In the first three seasons, the 9th episode has been the episode when epic things have occurred. In 2011, the episode (S1E09) was titled "Baelor" and Lord Eddard Stark was suddenly beheaded, killing off what to that point seemed to be one of the main protagonists of the show. In 2012, the episode (S2E09) was titled "Blackwater" and was the first time the show did not switch locales, but concentrated on "The Battle of the Blackwater" in King's Landing, with much pyrotechnics, both figurative and literal. In 2013, the episode (S3E09) was titled "The Rains of Castamere" after the theme song of the Lannister clan, and was the episode in which the Red Wedding occurred, one of the most harrowing 5 minutes in television history. Season 4 of Game of Thrones has already had (S4E02) "The Lion and the Rose" where Kin Joffrey Barratheon is murdered and (S4E08) "The Mountain and the Viper" with the shock ending of the trial by combat between Ser Sandor Clegane (i.e. The Mountain) and Prince Oberyn Martell (i.e. The Viper). So there was much anticipation about producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had in store for S4E09, which is clearly about one of the epic moments in A Song Of Ice and Fire, when the Night's Watch has to try and defend the Wall from the massive Wildling Army led by Mance Ryder, a former member of their order.
For only the second time in its 39-episode history, the show spends an entire episode at one location, this time it is at The Wall.
There were many highlights of this episode
- Kiss Between Sam and Gilly! This is a very large change from the books. In the books, Sam and Gilly are continually linked as Sam assigns himself the task of protecting Gilly and her baby, even if it requires that he leave his comfort zone of The Wall. However, there is never any sense of a romantic relationship between the two, even though there are hints that both parties would be receptive to the idea. Their unresolved romance is one of the key plots of the story.
- Jon Snow DOES Know Something After All. To me Ygritte was always something of an annoying character and her repeated recitations of "You know nothing, Jon Snow" became annoying rather quickly. I also think that either the actor or director were not clear in communicating to the audience what her motivations are: Does she hate or love Jon Snow? A bit of both? Instead of indecision, I think uncertainty and mixed messages were often the result. Anyway, her death scene with Jon and Jon's prowess at commanding the Brothers of the Night's Watch as well as his keen fighting kills were a high point of the episode for me.
- They Grow Them Big Out There! The other main highlight of the episode was the appearance of giants and mammoths. The visual effects here were extremely effective and the audience really got the impression that there was no way the Night's Watch could defend against such powerful beings. The mismatch was clear, but so was the fact that they are defending from a position of near impregnable strength since they are on top of a 600-foot wall of ice.
Nothing is perfect; even this classic episode had some flaws. The ones I think worth mentioning is:
- Where Was Stannis? In the books, Stannis Barratheon saves the day by showing up at the darkest moment of the battle for The Wall, serving as a hero for defending The Wall from the Wildling army and bolstering his claim to be worthy to sit on the Iron Throne by defending his subjects from the existential threat provided by The White Walkers and worse from North of the Wall instead of appearing to play the Game of Thrones. Many book readers were livid that Stannis did not make in appearance in this episode, giving more credence to the idea that Stannis' storyline has been deemphasized in the television adaptation. I'm agnostic about that position but I do think it would have been stronger to have Stannis appear now than in Episode 10 which will presumably be packed with other plot developments for our main characters.
Grade: 8/10 (B).
S4E09 basically failed to live up to its hype in comparison to the three previous seasons ninth episodes, although overall it was a fairly strong episode which contained some important plot developments for those characters whose arcs intersect with The Wall: Mainly Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly & Gilly.