This article contains spoilers.
“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 honour to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
Samwell Tarley (John Bradley) is already trying to find some leeway in the “I shall take no wife… father no children” passage of the Night’s Watch oath. Sam’s scholarly interpretation suggests that perhaps “intimacy” with women (without the fathering bit) isn’t actually forbidden, but Jon Snow (Kit Harington) fully believes that he broke his vows during his time with Ygritte. Then again, so have many of the men at Castle Black and this night, they have a bigger problem to face.
As you might have guessed from Episode 9’s title, and the sparsely-populated intro credits, The Watchers of the Wall takes place entirely at Castle Black. Giving the population of King’s Landing a week off to mourn Oberyn Martell, it centres on the march of 100,000 wildlings on the wall. A contingent are going to attempt to scale the wall from the north, while the band that Jon accompanied south are attacking the less fortified side, where they leave Sam and a few other no-hopers.
The siege is directed by Neil “Dog Soldiers” Marshall, following up on his brilliant Blackwater in Season 2, who manages to Helms Deep his way through an hour of screen time without making you look at your watch – no mean feat for a series with attention span issues, especially when it comes to hanging out in one place for more than 10 minutes. Ons stand-out tracking shot halfway through takes in all the death and dirt with dazzling realism and a scale that matches the sheer size of the Castle Black set.
The carnage is interspersed with character building. Sam, bless him, is something of a tough one for viewers. If you Google “Samwell Tarly”, the fifth autocomplete item is “Samwell Tarly annoying”. (We’re not sure if this is something viewers who have not read the books are more sensitive to, but there
is a feeling that those who have read the books find the onscreen character less irritating.) The good news for Sam is that Gilly doesn’t find him annoying (aww). The bad news is that he and the rest of the hundred or so members of the Night’s Watch have a pretty high probability of dying in the next few days.
Acting Commander Ser Alliser Thorne is on top of the wall along with Jon Snow. The two of them have loathed each other since Jon first came to the wall, but Owen Teale’s soldier actually proves to be an adequate commander, although he has realised that failing to take on board Snow’s warnings about the Wildlings may have been a mistake. Thorne acquits himself magnificently, if not entirely successfully, against the apparently unkillable Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju). When he leaves Janos Slynt (Dominic Cater) in charge at the top of the wall, the former head of the Goldcloaks goes to pieces; he is easily duped into leaving Snow in charge. Slynt shows himself to be a snivelling little weasel, his cowardice put to shame by the small band holding the gate against a giant and – yes – an exploding mammoth.
The whole episode is bloody and violent, but somehow, this remains less brutal than the death of The Red Viper last week. There’s time for a poignant moment, as Jon holds Ygritte’s dying form – she has forgiven him, we find out, but this was a love story that was never going to last. “Yer kner nothin’, Jon Sner,” she says one last time.
The episode leaves the Night’s Watch depleted and leaderless. Where do they go from here? The times they are a-changing in Westeros – is a deal going to be done with the wildlings? Or will the wall protecting the realms of men fall?
Brutal and gripping, the penultimate episode of Season 4 is an epic battle that constantly grips. “More,” shouts the audience, before realising they are exhausted. This night is over – but all the other nights are still to come.
All photos © Home Box Office
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