Well, we’re finally here. They’ve only been talking about it since, well, the pilot. But the onslaught on the Wall is finally happening, and we’re given a whole episode to revel in the spectacle.
For the first time since ‘Blackwater’ all other plots are abandoned in favour of focusing on the conflict at the Wall, and for the most part it works. It’s been a season of extended sequences, and that’s what this battle is turned into, even if we don’t get an effective resolution to it in 50 minutes.
Strangely, though, the episode sits quite jarringly with everything else this season has dealt with. The cliffhanger of Tyrion’s death sentence is left until next week, and rather than delivering more anticipation, it seems to be unecessarily drawing it out (he was arrested back in episode 2, remember). We’re asked now to invest in a battle that everyone else in Westeros seems to be ignoring, and the show has done a good deal of ignoring all season.
The only meaningful time spent with Jon Snow has been the raid on Craster’s Keep, and all that seemed to serve was to decimate the Night’s Watch numbers further and eliminate an invented character – Locke – from the playing board.
The Wildlings too have been given short shrift. Ygritte, so meaningful last season as a character, has had little to do but scowl at Tormund and the Thenns, and yet now we have to resuscitate our investment in her feelings for Jon, so as to connect more when they inevitably face off.
Still, the episode goes for spectacle, and for the most part it reaches it.
The opening scene with Sam and Jon on the Wall hits all the right notes: the bond between the two young men, Jon’s love for Ygritte, Sam’s acumen, his concern for Gilly and her baby, and the resentment toward Ser Alliser Thorne’s leadership. It’s testament to the much more concetrated approach of this season, that a brief conversation between two characters can cover so much of the show’s depth and yet still be coherent to the casual viewer. And it’s all happening while they are awaiting the hoards.
On a side note, I do love that elevator that takes them up and down the Wall. It’s great to see the world working. Neil Marshall’s camerawork is effective as ever, leaping from the wildling army on the other side of the Wall, to the heights of the Wall itself, down to Castle Black’s courtyard, and over to the surprise attack of Ygritte and Tormund. The score, too, is sumptuously bombastic, especially when the camera spies the army creeping up on the horizon.
Gilly returns to Castle Black having escaped the raid on Mole’s Town. And while it’s good to see the strengthening relationship between her and Sam, it does seem odd that her story has basically been to arrive at Castle Black, be sent off, and then find her way back again. Still, it’s a character relationship that is easily skimmed over in the books, but works on screen on the basis of the performances. John Bradley-West, as Sam, is particular good this episode.
But these moments are brief and to the point, and the episode moves briskly towards the conflict itself. And once it begins, it’s rightfully chaotic.
One of the successes of Game of Thrones as a long narrative is that it employs the tropes and structures of other epic fantasy stories, but then subverts them. The success of moments like the Red Wedding, the dominance of the Lannisters, and even Oberyn’s death last week underscore how accustomed we are to certain expectations and how this translates to shock when our expectations don’t play out.
Strangely, most of this episode doesn’t just echo other stories, it seemingly mimics them. This seige is basically a remix of Helm’s Deep, complete with giants, mammoths, thumping drums, grappling irons and flaming arrows. Jon Snow does his best Aragorn impression. The authority – Ser Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt – are unlikeable and weak. The enemy are uncompromising and innumerable.
This battle of the odds between the hundred-ish Night’s Watch and the thousands of wildlings feels like we’ve seen it all before, despite how good it looks on our TV screens. Even when it does eventually subvert expectations – Janos Slynt’s breakdown, Ygritte’s death, the non-ending to the battle – the episode feels curiously like a damp squib rather than an explosive shock.
Slynt’s breakdown is handled rather well, however, displaying not only the man’s fragility – ‘No such thing as giants’ – but also how in his former role commanding the King’s Guard he was far removed in body and mind from the terrors invading from the North. It’s a nice reminder of how much the King’s Landing throne obsessives are happily ignoring the great danger that the Night’s Watch faces.
On top of this, Jon and Sam are allowed to grow and develop more as characters. Given that Jon especially has been marked out for leadership since the pilot, there’s a bit of relief that he’ll finally be able to do something worthy of the character’s strengths. Thorne is wounded, and Slynt out of action, so Jon’s ascension to commanding the Night’s Watch is finally a certainty.
His reunion with Ygritte is similarly effective, but it was always going to be that way. He succeeds, she dies, and so does our expectation that perhaps someone might live happily ever after in Westeros. Jon’s side wins (this skirmish), Ygritte’s doesn’t, and the poor kid who shot her did the right thing and audiences will hate him for it, depriving them of another happy ending where Ygritte joins Jon in defending the Wall.
Elsewhere, there’s a worthy moment where Sam’s mocking of Pyp’s crossbow skills changes immediately to comforting the young Watchman as he dies with an arrow through the neck. Below the Wall, Grenn and his band of lucky few face down a rampaging giant in the tunnel, certain of their deaths but still reciting the oath they took to defend the realm. It’s arguably the most powerful moment in the episode.
Great to see the enormity of the Wall used to effect, showing off the scale of the structure itself while illustrating the geography of the battle. Game of Thronesnormally works in cuts from one place to another, but in this episode much is shown in uncut shots, connecting each small battle with the others.
And then, true to subversive form, the night ends not with a bang but a whimpering ceasefire. Tormund won’t die or triumph, he’ll just be tamed. Grenn and Pyp fall, in service of defending Castle Black. The Night’s Watch put their lives on the line, and so it’s only natural that their lives are taken. Nothing good comes without a cost. Jon marches out of the tunnel under the wall, knowing he must deal with Mance Rayder or face the end of the Night’s Watch entirely.
What to make of that ending? It’s a curious thing. Tormund and Ygritte’s advance party are defeated, and the larger army north of the Wall retreats after the giants and mammoths are unsuccesful, but Jon knows they can’t hold them forever. For me, it gets to the heart of this part of the books, and the series. Why are they even fighting?
The wildlings want to escape the North, given the white walkers have awoken, and they want to head south. But in doing so, they want to fight everyone they come across, and so we have this battle. Essentially, the wildlings and the Night’s Watch are the only ones who know where the true threat lies, and yet they fight each other? They’re on the same side. It’s all a bit anticlimactic and battles for the sake of battles.
Meanwhile, we’ve had to postpone all other plotlines in favour of this one, which in the end just boils down to a bit of spectacle but no substance.
- Valar Morghulis: Ygritte, Pyp, Grenn, the cannibalistic Thenn guy, plus scores of wildlings and Night’s Watch soldiers. A battle brings casualties.
- Great to see the use of POV in a couple of key moments: when Ygritte was firing her arrows, and when Ghost is unleashed on the wildlings.
- For the book readers, there’s a few subtle nods at where Season 5 will go. Then again, I’m rather unsure how much or how little they will fit into next week.
- Strangely good to see Thorne being an effective soldier, given how much of an ass he’s been all series. Still, I couldn’t quite gather whether he was dragged off by his own men or by wildlings.
- For a good breakdown of why the wildlings and the Night’s Watch are fighting and not getting along, take a look at this article.
- Last episode of Season 4 next week, and there’s a LOT to get through. Honestly, I expected more from this episode, but it does leave many exciting things to arrive next week.