This was Game Of Thrones' big battle episode, and it featured huge set pieces. HUGE. But you know what was really huge? The characters, and their incredible defining moments. There was sex, love, heroism, cowardice... and lots of killing. We've rounded up all of the defining moments in last night's insane showcase.
"The Watchers on the Wall" is similar to season two's "Blackwater" — a single huge set piece, involving just one location and one set of characters, directed by the incomparable Neil Marshall. The main difference is that this huge battle ends inconclusively.
The actual plot of "Watchers" is easy to summarize in a paragraph: Gilly and her baby return to Castle Black, just before the Wildlings launch their two-pronged assault. A huge force attacks the Wall from the North, while a small force attacks Castle Black from the South. Both attacks are defeated, but at a huge cost (including the lives of some beloved Crows. And Ygritte.) In the end, Jon Snow realizes that they can only hold off the Wildling army for another day or two, and goes alone to try and kill their leader, Mance Rayder.
And there's a bit of a thread running through the episode of ego and selflessness. Jon Snow describes sex as a merging of yourself with another person, where you're wrapped up in each other and for a little while you're something more than just yourself. Samwell says he was brave enough to attack a White Walker because he forgot himself and became just "nothing." The six men who hold the inner gate against a giant only succeed because they chant their oath and forget themselves as individuals. So both sex and battle involve a kind of losing yourself, which is why they tend to come into conflict so much. And this is contrasted with Janos Slynt, who's a coward precisely because he can't let go of his ego.
But "The Watchers on the Wall" isn't really about words, or philosophies — it's about actions. More than any other episode, this is about the things people choose to do in the heat of battle, and what they reveal about themselves.
The Night's Watch finds its discipline
Considering what they're up against, you have to hand it to them.
We've heard a lot about how meager the Night's Watch is, in both numbers and experience. But when the actual attack comes, under the command of Ser Alliser Thorne and Jon Snow, the crows actually perform pretty well. They hold their positions, and apart from a few screw-ups actually manage to nock, draw and loose their arrows in unison. We get to see a lot of great defense tactics last night, including burning arrows, burning barrels of oil, and a giant scythe that cuts down the people trying to climb the Wall. They take out a giant-mammoth tow-truck combo. Six men hold off a giant.
And the scene where Grenn keeps his panicky men together with their oath is one of the all-time great "fuck yeah" moments.
And we really get to see what the Night's Watch is about: it's about letting go of your past, as Maester Aemon reluctantly does when he won't really tell Samwell any real details about the woman he loved. It's about having faith in your brothers instead of the gods, because the gods aren't here and your brothers are, as Grenn says right before they defend the Inner Gate. It's about the way Dolorous Edd actually seems kind of happy as he tells his brothers "to light the fuckers up."
One great thing about this episode is the incredible sense of scale. From the first establishing shot of the top of the Wall to all the long aerial shots of the army and the fighting, you really get the sense that this is a huge conflict and that they're attacking a ginormous wall of ice in the middle of an unforgiving landscape.
The great virtue of Marshall, too, is that the tighter shots of people fighting and shooting arrows feel completely connected to those grand long shots. You know exactly where everybody is at any given moment, even in the most insane free-for-all, and the macro-battle feels seamlessly integrated with the individual close-ups. That's partly a huge budget at work, but it's also Marshall knowing how to make a massive set piece both exciting and intelligible.
Ser Alliser Thorne turns out to be a decent leader
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all.
Up until now, Alliser Thorne's idea of a motivational speech has been saying stuff like, "You will all die like flies." But when the shit really hits the Wall, he actually turns out to be a pretty effective commander, insisting that Castle Black has been defended for generations and this won't be the night it gets broached. When his archers atop the Wall are in severe danger of falling apart, he gets them to recognize the difference between "nock" and "draw," and he personally goes to convince the embattled men in Castle Black that they don't want to be eaten by the cannibal Thenns.
Alliser Thorne sort of admits that maybe Jon Snow was right, and they should have blocked off the tunnel under the Wall when they had the chance. But he explains to Jon Snow a crucial principle of leadership: Everyone else gets to second-guess the leader, but the leader can never second-guess himself, or it's all over.
And that lack of self-doubt is what carries Thorne through an impossible battle on two fronts. Even though he eventually gets cut down.
Jon Snow orders men to their deaths
You can practically see Jon Snow growing up in this episode — he starts out still bashfully talking to Samwell about the transcendence of his first sexual experience and debating whether their vows actually require celibacy. And then he takes pity on Samwell, sending him to get some rest instead of keeping watch with the rest.
But Jon has to make some impossible choices once he's left in charge of the Wall — including sending his friend Grenn to defend the Inner Gate with just five other men. This is a suicide mission, but all Jon tells Grenn is, "hold the gate." Twice, for emphasis. And then Jon doesn't have the luxury of worrying about Grenn and the others, until he finds their dead bodies the next day.
When Jon comes down to Castle Black to help defend the gate against Tormund's party, he's just a ruthless killing machine. (And he asks Samwell to unlock Ghost, his direwolf, because in a full-on melee there's nothing like having a pissed-off wolf on your side.) Jon barely manages to defeat Styr, the Magnar of Thenn, in hand-to-hand combat. And then he watches Ygritte die in his arms — more on her in a moment.
By the time Jon Snow makes the frankly insane decision to go alone on a suicide mission, to try and kill Mance Rayder, he's already been the direct or indirect cause of the deaths of a few people he cares about, just in one night. And that makes him competely bloody-minded — he's the only one who sees the "great victory" for what it is: pyrrhic. Only Jon recognizes that Mance was just testing their defenses, and that he's only just getting started.
When Sam warns Jon that the Wildlings will boil him and flay him and make his death last for days, he looks completely weary and yet totally lacking in the soulful self-pity that's been his trademark for so long. "It's a bad plan," he admits. "What's your plan?" Sounding a lot like Alliser Thorne, saying that leaders can't afford to second-guess themselves, in fact. He leaves Jeor Mormont's sword, Longclaw, with Samwell, because he probably isn't coming back, despite Samwell's hopes.
Ygritte still can't kill Jon Snow, but she also can't save him
We've been waiting a year to find out what will happen when Ygritte finally catches up with Jon Snow again — the last time they saw each other, she shot him full of arrows, but was careful not to kill him. As this episode begins, she's making arrows to kill Jon and his brothers — and she makes a promise that she winds up not keeping.
Ygritte not only vows to kill Jon Snow and hang his "fun bits" around her neck, but she tells Styr that if any of the other Wildlings try to kill him first, she'll "have an arrow for them."
Ygritte kills a lot of people in the assault on Castle Black, including poor Pyp. But then she sees Jon fighting for his life against Styr. She watches them fight, but she doesn't make good on her threat to shoot Styr for robbing her of Jon's death. Of all the surprises in this episode, one of the biggest is that Jon wins the fight against Styr all on his own, thanks to a hammer.
And then Jon winds up standing there with Ygritte aiming an arrow at him. She shakes with anger, but she can't actually shoot him. (Or at least, she hesitates for a long time.) He starts to smile — and then Ygritte gets shot from behind, by young Olly, whose lovable father was killed by Ygritte a few episodes back. (And Styr spared Olly's life, so he could run and tell the Crows what had happened.)
This almost seems anti-climactic — but that's what happens when you aim an arrow at someone in the middle of a pitched battle, and then pause for reflection.
As Ygritte dies, she wishes that she and Jon had just stayed in that cave where they had sex, away from the rest of the world. Because that was the one place they could just be lovers and not have to be all the other things they are — they could be "wrapped up in each other" and be something more than individuals, as Jon told Samwell. Jon responds that they can go back there, giving Ygritte one last chance to tell him that he knows nothing.
Samwell manages to stay with Gilly and also leave her
As the episode begins, Samwell thinks Gilly and her baby are dead, murdered in Moles Town. And he struggles with the notion that his love for Gilly was wrong, trying to craft an argument that would allow both love and adherence to the vows of the Night's Watch. When Jon sends Samwell away, he winds up reading the works of Maester Faull, all about Wildling atrocities, trying to imagine what could have happened to Gilly as a result of Samwell sending her away.
And then Gilly and her baby come back, and Samwell forces Pyp to let them in against Thorne's orders. And this leaves Samwell with the exact sort of dilemma his vows were supposed to prevent: Does he guard Gilly and the baby, or do his duty alongside his brothers? As Maester Aemon warns him, "Love is the death of duty."
Samwell promises Gilly, "From now on, wherever you go, I go too." But he manages to find a way to keep both vows — he locks Gilly in a store-room with her baby, where she'll be relatively safe, and argues that he's still "with" her even if he's up top fighting Wildlings. He has to go and fight, because that's what men do. Gilly doesn't think Samwell will be much use to anyone out there, whereas he'll be a lot of use to her in that storeroom.
At least he gives Gilly a big dramatic kiss, before he bails on her:
But another big surprise is that Samwell turns out to be quite useful — he only kills one Thenn himself, but he's a decent killing facilitator. He talks Pyp out of his sheer terror, and convinces Pyp to keep shooting crossbows at Wildlings — killing one Wildling doesn't mean you get to stop — and then he goes up to the Wall to convince Jon Snow to come down and join the fight in Castle Black. He is able to convince Olly to keep working the elevator, as all hell is breaking loose, and then tells Olly to find a weapon and fight. So Samwell turns out to be responsible for Ygritte's death, more or less.
As Samwell tells Jon, "You can't protect me forever."
Samwell tells Pyp he's not able to be fearless the way he was when he killed a White Walker, because he's not "nothing" any more. He's almost too many things: Gilly's protector as well as a brother of the Night's Watch — but he makes it work, keeping everyone focused on the battle while (sort of ) keeping his promise to stick with Gilly. She survives, along with everyone else, partly thanks to him.
Janos Slynt is the worst
Janos Slynt used to be commander of the City Watch, until he betrayed Ned Stark and got sent to the Wall by Ned's successor, Tyrion Lannister. Since he arrived, Janos has been jockeying for power without much concern for the actual defense of the Wall.
Faced with an army of 100,000 Wildlings, including giants and mammoths, Janos is the one person who just completely caves. Ser Alliser Thorne leaves Janos in charge of the Wall while Ser Alliser defends Castle Black, and Janos just freezes, taking refuge in his egomaniac ramblings about how great the City Watch was in comparison to the band of thieves Janos is commanding now. Janos insists the Night's Watch is undisciplined, not realizing they're standing around waiting for him to give orders.
When Jon Snow points out that the attackers have giants, who can break down the "cold-rolled steel" of the gate, Janos insists that giants don't exist — they're just a fairy tale to scare children. Even though he's looking at giants right now. At last, Grenn has a masterstroke of genius, telling Janos that Ser Alliser has asked for him down below. And leaving Jon Snow in de-facto command.
(Which is what eventually leads to the poor mammoth getting its ass lit on fire, as the giants try to use it to pull the gate open.)
As soon as Janos comes down and witnesses a full-on crazy killing spree in progress, he just loses his nerve and decides his main priority is the safety of Janos Slynt. He runs down to the same storeroom where Samwell stashed Gilly and the baby, and stays there all night. (And I kind of wished for one long uncomfortable scene of the three of them sitting there together, talking.)
The fact that Janos, who supposedly has actual fighting experience, goes and hides in the same storeroom that the ostensibly useless Samwell refused to stay in is kind of priceless. As is the look on Janos' face as he hides in the corner.