Brothers! A hundred generations have defended this castle! It's never fallen before, she will not fall tonight!
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by: Neil Marshall
When I said that season four was the best season of Game of Thrones yet, it should have been a very very very indirect way of saying, "We're going to get the biggest battle the show has seen since "Blackwater"." Perhaps it is a bit of a disappointment that the aftermath of Tyrion's trial by combat - let's be honest, that's the main thing we want to see at the moment- is put on hold, but when the substitute is the wildling invasion of Castle Black, it's hard to stay too upset. I say 'wildling invasion' with caution though, because as we learn at the end of the episode, it is only a handful of wildlings that launch the attack, with the King Beyond the Wall Mance Rayder being nowhere in sight. As Jon Snow told us before, the wildlings vastly outnumber the Night's Watch, so a battle between the Night's Watch and the entire wildling army wouldn't take up longer than 20 minutes of screen-time. For the small sample size of wildlings that do invade, the battle that ensues still makes for a gripping hour of television that raises the bar for what this show is capable of doing.
Like "Blackwater","The Watchers on the Wall" doesn't run wall-to-wall action without some worthwhile conversations, mainly from Sam. Sam's talk with Jon about interpreting their Night's Watch vows and his reunion with Gilly takes up the majority of the time before the battle gets underway. We all know Sam can't swing a sword, so talking with Jon and finding out Gilly is alive is the best that D&D could do with Sam in this episode. For what it's worth, Sam truly makes his presence felt when it could have been so easy for him to be relegated to background character and have virtually no effect on anything that happens in the episode. I especially loved how Sam was trying to fudge the meaning of his vows, like a disgruntled employee trying to bend the handbook and get away with something because it's not stated literally on any of the pages. If your mind has gone to the gutter, you'd guess correctly that Sam was trying to wiggle his way through the rules so that he could not feel guilty about making love to a woman.
So then, the fighting gets started, and boy is there a lot of different things going on at once: archers fire arrows down from the top of the Wall, a wildling giant uses a woolly mammoth to try and open the front gate, Tormund Giantsbane, Ygritte, and the Thenns make their way into the castle, oil barrels explode, and a freaking scythe is used to kill wildlings that try to climb the Wall. It's busy everywhere you look, but the action is completely comprehensible: well-lit and well-defined in terms of what's going on. My only complaint is that in some shots of the in-castle fighting, it's a bit hard to tell who is a wildling and who is a man of the Night's Watch, as the two sides' outfits don't stand out all that well during the night.
The frustrating thing about this battle and the episode as a whole is that D&D haven't done enough during season four to truly get us excited for something we know is coming. While there have been conversations between Jon Snow and others about the impending wildling attack, it hasn't been quite on the level that "Blackwater" was on: a battle we could get excited about four or five episodes before it actually happene. Maybe it's because "Blackwater" was in King's Landing, and had Stannis won and taken the Iron Throne, it would have changed the entire course of the series. "The Watchers on the Wall", on the other hand, is Mance Rayder testing the Night's Watch to see how much of a resistance they put up against his army, like it's just a small precursor to a much larger war. To put it plainly, "The Watchers on the Wall" doesn't have the aura of a pivotal confrontation that could be a game-changer. "Blackwater" was a potential game-changer, but even though the wildlings end up losing this battle, Mance Rayder isn't any worse off than he was before.
So Ygritte is killed after she finds Jon and the two have a brief staredown. This is, however, far from being one of the most emotionally gut-wrenching deaths in all of Game of Thrones. Jon and Ygritte have been apart since the end of season three, and again, this battle is not the ultimate showdown of wildlings vs. crows. Because of how Jon and Ygritte developed some bad blood after Jon showed his true colors back in "The Rains of Castamere", it's a lot more difficult to get choked up over Jon losing the first woman he has ever loved. Maybe if Jon had killed Ygritte himself, it would be a lot more gut-wrenching, but that's not what we get. Not that George R.R. Martin and D&D did anything terribly wrong with how they handled Jon and Ygritte since they split apart. It's just that the fire between the two had died down to some lukewarm embers, and that's what remained up until this battle.
In the end, "The Watchers on the Wall" is not flawless by any means, but the action and visuals on-hand make for an incredibly entertaining episode of television, one that also doesn't skimp too much on the character interactions and development. The things that are missing that would have made this episode another "Blackwater" are a larger sense of scale and an emotional thumping. Regardless, this is an episode that you can come back to repeatedly and still be highly entertained by. It's the big battle that season four needed to go over the top, and "The Watchers on the Wall" doesn't disappoint when it comes to making sure this season has a little bit of everything.
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