In the penultimate episode of Season 4, a historically bloody chapter in every season thus far, “The Watchers on the Wall” features the long-awaited battle between the wildlings and the Night’s Watch. Like the ninth episode of the second season (“Blackwater”), this one focuses solely on one location, culminating in an epic battle sequence that takes place over the course of a single night.
“Night gathers, and now my watch begins… I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
But this episode is more than just a well-choreographed and well-shot action film. It makes us care about characters whose names we could never quite remember, like Pyp and Grenn, and characters we may have actively disliked, like Ser Alliser Thorne. It ruminates on duty, love, leadership, and masculinity, all while delivering intensely fun visual spectacles (like the giant arrow piercing the man over the Wall or the huge scythe shaving the climbers off the Wall).
It’s amazing that no one else on the continent knows that this battle is taking place, since there is so much at stake for them should a hundred thousand wildlings succeed in breaching the Wall. As the oath says, “I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.” The men of the Night’s Watch fulfill their duty in spectacular fashion– for now.
The episode begins on the top of the Wall. Sam and Jon were sent there to stand guard by Ser Alliser Thorne. To pass the time, Sam asks his friend to describe Ygritte and what it was like being with her. Ever the inarticulate, eyebrow-twisting brooder, Jon is unable to fully describe his feelings about his old lover, other than the fact that she has red hair.
Finally, he gives up in frustration and says, “What did I get for it? An arrow six inches from my heart.” Though Ygritte’s aim was intentionally skewed, it is clear she still managed to leave him heartbroken, as he did her. Sam justifies their relationship by saying that the Night’s Watch vows do not prohibit sex directly, only marriage and fathering children.
Maester Aemon would disagree with Sam’s interpretation, which follows the principle “everything which is not forbidden is allowed.” In Season 1, he had a long conversation with a then-virginal Snow after he tried to run away to rejoin his Stark family in war. “Tell me, did you ever wonder why the men of the Night’s Watch take no wives and father no children?” he asked. “So they will not love. Love is the death of duty.”
For Jon and Ygritte, this might have been true. While Jon was undercover in the wildling camp, he fell in love with the persistent warrior woman. He wrestled with leaving her, but eventually fulfilled his duty to report back on the wildling movements to his brothers at Castle Black, abandoning her to her own cause. Duty was the death of love.
What Ygritte posed was always different. She dreamed aloud of staying in the cave where they first made love and insisted that they be loyal only to one another. She knew he was a spy, no true traitor to his own cause, but did not care so long as their larger duty was to each other.
However, as Maester Aemon also said to Jon back in Season 1, “Oh, we all do our duty when there’s no cost to it. Honor comes easy then. Yet sooner or later in every man’s life there comes a day when it’s not easy. A day when he must choose.” Jon chose duty when he rode to Castle Black without her, carrying three of her arrow shafts in his flesh.
This time, Ygritte tries to choose duty, boasting to Styr that she’ll be the only one to kill Jon Snow when the larger Thenn mocks her aim. As clearly the best shot among almost anyone we’ve seen, Ygritte’s aim that day had to have been exactly as nonlethal as she intended it to be. It is unclear before the battle at Castle Black that she intends to be so imprecise this time around.
Though the show ultimately has us pulling for the Night’s Watch, Ygritte’s sense of duty to the wildling cause stems from a rather legitimate concern. “They came up here to our land and put up a big wall and said it was theirs. Then they started hunting us down. This time, we’re the ones doing the hunting.” She is angry and resentful– not only of Jon, but of all that he ended up standing for– and is fearful for the lives of her people. The wildlings are being hunted not only by Night’s Watch rangers, but also by the menacing White Walkers. She believes they have no choice but to reclaim the land that was once theirs and feels justified in doing so. From one perspective, why shouldn’t she?
Sam ended up in the library after being sent away from the Wall. Maester Aemon understands immediately that Sam is researching the wildlings and how they supposedly treat their victims. He’s been pouring over this research in some sort of mortification of the flesh to atone for leaving Gilly in Mole’s Town, possibly to this fate. Maester Aemon warns Sam not to read into history as written by one man, someone who had never met a wildling before (a warning to all of us history buffs). “Imagine the stories the wildlings tell about us!” This is a clever call back to Ygritte’s own history lesson only moments before. Sam is not convinced.
Aemon then recounts the girl he loved long ago, when he was still a Targaryen and heir to the throne. We learned in Season 1 that Maester Aemon used to be in line for the crown until he refused the throne, passing it instead to his younger brother, Aegon. Aegon’s son ended up being the Mad King Aerys, who is of course the father of Daenerys. The blind Maester Aemon smiles to see his love before him after all these years. “Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death.”
Luckily for Sam, Gilly arrives just as he’s leaving the library. He convinces Pyp to let her in, then hears the blast of the horn, warning of wildling attack.
One of the Thenns is a warg perched as an owl on top of the Wall (you can tell by the way his eyes roll back into his head, just like Bran’s do when he enters the bodies of his direwolf or Hodor). He sees the fires set by Mance Rayder, which was to be the signal to attack (“I’m going to light the biggest fire the North has ever seen,” he said in Season 3), and readies the wildling marauders to attack Castle Black. Soon, the already-measly crow forces find themselves fighting a battle on two fronts.
The Wall is particularly vulnerable at the tunnel, which the Night’s Watch uses to head north in ranging parties. Jon Snow recommended filling it, but Ser Alliser refused– largely out of spite. He almost admits as much as the two of them stand together on top of the Wall, readying for battle. “Do you know what leadership means, Lord Snow? It means that the person in charge gets second-guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth. But if he starts second guessing himself, that’s the end– for him and the clever little twats, for everyone.” Ser Alliser hasn’t second-guessed himself and is prepared to stand by his decisions with confidence. Though he has not been the best of leaders up until this point, he rises to the occasion in battle and does well to show why anyone ever put him in a position of leadership. He makes firm decisions and stands by them. It is a lesson on leadership that Jon sorely needs, and will hopefully carry it with him after the battle is over.
“This is not the end, not for us. Not if you lot do your duty,” Thorne shouts to rally the archers atop the Wall.
Doing his duty has never come easy for Sam. Down below, as he’s stashing Gilly away someplace he hopes will be safe, she pleads with him to stay and protect her. He loves her, as Maester Aemon made him admit, and is at first torn between his love for her and his duty to stand with his brothers in battle. He’s always been cowardly and insecure, broken by years of psychological abuse from his warrior father, who forced Sam to take the black when it was clear that his first born son would not be an heir to his standards.
However, unlike what Maester Aemon presupposes, love ends up being Sam’s strength in accepting his duty, “Because that’s what men do.” He kisses her boldly, and it is only the first example of a newfound confidence in him. When he joins Pyp, who is shaking in fear, he is able to reassure him that they have “loads of weapons and things” and that they’re in the perfect place to be. Though he admits that he is afraid now, he is not acting like it. “When you’re nothing at all, there’s no more reason to be afraid… I’m not nothing anymore.” He fears for his life because he has Gilly now, but it is also his love for her that is giving him the strength to be a man and to fulfill his duty.
Up top, Ser Alliser Thorne leaves the Wall in order to defend Castle Black, which is getting overrun by Thormund’s crew. He puts Janos Slynt in charge, though it is immediately clear that he cannot handle it. Janos Slynt commanded the city guards at King’s Landing before Tyrion became the Hand of the King and shipped him up north. “You must not have been very good at your job,” Jon Snow once dared to say to him, since Slynt ended up on the Wall. Grenn devises a trick to send him below, where he just ends up hiding with Gilly. Stepping in for him is a commanding Jon Snow, proving to be the leader he has always believed he could be. He orders men to fire flaming arrows, drop barrels of oil down below, and manages to take out at least one giant.
Thorne rallies the troops to fight valiantly as the front gates are breached, showing in the end why men have bothered to follow him all along.
“Brothers! A hundred generations have defended this castle. She’s never fallen before; she will not fall tonight. Those are Thenns at our walls—they eat the flesh of the men they kill. Do you want to fill the belly of a Thenn tonight? Tonight we fight. And when the sun rises, I promise you, Castle Black will stand! The Night’s Watch will stand! With me now! Now with me!”
He faces Thormund Giantsbane and fights with a commanding vigor, laying it all on the line in an attempt to bring down the leader of the wildling invaders. He gets seriously injured and is last seen being dragged off by his men. It is unclear what state he is in after the battle, but in the end of the episode, Jon does allude to the fact that there is no senior ranking commander to take orders from.
Pyp and Sam work together to get crossbows loaded and fired on the wildlings, though Pyp is a terrible shot. Just when he’s successful, Ygritte sends an expert shot through his neck. It was so interesting to see the battle from both perspectives, though it was hard not wanting people on either side to die. It’s difficult not to cheer over the beauty of Ygritte’s lethal accuracy, but also challenging to watch the naive and lovable Pyp die in Sam’s arms. In the end, the best fiction is as complicated as the life we live.
Back on the Wall, Jon sees the success of the giants and mammoths against the gate at the tunnel, and sends Grenn below to defend it. It’s a hard decision for a young leader to make and one he does not take lightly; however, he learns quickly from Thorne and stands by his decision. Grenn is a great warrior and a true friend, which does not make the decision to send him to a sure death any easier, but does make him the best man for the job.
When they get to the gate, the men Grenn has selected start to fear for their lives. The giant, who has already taken dozens of arrows, is able to lift the outer door single-handedly. As he rushes towards the inner door, Grenn starts to recite their oath. Eventually, everyone joins in, rising in a chorus of brotherhood to combat their fears in the face of such a foe. Grenn uses their sense of duty and honor to inspire them to greatness in that moment, and indeed they are able to hold the inner gate, but at the cost of all their lives.
Sam relays to Jon just how dire the situation is in the castle with Thorne fallen. (“Find a weapon, Olly. Fight them,” Sam orders the young boy manning the elevator as he heads up; a fateful decision.) Jon Snow leaves the Wall to Dolorous Edd, and they head below. Edd himself is able to do well commanding from above, ordering the release of the scythe in the Wall just in time to sever the climbers from the ice face.
When Jon joins the battle within the castle, he expertly kills several wildlings and has Sam set Ghost lose. In one brilliant, continuous shot, we get a great sense of the scale of the battle raging in every corner. Styr sees Jon and launches into attack mode. Ygritte rushes to join them and notches an arrow, but seems unsure of who to aim at. Styr gets in several would-be killing blows (that head-to-anvil slam would have at least broken Jon’s beautiful face, if not knocked him out altogether), but an unarmed Jon still manages to kill him with a nearby hammer.
When Jon sees Ygritte, her arrow trained on him, her face quaking with all of her hurt, anger, and pride, he smiles. It triggers something in her, and her expression continues to waver, this time into sadness and maybe even a little relief, a little determination.
This is a wonderfully heartbreaking moment, as the warrior woman pauses in the time that she could have unleashed a half dozen arrows. Her duty is to kill him. Love is the death of duty. Love is death.
Olly, the boy who witnessed Ygritte kill his parents, who bragged all along about being an expert archer, who was instructed by Sam to get a weapon and kill the wildlings, kills one of the best warriors the wildlings have. In a literal and figurative sense, Ygritte let her guard down for Jon, and she lost her life for it in the cruelest way. She spared a child last week, letting Gilly and baby Sam go unharmed, only to be killed by one in the end. It’s a loss not only for Jon Snow, but also for the show. Rose Leslie’s Ygritte was a great character and an unbelievably skilled warrior. Secondary characters like Ygritte and Oberyn Martell add a lot of color and breadth to Game of Thrones, and it’s always pretty devastating to see the best of them go.
“Do you remember the cave? We should have stayed in the cave.”
“We’ll go back there.”
“You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
Thormund is finally brought down and hauled away. With Ygritte and Styr dead, it makes sense that he is the last man standing. The rest of the wildlings beyond the Wall withdraw for the time being, and though it’s a great victory, Jon Snow knows that it is a temporary one. He believes that Mance was only testing their defenses, and will strike again the next night.
“The wildling army is only an army because of Mance.” The many different tribes are often in conflict with one another, as evidenced by Thormund and Ygritte’s dislike of their Thenn allies; Mance brought them together under a common cause with nothing short of outstanding leadership. His rule is successful mainly because of who he is (which, since we haven’t seen him all season, is a little hard to remember).
Jon hypothesizes that by killing Mance, he can force the wildlings to disband and lessen the threat that they pose. However, just as Sam points out, this is a foolhardy plan without a better alternative. Jon hands over Longclaw, the sword given to him by former Lord Commander Mormont, in case he doesn’t come back, having promised never to lose the heirloom. As he walks out, the screen fades to white.
Other thoughts on “The Watchers on the Wall”:
- As epic as this episode felt, with great direction, choreography, and cinematography, the ending was a little lame. It’s rather anti-climactic (albeit more realistic) to dedicate the whole episode to a battle that is hardly resolved, with the promise of more of the same to come. I will be amazed if they can fit in everything they need to in the next episode, and would not be surprised if some of the remaining elements of A Storm of Swords aren’t displaced into next season. There are at least three other major plots all worthy of their own episode. Next week will either be incredible or disappointing. I’m going to be optimistic, as always, that they pull it off.
- It’s about time that Sam developed into something more. He’s always had potential, but he’s much more enjoyable to watch with his newfound confidence.
- Did anyone else find it entirely comical the way the bundle of Gilly and baby Sam went unnoticed as they walked by the wildling band?