“Game of Thrones” went the “Blackwater” route in Season 4, episode 9, “The Watchers on the Wall.” From bringing back director Neil Marshall to having the entire episode hinge around the Battle at Castle Black, the penultimate episode of Season 4 was all about the somewhat underused Wall storyline this season.
The only reason, it seems, that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss held back on that story is so that they could play it up here. While there are many other important plotlines at play — What will happen to Tyrion? How will Daenerys rule Meereen? — the absolute most important story is whether the Wildlings will invade the North. This is the greater scale of “Game of Thrones,” while everything else is hinged on characters we love.
Marshall did a great job balancing individual characters’ stories in “The Watchers on the Wall” with the big battle taking place. Grenn, Pyp and Dolorous Edd got their best moments of the series, and the smile between Jon Snow and Ygritte before she was shot was one of the most emotional moments they’ve had. Similarly, the giants and mammoths attacking the Wall, and the Night’s Watch’s defense of cutting loose a giant scythe to kill the Wildlings climbing it was fantastic.
The best part of “The Watchers on the Wall” was the fact that there were emotional stakes. Beyond the death of Ygritte, which hurt the audience as much as it hurt Jon Snow, both Grenn and Pyp were killed. Styr the Magnar of Thenn died. Two giants were felled. And after Alliser Thorne — who finally stopped being a villain here — was injured and Janos Slynt deserted his post, Jon Snow assumed control of the Wall and came into the leadership position he has been set up for all season.
The biggest problem with the episode is its ending. Why was it so short? The entire episode only ran 51 minutes of the 60 minutes(-ish) “Game of Thrones” had available. Instead of ending on a solid note, “The Watchers on the Wall” sent Jon north of the Wall to find Mance Rayder. It’s a cliffhanger leading into the season finale, “The Children.”
Maybe this was just a response to every previous season’s episode 9 being the big climax of the season. More often than not, the season finales were just falling action. Not so with “The Children,” which will resolve Jon’s storyline, reveal the fate of Tyrion and also wrap up Arya and the Hound; Bran, Jojen and Meera; Brienne and Pod; and, of course, Daenerys.
Even with underutilizing the time it had available, “The Watchers on the Wall” accomplished what it set out to do. As the most expensive episode of the series, the Battle at Castle Black felt like an equivalent of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'” Battle of Helm’s Deep. And the character developments in this episode were fantastic. Finally, Samwell Tarly got the “Game of Thrones” storyline he deserved.
But “The Watchers on the Wall” won’t be known as the best episode of the season, even if it was the best action episode “Game of Thrones” has had thus far. That honor will likely belong to “The Children,” depending on how well Season 4 sticks its landing.
– Jon and Ygritte’s final scene plays out a bit differently in the novels. Instead of her being shot in front of him, Jon finds Ygritte’s body after the battle, though she still dies in his arms.
– Benioff and Weiss wanted stakes in this episode, and Grenn and Pyp were the casualties. Both are still alive in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, but it seems safe to now assume that they don’t have bigger roles to play.
– That Sam and Gilly kiss has been a long time coming, but it’s not true to “Game of Thrones'” source material. He never kisses her after she escapes Mole’s Town, mostly because she was never sent away in the first place in the books.
– “For a little while you’re more than just you. … Well I don’t know, I’m not a bleeding poet.” — Jon talking about having sex
– “Jon Snow is mine.” — Ygritte
– “Do you all plan to die here tonight?” — Alliser Thorne
“No sir.” — Night’s Watch
“That’s very good to hear.” — Allister
– “Jon Snow, do you remember that cave? We should have stayed in that cave.” — Ygritte
“We’ll go back there.” — Jon Snow
“You know nothing Jon Snow.” — Ygritte
– “Jon? Come back.” — Sam