‘Game of Thrones’ recap: Season 4, Episode 9, ‘The Watchers on the Wall’

jon snow game of thrones
Jon Snow is done taking orders and has a few of his own.
Credit: HBO

“You’re right, it’s a bad plan. What’s your plan?” Jon Snow asks Samwell Tarly, before marching off into the Northern wilds to singlehandedly kill wildling leader Mance Rayder.

But let’s rewind to how he got to that point.

“The Watchers on the Wall” delivered on the epic battle promised by series creator George R.R. Martin. Though this time, it wasn’t Stannis Baratheon and his fleet of ships in Blackwater Bay, and there was no Hail Mary play by Tyrion. What this battle asks of each character, from the leader of the Thenn to barely named Night’s Watchmen, is this: When faced with imminent death, what do you think of?

Sam thinks of Gilly, and everything he doesn’t yet know about the world. The episode opens with Sam and Jon keeping watch on the Wall, debating whether the Night’s Watch vows explicitly forbid sex. Sam wants to know what it’s like; Jon is torn between bad poetry and the bitterness of his parting with Ygritte.  

Sam, undeterred, goes to the library to read up on wildlings, though whether his research concerns sex or war tactics is unclear. Maester Aemon finds him, and reminisces about a special woman of his own who was left behind along with the rest of his life as Aemon Targaryen, who turned down the Iron Throne for life at Castle Black. “Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death,” he muses.

But Sam won’t have to die wondering. Gilly and her baby make it to the castle, and he secrets them away in a storeroom for the duration of the battle, promising with a kiss not to get killed. But he’s afraid — he explains killing the White Walker in the woods as a moment of courage born of being “nothing at all … [but] I’m not nothing anymore.”

They’re all going to have to find some reserves of the stuff soon, because Mance has, as promised, lit the biggest fire the North had ever seen beyond the wall, while the combined forces of Tormund Giantsbane and Thenn leader Styr storm the front gates. In the ensuing battle and chaos, all adding up to the series’ most expensive episode to date, the true colors of the Night’s Watchmen begin to show.

Instead of spending the episode doing little else but berating Jon, Ser Alliser Thorne proves he didn’t get to be leader of the Night’s Watch on his lovely head of hair alone. He admits the tunnel should’ve been sealed, as Jon recommended, when Mance’s mammoth-riding giants come stomping out of the woods, then leads the ground defense of Castle Black. He is gravely wounded during a bout with Tormund. Status: Unknown

Grenn steps up to lead a band of six against the giant stomping through the tunnels. He goes on Jon’s orders, and unlike Sam, finds the strength to do what he must in the Night’s Watch oath. Status: Dead, along with the rest of his party — but so is the giant.

Pypar, barely more than a teenager and never having “held a sword with a proper edge” finally finds his target with a crossbow — only for one of wildling Ygritte’s arrows to find him immediately after. Status: Dead

Janos Slynt was a baby-killing coward who would follow any order as a member of the Kingsguard before Tyrion banished him, and he’s not any more use as a coward who hides in storerooms while plugging his ears and pretending that the giants marching on the Wall don’t exist. Status: Alive

Eddison Tollett digs deep, past his cowardice as a former mutineer, to lead the charge at the top of the wall. Status: Alive

Tormund doesn’t surrender until there are three arrows in him and Jon adds a fourth. Status: Captured

But what happens when everyone else dies, and you’re the one left behind?

ygritte game of thrones watchers on the wall arrow bow castle black dead
Ygritte talked a big game all episode, but when face to face with Jon couldn’t pull the trigger.
Credit: HBO

Despite Ygritte vowing to put an arrow through anyone who gets between her and Jon, Styr wants a piece of him just to spite her. In the end, Jon dispatches him without help, only to round a corner and find himself once again at the other end of Ygritte’s bow. This time though, it doesn’t look like she’ll put another one, or three, in him.

But we never find out — little Ollie, the lone survivor of the willing massacre in his village, puts an arrow straight through Ygritte’s heart with his child-size bow. Her dying words, as Jon promises they’ll return to the cave where he broke his vows, are the now-iconic “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

With that, Jon also loses his will to fight. His expression doesn’t change as Sam tries to dissuade him from going after Mance by reminding him that there is no swift death at the hands of wildlings. Jon walks out of tunnel toward the woods where Mance’s forces retreated, leaving us all feeling very much like this:

Episode grade: B-

It’s just not “Game of Thrones” without the Lannisters scheming in the Red Keep.


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