All aboard the Hype Train! In preparation of Season 8 of Game of Thrones, Kelly is doing a rewatch for the greater good to refresh our memories, catch the things we might have forgotten, pick up the things we might have missed, and maybe make predictions! Hold onto your fur rugs from Ikea and AWAY WE GO.
Rules of this series: We’re deep diving into these episodes and I’m watching them on a per-episode base because I like digesting the episodes. Spoilers lie ahead. As much as I can, I am going to try and keep things episode/season specific. It’s out of respect to the narrative as well as the later seasons. Onwards!
4.9 The Watchers on the Wall
4.9 is one of my favorite and (I think) sorely underrated episodes of the series. While Blackwater in Season 2 might have been the first big battle episode, The Watchers on the Wall is the first big action episode that felt like the show finally got to do what they wanted with the battle episodes, as far as the production goes. The way the episode is shot is just completely different from anything else we’ve seen thus far and it gives a completely different scale to the action and battle scenes that later episodes of Game of Thrones would ultimately draw from.
Not to mention that 360 60-second tracking shot. Phew. This episode is also surprisingly funny. These amusing moments are fleeting, but they really work, providing some levity to the action, as well as displaying the trust and friendship between all the men. Black Hawk Down kind of stuff.
Now, the sequence of events here isn’t all that important because for once, the episode only focuses on one location and one group of characters- the Night’s Watch in their ultimate battle against the Wildlings. Keep in mind, most of the Night’s Watch is under the impression that the Wall is in place to keep the Westeros safe from Wildlings and only a few realize that the actual Big Bad is something that they and the Free Folk should have in common. It’s one of the feuds that existed before the series started and starts its decline here- thanks Jon Snow! That being said- this episode, as well as the next, marks the turn of the series as any existing feuds and opposition from the previous seasons and alliances, stories, characters, and their goals as we knew them all set off on different paths after this.
It’s a surprisingly short intro, with the only names in the credits being Kit Harington, Hannah Murray, John Bradley, Rose Leslie, and Kristofer Hjivu. And was also only get King’s Landing, the Wall, Winterfell, and holy shit- is that Moat Cailin!? When did you get here!? Braavos and Meereen are still featured, but don’t be misled- they’re just space fillers.
The episode opens on Jon and Sam, as they stand atop the Wall under Alliser Thorne’s command and Sam starts asking Jon about Ygritte, which stirs up all sorts of painful memories and he shuts down any sort of feelings for her by saying he got nothing but an arrow shot through him. Sam reassures Jon saying that laying with Ygritte isn’t a crime against the Night’s Watch as there’s no explicit language in their oaths that forbids copulating- ah, so Sam’s thought about this, has he? Useful guy to have around, someone who finds the loopholes in things, eh?
Somewhere outside Castle Black, Ygritte is trying to distract herself by making a ton of arrows and vows to kill Jon Snow. Gilly, running away from Mole’s Town, sees the group of Wildlings and Thenns and it’s really convenient that she decided to escape at that exact moment. Back at the Wall, Aemon tells Sam that love is the death of duty- and the moment Sam introduced Gilly to Aemon, Aemon knew Sam was in love. Aemon sensed the same feelings in Jon Snow when he mentioned that he lay with a Wilding girl in a previous episode. I don’t think Aemon meant the literal death of duty- maybe just a change in nature, or something that gets in the way of your perspective. That sort of thing.
Gilly’s made her way back to the Wall and Sam assures her that they’ll go where ever either of them goes together- then the horn blows twice to signal that Wildlings are on their way. From the top of the Wall, we see the “greatest fire the Wall has ever seen” and well… Mance wasn’t wrong but he also wasn’t right. It’s an average sized fire. We’re located in California. That’s a nothing fire.
The Night’s Watch rolls their defenses into place and Alliser tells Jon that, yeah dude- we should have sealed the Wall. Alliser says leaders fail when they start second-guessing themselves and this might have been a little peptalk to make sure Jon is in the right mindset to fight. It’s a temporary alliance while they are facing the Wildlings and it won’t continue if either man survives the battle. Downstairs, Sam gives Gilly a smooch before he runs off to be a man and fight.
The Thenns declare “LET’S KILL SOME CROWS” and we’re treated to a stunning shot of Ygritte as she realizes that there will be no excuse for her or Jon to let each other live in this fight. And cue that badass Thenn theme. Say what you want about the Thenns, but they have a fantastic motif that’s used to its fullest extent this episode. On the north side of the Wall, Mance moved his mumakil mammoth-mounted giants to E4 and the battle is now underway.
Well, sort of. There’s some confusion at the top as to what order the archers are given and it just shows how incapable the Night’s Watch is- they don’t even know the differences between nock, draw, and loose.
Tormund, Ygritte, and the Thenns complete the Wilding sandwich by advancing on gates of Castle Black. Not even arrows ON FIRE can stop Ygritte and in case we forgot, we’re shown exactly how efficient she is with a bow and arrow. Excellent tracking shots of her darting around, dodging, and returning fire. She then begins shooting the Night’s Watch with their own arrows, still on fire. Girl, why were you not Lara Croft!? [cries sadly] To protect the gate, Alliser leaves Janos Slynt in charge at the top and the Night’s Watch begins to rain down arrows on the north side. I count at least 6 dead Night’s Watch already. We’re under 100 men here.
Alliser gets a Rohirrim speech in right as the Thenns breach the gate and I have to say- I get why Alliser thinks he should be in charge. He inspires his men just in time and a wave of the Night’s Watch rushes forward to meet Tormund. Alliser is also pretty efficient with a sword and dispatches several Wildlings in a matter of minutes. If Alliser is good with a sword, his Wildling Counterpart is great with hurling any object at his opposition. It’s the first time we get to see Tormund in his brutal glory. Tormund Unleashed, if you will. Goddamn, whose side am I on!?
On the north side, Mance is still… slowly advancing on the Wall, as Janos turns to a puddle of mush and he’s the worst. How he ever commanded the gold cloaks is beyond me. He’s all like, our tunnel entrance gate is made of steel and Jon kindly points out that Mance has GIANTS ON MAMMOTHS that can’t be stopped. Fed up, Grenn silently walks away, then circles back, pretending that Alliser has requested his most experienced men at the gate and Janos heads down to back up his BFF. Free to provide some early defense, Jon brings down a line of Wildlings with his archers.
This is an extremely cool tactic- the Night’s Watch suspends some of their men perpendicular to the Wall so they can fire straight down on the Wildlings who are attempting to ice pick their way up. The Wildling’s return fire barely reaches halfway up the Wall until a Giant shows them how it’s done- with an arrow twice the size of Jon. I very badly wanted a Wilhelm scream here, but I think Two Towers used all of the Wilhelm scream options up so… Yay.
Downstairs, Ygritte is aiming at anyone who remotely resembles Jon as the main Thenn, Styr, is just swinging away and burying his axe in anyone’s head. Slynt gets to the gate and… promptly hides in the kitchen stores with Gilly. NICE. Pyp and Sam are sniping when Ygritte runs an arrow right through Pyp’s neck. He dies in Sam’s arms, the first casualty of someone we know in this episode. It’s a sad moment, followed by the Giants making some progress on destroying the steel gates on the north side. I’m glad they didn’t go battering ram on this one- that would have been typical. Much cooler to have a mammoth-tow-truck-thing.
Jon sends down Grenn to hold the tunnel, as this would be how the rest of the Wildling Party gets inside. Meanwhile, Alliser lays eyes on Tormund and we get a vicious back and forth across a causeway. They really look like they are beating on each other. Tormund slices Alliser’s stomach and Alliser rolls onto a bed of hay while screaming at his men to hold the gate. Sam heads to the top to get Jon and then we get a lot of original tactics that we don’t always get to see in movies. The Night’s Watch drops barrels of oil that explode on the Wildings below, use a giant crossbow to bring down one of the Giants (Bronn, is that your Scorpion!?), a SCYTHE that scrapes any climbers off the Wall.
One of the remaining Giants lifts the gate up just as Jon heads downstairs and leaves Edd in charge of the Wall. Grenn and his band are on the other side and as his men start to whine, Grenn silences them by reciting their oath. They eventually join in and while it’s a little corny, it’s a good solo scene and a fitting ending for Grenn who is a loveable supporting character.
Jon gets downstairs and tells Sam to unlock Ghost. He quickly dispatches four Wildings and CUE THAT 360 TRACKING SHOT. Jon exits the elevator and the camera sweeps to follow a Ranger running past Ygritte as she’s sniping on Castle Black’s balconies, finds Styr as he’s knocking people off a stairwell, captures Tormund laughing like a maniac as he Spartan Kicks his way past some Rangers, and then finally back to the elevator as Sam stumbles to Ghost’s cage. It is extremely chaotic and well-choreographed- and worth watching at least four times.
Ghost immediately leaps into action as Tormund is shot in the back but continues to fight because he’s motherfucking Tormund. Styr and Jon begin to swing at each other- why does it look like everyone is really hitting each other in this!? Ygritte rolls down into the battle and begins shooting from the corner. They’re getting drawn closer and closer and you can hear Jon’s grunts in her shots. She finally spots Jon as just his face is beat into an anvil.
Jon buries a hammer in the Thenn’s forehead, hears the creak of a bow- and sees Ygritte’s arrow pointing at his heart. There’s a sad smile exchanged as they realize the other really doesn’t want to kill the other before Ygritte gasps with an arrow through her heart, shot by Olly. She tells Jon that they should have never left the cave, drops one more “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” and dies. I cry, you cry, everybody cries. There’s a final, gorgeous slow-motion shot of Jon cradling Ygritte as the fight around them continues. I thought this was the end of the episode but maybe I just black out when I watch this because I really can’t handle this scene. It’s one of those losses that I kind of saw coming the first time around but still really, genuinely felt it and still feel it every time. It’s beautiful and sad and this was absolutely the purest romance on the show. Ygritte is such a vibrant character and Leslie did a lovely job breathing life into her.
I wouldn’t say there is a demeanor shift in Jon immediately after Ygritte’s death, but he does seem shorter with Sam, frustrated, and out of ideas. Maybe he’s thinking that if they had acted differently, he and Ygritte would have had the chance to at least live near each other. I would say after this, Jon definitely loses the small sense of humor he had and seems to lose his patience earlier, faster. There’s technically still no Lord Commander so Jon takes action, first by taking Tormund prisoner, as he’s the only remaining Wilding in the keep. Jon knows Tormund is in with Mance and plans to question him. Jon also plans to go and negotiate with Mance, as Mance has plenty of men and resources to fight for several more days and the Night’s Watch had… one night, which they used. Before he leaves, Jon leaves Longclaw with Sam and heads out to meet Mance unarmed.
Up next, we wrap up Season 4 with The Children! Man, we are flying through these.