Monday, June 9, 2014

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: The Watchers on The Wall

Some people say that conflict or war reveals who you really are. That's certainly the case in this episode as the Wildlings attack Castle Black from both north and south of the wall. Command is not just something a title can give you. It's also something that you earn from your peers, particularly in the Night's Watch, which is of course mostly comprised of men with little or no social standing in the Seven Kingdoms. Under stress some men rise to the occasion and lead while others mess their pants and hide in the pantry. It has always been so. This episode, much like the famous Blackwater episode is solely centered on one area and one storyline: Castle Black. Jon Snow and Sam are stuck on night duty. Sam tries to get Jon to explain to him what love and sex are all about but Jon really doesn't want to think about Ygritte. Jon tries to describe the essential erasing of boundaries between male and female that loving sex entails but can't find the words to satisfy Sam's curiosity. Still worried about Gilly, Sam goes to the library to read up on wilding culture and war tactics but is discovered and gently chided by Maester Aemon, who blind or not, sees that Sam loves Gilly. But as the Maester reminds Sam, love is the death of duty. Sam's not really listening because when Gilly arrives at the southern gate, Sam orders Pip to let her in.

The Wilding group south of the wall is listening to Tormund tell his fantastical stories about copulating with bears. This gets on Ygritte's nerves. She calls the stories out for the bs they are while she is making more arrows than any one woman could possibly carry into battle. Styr, the leader of the cannibal Thenns, recognizes sexual frustration when he sees it. He mocks Ygritte by claiming that her threats to kill Jon Snow are just words. He claims that when Ygritte sees Jon Snow she won't give him arrows but will enthusiastically give him a certain red haired body part. Ygritte stands up to Styr and says that Jon Snow is hers to kill and she will kill anyone interfering, including Styr.

The fire in the North is set. The Night Watch's horn sounds warning of the attack. A somewhat pensive Alliser Thorne tells Jon Snow that Snow was right about sealing the tunnel but that if Snow is ever in charge he will understand the importance of maintaining control and providing leadership. If they survive they can fight about it later. Sam puts Gilly and child in what looks like a pantry. Sam says he's a man and he has to go do manly things. He can't hide from his duty, his honor or his oath. His soliloquy is ostentatious but quite heartfelt. Once again Gilly comes across as a little less than bright but if your mother is your sister and your grandfather and father are the same man I guess we can overlook a little mental slowness. Sam certainly does. Both wilding groups attack. The episode's balance was really quite reminiscent of the Helm's Deep battle in Peter Jackson's LOTR: The Two Towers or the Minas Tirith battle in LOTR: The Return of The King. Some people are revealed as leaders while others get revealed as followers. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone can't be a leader. There is something wrong however when a so-called leader is revealed not only as a follower but as a coward. This is the case with the execrable Janos Slynt who, upon being tricked into leaving the top of the Wall due to his bad leadership, decides that actually fighting men or women who fight back, is a bit much for him. This is nothing like giving orders to execute a bound and handcuffed Ned Stark.

No, Slynt heads for the very pantry into which Sam has deposited Gilly. This was quite the contrast. All the men and boys who Slynt disdained are fighting with everything they have while he's hiding out. Alliser Thorne leads a counter attack at the southern base of the Wall against the wildings who have broken through. He may be a bully and a thoroughly unpleasant man but he does his duty. Well he does until Styr grievously wounds him and he must be dragged away to temporary safety, still hurling invective and urging the Night's Watch to continue the fight.

Sam and Pip join the fray with Pip shooting a crossbow while Sam reloads. This unlikely team works well until Ygritte puts an arrow through Pip's neck, killing him. On the other side of the wall a team of giants (brothers?) attempt to pull the gate off the hinges. This is working until the Night's Watch brothers drop flaming oil and put a ballista bolt through the heart of one of the giants. Enraged, the other one is able to lift the gate and rumbles through the tunnel. He meets Grenn and about five other men, whom Jon Snow has tasked to hold the gate no matter what. Sam summons Jon Snow to the courtyard where Jon's superior swordsmanship and Ghost's ferocity are able to turn the tide. Jon kills Styr. It's then however that he sees that Ygritte is there. She has the drop on him. Before anyone can say anything Ygritte is killed by the son of the villager she killed. It's an ironic closing of the circle. The boy told the Night's Watch he could fight. Whether Ygritte hesitated because of love or to savor the moment, as Oberyn Martell could tell her, combat doesn't allow for indecision. Ygritte's last words are that she and Jon should have stayed in the cave and that he knows nothing. Up top the Night's Watch has revealed another weapon, a giant chain scythe that knocks off or chops off all the wildlings who are climbing the Wall. The battle is apparently over. But Jon knows that really it's not. Mance still outnumbers them 1000 to 1. He says he's going to meet Mance and try to kill him. When Sam angrily tells him that's a dumb plan Jon agrees but points out that there is no other. His friends Grenn and Pip are dead. The Night's Watch has no additional reserve of men and no one who can countermand Jon's orders. Sam discovered Janos Slynt hiding so I wonder what the penalty is for desertion/cowardice during battle. Tormund is captured.

What I liked
  • The theme of "love is the death of duty" animated this episode. We saw it in action with Ygritte's hesitation, Sam's order to let Gilly in, Jon's grief upon Ygritte's death, and Slynt's cowardice. It's painful to put duty over love but some people, Jon Snow chief among them, have done just that. Would that Jon's brother Robb had been able to do the same.
  • Grenn's last stand and invocation of the Night's Watch oath as he and his men face down an angry giant. They all died but they didn't take a single step back.
  • An episode that focuses on one locale is usually more impressive than something that jumps around too much. Although I didn't think this was to the level of Blackwater I appreciated the singular focus.
  • The quick decisions that Alliser Thorne and Jon Snow must make. They have extremely limited resources and must inspire men to fight even though things look hopeless.
  • The reveal that even though Thorne and Slynt are united in their dislike, even hatred for Jon Snow, one of the men is quite competent and able to lead while the other simply isn't. You can hate Thorne but he'll fight and die for you.

What I didn't like
  • I understand that Veep is very popular. My brother tells me it's a well written show. But I don't need to see previews for Veep before 10 PM. I don't like these shorter Game of Thrones episodes.
  • I thought we should have seen some Mance in this episode.
  • More Ghost is always good.
  • Outside of the Jon: Ygritte moment and the Grenn last stand I don't know that this episode had a lot of emotional involvement. In some aspects it felt a little like those Star Trek episodes when Kirk, Spock, Bones and unnamed mook beamed down to a dangerous planet. You kind of already knew who's not coming back. 
  • Wait for two weeks and I will tell you more.
*This post is written for discussion of this episode and previous episodes.  If you have book based knowledge of future events please be kind enough not to discuss that here NO SPOILERS. NO BOOK DERIVED HINTS ABOUT FUTURE EVENTS. Most of my blog partners have not read the books and would take spoilers most unkindly. Heads, spikes, well you get the idea...
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