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The penultimate episode in each season of Game of Thrones inevitably becomes “the big one” as far as set pieces go. Season one saw the shocking death of Ned Stark. Season two held the series biggest battle to that point. Season three’s Red Wedding took place in the ninth episode. That trend continues with last night’s The Watcher’s on the Wall, which like season two’s penultimate episode is basically an hour-long battle sequence. Instead of Stannis Baratheon versus Tyrion Lannister, however, this time it is Night’s Watch versus the wildling army. Neil Marshall, who directed that season two gem, returns to helm last night’s episode, which is even bigger and bolder than his last go-round.
The episode begins with Sam and Jon, stationed atop the wall, debating the Night’s Watch oath and whether or not it leaves any wiggle room for a relationship with a woman (the men of the Night’s Watch take a vow of celibacy). Jon says it does not and Sam believes there is some leeway there. Sam then goes for a midnight read, and runs into Maester Aemmon, who reminds Sam that Aemmon was once a Targaryen prince and had access to dozens of beautiful women who wanted to marry him. Gilly then once again arrives at Castle Black with her child just as the bells toll, meaning Mance and his armies have arrived for battle. Sam gives her quarter in a storage room, as it is the best place for her to be safe during the battle.
Mance’s army is divided into two branches, with Tormund and Ygritte leading a charge towards the castle and the much bigger branch of the army attempting to breach the ice wall. Ygritte and Tormund’s group are able to easily overpower the meager defenses of the castle and basically wreak havoc. This draws Ser Alliser from his position on the wall. Ser Alliser heads to the castle to take on the threat himself, with some success. Back at the wall, Jon Snow now leads the men against an endless horde, facing off from up above against wildlings, giants, and woolly mammoths, who attempt to upend the gates of the wall. The men launch flaming arrows and bombs, again with limited success.
Ser Alliser takes a grave wound from Tormund, and Sam calls upon Jon Snow to lead the ground forces and retake the castle. Snow puts Edd in charge of the wall and sends Grenn to hold the gates at any cost. Both are successful, though Grenn loses his life to a giant in the process, although Grenn and his brothers are able to kill the giant and keep the gate safe temporarily. Edd unleashes the walls secret weapon, a swinging scythe that eviscerates the wildlings. The wildlings then temporarily retreat back to the safety of their camps, demoralized by the scythe. Snow, with the aid of his direwolf Ghost, take back the castle. Ygritte is killed by an arrow and dies in Snow’s arms. Tormund is taken prisoner.
The battle temporarily suspends, and Snow and the Night’s Watch have won – for now. Realizing this, Jon Snow decides he will go to Mance and either make peace terms, or kill him (or perhaps die in the process). The episode ends unresolved, but what an amazing ride. Limited in use of CGI by the budget, this episode really ended up a stunner because of all the amazing practical effects. These are very realistic looking armies facing off against one another, like an old school 80s fantasy movie. Any time this show needs to do a big battle episode, Neil Marshall is a very welcomed presence. I really hope this guy (he directed The Descent and Doomsday, among other genre films) is able to get more work based on what he’s done with two episodes of Game of Thrones. Next week is the season four finale, and the finales on this show are often a bit anti-climactic. I’m hoping season four reverses that trend.