Last week on Game of Thrones, we saw a shattered Dornish skull, Tyrion's death sentence, more slithering from Petyr Baelish and Ser Jorah getting banished from Dany's friend zone after he was revealed as a traitor. This week's episode, "The Watchers On the Wall," is set entirely in the North, with the wildling army led by Mance Rayder advancing on the Wall and Castle Black. A dwindling garrison of 100 or so men, including Jon Snow, will face off against the first wave of a wildling army that numbers more than 100,000, with his lover Ygritte among the vanguard experienced raiders. It seems very likely that there is no hope.
(Warning: Spoilers start now.)
While we're teased with a few glimpses of how the various members of the Night's Watch are dealing with their all-too-sudden sense of mortality, the season's ninth episode focuses on colossal battle sequences, which are all of cinematic quality. They're brutal and cringe-inducing but rarely over the top. The wildling army advances from both sides of the Wall with a ridiculous menagerie of attackers including cannibalistic Thenns, 25-foot mammoths and giants whose arrows hit the Wall's upper defenses with the force of a siege engine. One shot is enough to blow one unlucky defender hundreds of feet through the sky.
Meanwhile, the castle's ancient defenses prove more formidable and its defenders more capable than the wildling commanders wagered. Defenders drop rocks, barrels and explosives, shoot volleys of flaming arrows and at one point unleash a giant metal ball scythe to liquify a few dozen unfortunate climbers on the Wall.
Ser Alliser Thorne shines as the episode's breakout character, proving himself a daunting commander who fights off what seems like dozens of raiders in the castle courtyard. This battle is the reason he pushed Jon and the rest of the recruits so hard. Even the castle's elderly Maester Aemon puts some pressure on a wavering Sam by telling him, "Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death." On the wildling side, Ygritte warns her comrades that she, and no one else, will claim the life of Jon Snow.
There are more incredible battle moments here than in any other episode in recent memory. A confident Sam breaks his vows with Gilly (but just for a kiss), then takes out a charging Thenn with a single point-blank shot to the head. Later, Jon is brutally beaten by the Thenns' terrifying leader Styr before dispatching him with a single desperate blow of a blacksmith's hammer. An ingenious shot tracks Jon's direwolf from its perspective as it darts between sides in a battle, before it rips a man to shreds.
Plenty of characters die in this episode, but the big one is Jon's wildling lover Ygritte, who is impaled by an arrow while she's debating whether or not to kill Snow. She dies in his arms, making Snow the second of Ned Stark's children to have the love of their life die in their arms.
Image Credit: Dr. Forester
Ygritte, at least, goes out with dignity — her death isn't pointlessly brutal and she manages to get the last word in on a shattered Jon. But plenty of the Wall's defenders meet their ends as well, further diminishing the already-low numbers of the Night's Watch. Pip and Grenn, two of Jon's fellow recruits and friends, meet noble ends but are given relatively short shrift by the script. (After sending the latter on a suicide mission to kill a giant, the show pays about 10 seconds of attention to his eventual fate.) Others survive unscathed or are taken prisoner. Janos Slynt, who betrayed Ned Stark in season one, is one of many survivors.
"The Watchers on the Wall" is 90% battle and one of the biggest and nastiest episodes fans have seen yet, making those in previous seasons look almost flat by comparison. And while the Night's Watch emerge bruised and victorious, it ends on a dour note: The wildling army is many times stronger than this force, which was sent merely to test the defenses. And Jon's decision on how to end it somehow still ups the tension.