Before the “Game of Thrones” battle at Castle Black and The Wall had even aired, there were some big words to live up to.
On Saturday, author George R.R. Martin wrote on his NotABlog website that Sunday’s episode, “should rival or surpass any battle ever seen before on television.” Kit Harington, who plays hero Jon Snow in the series, told AccessHollywood.com, “I think it’s as big as ‘Thrones’ has gone at the moment.” He told Access it was, “the most expensive episode that they’ve ever made,” due to a lot of CGI (including giants and mammoths), and added, “it’s pretty huge in scale. I think it’s as big as TV goes.”
Neither of them lied. On Sunday night, HBO’s biggest show delivered on every level. It was gripping, heart-pounding, heart-wrenching, cinematic and totally satisfying television. And the battle isn’t over.
Here’s our blow-by-blow recap of “Game of Thrones” Season 4, Episode 9 – “The Watchers On The Wall.”
Jon Snow & Samwell Tarly, The Top Of The Wall: It’s the night shift for Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly, who are keeping an eye out for the Wildling attack Jon warned of. But with no arrows, spears or giants in site, the boys take a moment to talk girls. “She had red hair,” Jon tells Samwell, who is curious about Ygritte – and about Jon’s first time in love (and about other things). “We’re all gonna die a lot sooner than I planned. You’re the closest I get to knowing,” Sam explains of his curiosity.
Struggling to explain his feelings and “intimate relations with women” (Sam’s phrase), Jon tells Sam he’s “not a bleeding poet.” “What did I get for it?” he adds, of falling for Ygritte. “An arrow, six inches from my heart.”
The Wildling Camp: Sitting around the campfire, Tormund Giantsbane tells the Wildlings a story about sleeping with a bear – a story an angry Ygritte interrupts, informing the group it’s not true. As she stockpiles arrows, she tells the group she can’t wait to sink them into the Crows at Castle Black. Styr, the leader of the Thenn, calls her bluff, and suggests Ygritte will quite happily fall back into Jon Snow’s bed when she sees him (in less polite language). Instead of cowering at his insult (she never would), Ygritte squares up to Styr, and says Jon is hers to kill and anyone who gets in her way will get an arrow.
Samwell Tarly & Maester Aemon, Inside Castle Black: Instead of hitting the hay on what could be his last night in Westeros, Sam is reading by candlelight when Maester Aemon comes up for a chat. The old Maester gets Sam to admit his true feelings for Gilly (who may or may not be alive), and begins to tell his own story about how he once was in love with a girl too, back when he was a young man, living at King’s Landing, as Aemon Targaryen. “I can see her right in front of me. She’s more real than you are. We can spend all night trading tales of lost loves. Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death,” the Maester tells Sam, before ushering him off to bed.
Outside, in the courtyard, Samwell is heading to his chambers when he hears Gilly’s voice at the gate. The trio — Sam, Gilly and baby Sam — are reunited again. “From now on, wherever you go, I go too,” she tells him. Just then, a Wildling horn blows.
Jon Snow, The Top Of The Wall: Atop The Wall, Jon Snow looks out into the distance and sees the great fire — the one Mance promised. Springing into action, Jon, Grenn and Edd start rolling barrels of oil into position, as Ser Alliser Thorne looks out at the massive Wildling army. “You can say it if you like,” Ser Alliser tells Jon. “We should have sealed the tunnel while we had the chance. Like you suggested.” Jon tries to be kind and political. “It’s was a difficult decision either way, Ser,” he tells him.
While Ser Alliser was hard on Jon from the moment they met, he uses this moment to show Jon who he really is – a man who can admit when he’s wrong, a man who can take charge and lead, and a man who can even… inspire?
“This is not the end. Not for us. Not if you lot do your duty for however long it takes to beat them back. And then, you get to go on hating me, and I get to go on wishing your Wildling whore had finished the job,” Ser Alliser says.
Samwell & Gilly, Inside Castle Black: Deep inside Castle Black, Sam puts Gilly and baby Sam into a room, but he refuses to hide with her. He’s made a promise to the Night’s Watch and he’s going to keep it. Feeling brave, and scared, and more, Samwell leans in and kisses her. “Promise me you won’t die,” Gilly says, looking up at him with big eyes. “I promise you I won’t die,” Sam tells her.
Pyp & Samwell, The Southern Gate: Pyp’s hands are shaking. He’s never had to fight for his life before. Turning to Sam, he asks how his friend was able to kill a White Walker (in Season 3). “I didn’t have any choice,” Sam replies. “If someone had asked me my name right then, I wouldn’t have known. I wasn’t Samwell Tarly any more… I was nothing at all. And when you’re nothing at all, there’s no more reason to be afraid.” But he’s afraid now, Pyp suggests. “Yes,” Sam says. “Well, I’m not nothing anymore.”
The Wildling Attack Begins!
Outside The Wall, the Wildlings begin their march — Mammoths and giants among them. Grenn, Edd, Jon and Ser Alliser look on from atop The Wall. After a brief moment, Ser Alliser orders the archers to take aim. “Draw,” he shouts.
At the Southern Gate, Night’s Watch men fire as Ygritte, Tormund Giantsbane and the Thenn lead their surprise attack. Taking a knee, Ygritte fires off arrow after arrow at the enemy, while others toss their grappling hooks over the side where Pyp and Samwell are loading and firing one crossbow between them.
Having left the top of The Wall under the command of Ser Janos Slynt, Ser Alliser hits the courtyard near the Southern Gate, ready to lead. “A hundred generations have defended this castle. We’ve never fallen before,” Ser Alliser says, giving the Night’s Watch the speech of his life. “You will not fall tonight. Those are Thenns in our walls. They eat the flesh of the men they kill. Do you want to fill the belly of a Thenn tonight? Tonight, we fight, and when the sun rises, I promise you, Castle Black will stand. The Night’s Watch will stand.” In the courtyard where the men trained, sword meets axe, meets sword as the Night’s Watch fight the ferocious Wildlings who’ve broken through.
Back atop The Wall, Ser Janos Slynt is losing it. In an attempt to salvage the situation, Grenn steps up and lies, telling Ser Janos that Alliser has sent word that he needs him down below. Grenn and Jon exchange a look as Ser Janos runs off. With no one left in charge, the men atop The Wall look at Jon. He doesn’t miss a beat. “Archers,” he yells, instructing them to load their bows and fire at the approaching army.
Axe picks pierce The Wall down below. The Wildlings have begun to climb, posing a new threat. With ropes around their waists, archers of the Night’s Watch are lowered at a 90-degree angle to face them. Shot after shot goes off. Giants fire arrows from the other side. Both sides lose men.
At the Southern Gate, the Thenns are making mincemeat of the Night’s Watch, and young Olly (the boy whose village was slaughtered) watches as Styr crushes skulls. The Wildlings break into the kitchen too and the cooks at Castle Black fight for their lives, using any means necessary to try and survive.
In the chaos, Ser Janos Slynt finds his way deep inside Castle Black to hide, and it turns out to be the same spot where Sam left Gilly.
Back at the Southern Gate, Pyp finally hits a man with his crossbow. He’s giddy over his success, but Samwell reminds him there’s more to do. “Is it over?” Sam asks, handing Pyp the reloaded crossbow. Standing up, Pyp takes aim. Bam! An arrow – one of Ygritte’s – slices through Pyp’s neck, and the young man dies in Sam’s arms.
Back at the top of The Wall, Jon and his friends realize there is a threat to the gate that goes through The Wall itself. Edd and Grenn drop barrels from above, trying to stop the giants from pounding their way through. “Take five men. Hold the gate,” Jon instructs Grenn, adding, “if they make it through.” “They won’t,” Grenn insists.
In the Courtyard, it’s leader vs. leader as Ser Alliser takes on Tormund. Clank, clank, clank, punch, punch, punch, the two battle to death, but in the end, it’s Ser Alliser whose gut is sliced.
Grabbing Pyp’s crossbow, Sam runs through the courtyard, and when attacked, he reacts in time, killing a Thenn. “We need more men,” Samwell yells when he spots Grenn. “Tell Jon. He’s in command,” Grenn says, running off to do his duty.
Olly, the young boy, is covering his ears, and shaking in terror when Sam jumps into the lift (The Wall’s elevator-like contraption). “Listen to me, Olly, get me to the top, and when we give the signal, bring us back down,” he tells the young boy, who springs into action. “Find a weapon, Olly. Fight them!”
“The Wildlings are over the walls. Ser Alliser’s fallen,” Sam tells Jon, who immediately puts the top of The Wall under Edd’s command before heading down to fight.
Huge and frightening, Grenn and his men wait inside The Wall for the giant who has now penetrated the outer gate. To keep his men calm, Grenn starts chanting the Night’s Watch pledge, “and now my watch begins…” as the giant runs straight toward them, shaking the ground with every step.
As he approaches the courtyard, Jon has one more command before joining the battle. He gives Sam a key and tells him to unlock the cage of his direwolf, Ghost, who once freed, immediately begins to attack Wildlings. Meanwhile, Jon takes on two, then three men. Styr spots him. He’s taller, meaner, balder and has an axe, but Jon, who learned to fight at Winterfell, catches Styr’s every swing, and returns blow after blow of his own – in front of Ygritte, who watches from across the way. Losing their weapons, Styr smashes Jon’s head on an anvil and then starts choking him. Pinned up against the wall, Jon spots a hammer, grabs it and crushes the Thenn’s skull.
It’s while walking away that he sees her – Ygritte. Her arrow is pointed toward him. Unable to control his emotions, Jon smiles at her. As she looks back at him, tears well up in her throat at seeing him again. Before she can speak, an arrow pierces her chest – young Olly’s arrow. Jon runs to her.
“Don’t talk,” he says, cradling Ygritte close. “Do you remember that cave? We should have stayed in that cave,” she tells him. “Well go back there,” he says, putting on a half-smile. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” Ygritte replies, before the life goes out of her. Fighting all around them, Jon puts his head to hers and hugs Ygritte close.
Back at the top of The Wall, Edd gives the command and an anchor and chain, hidden in the side of The Wall is unleashed. It swings across the frozen ice and knocks the climbing Wildlings off The Wall to their death. “They’ve had enough for one night,” Edd tells the men who cheer, now that the attack has stopped. “Don’t cheer too loud,” he says. “They still outnumber us a thousand to one.”
Down in the courtyard, Jon tells Tormund to stop fighting. “It’s over,” Jon says. Surrounded, Tormund continues to fight anyway. Jon stops him by shooting him with an arrow, before telling them men to take him away to be questioned later. “I should have thrown you from the top of The Wall, boy,” Tormund says. “Aye. You should have,” Jon says, walking away.
The battle over for the night, Samwell finds Gilly. “It’s me. I promised you, didn’t I?” Sam asks, laughing. Turning to see what a noise was behind him, Sam sees Ser Janos, cowering in the corner.
The next morning Samwell and Jon take stock of things. Sam is calling it a victory. Jon knows it’s not.
“Mance was testing our defenses. He almost made it through… He’ll hit us again tonight. We can hold them off for a day or two, but we can never beat them,” Jon says walking off. He’s going to go find Mance.
Walking through the tunnel in The Wall (the one that leads to the lands beyond The Wall), Samwell and Jon find their friend Grenn, and his men, dead. The giant is dead too. “They held the gate,” Jon says, telling Sam to get some brothers to help burn the bodies (so they don’t become reanimated). Taking off his sword, Jon hands it to Sam, “in case I don’t come back.”
“Jon,” Samwell says. “Come back.”
The gate opens and Jon walks out.
“Game of Thrones” concludes its fourth season next Sunday night at 9 PM ET/PT on HBO.
-- Jolie Lash