So this is what they’ve been saving all the money for…
The ninth episode is traditionally the dramatic climax of each season of Game of Thrones, the one where all the really huge things happen – Ned’s death, the Battle of the Blackwater, the Red Wedding, and this is no exception. The Watchers on the Wall is probably the best episode of this season, and unless Doctor Who manages something really special in the autumn, it will surely be a shoe-in for next year’s Hugo Award. It’s Blackwater 2 and it’s amazing, in no small part because it’s entirely about one location and one group of characters, making the episode much less fragmented than is the norm for the show.
For all of Blackwater’s many and considerable merits, it was still hard to escape the feeling that almost the whole battle was happening at one 20-metre stretch of city wall. There’s none of that problem here: with judicious use of CGI and a small army of extras, they’ve given this battle the genuinely epic scale it needed.
Admittedly, most of the wildlings north of the Wall didn’t get to do a whole lot, but the sheer size of the horde, complete with mammoths and giants, meant it didn’t matter all that much. There was still plenty of thoroughly exciting, creative action though, from flaming arrows to exploding barrels to an enormous scythe swinging across the Wall to cut down anyone trying to climb up it. A particular highlight was a giant shooting a bow roughly the size of a ballista to hit the Night’s Watchmen.
The brawl that raged in Castle Black’s courtyard was spectacular enough that it could have merited an episode on its own. What’s really remarkable is that it’s actually very easy to tell which side is which, given that everyone’s wearing the same colours and it all takes place at night. Credit to Neil Marshall, who also directed season two’s Blackwater, for managing to make the fights chaotic but comprehensible, as well as for that extraordinary tracking shot across the courtyard battle.
What made The Watchers on the Wall really work was the small, intimate stuff to balance out the massive battle: it was packed with great character beats that remind us they’re the real reason we watch this show. Sam reuniting with Gilly obviously stood out, and him swearing for the first time in four seasons was a refreshing and unexpected bit of comedy to balance out all the death.
He ended up becoming unexpectedly useful in the battle, doing a surprisingly good job of keeping the men motivated and encouraging them to fight in the face of hopeless odds. In much the same way as his Lord of the Rings namesake, Sam has been the heart of the Night’s Watch storyline, and that doesn’t look set to change any time soon. Him shooting a charging Thenn in the face with a crossbow was just awesome, too.
Alliser Thorne, up to this point one of the biggest bullies on the show, who seems to have made his life’s work tormenting fan-favourite Jon Snow, proved a very competent and strangely sympathetic leader in the battle. It was a good episode for minor characters all round, even if a lot of them ended up dying: the show’s taken glee in killing off characters who actually manage to survive in the books, and The Watchers on the Wall was no exception.
One of the most genuinely shocking moments was Pyp’s death, which came out of nowhere and immediately after he managed to kill his first enemy. It was sudden, ugly and impressively moving for a character who’s had relatively little screen time. Similarly, Grenn died fighting the one giant that managed to break through into the tunnel beneath the Wall, taking the giant with him. While it’s hard to shake the feeling that we were robbed of a potentially fantastic fight between five men and a giant, the cutaway as the giant broke through the gate kept the focus where it needed to be.
And the focus needed to be on Jon and Ygritte this week. Jon ended up becoming de facto leader of the Night’s Watch, and fought a thrilling battle with the Magnar of Thenn. The creativity of the choreography actually rivals the climactic duel from last week, with Jon using a sword, a chain and ultimately an ordinary hammer in a desperate fight to stay alive. It’s great stuff, and leads into the episode’s tragic resolution: the death of Ygritte. She was visibly breaking as she tried to find the strength to shoot Jon, and it reminds us of how great Rose Leslie has been in this role. Her absence has been keenly felt this season, and will be even more so in future.
Since Jon is an honorary Stark, they probably ought to get some points for successfully defending the Wall, but the knowledge that the Night’s Watch have only stopped the first of many attacks, along with the deaths of so many characters, means it’s a Pyrrhic victory at best.
Lannister: 30 / Stark: 45 / Baratheon: 25 / Targaryen: 35
As for the body count, who knows? The battle was huge and it’s impossible to know how many died over the course of the episode. 300 seems like a reasonable estimate, if too small in all likelihood, which brings the total death toll for season four up to 740. It’s the season finale next week, and no doubt there will be more deaths in store for us then. Hopefully the show will be able to keep up this level of quality, although that’ll be tough with so many storylines to wrap up. Interestingly though, showrunners Benioff and Weiss have hyped episode 10, which will run for an extended 66 minutes, saying it’s “the best finale we’ve ever done, bar none”. Watch this space.
All iImages: HBO