Like ‘Blackwater’ two seasons prior, the penultimate episode of *Game of Thrones’* fourth season centres on a single, decisive battle. The similarities don’t end there; in both cases, the season hyped up both events and the show dedicated movie-level budgets to the filming of the episodes. Unfortunately, ‘Blackwater’ was the stronger of the two, but only marginally and blessed as that part of the story is with better characters and better actors, it’s fair to say that that speaks very highly of this episode, ‘Watchers On The Wall’. It is a complete episode, with everything from humour to hopelessness to inevitable tragedy covered within. Beyond that however, it is the Night’s Watch’s time in the spotlight and the first of several moments in which the show begins to shift its focus from the politicking in the South to the more dire matters in the North. It is the first moment in the saga when the Night’s Watch finally makes everyone sit up and take notice.
The episode begins slowly and deliberately, with both sides making their final preparations. The entire episode is extremely reminiscent of the iconic defense of Helm’s Deep from *The Two Towers*. The two battles, although from very different series, are actually fairly similar; our protagonists are outnumbered with their backs against the wall (quite literally, in this case) with the entire balance between good and evil hanging in the balance. Of course, there are caveats and nuances to the above but by and large, the characteristics that made Helm’s Deep so compelling apply here as well.
The episode changed a good deal of the original source material, and the repercussions will certainly be felt down the line. Pyp and Grenn, two of Jon’s most stalwart companions fall in defense of the Wall while in the novels they are still alive and well. Of the two, Grenn clearly got the better death, dying as he did, holding off the King of the Giants. Another interesting change was the role of Janos Slynt in all of this. It was clear from the start that he was utterly out of his league; there was no way a man who doubted the very existence of giants could be expected to defend the Wall against them. In all these changes, one truly memorable line failed to make the cut; “The Wall is yours, Jon Snow” from Maester Aemon was omitted and it was a pity too. That line was a reflection moment for the readers, when they realized how far Lord Snow has come since the first book.
Kit Harrington hasn’t always been the most convincing Jon Snow; there have been times where he has overplayed the character’s solemnity and dourness to the point of appearing overly melancholic and petulant. His performances in season four thus far, however, have markedly improved, perhaps as a direct consequence of the character maturing. The episode doesn’t focus on Jon single-mindedly but he is nevertheless clearly its cornerstone. Harrington is able to step up and present the various dimensions of Jon Snow to us – his leadership, his grief, his despair. There is a fatalism hanging over the character, right from the episode’s beginning that Harrington captures brilliantly. From the brief moment of hope when Jon meets Ygritte on the battlefield to the immeasurable fatigue and despondency with which he trudges off to do what he must, Harrington has made a powerful case for why Jon Snow can be such a riveting character.
‘The Watchers On The Wall’ is a departure from what Game of Thrones has become famous/infamous for. There is no politicking and there are no gratuitous, unnecessary sex scenes but instead, the storytelling lens is beginning to shift from the micro-level politics to the larger conflict between ice and fire. The episode stands out as an action spectacle but with enough of the powerful character-driven narratives that helped propel the series to the lofty position that it currently occupies. There are fast-paced, bloody fights, there is the useless bloodshed but there are also plenty of emotions – grief at the numerous likable, sympathetic characters that lose their lives as well as excitement at the heroics of the very same. After three seasons of other storylines hogging the spotlight, it’s great to see the Night’s Watch get some love.