Jon Snow has warned his brothers of the Night’s Watch all season long that a war was coming and this week it arrived in full force…
By Damon Martin — Editor/Lead Writer
All season long on ‘Game of Thrones’ while kings were falling prey to poisoned wine and Dornish men were having their heads smashed open, there’s been a constant threat lurking just north of The Wall. It was the slow burn to end all slow burns this season and in reality, by about the 10th time Jon Snow warned his brothers in the Night’s Watch that Mance Rayder and his army of wildlings were coming to attack, I was ready to take a leap off the 700-foot tall structure.
But ‘Game of Thrones’ is all about the slow burn and when the payoff happens it’s spectacular and awe inspiring television.
Thus what we all witnessed on Sunday night in an episode titled ‘The Watchers on the Wall’. If you’ve been following ‘Game of Thrones’ since the beginning you probably also recognized that this was the ninth episode of the season, and that’s usually when all hell breaks loose on this show. In season one, Ned Stark was beheaded. In season two, it was the only other stand alone episode (besides this one) where the focus was on the Battle of Blackwater Bay. In season three, it was the Red Wedding. So it seemed fitting that season four would bring us the invasion of Mance Rayder’s army against 102 members of the Night’s Watch sworn to protect the realms of men from all foreign invaders.
To give a little history of the Night’s Watch, you have to understand how the order started in the first place.
Over 8,000 years ago, the White Walkers (the Others in the books) attacked Westeros from the Lands of Always Winter, and it was the Night’s Watch who were able to cobble together an effective attack to drive them back after discovering that dragonglass (the same weapon Sam used to kill a White Walker last season) could defeat them. Following the battle to drive out the White Walkers, the order of the Night’s Watch was founded and The Wall constructed to keep out any further attacks from the north and beyond. But as the years went by, the White Walkers never returned and the biggest threats came from the wildings and their various kings. Each time they were defeated and with each win, the Night’s Watch was more and more satisfied with their work.
As the years toiled away, the number of men in the Night’s Watch dwindled as the kingdoms in Westeros started to worry less and less about the threats to the North and instead focused on the politics to the South. Only the Starks of Winterfell kept a constant vigil when it came to the Wall while trying to find men to take the black and build the army year after year.
What has been witnessed thus far during ‘Game of Thrones’ echoes this theme quite heavily. Benjen Stark was a ranger in the Night’s Watch, who visited his brother and nephews at Winterfell before taking Jon Snow back to The Wall with him as a new member of the order. Tyrion Lannister visited The Wall because he wanted to see the edge of the world and take a piss off of it. Lord Commander Mormont ventured North with a garrison of rangers only to be obliterated by the White Walkers before his own men turned on each other at Craster’s Keep. This season the main focus of the Night’s Watch this season has been the constant battle at the top between Jon Snow and the master at arms, Alliser Thorne and his new lapdog Janos Slynt.
Jon’s crying to the heavens that Mance Rayder and his army are coming while Alliser and Janos just laugh it off.
This week Jon was right, Alliser was wrong, but none of it mattered because what followed was one of the most tense, taut and well executed battle scenes in the history of television as the Night’s Watch defended The Wall against enemies from North, South and everywhere in between.
Love is the Death of Duty
Before the blood was shed, there were a few meaningful conversations to be had amongst the brothers of the Night’s Watch. Samwell and Jon while manning the top of The Wall discuss his love for Ygritte and what it was like to share a few nights with her while he was disguised as a deserter turned wilding. Jon fumbled over his words the way Renly Baratheon did around a naked girl, and finally he just admitted describing love and actually feeling love are two entire different things. There was a brief moment when Sam asked Jon what it was like, and I full expected him to say ‘like warm apple pie‘.
Sam is beset with depression over the fear that he’s lost Gilly forever after Molestown was raided and destroyed by the band of wildings already inside. He can’t quite fathom what he was thinking by sending her and her child away when he did, much less the kinds of atrocities being visited upon her now that the wildings have had their way with her. He’s so concerned that Sam visits the library of the Night’s Watch to read past reports from another maester, who describes what exactly the people from beyond The Wall are capable of doing to those they take prisoner. It’s a sort of mental torture for Sam — he believes facing the horrors that Gilly almost certainly felt, he can take on some of it, sympathy pains if you will.
While he’s going through the catacombs, Maester Aemon shows up and realizes right away with Sam is up to reading through the books so late at night. Most forget that Aemon is not only the maester of the Night’s Watch, but he is a Targaryen, who turned down the Iron Throne once upon a time in favor of his younger brother Aegon, who was the grandfather of the man who would one day be known as ‘The Mad King’ Aerys Targaryen.
Aemon shares some wisdom with Sam while they are sitting in the library about the Night’s Watch and the oath they take especially the lines about never marrying and never having children. It’s not a religious reason and it’s not punishment. The real reason behind it all is because marriage and children mean love and love clouds judgment. Thus the phrase — “love is the death of duty”. Jon Snow already broke those vows when he fell in love with Ygritte, and now his loyalty is under question. At the same time, Aemon knows that Sam is in love with Gilly, whether she’s alive or dead, just as he once loved in his days before taking the black.
A Happy Reunion
The wilding army gathers South of The Wall where Tormund, Ygritte and Styr are awaiting orders from Mance to attack Castle Black. Ygritte sharpens hundreds of arrows while stewing constantly about killing her crow while Styr wonders if she could actually kill him after having the chance previously and missing on three occasions. Ygritte is steely in her resolve, but by now it’s clear she’s still madly in love with Jon and if anything she’s just a woman scorned. That doesn’t make her any less dangerous.
While the wildings are docking arrows and sharpening their blades, a shadow wanders through the night, huddled in blankets, destined for Castle Black.
A knock on the door is heard and sure enough, Gilly has arrived back at the castle with her baby in tow. Sam commands (quite forcefully mind you) that the gate be opened and once she’s inside he pledges his undying commitment to her while promising to never leave her side again. Sam even gets a kiss.
But the reunion is short lived because just as Mance said — the biggest fire the North has ever seen goes up just beyond the Wall and the attackers are coming. Sam stashes Gilly and her baby in a storage room while vowing to return to her unharmed. His duty to her not withstanding, Sam’s brothers are about to get slaughtered by 100,000 men and he can’t sit down here and just wait for the war to end.
While Tormund’s troops storm the front of Castle Black, Mance’s army starts marching towards The Wall. Alliser Thorne finally manages to sound like a real general when he speaks to Jon, and upon seeing the hordes of wildings about to set down upon them, he knows the bastard was right and they should have sealed up the tunnel when they had the chance, but as he explains — a leader’s role is to lead while every person below him questions those orders. The first time a leader questions his own instincts is the moment he’s no longer a leader. So instead of saying ‘I’m sorry’ to Jon, Alliser suggests they instead fight back this army, save Westeros and they can go back to hating each other the next day.
The Battle at Castle Black
The wildings invasion from both sides of Castle Black was really something spectacular in in so many ways more satisfying than the Battle of Blackwater Bay, although that was special filmmaking as well. Instead of giving a blow-by-blow recap, just rewatch the episode a few times and remember that you’re watching television and not a big budget action movie. It’s well known that ‘Game of Thrones’ is the most expensive show on television to produce (thus why we only get 10 episodes a season instead of say 13), but they stretch every dollar to find a way to put together the kind of hour we witnessed on Sunday night.
From giants riding wooly mammoths to invaders climbing the wall to the flaming arrows shot back and forth between rangers and free folk, this war had everything to behold. The furious pace kept by those clanging swords and stabbing flesh was magnified as I kept a close eye on the characters we knew and loved best of all. One very important note to make about this fight — as proven by every single episode of ‘Game of Thrones’, there are no good guys and bad guys. Just people fighting to survive. Some do it with gold and letters sent by ravens asking for a wedding party to be slaughtered, others storm a 700-foot tall wall while trying to beat back a kingdom who decided this is where the line stands for our rule.
Amidst the chaos, Ser Alliser Thorne fell to Tormund although only a sword slice to his side before he was dragged off the battlefield. Janos Slynt decided hiding was the best course of action so he hunkered down in the same room where Gilly was taking care of her baby. Jon took this chance to put the command on his back as he ordered some of his brothers to go down and guard the inner gate after oil being set on fire drove back the original clan of giants and a mammoth trying to yank the iron from its perch. Jon himself went down to the floor of Castle Black where he fought alongside his brothers in this bloody march against the wildings.
In a sad passing, Pip catches an arrow through the mouth courtesy of Ygritte, who was stomping through the castle on a mission to find Jon Snow. Before she can get to him, Jon orders Sam to go let ‘him’ out and then to go and hide. The ‘him’ in this case was his giant direwolf Ghost who proceeds to rip out the throats of a few wildings while Jon finds himself in a battle of his own.
Styr — the cannibal leader of the Thenns — happens upon Jon and they begin swinging sword against axe until the wilding gains the advantage. Jon’s face is smashed into an anvil, much to the chagrin of the 14-100 year old female population watching the show at the time, but the always crafty bastard isn’t finished yet. With no sword nearby, Jon makes due with a hammer, smashing Styr’s face before burying it deep in his head.
Before he can even wipe the blood from his mouth, Jon stands face to face with she who has been kissed by fire. Ygritte has an arrow drawn and pointed right at his chest and all he can do is smile because this is either the end or the moment he’s reunited with the woman he loves. A moment’s hesitation is all that’s needed because before Ygritte can let go of her fingers, an arrow comes slicing through her back and out her chest as she crumbles to the floor. Jon rushes over to tend to her and as he looks up, he sees young Ollie — the boy whose parents Ygritte murdered a few episodes back during the wilding raids — with a bow in hand, nodding back in approval after cutting down the woman responsible for him being an orphan.
Jon pulls Ygritte close, tears streaming down his cheek as Emo Snow takes up residence once again, but it’s a short goodbye as the tides have turned and the wildings have been defeated. Tormund tries for one last gasp of effort, but he’s put down by arrows before Jon orders him to be thrown in a cell. The giant trying to break through the inner gate has also been killed, but the six members of the Night’s Watch who were sworn to protect it, died with him. Among them was Grenn, one of the first members to befriend Jon when he first joined the Night’s Watch.
Ygritte’s death seemed necessary given the tenuous nature of anyone expressing actual love in this cold, unforgiving world. Robb Stark married for love while betraying a previous oath and what resulted was The Red Wedding. Tyrion Lannister showed compassion and faith because of love, and the end result was a farce of a trial and a witness who turned everything he ever said (and much more) against him. Ygritte loved Jon Snow and during her death she remembered that night they spent in the cave together when all they wanted was to stay there forever. Love is a luxury in this icy world, and I’m not just talking about the lands to the North. Love blinds reality and distorts purpose. Love ends in casualties in Westeros. Ygritte was just another victim.
It’s Time to Meet Mance Again
The Battle of Castle Black ends with the men of the Night’s Watch still standing and the wildings defeated, but for how long? The attack witnessed the night before was just a smidge of the total men Mance Rayder has at his command, and Jon realizes quickly that this was just a scouting party meant to test the Night Watch’s defenses. In doing so, they managed to kill off a huge number of men as well as injuring the field general in the process. The Wall survived for one night, but could it survive two or three more just like it?
So instead of waiting for the wilding army to come back the next time and likely storm the gates and finish what was already started, Jon decides on another course of action. He will go through the gate, walk North of The Wall and meet Mance Rayder on the field. Jon hands over his sword to Sam, saying that he promised Lord Commander Mormont that he wouldn’t lose it again, and heads off into the bright, white North in hopes of stopping this war before it goes any further.
Jon treks out into the great beyond to stop Mance Rayder from taking one more step towards The Wall. Love is dead, duty is all that’s left.
Next week it’s the season finale of ‘Game of Thrones’ titled ‘The Children’. Come back after the episode airs at 9pm ET/PT on HBO.