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Game of Thrones Review 4.09 - 'The Watchers on the Wall'
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 06.09.2014

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen the June 8th episode of Game of Thrones.]

"The Watchers on the Wall" managed to accomplish something that no other episode of Game of Thrones has pulled off yet: it made me a fan of Jon Snow. This isn't to say that the most noble bastard in all the land hasn't had his moments, particularly in the last few episodes that have featured him heavily. But generally I have had little use for Jon and I tended to get a flummoxed reaction when I hear people say that he's their favorite character in the books. It's not Kit Harrington's fault; most of Jon's journey in the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire is detailed internally. This makes sense when you live on the edge of the tough and hardy Starks, then travel up to live with a group of soldiers who are as taciturn as you only to end up pretending to be the enemy for a long while. These are the kinds of character-defining moments that are difficult to translate from page to screen, especially for a character like Jon because of his reserved tongue.

Luckily the fourth season has spent some time preparing us for this moment, as Jon Snow has been growing a backbone in the face of the Night's Watch commanders making what he believes to be the wrong decisions. Between these moments and Jon leading his little group of Crows to take out the deserters at Craster's Keep, we've found reasons to really start to get behind a character whose regard is destined to be decided by his actions on the show, not his words. In the penultimate episode of season four Jon shows us exactly why the Night's Watch should be calling him "Lord Snow" in a non-ironic way, taking charge and leading the group to a victory (even if a brief one) against the Wildlings. It's a costly victory, to be sure--it costs not only the Night's Watch, but it deeply costs Jon in particular--but a victory is still a victory and the point here wasn't the win. The point was making Jon into the kind of character we've always wanted him to be.

But the thing that really makes Jon's journey in this episode work isn't how many commands he gives or how many Wildlings die. And let's not split hairs: a lot of Wildlings die in this episode, many of them thanks to the commands that Jon delivers. "The Watchers on the Wall" is the series' most expensive episode to date and is of course this season's "Blackwater," the penultimate episode where a giant battle happens and heroes change forever. We'll get to all the good parts of that, but the reason we believe Jon's rise to power here (because that's what it is) is because it comes naturally. This is a member of the Night's Watch who found himself in an impossible situation and has slowly built up the support of enough of his fellows that when there is no one else to give the orders, they look to him to do it. Kit Harrington has been accused by some (myself included) of portraying the least interesting main character on the show, but he's always done a good job of taking what is essentially the stock fantasy hero and giving us a reason to want to see more, whether we've liked what we've seen so far or not. He does that here quite nicely as, with the stakes high, he makes us believe that Jon is worthy of being listened to by his fellow Crows. Not just because his orders save and end the right lives, but because he looks and acts like a leader should.

But while it largely portrays him as the shining hero of the episode, "The Watchers on the Wall" isn't just about Jon Snow. There are a lot of heroes on that wall and while not everyone may be up to the task (hello Janos and Pyp), there are no shortage of people who step up. First and foremost, we have the moment where Sam turns into the hero that we've been expecting to see in him. Or rather, I should say the moments because Sam has several great spots in this episode where he's allowed to grow. It starts with the conversation between Jon and Sam at the beginning of the episode, talking about love and sex and all the other things that Night's Watchmen don't know a hell of a lot about. It's one of those rare moments where Sam has the edge in a situation over Jon. Sure, our Lord Snow may have been with Ygritte but he can't put his feelings into words while Sam is able to get a few needles in on his friend and actually takes charge of the conversation in a couple points, steering it the way he wants to go.

This is huge for a character like Sam, who was so idolizing of Jon at one point that I couldn't have imagined him having this sort of conversation with the man. It's a sign of how much the character has grown, even more so than his sudden spout of profanity when he tries to get the guard to open the gate so that Gilly can get in. Sam is an example of how living at the Wall can make a man out of even the most hopeless of individuals, if they are just given a chance to grow. Is he ever going to be standing in the battlefield facing down a pack of rapid Wildlings while dual-wielding short swords? No, because that's not who he is. But it doesn't mean he's not a worthy Night's Watchman and he proves that on multiple occasions, whether it is his conversations with Pyp or his loyalty to Jon, or managing to keep his promises to both the Watch and Gilly. One might argue that Sam grew just as much as Jon in this episode, if not more.

And then we have Ygritte. Poor, poor Ygritte. I have to admit, it's hard to let go of one of the most sexually liberated female characters on the show. Rose Leslie has done such a fantastic job of playing the character and she stands very tall among the women of the series, but we all knew it had to come to this. And not because we've read the books, but because there really wasn't another road for her to go down. Jon Snow does not die in season four. Without having made it to that point in the novels, I can easily tell you that because his journey isn't done. And so Ygritte isn't going to kill him. But then what are the other options? Defection is a possibility, but that would betray who Ygritte is as a character. She isn't a woman who loves Jon and happens to be a Wildling; she is a Wildling woman who happens to love Jon. While her nature and her emotions were undoubtedly warring within her, there was no way she could just let go of who she is.

And so instead she had to die. But give it to Leslie for really selling every moment of her character in this episode. When she got up in the Thenn's face and told him that no one got to kill Jon but her, you believed that she would (and could) kill any and all of them if they tried to deny her of her quarry. She was a creature of icy vengeance (no pun intended) as she slipped her way through Castle Black laying waste to everyone she came upon--including poor Pyp. And then in the moment of that scene, you see that very conflict between her nature and her emotions warring within her. For a second I thought that was going to be when Ghost came up and assaulted her, but it was young Olly who killed the woman that murdered his father. And then we got one last "You know nothing, Jon Snow" before she was gone. Good night, you fiery little Wildling, you. You'll be missed.

Amidst all this character development, we also happened to have a little battle here taking our time. Neil Marshall directed this episode, much like he directed "Blackwater." These two episodes have a lot in common of course—they're both focused on a single storyline, they both detail a crucial battle sequence and they are both crucibles for their characters. Marshall employs the same deft touch to balancing action and character here that he did in the King's Landing battle. One could argue that this episode isn't quite as flashy: after all, there is no shot quite as beautiful as the dragon fire moments, nor are there any scenes quite as meaty performance-wise as Cersei's drunken monologue in Maegor's Holdfast. That fits though, because King's Landing is a flashier place than the Wall. It's an episode that is appropriate to its setting: harsh, brutal and unrelenting but noble as well.

Marshall has a hell of a lot of skill as an action director; this is certainly not news. In a lot of ways though, I think that his work on "The Watchers on the Wall" actually eclipses "Blackwater." There are some wonderful stylistic touches in the way he moves the camera to display the landscape of the battle. He's working within a night setting, which is a difficult medium in which to work but he does even a little better job here of making the action clean and clear than he did at King's Landing. And he paces the episode just right, giving all the character moments time to shine.

I would of course be remiss if I didn't mention the special effects work, for which the visual effects teams deserve a huge amount of credit. Mance Rayder's giant fire, the mammoths and giants, that brilliant ice anchor trick, the huge arrow that sends a poor Crow soaring all the way across the castle…all marquee moments that show why Game of Thrones is visually the best show on TV. The choreography of the action was done quite well, with Styr and Tormund looking particularly bad-ass even in defeat. The budget was well-spent and it all goes toward making us really care about the events at the Wall--a tricky feat due to its separation from the main storylines, but a feat they certainly accomplish.

Some Final Thoughts:

• I actually very much liked the way that the show put Tyrion's fate off for another episode. Not only did this battle need a whole episode dedicated to it, but audiences probably needed an extra week to decompile from Oberyn's death.

• Shout-out to Alliser and Janos for proving what kind of men that they are. Alliser may be a dick, but he was man enough to admit that Jon was right and when the chips were down he was a hell of a leader. Janos…yeah, you go hide with Gilly. Makes sense.

• We had some great dialogue and speeches this episode, much like any great battle scene should. But my favorite came from Pyp and Sam: "Sam, we're going to die." "We will if you keep missing."

• Poor Grenn, we're going to miss you too. I know a lot of people consider the Night's Watch to be "Jon, Sam and those other ones" but we've had him and Pyp floating around since the third episode of the entire series and whether we knew it or not, they were growing on us.

• Next week: epic conclusion time for everyone! Looking forward to it.

The 411: You know when an episode of Game of Thrones focuses on just one storyline that it's going to be one hell of an episode. "The Watchers on the Wall" gets it right in so many ways, balancing fantastic action sequences with some defining character work to give us a penultimate episode worthy of past greats like "Blackwater" and "The Rains of Castamere."
411 Elite Award
Final Score:  9.5   [  Amazing ]  legend


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