Spoilers at the wall. Crossbows at the ready.
It’s been three seasons and most of of a fourth but finally Game of Thrones 4×09: The Watchers on the Wall delivers the first massive battle at the Wall. The battle of Castle Black. Castle Black is not much from the south. It’s build to hold the men of the Night’s Watch and defend from an impending oncoming army from the north. Let me say right away, that I like this episode and despite the grim grey settings, I have enjoyed Jon’s slow ascent to popularity among his brothers in black.
The wildlings are a stone’s throw from the castle in both directions. Gilly, undisputedly good at surviving raids, manages to dodge Tormund Giantsbane’s advancing force while Ygritte claims Jon Snow’s neck on the oncoming battle to the Thenns. They are not impressed with her boasts of arrows and battle. The Thenn’s leader think she will go soft. I couldn’t help but agree with him. Every episode, I’ve thought she protests much too loudly.
Up in the Wall, the alarm is sound. Mance Rayder’s army has lit a massive fire to signal battle. The Thenn’s worg can see it through an owl casually peering over. Ser Alliser Thorne confesses to Jon Snow that he was right to suggest sealing the tunnel. Then there’s a nice chat about twats that second guess the person in command. Despite all his talk, he’s obviously second guessing himself right now.
Samwell Tarly shows he’s learned quite a lot this season. He reunites with Gilly, curses out Pypar to let her inside the Castle and hides her in the storeroom, not before giving her a kiss and promising to come back. He even lectures Pip about bravery as he helps him getting his crossbow ready. The fact he makes it in this episode without an arrow sticking out of his back is sheer luck. Can’t say the same about Pip. At least he manages to hit one enemy before Ygritte’s arrow finds its mark on his neck.
Mance Rayder’s army emerges from the woods. We get another look at the giants, some of them riding mammoths. Despite the arrows, the fire and the barrels thrown, the army is still advancing. A few wildlings make it to the Wall and start their climb. As Castle Black’s weak walls get easily breached from the south, Thorne gets called to come down, leaving Janos Slynt in charge. To say that Janos is useless is putting in mildly. Grenn slyly waits for the right moment until he tells him that he’s needed back at Castle Black. The second in command takes the opportunity to run and hide in the same storeroom where Gilly is hiding.
We’ve been waiting for Jon Snow to be in command and he doesn’t disappoint. Granted, he’s not officially in command but he’s obviously got a fan club going which is more than we can say for… well, basically everyone else. The Wall’s got a lot going for it, namely the fact that you can’t reach it with an arrow. Unless, of course you are a giant archer. It’s not looking too good for the Night’s Watch chances right now. As the giants march one of the mammoths to the gate to pry it open, the oil barrels are lit and we get some firepower going. Unfortunately, it also backfires when one of the barrels get stuck. Jon knows (he does know some stuff) that the remaining giant will probably make it through and sends Grenn with a group of brothers to defend the inner gate.
Ser Alliser Thorne proves to be a capable fighter as he leads the troops in battle at Castle Black’s breached courtyard. His offense is halted by Tormund, who manages to wound him and throw him over an edge. Some of the brothers carry him away, but we don’t know if he survives his wounds. The Thenns are hacking and slashing everyone around them. Ygritte is putting arrows on everyone that wears the black, including poor Pypar.
It’s up to Samwell to dodge some axes, kill an rampaging Thenn with a crossbow and fetch Jon Snow via the elevator. He tells a frightened Ollie, the kid who fled the farm that got raided by wildlings a few episodes ago, to hoist him up in the elevator. He also tells him to get a weapon, which for Ollie means his trusty bow.
Jon leaves Dolorous Edd in charge of the Wall and races down to Castle Black. Meet swordsman Jon Snow as he cuts through wildlings with his companions. Suddenly, the tide turns as the Night’s Watch is matching every blow from the wildlings. Edd manages to cut down climbers by releasing another of the Wall’s secret weapons: a vicious spiked hook on a chain that swings across the wall and rips apart everything on its swing. Ingenious but gruesome. Meanwhile, downstairs the Watch gains another weapon as Jon sends Sam to liberate his direwolf Ghost, who somehow can tell friend from foe.
Jon Snow and his men are clearing the courtyard. There’s a beautiful panning shot of Castle Black that lets us know where he is in relation to Ygritte. Jon meets his match as the leader of the Thenns makes a beeline for him. That he is able to block his axe is nothing less than impressive. Eventually Longclaw gets knocked out of his hand. I was half expecting Ygritte to save Jon, but he surprises me once more. The Thenn seems to get the upper hand for a while until Jon finishes him off with a hammer. Jon is not fighting pretty.
As he goes to recover his sword, Jon encounters a ready Ygritte who has a clear shot at him. He can’t help but smile. The wilding hesitates and an arrow pierces her through the heart. Ollie is one great shot with the bow. Jon holds Ygritte as she dies in his arms, the battle raging in slow motion behind them.
Grenn and the men he took are at a crossroad. One giant has managed to raise the gate and is charging towards the middle gate, which looks a lot more fragile. Grenn reminds them all that they will hold the gate. They start chanting the Night’s Watch oath as the giant is about to reach them. It’s a serious Band-of-Brothers like moment. You are going to forgive me here, but I was reminded of the oath of the Green Lanterns from DC Comics.
Out in the courtyard, Tormund Giantsbane is the last wildling still standing. The Night’s Watch remaining forces surround him. Jon Snow walks up to him, asks him to surrender, adds another crossbow bolt to the multiple ones that already stick out of Tormund’s back and tells his brothers to chain him up as the wildling regrets not killing him when he had the chance. The Night’s Watch has survived the first volley.
Samwell is hopeful while Jon feels it’s a matter of time before they fall. Castle Black stands and there’s no longer a wildling threat from the south. The Wall as a lot of things going, the best being the Wall itself. Still, Jon wants to march North alone and kill Mance Rayder or die trying. He leaves Longclaw with Sam, while I’m wondering why he doesn’t at least take Ghost with him. They pause briefly to honor Grenn, as he his men lie dead with a dead giant and a broken middle gate. Jon closes Grenn’s eyes and so his watch has ended.
I don’t think this is good plan, Jon. You should really stay with your brothers and arrange some resistance. But as the gate opens for Jon Snow to once again in one more impromptu march beyond the Wall, we only know that we know nothing at all.
Highs: This episode is the battle for Castle Black. It’s massive in its undertaking and it feels like a larger, cinematic scope as we see the wildling army. Samwell’s speech about bravery to Pypar. The Wall’s wicked chain pendulum. Samwell proving himself good in combat situations logistics, hiding Gilly, fetching Jon, not crapping his pants, that sort of thing – a supporting role in battle but no less essential. The Night’s Watch men following Jon prove good at their tasks. Dolorous Edd in command at the top the Wall. Grenn holding the middle gate with his life. Ygritte’s death was one in line with her life, and it was a beautiful one. She does get one last “you know nothing, Jon Snow” with her last breath. Ollie proves himself a great shot and gets justice for his father. The panning shot of the Castle in the midst of battle as the tide turns in the Watch’s favor.
Lows: It’s the last time we see Leslie Rose as Ygritte, but it was the death the character ran towards all her life and you can’t count that as a low. Can Janos Slynt die already? I half expected Gilly to kill him. It would’ve been nice to see Mance Rayder at least once. Only one episode left, which I’m going to guess it doesn’t include the Night’s Watch or Jon Snow.
I know the Night’s Watch is not everyone’s cup of tea. It has a grim, cold, gray setting and the characters are not as colorful as they appear in King’s Landing or across the Narrow Sea. It is, however, a micro-cosmos of Westeros where all the houses put down their banners and join to fight a common enemy. The fact that they proved their mettle in this episode makes them the unsung heroes of Westeros, for this night and all the nights to come.
That will do for now.