(Spoiler alert: Don’t read this if you haven’t seen Sunday’s “Game of Thrones,” entitled “The Watchers on the Wall.”)
It was a bold decision on the part of the creative minds behind HBO’s “Game of Thrones” to take a full hour of one of the most sprawling shows on television and narrow its focus to just one location. And yet, it also proved very effective.
Castle Black at The Wall hasn’t been home to the most compelling political machinations thus far, but it may well prove to be the most important battleground of the entire saga.
We’ve been anticipating the battle between the Night’s Watch and the wildlings for weeks now, and there was a very personal stake for Jon Snow and Ygritte. The two became lovers while Jon was effectively spying on her and her people, trying to assess their threat level to the Night’s Watch.
To say that Ygritte was a lover scorned would be a massive understatement. The entire battle was underscored by the tension rising before their inevitable confrontation. Would she shoot him again, as she did the last time they were together? Would he have to kill her?
As we’ve learned many times on “Game of Thrones,” oftentimes such decisions are out of our hands. Ygritte and Jon did come face-to-face, but before either could decide how to proceed, an arrow pierced her chest. At least they got to have one final, tender exchange, with Jon telling her they’d go back to their cave. She reminding him: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
On the opposite side, Sam’s innocence and bravery continue to be a winning combination for him, as he managed to kill another dire threat and his own love safe. And there’s the bitter irony that it was Ygritte who spared Gilly’s life at the inn, while it was a Night’s Watch Boy ordered by Sam to take up his weapon and fight who ultimately killed Ygritte.
Westeros is a bleak place filled with little hope. Perhaps it is because “Winter is coming,” as the Starks say, but it is filled with such darkness and despair that we’ve come to expect the worst even when there are moments of true joy. Who expected both Sam and Gilly to come out of this first battle unscathed? I was looking for the coward who hid out with Gilly to kill her, just because she saw him sneak in.
Of course, as Jon was quick to point out, just because this battle is over, the larger war is not over yet. This was just a fraction of what the wildlings are able to accomplish, with the smallest portion of their full might. The forces on either side of the wall were modest at best, while the defense on the inside wasn’t much better. There were only two giants and a single mammoth on the wildling side, and we know they have many more they can pull in for a larger offensive.
While this was an epic battle, featuring some beautiful fight scenes, it was nevertheless a small battle. Larger shots showed how small the wildling forces looked against The Wall, and yet they still nearly took it. “The Watchers on the Wall,” as this episode was named, are ill-prepared for what’s out there.
There were some awesome wall defense sequences in this episode, and a stunning continuous camera shot of the battle inside the castle itself. The fighting was ugly and nasty and unpredictable, as it should be between these two forces. The hour flew by, and you’d scarcely realized that we still hadn’t checked in on Tyrion’s guilty verdict when the credits started to roll.
Usually you wouldn’t want a director to stand out on a serialized show like this, when many different ones are used throughout each season to try and create a cohesive narrative, but Neil Marshall stood out for all the right reasons with his second “GoT” episode. It’s appropriate that they went with him here, as he gave us the penultimate episode of Season 2, which also focused entirely on a single battle.
What’s so effective about this episode is that it really put everything about the show into perspective. The Lannisters and Targaryens and Starks and Baratheons may be playing at this game of thrones in Westeros, but it really is a game compared to what’s coming from the North. It is the Watchers on The Wall who are the most important players. And yet, their numbers are made up of the cast-offs and undesirables of Westeros. To think that the fate of all humanity may lay in the hands of those unwanted peoples.
Worse, the Night’s Watch has dwindled in numbers so much over the centuries, that it is grossly outnumbered in its defense of Westeros. Every loss among the Night’s Watch — it took six men to take down a single giant at the gate — will be felt tenfold when the full forces of the wildlings amass.
This is why it’s so important than Jon Snow defeat the wildings’ leader, Mance. Without him to unify them, the wildlings might fall back to infighting and break up.
“Winter is coming” is more than just a statement about the weather. “Winter” also refers to the denizens of the North, kept away from humanity for so long that they’ve been forgotten: The White Walkers and giants and mammoths and direwolves. “Winter” is all the night-time stories come to life. Every dangerous thing that most have chosen to forget.
If The Wall falls and “Winter” comes roaring forth from the North, will this game of thrones matter one iota? Will it matter who sits upon the Iron Throne when such magical forces of evil are set to wipe out all of humanity? Mankind needs to do is put aside its differences, as the men of the Night’s Watch are forced to do as they take their oath, and unite against a common enemy.
Will they? Oh, probably not. These are vain, ambitious and petty people. And they’ve grown complacent, thinking the biggest dangers in the world are the political maneuverings of their enemies and relatives. They’re not prepared for what’s to come, just as Jon Snow had to admit that the Night’s Watch is not prepared for the full might of the wildling armies.
I’d like to say that I am hopeful they can come together in their darkest hour and rise up against the surging forces of evil, but this is George R.R. Martin, and he’s proven he believes more in the worst that humanity has to offer than the best. Those who rise above are often pulled down, or beheaded, for their trouble.
I’m very worried for Sam, Gilly, Jon, Arya, Bran and Hodor, Tyrion, and even poor Sansa, as well as the few other characters who’ve proven to have redeeming qualities. This does not seem to be a world for them. There is little joy, and even less hope.
Winter is coming. Can The Wall hold it back?