Towards the beginning of “The Watchers on the Wall,” Sam Tarly distracts himself from the approaching horde of wildlings by picking apart the vow that gives the episode its title. Technically, he equivocates, the brothers of the Night’s Watch don’t have to stay celibate. They’re just not supposed to marry or have kids, and all the rest is “up to interpretation.” When six brothers are facing down a giant mere hours later, however, there’s no interpreting or qualifying the vow when it’s helping them stand up to a twenty-foot juggernaut. To put it in Maester Aemon’s terms, nothing gives previously empty words significance like the prospect of imminent death.
“The Watchers on the Wall” has the odds heavily stacked up against it. For one, penultimate episodes have a history of being game-changers on this show: Ned Stark died in season one; the Battle of the Blackwater came in season two, meaning a whole-episode battle no longer comes as a structural shock; and last year was the Red Wedding. What’s worse, “Blackwater” didn’t just take the novelty out of “Watchers.” It also capped off a season-long focus on the goings-on at King’s Landing, particularly Tyrion’s commitment to good governance for its own sake, not money he doesn’t need or respect he’ll never get. The Night’s Watch, on the other hand, has been the most poorly served subplot of season four. This battle is the first significant amount of time the show has dedicated to the Wall all season, tasking this episode with delivering not just on action, but also months’ worth of character development to remind us why we care how that action pans out.
All of which is to say that while “The Watchers on the Wall” certainly doesn’t reach the heights of “Blackwater,” it does fairly well considering the work David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had cut out for them. (The co-showrunners wrote the episode, as they have most of this season’s thus far.) “Watchers” isn’t even the story of a full battle; it’s about the opening skirmish in a struggle that was never going to wrap up in a single night. While low stakes, unpopular characters, and an unsatisfying resolution should add up to three strikes, though, “Watchers” manages to hit a few high points before Jon, echoing the series’ first-ever scene, walks out the gate to find Mance Rayder.
For one, a fight that is essentially a bunch of people playing Red Rover with a massive wall gets broken down into a few more palatable chunks, each with their own character arc. There’s the top of the Wall, where Jon finally takes the plunge we’ve been waiting for all season and fills the gaping hole Jeor Mormont left behind. There’s the gate, where a previously minor character sacrifices himself for a cause that’s way more worthy than the bloodletting that’s been going on down south. And there’s the castle, where Sam Tarly’s strange relationship with military masculinity takes another couple of turns.
I’m fascinated by the parallels between Sam and Tyrion as their respective battles’ unlikely heroes. Tyrion’s rallying cry to the King’s Landing troops in “Blackwater” is based in a very simple truth: ideology never matters as much as survival. What gets the Lannister army moving isn’t an abstract debate over whether Stannis Baratheon has a better fiscal policy than his nephew, it’s the threat of dying. Sam isn’t as pivotal to his battle as Tyrion was to Blackwater, but there are echoes of “those are brave men knocking at our door, let’s go kill them” in his explanation of what it takes to kill. The answer is sort of annihilating one’s ego, but to put it in less pseudophilosophical terms, a person’s instinct to keep on living and protect loved ones is all that matters.
That’s before Sam kills his first human being, which despite all his talk is a very different proposition from stopping a White Walker. Right as the fight starts, Sam also has his (presumably) first kiss. He offers Gilly a rather less believable rationale for entering the fray: “Because that’s what men do!” Considering that this line comes about ten minutes after Ygritte reminds a seven-foot hunk of scar tissue she’s just as much a killer as him, I’m assuming the show doesn’t share Sam’s view of manhood. What’s interesting is that Sam of all people—a bookworm kicked out of his family for not rising to his dad’s idea of a son—chooses to define “men” this way. As a fat, timid scholar, Sam often bears the brunt of Westerosi masculinity’s expectations. Yet he apparently subscribes to them all the same.
Jon serves as the other protagonist of “Watchers,” a move that’s simultaneously expected and prefaced by the opening scene: the battle begins with Jon and Sam standing side by side, the screen divided equally between them. I know I just spent a whole bunch of words picking apart Sam’s role in this, but one more shout out before I move on: Jon was always going to be the hero of the Wall plot line, so props to Benioff and Weiss for giving Sam a nearly equal share of the attention.
Anyway, Jon’s battle experience hinges on his final interactions with two people he (respectively) loves to hate and hates to love. Alliser Thorne has had it out for “Lord Snow” since day one, yet he has a piece of parting advice for his accidental protegé. The upshot is that being a good leader means inevitably being an unlikable dick, and that Jon may have hated Thorne while he was in charge, but he’ll be in the same boat soon enough. The Night’s Watch should have boarded up the gate when they could have, sure. Yet Thorne was doing the best he could with the information he had, and to his credit, he never lost sight of the real enemy. It’s a lesson many in King’s Landing would do well to learn.
Then there’s Ygritte, whose moment of hesitation when she comes face-to-face with Jon ultimately kills her. The final catchphrase and battle-noises-fade-out-while-hero-processes-death stuff is standard. What’s not is who actually fires the arrow: Olly, the kid recruit and survivor of one of Ygritte’s raids. Reminds me of another child on this show who’s become a killer before she’s hit puberty—and of Aemon’s admonishment to Sam: “Love is the death of duty.” Here, duty (another Night’s Watchman, doing exactly what he’s supposed to) is the death of someone Jon loves. According to everything we know about this battle, Olly’s a hero, rising to the occasion and sorta avenging his parents in the process. According to everything we know about Jon, it’s an emotional sucker-punch.
The killjoy in me is ticked that Ygritte dies so Jon can become Lord Commander with emotional baggage that’s sympathetic, but won’t actually interfere with his decision-making. The TV viewer in me choked up.