It turns out it’s difficult to recap an awesome epic battle episode that rips the heart right out of you.
This is only the second-ever episode of Game of Thrones that stays in one location for the whole episode, and like Blackwater in Season Two, it’s hardcore action — but with a bleeding heart that Blackwater never had, powered by twin beats.
Love is the death of duty – Maester Aemon
Two long-standing love stories reach some kind of conclusion in this episode: one ending, the other beginning. Jon and Ygritte‘s story, of course, was never going to end well: Jon tried to tell her that last season — just before she shot him. Since he’s come back to the Watch, Jon’s done what he can to put his memories behind him: but we start this episode with Sam dredging up the details — both relevant, and totally irrelevant (unless you have certain specialised interests):
I want you to tell me what it was like… to love someone and have them love you back.
How big were her feet?
Jon’s stumbling attempts to give Sam what they both believe is his only insight into “intimate relations with women” are comedic but also beautiful:
Jon: There’s this person, this whole other person… and for a little while you’re not just you, you’re — oh I don’t know, I’m not a bleeding poet.
Sam: …No, you’re not.
That depth of feeling that Jon can’t articulate is shown perfectly when he sees Ygritte. He’s just fought for his life with Styr, has been hit very hard on the head; and suddenly, there she is: his smile is a heartbreaker in more ways than one. I’ve been on the fence about how Kit Harington has played Jon before, but he totally sold this moment to me: he made me believe that the only thing he saw was the face of the woman he loves, not her arrow pointed at him.
Rose Leslie, too, is great as always as Ygritte: brash and brazen with Styr and Tormund — as we’ve seen her so many times — but also brittle, and you can feel her both wanting and dreading to see Jon. When she finally does, she can’t quite bring herself to shoot. That core of empathy that she showed last week in sparing Gilly and her baby stops her here, and it’s just long enough to get her killed.
Sam, meanwhile, gets another chance at the love story he’s barely dared to imagine. Just as Maestor Aemon makes him recognise that his feelings for Gilly are more than platonic:
I heard it in your voice when you first brought me to her.
Gilly and her baby turn up at Castle Black, and Sam is determined that he won’t fail at protecting them again. All that nerding out over his Night’s Watch oath comes in handy, and he thinks he can promise himself to Gilly as well as the Watch. Gilly isn’t so easy to convince:
Sam: From now on, wherever you go, I go too…
Gilly: You won’t matter up there, you will down here.
Sam: I made a promise… I have to keep it. That’s what men do.
Gilly: Promise me you won’t die.
And wouldn’t you know it, Samwell Tarly keeps his promise. That night, anyway. But how long can he stay loyal to the Watch and to Gilly?
Sam has found a way to split his loyalties, but the rest of the Night’s Watch found that there’s no way to focus on two things at once: it’s either the defence of Castle Black, or personal survival. Janos Slynt, of course, prioritises the latter: unable to cope with command or believe the evidence of his own eyes:
There’s no such thing as giants.
he takes the opportunity Grenn gives him and makes his escape to the kitchens where he spends the night hiding with Gilly. Alliser Thorne might be an asshole, but unlike his friend Slynt, he doesn’t lack either a sense of duty or courage: he rallies the men at the Castle to defense; he takes on Tormund; and he even — in a rare moment of decency — admits his mistakes to Jon: they should have sealed the tunnel.
Other Watchmen, too, are afraid: most notably Pyp, who begs Sam for tips on how to get over the fear:
When you’re nothing at all, there’s no more reason to be afraid.
Pyp does find his courage, but Ygritte’s arrow finds him soon after, and Sam — like Jon — has to hold a loved one as they die. Sam’s also the reason that little Ollie finds his courage, and a weapon, and kills Ygritte.
At Jon’s command, Grenn and his five companions hold the gate against a giant and die in the process. Jon knew it when he sent them down:
Take five men, hold the inner gate. Hold the gate.
and they knew it too, yet still Grenn musters his voice to make the men fight to the end, to focus on more than themselves: the spine-tingling power of the Night’s Watch oath is used to full effect again.
Grenn, Pyp, and Sam used it once before, to recall Jon to the Castle before he deserted to find Robb: now out of those three who brought Jon back, only Sam is left. Jon’s only loyalty now is to the Watch: his family are dead (as far as he knows); Ygritte is dead; he sacrificed at least one friend to the defence of the Wall, and would’ve sacrificed Sam, too; so now he’s going to sacrifice himself. It’s a stupid plan, he admits, but it’s the only one they’ve got. Those final shots of Jon and Sam in the tunnel hark back to the very first episode of the series, and the ranging of those three ill-fated Watch men. Bad omen, or…?
Okay, okay, I’m not a total fangirl here: I do have a few gripes. Firstly, it seemed like there was a bit of a hole in the episode where Mance Rayder should have been. I understand that Ciarán Hinds is probably a busy man, and it makes sense in one way to keep the action on Castle Black only, but we haven’t seen Mance since midway through last season. At least one non-book-reading friend of mine had forgotten who he was.
Secondly, when they went to all the trouble of showing Sam risking his life to free Ghost, because Jon needs him so badly…you’d think, maybe, they might show that Ghost goes with Jon through the Wall? Would a little direwolf CGI, or hell, some cheaper direwolf POV really have blown the budget? It just seems profoundly stupid for Jon to go on an assassination mission without either his sword or his direwolf.
Special bonus image:
To speculate a bit on next week’s episode in spoilery ways: Jura V guvax nobhg rirelguvat gung pbhyq unccra va arkg jrrx’f rcvfbqr V pbhyq fpernz: YNQL FGBARURNEG, Neln xvyyvat gur Ubhaq, Glevba’f rfpncr naq Gljva’f zheqre… qb lbh guvax jr’yy trg gb frr nyy guerr?
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