Each season of Game of Thrones has placed an enormous amount of significance on its penultimate episode, and a pattern is beginning to emerge. Seasons 1 and 3 provided the two greatest shocks in the series in their ninth episodes, while in seasons 2 and 4, the ninth episode served as an opportunity to devote the whole hour to one location, and one pivotal battle. In that second season, this was the “Blackwater,” episode, which saw Stannis’ forces soundly defeated by the Lannisters, thanks in large part to Tyrion’s procurement of wildfire. In “The Watchers on the Wall,” we’re treated to by far the most exciting thing to happen with the Night’s Watch yet, coming in the form of the battle for Castle Black.
While the decision to dedicate an entire episode to The Wall may have seemed misguided at first—its interrupts a great deal of suspense surrounding Tyrion’s fate following Oberyn’s skull-crushing defeat in his trial by combat, as well as Arya and Sansa’s potential meeting that is realistically not likely to actually happen—and the possible shortcomings of the episode are on full display early on. Instead of being engaged by the moves being made by the players in the game of thrones, the biting conversations by characters fighting for power in Westeros, we’re left alone with those who are actually defending these people from an invasion that boasts giants and mammoths.
In a way, this seems very much like the point: we’ve heard a number of times that the political maneuvers being carefully planned out by Littlefinger or Tywin will be meaningless if The Wall were to fall and hundreds of thousands of Wildlings or White Walkers descended upon King’s Landing. It’s not as glamorous as the politics and social climbing taking place in the South, but the events in the North are far more crucial in terms of the safety of, I mean, everyone in Westeros. So even if Jon and Sam’s candlelit conversations aren’t as fun to listen to as Tyrion and Jaime jawing the night away, and just because there isn’t time to “develop character” (having a 1000 to 1 disadvantage leaves little time for reflection), it only takes until the action picks up for us to realize that this is a slightly different style of episode than even “Blackwater,” but it remains as strong as the best episodes in this series’ run thus far.
More on the action in a moment, because it’s superb, but despite some folk’s sense that this episode was a whole lot of nothing (in other words, they’re not into well-crafted action. So be it!), it featured some tremendous moments for characters that have previously been neglected. The most major instance, obviously, is Sam, who comes off as the MVP of this episode and this battle. He’s the MVP for leading the way in the action department by offing a Thenn, while also splitting time demonstrating more knowledge than anyone else by taking the time to read a book, more sympathy through his concern for Gilly and her baby, and his slightly surprising bit of poetic wisdom when he waxes on about how he could only ever truly be something when he became nothing, harkening back to some of Arya’s musings about the pleasure of being nothing, and no one.
Jon, for his part, finally got to showcase some of the characteristics that would make him a believable leader, since as to this point he has still mostly spent his time feeling guilty about the past and worrying about the future. And I have to say, I’m among the people who find the show’s, and Kit Harrington’s, portrayal of the character in this area a little disappointing. Thankfully, he comes into his own a little bit this week by being granted the opportunity to focus on the present, taking charge both on The Wall and at the gate when called upon, and really being one of the few members of the Night’s Watch to keep his composure, which in turn inspires his comrades to maintain their own cool and confidence. Harrington always seems to do his best work when he’s being nonverbal; the images of his face while fighting, and then encountering Ygritte, were some of the first instances where I was able to really connect with Jon Snow as a character in the show.