Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 9 Recap: The Watchers on The Wall

Warning: what follows is a review and analysis of what happened on Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones. If you haven’t watched it and don’t want to encounter spoilers, I suggest you go read something else on this site. Consider yourself warned.


Sunday night’s episode was honed in on one territory, one story and one helluva battle as The Wildling army arrived at The Wall and prepared to overthrow Jon Snow and The Night’s Watch.

We’ve been building to this crescendo for weeks now — dating back to last season to be honest — and while you cook up an idea of how it will play out and what it will look like when giants and Thenns and Ygritte and Tormund crash through the gates and attack Castle Black, nothing could have prepared Game of Thrones followers for the epic battle (and incredible visuals) that last night’s episode delivered.

Even though the entire episode focused on this singular storyline — a GOT first that was executed to perfection — we’re still going to break things down into bite-sized pieces because there were little moments before the big moments that need to be addressed.

Here we go.

Sam and Gilly and Baby Sam Make Three

We started atop The Wall, with Sam asking Jon Snow what it was like to be with Ygritte, and after a quick, detail-free summation, Jon turns it back around on Sam, curious if he and Gilly had ever… you know. Sam indicates that they hadn’t because he has an oath to uphold and she never offered.

Later (read: after a different set-up scene we’ll get to momentarily), Gilly and Baby Sam arrive at the gates of Castle Black, pleading to be let in. Pip initially tries to keep her out, but Sam cusses him out and demands she be let in. The big softy is starting to assert himself a little more and it’s nice to see.

Sam ferries Gilly and the baby to a storage room, locking them away from the carnage that is surely on its way. Gilly asks Sam to stay with her, but he has is sworn to stand with his brothers, so he must go, but not before planting a kiss on the lips of his lady. As they retract from each other, Gilly makes him promise not to die.

Sharpening Arrows, Waiting for the Signal

Ygritte, Tormund, the Thenn leader and others sit around a fire waiting for the giant fire Mance promised to light when it was time to attack The Wall. When the big bald Thenn gets mouthy about Jon Snow, Ygritte and her lady-bits, the fiery redhead promises to stick an arrow in him and anyone else that tries to kill Jon Snow because she wants him to herself.

Before things can get crazy, the light of the fire appears on the horizon and the insurgency party breaks camp to get this battle underway.

Ready You Bastards & Thieves

Atop the wall, Alliser Thorne, Commander of the Night’s Watch, admits he was wrong about sealing the tunnel, but says the way being in command works is that you can never doubt yourself or else the battle is already lost. Even though he made a bad call, he’s not giving up, and rallies the troops to prepare for the enemies that are literally storming the gates and scaling the all.

Giants! Mammoths! Giants on Mammoths!

We’d heard there were giants. We’d heard there were mammoths. If you’ve watched the little season preview montage that starts every episode of Game of Thrones online, you’ve seen a giant running down a tunnel, but this reveal was still enough to take your breath away.

There is something very threatening about monstrous men riding colossal animals and that came across as you saw the giants trudge towards the wall on their mammoths. What made it all the more ominous was when the Giant Archer kneeled down next to the regular-sized Wildling archer and launched a giant-sized arrow into the air, through an unnamed member of the Night’s Watch and back about a bazillion feet before he crashed to the ground, dead as dead can be, in the middle of the battle being waged inside the gates of Castle Black.

It’s On

Honestly, this battle episode stands on par with some of the great battle sequences in cinematic history. It was outstanding — both large scale and epic and intimate and contained at the same time. For every piece where unknown Wildings and Night’s Watch traded blows and strategic moves, there were moments focused on the characters we knew were important.

Even though you were warned about spoilers at the outset, I say once again that if you don’t want to know what happened to the key characters from the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch, stop reading, because the details are coming…

Still with us? Great.

Jon Snow: Left in charge atop The Wall, he knows his place is down in the battle inside Castle Black, so he leaves another man in charge on The Wall and heads into the fray. He gets Sam to release Ghost, his dire wolf, and then battles it out with Styr, the Thenn leader, who gets the best of things right up until the point that Jon puts a hammer into his cranium.

Ygritte: Right as Jon breaks free of Styr, Ygritte has him dead to rights, but can’t release her arrow. She wavers. Jon smiles at her and then… THWIP! An arrow pierces her body. Ollie, the young lad who mans the elevator that shuttles brothers to and from the top of the wall, shoots her and gives Jon a “I got your back, dude!” wink, unaware that he’s just ended the life of the woman he loves.

They share a moment that may or may not have caused me to tear up. They reminisce about that cave and how they should have stayed there. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” says Ygritte with her last breath.

Alliser Thorne: Battling Tormund, he is sliced across the leg and carried into a tucked away chamber. We don’t see anything more of him and there is no “Oh yeah, he’s dead” conversation. Before his slicing, Ser Alliser was wrecking shop, leading by example.

Tormund Giantsbane: Speaking of the bearded Wildling wild man, he does his usual thing, killing every unknown opponent in his way, and lasts through to the very end. Surrounded and sporting several arrows in his back, Jon Snow tells him to stop, but Tormund won’t relent. Jon shoots him in the leg with a crossbow, then instructs that he be shackled. They’ll question him later.

Sam: After Pip dies in his arms, Sam manages to kill a Thenn with a crossbow, but the most important part is that he’s still alive. When he goes to retrieve Gilly from the pantry, she nearly smashes him with a hamhock. He smiles and says something about fulfilling his promise not to die, then discovers Janos Slynt, the second-in-command, cowering in the pantry, paralyzed with fear. Turns out he can talk a big fight game, but didn’t have the stomach for battling the Wildlings.

The Aftermath

The Night’s Watch have fended off the Wildlings… for now. As the man in charge atop The Wall says, “They still outnumber us 1000-to-1” and everyone knows they’ll be back, probably the very next night. So Jon Snow is going to try to do something about it.

He’s going to find Mance Rayder, believing that if he kills the “King of the Wildlings,” the army of 100 different tribes that he’s assembled with disband, return to fighting amongst themselves and the Night’s Watch will not have to continue fighting a battle of attrition that they are bound to lose.

Before he exits the gate, he gives Sam his sword, saying he promised never to lose it again. Worried about his brother, Sam tells Jon to be sure and come back.

Roll Credits!

My Thoughts

Superb. Simply superb. I could watch this episode a dozen times and find something new that I loved about it every time.

Cinematically, it was breathtaking. From an action standpoint, it was great to just kick back and watch a battle. From a character perspective, we’ve got some closure on a few stories (RIP Ygritte) and a solid “to be continued next season” point for this story to pause this year.

And we still have the finale next week.

The showrunners have said this season is different — that Episode 9 isn’t the blockbuster followed by a clunker in Episode 10, so I’m counting down the days, hours, and minutes until Season 4 comes to an end next Sunday.

Until then…

Tags: Game of Thrones, HBO

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