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Recap: 'Game Of Thrones' Season 4, Episode 9, 'The Watchers On The Wall' Is Back In Black

by Katie Walsh
June 9, 2014 9:05 AM
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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. 

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  • John | June 11, 2014 9:04 AMReply

    Can't help thinking they should have lined the tunnel with oil and set the giant alight. Not as excitingly or suspenseful I guess!?!

  • Prin | June 11, 2014 3:45 AMReply

    This was an episode of epic proportions, i thoroughly enjoyed it probably even more so than the battle of the black water. Although i agree that it just didn't have the shock factor that came with the red wedding or stark's beheading. Season 4 has been a lot more feel good than the other seasons with only Oberlin's and Ygritte's death really having much impact on me. I was rather happy to see the doom and gloom of King Joffrey and Lysa.

  • Paul | June 10, 2014 11:36 PMReply

    Why didn't Jon take Ghost with him? I think he wants to die. Ghost is so white he could have camouflaged right in with the snow, and he has the coolest pet name ever.

  • Meg | June 10, 2014 9:01 PMReply

    The chanting by the gate was a nice touch, but I guess I've seen Galaxy Quest too many times, because it reminded me of the Mak'tar chant of strength, "larack tarath," etc. This was a fun episode, but at the end I was left wondering what was going on at King's Landing and with Arya and the Hound.

  • Mellow Yellow | June 10, 2014 6:20 PMReply

    GOT - I thought they finally gave some love to Jon Snow and the Night's Watch, the over-head view of the battle from both sides was frickin "HALO" awesome. This episode was nice to see how other's struggle and fight for a cause not named Lannister's.

  • James Graham | June 10, 2014 5:36 PMReply

    Are we absolutely sure that Allister Thorne is dead? My last view of him was him being dragged to shelter but apparently still alive. Did we actually see a dead body? Fantastic episode.

  • VChile | June 10, 2014 7:31 AMReply

    Ginger Minge

  • Kurrukin | June 10, 2014 12:52 AMReply

    Nice, big budget episode, with a grand army scene. I bet they had to borrow LOTR editors and production crew for this one.

  • johhny | June 12, 2014 11:07 PM

    I'm pretty sure they had a million role-playing medieval fans who could play the battles for free and needing only little rehearsing in the fight scenes.

  • Mike | June 9, 2014 10:36 PMReply

    Great recap. I loved the episode. They do a wonderful job with these epic battles and dedicating the whole episode to them. I was so happy when I realized what was happening. If you were to break up the action it would take something away from the realism. It's like watching Schindler's List with goofy commercials in the intermissions; it takes away from the experience. The politics and everything else can wait. How do you break this battle into multiple episodes anyway? I think it was brilliantly done. If it were just fighting for an hour it would get monotonous, but there was so much more going on, so many touching moments that the hour went by so fast I couldn't believe it when the credits rolled. These men fought a battle to protect a Westeros that has forgotten about them; they deserved their own episode. Superb directing and storytelling.

  • Melissa | June 9, 2014 6:35 PMReply

    I LOVED the scene where Grenn and the others were reciting The Oath as the giant charged down on them -- their solidarity and courage made me a little teary eyed! Overall, though, I did not care for the "bottle" episode concept -- especially not at this point in the season and not with a show like this, where there are multiple (more interesting) locations and storylines to visit. I got a little tired of The Wall/Castle Black and kept wondering what was going on in King's Landing. Last night's entire episode was oh-so-very LOTR: The Two Towers' Battle of Helm's Deep. Good recap, though!

  • gil | June 9, 2014 6:02 PMReply

    Very disappointed, characters took soooo long to die, and when I saw the wolf I was SURE that he was going to kill ygriggtes , wouldn't it have been better if the wolf(who we only saw attack and eat one of the baddies) tore her head off as she staref lovingly at John??!!

  • AndyK | June 10, 2014 8:41 AM

    That would be interesting, but Ghost wouldn't have done it. Jon is a talented warg, he is not as powefull as Bran and he is still resisting his gifts, but Ghosts is basically part of Jon even when he is not warged into him and wouldn't do anything Jon doesnt want him to do..

  • Jimbo | June 9, 2014 5:13 PMReply

    Great scene with Ygritte but very disappointing ending. Jon went north of the Wall three seasons ago, so to see him do the same again now is hardly groundbreaking.

    For me all the Wall stuff is, like most fantasy, just derivative of Tolkien. The politics around King's Landing is far more exciting and original. Rock on next week.

  • Steven | June 9, 2014 2:58 PMReply

    Great recap! Here's hoping Allister is only mostly dead and sticks around for one more episode, I'm a sucker for redemptive characters.

  • jawsnnn | June 9, 2014 1:46 PMReply

    Good job with the recap. And was this a bottle battle episode? :P

  • GOT | June 9, 2014 10:04 AMReply

    Did Allister Thorne die? They just show him being dragged off after he was wounded in the fight with Tormund.

  • JazzedKO | June 9, 2014 5:16 PM

    Yeah, he was roaring loudly as he was pulled away by his men. Took a big sword swipe to the waist/stomach, but doesn't seem dead to me.

  • jakob dylan | June 9, 2014 9:18 AMReply

    great recap!

  • Rock | June 9, 2014 7:20 PM

    Game of Thrones never disappoints!! I thought this show was epic in scope. Even though Allister Thorne can be an asshole, it was excellent writing to make him more than an one dimensional character with no redeemable qualities. Games of Thrones needs to increase their seasonal episode count to at least 20!!!!!

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