see if lightning really can strike the same place twice with the fourth season’s penultimate episode.
I feel that since that battle back in season 2, nothing has really matched the level of huge violence, despite the shows penchant for brutal killings. And yes, I’ll bring up the Red Wedding yet again, because it was a horrendous, bloody massacre, but not one in which one side went directly to battle with another. That really hasn’t happened for quite some time, and it’s never really been Game of Thrones’ thing to rely on action to move forward the story. Of course the show wouldn’t be the same without its uncensored and unapologetic stance on violence, but this episode could easily have been a mess of swinging swords as one side of barbarian wildlings clashes with a band of men who’s soul mission statement is to stop these people crossing the wall. Thankfully, that was very much not the case. Instead the action was used as a mechanism to show the fear of the men, create a sense of dread, and as the battle began, bring a thrilling momentum to the episode.
Obviously, it goes without saying that this was a very Snow centric episode, as John finally took up somewhat of a leadership position against the oncoming onslaught. But this episode wasn’t just for him. Sam also had a couple of great scenes where he managed to get away from being a whiny, if lovable, character to a strong, if lovable, one. Notably, he made a great point about the nature of The Night’s Watch. Sam has always been portrayed as a strong in the mind, weak in the body, person. He’s a reader, a literary man who would prefer to be stuck in the confines of the library than up in the battlefield. This episode showed him questioning the vows he took and in doing so he decided that in Gilly, his wildling lady friend, he has a reason to be strong. And suddenly his character seems much more compelling. His courageousness clearly comes from his need to protect her (something we saw back in season 3 with the White Walker), and it’s an added dimension I feel his character has been lacking.
And to be perfectly honest, I feel the same way about what this episode has made of John Snow. Obviously John Snow has been a fan favourite, and whilst the Night’s Watch story line may not be the most immediately exciting of all the many interwoven plots in Game of Thrones, he’s clearly one of the more clear-cut good guys. But much like Sam, he’s been in need of some sort of rejuvenation. This episode saw him hit his stride as a leader and a fighter. Like Sansa finding her charm, he’s managed to come into his own. Oh, and did I mention? He also kicked a giant sized portion of ass. We saw him fight off every other Knight’s Watch newbie back in season one, and maybe it’s just been a long time since his had an onscreen fight, but the choreography and sword play on display in this episode was like nothing I’ve seen.
The episode was full of great action set pieces. Like the huge wall scythe cutting climbing wildlings across the face of the wall, or the giants and their massive rope arrows skewering unfortunate men on top the wall, or the myriad of foot soldiers going at it in a frantic head to head brawl in the courtyard. I did earlier mention how the action was used to instil the sense of fear and doom, but I forgot to point out that on top of that it also managed to be incredibly cool. Side characters Grenn and Pip held their own in the fight, yet unfortunately succumbed to the curse of the episode 9 death. The two characters are of no particular importance as far as the plot is concerned, but Grenn had a chilling moment as he held back a giant after reciting the Night’s Watch oath. Pip on the other hand was a victim of John’s old love, Ygritte.
If you’ve watched the episode by now (and really if you’ve got this far and haven’t, do not read on), you probably know where this is going. Ygritte and John, the two most unlikely lovers had a soul crushing reunion at the tail end of this episode. Ygritte had made it clear that she wouldn’t rest until she had put John down, but really, did anyone believe that? After all she didn’t do it at the end of the previous season, was there ever any chance that she was going to do it here? I think not, and as she pulled the bow on him, there was a pretty extended moment of hesitation. And that was that, the young boy, Ollie, loosed an arrow at her and she fell into Johns arms. After one final “You know nothing John Snow”, she lay there with him in slow motion as the battle raged on behind them, in what was surely Game of Thrones’ most beautiful shot.
This episode really impressed me. As someone who’s never cared that much for the goings on at The Wall, episode 9 got me back into this side of the story in a major way. On top of that it probably had the best action sequences the show has seen so far, and a massive, heart wrenching death scene. With last week’s episode being so huge, there was a sense that maybe it would overshadow this week’s big battle, yet I’m very happy to report that The Watchers on the Wall is one of the series’ strongest efforts.