'Game of Thrones' Review: "The Watchers on the Wall"

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Game of Thrones’ season 4 conjures its ninth and penultimate episode of the season, “The Watchers on the Wall,” as Jon Snow finally faces the Wildling attack on Castle Black, while Sam discovers surprisingly personal stakes for the battle.

The previous installment, “The Mountain and the Viper,” saw Tyrion's trial-by-combat finally coming to pass with a shocking conclusion, while Daenerys discovered a traitor in her midst, and Sansa faced a difficult decision regarding Petyr Baelish. So, what does the penultimate installment of season 4 bring?

Read on for your in-depth recap of everything you need to know about ‘Game of Thrones’ season 4, episode 9, "The Watchers on the Wall.”

Watching on the wall, Sam questions Jon about Ygritte and the feeling of loving someone, admitting that he and Gilly had never technically done anything to break his vows. Jon relays that he doesn’t have the words to describe his night with Ygritte, unaware that a warged owl from the Wildlings has landed on the wall. Meanwhile, Ygritte continually makes arrows and threatens both Tormund and Styr that Jon Snow is hers to kill, despite Styr’s graphic taunts about her love for the boy.

Sam finds himself visited by Maester Aemon in the library, as Aemon relays his own youthful experiences with lost love and urges Sam to get some rest for the coming battle. On his way out of the library however, Sam finds Pyp arguing with a woman at the gates, and realizes it to be Gilly before demanding that Pyp let her in. Sam professes never to want to leave Gilly’s side ever again, though the Wall’s horn quickly tests that resolve, signaling a Wildling attack as we see a tremendous fire burning in the forests to the north.

Jon and Ser Alliser Thorne make their peace over the coming threat, while Sam stashes Gilly in the pantry, expressing a need to support his brothers in the fight, and finally kissing her to show his affection. Meanwhile, Ygritte reports to the other Wildings of Castle Black’s lowered defenses before the attackers prepare their forces. Giants riding wooly mammoths emerge from the northern forests as Ser Alliser prepares the Wall’s defenses, before learning of Ygritte’s attack to the south.

After replacing Alliser, Janos Slynt refuses to believe in giants as a threat to the northern tunnel, for which Grenn claims that Slynt is needed down below in order to place Jon in charge of the Wall defense. Wildlings begin their climb of the wall, while giant archers launch their projectiles at the top, knocking watchmen clean over to the south side. Meanwhile, Sam and Pyp continue their crossbow attacks on the Wildlings before Ygritte lands a shot through Pyp’s neck, killing him in Sam’s arms.

While the giants and mammoths attempt to pry open the northern tunnel, Alliser takes on Tormund Giantsbane and just barely survives, despite a gash to the abdomen. Sam manages to take out one of the Thenns, before retreating to the top of the Wall to find Jon, and ordering the young orphaned Oliver with taking up arms. Afterward, Jon heads down toward Castle Black, leaving Edd in charge of the Wall and sending Grenn and a few others to stop the giant invasion on the tunnel.

Grenn and his men recite the Night’s Watch oath to inspire them against the tunnel giant’s approach, while Sam unleashes Ghost to take on the Wildlings, and Jon Snow finally joins the fight. Styr attacks and nearly gets the better of Jon, before Jon finally manages to fell the Thenn with a blacksmith's hammer to the skull. Jon turns around to find Ygritte pointing her bow at him, though in her hesitation the young Oliver lands an arrow through Ygritte’s heart. Jon comforts her as she dies, remembering their time in the hotspring cave together.

Edd unleashes the “scythe” to destroy the Wildings on the wall, while Jon confronts a weakened Tormund, instructing the brothers to take the Wilding leader hostage for questioning. After Sam finds Gilly safe and sound, Jon dismisses their victory as holding the Wildlings off for a solitary night, resolving to find and kill Mance Rayder to end the conflict. Passing Grenn and the felled giant in the tunnel, Jon Snow says his goodbyes to Sam and heads north to an uncertain fate.

OUR REVIEW:

For a season that both cobbled together different pieces of George R.R. Martin’s books as much as it diverged from them, ‘Game of Thrones’ season 4 has admirably attempted to shift from the norm by employing multiple climaxes over the course of the season, rather than build up toward the inevitable bloodbath of the year's ninth episode, before course-correcting in the finale. “The Watchers on the Wall” may yet provide the clearest inclination for the change, as the hour itself largely carries through its hour-long battle with aplomb, but fails to recreate the stakes of seasons’ past, and ultimately justifies why season 4 needed a more even distribution for its climactic changes.

Apart from the oft-repeated threat of Wildlings and the White Walkers (somewhat bolstered by the canon fast-forward of the Night’s King appearance this season), HBO’s adaptation has often lacked in connecting the Jon Snow/Night’s Watch stories to the larger tales of Westeros, creating something of a narrative vortex where similarly adjacent stories like Daenerys' manage to populate with enough interesting characters and stories to justify the separation. We know that the 100,000 Wildlings intend to breach the Wall for the sake of fleeing the White Walkers, though it hasn’t quite been explained how their arrival might upend things south of the Wall, and thus why the Watch’s battle holds the same stakes of season 2’s “Blackwater” assault on Kings’ Landing.

That said, “Watchers on the Wall” still accomplishes some magnificent direction under the watchful eye of “Blackwater” helmer Neil Marshall, ably shifting between different sides of the Wall to convey the complicated geography of the battle, though the muted colors (at least on HBO Go) make it somewhat difficult to appreciate the soldiers on either side. Apart from the impressive action, “Watchers” also admirably registers all its key moments both big and small, from the various giant attacks, to Alliser’s battle with Tormund, Sam’s surprising survival, and the (expected) death of Ygritte. Telegraphed though they might have been, it’s hard not to share in the final moments between Jon and his Wildling love, though the hour feels at least a bit muddied by its intangible resolution.

If anything, “Watchers on the Wall” will likely end up defined by its more direct resolution with next week’s finale, as Mance Rayder didn’t even put in an appearance this week, instead leaving Jon to seek out a more personal resolution beyond the Wall, and in the process diluting our satisfaction with tonight’s brief victory. The ingredients were all there, between quieter moments like Maester Aemon’s bond with Sam, strong sequences for both Edd and Grenn, and Sam’s sweet reunions with Gilly -- though ultimately “Watchers” fell a bit short of such season climaxes as “Blackwater.” Thankfully, we’ve still got the finale to check in with the rest of Westeros in addition to a few of tonight’s loose ends, paving the way for a stronger climax to come.

Well, what say you? Did you get your fill of sword-swinging ‘Game of Thrones’ action?  What did you think about tonight’s installment, “The Watchers on the Wall”? Check out all our other ‘Game of Thrones’ season 4 coverage, and join us next week for the all-new episode recap of the ‘Game of Thrones’ season 4 finale, "The Children" on HBO!

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