Does everyone remember "Blackwater," the big battle episode in Game of Thrones' second season, where so many of the conflicts that had been brewing over the past year came to a head in an epic, gory, multi-stage set-piece? Compare that to "The Watchers on the Wall," which spent an hour on the opening salvo in the battle between the Wildlings and the Night's Watch and ended up resolving very little indeed. No doubt there were some memorable moments, and "Blackwater" director Neil Marshall (who's made great films like The Descent and Doomsday) brought back his instantly recognizable technical verve, showing off with wolf-POV and a long tracking shot taking in every layer of combat at the giant Castle Black set.
But what really happened in "The Watchers on the Wall"? The wildling invasion force was Ygritte's raiding party, attacking from the south, and a smallish detachment that attempted to scale the wall and smash through the tunnel, using a couple of (very awesome) giants and a wooly mammoth. The resolution of this battle was left dangling after an hour; with the Night's Watch decimated, Jon is marching north to treat with Mance Rayder, which is an acceptable cliffhanger (next week's finale will be something special) but left me a little unfulfilled. It's really just the difficulty of matching "Blackwater," high expectations that I'm sure only die-hard fans had anyway.
The biggest moment in "The Watchers on the Wall" was the necessary and nicely-handled resolution of Jon and Ygritte's relationship. As we've seen throughout the season, Ygritte is basically irredeemable—while the Wildling concerns might draw some sympathy from viewers, she's a merciless soldier who killed her share of innocents and Night's Watchmen. The question was whether Jon would be the one to off her or not; instead, she fell to an arrow from little Olly, who survived her raid on his village, a cruel little wink from a show that specializes in that sort of thing.
Jon's goodbye with Ygritte, remembering fonder times (The cave! And not much else, but hey, that was a sexy cave), was nicely done, but it's mostly a relief to be rid of the Wildling raiding party, who were one of the duller story threads in this season. Tormund is forever an imposing, charismatic brute and I'm glad we still have him around, but the Thenns were just written as sub-human monsters and everyone else was an extra. I cheered for Sam's hero moment and liked Jon taking down the chief Thenn with a hammer to the head, but once Ygritte was taken out, there were no other big character dynamics to cling to.
Not that there weren't some very cool individual scenes. Grenn's last stand against the giant, reciting the oath of the Night's Watch with his brothers? Pretty intense. That big anchor on the Wall wiping out a bunch of ice-climbers? Fantastic. Even nasty old Alliser Thorne got some decent hero business in, putting his money where his mouth was and trying to take down invaders solo. I liked his little chat with Jon at the top of the Wall—the old "I don't like you, you don't like me, but somehow that means we respect each other" deal.
The best thing about "The Watchers on the Wall," and the one really concrete character arc, is Jon's final flowering into a battle commander his men can respect. Even Thorne realizes Jon knows what's up, admitting that they should have sealed the tunnels, and the men have so little respect for Janos Slynt (the bald guy from the City Watch) that they immediately give him an excuse to run from battle just to get him out of their hair. By the end of the episode, Jon's the one making the plans and going off to see Mance.
Ygritte's death feels like the loss of Jon's innocence, for good. Yes, Jon already shed that skin when he killed the Halfhand and went double-agent, and again when he fell for Ygritte, and again when he went back to the Night's Watch. But one reason Jon is so creepily calm as he goes beyond the Wall to find Mance is that he has nothing left to lose. He's truly a creature of duty, and that makes him a perfect Night's Watchmen. It also makes for maybe a less compelling character, since it means Jon is gonna do a lot of issuing orders through gritted teeth, but there's time to worry about later.
Especially since he's still got sweet old Sam next to him. Sam is that rare Game of Thrones character in that he's very hacky in origin, down to the heart of gold, the awkward questioning of Jon about sex, and the surprise hero moments, but he feels three-dimensional nonetheless. When he tells Jon to come back at the end of the episode? It's not just because they are forever best buds. It's because he knows how important he's going to be to keep the Watch running. Forget Oberyn or the Red Wedding or what have you. If Sam had bit the dust last night, people really would be calling George R. R. Martin a monster.
Anyway, slight underwhelm aside, season four of Game of Thrones has one episode to go, so don't sharpen your knives just yet. Next week, America loses its mind and shrieks at the thought of a nine-month wait for more episodes. Get ready!