It’s wall-to-wall Wall action this week, with Jon Snow ‘n’ Pals finally facing Mance Rayder’s United Army of Free Folk. There’s not actually a lot of story to tell (or recap) to be honest. It is, however, visually a stunning episode, reminiscent of S02E09’s “Blackwater”. On the plus side, it’s fast-paced and packed with fierce battling and derring-do, but on the bigger minus side, the cliff-hanger ending was beyond vexing in a way I can’t elaborate on without massive spoilers for possibly the last episode or maybe even next year. This is the crux of my beef: the Wall’s storyline has been moving glacially all season and even with an entire show dedicated to this story arc, where things happen loudly and bloodily, the end is unsatisfyingly vague and it’s just not good enough, dammit!

Jon and Sam are pulling night shift atop the Wall on a cold and miserable evening. Sam returns to his favourite topic of conversation (Doing It), treating Jon as sexpert since he’s done the nasty in the past-y. Unlike previous “What’s it like then?” exchanges, this time he’s more focused on the love side of the deed. Jon isn’t a bloody poet, so all he can offer are some vague comments about closeness and being wholly wrapped up in another person. Sam’s still pining over presumed-dead Gilly and Jon’s also pining over going-to-die-if-things-go-well Ygritte; neither is in the greatest state of mind for guard duty. Jon sends Sam away to get either get some sleep or go mope elsewhere.

Outside Castle Black, the wildling talk is also sensual in nature, though Ygritte’s tired of hearing the same yarn about how Tormund didn’t fuck a bear for the bajilliontieth time. Her bloodlust is high for her traitorous lover, and no amount of taunting from Styr bothers her. She’s determined to kill Jon and as many Crows as possible, and take back the Free Folk’s rightful land. In the background, a shadow carrying a baby scurries past.

Sam decided to sulk in the library and read more about wildlings, possibly to convince himself that Gilly’s of tough stock and survived the attack on Mole’s Town. Maester Aemon shuffles in to chastise him for wasting candles, and the two have a brief tête-à-tête. Sam protests (weakly) that he’s not in love with Gilly, and Aemon rightly calls bullshit. Sam’s like a broken record: he wants to know what love is, he wants you to show it, he wants to feel what love is, etc . The Targaryen king that never was nearly gets to reminisce on the girl who almost stole his heart but is shut off in general disgust, because old people are gross to the young. Nobody’s communicating very well, though with what’s to come the best way to communicate is via sharp objects to the vitals, so never mind.

As Sam heads back to his bed, he hears Gilly shouting to be let in. From here on, this isn’t the Samwell Tarly we’ve come to know: there’s no way he is going to lose her again, and he bellows to open the fucking gate. For a short, sweet moment, Westeros’s most unlikely family is reunited. Then two blasts of a horn signal an attack, and everything falls apart.

Jon looks out to see a lake of fire: thousands upon thousands of enemies bearing torches and fiery arrows. Ser Alliser admits he fucked up big time, and they should have sealed the gate when they had the chance, but Jon can’t bring himself to say “I told you so” because, well, 100,000 heavily armed wildlings.

Despite her protestations, Sam locks Gilly away. She’s understandably terrified; the massacre she narrowly escaped and which is assuredly still searing her retinas naturally means she begs him to hide with her. The days of craven, simpering Sam are over; he’s clearly still bricking it but with a difference in that the lives of people he loves are on the line. He departs after a fairly chaste kiss and a promise not to die, because he’s unaware whose story he’s living in.

He and Pyp try to gee themselves up for the attack. Poor Pyp – unlike many of the boys sent to the Wall as punishment, he was a singer who rebuffed a highborn’s sexual advances and has virtually no real experience fighting with dangerous weaponry. Sam tries to boost his confidence by saying that they’re all scared and that he was only able to kill the White Walker because he was protecting Gilly and the baby and that when you’re nothing, there’s nothing to be scared of. Now that he is something, he’s still scared but not so cowardly.

It’s time for the attack. There’s a superbly stylish, almost majestic pan of the rag-tag army before they launch towards Castle Black, merrily shouting and banging metal while giants ride mammoths. Ser Alliser goes all Malcolm Tucker when Grenn drops a barrel of oil prematurely and archers nock and draw instead of holding. Ygritte’s getting loads of shots in, and soon the southern gate is under attack. Alliser leaves the Wall in the hands of Slynt to defend it. Almost immediately, Slynt bottles it – heading up the Gold Cloaks and protecting King’s Landing from itself has nothing on thousands of screaming wildlings. There’s no such thing as giants, buddy – not even that one you can see with your own beady eyes.

Jon takes over leadership by default while the melee continues. A series of unfortunate deaths play out – flame-engulfed arrows to the chest; a giant’s arrow, the thrust of which knocks the man through the air to be impaled again on a spike; slit throats, beheadings; yadda yadda yadda. At one point the action barges into the kitchen for some more fun ways to be maimed. The Thenn-orphaned kid (whose name is apparently Olly) who was hanging around because Reasons is scarred anew at all the bloodshed. Instead of going to defend the southern gate, Slynt skulks away to hide and is confronted with a silently judging Gilly. Sam and Pyp continue their crossbow defence, but Ygritte gets Pyp in the neck.

The giants and mammoths set at the outer gates, ducking exploding barrels of oil. Jon thinks of the inner gate, and sends Grenn and some other brothers to hold it. And by “hold it” he means “die holding it” – there’s no way he thought he was doing anything other than sending them to their deaths. I almost wanted Grenn to refuse, to challenge his authority since no one elected Jon leader. Then again, with no one to defend the inner gate, it would be curtains for Castle Black. So they go, and the look that is exchanged is brief but probably the most powerful moment in the entire show.

Some nifty swordwork from Tormund and Ser Alliser at the southern gate. Alliser falls, which is hard to get worked up about seeing as how I’ve always been rooting for Team Giantsbane. Sam holds a dying Pyp and soothes him with sweet lies about how Maester Aemon will be able to save him as he gurgles to death on his own blood. By now everyone has pretty much realised Jon’s in charge and is happy to take commands from him. Olly is still hanging around PTSDly, so Sam instructs him to get the winch-lift started and wait for the signal, also to grab a weapon. Olly does this and finds Chekhov’s bow.

The outer gate is getting a fair old bashing. Things are going just about as badly as they can for the Crows, and as Jon and Sam assess the damage from atop the Wall, Jon hands Sam a key, telling him “I need him more than I need you”, “him” meaning Ghost, who happily sets at the first wildling he sees. One of the giants is killed and the mammoth bolts, but the other giant needs revenge and has at the gate with his bare hands. Grenn and the others face him down, chanting their vows as they make their final, fatal stand. And now their watch is done.

Ygritte spies Jon and makes to kill him…but of course she has to pause for some harsh words first. Jon’s all shaky from having plunged an axe in Styr’s head after a brief tussle. He actually smiles for a split second, seeing Ygritte in all her glorious, beautiful rage – and then of course the smile vanishes when Olly kills Ygritte, the wildling who spared a mother and her baby, with an arrow to the chest. She’s got just enough breath left to lay on an “I told you so” about the hot spring caves where they first bumped uglies. Jon also attempts some lying-to-the-dying “No, you’re fine, it’s all grand, we’ll go to Bognor, etc.,” as she expires, murmuring (of course) “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Jon’s man-pain just keeps on coming.

Climbers on the Wall are treated to a nifty, deadly effect – a big old scythe that smashes into them, then rakes them across the surface. That’s the final big fancy bit of CGI and the last straw on the only slightly reduced army, and they retreat, but there are still 1,000 of them for every Crow, so the fighting’s far from over.

Sam returns to Gilly, and sees Slynt, still hiding. No words are exchanged. Day breaks and we’ve returned to Jon and Sam, miserable and tired, coming full circle to the start of the show. They pass Grenn and the other dead brothers, who did indeed hold the inner gate. Jon’s going to attempt a parlay with Mance, since there’s no way Castle Black can hold them off any longer. Sam tries to talk reason into Jon, knowing he’s in for nothing but torture and eventual death. Jon agrees but he’s tried nothing and now he’s all out of ideas. He leaves Longclaw with Sam because he promised Lord Mormont he wouldn’t lose it again, and then offskis and this SO did not end the way it did in the book. For the most part, this is fine but this time I need closure, dammit. DISAPPOINTED! 5/10

Sexy, Important Thoughts:

  • “Yes, well I’m not nothing anymore” – got something in my eye, Sam.
  • “Castle Black will stand! The Nightswatch will stand! –> gate immediately crashes.
  • Please tell me I wasn’t alone in wanting to laugh and punch the air when Styr brained Jon Snow on an anvil.
  • Much like how I never realised how much I liked Oberyn until I saw his head crushed like a grape, I never realised how much I liked Grenn till he too died defending those he loved. Also those other dudes, but it’s hard to get worked up about them, mainly because I don’t recall who they were or their names.
  • I’m still so genuinely moved by the Grenn scene that I’m tempted to write a short AU fanfic where he survives and is struggling with PTSD. This is probably influenced by the fact that I’m reading Day by AL Kennedy which is about a WWII tail-gunner who can’t quite believe he’s alive and his comrades are not.
  • Finale next week, so there’s still time for the thing I thought would happen this week to happen, but probably not.