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The Best Game of Thrones Recaps: ‘The Watchers on the Wall’

The ninth episode of a Game of Thrones season is always a biggie, and this was no exception. As Vulture recapper Nina Shen Rastogi writes, “Like 'Blackwater,' the second-to-last episode of season two, “The Watchers on the Wall” features two clashing armies, one defending a structure and the other battering it with all its might. Both episodes have a classical unity of time and place, with all the action occurring in a single location over the course of one fateful night." This week, our critics compared the Battle of Castle Black with the Battle of the Blackwater although most agreed that it  came up short. Your recap of the recaps:

“The cinematic flourishes were great, but what truly made the episode memorable were the many ways it celebrated TV conventions instead of flouting them. After all, this is a medium devoted to the slow burn, not the bonfire, and for all its sizzle, 'Watchers' was fueled by this steady, accumulated heat. Think of 91-year-old Peter Vaughan spending the better part of four seasons doddering around in the margins as Maester Aemon (né Targaryen — Daenerys would call him Great-Uncle if she knew he was still alive), only at long last to step into the spotlight with a pitch-perfect monologue about romance and regret. Or of Owen Teale, sneering at Jon Snow for years as Ser Alliser, suddenly swashbuckling like a pre-smushed prince of Dorne. Speaking of our favorite bastard, while he swaggered atop the Wall like a Hollywood hero, it was humble Samwell Tarly, well played as ever by John Bradley, who completed his Campbellian journey down in the trenches. All the complicated history Game of Thrones has been sharpening and whittling since day one was finally nocked into the bow last night, and when it was loosed, it flew straight and true.” —Grantland

“As Jon says, he’s no poet. This was never going to be the strategic masterstroke of Tyrion’s wildfire, and there wasn’t going to be a figure like Cersei huddling in the walls monologuing on the meanings of it all. This was always going to be a fight, with even the ostensible love story centering on a woman whose love goal was to kill the man she loves. And Marshall ensured it was an epic fight, worthy of the series’ expanded budget and delivering on the giants, mammoths, and hammers to the brain that were promised.” —Cultural Learnings

“Ygritte has done her share of evil this season, but Rose Leslie sold the heartache and false bravado convincingly enough to keep a lukewarm place in our hearts. Her confrontation with Jon unfolded largely as most viewers probably expected it to — arrow poised but stymied by tender cave memories. Her end — especially delivered, as it was, by the orphaned Olly, another youngster being indoctrinated into a bloody way of life — was wrenching, and Ms. Leslie and Mr. Harington carried it off with aplomb. To the extent that any shades of gray have colored the conflict between the wildlings and those south of the Wall this season, Jon Snow and Ygritte’s star-crossed relationship has been the vehicle for it. And in her final moments, it was enough.” —New York Times

“'Watchers,' on the other hand, gave us the greatest sheer spectacle Game of Thrones ever has, but in the service of what turned out to be a thoroughly indecisive battle. The wildling rearguard attack is halted, at the cost of many lives, including the north’s favorite ginger, Ygritte. Mance Rayder’s nighttime assault is repelled, after the unleashing of mammoths, fire, a harpoon-like giant’s arrow, and a wickedly ingenious 'scythe' slicing climbers from the Wall’s face. But when it’s all over and the bodies are being stacked in piles, a haggard, heartbroken Jon Snow tells us that it was not the end of a war but just a skirmish–and a tiny one considering the forces Mance has at his disposal. The only way to win is to find Mance–so, tune in next week, and add one more agenda item to what is looking like a very crowded final episode.” —Time

It's not all broad swords and flaming arrows (though there's a lot of that), as there's real, profound character development, bittersweet touching moments, and even a few funny or humorous lines, despite all the death and destruction. If anything, the episode also makes the argument for the possible award nomination of John Bradley, the actor who plays Samwell Tarly, the best friend to Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Tarly's always been a delight to watch, and one of the characters easiest to root for in a show full of characters one feels conflicted about rooting for, and Bradley has always played the role with sensitivity and aplomb. But this episode, he gets his hero moments a few times over and it's damn satisfying to say the least. #EmmyForJohnBradley starts now, Team GOT.” —The Playlist

“Sam thinks about sex and the loss of sex before battle, and wants all the details from Jon. I like that he's found a loophole in the Night's Watch vows, which don't specifically forbid sex per se. More than anything I'm digging the new Wall set, with its little igloos of protection.  Then Sam finds Gilly at the gate and uses the f-word in a hilariously commanding fashion. So Gilly went from Molestown -- which just got attacked by Wildlings -- to Castle Black -- which is about to be attacked by Wildlings. 'From now on, wherever you go, I go too,' Sam swears. He hides her in the storage room, but tells her he's going to go up to The Wall against her objections to keep his vow ('because that's what men do'). Then he smooches her. This battle is pretty much the best thing to ever happen to Sam in terms of character building. Gilly wants him to promise he won't die, which is a promise nobody on Thrones can make.” —Entertainment Weekly

What did work this week, however, was the realisation that so many of the Night's Watch are nothing more than frightened boys stuck on a freezing wall, facing imminent death. Most of them were given no choice but to take their vows. They've learned to fight, formed their friendships and slowly adjusted to life in the bleakest outpost of the kingdom. Now they're under siege and, horribly, no one in Westeros either knows or cares. For me, that was probably the most brutal message of this episode: as poor, terrified Pyp died choking in his own blood and Grenn bravely railed his doomed band with the Night's Watch Oath in one of the episode's properly spine-tingling moments I was aware that nobody knows of their sacrifice. This is arguably the most important battle of the entire series – the Night's Watch know they have to hold The Wall at all costs, yet no one outside of Castle Black gives a damn.” —The Guardian

I’m also mostly grateful to the writers for bothering to give the episode an actual theme. I don’t know if they were worried about the lack of attractive sets, glamorous fashions, and Bechdel Test–qualifying women or what, but I love that love was the thread that held this story of warfare together.” Vanity Fair

It is not all about love, either. In the tunnel, facing their deaths, Grenn (Mark Stanley) chants the words of his vows to his brothers to restore their courage. Their poignant recitation is the essence of ritual, silly when it is not necessary, but of vital importance when you need to transform yourself into the most powerful form of that 'nothing' Sam became when he killed the White Walker. (And it is not only boys who hold onto childish things. Ygritte (Rose Leslie) may kill as many Westerosi people as the nastiest Thenn warrior in battle, but she is desperate to kill Jon herself, both to prove herself to the men who doubt her, and to avenge her hurt heart.)” —Washington Post

"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." —The Atlantic

“It takes 43 seconds to make the circuit of Castle Black – 43 seconds involving dozens of performers and stuntmen arrayed across a multi-level set, shot without a single cut. Like all great action filmmaking, that shot rooted us in a specific environment, and did so clearly enough that you could practically give a tour of it yourself now if you were paying close attention. The stakes of every sword stroke were crystal clear – kill your man or you lose this patch of ground, and this one, and so on until there's no more left to lose. It's not just a choppily edited jumble of indistinguishable hacking and slashing; it's the battle for Castle Black, and you are there.” —Rolling Stone

"The Great Northern Mammoth is surely one of the most impressive creatures in all of Westeros. Once hunted nearly to extinction, the species now thrives again, thanks to habitat conservation efforts spearheaded by celebrities such as pigeon pie chef Arg Tugalog; recording artist Wyllie Bear-Steed, whose electric lute cover of 'The Rains of Castamere' soared to the top of the charts; and, surprisingly enough, The Mountain, who was quoted as saying, 'WANT MORE MAMMOTH TO FIGHT.'” —Previously.TV

“On a storytelling level, however, it mostly left me cold. A large part of this stems from the fact that Jon Snow has always been the most boring of the series’ major characters, on both page and screen. That’s the sort of subjective thing where if you’re a huge Jon Snow fan, you’ll likely disagree. But even the biggest Jon and Ygritte ‘shippers, say, would be hard-pressed to find the moment when the latter dies of an arrow through the heart to be as powerful as it might have been. It’s a momentary pause in the action that the episode attempts to give weight, but because we’ve been away from the characters so long, it doesn’t get to be anything other than said pause. 'Watchers' strains to give it the weight of tragedy, but it doesn’t really deserve it, because how long has it been since we’ve seen Jon and Ygritte together? In show time, it’s been nine episodes, but in actual calendar time, it’s been over a year.” —A.V. Club

So even though Jon Snow is a drip, Ser Alliser has previously been a jealous boob designed to make Jon Snow look better, etc., 'The Watchers on the Wall' still offered plenty of thrills. I may not remember that Jon's bearded friend's name is Grenn (thanks, Internet!), but I could still appreciate the power of him leading the other rangers in the Night's Watch oath as they stared down the attacking giant in the tunnel between the outer gate and the inner one. His other friend Edd has similarly not made a huge impression, but the image of the huge scythe sweeping the climbers off the Wall was pretty splendid to look at. And if Harington doesn't have the charisma of some of his co-stars, he (and/or his stunt double) swashbuckles convincingly, and the various duels in and around Castle Black were as exciting as designed. (Even Alliser turned out to be a good fighter and leader of men, even if Tormund nearly killed him.)” —HitFix

“Especially since he's still got sweet old Sam next to him. Sam is that rare Game of Thrones character in that he's very hacky in origin, down to the heart of gold, the awkward questioning of Jon about sex, and the surprise hero moments, but he feels three-dimensional nonetheless. When he tells Jon to come back at the end of the episode? It's not just because they are forever best buds. It's because he knows how important he's going to be to keep the Watch running. Forget Oberyn or the Red Wedding or what have you. If Sam had bit the dust last night, people really would be calling George R. R. Martin a monster.” —The Wire