09 “The Watchers on the Wall” (Game of Thrones season 4) [SPOILERS]

GoT - the shield that guards the realms of men

Bloody hell, Game of Thrones...

An inevitable reckoning

Okay so I was right in my prediction. This episode was spent entirely at the wall, as the full force of Manse’s army finally comes to bear on the depleted Night’s Watch. It’s been coming all season long, and the fact that they brought on Neil Marshall — the man who director behind season 2’s “Blackwater” — tells you that the series means business.

The moment where Ser Alliser Thorne and Jon Snow stand atop the wall watching the wildling horde approach is an important moment. They are not friends, and it is difficult even for Ser Alliser to admit that Jon was right about collapsing the tunnel. But this is the toughest test which the Watch have faced, and they are the two best soldiers on the wall. There are things in more important than their emnity, when the night is dark and full of shadows.

GoT - mammoth

The biggest fire the north has ever seen

The battle doesn’t disappoint. As Mance’s force charges the wall, Tormund and co attack from the vulnerable south. Caught between the two Castle Black seems to stand little chance. Jon takes command atop the wall, whilst Ser Alliser leads a counter attack down below — and Ser Janos Slynt hides in a larder. Jon has grown greatly over the four seasons so far. At the start he was a sulky little creature who I didn’t care for. Now another character has to actually remind the audience that he isn’t Lord Commander.

But let’s talk about the giants. And the mammoth. This whole episode puts me in mind of the set-piece battles from The Lord of the Rings and I can’t help feeling Sauron could have done with a few of both. The mammoth is only prevented from pulling the gate out of the wall by fire, and an enraged giant forces his way into the tunnel, with only Grenn and five men to stop it — shouting their oaths as a battlecry.

GoT - Jon and Sam

The shield that guards the realms of men

Thing is, this is a holding battle. Jon knows that the Night’s Watch won’t win, knows they can’t. Their oaths hold them to their posts, but death is knocking at the door. Pip goes first, terrified and shot with an arrow through the neck, as Sam hands him reloaded crossbows. When morning comes, Sam and Jon discover Grenn dead in the tunnel. They held the gate, but at the cost of their lives.

This is the beauty of the Night’s Watch as a literary device. It isn’t just egalitarian — even an unwanted bastard can rise through its ranks — but redemption. These are thieves, criminals, nobodies. And here they are, dying on an ice wall to protect a world which rejected them and doesn’t even know about their sacrifice.

It is, in a word, heroic.

GoT - sam and gilly

Love is the death of duty

This episode is, like “Blackwater”, a battle. But this battle has personal stakes, as well as global ones. As I said before, the Night’s Watch is about heroism, and the journey from nothing to that heroism. Samwell Tarly is the perfect example. He is a coward, starting his arc as a pathetic character. But now, learning Gilly is alive, he has something to fight for. He may not be the most skilled fighter, but he doesn’t cower, and his courage lends courage to his friends, particularly Pip.

And Jon. Jon has become the leader Mormont always meant him to be — the moment where he hands Longclaw to Sam, saying that he promised Mormont he wouldn’t lose it again. Of course, in order to gain his mantle, there has to be sacrifice. As he comes, across the battlefield, face to face with Ygritte, a single arrow parts them forever. Her last words are wrong; Jon may once have known nothing, but now he is the single best hope of Westeros.

But it’s not over. The battle is won, but not the war. Mance is still out there, and the seven kingdoms won’t be safe as long as he is. Jon’s decision to go, personally, to find him might be foolish, but it is brave and the only real choice left.

Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honour to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come…

GoT - Jon and Ygritte

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