Jon Snow's skills and heart are tested in the biggest battle sequence in Thrones history

By James Hibberd
June 09, 2014 at 12:50 AM EDT
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— and couldn’t he have stabbed him one more time? You know? Just once one more time for good measure? Or kept his foot a little further away from his hand? Or maybe not take a moment while finishing off The Mountain to smile at Ellaria? I mean, Prince Oberyn had a spear — a really long freakin’ spear! If he wanted that confession so badly, he could have poked Ser Gregor from, like, five feet away. I mean…just … why? Why. Why, Thrones, why?!

Clearly I’m still messed up from last week’s episode — but I’m trying to move on, to get into Castle Black mode for tonight’s recap. Yay Jon Snow! Boo the Wildlings! For some reason — and I heard from some of you who felt the same way — last week’s gross, screaming killing of Oberyn Martell was somehow worse than all the other deaths we’ve seen on this show. Yup, more disturbing than The Red Wedding. Because Prince Oberyn represented hope. And as we know from President Snow — who is not on this show, though I could easily imagine him owning a summer villa in King’s Landing — hope is the only thing stronger than fear. And the death of Oberyn crushed our hope like The Mountain crushed his head. Not just our hope for Tyrion escaping execution, but also our rapidly diminishing hope for Good Guys Winning in General. It wasn’t that Oberyn died — it was that Ned Stark died, then Robb Stark died, then Oberyn died.

How much more heartache can we take? This world is cruel, we get that. The world of Thrones is actually a comment on our world, and we get that too. Thrones doesn’t play by the usual rules of storytelling. Here, character mistakes have deadly consequences — and that’s really cool, and a big reason we love the show. But I wonder if there is a limit to what an audience can stand before they turn away, unwilling to be hurt again. Fans have been crying “I’m done with this show!” on the boards since Ned Stark’s execution, yet the ratings keep breaking records (Thrones just surpassed The Sopranos to become HBO’s most-watched show of all time). Could Thrones continue axing characters until only one arguably “good” one remained, like a scripted version of Survivor? (My bet is on Hot Pie!). Or is there a Malcolm Gladwell-esque tipping point where the fan tide abruptly shifts and sentiment turns against the show? I once asked the producers if there is a character that the show cannot afford to lose. They replied there are several, “but that doesn’t mean they won’t die.”

Tyrion is definitely one of those characters, and perhaps the most valuable one. But his fate will not be decided until next week. Is Jon Snow one of those characters? Quite possibly, and tonight he is in more danger than ever. So after that long intro, let’s get into this week’s episode, “The Watchers on the Wall.” Since this hour is jammed with action scenes, we’re going to do the recap a bit differently this week. Here are 10 things that happened during the big battle:

NEXT: Mammoth mounting

1. Sam and Gilly are reunited: Sam thinks about sex and the loss of sex before battle, and wants all the details from Jon. I like that he’s found a loophole in the Night’s Watch vows, which don’t specifically forbid sex per se. More than anything I’m digging the new Wall set, with its little igloos of protection.  Then Sam finds Gilly at the gate and uses the f-word in a hilariously commanding fashion. So Gilly went from Molestown — which just got attacked by Wildlings — to Castle Black — which is about to be attacked by Wildlings. “From now on, wherever you go, I go too,” Sam swears. He hides her in the storage room, but tells her he’s going to go up to The Wall against her objections to keep his vow (“because that’s what men do”). Then he smooches her. This battle is pretty much the best thing to ever happen to Sam in terms of character building. Gilly wants him to promise he won’t die, which is a promise nobody on Thrones can make.

2. Mance lights his big fire. As promised, Mance Rayder — wherever he is —  lit a massive fire to signal his scout team to attack. And where has Mance been all season? Does actor Ciarán Hinds demand to be paid hourly in gold doubloons? I was noting in my pre-cap that we might have felt more anticipation for this battle and higher stakes if we’ve spent at least a scene or two with Mance this year to get a better sense of Jon’s opposition, but once this episode got underway it became tough to imagine a better produced hour. Anyway, Alliser Thorne admits he was wrong about not sealing the tunnel. I keep want Alliser to change his mind about Jon, like how when reading the Harry Potter series you always want Snape to grow to like Harry. Sam and Pyp defend the castle, and it’s weird to see crossbows used for good instead of evil. Sam shocks us by killing a Thenn almost casually, like a 7-foot killer cannibal was just an annoyance.

3. Mammoth mounting! A new fantasy creature: Giants start the battle on the northern side by riding in on mammoths. Last season teased that these creatures existing in this world by showing a giant constructing a tent using mammoth bones. Bonus: Archer giants! Just as Jon warned, the giants are able to break the door of the tunnel that runs under The Wall. (Nostalgia flashback: That tunnel is where we first met Thrones. The opening shot of the series was the gate opening; we were all so innocent then, still believing in the songs like Sansa.)

4. Ser Alliser is a badass. We really dislike that snide, judgmental bully Alliser Thorne, but here he proves why he has his job as Castle Black’s majority whip. He rouses the men and is fearless in battle. Thorne spots Tormund Giantsbane. We want them to fight, and they do. Did you ever think you’d be rooting so hard for Thorne to win a fight? Tormund triumphs, but Thorne survives, wounded…

NEXT: Ygritte knows nothing about killing Jon Snow

5. Janos Slynt is a coward: First he’s paralyzed with fear when given command on top the Wall, then run and hides in the storeroom with Gilly. We expected about as much.

6. There’s one amazing continuous shot. You saw it, right? Around 40 minutes into the episode, there is a sweeping crane shot around the Castle Black courtyard with fighting in every corner of the frame. That wasn’t a special effect. The cast and crew shooting that day had to do that scene seven times to get it right. (More in our interview link below.)

7. Jon unleashes the hound, then brains Styr: At last, the throat-ripping direwolf carnage we’ve been wanting to see. Or a little of it, anyway. Then Jon takes on the lead Thenn. It’s just one of many terrific fight scenes in this episode. Jon convincingly holds off his much larger attacker and finishes him with a hammer.

8. Pyp and Grenn die. First Ygritte kills Pyp, and it’s pretty bloody and awful. Then Grenn dies off-screen while holding the tunnel against a rampaging giant. Two unexpected departures of likable guys.

9. Ygritte dies — and kind of had it coming. She couldn’t kill Jon Snow — again. Why? His handsome looks? His nobility? That thing he did with his tongue? She could have killed him last time, and she purposely missed his vital organs. Then she has him in her sights a second time, and can’t let that arrow fly. He gives her this smile, like, “Of course…” And she could perhaps tell that, despite the fact she’s about to kill him, he’s actually glad to see her. Maybe that’s why he hesitates. Then, in a move that was shocking in its suddenness, Ollie shoots her down. This is the villager boy whose father Ygritte killed near the start of the season. It’s fitting. (Ollie should have gone all Oberyn on her: “You shot them! You ate them! You killed my parents!”)

Jon rushes to Ygritte. She says they should have stayed in the cave. Yes, definitely, always stay in the cave. There’s a beautiful shot of him cradling her while the battle and carnage rage around them in a very rare slow-motion shot on this show.

And so we lose another. And sure, I felt bad there. But I turned several degrees cooler toward Ygritte after she cut down that kid’s dad at the start of the season. The poor man just wanted to cook some potatoes, and clearly that wasn’t some isolated incident. I realize not everybody feels the same way (maybe minor character deaths don’t count?).

10. Jon leaves to attempt to assassinate Mance. The Castle Black team are still hugely outnumbered and cannot hope to win. Capping many scenes of raging heroism, Jon tells Sam he’s going to walk (unarmed) to meet the Wildlings in hopes of killing their leader. “You’re right, it’s a bad plan. What’s your plan?” Jon counters when Sam objects.

I have to admit that this wasn’t the episode I was really looking forward to this season (that would be next week). But even if you’re not a huge fan of the Castle Black storyline (and judging from the comments below, some of you are not), this episode was pretty amazing. We were promised a battle that was bigger and better than Blackwater, and got it. The hour flew by. There were so many epic moments — the giant charging down the tunnel, the killer ice scythe, Ghost attack, the mammoth pulling on the gate, the fights … Yet for all the mayhem, the episode was remarkably coherent. You always knew where every character was and had a clear sense of the complex story among a large number of performers within the action. How many times have you seen a battle in a movie — or even a mere fight scene between two actors in a movie — and it’s a confused muddle of quick edits and tight shots? “The Watchers on the Wall” was an intense rousing hour of heroism and heartbreak that set a new bar for what this show — and TV — can do.

Interviews!

— Here’s our must-read exit interview with actress Rose Leslie (where she reveals the very touching parting gift the crew made for her).

— Here’s director Neil Marhsall giving some behind-the-scenes insight on how he pulled off this episode

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HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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