Television

Published on June 11th, 2014 | by Bean

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Game of Thrones Review – Season 4 – Episode 9 “The Watchers on the Wall”

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WARNING – CONTAINS, UM, SOME SPOILERS…(ssssshhhhhh, there be giants!)

An episode like “The Watchers on the Wall” illustrates much that is praise-worthy and some of what is frustrating about Game of Thrones. I find myself in an odd situation this week, feeling that I have much less than usual to discuss, despite plenty happening. This is certainly due in part to it being a one-location anomaly in a season of roaming stories, a trope rarely used, and most memorably in Season 2’s “Blackwater”, another episode directed by Neil Marshall.

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Both “Blackwater” and “Watchers on the Wall” revolve around a battle for territory and rights claimed by, at least from a viewer’s perspective, the less sympathetic side. I’ve been rooting for Ser Davos to find an honourable reason to abandon his moody monarch for ages – I don’t know anybody who’s rooting for Stannis. And similarly, the Wildlings have lost what underdog sympathies they may have ever earned since they began raping and pillaging the villages south of the Wall. In both episodes, this usurping side ‘loses’, though Stannis’ forces were more soundly repelled by Tyrion and Tywin than the Crows temporary success over the Wildlings implies here. Perhaps this is the problem I have with this episode, if indeed I have one! I still can’t decide, and perhaps it doesn’t matter.

I have been lamenting the lack of action on the Wall for most of Season 4; a necessity, since apart from finishing off the traitors at Craster’s Keep, the show runners have been holding off anything significant happening there until now, feeding us titbits with surly arguments between Jon Snow and Ser Alliser Thorne, and the Sam/Gilly romance. Movements in the White Walker narrative are always spare, but we made a chilling discovery in episode 4, and that’ll keep me going for months. We’ve been waiting for the hammer to fall on the black brothers for over a season now, and it finally did. Or started to, anyway.

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Ten minutes into “Watchers on the Wall”, with our characters still discussing love, women and the Black’s Watch contract’s small print (Sam’s lawyered up!), it becomes apparent that we’ll be staying oop north tonight. After the brutal ending of last week’s “The Mountain and Viper”, to be dragged away from the aftermath in Kings Landing is hard. It is also important, not just from a delayed gratification perspective, but also to keep us on our toes. We followed up the last seismic shift of regicide straight away, so this time we wait, and settle in for story time with Maester Aeomon, a man who avoided the certain doom of the regal lines of Westeros by taking the Black.

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It is lines like “Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death” that cling me to Game of Throne’s bloody breast. When such dialogue is spoken by the esteemed likes of Peter Vaughan, the pertinent becomes dogma; we hang on his words just as Sam does, both of us aware that we are in the presence of somebody very special. A whisper of the Targaryen imperiousness creeps into the Maester’s voice as he asks Sam if he knows of his provenance. As he wistfully reminisces of his lost love, sharing an old grief with Sam’s new one, his eyes, blind to reality, flit across the imaginary woman like a man still in love; but with whom, who knows?

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We intercut this talk with the Wildling version – Tormund and his tall tale of bestiality. Ok, we get it, they’re a rough bunch! Jon Snow is a mass of bum fluff and pre-Raphaelite curls, and this dude is waxing lyrical about bear vaginas. Yikes. We side with Castle Black already, sheesh! Ygritte saves us from more of Tormund’s pre-match distractions, working herself into a fury whilst whittling her arrows and speechifying about their righteous cause. But the lady doth protest too much, and the Fenn leader Styr calls her out, somehow managing to bring her “ginger minge” into it. Ygritte, monomaniac though she might be, has more front than Braavos, and she stands up to the cannibals like a jack russell seeing off a shark. Rose Leslie does a great job of coating her character’s doubts in fierce bravura and steely impatience, but we are still able to discern the conflict in her eyes.
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The romance doesn’t end there, with Sam, Gilly and little Samlet reunited at the gate of Castle Black. Tarly bursts his bubble of propriety in an uncharacteristically coarse way, swearing loudly at Pip, and follows it up by essentially pledging his troth to his lady-love. Gilly’s turn from admonishment to astonishment is charming to behold, and juuuuust as it’s about to get too soppy…the horn starts to blare; two blasts for Wildlings.
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Composer Ramin Djawadi weaves the ghostly horn into the score seamlessly, signaling the turning point; things are about to kick off. We get a Snow’s-eye-view of Mance’s mighty fire, and it’s all hands to the wheel. Wildlings strike camp and set off for their quarry, whilst the Night’s Watch make ready for the marauder’s attack. This is a meagre affair, woefully undermanned, a situation exacerbated by the likes of Janos Slynt, who prefers to make ineffectual comments than, you know, actually help.

Jon Snow and Alliser Thorne share one final antagonistic exchange atop the Wall before all hell breaks loose. Thorne (anagram of throne, anyone?! Might be reading too much into it now) has a monologue on leadership, which he fairly begins by allowing Snow an “I told ya so”, which the younger man humbly doesn’t revel in. This almost seems to annoy the Lord Commander more, and is it my imagination, or does he direct the line “you can go on hating me” right to camera, as if making a plea to the audience for his character’s safe passage through the episode. Intermittently, the longhorn howls, reminding us that tension is still mounting.

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Through the tunnels we wend, coiling panic on the faces of all and sundry, and in the terror of further abandonment, Gilly manages to empower Sam by way of emasculation. Ahh, true love. The sweethearts finally share that longed for kiss, and I am (as usual) put in mind of a Whedon moment; Kaylee and Simon’s fortifying expression of affection before the Reaver attack in Serenity. So Tarly steps up again, and we are left hoping this hiding place is more efficient than Mole’s Town. He continues to stand tall, giving Pip a pep talk while claiming his right to be afraid. John Bradley-West beautifully undersells his “I’m not nothing anymore” line, giving it a Samwell-esque humility even as the character stretches out of his chrysalis.
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My boyfriend’s arm and I were both gripped as the Wildlings descended upon Castle Black; there may have been whooping as the camera tilted up to reveal a giant riding a mammoth. FINALLY! As they prepare for attack, the brothers on the wall look north to the horde, fumbling and unready, when the horn blasts from down below, to the south. Alliser’s face is the picture of “WTF now?” and Slynt appears on the scene to clarify the totally obvious, useful as ever. We sweep over the barricades for an overview of how utterly buggered our boys are.

The assault on Castle Black comprises a series a brutal and brilliantly shot sequences; the camera galloping over rough terrain with the Wildlings at knee-level, close-quarters action accompanied by gruesome foley. Men of the Black fall under the sharpshooting arrows of Ygritte and her fellows, and when Tormund and his men finally breach their defenses, Alliser’s brief attempt at a St Crispin’s Day speech is cut short by BATTLE!
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And so the grim hack and slash begins in earnest; Ygritte relentlessly takes down one man after another; Styr obliterates his way through the defenders with what looked like a huge iron tennis racket (it was a sort of axe I think); the Nights Watch cook gets busy with a cleaver on a stick (now that’s a weapon); and Slynt slithers off to what turns out to be Gilly’s hiding place. All this is accompanied by the crunch and wail of human destruction, the panting breaths of people under enormous strain, and it is difficult to see, with scenes lit by things on fire.
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Meanwhile, the giants and their mammoth aren’t ceasing to exist just because Janos the Ever-Whinging doesn’t believe in them (erm, there’s two right down there dude); in fact, they’re coming, bearing vast spear-arrows, crowbars and mean to get into the tunnel by hook or by crook. Killing one of the giants and setting fire to the mammoth is a major win for the Crows, but it only results in a remaining giant, now fuelled by rage and vengeance for his fallen comrades. Likewise, the Scythe, a really extraordinary feat of imagination, smears a few climbers across the wall, but as Eddison Tollet points out to his brothers in arms – they’re still outnumbered 1000 to 1. Gulp.
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We know that this skirmish will incur casualties, and the Night’s Watch are much depleted by the end. Men are gouged into pieces, cleaved, blown up, pierced with spears, thrown from the wall, but they are faceless until Pyp. Our friendly crow has been looking like a red coat since the first season, bless him. Does it bear any significance that Ygritte is the one to bury an arrow in his neck? Probably not, since she might be responsible for 25% of the overall deaths, sharp shooter that she is.
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When Olly the orphan avenges his parent’s murder by killing Ygritte (a subtlety I missed on first viewing) it feels inevitable. There were no options left for her character; she wasn’t destined to be a turncoat, and her mission of vengeance was going to end one of two ways. Still, as Jon Snow cradles her dead body it is hard not to feel the loss of a spirited warrior. We feel the impact of Pyp’s death, as we do Grenn’s later on; in a less visceral, slightly peripheral way. They were supporting characters, which makes them no less interesting, just less known. Grenn’s demise is smartly left to the imagination; all we know is that he and five men fought and killed a giant in defense of the realm. Their heroism earns them a fiery grave, but then you don’t join the Night’s Watch for glory…

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Perhaps this is where my post-episode deflation stems from; there is no glorious defeat, no matter what Samwell posits. This is just an entree in the feast of crows. Jon Snow’s crap plan to infiltrate Mance’s camp and turn assassin lacks clear tactics, but hopefully it is cunning not honour that leads him to leave behind Mormont’s sword.

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Review by Nina Clark

Thanks for not posting book spoilers in comments – you’re too kind! Feel free to tell me what you thought of “The Watchers on the Wall” though. Share and share alike!

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Bean

Director at Nina Clark Music / The Musical Walkabout at Nina Clark Music
Bean is the family nickname of Nina Clark, singer, songwriter and professional musician. Nina's many nerdly passions, aside from music, include Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and all things Whedon. (re. GoT, she has NOT read the books, so please be cool - no spoilers!)
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