First, apologies for the late blog. I’ve just relocated to a new city and only just got internet access tonight. Next week’s finale blog will be up early the morning after the episode airs. I am sure there will be lots to discuss…
For the penultimate episode of the season the showrunners chose to focus on a single story arc: the Wildings’ assault on Castle Black and The Wall. This has been done before, notably Season 2’s Battle of the Blackwater. The difference here is that the assault on King’s Landing was gripping in part because it involved many of our favorite characters. And the Battle for the Wall really does not. Sure, everyone loves Jon Snow. I’m sure Sam has his fans (more on that in a bit). Ygritte probably has a disturbing number of admirers. But beyond that, it’s a whole slew of people we don’t know and a bunch of people we don’t care about. I mean, we don’t even love to hate them. And the ones we DO despise were treated so oddly (what was up with the quasi-satire bits with Janos Slynt?!). But beyond that, everything the show got right -- including some good action sequences -- was rendered almost moot by the colossal dropped ball that was the ending.
In terms of the plot, it was pretty simple: after talking about it since literally Season 2, the Wildlings finally got around to attacking The Wall and Castle Black in an effort to wipe out the Night’s Watch. The attack came from two sides. North of the Wall a massive army led by Mance Rayder -- who has not been seen once this season -- swarmed en masse, notably deploying both giants and mastodons in an attempt to breach the tunnels that go through the Wall. South of the Wall, the smaller band of Wildlings that crossed over in Season 3, including Ygritte, Jormund Giantsbane, and the Thenns, attacked Castle Black in the hopes of throwing the gates wide open for their comrades beyond the Wall. Fighting ensued, there were countless casualties on both sides, but ultimately the Watch came out on top and…I’m honestly not really sure why. There were several key battles, one of which was notably resolved off screen, but the tide shifted awfully quickly and without much explanation from where I was sitting.
At this point there have been so many changes from the book that it’s hard to know where to start comparing the two narratives. But there are a few key things left out that I think are worth mentioning. First, the show has done a poor job explaining why the Wildlings are attacking the Wall. This was brought up back when we were first getting to know those characters, but it’s not solely that they hate the Night’s Watch and they want to infiltrate Westeros proper. They are scared as hell of The Others, and that plot point hasn’t been mentioned in quite some time. Second, in the books there was a reason that the Wildling army was gathered so far north of the Wall. It was looking for something, which it found: the Horn of Winter, an ancient magical artifact that allegedly could bring down the entire Wall if blown. (The Wall was built with powerful magic; it’s not just Planetos’s largest, laziest ice sculpture.)
That horn, which the Night’s Watch knew the Wildlings had, gave this battle a whole different intensity in the books. Because at any time the Watch knew the Wildlings could blow it, and it could possibly bring the Wall crashing down around them. The show still gave the battle some high stakes, as there was a period where the Watch seemed hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned -- the incompetence of the Watchers was on full display here. But then it all turned rather quickly in a way that felt totally unbelievable to me.
The key victories in this version seemed to be the death of the lead Thenn at the hands of Jon Snow (or rather the smithing hammer wilded by Jon), the death of Ygritte at the hand of that poor kid adopted by the Watch after his village was sacked, the defeat and imprisonment of Jormund, and most importantly, the defeat of a giant in the tunnel by Grenn and a handful of other Watchmen.
So, first, that giant battle? All off screen. So disappointing. I understand that the show has limited resources, and what we saw of the giants and mastodons was impressive. But the safeguarding of the tunnels was such a crucial part of that battle, and the sacrifice of Grenn and the other Watchmen was so noble, that it’s really a crime that we didn’t get to see it actually happen. (Although the build up to it, with Grenn rallying them with the oath, was quite moving.) Beyond that, it was a totally different character who did this in the books, not Grenn, and I’m pissed on a personal level that hot, burly Grenn has been axed (possibly literally -- we have no idea how the giant killed him) just so viewers have someone they know/care about killed. (See also: Pip, who got an arrow in the neck.)
I realize I’m bitching pretty heavily, which isn’t entirely fair. The episode did quite a few things right. There were some impressive sequences. I loved the giant shooting the arrow, which in turn transformed its target into a projectile. I loved the anchor/pendulum thing. I liked the choreography in Jon’s fight with the Thenn. But there were some very odd decisions this episode that took a plotline most viewers were already bored with (at least via my informal polling) and made this even much less satisfying than it should have been.
Speaking of which, let’s pull back and discuss the non-fighting sections. At this point I’m going to call it: I don’t care for the show’s depiction of Sam. Or at least, I don’t care at all for his interactions with Gillie. I can’t decide if it’s the actors or the writing or the chemistry or what, but the two of them are beyond boring together. And truly, that spread to most of Sam’s other interactions this episode. My fear is that one of the points of this episode was to prepare the viewers for more Sam on his own, not as a Jon sidekick. In the books this is around the time where he goes on a very different path. I am unconvinced that John Bradley is compelling enough to act as the anchor of Sam’s arc. I didn’t have the problems with Sam in the books that I do with Sam on the show. Specifically, that I find him boring and at times even unlikable.
As for Jon Snow, that brings us back to the ending of the battle/episode, which was barely an ending at all. The Night’s Watch defeated the Wildings, at least for now. Hooray! But there is a dearth of leadership (did Alliser Thorne die? I saw him badly wounded, but did he die?), and so Jon takes it upon himself to go beyond the Wall without his sword OR his direwolf so that he can treat with Mance Rayder alone. That…makes absolutely no sense. None whatsoever. First, Mance knows that Jon cannot be trusted at this point. He betrayed him once. He won’t listen to him again. Second, Mance still has the advantage here. Yes, the Watch turned back the Wilding army once, but the Watch just took heavy casualties and just ONE giant nearly got through the tunnels. Imagine what would happen if Mance sent a whole squad of them. Especially after he killed Jon Snow, who is apparently looking to saunter into Mance’s camp unarmed. It just doesn’t make any sense.
And that’s because it never happened in the books. That ending? Jon going out alone into the sun and snowfields? Nope. Not at the end of Book 3, at least. Something major -- a critical plotpoint in the books -- instead intervenes in the Battle for the Wall and turns the tide. There’s no question why the Wildlings lost that showdown in the books, and Jon is suddenly put into a very different place. I think that situation HAS to happen in the show, and I guess they’re either going to do it next episode or next season. (I hope it’s not next episode; there are SO MANY story arcs they have to work on, and after this episode, I am officially over the Night’s Watch/Wildlings shit for a while.) So I’m not going to go into what that was now. But suffice it to say, it makes a hell of lot more sense narratively than just, “Oh, hey, suddenly we are winning! Jon, go talk to ManceRayder, since Ciaran Hinds will probably be on contract next season.”
Next: So very many things need to happen in the season finale that I wonder how there can possibly be time for them all. Answer: there isn’t, and several major plot points are going to languish until Season 5. But there will almost certainly be several moments that will leave people shitting their pants. In one case literally.