**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! READ ONLY IF YOU HAVE WATCHED EPISODE 9**
“How do 102 men stop 100,000?,” Jon Snow (Kit Harington) asks his brother Crows. Season 4 Episode 9, “The Watchers on the Wall” answers that very question in an episode that is as awesome and exciting as it is heart breaking and powerful.
If “Game of Thrones” was the NBA, the Wall would be the Staples Center and the Battle of Castle Black would be the 2000 Western Conference Final, Game 7, Lakers vs Portland Trailblazers when the Lakers came back from a 15-point deficit to win the game during the Fourth Quarter, thanks to a Kobe-to-Shaq (Sam Tully-to-Jon Snow) alley-oop. The only difference: the Wildling giants looked like this guy and the Lakers giants looks like this guy. If you don’t understand this comparison, read on. The joke ends here.
Season 4 Episode 9 of “Game of Thrones” brings us the battle we’ve been anticipating for four years: the Battle of Castle Black. In this single-location episode, directed by Neil Marshall, the Night’s Watch, which boasts a whopping 102 Crows, faces off against Mance Rayder’s (Ciaréan Hinds) army of 100,000 Wildlings in an episode that lives up to all it promised to be, and more.
But the battle does not consume the entire episode, only the latter half. The first twenty-or-so minutes follow the Crows (the men of the Night’s Watch) and Wildlings (their Northern enemies) as they prepare, each in their own way, for their imminent deaths and the battle approaching. The Crows load their arrows and discuss their fear of dying. The Wildlings sharpen their weapons and try to out-macho each other by telling stories about killing and sexing bears. (Wildlings –They’re Just Like Us!)
And then the battle begins: the Wildlings breach the southern gates of Castle Black as Mance Rayder’s army heads in. For the next thirty minutes, an unbelievable battle takes place on two-fronts: the southern and northern gates of Castle Black. Giants on wooly mammoths lead Mance’s army as 100,000 Wildlings begin the long climb up the side of the Wall. The usual battle surprises are employed: Crows drop bombs made from burning oil on the Wildlings and use a massive anchor-type device to knock climbers from the Wall. Scores of Wildlings and Crows are killed, heads are bashed in with hammers and men are decapitated with a single swing of a Wildling axe. By morning, the battle is over; the Crows have pushed back Mance’s army, the only giant to breach the walls is defeated by a gang of six crows and the Wildlings who breach the walls are all killed, save the giant redheaded bear-fucker Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) who is taken captive.
The Battle of Castle Black is, without doubt, the biggest production and the most extensive work of the entire series: the set-design and CGI-work are mind boggling; the acting is emotive and powerful; the suspense is captivating; and the camera-work is cinematic. The episode is reminiscent of your little brother’s favorite video game and some of the best battle scenes in movie history: the Battle of Thermopylae in “300” and the Battle of Helms Deep in “Lord of the Rings” to name only two.
But the real climax of the episode does not happen until nearly the end, when Jon and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) are reunited in the courtyard of Castle Black. Unarmed, Jon stands in front of Ygritte—her loaded bow pointed right at his heart. Ygritte hesitates, Jon smiles and then BAM, Ygritte is hit in the back with an arrow shot by an unexpected hero, the little boy who pulls the lever on the Wall’s only roller coaster. Dying in Jon’s arms, Ygritte delivers the most heartbreaking last words spoken in the series yet. “Do you remember that cave?” Ygritte asks Jon. “We should have stayed in that cave.” Signing off with her signature “You know nothing Jon Snow,” Ygritte dies.
What’s most tragic about Ygritte’s demise, however, is not her death. Should the Wall triumph, Ygritte’s end was guaranteed. Rather, what is most tragic is the obscurity of Ygritte’s intentions. It is not clear whether or not Ygritte actually intended to kill Jon and earlier hesitations and insistence that she be the one to take the kill, perhaps, reveal that Ygritte actually intended to protect him.
“Love is the death of duty” Aemon tells Sam in the library when discussing Sam’s relationship with Gilly. The same is true for Ygritte and Jon. With Ygritte’s death, Jon’s duty can resume. He removes his sword and heads out into the Northern tundra on his own to kill Mance Rayder. “The Wildling army is only an army because of Mance” Jon tells Sam. “Without Mance they lose their leader; they lose their purpose. They go back to fighting each other.” G’luck with that dude! Don’t think you can smile your way out of this one!
The gravity of this episode continues the tradition of all penultimate episodes of “Game of Thrones.” Remember Ned Stark’s death in Season 1? Or the Battle of Blackwater in Season 2? Or the Red Wedding in Season 3? Throughout the series, the second-to-last episode has continually been one of the most important and there is plenty in common between Episode 9 and the others, specifically the last Marshall-directed penultimate episode, “Blackwater” in Season 2.
There are a lot of similarities between the Battle of Castle Black and Season 2’s Battle of Blackwater. Stylistically, director Neil Marshall works in the perfect amount of action and gore characteristic of nearly every “Game of Thrones” episode with the animation and camerawork of your little brother’s favorite video game. During the Battle of Blackwater, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) carried the episode with his brilliant acting and general awesomeness. While John Bradley-West, who plays Jon Snow’s bro-love-interest Samwell Tarly, is no Peter Dinklage, his kind persona and headstrong loyalty to the Watch carry the episode through the non-stop gore and aggression. Tarley’s gentleness add brief yet important moments of respite from the chaos amassing at the gates of the Wall—whether he is discussing sex with his bro-friend Jon Snow (think Oz and Jim from “American Pie” discussing “third base“), snagging his first kiss from Gilly (Hannah Murray) or discussing lost-love and loyalty with Aemon Targaryen (Peter Vaughan).
An important difference between the penultimate episode of Season 2 and Season 4 is the anticipation: the Battle of Blackwater had a season to build-up tensions and expectancy for an epic showdown and Marshall more than delivered. The Battle of Castle Black, however, marks the peak of a four season-long build-up. Thankfully, the episode more-than lives up to the hype.
In anticipation of Jon’s journey to kill Mance Rayder, let us all join hands and recite the Oath of the Night’s Watch: “Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”