Game of Thrones "The Watchers on the Wall" Review: With Action Like This, Who Needs Plot?

By Tim Surette

Jun 09, 2014

Game of Thrones S04E09: "The Watchers on the Wall"

As I lay breathless on the floor after the drubbing I took from "The Watchers on the Wall"—the ninth episode of Game of Thrones' fourth season and the return of "Blackwater" director Neil Marshall—I glanced at Twitter and saw what a few TV critics were saying about the episode. And I was pretty shocked. Many folks bemoaned the fact that ultimately, nothing happened. That "Blackwater" was better because that battle had a conclusion with more meaning. That Jon Snow is boring and the Night's Watch is full of thin characters (metaphorically speaking, Sam), so the weight of this battle was lighter and the poignancy of death was cheated. 

Well I say that's a huge pile of mammoth shit. (And to be fair, most of those reviews did praise the episode on a technical level.)

Game of Thrones is more than just a television show with plots, character relationships, and boobs, it's the realization of an entirely fictional universe. That's why I'll always defend the series' sex and violence; they're an integral part of this fantasy world. Applying our rules to Westeros is like going to Toontown and telling Roger Rabbit he can't paint a tunnel on a wall and run right through it. (Maybe that's why I thought Stannis going to the bank was a little too real-world mundane for my taste.) 

Likewise, applying regular rules of television to Game of Thrones—which is unlike anything that television has ever seen—isn't always fair, so if Game of Thrones wants to spend an hour on one huge f'ing awesome battle, I'm okay with that. More than okay with it, even! If "The Watchers on the Wall" had been 60 minutes of Jon Snow shooting arrows at wildlings and then ducking behind cover, and then wildlings shooting arrows at Jon and then ducking behind cover, then yeah, it would have been a waste of time and "nothing would have happened." 

But Marshall really used his expertise with turning limited-budget action sequences into awesome spectacles to create an episode that was so riveting, I must've passed out four or five times because I forgot to breathe (HBO, you are paying for half my hospital bills). The end result may've been rather simple: The good guys won, temporarily, and Jon decided he was going to have a one-on-one with Mance Rayder because Sam didn't have a better idea. But getting there was so ridiculously enthralling that it didn't matter. 

The obvious rebuttal to critics who were let down by the episode's lack of significance is that was necessary to illustrate the brutality of war and the strength of the Wall and the wildling army, but I'm not going there. No, that's too academic for a bumpkin like me. Those critics aren't entirely wrong, of course, but taking away from what the episode did so well seems short-sighted to me. Call me simple, but sometimes I just like to watch a bunch of guys with swords fight a bunch of other guys with swords. And mammoths. And giants. And a huge wall of ice. Yup, I was more than okay with "The Watchers on the Wall." 

Say your oaths and let's discuss what happened.

"Love is the death of duty." —Maester Aemon

Amid all the thwacking of arrows and bellows of horns, the heart of "The Watchers on the Wall" centered on two love stories (and one tale of Tormund's bestiality). Gilly made it back to Castle Black to the safety of Sam's chubby arms, and her timing couldn't have been worse. What she did was like showing up to Hoth to visit a pal right at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. That was preceded by some funny moments of Sam asking Jon what it's like to play Hide the Pickle with a lady, and Jon responding by over-romanticizing the idea of oath-breaking, toe-curling cave sex with a hot redheaded wild woman. "For a little while you're more than just you..." Oh please, Jon. Just say, "It was squishy." 

Gilly and Sam's romance has always been Disneyfied, of tertiary importance, and bogus, but Sam really stepped up the potency of their relationship when he told her that he was going off to fight because men keep their promises and then planted a smooch right on her face. You go, Sam! I'm sure Maester Aemon would agree that the prospect of imminent death gives cowards the balls to slide into first base head first. For once, Sam's crush on Gilly didn't feel cartoonish, and he emerged as a man's man. Great episode for Sam.

The other romance and the real heartbreaker of "The Watchers on the Wall" was the forbidden love between Jon Snow and Ygritte. I'll agree what most critics have already said: her death lost a lot of potency due to the fact that she and Jon have been separated since the end of Season 3, and absence on television doesn't make the heart grow fonder at all. TV relationships need constant nurturing. It's like going off to college times a million, the long-distance thing does not work on TV and in many ways, their relationship was already dead. It was still tragic, as Ygritte got the worst of their coupling in every way possible. Jon betrayed her, and instead of firing an arrow straight through that love muscle of his that she used to adore so much, she hesitated, giving Ollie the Elevator Keeper just enough time to skewer her with a blast from his Fisher-Price My First Bow and Arrow. This is why you leave all your soft-hearted lovey stuff and googly eyes behind when you go to battle. That stuff will get you killed! 

And her dying words were, "You know nothing, Jon Snow," obviously, and I'm not even sure that made sense in the context of the conversation they were having. Remember that guy whose last words were, "I wish it were wine?" Those were cool last words. Spouting off your catch phrase as you walk into the light isn't. Sorry, but I think "We should have stayed in that cave" would have made a better send off, but you can't put that on a t-shirt and sell it. Anyway, even though her death was predictable and her send-off quick, I love Ygritte dearly. But if this show spent the proper amount of time giving character's big death scenes, each season would need to be 100 episodes long. 

"Let's kill some crows." —The bad guys

"This is not the end, not for us." —The good guys

This battle. Wow. It'll do us no good for me to recount everything that happened because it would only be a string of blabbering expletives and O-M-Gs. I actually liked this fight better than the one in "Blackwater" because it was longer, and bolstered by so many highlights. What did you think?

And speaking of those highlights, I'll recount my favorite parts and am borrowing some excellent .GIFs from user @flintslady

Ghost is unleashed

Why Ghost wasn't already running around the grounds in the first place, I don't know. If I had a killing machine at my disposal, I'd use it instead of locking it up in storage. I remember when Jon told Sam, "I need him here more than I need you"; I was hoping the "him" referred to the direwolf. And Ghost did not disappoint, immediately taking down a Thenn and ripping out his throat. That was total pandering to fans, because Ghost only got about a minute of screen time (boo!), but it was the kind of pandering I don't mind because GHOST! One bit of advice to Ghost, though: Don't eat in the middle of a battle. 

A Giant Runs After His Flaming Elephant Pet

When the Night's Watch finally dropped some explosive barrels on a team of giants and wildlings trying to break down the gate, a mammoth got spooked and ran off, taking several flaming wildlings with him. Its giant owner panicked and the big dude sprinted off after his hairy elephant in a very funny visual.

The Giant and His Bow and Arrow

This. Was. The. Coolest. Thing. Ever. Not only did the fight feature giants stomping around the battlefield, but one of them had a giant bow and arrow. I had never even thought of that. The arrow was the trunk of a Christmas tree sharpened to a point, and it was launched from a bow the size of a sailboat's mast, generating quite the wallop as one Night's Watch member learned the hard way when he was skewered and launched off the wall on the ride of a lifetime. That's probably the coolest way to die. I just hope he had the wherewithal to shout "I regret nooooooothing" as he hurtled through space and landed with a thud. 

Jon vs. Styr

Though the entire battle was mostly big moments of large-scale warfare, smaller hand-to-hand fights things moving at a captivating pace. The standout mano y mano duke-em-out happened between Thenn leader Styr and Jon; it was a well-choreographed and even more well-performed conflict that involved an head to a anvil, fists to faces and guts, and Jon's finishing blow of a hammer to Styr's skull. 

The Scythe

In terms of Wall defense, the Scythe isn't the most practical of weapons. Enemies have be lined up laterally to make using the ginormous blade worth it, and getting the timing right so the scythe actually hits climbers requires the timing and luck of a perfect golf swing. And because the scythe swings like a pendulum, its path of destruction takes the shape of a wide parabola, meaning its optimal striking range (at the bottom of its swing) isn't always going to be where the enemy is, and its sweet spot is limited. The Wall is awfully wide, remember. That said, we lucked out because those wildlings were perfectly positioned for Dolorous Edd to let 'er rip, and the 20-foot knife edge shredded the attackers into pink slushies. I squealed in delight.

We learned a lot about the men of the Night's Watch as death plucked 'em out. "The Watchers on the Wall" was a very sad farewell to Grenn and Pyp, who both fell during the battle. Pyp took an arrow through the neck that would've left Steve Martin thinking, "No, that's all wrong!" Grenn died protecting the gate under orders from Jon, and he bested a giant. I'll miss those two so much, guys! Especially Grenn, who became a dutiful member of the Night's Watch after starting off as a mere oaf. In fact, this episode showed us how much many of these guys have grown. We saw them come in as recruits back in Season 1, but here they were taking matters into their own hands and showing off their leadership skills. Even Alliser, one of my least favorite characters in the series, ended up being one of the heroes of the day with a rousing speech and impressive swordplay (it's unclear whether he survived the gash he received from Tormund). And F that guy who hid in the cellar with Gilly. Put him in a barrel and shoot him at a giant. 

In the end, the good guys won, if you consider taking heavy casualties when you're already outnumbered 1,000 to 1 a victory. Knowing that Mance's army was just poking around to test defenses and weaken Castle Black's defenses, Jon came up with the wacky idea to go meet Mance Rayder one-on-one to try and kill him and break up the wildling army. Ummm, you sure about that Jon? 


Each week, I'll rank the episodes of Season 4 from best to worst. But remember, these are just my opinions! Feel free to post your own in the comments!

This week: Season 4 is on quite a tear, with the last three episodes taking Top 4 spots. "The Watchers on the Wall" wasn't a perfect outing, but it did what it set out to do—blow our minds with one epic battle sequence—incredibly well. Ygritte's death could've been more potent, but we got a giant shooting an arrow that sent a dude flying over the wall. Wonderfully directed, incredibly paced, and relentless in its brutality, "The Watchers on the Wall" slides right into the third spot. That might seem like a slight, but this season has been so good, it's getting more difficult for Game of Thrones to outdo itself.

1. "The Lion and the Rose" (Episode 2)

2. "Mockingbird" (Episode 7)

3. "The Watchers on the Wall" (Episode 9)

4. "The Mountain and the Viper" (Episode 8)

5. "First of His Name" (Episode 5)

6. "Breaker of Chains" (Episode 3)

7. "Oathkeeper" (Episode 4)

8. "Two Swords" (Episode 1)

9. "The Laws of Gods and Men" (Episode 6)


– Alliser: "Does fucking hold mean fucking drop?" I cracked up during his little fit. 

– Neil Marshall has used great audio cues in his two Game of Thrones episodes. This time it was the Night's Watch horns; in "Blackwater" it was the thunderous drumming. They got me absolutely pumped for battle, and I loved it. 

  • Comments (577)
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  • AJ8472 Jun 27, 2014

    Awesome!!, Game of Thrones is the best show ever , and : Maester Aemon is BOSS!!

  • LiniaNicholl Jun 19, 2014

    And that ladies and gentlemen is what makes Game of Thrones the most EPIC show in the world - GIANTS RIDING BLOODY MAMMOTHS!!!!! HOLY MOTHER OF GOD!!!!
    Though at the same time - saddddd... WHY must all the good ones, the first to die.... ARGHHHHH

  • Dirk13 Jun 17, 2014

    Critics didn't like this episode? I don't recall picking up on that. I can see why they would complain about the nothing happening, but come on, given the cliffhanger on the last episode, this was the perfect diversion to focus on. At least SOMETHING happened, unlike the fallout from last seasons season 8 red wedding foo-for-all. For that reason alone this was startlingly awesome.

    And yeah, not only did two giants die, but one of them was like, king of the giants or something, and yeah some random recruit "from a farm" took him down (with some help from other dudes), that they didn't even show. THAT stuff made the episode awesome. We've been waiting for those giants to re-appear for a while now. And if the dragons were considered major CG payoff, I don't know why multiple giant fights wouldn't be. Heck, while that giant bow and arrowing a dude was pretty sweet, I'm surprised there isn't also a .gif of said giant getting impaled "OMG" moment if ever there was one.

  • urbanriot Jun 15, 2014

    The hour long battle episode was like coming down a rollercoaster, a culmination of the season in the best possible way, and I was happy to forget about all the other plots for a night while I was able to enjoy this 'orgy of violence'. I hope this one hour-long battle episode per season trend continues as it's freakin' awesome!

  • brandoncampbell52493 Jun 15, 2014

    The scythe beats the hell out of the moondoor in terms of intimidating deaths that is all.

  • saraint Jun 13, 2014

    Also, does anyone else predict that eventually Jon and Dany will end up together? They have got to end up King and Queen of the Realm/Universe, haven't they?

  • saraint Jun 13, 2014

    I can't understand why the producers aren't eeking out the books more, considering they will run out before Martin finishes writing them. Surely each book could last two series?

  • ben45tpy Jun 13, 2014

    No complaints here, the episode was epic, overall the action was better and more extensive than Blackwater. I had no issue with the lack of plot progression because the Castle Black story has been neglected this season, especially compared to the books and it needed the time spent to make amends. Plus there'll surely be enough resolution next week. Epic battles aren't neatly resolved in short time, they are prolonged and require endurance. This episode was able to evoke that. We probably won't get to see the Battle of the Bridge of Skulls - I wish we had - but we can't have everything.

  • bhagatneha Jun 12, 2014

    I loved this episode. I mean yes, there wasn't much of a plot. But, it isn't always about the plot is it? It is about spectacular sequences that show us the magnitude of Mance's army with the giants, mammoths et al.

    Why did Jon not take Ghost with him? I was waiting for him to say "Ghost, to me!".

    This series is insane. I wonder if the producers are making enough money to make each season at least 15-18 episodes? I am not asking for too much am I.

    How do we think this season is going to end?

  • ToriVerlysdon Jun 12, 2014

    I agree the break up being a season ago really softened Ygritte's death. In the books, it seems much more immediate and really plucked my heartstrings.

    I was a little disappointed that 'nothing happened' at first, 30 min in and I was all "Oh, I guess we only get this fight for the whole episode." I mean it was a great episode and a lot of stuff did happen, and it would have been underwhelming if that battle were compressed at all (imho).

    It's just that there's only 1 more ep and I would have liked to see more happening elsewhere in Westeros too. Yes, I'm greedy and wanted 2-3hrs worth of GoT more. Sue me.

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