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.