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For one episode, Game Of Thrones let one of its most unpleasant characters be the hero

Illustration for article titled For one episode, Game Of Thrones let one of its most unpleasant characters be the hero
Screenshot: Game Of Thrones

Month of Thrones

We’re counting down to Game Of Thrones’ final season by distilling the fantasy epic to 30 essential moments. This is Month Of Thrones.

The moment

The Battle Of Castle Black

The episode

“The Watchers On The Wall” (season four, episode 9)

It’s hard to discuss “The Watchers On The Wall” without touching on season two’s “Blackwater.” Both depict climactic battles, both share a director in The Descent’s Neil Marshall, and both unfold with the kind of sprawl—in action and extras—that’s typically reserved for Hollywood. The Castle Black siege was as ballyhooed as Blackwater’s seaside skirmish in the months leading up to its unveiling, but many found it a letdown.


It satisfies on a surface level—the storytelling is clear, the pacing brisk, and the action thrilling—and even finds some visual ingenuity in the dreary towers of Castle Black, like the ice-shredding scythe that annihilates any wildlings scaling the wall. What the battle lacks, though, are the character beats of “Blackwater,” an episode that interspersed its clanging axes and wildfire with profound turns for Tyrion, Sansa, Cersei, Stannis, and a number of other major characters. Here, all we have is Jon Snow, who, at this point, is a total drag—sorry, Kit—and Sam, who, despite John Bradley’s endearing performance, simply doesn’t have the underdog charisma of Peter Dinklage. Rose Leslie remains compelling as Ygritte, but her relative absence this season goes a long way in nullifying the emotional impact of her death. She and Jon haven’t seen each other in nine episodes, and a blood-choked “you know nothing” isn’t enough to stir up their stale connection.

As such, writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were forced to draw upon Castle Black’s deep bench of supporting characters, from the reluctant Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton) to pint-sized Olly (Brenock O’Connor) to Grenn (Mark Stanley), who, in one of the episode’s best moments, dies when facing down a giant at the castle’s gate. Others die, too (farewell, Pyp!), while others, like Edd, level up. And then there’s Olly, whose march towards treachery ostensibly begins in this storm of arrows.

The real MVP here, though, is Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale), the Castle Black master-at-arms, who, across four seasons, cemented himself as, well, just a real goddamned jerk. A weaker show would’ve sent him the way of the cowardly Janos Slynt once things got hairy, but, in a refreshing commitment to character, it allowed battle to bring out the long-dormant warrior inside the old, broken man. “Brothers, a hundred generations have defended this castle. We’ve never fallen before. She will not fall tonight,” he rallies. “Tonight we fight! And when the sun rises, I promise you, Castle Black will stand! The Night’s Watch will stand! With me, now! Now, with me!”

That’s some inspirational shit right there, and his zeal propels his sword (and those of his charges) through several thenns before Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) cuts him down. It’s a bold, cathartic moment for the character, one that speaks volumes about his past, his collapse, and his bitterness. It also makes his eventual treachery and execution at the hands of Jon more complicated than we’d like. There’s plenty of evil people in Westeros, but, like it or not, Thorne isn’t one of them.


What we said then

From the experts recap: “For an episode positioned and structured like a major moment in the season’s story, ‘The Watchers On The Wall’ ultimately fails to tell anything like a complete story or even suggest what the complete version of this story might look like. It’s an intentional monolith, but it’s one that doesn’t realize just having mammoths and giants trying to burst through a gate isn’t enough to make for great TV.”


Elsewhere in the episode

Sam is lonely and would like Jon to know that, though taking the black forbids marriage and children, that doesn’t necessarily mean sex is off the table. Yes, Sam is horny, and even more so after realizing Gilly is still alive. He hides her and her baby in a pantry and, after chatting with Jon about manhood and courage, plants a big kiss on the one-time bride of Craster. Sam also gets an earful from Maester Aemon about all the tail he used to get, not to mention the revelation that the old man is a Targaryen.


Previously: Oberyn vs. The Mountain

Next: Tyrion kills Tywin with a crossbow


Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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