”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 honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
"The Watchers on the Wall" is the new ”Blackwater.” Sorry, a terrible joke not befitting last night's truly epic installment of Game of Thrones. This was the second time the HBO fantasy turned to Neil Marshall to direct an episode-long battle and it somehow yielded an even greater result. A much larger budget probably didn't hurt. I'm also including Chelsea Wolfe's "Feral Love" (used in the fourth season's very first trailer) to listen to while you read "The Watchers on the Wall" recap because, well, I feel like it was made for Jon and Ygritte's tragic romance. Not to mention that it's rousing enough to get hyped for the big battle...
”I’ll take this watch.”
Season 4 has been structurally different than the ones preceding it in that the writers have made a concentrated effort to, well, concentrate the storytelling in fewer locations. That, combined with less cross-cutting back and forth between the few places that are featured in a given episode, has allowed events time to breathe and turn within a sequence which is smart because that approach allows for tension to build to a more satisfying climax per thread. However, even after the change, it is still quite a risk for Game of Thrones to devote an entire episode to one location, especially on a series known for its sprawling, continent crossing narrative and equally large ensemble.
”Love is the death of duty.”
For the most part, the risk paid off, as many of Dan Weiss and David Benioff's tend to do, with the focus on one location allowing for an expanded scope. That may seem contradictory yet having everything take place in one spot doesn't only allow for a deeper exploration of the characters involved but you also have the time (and budget) to explore the Wall as never before. Like all of the extended trenches on top, apparently modelled after Kubrick's Paths of Glory, or the much more detailed courtyard set which would house some of the episode's best action. The sweeping, (surely CGI assisted) unbroken shot that went from one recognizable character fighting to the next was spectacular. The writers even managed to sneak in a Tormund ‘har!’ mid-battle.
”Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death.”
To Marshall's credit, there were several terrific shots and sequences in the well directed and choreographed "The Watchers on the Wall." One wonderful aerial shot comes to mind. It started south of the huge structure with Ygritte's band of wildlings (a fire being snuffed out casts her face in darkness) only to climb up and fly over the Crows on the Wall before finally reveal Mance's greatest fire the North has ever seen on the other side. The slow pan out from Jon saying goodbye to a dying Ygritte in his arms, with sounds of the fighting muffled behind them, was also gorgeous. A nice moment to breathe and wipe any tears. Their final exchange reinforcing the episode’s theme, ‘talk is cheap but words have power.’
”I am a man of the Night’s Watch, I made a promise to defend the Wall.”
There are many instances of this idea running through "TWotW," with events like Grenn using the Night's Watch's words to persuade the other five of his brothers to keep their vows (and promise to Jon) that they would defend the Wall, in this case the gate. Alliser Thorne, despite being a huge prick, also shows the power of words where Janos Slynt is the poster boy for how talk is cheap. Maester Aemon's stories for Sam seems to touch on this theme, especially how love can be the death of duty. Vows are easy to keep when times are easy, it's when they are tested that matters. And the big one, Ygritte’s talk about how she was going to kill Jon versus the latter choosing duty over love. Tragic. Although not quite as tragic as when his brother Robb chose love over duty.
”100 generations have defended this castle. We’ve never fallen before, she will not fall tonight.”
I suppose we should get to a quick run through of the actual events and other 'holy shit!' moments that went down during "TWotW." The installment started with a few scenes representing the calm before storm with Jon and Sam able to talk about their lost loves. Or at least thought lost in the latter's case. Sam's sadness leads him down to the library to have the aforementioned discussion of duty before Gilly returns and suddenly makes our self-proclaimed coward into quite the hero. He even swore. Poor Pyp, I had a feeling he wouldn't make it out of the battle alive. Grenn was unexpected and his act of heroism in the tunnels was an emotional highlight. The shot with him beside the slain Giant wasn't bad either. Those two characters have been around since early Season 1 and their deaths may not cause a stir but it was sad to see them go all the same.
”You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
Thorne's death (it was unclear if he actually died or was just too wounded to continue) was not so sad even though this was him at his most likeable. I enjoyed all of the separate rampages and showdowns. Tormund killing everything before beating Thorne and finally ending up in chains. Sam popping an arrow into a Thenn's eye. Jon and the lead Thenn throwing down. Edd dropping oil and fire on the giants at the gate or the scythe on the climbers. That was rad as hell. So was the giant's arrow taking out a brother atop the Wall. Or just the giants (and their mammoths) in general. Lots of great action beats as well as emotional moments. But they only won the battle, not the war. And now Jon must find a way to lead his brothers to a lasting victory.
”Who’s left to give orders?”
Game of Thrones' fourth season finale, "The Children," airs next Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Based on the "Song of Ice and Fire" novels by George R.R. Martin, the TV series was adapted by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and stars Peter Dinklage, Kit Harrington, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
Those who have read GRRM’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”can head to the next page for a spoiler section and open comment thread...
BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD: Everything beyond this point includes spoilers from George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels.
”A Song of Ice and Fire” Speculation
All the smug bastards (our last name would be ‘Readers’) that have finished all five of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels don’t want simple recaps of the Game of Thrones’ Season 4 episodes, they want to talk about how Benioff and Weiss have adapted the source material for the small-screen as well as the future of the HBO fantasy. On that note, I should also say that I’ve only read the series once (okay, some extended sections twice) so go easy on me if I screw up and/or if there’s something I fail to mention. Now. Winter is coming. And, if it wasn’t clear by now, so are SPOILERS. Final warning…
Okay. So I’ve been slacking on the book readers’ page of the recap but nothing in the last few installments has really struck me as conversation starters. Did people want to talk about Jaime making a(n ultimately futile) deal with Tywin during Tyrion’s trial? The Iron Bank of Braavos? Yara’s failed infiltration of the Dreadfort? Petyr saying “your sister” instead of “only Cat?” Well, go ahead.
The reason I thought “The Watchers on the Wall” warranted the readers’ page was the lack of Stannis and his army arriving to save the day. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I like that it keeps us always guessing and reintroduces surprise into the show for those that know what’s coming but this time I really wanted to see the remaining Baratheon and Davos arrive at the last second when all looked lost. Perhaps, that plays too much like Tywin and Loras' arrival at “Blackwater?” But then, isn’t history repeating also a huge part of “ASOIAF?”
There's plenty more to pick apart, so feel free to remind me about everything that I didn't mention in the comments...
Like I said, the fourth season of Game of Thrones concludes with “The Children” next Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.