This review of Game of Thrones is intended for those who are show watchers and not book readers. Please refrain from putting spoilers in the comments. There will be a separate article marked Spoilers Discussion for that in the coming days.
And you thought after last week that Game of Thrones wouldn’t have any big moments for episode nine…
Believe in one thing when it comes to season four: there are plenty of moments to go around. It’s a testament to just how great the third book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was in comparison to the others. It needed two full seasons and it has been gripping down the stretch. This episode nine, thanks in large part to some operatic directorial work from the series’ hired gun of epic battles Neil Marshall, feels like the well-earned big finish this season was working toward.
As a bonus, there’s still one more episode to go.
Hopefully that last fact provides some solace for fans of the show, many of whom have begun feeling that sinking sensation that comes along with the end of the season. It’s not the end we fear, but the wait of almost an entire year for something new. That said, we should live as the Men of the Night’s Watch have shown us in this episode: live for today.
Winning the award for most lively today: Samwell Tarly, who for much of the series has been a bumbling mess. In some of the episode’s best character work early on we see Sam (John Bradley) finally coming into his own as not just a heroic figure, but a man. The arrival of Gilly back at Castle Black (after sneaking uncomfortably close by the Wildling camp) gives him a reason to be more than nothing, which drives him to inspire the men around him. Sadly his inspiration does not save Pip, a character we’ve liked in short spurts, from taking an Ygritte arrow to the neck. This is a massive battle, after all, and some of the people we like had to die. But more on that in a moment.
Let’s take some time to applaud (stand if you feel the need) the wonderful choice of Neil Marshall to direct this episode. In a frame written by series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Marshall has given season four its crown jewel of size and scale. Several big, sweeping shots over The Wall and down into the battle inside Castle Black were among the most impressive work since Marshall last had his name in the Game of Thrones credits for “Blackwater.” In comparison, “The Watchers on The Wall” has greater longevity and more moving parts than “Blackwater,” proving a tougher task. Marshall wasn’t just up to the task, he delivered something operatic and beautiful. A symphony of ice and fire and blood. The episode never feels too fast or too slow, but just right with its pace, cuts and camera movement. It’s like watching a serene patch of ocean breached by a monstrous whale — except the whale breathes fire and eats several tourist ships in the process (go ahead and steal that, Sharknado producers.)
The most important thing about “The Watchers on The Wall” is that when it needs to slow down and have a quiet character moment, it does so gracefully. This is most important in the moment where Ygritte and Jon finally come face-to-face. After her chest-pounding speech early in the episode about wanting to be the one to kill Snow, she hesitates. And that hesitation leads to her end. It’s yet another heartbreaking moment the show played us into with her mercy play with Gilly in last week’s episode. We were reminded that Ygritte wasn’t a bad character, but one played with a great deal of nuance by Rose Leslie. Her death is yet another gut-punch in a season of hard moments.
The fighting is brutal and the battle is big, but as we see in the final moments, the engagement is far from over. It feels rather abrupt and somewhat unfair to end with Jon Snow heading out to find Mance Rayder, but it’s a nice reminder that the season isn’t over. After last week’s nasty, unhappy ending, this one provides a bit of hope. Maybe there’s room for heroes in Westeros after all. And as heroes go, this was Jon Snow’s coming out party.