Three hundred miles long, 700 feet high, and 8,000 years old, the Wall is a mind-bogglingly massive structure. According to Vulture’s interview with director Neil Marshall, even the set for it was colossal, involving as it did “the biggest backdrop in Europe.” But once the wildlings launched their long-awaited assault on it in last night’s episode, the huge blockade began to seem much thinner — just a fragile pane of ice separating society from chaos.
The Wall has always been a strange, in-between place. Constructed, the legends say, through a mix of manpower and magic, it’s a thin membrane between the real and the supernatural. It’s a lonely bastion of civilization that civilization itself keeps at an arm’s length. It has one foot in the wild. It’s falling into disrepair, physically and spiritually. And yet it’s ostensibly a place where thieves and criminals can be transformed into respectable brothers of the Night’s Watch, and it’s the one place in Westeros where lineage (supposedly) doesn’t matter. It is the one place where change is a promise.
This notion of the Wall as a liminal zone of mutability played out both thematically and aesthetically last night. There were so many key beats set at gates, doorways, and lookout points — in other words, along edges and openings. The Wall is a threshold between Here and There, and in the crucible of battle, each of our main characters takes a step into a new identity or experience.
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.
As he did in that earlier episode, Marshall makes strong use of interior spaces, sending wildings and Watchmen running up and down those dimly lit stairs and corridors as if he were choreographing a battle inside an Escher print. The oppressive darkness blurred lines between reality and fantasy, softening the edges of those mammoths and giants and making it hard to tell who was whom sometimes, especially in that extended, circular tracking shot at the height of the battle; it was all just blood and boiling pots of water and axes through skulls, set to the sound of one million Inception-style BRAAAAAAM!s.
But as Littlefinger once told us, chaos can be a productive force. And indeed, nearly every brother comes out of this frenzied battle with a burnished reputation.
Ser Alliser Thorne has been a cartoonish antagonist for Jon Snow for most of the season, but D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, who wrote the episode, pointedly grant him moments of redemption. In an early conversation with Jon, Ser Alliser acknowledges that he should have listened to Jon and sealed the tunnel when they had a chance. He goes on to say, though, that being a leader means never second-guessing yourself, or else that’s the end of you and your men. Whether you buy that line or not, the man comes off rather nobly. Later we see him rally his men with a stirring speech — “When the sun rises, I promise you, Castle Black will stand!” — and we see him hack and slash his way through wildlings until he has to be carried off the field, wounded, screaming at his men to hold the fucking gates.
Several times in the episode, one brother hands off leadership to another — and in almost every case (sucks to be you, Janos Slynt) the deputy rises to the occasion. Grenn and his tiny band of men fend off a giant, chanting their vows as they face him down; they manage to kill Mag the Mighty, even as they die in the process. From the top of the wall, Edd directs his men to unleash a giant scythe, which passes along the face of the Wall and shears off the mob of climbing wildlings. Even Olly, the boy whose village was ransacked and whose parents the Thenn Styr promised to eat, screws his courage to the sticking place; he rallies to operate the elevator, and he picks up a weapon. “Might as well enjoy our last night, right, boys?” Edd says at one point. And it is, in fact, their last night as boys.
But the anchors of this episode, its spine and its heart, are Jon and Sam. Each young man traces a heroic arc throughout the hour, and their love for Ygritte and Gilly prove the turning points of each.
In the very first scene, Sam asks Jon what it was like “to have someone,” and Jon, in his tripping, manful way, tries to explain how love means that, “for a little while, you’re more than just you.” For Sam, acknowledging his love for Gilly does just this: It expands him. Maester Aemon — a man who long ago severed all of his previous emotional ties — tells Sam that “love is the death of duty,” but for Sam it is the bedrock of duty. It is the thing that gives him the strength. When he takes the newly returned Gilly and baby Sam to the larder, she begs him not to go, telling him that he won’t matter up there but he will down here. It recalls the scene in “Blackwater” when Shae begged Tyrion not to fight, and Tyrion responded that he had no choice; he’s a Lannister. And similarly, Sam tells Gilly that he’s a man of the Night’s Watch — a man, mind you — who made a promise to defend the Wall. With a kiss, she extracts a second promise from him: “Promise me you won’t die,” she says.
It’s because of this love that Sam can stand beside Pyp, in that lovely series of scenes, and cajole him into being brave. (Best line of the night: when Pyp tells Sam that he shot a wildling through the heart and Sam says, like a mocking big brother, “Oh, is it over?”) It’s what allows him to play the adult both to a dying Pyp — soothing him by saying, as he would to a child, that Maester Aemon is coming — and to a terrified Olly. It is the thing that makes him “not nothing anymore.”
Sam’s story line offered the thrills of seeing a beloved underdog come into his own unexpectedly. Jon’s arc, on the other hand, offered the satisfaction of a long setup finally playing out to its expected conclusion.
It’s been practically preordained that, at some point, Jon — the Cassandra-like figure the men in power laughed at — would be called upon to lead the Night’s Watchmen. And indeed, once Ser Alliser is out of the picture and Slynt has slunk off, he assumes command at the Wall. (Continuing the “Blackwater” parallels, Janos Slynt plays the Joffrey role here: Just as the boy-king went scurrying off the battlements as soon as he received a message from his mother, Slynt hightails it faster than a Game of Thrones writer can kill your favorite character once Grenn makes up a story about him being “needed down below.”)
Once he gets down into the thick of direct combat, Mr. Luscious Locks gets plenty of opportunities to establish his warrior bona-fides — a necessary ingredient for any prospective hero in Game of Thrones, which still puts a lot of Ned Stark–ish stock in the idea of a true man being one who swings a sword himself. (In the “Inside the Episode” clip, one of the showrunners tells a seemingly too-good-to-be-true story about seeing footage of Kit Harington fighting and assuming that the special-effects team had altered it, that’s how unnaturally fast the actor seemed to be moving.)
But ultimately, of course, it’s not simply the wildlings Jon must defeat in order to claim his mantle as Savior of the Wall. Ygritte’s single-minded focus this season on claiming his “juicy bits” for war booty leaves Jon little room to maneuver; he has to defeat her, and by extension, his love for her, if he’s going to do his duty. For him, Maester Aemon’s warning is an apt one.
Jon and Ygritte’s confrontation is inevitable, although the camera lingers on Rose Leslie’s face as the wildlings raise their battle cry while something like hesitation plays across it. At that moment, there’s a camera pan that begins at the knot of wildlings on the south side of the Wall (Tormund and Ygritte’s band), then moves up the icy face of the Wall itself, catching sight of the Night’s Watchmen on the ramparts before settling on the giant fire Mance has set on the opposite side of the wall. The shot collapses wildling space and Night’s Watch space into a single plane. It’s a perspective-scrambling view, in more ways than one. I thought of it as I watched Ygritte and Jon finally face off against each other on the battlefield. The tragedy of their romance is that they can’t bring themselves to bridge the divide between their cultures, the way that camera shot did.
Or at least, they can’t permanently. Seeing each other on the battlefield creates a momentary bubble around them. He smiles at her. She pauses. But then Olly — the boy whose family Ygritte had a hand in destroying — shoots an arrow into her back. As Jon cradles her, the end of Olly’s arrow pierces the space between them, a threatening reminder of the distances they can’t cross. When a dying Ygritte tells Jon that they never should have left that cave, she’s not just leaving him with a pleasant image of sexier, friendlier times. That cave was a strange, set-apart place — a hot spring in the middle of the snow — and it set a protective sphere around them as it temporarily erased their divisions. When Ygritte dies, there’s a long beat where the sounds of the battle get muted and the scene goes into slow motion as the camera pulls away. We almost never see slow motion in Game of Thrones; like that cave, the camera gives the two lovers one last moment of protection.
At the end of the episode, it’s clear that for all its effort, the Night’s Watch has only won a moment of protection, too. Mance Rayder came with 100,000 men, and they will continue battering the Wall the following night. Believing that the wildlings’ efforts will fall apart without Mance, Jon leaves the Wall to try to kill the big man himself. He crosses one final threshold and steps into the cold, snowy sunlight — the first natural light we’ve seen all episode.
Will Jon defeat the Big Bad? Will Sam finally get to see for himself how big a woman’s feet really are? Hopefully next week’s season finale (which promises to be super crowded, thanks to this week’s restricted story line) will bring all these answers and more. So, see you next Sunday for one last turn in Westeros — and if you’re good, I’ll tell you about my Sheila then.