Episode 9 Recap: The Watchers on the Wall

Disclaimer: There are no spoilers in this article. Any views or opinions expressed are based solely on where the Game of Thrones TV series currently is and no other knowledge or information is presented in this article.

THE WATCHERS ON THE WALL

The episode leading up to a season finale is often more significant than the finale itself. Whereas the finale is tasked with the focus of bringing an end to season, the episode prior has the opportunity to still deliver a some poignant messages, before things come to an end in the finale. And in The Watchers on the Wall, the second to last episode of this season, a powerful experience is exactly what we got as we were immersed in the greatest battle scene of Thrones history.  So powerful a battle that it commanded every second of the episode, quickly making most of us forget about the extraordinarily heart-wrenching death of Prince Oberyn from last week. But why was this battle so significant that it needed to consume the entire 50-minute episode?

For starters, battle scenes are extremely rare in the Thrones world. Although battle may always seem present and the prospect of war is always lurking, it is is a very rare occurrence to actually see the battles that go down. In fact, in nearly 40 episodes, we’ve only seen one true battle — the epic Battle of Blackwater Bay, when Stannis nearly sacked King’s Landing. So, when we do see battle, it is a rare, and generally massive experience.

And all the more so when the battle has been building up for such a long period of time. In this case, the progression of the Wildling siege on the Wall has been developing for dozens of episodes — dating all the way back to early last season when Jon Snow infiltrated the Wildlings to learn of their plans. Compared to how immersed we are in other plot-lines, perhaps we felt removed from the build-up of this battle, probably due to the fact that this entire season we have not seen or heard from Mance Rayder or the army he has been uniting.  Yet, episode after episode we were reminded that war was coming as the Wildlings inched closer to the Wall. And tonight, the multi-season development of the Wildling attack on the Wall reached climax and quickly became very real.

But, beyond the rarity of actually seeing a battle scene in this world, and beyond that this battle had been building up for so long, this episode was meaningful for more profound reasons. As with most everything in this world, the significance of this battle was not the battle itself — but rather the ways in which each character was exposed by the battle. Whether revealing men as cowards or providing them a platform to become heroes; whether demonstrating a man’s purpose or taking from them the person they love — this battle provided a lens through which we were able to see deeper into the soles of each character.

IN THE FACE OF DEATH, WHO WILL WE BECOME?

Most of us will never face imminent death. But what if we were faced with the prospect of realizing that death was so likely and so close for us, how would we react? Who would we become? Death is the great revealer and for the brothers of the Night’s Watch who faced imminent death, these were questions they were forced to answer. And, in the face of death, we saw who each man became — we saw the truth of each character. And therein lies the magic of this episode.

Men like Jon Snow proved their heroism and bravery — the prospect of death was unimportant compared to the duty of protecting the Wall. Fear was not an option and Jon took lead from atop the Wall as he shouted out his first commands. And when it was time to join the fight at the bottom of the Wall, we saw just how skilled a warrior he has become, taking down many Wildlings including Styr.

Ser Alliser Thorne was another of the episode’s heroes, proving himself a worthy commander of the Night’s Watch, at least in battle. As unlikable of a character as he has been, perspective is offered in an episode like this and we see the truth of his character; we quickly forget about his unlikability and only care to respect him for his valor in leading the Night’s Watch and courageously fighting back in the face of death. He took the fight to the much larger Tormund Giantsbane, though he sustained a deadly wound before being dragged away.

Grenn was another hero of the episode, serving Jon Snow loyally and obeying his orders to protect the inner gate. Facing down a giant, Grenn quelled the fears of his brothers and kept them united to fight. And though we do not see the fight scene, we learn that Grenn and the others fought valiantly and gave their lives to protect the gate, while also succeeding in killing the giant. In the face of death, when everything else was stripped away, we saw true greatness in the soles of these men.

On the other hand, we saw the ways in which certain characters were completely crippled by the fear that overtook them. Truly believing that death was so close for him, Pip was unable to fight, and as result, he took one of Ygritte’s arrows to the throat before dying in Samwell’s arms. Even worse, Ser Janos Slynt, a man who was once Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, completely deserted the fight and took cover behind a locked door. He abandoned his vows and his brothers, showing the truth of what he was made of.

THE WILDLING ARMY

For nearly two seasons, we have been hearing about the Wildling army that Mance Rayder has assembled. And we finally got to see it, or rather a small portion of it. We see the giants that Mance was able to get to fight for him and the giant mammoths that they ride. To unite over 90 clans of Wildlings to fight together as one united army is something that nobody has ever been able to do before Mance Rayder. We are reminded of the dialogue last season when Jon Snow asked Mance how he did it, to which he responded, “I told them we would all die if we didn’t get south. It’s the truth.” So, while this battle for the Night’s Watch was about fighting back the Wildlings, for the Wildlings, it’s not really about fighting the Night’s Watch, but rather doing what is necessary to get out of the North. That Mance was able to unite all the Wildlings of the North in their quest to march south is an alarming reminder that Winter is Coming and perhaps the threat of imminent death is coming on a much larger scale.

DEFENDING THE WALL

Another layer to the episode that was particularly gripping was getting to actually see the reality of being The Watchers on the Wall — the absolute last hope and line of defense between the Seven Kingdoms and all the threats that lurk north of the Wall. It was amazing to see the intricacies of the top of the Wall — intricacies that were built by Brandon Stark over 8,000 years ago, using the help of giants and the magic of the Children of the Forest. It was equally special to actually witness the way the Night’s Watch defends the Wall, using tactics and strategies that have been practiced for thousands of years. Prior to this episode, we had understood that this Wall was a defense structure and that the Night’s Watch defends the wall, but we had no idea exactly how the Wall was constructed, especially atop, or the way the Night’s Watch actually protects the Wall. We finally got to see the Night’s Watch defend the Wall from the rare position of being 700 feet in the sky.

LOVE IS THE DEATH OF DUTY

Even in an action-packed episode depicting a bloody battle, love finds its way in. Samwell is discovered reading about the Wildlings, fearful of what they have done to Gilly after they raided the brothel in Mole’s Town where she had been staying. Maestar Aemon tells Samwell that “Love is the death of duty,” suggesting that one cannot love a woman and also be dutiful to the Night’s Watch. Maestar Aemon goes on to speak of a girl that he once loved and the vision of her that he still holds on to. As a man who cannot see the world around him, Maestar Aemon tells Samwell that the visual memory of the girl he once loved is in fact more real to him than is Samwell. Maestar Aemon also re-reveals that he is a Targaryen and that he was next in line to be a Targaryen king, yet he passed to become a maestar. Though this had been subtly revealed to viewers already, most were probably unaware that he was a Targaryen. Maestar Aemon was the uncle of the Mad King and is great uncle to Khaleesi, but he is so old and has been so far away at the Wall for so many years that most are completely unaware that he is a living Targaryen. For viewers, previously, it was thought that Khaleesi was the last living Targaryen — it is interesting to consider the potential implications of the reveal that she in fact has a great uncle alive on Westeros.

At that moment, Samwell has chosen love over duty. Or rather, love had chosen him. But perhaps Maestar Aemon’s wise words change this, as he tells Gilly that he must go join the fight after the two reunite. What is most revealing is his reason for joining the battle with the rest. He tells Gilly, “I made a promise to the brothers of the Night’s Watch. I have to keep it because that’s what men do.” In this one line, the entire truth of Samwell’s character is established — he is merely a boy on a quest to become a man. He does not join the fight out of bravery or wanting to defend the Wall. He joins because honoring an oath is what men do. And he is desperately trying becoming a man. Once he has this realization and kisses Gilly, everything has changed for him. He tells Pip that in the moment he killed a White Walker, he had no fear because he was nothing — and when you’re nothing, you have nothing to lose or fear. But now, in this battle he has fear, as he tells Pip, “I am no longer nothing.”

Unlike Samwell who at moments chose love over duty, Jon Snow has chosen duty over love. Sadly, Ygritte has chosen love over duty, and for this love, she gives her life. Despite all her talk of killing Jon Snow, when faced with the opportunity, she was unable to kill the man she loved. And with the kind of irony that can only be found in the Thrones world, we see that the arrow that kills her is shot by Olly, the unlikeliest of people — the young boy who had picked up a weapon on Samwell’s recommendation. And as Jon Snow holds the woman he loves and she takes her last dying breaths, the entire scene makes a powerful shift from a massive battle being fought by hundreds, to the world of just two people. We are brought into Jon’s consciousness as everything around him is faded out and we must watch the sadly beautiful scene of him holding the woman he loves as she dies in his arms, telling him that she wished they just stayed in the cave.

The death of Ygritte is particularly heart-wrenching because of how special the love was between her and Jon Snow, and the opportunity they had to act on their love and leave everything else behind. After meeting her, Jon Snow could have, and should have disappeared to spend the rest of his life with the woman he knew he loved. But, in a world where most people would fight for love, Jon Snow’s nature was to fight for duty over love. Sadly, Ygritte would have abandoned her duty to the Wildlings in a heartbeat to live a life with the man she loved. Though brave and valiant, Jon Snow was naive in the way he believed he needed to honor all the codes and oaths — things that Ygritte viewed as just words. How could these words be more important than love? And it was this naivety that Ygritte was probably referring to all the times she said, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

A DEPLETED NIGHT’S WATCH

In the aftermath of this bloody battle, we see just how undermanned the Night’s Watch truly is, and how unprepared they are to fight back the Wildling army. Once a great and powerful order, at the time of its formation, the Watch is said to have had 10,000 men that manned 19 castles along the Wall. Today, their numbers have dwindled down to less than 100. Though the Wall was built after the Long Night, over the next 8,000 years, the White Walkers never really came. Over time, people began to doubt the true existence of the White Walkers and the danger of their threat. The Long Night became more myth than truth and the Night’s Watch found themselves defending the realm from Wilding raids, rather than a White Walker invasion. The Seven Kingdoms began to forget the true purpose and importance of the Watch and they received less and less support each year from the rest of Westeros. And now, today, the Night’s Watch, with less than 100 men, is tasked with keeping out the Wildling army of over 100,000. Jon Snow tells Samwell that Mance Rayder was merely testing their defenses and that they have no chance at defeating the Wildlings, who will attack again at nightfall. Jon Snow leaves the Wall to seek out Mance Rayder, as he believes this is the only chance of defeating the Wildlings. Before he leaves, he gives his sword, Longclaw, to Samwell for safekeeping.Where he is going, his sword will do him no good, and he wants to protect the family sword given to him by Lord Commander Mormont.With Jon Snow gone and Ser Alliser badly wounded, who will take leadership of the Night’s Watch? And what is even left to lead?

 

Episode 4 Recap: Oathkeeper

KILL THE MASTERS

Episode Four begins with a conversation between Missandei and Grey Worm, both of whom were born into slavery, but now serve freely under Khaleesi. Missandei recollects her home and notes that she might one day return, while Grey Worm has no memory of his life prior to being a slave and expresses no desire to ever return to his birthplace. After Khaleesi tells Grey Worm “it is time,” Grey Worm and the Unsullied infiltrate the city of Meereen through the sewage system, and rally the Meereneese slaves while providing them with weapons. As Khaleesi once preached to the Unsullied, the Unsullied now preach to the Meereneese: freedom cannot be given, it must be taken back by the slaves.

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After the slaves uprise and kill many of the masters, Khaleesi successfully takes the great city of Meereen and grows her loyal following of freed slaves. Despite Ser Barristan’s suggestion to respond to injustice with mercy, Khaleesi boldly exclaims that she will treat injustice with justice, before pinning up 163 of the masters to the mile-markers leading to Meereen. An extremely powerful final image, we see Khaleesi has ascended the Great Pyramid of Meereen, overlooking the city she has conquered — the bronze harpy, once the symbol of Meereen, has now been replaced with the flag of House Targaryen.

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Many of us might be thinking “Great. Big deal, Khaleesi sacked another city and freed some more slaves.” We might be getting a bit bored with her journey — one that seems like it’s been going on forever and is just more of the same each time she reaches a new slave city. And that is exactly why it is important to stop and process the massive feats that Khaleesi has accomplished. She has now sacked three of Easteros’ most powerful civilizations — Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen — while freeing hundreds of thousands of slaves and increasing her power, resources and following. And, arguably more important than what she has accomplished is how she has accomplished it. The range of attributes displayed by Khaleesi has been astounding. She has been loving and compassionate, yet unafraid to be fierce and bold when needed. Wise and calculated in every decision made, yet also unafraid to admit to what she does not know. Selfless in wanting to liberate those sentenced to a life of slavery, yet unrelenting in serving justice to those who have enslaved others. Calculated but unafraid; unsure but completely faithful; compassionate but fierce — as Ser Jorah once told her “A thousands years could come and go without ever seeing a ruler like you.”

KING’S LANDING

In King’s Landing, Jaime visits the imprisoned Tyrion, after Bronn tells Jaime that Jaime was Tyrion’s first choice in his trial by combat at the Eyrie. Though Jaime appears to believe that Tyrion is innocent, he also appears helpless and limited in the ways he can assist. Once one of the more powerful figures of Westeros, Jaime’s influence and resources seem to be deteriorating. He also appears helpless with Cercei, who demands that Jaime bring her the head of Sansa, who she believes also played a part in the murder of Joffrey. In such a short time, Jaime’s world has been turned upside down — a father that has disowned him, a sister who resents him for things he had no control over and a brother that he is too weak to help. Nonetheless, we continue to see some of the good in Jaime as he presents Brienne with his Valyrian sword, which she names Oathkeeper, before setting off with Podrick Payne to find Sansa and get her to safety.

Also at King’s Landing, Lady Olenna sits with Margaery and alludes to the fact that she played a part in the murder of Joffrey. She says this just as she rearranges Margaery’s necklace — much the same way she touched Sansa’s necklace during the wedding — a necklace that we now know was produced by Lord Baelish, containing a vile of poison that killed Joffrey. So there it is — we now know exactly how Joffrey was killed. Littlefinger had a necklace created with one of the jewels actually being a vile of poison. Ser Dontos played his part, presenting the necklace to Sansa as a family heirloom. Lady Olenna was in on it, and removed the vile from Sansa’s necklace during the wedding and put the poison into Joffrey’s wine cup.

Lady Olenna, removing the poison vile from Sansa's necklace

Lady Olenna, removing the poison vile from Sansa’s wedding

Lady Olenna rearranging Margaery's necklace as she admits to her role in Joffrey's death

Lady Olenna rearranging Margaery’s necklace as she admits to her role in Joffrey’s death

She also tells Margaery of the importance of forging a relationship with Tommen and winning over his allegiance. As things come to light, we see the Tyrells emerge as cunning and calculated, quietly making moves to “play the game” and grow their power. Late in the night, Margaery visits Tommen and plants a seed, telling him that it will be important that they are able to have secrets that are kept from Cercei.

“A MAN WITH NO MOTIVE IS A MAN NOBODY SUSPECTS”

These were the words spoken by Littlefinger as he continues to reveal to Sansa the details of the plan he has plotted. Lord Baelish takes responsibility for the murder of Joffrey and tells Sansa that they are en route to the Eyrie, where he will marry Lysa Tully, sister of the Catelyn, the woman he has loved since childhood. When Sansa asks Littlefinger why he would play a part in the murder of Joffrey when the Lannisters had given him so much power, he explains the importance of never letting anybody know his motives as to remain unsuspecting. Sansa doesn’t believe what he is saying, and he goes on to admit the truth — that he is a man willing to risk everything to achieve what he wants. When Sansa asks him what it is that he wants, he tells her “Everything.” Now free of the powers of King’s Landing, we see the truth of Littlefinger — he is a man whose ambitions are rivaled only by the means he is willing to exercise to achieve these ambitions.

“LET THE MUTINEERS TAKE CARE OF SNOW…”

Jon Snow continues to impress upon the importance of going north of the Wall to eliminate the mutineers at Craster’s Keep. Brothers of the Night’s Watch prior to their rebellion, these mutineers know all the secrets of the Wall and the Night’s Watch. Should Mance Rayder and the Wildlings get this information out of them, they would have all they need to march on the Wall and crush the Night’s Watch. Likely out of dislike for Jon Snow, acting Lord Commander Alliser Thorne rejects Snow’s proposed plan, until Janos Slynt points out that Thorne will not be Lord Commander forever as there will be a vote for new Lord Commander after the murder of Lord Commander Mormont. Slynt points out that Snow is very well liked and could be elected new Lord Commander. To avoid this, he suggests that Thorne approve Snow’s plan to march to Craster’s Keep and let the mutineers “take care of him.”

Acting Lord Commander Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt

Acting Lord Commander Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt

After Jon Snow gives a passionate speech about the unjust murder of Lord Commander Mormont, who was a father to them, several of the brothers of the Night’s Watch agree to join Snow, including Locke, one of Roose Bolton’s men, who is posing as a new recruit of the Night’s Watch, but is really there on a mission to find Bran and Rickon.

Locke, pretending to be a recruit of the Night's Watch

Locke, pretending to be a recruit of the Night’s Watch

CRASTER’S KEEP

We finally see what’s been going on at Craster’s Keep since the mutiny that took place last season. Karl, once a brother of the Night’s Watch, appears to be calling the shots. The men have taken Craster’s daughters/wives as captives, raping and beating them. We also see that they’ve captured Ghost, the direwolf of Jon Snow. When Karl is presented with a baby boy, the last of Craster’s sons, he is told of the ritual that gives all  of Craster’s male babies to the “gods,” referring to the White Walkers. After the baby is placed out in the forest, Bran and company hear the crying baby, and Bran skinchanges into Summer to explore the situation, but falls into a trap just after seeing Ghost. Insisting that they move closer, Bran gets the group captured and is forced to give up his identity after Karl holds a knife to Meera.

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FURTHER NORTH

Since the second season, we’ve known that Craster leaves his male babies in the forest for the White Walkers to take. Yet, it’s been unclear what exactly they do with these babies. Do they eat them? Sacrifice them? Well, in the final scene of the episode, we got an answer to this question — a glimpse of something that never took place in the books. As a White Walker marches on his dead horse with the baby in hand, we get the feeling that we are now in the very deep North, perhaps the Land of Always Winter — the most northern part of Westeros — a region that is always stuck in winter and where it is said the White Walkers come from. The White Walker arrives at what looks to be a mysterious ice city or castle and we finally get some glimpse into where the White Walkers might reside.

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As the baby is placed in the middle of what we would believe to be an altar of some sorts, another creature comes for the baby. It is assumed that this creature was a White Walker, but clearly had a much different appearance from the White Walkers we’ve seen thus far. He appeared to be wearing all black clothing, different from that of the White Walkers. His eyes were a much deeper blue and he had spikes coming out from his head, versus the long grey hair of the White Walkers we have seen thus far. As such, we are left to wonder what exactly this creature is — perhaps a leader or god of the White Walkers? Or perhaps a creature greater than the White Walkers, which appear more zombie-esque than did this creature.

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Pressing a finger to the face of the baby, the baby’s eyes turn a deep blue, like that of the White Walkers and it appears that we may have just witnessed how a White Walker is created.

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It is interesting to note, that we actually got a glimpse of this creature two episodes ago during Bran’s prophetic vision sequence. As greenseers do, Bran had a vision of the future and saw this White Walker’s reflection in the ice, before it actually happened.

An image from Bran's vision, that we now realize is the face of this creature reflecting in the ice

An image from Bran’s vision, that we now realize is the face of this creature reflecting in the ice