‘Game of Thrones’ Breakdown: “The Watchers on the Wall”

WARNING: For the words are dark and full of spoilers…

Season Four, Episode Nine: “The Watchers on the Wall”

Written by David Benioff & D.B.Weiss; Directed by Neil Marshall

And then there were two. The penultimate episode in Game of Thrones’ season four is very much cut from the same cloth as a fan-favorite from a couple years ago: season two’s “Blackwater.” Both were directed by Neil Marshall (they’re the only two episodes he’s done in the series), and, like “Blackwater,” this week’s showing focuses entirely on a single major event — the attack on the Wall by Mance Rayder’s Wildling army. And, man, do they hit hard. Huge set pieces and dazzling special effects permeate the battles on each side of the Wall, while calmer, more character-driven moments fit snugly between the gaps of big-budget action. The resulting episode is as cohesive and entertaining as any we’ve seen so far in the series.

Quick Breakdown

Jon Snow is one of my favorite characters in the series, mostly because of his growth as a person. Right from the beginning, his story arc has featured isolation and the hope for acceptance (in his case, one begets the other) as its central themes. Even the way his adventures at Castle Black have been told throughout the seasons — almost as an aside — reflects this. It’s in his surroundings, too. First Winterfell, then the Wall — frigid environments for a cold and calloused man.

It’s not all his fault. Being born as the lone bastard raised amongst five highborn half-siblings can attune you to feelings of separation. Having a stepmother who loathes your existence can too. But he does bear some of the blame. He made the choice to join the Night’s Watch. He decided (at least for a while) to push away the thieves and rapists there that had sworn to be his brothers.

Ironically, it’s there he’s learning what acceptance really means. In this week’s episode, that maturation process is on display more than ever before. With Ser Alliser wounded and Janos Slynt hiding from battle in a broom closet somewhere, Jon gets the chance to command the Night’s Watch during their battle with the Wildlings. Seeing both how he trusts his brothers — like with Grenn, whom he sends to defend the tunnel, and Edd, who he leaves in charge of the Wall’s outer defenses — and how they return that trust to him proves that Jon’s grown up more at Castle Black than he ever did back home.

Usually, this is the point in the breakdown where I’d transition into a detailed retelling of this week’s episode; we’d jump from place to place around the Known World talking about each scene, what happened, and why it matters. But this episode is different. It takes place entirely at the Wall, and the latter half of it is, for the most part, just several intense battle scenes. They’re awesome, and detailing them out here would do them absolutely no justice. (As an alternative, I’d recommend rewatching the episode; the choreography and cinematography and both great and beg repeated viewings.)

Instead, let’s hit some of the highlights from the episode…

Samwell Tarly’s Development

Sam is becoming such a complex character. Back when we first met him, the guy was a joke. A good-hearted, but mostly good-for-nothing, joke. Now, he’s as brave as any man in the Night’s Watch. The difference is Gilly, with whom he reunited in this episode. (Side note: That girl is durable as hell. She survived certain death last week, then made the journey from Mole’s Town to Castle Black with only her baby, and she snuck past a group of Wildlings on her way. Maybe she’ll sit the iron throne when the show’s over — since everyone else will be dead.) Sam loves her, no matter what he says to Maester Aemon in Castle Black’s library. “I’m not nothing anymore,” he tells Pyp as he prepares to fight the Wildlings with Gilly in his heart.

Sam’s newfound courage gets him into all sorts of action. He curses at Pyp whenever he won’t open the gate for Gilly (“I never heard you curse before,” Pyp says, surprised), he mans the gate of Castle Black with his brothers during the Wildling attack (even scoring a headshot on a Thenn with his crossbow), and he earns his first kiss with Gilly in a storage room beneath the castle, where he’s hidden her for the battle. “Promise me you won’t die,” she tells him just before he leaves.

Unsung Heroes

There were many casualties this week on both sides of the battle, most of whom were insignificant, unnamed Wildlings or members of the Night’s Watch. We did, however, lose two beloved brothers that we’re used to seeing around Castle Black. The first is Pyp, who’s shot through the neck with an arrow by Ygritte. He dies brutally in Sam’s arms, suffocating on his own blood while Sam does his best to comfort him. This happens just after Pyp proudly scores his first kill with the crossbow. “I got one,” he tells Sam, smiling.

Grenn is also killed during battle, and it’s one of the more honorable deaths in the show. He and five other men are sent down to the tunnel beneath the Wall by Jon to protect it from an approaching giant. They’re the final line of defense; if they go down, Castle Black is in trouble. As a giant approaches them, charging at full speed, Grenn motivates his brothers to be brave by reciting the oath of the Night’s Watch. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in an episode full of intensity. The battle happens off screen, but, later, Jon finds them all dead, including the giant, who never made it through the tunnel. “They held the gate,” he offers, solemnly.

No Ygritte

Ygritte’s death comes as a surprise to absolutely nobody. Someone had to go. I liked her, but if the choice was between her or Jon Snow, I’d have killed her 10 times over. Maybe more.

But even so, that did not make her death any less tragic. She and Jon come face to face for the first time since season three, and her bow is aimed at his chest (again). He smiles, clearly happy to see her, which makes her hesitate. With their eyes locked, Ygritte is shot from behind with an arrow, straight through her heart. The symbolism here is obvious. “Love is the death of duty,” Maester Aemon says from the library earlier in the episode. Here, it’s on full display.

Unless your name is Jon Snow, I guess. After Ygritte is shot, Jon takes his sweet time (mid-battle, mind you) to say goodbye to her. He clutches her failing body in his arms as she whispers about their time north of the Wall. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” she tells him one last time. (Which, in this moment, just seems silly. She’s dying, and he isn’t; obviously he knows something.) As he lowers her to the ground, the two factions continue to fight in the background, completely unaware of this touching moment that’s just ripe for interruption by a Wildling sword.

The fatal arrow, it turns out, was fired by Olly, the young boy that join Castle Black earlier in the season. Back in episode three, Olly’s village was raiding by the group of Wildlings south of the Wall — including Ygritte, who shot and killed the boy’s father right in front of him. Clearly, Olly saw the opportunity for revenge. As the camera pans to him after the arrow pierces Ygritte, he gives both Jon and the audience a satisfied nod.

Jon’s Sabbatical

The next morning, just after their successful defense of the Wall, Jon decides (on his own) it’d be in the best interests of everyone if he were to leave, go north, and try to kill Mance Rayder. Yes, just like that. From an outsider’s point of view, this sounds really dumb (Sam even tells Jon that), but it’s hard to fault the guy for trying. His logic sort of makes sense: Mance is the single governing body amongst the entire Wildling army. He is what holds them together. If he dies, the Wildlings separate back into warring factions, and their attacks stop. It’s a nice theory, but what it really seems to amount to is a suicide mission.

Unfortunately, there aren’t really any better alternatives. Traveling south for help would still mean leaving the Wall, and Mance’s army — in all likelihood — would attack again while Jon was in transit. Staying put is no good either because they’re so outnumbered, and The Night’s Watch are exhausted and depleted just from the first battle. Jon sees heading north as his only option, and he does a decent enough job (I guess) of convincing us that it makes sense. He’s always been a “take action” kind of guy, and he isn’t really known for making incredibly smart decisions.

This journey will undoubtedly play a part in next week’s episode. With so much to cover, however (King’s Landing, Meereen, the Vale, Arya and the Hound, Brienne and Podrick… there are so many places we could visit), it’s hard to imagine it getting enough screen time to truly resolve itself. Annoying cliffhanger? Don’t be surprised if there is one.

Two into One, and Other Show/Book Differences

(WARNING: Book spoilers to follow. It’s nothing beyond what we’ve seen in the show, but skip ahead if you want to avoid them for any reason.)

This episode featured a lot of small deviations from the novels. None of them really mean that much in the bigger picture (as a whole, the show is great at reaching the same conclusions through different means), but they’re worth pointing out, if for no other reason to give show-watchers some context.

The biggest difference is in how these battles (one on each side of the Wall) take place in the show versus how they take place in the books. The show features them simultaneously, as a kind of one-two punch orchestrated by Mance’s army to spread the numbers of Castle Black thin and overwhelm them with sheer force. In the books, however, the battles are separate entities entirely. Tormund’s group attacks first with the goal of seizing Castle Black, which will allow Mance’s entire army a pretty easy passage into the south. Instead, they fail, and Mance is forced to attack the Wall again — this time from the North. The outcome of the battles, and some key moments, remains mostly the same.

The choice to kill off Pyp and Grenn in the show is also an interesting change. In the books, both of these men survive well beyond this battle. Instead, there are minor characters in the novels (who have been omitted entirely from the show) who die in their places. The most notable is Donal Noye, the one-armed blacksmith, who sacrifices himself heroically defending the tunnel from an approaching giant entirely by himself. (Not to take anything away from Grenn, but this is infinitely more badass.) His character isn’t all that active up until then, and adding another name onto the already long list of characters (and cast) would likely have muddied the waters for viewers, so his role got condensed and combined with Grenn’s in the show. The reason for Pyp’s death is likely the same; a new season means new characters, so it’s time to get rid of some of the old ones. Moving forward without these two is weird, but it really only amounts to a minor difference.

Another difference between the show and books involves Ygritte’s death. The actual event remains mostly the same (though, in the books, she dies in Jon’s arms after the battles and not during), but the way she dies has been changed some. In the novels, it’s unclear who shot her, whereas the show gives us Olly (a show-only character) as the clear assailant. For my money, the kid is totally unnecessary — sure, he accurately represents the horrors of Westeros and their effects on the innocent, but Arya’s storyline has covered that for four seasons now, and with exceedly more poignance. However, I can see the desire for a more finite resolution to Ygritte’s death in the series.

Final one: In the books, Jon doesn’t volunteer himself to go north in his attempt to assassinate Mance Rayder. Instead, he’s sent by Ser Alliser and Janos Slynt as a semi-punishment for frolicking around for so long with the Wildlings. The idea behind it is that Jon will either kill Mance or get himself killed. (In the show, Jon is sent to Craster’s Keep to kill the mutineers instead. Similar situation here.) The show portrays the journey as a choice — a heroic but ill-advised sacrifice by Jon. Trouble is, it just seems like a really dumb thing to do, and it’s much harder to believe than the reasoning given in the novels.



After last week’s episode, this one almost felt tame. We lost a few characters, but none as gruesomely or as beloved as Oberyn (thank the gods). This episode is a technical feat, showing off the skills of every member of the Game of Thrones cast and crew. Some decisions made to alter the source material seem questionable and a little melodramatic. Overall, though, it’s an excellent addition to the series that packages the tone and feel of Game of Thrones into a big-budget box.

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