It's a well known fact that the ninth of any season of "Game of Thrones" is always the most shocking, craziest, bat-shittiest, most traumatizing episode of the season. Many a beloved main character (usually a Stark, in odd-numbered seasons) finds themselves offed in a horrible and bloody way. Season 1: Ned Stark gets liberated from his head. Season 2: Stannis attacks King's Landing and Tyrion Lannister proves himself in the Battle of Blackwater. Season 3: well, we're all still recovering from the Red Wedding, aren't we? So if patterns hold, and this is an even season number, it stands to believe we won't lose a Stark this go round, right? And while "The Watchers on the Wall" is a jam-packed bloody affair, it brings less of the shock factor than previous ninth episodes have.
Directed by Neil Marshall, who helmed "Blackwater" back in Season 2, "The Watchers on the Wall" is what they call a bottle episode: an episode that takes place all in one setting (in this case, The Wall), without diverging from the action in that place or to any other storylines or characters at all. And for the most part, it works in spades. Marshall, a talented action director, is given essentially an hour-long action sequence to unfold, and with the stakes that he is able to build and pay off throughout the episode, it makes for a profoundly engaging, suspenseful, and entertaining hour of television.
It's not all broad swords and flaming arrows (though there's a lot of that), as there's real, profound character development, bittersweet touching moments, and even a few funny or humorous lines, despite all the death and destruction. If anything, the episode also makes the argument for the possible award nomination of John Bradley, the actor who plays Samwell Tarly, the best friend to Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Tarly's always been a delight to watch, and one of the characters easiest to root for in a show full of characters one feels conflicted about rooting for, and Bradley has always played the role with sensitivity and aplomb. But this episode, he gets his hero moments a few times over and it's damn satisfying to say the least. #EmmyForJohnBradley starts now, Team GOT.
We open at the top of The Wall, where Sam is asking Jon to tell him about his escapades with Ygritte (Rose Leslie). See, Sam doesn't think they're going to make it out alive, and he wants the deets on sexy time. He's never had the opportunity with Gilly (Hannah Murray), but Sam has deeply read between the lines of their vows of "celibacy," and he thinks as long as he doesn't take a wife or father a kid, they're in the clear (always thinking, Samwell Tarly). There's not enough time to talk about missed or lost loves, however, there's a Wall to be watched. And an owl on said Wall, which is being warged into by one of the Thenn cannibals lying in wait.
Down at the Thenn/Wildling camp, Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) is also telling erotic tales, this time about his exploits with ... a bear? There's no way, and Ygritte ain't buying that story. Her anger at how the Wildlings were invaded and hunted down serves as pretty much the only motivation for why these disparate tribes might be so bent on destroying Castle Black and the Night's Watch, though we all know she's got a vendetta against Jon too. Though she gets called out by the Thenn for letting Snow live, she claims his imminent death as her own (we'll see about that).
Sam and Maester Aemon Targaryen (Peter Vaughan) run into each other in the library where Sam's reading up on Wildlings. Maester Aemon has guessed that Sam's in love with Gilly, which is why he's obsessed with reading up on the torture practices of the Wildlings. Aemon's also been in love, in his previous life as a future king. Nothing like imminent death to make lost love sweeter, right guys?
It turns out that Sam's love isn't lost at all, though. Gilly is at the gate, having escaped the massacre at Mole's Town, thanks to Ygritte, and Sam yells at Pyp (Josef Altin) to let her in. He apologizes for sending her there, separating them, and promises her that from now on, "wherever you go, I go too." It's a sweet moment, punctuated by the sound of the alarm horn blowing. That's the signal that Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds) has lit the massive bonfire that heralds the attack on Castle Black. As everyone rushes to their stations atop the Wall, Jon encounters Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) who admits Jon was right about sealing the tunnel. Thorne gives him a chat about leadership that isn't that inspiring at all (thanks for the pep talk, coach).
Sam spirits Gilly into the a basement pantry, and she's pissed he's leaving her, again. But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, which is defend the castle. Sam's speech inspires him to plant a smooch on his lady. Hoorah! Finally! He promises her he won't die. Then it's off to stock arrows with a very, very nervous Pyp. Sam, having killed a White Walker, knows that fear is just a mind game, and letting go of fear is only a matter of letting go who you are. And yet, he's got to remember he's got a lot to fight for now.
The Wildling army starts the march on the Wall, giants and mammoths leading the charge, with Ygritte, Tormund and the Thenn sneaking up on the side. The Night's Watch unleashes volleys of flaming arrows, but they can't hold off both at that perch. Thorne heads down to protect the Southern gate, and puts Slynt (Dominic Carter) in charge. Down in the yard, Thorne gives one heck of a fired up wartime speech to his men, rushing into hand to hand combat with the Thenn and other Wildlings.
On the Wall, Slynt is proving himself useless, and doesn't even believe that giants are down there fixing to pull down the gates of cold-rolled steel, so Grenn (Mark Stanley) lies and tells him he's needed downstairs, leaving Jon in charge. Finally, some effective leadership around here. They even lower their archers down at a 90 degree angle to the Wall to knock down the brave few who have started the summit. And yet, there's a giant loosing arrows the size of missiles at them. This ain't over by a long shot.
Slynt sneaks through the bloodbath of the yard, which is a flurry of arrows, spears, axes, cleavers and other weaponry smashing through leather and bone. He makes his way down into the kitchen pantry where Gilly and her baby are hiding. This Wildling warfare has proved too much for the King's Landing boy Slynt.