The Battle of Castle Black: A Review of Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 9 “The Watchers on the Wall”

Posted: June 9, 2014 in Game of Thrones, Reviews, TV
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Episode: 39
Airdate: June 8, 2014
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Written by: George R.R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire” by), David Benioff (creator), D.B. Weiss (creator), David Benioff (written for television by), D.B. Weiss (written for television by)

How do you follow one of the strongest episodes of an already very strong show? How to follow one of the finest group acting efforts the show has yet produced, including amazing turns from actors and characters not noted particularly for their thespian talents? And how do you follow up the single best one-on-one duel in a series full of amazing and well-choreographed fights? Simple. You stage the biggest battle the series has yet seen, and build it over the course of an entire hour, with no breaks for other, slower storylines. You raise the stakes. And you kill someone well-liked – even loved – by fans of the show. Click through after the break to get my take on the Battle of Castle Black.

<<Spoiler Alert: This article is a review and complete recap of Game of Thrones S04E09 – “The Watchers on the Wall” – it will discuss major plot points and events in detail, and contains strong language based on dialogue from the episode; read further at your own risk!>>

Tonight’s episode was the single most focused episode of the entire four season run of the show. Even the Battle of the Blackwater jumped around between several storylines, focusing on Cersei and her ladies-in-waiting hiding in the inner keep while the battle raged outside, sort of a thematic counterpoint to the chaos of battle outside. Here, the only slow moments occur early, and the pace and tension ramp up right to the climax, leading to nearly an hour of non-stop acceleration – only the opening credits and the final denouement slow things down a bit.

Although the Battle of Castle Black is the clear dramatic center of the episode, the main focuses of the episode are actually love, promises, and courage. Love is the central theme, and it is where the episode begins, with Sam trying to ask Jon Snow what it’s like to be in love. He seems to equate having sex with being in love, and is basically asking Jon what it was like to be with Ygritte. Jon tries – he starts to wax poetic about two individuals being tied up together – but he stops himself, and tells Sam he isn’t a poet (Sam agrees with him). As they speak, an owl lands nearby – a very curious owl. It turns out a Thenn Warg is using it to spy on the Crows atop the Wall, and to keep an eye out for Mance Rayder’s armies.

Outside, we see the Thenn with his white eyes, as Tormund tells a tale of bedding a she-bear. Ygritte tells him to basically stuff his stories, and she gets into an argument with Styr, the Thenn leader. She makes a vow – that any man who so much as tries to touch Jon Snow before she kills him will find an arrow with his name on it. This is the first time we see a promise made tonight, but it acts as a contrast to the love Sam and Jon Snow were just speaking about. And yet, there is a level of possessiveness in her claims that speak to an emotional bond she still feels for her former lover.

Sam goes to his books, Jon taking the watch. He’s interrupted by Maester Aemon, who talks also about love and promises. He reminds Sam that he was once in line for the throne, and this meant women would show interest – he fell in love with one, but won’t go into details with Sam. She is, however, “More real than you” in Aemon’s eyes. The point he’s trying to make is that despite the promises men make, they can’t always control what their hearts will feel. We saw this put into action earlier when he forced the tribunal to spare Jon Snow’s life, despite the fact that he broke his vows with Ygritte.

Speaking of his love, we get to see Gilly sneaking past Tormund and his raiders, and she gets to Castle Black. Pypar doesn’t want to let her in – he’s under orders not to open the gate – but Sam shocks him, saying “Open the fucking gate.” He hides Gilly, and makes her a promise: “From now on, wherever you go, I go.” She doesn’t want to let him leave her alone, but he explains that he took a vow to protect the Wall, and that “this is what men do.” He grabs hold of her face and kisses her – Sam knows he may die, and makes her a promise – that he won’t.

An interesting moment occurs between Jon Snow and Ser Alliser Thorne when they first see Mance’s army coming out of the trees north of the Wall. He gives Jon a brief lesson in leadership – the fact that leadership means having everyone second-guess their decisions. The only danger, he tells Jon, is when you start to second-guess yourself. Here we see that Ser Alliser, despite his opposition to and apparent hatred for Jon Snow, has his own sense of honor and courage, and recognizes the value in Jon’s abilities.

As Tormund and his people approach Castle Black from the south, we get the third main theme – courage. Again, it is from an unlikely source. Sam Tarly, having just come from hiding Gilly away and stealing a kiss, tries to get Pyp ready for the battle. Pyp is shaking, and doesn’t want to fight, doesn’t even know how to fight. Sam points out that you don’t think, you just do. When Pyp points out that Sam has struck down a White Walker, Sam tells him that it wasn’t him – he wasn’t himself in that moment, he was just a person doing what needed to be done. He tells him, “When you’re nothing at all, there’s no reason to be afraid.” Pyp looks reassured, his backbone strengthened for the moment.

On the wall, an otherwise serious episode has a moment of levity as the vanguard of Mance Rayder’s army appears out of the forest. The men atop the wall are readying the oil and flaming arrows, everything being put into position. As the Wildlings move forward, the moment of humor actually comes from an unlikely source: Ser Alliser Thorne. Facing Mance’s 100,000, he orders, “Archers nock, everyone else hold!” Grenn accidentally drops an oil barrel, which plummets from the Wall. Thorne looks chagrined. He says, “I said nock and hold, you cunts. Does nock mean draw?” The men reply, “No sir!” He continues: “Does fucking hold mean fucking drop?” “No sir!” “Do you all plan to die here tonight?” “No sir!” “That’s fucking good to hear!”

The battle commences, and starts to go badly. Below, Tormund cuts through defenders like a hot knife through butter, while Ygritte is coldly efficient, out-Hawkeyeing Hawkeye, and Styr of the Thenns butchers men and boys both. Pyp does take out at least one wildling, but is in turn hit in the throat by one of Ygritte’s arrows – he dies in Sam’s arms. On the Wall, there is an interesting dynamic. Janos Slynt is there, and when Castle Black is stormed below, Thorne leaves Slynt in charge of the Wall. But Slynt can’t process what’s happening, calling his men a rabble and a bunch of thieves, and claiming that giants don’t exist, despite what his eyes are telling him. Grenn makes a good choice here, telling Slynt he’s needed below – Slynt takes full advantage, and ends up hiding himself in the same room as Sam hid Gilly, an interesting contrast to Sam’s newfound courage. Jon takes control, and as the giants move forward with a mammoth, another group of Wildlings start to climb the Wall. The Night’s Watchmen drop oil on the giants, scaring off the mammoth and killing one giant as he runs after it by hitting him through the back with a ballista. Of course, this just angers the other giant, who then goes and starts lifting the gate on his own. Jon sends Grenn and five others and orders him to hold the inner gate at all costs.

Here, we see another moment of courage. Facing a charging giants, one of the men begins to falter. Grenn grabs him and reminds him of his vows, but the man still tries to pull away. Grenn begins to chant the vow they all made, and the others join him, even the frightened man adding his voice before the giant hits the inner gate. Courage is not always rewarded, but here it saves the inner gate from being taken. When later Jon and Sam come through the tunnel and find Grenn dead beside the giant’s body, it is a sad moment for both of them, but they know he found his courage, and kept his promises.

During the battle, Sam realizes that things are going to hell. Thorne has gone down with a wounded leg, given him in a hard fought duel with Tormund Giantsbane, and Ser Janos is nowhere to be seen (he’s already hiding with Gilly). As Sam tries to get to the elevator, a Thenn sees him and charges, Sam just managing to get a crossbow loaded in time, killing the Thenn. He manages to get up to the top of the Wall, telling the boy who handles the elevator mechanism, Olly, to grab any weapon and fight as he rises. Sam gets Jon, who comes down to battle, leaving the Wall to Dolorous Ed.

Once there, Jon starts to turn the battle single-handedly. Styr sees him and roars, recognizing a worthy opponent. They fight hard, the battle going back and forth, with Styr nearly getting the better of Jon after disarming him and slamming his head face-first into an anvil. Jon manages to grab a blacksmith’s hammer, and lodges it in Styr’s skull. As Styr falls, he sees Ygritte behind him, bow drawn and arrow pointing at his breast.

He smiles at her, and starts to walk toward her. She almost seems on the verge of returning his smile, and her bow begins to waver – when an arrow suddenly appears protrudes from her chest. She drops her bow, and starts to slump, gurgling. Jon runs to her, and takes her in her arms, looking up to see her attacker – it’s the young boy, Olly – he’s grabbed a bow and arrow, and nods at Jon, knowing that he’s saved Jon’s life. She’s fading, and says to him, “You remember that cave? We should have stayed in that cave.” He’s crying, and tells her, “We’ll go back there.” She looks into his eyes, and says, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” She dies. Jon’s pain is written all over his face, and yet his duty is not done.

He finds Tormund, surrounded by Crows, arrows sticking from him. Still, he refuses to surrender, so Jon takes a crossbow and shoots him in the leg, knocking the short sword from his hand, and ordering the other Watchmen to chain him for later questioning.

Atop the Wall, the battle is effectively ended when Ed orders the release of the scythe. What, exactly, is the scythe? It’s an enormous steel weapon which looks much like a ship’s anchor, attached to the top of the wall by a chain with links half as large as a man. Once released, it drops and scrapes rapidly across the front of the Wall, turning the remaining climbers into a fine red mist, with barely enough time to scream.

The fight peters out both above and below as day breaks, and we see the remaining Night’s Watchmen piling bodies for burning. Sam goes to get Gilly, and finds Janos Slynt hiding there as well – there will likely be repercussions for his cowardice. Jon tells Sam that he has a plan – he’s going to go take out Mance Rayder, and end the threat from the Wildlings. He believes that Mance is all that is keeping the disparate tribes together. Sam pleads with him not to go, but the two walk through the Wall, and Jon exits to the North.

The battle tonight was epic in nature. Mance’s army is 100,000 strong, and we saw only a small percentage of it, although the sense of scope was well displayed by the massive fire his people set in the forests near the Wall. The fight inside Castle Black was smaller in size, but even more intense, as men and women locked arms face to face, and certain fighters showed an ability to go from opponent to opponent without breaking stride (Tormund, Styr, Thorne – until he meets up with Tormund, and Jon Snow). Snow’s direwolf Ghost enters the fray at the height of battle as well, helping Jon out with some throat ripping.

There were two particular shots which were visual highlights of tonight’s episode. The first was as the battle is first joined. We begin in an aerial shot, several hundred feet up, on the south side of the Wall, moving over the torches of the Wildlings with Tormund. We pan north, hitting Castle Black, where we see the first reactions to battle as flaming arrows fire out. The pan continues, as we head over the Wall and see the Crows atop it, firing burning arrows northward, as the camera pans yet further until we can see Mance’s vanguard thumping their shields.

The second occurs in the Castle Black courtyard as the battle is fully engaged. It begins near the gate, focusing on Tormund as he rips through opponents, pans left to find Ygritte hiding in a corner, picking off her enemies one at a time, continues panning to see Styr swinging his mighty two-handed ax, and comes full circle back to the gate as we see non-stop action and fighting in every quarter. The shot is beautifully done, and is even more impressive for the fact it relies very little, if at all, on CGI to achieve the effect.

While the battle is amazing, easily the largest we’ve seen thus far in Game of Thrones, the unifying themes that underlay the episode create a level of complexity that actually approaches some of the fine and more nuanced work that we saw in last week’s episode.

Courage – and a lack of courage – is constant, with Sam showing sides to himself we’ve never seen. Whether it’s kissing Gilly, encouraging Pyp, or standing up to Jon Snow, we see Sam acting in ways he hasn’t before, making him a much more interesting character. He’s beginning to come into his own. Ser Janos showed his true colors, hiding literally from his duty, as well as showing a clear mental break when faced with a charge beyond his abilities. Even Ser Alliser’s admission to Jon Snow that maybe he was wrong not to cave-in the tunnel through the Wall is a kind of courage.

Promises are equally important. Sam’s promise – his vow – gives him the courage he needs to go back upstairs and fight after hiding Gilly. The vows taken allow Grenn to get his men to stand up to a charging giant, despite losing their lives in the process. Tormund exemplifies courage, as he attempts to commit suicide by taking on the entire Night’s Watch on his own, injured and bloody.

But love is the key to this episode. Love between men and women, yes, as we see Sam finally showing Gilly his feelings, and Jon breaking down as he holds the dying Ygritte in his arms. Even Maester Aemon speaks about love. And there is another kind of love we see – that between men and women who put their lives on the line together. The respect that the men of the Night’s Watch have for Jon Snow show their love for him. Grenn is willing to die to do what Jon asks of him, as is Sam when he’s made to go release Ghost in the midst of pitched fighting. The grudging respect that Thorne shows Jon is not love, per se, but his sense of duty and loyalty to his men shows that he, too, loves those he fights with, even if it is a very tough and unforgiving love. Love is, as Maester Aemon says, “the death of duty.” But perhaps it is also the beginning of loyalty, and that can sometimes take the place of duty.

For me, and I’m sure for many viewers, Ygritte’s death is a huge moment. It was not played maudlin; rather, it was an efficient death, one that shocks but is over quickly. She wouldn’t have it any other way, as she doesn’t want Jon to stand over her weeping – she wants him strong, despite the fact that they were on opposing sides. She was an interesting and complex character, and it was through their relationship that Jon grew in his understanding of both himself, and of the greater world. He was always a bit cocky, but she taught him humility; he was already honorable, but she taught him to question his ethics, to use his heart as well as his mind; and she taught him, perhaps most importantly, that the Wildlings aren’t animals or monsters: they’re people, and this will prove the most important lesson of all.

We have only one more episode to go in Season 4, and it will involve a certain degree of positioning – of people, armies, and loyalties, as the grand arcs for Season 5 are hinted at. But one thing is certain: the main focus of the show must now, necessarily, move north. Winter has arrived.

Steve’s Grade: A
A very different episode from last week’s character-driven and single combat storylines, but no less powerful, this time hitting viewers with an epic battle that was big-screen worthy, and the death of some characters both liked (Pyp and Grenn), and loved (Ygritte). Bring on the season finale.

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  1. Bronn says:

    Earlier this year, I said that they could put away the Emmy for Best Drama after how good True Detective was and how good the end of Breaking Bad was (which I believe still falls in this year’s awards). I may have to reconsider that after these last two episodes in particular and the season in general. Fantastic work from all involved, the actors, writers, directors, set designers, camera operators, etc. To make something this epic this good is a feat that really should be rewarded at some point. Given the fact that the strength of the books fades some after book 3, this would be the year to see it happen, if its going to.

    • As far as I’m concerned, it’s a four-way race for male acting this year: Dinklage, Cranston, Harrelson, and McConaughey, but I’m leaning toward Dinklage. The thing that has impressed me the most is that they can take actors who are fair to middling at best (Emilia Clarke comes most immediately to mind), and find their inner motivation. She was excellent with Iain Glen last week, standing toe-to-toe with the much more experienced and skilled actor. And then the way they can take two completely different narrative structures – the vignette approach of last week, the extremely focused story this week – and make them equally strong and relevant. I’m in awe. I don’t know why I didn’t pull out the A+ last week, except for a degree of professional reticence. I hope the show gets every award it deserves.

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