GAME OF THRONES episode 39 (season 4, episode 9: Kit Harington. photo: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO)

Episode 9. In the realm of “Game of Thrones,” it’s basically become code for “get ready.” Every season of the show has treated the penultimate episode (and not the finale) as the true climax, providing the definitive moment that kept people talking all summer. First it was Ned Stark getting his head chopped off, then it was the epic Battle of Blackwater and a year ago it was the Red Wedding, from which we’re all still recovering. That made for some Wall-high expectations heading into Sunday, and also a fair amount of skepticism. Would an episode focused solely on The Wall and its related storylines and characters — not frequently counted as favorites or highlights within the show’s sprawling universe — rise to the occasion and captivate us like the next-to-last episodes of previous seasons?

Almost, but not quite. “The Watchers on The Wall” was definitely an intense and bloody hour. There were mammoths and arrows and giants and giants shooting arrows. (But not enough of the latter — more on that in a bit.) But aside from the major moment with Jon Snow and Ygritte it was hard to feel too emotionally invested in anything that happened. And as visually exciting it was to watch everything unfold, the ending was surprisingly unfulfilling.

[Note: At this point I will also direct you to the review written by my colleague, Alyssa Rosenberg on her Act Four blog. Alyssa is a book reader, and between the two of us, we more than have you covered. You’ll find more of a play-by-play here, she’ll do more of the analysis there. Here’s her review: “The Watchers on The Wall" and the horrors they see]

The episode begins with Sam asking Jon about his former and only lover, Ygritte. Sam wants to know what it was like to love someone and be loved back. Sam’s intentions seem mostly pure, but this is a sex talk. When pressed for details, Jon tells Sam, “I don’t know — I’m not a bleeding poet.”

A similar conversation is taking place just beyond The Wall, where Tormund (he’s the red beard one) is talking about some free folk free love. Ygritte is focused on gathering arrows to shoot at crows and providing just a hint of backstory on why there is this centuries-old beef between the people on the two different sides of The Wall. (It’s not much of an explanation — basically “they put up a Wall and started hunting us.”) But that mean Thenn quickly calls her out for leaving Jon Snow alive. Then there’s some good old-fashioned Thenn sexual harassment (#YesAllWildlingWomen) but Ygritte is not intimidated. “Jon Snow is mine. Anyone else tries to kill him and I’ll have an arrow for them,” she says.

Back at The Wall, Sam is in the library reading some ancient tome, “Disgusting Things the Wildlings Will Do to You After Killing You,” or something like that. Maester Aemon finds Sam and they share a moment. He reminds Sam of his royal heritage and commiserates with Sam when it comes to unfulfilled love. “Nothing makes the past as sweet a place to visit as the prospect of imminent death,” he tells Sam.

John Bradley and Kit Harington. (Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO)

But forget about the past. Sam hears a familiar voice shouting at the gate, and there’s Gilly. She’s alive and well, with Little Sam, the lone survivor of the Mole’s Town massacre, thanks to Ygritte’s mercy. Sam assures her he’ll never leave her side again. But now it’s time to do whatever possible to fortify Castle Black against the oncoming assault. It’s the usual — lots of long wooden planks, arrows, catapults, barrels. Always with the barrels. Seeing the massive fire (promised by Mance Rayder as a sign of attack) in the distance, Ser Alliser Thorne admits to Jon (his favorite whipping boy) that Jon’s idea to seal the tunnel would have been best. Sam takes Gilly into a room where she can stay safe during the upcoming assault, but Gilly wants him to stay with her. Sam has to keep his promise to defend The Wall. “That’s what men do,” he says, before kissing Gilly for the first time. He lives her with a promise: “I promise you I won’t die.” Remember how well a similar promise worked out for Oberyn last week?

Sam’s confidence continues to show as he coaches poor little Pip (has there ever been another kind of Pip?) through the beginnings of the siege. “When you’re nothing at all, there’s no reason to be afraid,” Sam says, sorta/kinda paraphrasing Bob Dylan. As the attack begins, we see what the small army at Castle Black is up against — lots of free folk, plus a handful of giants and a mammoth. Flaming arrows shot from the castle make a bit of a dent, as do the barrels dropped from a few hundred feet up. But let’s be real — barrels versus giants. Don’t like those odds. Ser Alliser finally turns into an inspiring leader, giving a solid B+ rah-rah speech before drawing his sword and going into battle.

As the fighting continues, here are the highlights: One of those giants shoots an arrow that knocks a poor Knight’s Watchmen halfway to Winterfell. (This begs the question — why not just have the giants shoot more of those nuclear arrows? A few dozen of those and The Wall is theirs.) The Thenns kill lots of people in very graphic ways. Ygritte shoots Pip in the neck with an arrow. Sam tells Pip he’s all right, but the blood pouring from his neck and his gurgling speech would say otherwise. (RIP, Pip.) One of the giants hooks a mammoth up to the famously-secure gate with 4-inch thick iron, and makes the mammoth pull! Pull! Pull! Like he’s in a Ford F-150 commercial or something. Jon tells Grenn he must hold the gate. Sam shoots a Thenn in the face with a crossbow. A fire barrel is dropped on that gate-pulling mammoth, sending the big guy scurrying away. His giant handler gets angry and sets about lifting the gate himself.

Kit Harington and Yuri Kolokolnikov. (Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO)

More fighting? More fighting. Ser Alliser gets slashed by Tormund, which leaves Jon as the de facto leader. He orders a massive arrow attack (seems like a pretty obvious move, honestly) before jumping into the fray. Sam frees Ghost, Jon’s direwolf, who gets into the killing spirit, but then lingers to eat some Thenn neck. No time for snacks, Ghost, there are more invaders to fight off. The giant manages to lift the gate, and charges at Grenn and his handful of friends like Refrigerator Perry in the 1986 Super Bowl. Jon kills that one Thenn that we know as That One Thenn.

Rose Leslie. (Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO)

It all leads up to the inevitable confrontation — Ygritte drawing an arrow on Jon. She has a clear shot but doesn’t take it. But who does have a clear shot? That little kid who has been living at The Wall ever since the Thenns killed his parents. He’s got pretty good aim for a peasant boy and gets Ygritte right through the heart. As people slash at each other’s throats all around, Jon cradles Ygritte during her last moments. “Remember that cave?” she asks him, referring to the place where they shared their most intimate moments together. “We should go back there.” In an episode filled with special effects and extras getting slaughtered, this was the key moment. One of the reasons The Wall/North of The Wall storyline has never been too interesting is because of its lack of complication. There are good guys and bad guys and the lines between the two are clear. The Ygritte/Jon relationship deviated from that. In a show filled with unlikely and doomed romances, theirs was in many ways the most simple and classic (falling in love across feuding factions, not exactly novel) but that’s also what made it so effective.

The defenders of Castle Black win the night by literally slicing off every Wildling scaling The Wall with some giant knife contraption. Nice to have that one in their back pocket. It’s enough to survive for now, but Jon warns that they are still outnumbered 1,000 to 1 and Mance was just testing their defenses. More aftermath: Tormund is taken as prisoner. Sam returns to Gilly, feeling more like a man than ever before. Jon finds Grenn and his fellow defenders of the gate all dead, but they fulfilled their mission. But this is far from a decisive victory. Jon says Mance has more giants and more mammoths. “They’ll hit us again tonight,” he says. So all of that just delayed things for another 24 hours? Jon’s new mission is to go find Mance and kill him, thinking that without their great uniter, the various sects of free folk would fight each other instead of keeping their focus on making it to The Wall. Jon walks through the gate, beyond The Wall, heartbroken but on a mission.


Episode 8: “The Mountain and the Viper” and a sight we won’t soon forget

Episode 7: A masterful “Mockingbird” (Look at her fly)

Episode 6: Tyrion stands trial in “The Laws of Gods and the Laws of Men”

Episode 5: “First of His Name” and a more decent Westeros

Episode 4: Justice is just another word for revenge

Episode 3: The first piece in a murder mystery

Episode 2: Weddings … am I right?

Episode 1: “The Lannisters aren’t the only ones who pay their debts.”

Episode 8: “The Mountain and the Viper” and the meaning of love (Act Four review)

Episode 7: “Mockingbird” and other relics of childhood (Act Four review)

Episode 6: Do “The Laws of Gods and Men” actually matter? (Act Four review)

Episode 5: “First of His Name,” first of hers (Act Four review)

Episode 4: Oathkeeper and broken vows (Act Four review)

Episode 3: Breaker of chains, breaker of will (Act Four review)

Episode 2: The lion, the rose and the cruelty of Westeros (Act Four review)

 Episode 1: Two Swords and even more dangerous stories (Act Four review)