The strength of Game of Thrones comes from its sprawling stories, settings, and characters, but as “The Watchers on the Wall” proved last night, it can also thrive when it puts a singular story under a microscope. The battle at Castle Black is a storyline that was planted way back in Season 2 and left to marinate for three years before paying off, rivaling Breaking Bad and its traveling pill of ricin.
Where other television shows feature an A, B, and C story, Game of Thrones utilizes the whole alphabet. Only once has Thrones filled an episode with a single story —the 9th episode of Season 2, “Blackwater.” But even in “Blackwater,” the cast was large: Cersei, Sansa, Joffrey, Tyrion, the Hound, Stannis, Davos, and Bronn all receive substantial screen time. “The Watchers on the Wall” shrunk the cast down even more, featuring only five regular cast members: Jon Snow, Sam, Ygritte, Gilly, and Tormund. And yet, the episode never felt small, and that’s not only because of the giants. Thanks in part to a beautifully-long and continuous shot filled with mayhem, and equal time spent atop and below the wall, “The Watchers on the Wall” lived up to the Episode 9 hype, joining Ned’s death, Blackwater, and the Red Wedding as penultimate exclamation points.
Riser of the Week: Jon Snow
In the early seasons of Game of Thrones, Kit Harrington was often criticized for his portrayal of Jon Snow. I found that pretty unfair because Jon Snow is constantly being forced to choose sides and often doubts himself. While these internal thoughts make for a great read, they are difficult to express on screen. But last night’s episode completed the transformation of Jon Snow. It was no accident that during Jon’s battle with Styr (the scary, bald axe-wielding Thenn) he is smashed on an anvil and thrown through fire. Just like a sword being tempered by a blacksmith, Jon has hardened. He's been forged into a man. This is evident when Jon spits blood into Styr’s face. A few episodes ago, when Jon fought Karl at Craster’s Keep, Karl spit in Jon’s face, distracting him and very nearly killing him. Jon’s learned that he must sometimes sacrifice honor if he wants to survive—a lesson that both Ned and Robb Stark never learned.
Honorable Mention: Samwell Tarly, for yelling “YOU PEAKED IN HIGHSCHOOL!” at all the wildlings.
Faller of the Week: Ygritte
Hell-bent on killing crows, Ygritte lived up to her “kissed by fire” nature, going out in a blaze of gorey glory. Perched atop a somehow-abandoned overpass, Ygritte did her best Call of Duty impression and camped her way to an impressive killstreak.
Being a book reader, I’m not often surprised by the show, but Ygritte made me gasp as she pierced Pyp’s neck with one of her seemingly-unlimited arrows. Pyp doesn’t die in the books (either does Grenn the Giant Slayer), so as he collapsed into Sam’s hands and choking on his own blood, my hatred for Ygritte intensified. I’m guessing the show runners wanted to make sure we disliked Ygritte enough that her death wouldn’t be mourned, and between her villager killing and her crow killing, it was clear that she was not a good person. But she wasn’t completely bad either. I don’t know if Ygritte would have shot Jon last night, and thanks to Olly and his I got your back head-nod, we’ll never know. (Don’t forget that Ygritte killed Olly’s dad in front of him.) But I do know she was being honest when she told Jon that she wished they stayed in the cave. She loved him. He broke her heart. Like so many other characters in Game of Thrones, Ygritte’s story is a tragic one in which the fire inevitably goes out.
Honorable Mention: Janos Slynt, for being the least manly person in a room with a mother and her newborn baby.
Backstory of the Week: Mance Rayder
Although he was shown in the “Previously on Game of Thrones” segment, we have still not seen Mance Rayder since the third episode of Season 3. We hear his name often, but the King Beyond the Wall has also remained the King Beyond the Screen. But it’s important to understand Mance and his plan, especially since he should reappear next episode.
Mance used to be a brother of the Night’s Watch, but when he was attacked by a shadowcat on a ranging mission north of the wall, a wildling healer took him in, saved his life, and mended his torn cloak with red fabric. Upon returning to the wall, Mance was ordered to use a new cloak and destroy his mended one. This served as the last straw, and Mance fled north to live with the free folk in the manner he wished.
Now, years later, Mance has achieved what many thought to be impossible and united the various clans of free folk. As one solid army, their numbers amass 10,000. The Wall still stands in Mance’s way, but armed with giants and mammoths, Mance believes it possible to penetrate the wall and march south. To serve as a distraction, Mance also orders Tormund, Ygritte, and the Thenns to climb the wall and surprise Castle Black with an attack from the south. This two-pronged attack is designed to split Castle Black’s resources and distract the Night’s Watch long enough to successfully march through the wall.
Mance’s plans are spoiled by the Night’s Watchmen who he underestimated. However, only a fraction of Mance’s army was defeated, and he still outnumbers the watch 100 to 1—a figure of which Jon Snow is all too aware. That is why Jon Snow is marching north to meet with Mance. Jon knows if he can kill Mance, the army will devolve back into clans and won’t be organized enough to take the Wall.
Object of Power: The Scythe
In an episode filled with awesome fighting and deaths, none was more impressive than the scythe unleashed by Dolorous Edd. Like a windshield wiper erasing a bug, the wildlings on the wall were turned into a red mist. Visually, that must be one of the coolest methods of killing employed by the show (The giant shooting a spear up the wall is a close second!).
Next week is gearing up to be a wild ride, with every storyline destined to receive an emphatic ending. We’re guaranteed to see how Arya, Tyrion, Brienne, and Dany’s stories end, and a few other surprises will be mixed in as well. And maybe we’ll learn where Gendry has been rowing his boat for the past nine episodes. I mean, he said it himself, he can't swim.
Is there any area of the story you’d like explained further? Do you disagree with something? Let me know in the comments.
Joe Brosnan is an editor and writer for Criminal Element who graduated from Marist College. He spends his time obsessing equally over the Game of Thrones series and the New York Giants, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.