[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 4, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
With 'The Watchers on the Wall', Game of Thrones continues its biannual tradition of saving the ninth episode of the season for a highly cinematic gesture that focuses solely on a single location and a smaller, select group of characters, in order to depict one incredibly dramatic event as it unfolds in its entirety. Of course, season 2 featured the visually impressively battle of Blackwater, in which Tyrion and his strategic use of wildfire was instrumental in saving King's Landing from the invading forces of Stannis Baratheon. That episode, helmed by Neil Marshall, demonstrated what the series was capable of in terms of delivering large-scale action in a linear narrative - and so, it is fitting that the wildlings' raid on Castle Black would bring the director back to depict a stylistically similar event.
The battle of Blackwater and the attack on Castle Black are similar from at least a militaristic point of view. While in each episode Marshall was tasked with illustrating a character's rise to prominence (which will likely be short-lived), the thematic differences become significant enough that they highlight each episode's strengths in different way. In that regard, 'Blackwater' was very much about Tyrion coming into his own and overcoming the tremendous odds against him not only in terms of besting Stannis, but also in demonstrating his worth as a Lannister. Sure, he wound up with a nasty facial scar for his trouble, and his path since then has been nothing but a precipitous drop all the way to the bottom, but he'll always have Blackwater.
In comparison, 'The Watchers on the Wall' also had that "I told you so" moment for Jon Snow, but, thematically speaking, the wildlings' raid on Castle Black was tinged with something as rare on Game of Thrones as a wedding without casualties. That is: The notion of actual romantic love, you know, the kind that produces a couple born of something other than greed or political necessity or incestuous lust. Now it's safe to say the romance between Jon Snow and Ygritte lacked a certain fairytale spark, but the continual need for the narrative to flip fantasy conventions is what gives the story its most distinctive quality. Here, the prototypical princely character was pursued and seduced by his alleged enemy - and their relationship served, if nothing else, as a potent demonstration of the inefficacy of tradition, honor, and lifelong declarations in a world that seems to value exactly the opposite. And so, it would come as no surprise, then, that the reunion of Jon Snow and Ygritte would be one marked by the narrative's continued effort to steer clear of standard conventions – which, at this point means the narrative is steering headlong into the nihilistic conventions of the George R.R. Martin model of storytelling.
That creates something of an interesting challenge for 'The Watchers on the Wall', as the episode is tasked with achieving a similarly affecting high as 'Blackwater' but must do so without the aid of the emotional anchor that is Tyrion (or, more to the point, Peter Dinklage). Which is perhaps why the episode wisely uses Samwell Tarly as the proxy for the audience, while Jon Snow takes the next step in fulfilling his destiny of becoming a leader of men. And yet, in a sense, it is Sam who experiences a more fulfilling growth to a certain degree, as he finds in Gilly a reason to take a more decisive role in his duties, which ironically brings him to a place where he too is tasked with inspiring others to take up arms and defend Castle Black. The difference being Sam's charge is an orphaned child who winds up killing Ygritte – continuing the season's trend of children enacting revenge on those who killed their loved ones. But it also eliminates the need for either Ygritte or Jon to make a dramatic choice in terms of dealing with their competing ideologies and the conflict of their complex feelings for one another.
In the end, the battle is won, and Marshall, with his lengthy, multi-tiered tracking shots of men in close quarter combat, certainly achieved a high-water mark in terms of visual flourishes and the series' use of special effects. But it was also an hour dominated by moments telegraphed to a degree that perhaps the element of surprise gave way to a feeling of inevitably. And while 'The Watchers on the Wall' may not have been as emotionally rousing as 'Blackwater', it certainly succeeded in terms of underlining the importance of Jon's lack of choice, which further establishes the idea of him embarking on the archetypal hero's quest, or that his arc is driving towards some greater destiny.
And so, with Jon Snow walking out into the wild of the North to face his destiny (or at least some portion of it), Game of Thrones finds itself at another crossroads - one where a primary character will be tested against the conventions of fantasy and the conventions of a series that revels in throwing constructs like the hero's journey into the same delightfully nihilistic disarray as it does everything else.
Game of Thrones will air the season 4 finale 'The Children' next Sunday @10pm on HBO. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Helen Sloan/HBO