‘Game of Thrones’ Season 4 Episode 9: ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ review

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Amidst the sounds of swords clashing and giants growling, between the swells and blares of the insistent ominous soundtrack, there were some moments of particular quietness in this week’s Game of Thrones.

In one, two Wildling giants methodically attached ropes to the four inches of cold-rolled steel protecting the passage through the Wall and began to bring it down. Later, Jon Snow came face-to-face with Ygritte’s arrow and couldn’t help but smile. As they gazed at one another and her hand wavered, the sounds of the battle dimmed and we understood that love isn’t necessarily the death of duty, as Maester Aemon explained to Sam earlier in the episode; sometimes it’s just a moment of calm amidst the storm. And seven hells, what a storm that was.

Yes, this episode marked the moment Jon had been waiting for all season. Mance Rayder’s Wildling army finally arrived at the Wall and began their assault, while Ygritte, Tormund Giantsbane and the Thenns launched an attack from the south, starting with Castle Black.

There’s no denying what a tremendous spectacle it all was. With Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) stepping behind the camera after his stint on Season 2’s ‘Blackwater’, this was always going to be a big, showy episode tinged with ingenious moments of gore. And though the resolution felt a little hasty after the eight-episode build-up, it marked a fittingly heart-rending, blood-soaked climax to a season full of surprises.

There may be some frustrated by the absence of King’s Landing following last week’s cliffhanger, but this is a series about the struggle for power, and the conflicts – both great and small – that stem from that struggle. Last week we witnessed a fight between two men that stood for something much greater; this week it was a fight between hundreds of men that allowed many small personal conflicts to be acted out.

We finally got a glimpse, for instance, of what underpins the dynamic between Alliser Thorne and Jon Snow. Thorne is best thought of as the Bill Rawls to Jon’s Jimmy McNulty (Game of Thrones being The Wire in Medieval clothing, of course); the hardass head honcho constantly pissed off with, but ultimately impressed by, his precocious subordinate.

When it came down to it, Thorne set his differences with Jon aside in the name of saving the Wall, and threw himself head first into the fray. Amongst the other heroes was Grenn who, in one of the episode’s most rousing scenes, inspired his small band of comrades not to flee in the face of a rampaging Wildling giant – and, sadly, paid the price.

Of course, it was Jon who sent Grenn to his death, but by the time he discovered his friend’s body, he’d already seen Ygritte die in his arms. As the episode came to a close we caught sight of a Jon we haven’t seen before – a man world-weary and numbed by too many wrongs. If Sansa has learnt how to lie, and Arya to kill, then perhaps Jon is learning not to get too attached to anyone in this world. And it looks like his unarmed quest to track down and kill Mance Rayder next week may be nothing more than a suicide mission.

Whatever happens in Season 4’s final episode, we can’t imagine we’ve seen the last of the Wildling army. And we certainly can’t see anyone escaping this season without being irrevocably changed by its events.


Aired on Monday 9 June 2014 on Sky Atlantic.

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