The ninth episode of each season of Game of Thrones has a bit of a reputation. After all, each of the three previous ninth episodes have been absolutely epic episodes. Seasons One and Three had game changing moments to end the episode. Season Two had a big budget epic. This season’s ninth episode is closer to the latter than the former which is probably appropriate given that the director of Blackwater came back for The Watchers on the Wall.
Spoiler Alert: You know the deal by now. You can talk about this episode, all the previous ones and the first two books. Anything not mentioned in the last sentence is off-limits for the comments and this review.
A lot of what I’ve read about The Watchers on the Wall said that it wasn’t as good as Blackwater. That’s probably right from a purely objective standpoint. The characters were better. The story preceding the battle were more fleshed out. The whole battle meant more to the overall narrative of the show. Basically, from the plot side, Blackwater was a more pivotal episode.
That doesn’t mean that The Watcher on the Wall wasn’t a good episode. In fact, I would hazard that it was the more fun episode to watch. While it may not stand up to Blackwater in terms of importance to the overall plot or character developments, it certainly trumps Blackwater when it comes to spectacle.
While the battle was well-paced and exciting and looked spectacular, it was the quiet little moments interspersed that made this episode for me. Sam and Jon talking about women and love on the wall was a bit awkward but it seemed real rather than scriptedly perfect. Maester Aemon talking to Sam about women and books was a lovely little lighthearted moment before the whole world fell apart.
The star of the episode might not have been Jon but Ser Alliser. While he might have been an asshole to Jon, he was did speak the truth about leadership and dealing with people who think they know better than their leader. Hell, I’m probably guilty of being the Jon Snow to my boss’s Ser Alliser. And while we’re supposed to hate Ser Alliser for not being 100% on Jon’s side, he certainly made up for it this week.
While Janos Slynt was a useless coward (what else do you expect from a Lannister man), Ser Alliser fought until the bitter end for the Night’s Watch and the realm. He might have been an asshole but he was an honourable asshole in death. At least, I think it was in death.
Honourable mention to Grenn, Jon’s bearded brother of the Night’s Watch. While Ser Alliser had an honourable death, Grenn facing down a giant while reciting the oath of the Night’s Watch to inspire his five compatriots was just an absolute fantastic moment. In an episode full of epic bravery and moments that should go down in song, this was probably the best death of them all.
I almost called Grenn’s death the most depressing of this episode. It wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
If there’s one thing that GRRM loves to do, it’s break our hearts. Last week, he broke our hearts by breaking Oberyn’s head. This week, he broke our hearts by breaking Jon’s. The showdown between Ygritte and Jon was inevitable. And when they locked eyes and Jon smiled, you knew that it wasn’t going to end well. It never does in George’s world.
When the arrow went through Ygritte, the first thing I said was “Dammit Sam!” Turns out that it was Olly, the little boy who survived the Wildling attack on his village, was the one who put an arrow through her. Dammit, Sam! Why’d you suddenly manage to inspire someone? If I was Jon, I would have knocked the kid’s bro nodding head off.
But Jon and Ygritte got one last moment together. He held her in his arms as she told him one last time that he knew nothing. While everyone was sad after the Red Wedding last year, I thought this was a lot worse. That’s probably because I liked Ygritte and was indifferent about Robb, Talisa and Catelyn. Yeah, the room got a bit dusty during that scene. I’m surprised I held it together long enough to cheer “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
The real highlight of this episode was the visuals.
The lack of dragons and wide shots were easily explained by how much was clearly spent on this episode. From the giant fire north of The Wall to the giants and mammoths to the giant archer spearing a guy from the top of the wall to the ground to the anchor wiping off a wall full of archers, this episode was full of amazing visual moments that you’ll be talking about all week.
My favourite shot of the episode was the courtyard tracking shot. When Jon came off the elevator, we got a long tracking shot around the courtyard of Castle Black that went from Jon to Ygritte to Tormund and back again. Nothing really happened there but it looked fantastic. Even when this show stops worrying about plot and characterization for a week, it’s still fantastic.
So while some critics may not have liked this episode, I absolutely loved it. I’m looking forward to watching this on the Blu-Ray next year. It’s a great popcorn episode even if it doesn’t have the same plot significance as the last few episodes.
Other random points of note:
- While the budget wasn’t revealed, it’s supposed to be the biggest budget episode in the show’s history. The unbelievable amount of CGI, the massive sets and the time that went into the whole thing makes that sort of obvious. If Blackwater cost $8 million, I’d hate to see how much they spent on this one.
- I didn’t mention Pyp’s death. Pyp dying in Sam’s arms was an interesting, if likely unintentional, parallel to Jon and Ygritte.
Next week is the fourth season finale. The episode is called The Children. At least one storyline is likely to be wrapped up next week. The preview of next week’s episode says that “Tyrion sees the truth of his situation” which may or may not mean that his head gets chopped off by the end of the episode or do we get cliffhangered on that? Elsewhere, Dany learns more lessons about leadership that are hopefully not so dull that I don’t talk about them in the review. More happens with Bran as he looks for that tree. And Jon and Mance Rayder come face to face far sooner than I was expecting. I thought Jon was done for the season. It turns out that I know nothing.
By the way, Sunday’s episode is the only one that the producers and HBO have submitted for consideration for an Emmy for Best Writing. How could this possibly top some of the other episodes this season? I think we could be in for something truly special.