Game of Thrones: A Spectacular Battle, With One Big Disappointment

Our roundtable on "The Watchers on the Wall," the ninth episode of the fourth season of the HBO show.

Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Orr: You know nothing, Jon Snow.

So last week, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss killed off Oberyn Martell who, as played by Pedro Pascal, was among the most exceptional supporting characters on the show. This week, they killed off Ygritte who, as played by Rose Leslie—well, you get the idea. Viewers who complain that the show delights in getting us attached to characters only to then brutally murder them will have plenty to complain about. And the season’s still not over…

That said, it could have been more heartbreaking—and, as a book reader, let me say it should have been more heartbreaking. But I’ll come back to that in a minute. Let me start instead with the obvious: This was bravura cinema-on-TV, a production on a scale that would have been unimaginable in the medium just a few years ago. Neil Marshall, who directed the “Blackwater” episode in season two, was brought back for this latest clash and, as he promised, it was an immense undertaking: giants, mammoths, flaming arrows, a massive ice axe scything its way down on a chain—from the perspective of sheer spectacle, “The Watchers on the Wall” had it all.

I also liked the opening scenes of the episode, with their peculiar love-is-a-many-splendored-thing vibe. Sam explains to Jon that a second-hand sense of Getting It On is the best he’s ever likely to get, and he also notes that his meticulous parsing of the Night’s Watch vows suggests that marriage and children are prohibited, but not sex per se. (Talk about your loopholes!) Then we get our first installment in forever of Tormund’s Tips for Better Sex, in which he offers up his—please let it be apocryphal—tale of ursine uxoriousness. (It’s certainly a novel twist on “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.”) Finally, we have Maester Aemon reading Sam as easily as he might once have any of the books in his under-utilized library, culminating with my favorite line of the episode: “Nothing makes the past a sweeter place to visit than the prospect of imminent death.”

I got a kick, too, out of the way Benioff and Weiss seemed to delight in toying with audience expectations. Perhaps it’s just me, but they seemed to drop hint after hint that Ygritte was going to kill Sam this episode. First Sam tells Gilly, “I promise you I won’t die tonight,” which felt like the Game of Thrones retirony equivalent of being the cop with a loving family who’s just a week shy of retirement from the force. Then we have Ygritte spotting Sam (“a fat one”) on the battlements of Castle Black during her first reconnaissance, followed by her putting an arrow through Pip’s head such that he dies in Sam’s arms. Again, it may just be me, but Benioff and Weiss seemed to be telegraphing all episode long that Sam was the Lovable Supporting who was about to join the ranks of the fallen. Which, of course, we book readers know can’t happen, because he’s got to be around to be eaten by the reanimated corpse of the Magnar of Thenn next episode. (Kidding!)

So why did I nonetheless come out of the episode somewhat disappointed? Again, in a word, Ygritte. Rose Leslie has been one of a handful of performers on the show who’ve really elevated their characters above what they were in the books. But Ygritte’s death, which was among the saddest moments in the George R. R. Martin novels, felt as though it got short shrift here. Like the calamitous outcome of Oberyn’s duel with the Mountain last week (but to a considerably greater degree) the scene felt rushed. Not only was Jon and Ygritte’s exchange shorter than in the book, but given the way it was tucked in amid the violent mayhem—it didn’t even merit the oomph of being a final-scene kicker—it seemed almost an afterthought.

Moreover, the power of the moment was undermined by the fact that Ygritte’s death takes place in the show much later than it did in the novels. (Folks who aren’t interested in how the two differ may just want to skip the rest of this paragraph.) In the book, the skirmish between the Wildling raiding party and the Crows at Castle Black—and with it, Ygritte’s death—comes long before the arrival of Mance’s army north of the Wall. In show-time, I had expected Ygritte’s final “you know nothing” to occur around episode four or five. Instead, Ygritte basically vanished from episodes four through seven, giving us altogether too much time to forget how terrific she was. And when she finally came back, her defining feature (also in a departure from the books) was her extreme murderousness, which somewhat undercuts the tragedy of her ultimate demise. Again, I know there’s nothing more tedious than the second-guessings of a book fan, but Ygritte deserved a better, sadder death, and it would have been an easy thing to give her one.

In all, I thought it was a slightly odd episode in general, one that provided unusual pleasures—Mag the Mighty, for instance, the giant who single-handedly broaches the gate—but was largely missing the primary elements that make the show such a consistent joy: the cunning dialogue, the unexpected plot swerves, etc. Indeed, apart from Ygritte’s death, almost nothing of genuine import happened tonight. Mance’s preliminary testing of the Wall’s defenses has been repelled, but he still has an overwhelming force of men and monsters preparing for their next assault. And given this episode’s singular focus, who knows what may have been going on in the rest of Westeros (and Essos) in the meantime—poisonings? betrayals? copious amounts of gratuitous nudity? I’ll only say this: unless I’m sorely mistaken, next week’s finale—in previous seasons the time when Benioff and Weiss have reset the board after a shocking episode nine—should be chock full of game-changers.

What did you think, Amy? Did the battle of the Wall leave you blown away, or nostalgic for the plots and counter-plots of King’s Landing? Or both?

Sullivan: Both. On first viewing, I loved the episode and the way it captured this terrifying battle-on-two-fronts. Ser Alliser Thorne finally stops being an ass, admits Jon Snow was right about sealing the tunnel while they had the chance, and then mostly redeems himself by giving the boy rangers a shot of courage before they confront the invading wildings in hand-to-hand combat. (Thorne seemed pretty darn skillful with the sword himself in his duel with Tormund Giantsbane.) Jon Snow is in charge and kicking ass, both atop the Wall and again down below while finishing off the remaining invaders. Six brave brothers make me tear up chanting their vows while facing off against a seriously scary giant—and then give their lives while defending the gate. Sam finally gets a kiss from Gilly. Ghost!

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club,, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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