Welcome once again to the Great Chris & Nikki Game of Thrones Co-Blog™, wherein we take the most recent episode and spread it out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. This week: it’s All The Wall All The Time, as the long-expected attack by Julius Caesar Mance Rayder descends on the Band of Buggered known as the Night’s Watch. It was an episode that featured some pretty impressive visuals, some awesome fist-pumping moments, and the writers snuck in some equally impressive writing. Those scamps.
But without further ado—want to lead us off, Nikki?
Nikki: You know, I never thought I’d see anything more impressive than Legolas sliding down the side of a tower while shooting arrows at the enemies at Helm’s Deep, but seeing the Night’s Watch guys suddenly pull a gigantic scythe that had been long hidden in the side of the Wall and pummel the hell out of the wildlings scaling the side of it? Holy hell. Turns out the reason we haven’t seen much of the dragons this season (I mean, seriously, where DOES Daenerys keep those beasts? Do they just fly around randomly through Meereen scaring the hell out of the local children?) is because they poured 92% of their CGI budget into this one episode. And what an incredible sequence it was.
I don’t recall another episode of Game of Thrones that focused entirely on one area, one battle; they always touch on other things and then come back to the battle at the end of the episode. I could be wrong, but I think this is the first time we get to focus on one story and one story only, Chris, and it was a nail-biter.
With the death of Oberyn looming over us from last week, I kept wondering who was going to die in this one. Samwell Tarly? Jon Snow? Ygritte? Gilly? Someone had to die, after all. After we discussed last week how GRRM has upended our expectations over and over again, does his flipping of convention actually become the new expectation? Do we now go into every scene thinking, “Um… yeah. Jon Snow ain’t walking away from this one…” and then GRRM manages to flip THAT expectation? I just don’t know how to handle any of it anymore, but in creating this “will he or won’t he” atmosphere around his writing, GRRM has effectively managed to make his episodes seem very realistic. Just as in real life, you never know who’s going to return from battle and who won’t. He will take out the main character just as easily as the guy playing “Sentry #13.”
Aside from the awesome effects in this episode (the giant had a bow that shot spears like they were arrows WHAT THE HELL) I think my favourite scene may have been the one between Maester Aemon and Sam. This is when Sam still thinks Gilly is dead from the attack on Mole’s Town, and Aemon tells him how difficult it is to see straight when you are in love. “Love is the death of duty,” he tells him, and he’s pointing specifically to Jon Snow falling in love with Ygritte, or Sam falling in love with Gilly. He tells Sam that he was in love with, and in this gorgeous moment he looks off in the distance and says that he can still see her in front of him, “she’s more real than you are.” Aemon is legally blind, from what I can tell (I believe he can still see shadows and such) and because he can no longer see the world around him in the present, he instead looks upon the beauty of his past. And in the midst of this moment of calm before the storm, he says to Sam, “Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death.”
This one scene then has a huge impact upon our expectations of the rest of the episode. Will Jon see Ygritte and fail to do his duty? Will Sam shirk his duty for Gilly? And whose death will be imminent?
And yet, not surprisingly, love is not the death of duty for Sam. He loves Gilly and hides her and the baby away in a locked room, but refuses to stay with her. He has made a vow, and he intends to stick by it, even as a man lay dying in his lap with blood gushing from his mouth. He knows he also has a duty to Gilly, but his vow as a man of the Night’s Watch comes first, and he never runs off to hide, unlike Janos Slynt, who goes into shock and rushes into the room. (And to be honest, I felt like if he’d jumped into the fray the Night’s Watch might have accidentally mistaken his bald pate for a Thenn, so… he was probably better off cowering in that room.)
And similarly, we saw Jon Snow abandon Ygritte despite his feelings for her, because he had to get back to the Night’s Watch and tell them what he’d seen. Love wasn’t the death of duty for him, either, although we do see in this episode that when he should have laid waste to the wildling girl, he hesitates.
The flip side of Aemon’s speech is Tormund talking about sex rather brutally, and Ygritte staying focused on her one and only task at hand: killing Jon Snow. As Tormund talks about “Sheila” and Sam asks Jon, “So… what’s it like?” in a very Monty Pythonesque way (nudge nudge wink wink) we realize that when it’s time to go into battle, the mind turns to that from which it derives pleasure: namely sex and love. Do those things make us weaker in the face of battle, or stronger?
What did you think of this episode, Chris? Did it play out in a similar fashion in the book?
Christopher: Well, to start with, you’re forgetting season two’s spectacular episode “Blackwater,” which focused exclusively on Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing and Tyrion’s brilliant defense of the city. So we do have precedent for Game of Thrones ignoring all storylines but one in order to depict a massive battle. And I think you’re right about the dearth of dragons this season: this episode outdid “Blackwater” by a mile, and treated us to the kind of eye-poppingly sophisticated CGI one rarely sees on television, but that doesn’t come cheaply.
As for its consonance with the book, it changes a few key details. For one, Toramund’s assault on Castle Black is not coordinated with the assault on the Wall. In the books, there is no stockade on the south side of the Wall, and so Jon Snow and the Watch defend themselves from the tops of scattered towers, and from a makeshift barricade at the base of switchback stairs built into the Wall (in the novels, the “elevator” is not the only means of getting to the top). Ygritte dies in the fight, but we don’t see it happen. Jon finds her afterward just as she dies—with just enough time to remember the cave and say one last “you know nothing, Jon Snow”—and wonders whether it was his arrow that killed her.
Also, his friends Pyp and Grenn don’t die in the book: that one took me by surprise, and saddened me somewhat. Neither of them plays a large part in the series, and if you haven’t read the books you could be forgiven for not noticing them as distinct from any of the other watchmen. But as with so much of the casting on this show, the actors playing them were perfect for the parts, and I will miss them. (And it raises a question we’ve asked before about whether choices in the series are spoilers for the unwritten books—does this mean that Grenn and Pyp play no significant roles in the end? Or perhaps GRRM planned for them to, but will now incorporate their deaths into his writing? I’m pretty certain we’re in unprecedented territory here. It’s pretty fascinating, really).
The other significant difference is that in the novels the battle takes place over several days, with Jon Snow proving his mettle as a battle commander. When there is a lull in the fighting and Mance Rayder settles in for a protracted siege, that is when Janos Slynt arrives from King’s Landing with Alliser Thorne, who had been at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, one of the Night’s Watch’s other fortresses, and takes arrogant and preemptory command. On Thorne’s urging, he has Jon Snow thrown in chains for having betrayed his oaths with the wildlings; and it is Slynt (again, on Thorne’s urging) who sends Jon to parley with Mance Rayder with the suicidal mission of killing him—in order, he smugly says, to prove Jon’s loyalty.
So the series has compressed the action somewhat, which is not a bad thing, and in having Janos Slynt arriving at the Wall MUCH earlier, they turn him into a quivering, cowardly lump. Ser Alliser, by contrast, is made somewhat more sympathetic: I quite like what they did with him in this episode, having him admit to Jon Snow his error in not heeding his advice to block the tunnel, and then delivering a short speech on the nature of leadership that, in the absence of Maester Aemon’s speech, would have been the best bit of writing in the episode:
Do you know what leadership means, Lord Snow? It means that the person in charge gets second-guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth. But if he starts second-guessing himself, that’s the end—for himself, for the clever little twats, for everyone. This is not the end. Not for us. Not if you lot do your duty for however long it takes to beat them back. And then you get to go on hating me, and I get to go on wishing your wildling whore had finished the job.
I loved this—there’s no love lost between Thorne and Jon Snow, and if they survive the battle there will be no sudden bonds of affection and friendship between them. But Thorne, unlike his ally Janos Slynt, is a true soldier, and will put aside his petty hatreds in the name of duty. It is actually the flip side of the coin of Maester Aemon’s speech to Sam: love is the death of duty, but then so are other passions. Say what you will about Alliser Thorne, but he understands that hatred will sabotage his ability to do his duty as much as Sam’s love of Gilly, or Jon’s of Ygritte.
And then he goes on to show that he’s a guy you totally want having your back in a fight.
Like “Blackwater,” this was an episode that balanced some fine writing against some pretty spectacular action sequences. There were a number of fist-pumping moments for me, most notably when the burning oil lights the giants up like a torch, and when Jon Snow mashes the Thenn’s head in with a hammer. What got you cheering in this episode, Nikki?
Nikki: As I was typing the words “I don’t recall another episode of Game of Thrones that focused entirely on one area…” I thought to myself, “Did Blackwater just focus on that battle?” If I’d looked up our review of it that week, I would have seen that yes, indeed, it did. My mistake.
The enormous scythe probably got the biggest gasp from me, as did that spear the giant shot (that sent a man sailing through the air, off the side of the Wall, down several hundred feet, and impaled onto the ground on the other side… WOW). The two moments you mention were certainly spectacular and brilliantly handled on the show. I loved the archers leaning out and standing horizontally against the Wall, appearing to defy gravity as they shot their arrows straight down at the wildlings scaling the side of it (and when the oil exploded and broke the one man’s rope I will admit a scream emitted from my mouth). The sheer numbers of the wildlings as they appeared in front of the Wall, complete with their “fairy-tale” allies, made me think this was going to be a very quick battle, and I was thrilled that the Night’s Watch managed to stand their ground, even if it’s for one night only, as Jon Snow proclaims.
I agree entirely with your assessment of Ser Alliser. For everything I was saying a few weeks back on what a prick he is and what a dumbass he is for not listening to Jon Snow when Jon told him to seal the tunnels, he not only admits to his mistakes here, but fights like a true warrior when he hits the ground.
Probably the biggest fist-pumping scene for both my husband and me is when Sam unleashed Ghost. YES. The direwolves are always exciting to watch and have been since back in season 1, and the doggie-cam style of showing him working his way through the action and then choosing one guy to take down was brilliant.
I also wanted to mention that I thought the music was phenomenal in this episode: they reused that long scary blast music that first played as the Thenn came marching through the valley toward the wildlings, and it was overlaid with bits of the Game of Thrones theme music, the wildling music, and the music often used for the Night’s Watch. Just utterly brilliant music here.
I will admit there were times when we were a tad confused by the layout of everything (so… Mole’s Town must be north of the Wall because the wildlings were already there and massacred it, which means Castle Black is also north of the Wall? So from the south all you can see is the Wall itself, but the Castle is located on the northern side, is that correct?) but it didn’t stop the action one bit.
So, with the Night’s Watch’s numbers depleted but Castle Black still standing, Tormund in captivity, Ygritte and the Thenn leader dead, Slynt in severe shock, Ser Alliser wounded but still alive, Gilly safe in Castle Black for now, Sam having had his first kiss (awwww), and the giants dead after the men of the Night’s Watch held the gate, as Jon Snow had asked them to do… Jon is going to head off into the wilds north of the Wall and find Mance Rayder and end all of this, he says. Earlier in the episode, Gilly made Sam promise to come back, and he made that promise… and kept it. Now Sam watches Jon go — sans sword — and says to him, “Jon? Come back.” Part of me is terrified Jon won’t. But I’m assuming with so much focus on the Wall and what’s north of it in this episode, this might be the last we see of Jon Snow until season 5, and next week we’ll conclude the rest of the action in Westeros.
Of course, this final back-and-forth between Sam and Jon had me asking one very big question: where the hell was Mance Rayder? I remember when Ciaran Hinds was introduced as Mance last season and you were giddy, Chris (not least because he’s Julius Caesar to us) and then… nothing. He’s never there, he’s utterly absent from the battle, and he’s just disappeared from the action all this season. I haven’t read this book, so perhaps there some explanation there I’m missing, but it just felt like he should have been there in some capacity. If he was the one who brought them all together, after all, why isn’t he there fighting with them?
Any final thoughts, Chris?
Christopher: Mance is there, just not leading from the front. I assume that was, in part, just an issue of scheduling and pay … there wouldn’t have been much Mance this season anyway, so why pay an actor for a few-minute cameo in the penultimate episode? I say that, of course, knowing that we might see him in the finale, but I’m going to guess that you’re correct—we won’t see the Wall again until next season, as there is simply too much to tie up in the rest of our storylines.
I think you’re confused about the geography because you’ve momentarily forgotten that Tormund, Ygritte, et al are in fact south of the Wall. They climbed over the Wall last season with Jon Snow (as he reminds us in this episode) and have ranged pretty far south in the raiding as they wait for Mance’s signal. Castle Black is south of the Wall; Tormund’s group comes up on them from the south.
I too was thrilled by Sam releasing Ghost. We haven’t seen much of him this season, but he’s had two really great moments—taking out Rast at Craster’s Keep, and then again in this episode. Having a direwolf on your side goes a long way to evening the odds.
One thing I quite liked about this episode is Sam’s evolution as a character. John Bradley has never played him precisely like the Samwell Tarly of the novels—he’s always been more gregarious, less timid, and far less cowardly. Though I like the Sam of the novels, his incessant cringing and whining makes him difficult to take at times … and while on one hand it’s a welcome change from uniformly dour and courageous male heroes, one does start to lose patience with him. But Bradley’s Sam has evolved—starting out cringy and whiny, but slowly coming into his own as he endures hardships and dangers that would reduce most of us to jelly. They’re precisely the same hardships and dangers he endures in the novels, but Sam as written never quite toughens up. His speech to Pyp as they wait at the gates for the wildlings to attack is another lovely moment of writing, imbued with Sam’s self-awareness of how he’s changed. In the moment he killed the White Walker, he was “nothing”—and that is when fear disappears. So why was he afraid now? “I’m not nothing anymore,” he replies, and those words speak both to Sam coming into his own as a character, but also his realization that he loves Gilly. In other words, he has something now to live for.
In many ways, this was a very deftly written episode for one that was basically a massive battle. The themes of love, leadership, and duty run through it, and far from being three separate concepts they are shown to be inextricably entwined. Jon Snow’s fumbling attempt to explain how sex and love feels at the start is inadvertently quite eloquent: “It’s this whole other person … you’re wrapped up in them, they’re wrapped up in you … for a little while you’re more than just you … Oh, I don’t know, I’m not a bleeding poet!” Oh, Jon—you were almost there. You almost had it. Jon’s description is the opposite of Sam’s when he tells Pyp about becoming nobody. It makes me think of the final line of Philip Larkin’s poem “An Arundel Tomb,” in which the otherwise cynical and bleak poet concludes that “What will survive of us is love.” Maester Aemon might characterize love as the death of duty, but he acknowledges its power … and we see that on Jon Snow’s face when he’s confronted by Ygritte pointing an arrow at his chest. The smile the crosses his face is enigmatic—at once chagrined but, as you observe Nikki, also delighted. It’s as if he’s thinking “Of course you’re the one who’s going to kill me,” but at the same time acknowledging that if he’s going to die, he’s happy she’s the one to do it.
Would she have shot him if Olly hadn’t beaten her to it? I had halfway expected her to put an arrow into Alabaster Seal while Jon was fighting him, at once saving his life but also following through on her earlier threat. We’re never given the answer of whether she’d actually have killed Jon this time … but then, perhaps, some questions should not be answered.
Well, that’s it for this week, folks! Thanks for reading, and always remember to uncage your direwolf before the battle. Tune in next week as Nikki and I put our fourth season of Game of Thrones to bed. And I promise you this much: once again, the internet’s gonna get broke.