Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Game of Thrones 4.09: "The Watchers on the Wall"

“And what did I get for it? An arrow six inches from my heart.”
-Jon Snow

While “The Watchers on the Wall” was clearly the showpiece of the fourth season of “Game of Thrones,” I’m finding it somewhat difficult to find 1,000 words to say about it. It was a gorgeous, brutal episode, but most of what was happening was action, not character work. I definitely like my action sequences in fantasy/sci-fi, but there isn’t as much to say about the hacking and slashing, you know? I could see an effort by the creative team to try and ground the action in the characters, but it was still, in the end, almost all action. By the end of the episode, the Night’s Watch have prevailed for now, but there’s definitely a sense that without some big changes taking place soon, the victory won’t last. While I can see many potential endings for the overall “Song of Ice and Fire” saga, but Mance Rayder and the Wildlings winning isn’t one of them. So I’ll be very interested to see how this plays out.

It’s natural to compare “The Watchers on the Wall” to season 2’s “Blackwater.” “Blackwater” was the last time that the “Game of Thrones” creative team attempted to tell one story in one episode centered on a big battle. “Blackwater” felt more epic to me, perhaps because it was a naval battle. I think I was more invested in those characters, as well. I feel like I know the Lannisters and other King’s Landing important denizens more than I know Jon’s buddies up on the Wall. I know Sam and Alliser Thorne and Maester Aemon, but I couldn’t tell you the name of anyone else in the Night’s Watch. That could be why I enjoyed “Blackwater” more. I feel like on paper, the stakes were higher in this one, but I just didn’t feel it.

The attempt to ground the action in character is evident right from the beginning of the episode. We open with Jon and Sam talking about their lady problems, which is kind of funny considering they’re both of the Night’s Watch. Sam tells Jon his theory that technically, the Night’s Watch vows don’t require celibacy. They make take no wife and father no children, but that’s not a blanket ban on sex. I think he’s mostly trying to make Jon feel better about the Ygritte incident, since Sam hasn’t really made any moves on Gilly. Speaking of Ygritte, pre-battle, she makes it clear that she wants to kill Jon. The rest of the Wildlings can do whatever damage they want, but Ygritte wants her final revenge.

Back at Castle Black, Sam is still hung up on Gilly. He and Maester Aemon have an interesting conversation about love. We learn a lot more about Maester Aemon through the conversation. Remember that before he was a Maester, he was Aemon Targaryen, potential heir to the Iron Throne. Because of his royal status, Aemon had many suitors, and he tells Sam about the only woman who ever made an impression on him. Just as this conversation is wrapping up, Gilly happens to show up at the gate. Sam is overjoyed to see her, and he makes it clear that if any of the Brothers have a problem with Gilly’s presence at Castle Black, they’ll have to answer to him.

Soon after Gilly is inside the Castle grounds, the situation begins to get tense. The Wildlings are closing in. They blow their horns, and a horde of Wildlings carrying flaming torches is visible. The Wildlings approach the wall quickly, and as they start trying to break down the walls, Alliser Thorne (as acting Lord Commander) gives what should be a very rousing speech to rally the troops. I would have found it inspirational if it wasn’t Alliser Thorne saying the words. Alliser is just such a jerk that I can’t be inspired. I think that part of the meaning behind that moment was that Alliser was finally coming into his own and being a decent leader for the Night’s Watch, but he was just so horrible in the past that I can’t get on board. News flash: he dies by the end of the episode. So there’s that.

Like I mentioned, there is a lot of action in this episode. I don’t retain action in my memory as well as I do dialogue, so I feel like it would be kind of pointless to talk about all the ins and outs of the Battle for the Wall here. I will say that there was one scene that stood out to me as being really cool. The Wildlings have a mammoth charging the gates of Castle Black, and the Night’s Watch brothers throw down some flaming barrels to scare it off. There’s also a kind of memorable scene where somebody got an axe to the head. It wasn’t quite the gore of the exploding head of last week’s episode, but it certainly wasn’t pretty, either.

Eventually, Jon goes outside Castle Black to join the fight, and he and Ygritte end up squaring off. Jon’s already killed quite a few Wildlings by this point, including the super creepy shaved head and scars leader dude. Ygritte proves to be a more difficult opponent, though. The fight becomes intense, and Ygritte finally gets an arrow trained on Jon Snow. Before she can actually kill him, though, she is shot by Olly, the boy who was orphaned in the recent Wildling attack (who was sent to warn the Night’s Watch that the Wildlings were coming). As she dies, Ygritte wishes she and Jon could have just stayed in the cave where they had sex, and she tells him he knows nothing. It’s one final insult to Jon.

One of the brothers who Jon left in charge gives an order, and a giant anchor comes loose and starts swinging against the Wall. At first, I thought the Wall was breaking (which would have been very, very bad), but it was actually a plan to basically sweep all of the invading Wildlings off of the Wall. The plan works, for now at least. The battle is won for that night, but Jon doesn’t think the Wildlings are going to give up. The Night’s Watch can only hold out for a few days more at most. Jon thinks that the only long-term solution is to kill Mance Rayder. Mance has managed to bring a bunch of usually fighting Wildling tribes together, so Jon’s theory is that without Mance, they’ll all start fighting each other again. We end the episode of a shot of Jon leaving the safety of Castle Black in search of Mance.

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