Tuesday, June 10, 2014

RECAP: Game of Thrones 4x09 - The Premise Finally Pays Off

This is it, guys. The buildup to the no doubt devastating finale. Very exciting. But more than that, I guess I’m still curious as to whether or not a blisteringly good ending to the season can make up for the raging awfulness that was the beginning. I don’t know if you remember (I haven’t reminded you in a couple of weeks, so…), but the first few episodes of the season featured a level of sexualized violence that made me uncomfortable. More than that. It made me super pissed off. Because it was unnecessary and gross and offensive and terrible writing.

But in the past couple of episodes, we’ve gotten past that a little bit. There’s been less of it, at least. You know, just a couple of characters getting sexually assaulted per episode. We’re down in the quotas. So I guess what I’m saying is that I still like Game of Thrones, and I would desperately like for this season to end without the degradation of any more characters. No rape, please. Please stop it with the rape. 

Also, I have to say, this is the episode where the premise of the show, what we've been waiting for freaking seasons to see, with the fantasy elements facing up against some brutally honest storytelling, finally comes to fruition. It's been a while coming, and I am very excited for this.

Okay, we can start now.

The episode begins with Jon and Sam at the top of the Wall, as per their punishment for speaking out against Ser Thorne at the last meeting of the Night’s Watch. It’s been interesting how while last season had Jon Snow on an adventure quest, this season has seen him battling bureaucracy and incompetent leadership. I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just a shift.

Sam and Jon are trying to make the time pass as they stand watch, and Sam figures that the best subject to bring up right now is Ygritte. Or, more importantly, what it was like to have sex with Ygritte. I mean, Sam needs something to think about while he’s up there, and he’s never actually had sex himself, so… While ordinarily I would find a conversation like this between two characters to be callous and annoying, here it’s a bit sweet. And besides, what Sam really wants to know is what it feels like to be loved.

Plus, while he and Gilly absolutely love each other, Gilly had just gone through labor and wasn’t really in the sexing mood. But what makes me love Sam here is that what he actually says is first a defense of how Gilly totally wasn’t down for it physically, but also, “She never offered.” Sam didn’t bring the subject up because he knew that Gilly, a victim of sexual abuse, had to be the one to initiate a sexual relationship. Which she didn’t. And he’s okay with that. Which is why we love Sam.

Jon, however, is still flagellating himself over his “breaking his vows” by having sex with Ygritte. He feels all dirty inside. But he shouldn’t because as Sam points out, they never actually vowed not to have sex. Just not to get married or have kids. Jon is a literalist and dislikes this. He also (rightly) points out that Ser Thorne doesn’t like it either. But he relents and agrees to describe sex to Sam. Badly and haltingly and it’s pretty hilarious how bad he is at talking about it. “I’m not a poet,” he tells Sam.

“No, you’re really not.”

Also there’s this super creepy owl watching them that…we transition away and see is controlled by a Warg in the Wildling camp. Oh joy. In the camp, the lead Wildling dude is telling a beautiful story about his one night with “Sheila”. Who is a bear. As Ygritte so succinctly puts it, “I know you never f*ed a bear. You know you never f*ed a bear. Right now, I don’t want to think about the bear you never f*ed.” Which is definitely going down as my all time favorite line from this show. It’s just so good.

But the point appears to be that soldiers on both sides of the skirmish are girding their loins for battle by thinking about homely comforts and sex and stuff. I guess that’s what’s going on. I don’t know. I’ve never been a man or tried to storm a medieval keep.

Ygritte gets a really interesting speech here about how the men from the South came there and put up a big wall and started hunting the Wildlings down - made them hunted in their own lands - and it’s interesting to think of the parallels with the plight of indigenous peoples all over the world. Of course, this would be more moving if all the Wildlings weren’t lilly white, but still.

One of the other Wildlings decides to be a dick about Ygritte’s fighting ability. Seriously? This was a plot point last season, about how the Wildlings fight all together, both men and women, and now we’re pulling this sexist crap? Ugh. Oh wait - he’s not insulting her fighting ability, he’s implying that she’s emotionally compromised because she loves Jon and he’ll be there, and she’s too much of a girl to be able to properly kill him. Nope, she’ll just get all gooey and then have sex with him.

I feel like these guys were written for the express purpose of making you hate the Wildlings. Which, again, bad writing. I can have complex feelings about this battle. I want to have complex feelings about this battle. Because the Wildlings are right, this is their land and the men from the South stole it from them. On the other hand, the Night’s Watch has a duty to make sure innocent people don’t die. It’s interesting. Stop trying to dumb it down for me.

Oh, and big mean Wildling guy implies he’s going to rape Ygritte. So we’re at seven minutes into the episode, and we have our first rape threat. Skippy. Meanwhile, a cloaked figure up on the hill holding a bundle sees the Wildlings all standing around their campfire and promptly goes the other way. So that wold be Gilly, then, right?

Maester Aemon is a sneaky old dude as he pops up to reprimand Sam for wasting candles and reading in the middle of the night. Please bear in mind that Aemon is blind and also the most effective character on the show. I mean, Aemon gets stuff done, even though he’s got to be pushing eighty. He also appreciates the irony of being a blind man in charge of a library. Anyway, Sam is reading up on the Wildlings, and Aemon is totally aware that Sam is in love with Gilly. He knows that because he was once in love. 

“You can imagine all manner of horrors befalling that poor girl and her child. Is it so difficult to imagine that an old person was once, more or less, like you?” Smackdown. Win goes to Maester Aemon who is awesome. Also, he points out that of course he has history with women. He was Aemon Targaryen before he became Maester Aemon of the Night’s Watch. He was first in line for the throne. As a sidenote, his abdication is what led to the rise of Aerys the Mad King, which led to the revolt and Robert’s rule, and that led to our current mess. So, you know, dangit Aemon!

Actually though, I appreciate this plot point for the way that it highlights the difficulty of decisions like that. Aemon really had no way to reasonably predict what would happen as a result of his actions. There is no way he could have known. And I like the ambiguity. It would be easy to blame Aemon for every horrible thing that has befallen Westeros in the last seventy years, but it would be wrong. History is much more complex than that.

Sam asks about this girl that Aemon loved, and Aemon has some wisdom to drop on his head, like usual. He could tell Sam about her - in a very true way, she’s more real to him than even Sam is - but there’s no real point in doing so now. Life is for the living, and as Aemon points out: “Nothing makes the past as sweet a place to visit than the prospect of imminent death.” I think Ygritte’s line about the bear is still my favorite, but this one just made a close second. Aemon sends Sam to bed.

He exits the building only to see that there’s a commotion at the gate and it’s…Gilly! Pip doesn’t want to let her in, but, you know, his love and respect for Sam outweigh his fear of Ser Thorne, which is yet another reason why Thorne is a terrible leader. He opens the gate. And then Sam and Gilly rush to each other and have this super tender and adorable reunion that doesn’t involve touching and Sam apologizes for leaving Gilly there, and Gilly begs not to be sent away again. Sam swears that from now on, wherever she goes, he goes too.

That is a very literal definition of breaking your vows, Sam. I mean, I’m okay with it, but it’s still breaking your vows. Just so you know. I’m sure you do. I think you just married that girl is all.

Handily, before we all have time to deal with this concept, and with Pip standing gobsmacked in the background, the horn sounds to say that the Wildlings are coming. The Warg agrees. He tells them that it’s time. The horn has sounded to say that the Wildlings are approaching from the North, and the small band will now approach from the South as well.

Awwwwww, yes. Battle time.

I’d describe what happens next in detail, but it’s mostly just medieval battle prep, and even I’m not that obsessive as to write out every line of that. Suffice it to say, they get ready, it’s very cool, and it’s telling that Jon Snow has his hands down in there, rolling barrels and getting dirty with the rest of the men while the commanders stand and watch and shout commands. Another point for Jon Snow as the eventual Lord Commander, eh?

Jon comes up to report to Ser Thorne. Tells him that they’ve loaded the last of the oil. They’re as ready as they will be. Thorne is looking out at the army, and he tells Jon that “You can say it if you like.” Presumably the ‘I told you so’ that every fan is screaming at the scene by now. But Jon’s classier than that. Again, reason why everyone loves Jon, except for people like Thorne who are threatened by him.

They haven’t sealed the tunnel. They’re screwed. And Thorne recognizes that, but he’s not going to admit defeat. He points out that leadership means making decisions and having everyone and their brother second guess you, while you try not to second guess yourself. So they’re going to make it, and Jon can go on hating Thorne, and Thorne can go on wishing Jon were dead. This is apparently the ideal situation we can hope for. Thanks, Thorne. Good speech.

Sam and Gilly race through the storehouses to find a place for Gilly to hide with the baby. But Gilly isn’t about to be left. She (validly, but unkindly) points out that Sam won’t be much use up there on the Wall, but he will be needed down there, with her. Keeping her safe. Again, who doesn’t love a conflict with valid points on both sides? But Sam believes in his duty. He might not care about the marriage vow, clearly, but he does care about the other ones. He needs to defend the Night’s Watch. Because “that’s what men do.” 

And then he kisses Gilly, and she makes him promise not to die, and it’s all very romantic. He promises, and then he locks her in.

More frantic battle prep. Pip is freaking the crap out. His hands are shaking and he doesn’t know what to do. Fortunately, Sam is there, and here is where he really shows his value as a Brother. He comforts Pip while building him up. Reminds him that they’re in the safest place they could be - a keep full of weapons! Anyway, it’s not like Sam isn’t afraid, he’s just dealing.

Pip has a valid question, though, one that hasn’t been addressed all season: If Sam was so afraid, which he was, how did he manage to kill a White Walker? Well, probably because he didn’t know he was going to be able to kill it, but he had to do something. He was so scared that he lost sense of all of who he was, and there was nothing left. And when there’s nothing left, there’s no reason to be afraid.

Damn. That’s a good speech. I need to remember that and then use it on someone who doesn’t watch the show. Memo to self.

He’s afraid now, because he’s “not nothing anymore.” Which is both sweet, and deeply sad.

Ygritte does a little recon on Castle Black from the Southern side. There’s almost no one there, because everyone is above getting ready to deal with the giant Wildling army. So they’re set to attack. So, they attack. The important bit here, though, is Ygritte’s face as the realization dawns on her that for all her talk of killing Jon Snow, now is when she’ll actually have to do it. It’s a lot easier to hate from afar, isn’t it?

More fight fight and battle battle and some really epic aerial shots that made me really engaged and excited and it’s hard to recap when you’re freaking stoked.

The Wildling army has giants, and a freaking woolly mammoth and I really want them to win, okay? I’m just saying, this would end the petty fights over who gets the crown of Westeros so efficiently.

Up on the Wall, Thorne demands the archers nock and draw their bows (flaming arrows, ftw), and one of the Brothers (forget his name) accidentally knocks a giant barrel of oil over onto the ground way below. Not a great start, is it? Even worse, the horn sounds to warn the men on the Wall that the Wildling scouts are also attacking. Nice. Thorne is having a great day. Fight fight, battle battle. Ygritte does not get hit. She actually fires back very efficiently.

Thorne sees how the battle is going below, and it’s like his brain just goes to mush. He hands over command of the Wall and decides to go down there. Does he realize that by so doing, he is basically handing the Night’s Watch to Jon on a platter? I kind of hope he does. It would make him a more interesting character. Anyway, the Watch fires on the giant army, and the army just steps out of range, because obviously. This is not going well.

Apparently their defense on the Southern gate is to just sort of drop rocks on people. 

Thorne reaches the bottom of the Wall and gives a stirring speech. I guess he’s okay at them, but mostly I like that while he’s speechifying, men are breaking in. Because there is no time for glorious speeches in a freaking battle, you twat. Man I love this show. You know, when it’s not needlessly sexualizing its female characters. Wildling dude breaks into the gatehouse, and Sam and Pip run the crap away. Stay alive, Sam and Pip! Stay alive! 

The army starts to move on the Wall to the North. The dude that Thorne left in charge up there goes promptly mental, so one of the men gently comes up to him and says that he’s needed below. And he toddles off, leaving Jon Snow, like we all knew was going to happen all season, in command on the Wall. Rock on. Everyone looks to him, and then Jon Snow does what he does best. He is angry at things.

He also has some bitchin’ plans. He lowers two archers on pulleys so that they’re parallel with the men climbing the wall and can pick them off. But then a giant with a bow screws things up. Still, giant archers? Thank you show for finally delivering on your fantasy premise.

More fight fighting and battle battling. It’s pretty brutal and great. Sorry, should I be reveling in this as much as I am? It’s just that for once there’s a really compelling and well shot battle on this show, and there is no overt or even implicit rape happening. That’s nice, isn’t it? And also deeply sad, because obvious reasons.

The Wildlings get into the living quarters of Castle Black. Also the commander dude from the Wall sneaks away, and makes his way into the room where Gilly is hiding. Balls. Sam and Pip make themselves useful, and then Ygritte shoots Pip in the throat and he dies horribly. Sam has to comfort Pip while he dies. It’s very sad, and touching and mostly sad.

The defenders on the Wall do some more defending, but it’s hard to fight against a giant and a mammoth trying to tear down your gate. Which they are. Very efficiently. So, you know, maybe Jon should get someone to kill the mammoth now? That would probably be a good idea.

Jon knows that the outer gate won’t hold, but the inner gate absolutely has to hold, and so he sends his friend, that one guy whose name I really wish in this moment I remembered, to take five men and hold that gate. It’s a suicide mission. But the gate has to hold. Guh. What I love most here is that his friend doesn’t even question it. He accepts Jon’s leadership, because Jon has proven his quality. So good.

On the ground, Thorne is doing a good job fighting and protecting the gate. He and the main Wildling have an epic fight. It’s very impressive and stuff. Sorry, I’m not very good at describing action. Then Thorne is mortally wounded and pulled inside the Keep.

Sam, meanwhile, is freaking the crap out because he’s covered with blood, and Pip is dead. But he’s still Sam. So he grabs a crossbow and makes his way into the battle. He kills the Warg, because he has to, and if there’s one thing you can say about Sam, it’s that when push comes to shove, he will absolutely do what he has to. He runs into the men going to defend the gate, and discovers that Jon is in command on the Wall. He has to get to the top. The boy who runs the elevator is scared crapless, but Sam encourages him, because that is his superpower.

Mammoth and giant continue to tear down gate. It is bad. Fortunately, some barrels of flaming oil help, and an arrow fells one of the giants. Then there’s an explosion up above, and men die on the Wall, and the other giant manages to start lifting the outer gate.

Sam reaches the top, and tells Jon what’s happened below. Jon decides to turn command over to Ed (one of the other Brothers we know reasonably but not very well), and goes down to fight. Ed gets the archers ready to fire. It’s all very fatalistic. The suicide squad reaches the inner gate. There is tension. I am tense.

The giant comes inside the tunnel, and the suicide squad starts to freak the crap out. But they recite the Night’s Watch pledge, and then they fight. 

Jon and Sam have a moment in the elevator going down, watching the battle below. Jon tells Sam that he doesn’t want him out there in the battle, and Sam gets all offended, like, ‘Hey, you can’t protect me forever! I am a grown man!’ But that’s not what Jon was getting at. He needs Sam to get “him” because “he” will be more useful in this fight. One long panning shot later, and we see that “he” is Ghost, Jon’s direwolf. That’s a valid point, then. Direwolf definitely useful here.

Jon fights the sexist jerk that Ygritte was arguing with earlier. She sees and has really conflicted feelings while she fires arrows at them. Jon appears to be losing his fight, but he’s holding his own. He wins the fight in a particularly icky way, but he’s really freaking banged up now. And Ygritte is standing at point blank range with an arrow aimed at his chest. Jon sort of smiles at her, like he’s accepted his fate and then - 

Ygritte gasps as she gets an arrow to the chest from behind. She’s been shot, by the kid who runs the elevator. Slow music, and Jon runs to her side, because he loves her etc. She tells him they should have never left that cave. And then she gets in one last, “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” before she dies all beautifully and stuff. It’s unrealistic, but I’ll let it pass.

The men climbing the Wall are making progress, so it’s time to “drop the scythe”. It’s a giant bladed pendulum. Handy. It looks like they have successfully defended the Wall. For tonight. But they’re still outnumbered a thousand to one. The chief Wildling is still alive, and surrounded and crazy. Jon has him put in chains for questioning later. The Wildling yells that he should have thrown Jon from the top of the Wall, and Jon agrees.

Sam finally comes back for Gilly, and she threatens him with a pork shank before she sees who it is. She’s so relieved to see him. And he’s a bit confused to see the guy who’s supposed to be in command cowering behind a door down there. Especially since Gilly is the one who attacked him with a makeshift weapon.

It’s finally (almost) morning. They held them off for one night. Sam is optimistic, but Jon is devastated. This was just a test of their defenses. Mance still has an army of a hundred thousand out there, and the Watch is running on fumes. They can hold out for another few nights, but then what? So Jon needs a new plan.

He’s going to talk to Mance. 

And then probably kill him. Why? Because if he kills Mance, then there’s no one left to unite the Wildlings, and the Wildlings will fall back into their tribes and their disarray - no one to command them, and no strategy, and they’ll fail. They’ll scatter. If Mance Rayder goes down, then the Wall is saved. Clever.

Sam insists that Jon think this through. If he goes, they will kill him, even if he succeeds and kills Mance. They’ll kill him slowly and terribly and it will be awful. But Jon has only one thing to say to that: “You’re right. It’s a bad plan. What’s your plan?”

Jon and Sam walk through the tunnel, where the six defenders, the suicide squad, lie dead next to the body of the giant. They held the gate. 

Sam walks with Jon to the end of the tunnel. He tells Sam to raise the outer gate, and then lower it again as soon as he’s out. Then Jon does something stupid: he takes off his sword, because he promised Lord Commander Mormont that he’d never lose it again. He gives it to Sam, “In case I don’t come back.” Which is just depressing to hear from your best friend, I would imagine.

The gate opens. Sam tells Jon to please come back when he’s done. And then Jon steps out into the wreckage and the new day.

End of episode.

Well, that was different than usual. This episode didn’t even pretend to care about the other storylines, which is good, because to move away from this narrative would have been a terrible plan. As it is, this worked out great. Man, what a good episode.

I don’t have any other coherent thoughts. They’re all up above. But I do think that this is Game of Thrones at its best, really. This is a narrative with no clear right or wrong side, people fighting each other to survive, and the audience asked to question what we consider a worthwhile cause. It’s brutal and sad and gross, and totally true (except for that bit where Ygritte died really prettily). It’s not nice. It’s honest. And that is where the strength of this show lies.

Do you know how hard it is to find images from an episode set
entirely at night when your blog background is black? DO YOU?!


  1. Oh, and big mean Wildling guy implies he’s going to rape Ygritte. So we’re at seven minutes into the episode, and we have our first rape threat. Skippy.

    Apart from the other ways we've compared Game of Thrones and Orphan Black, there seems to be a need in the former to have the bad guys commit every single available crime, in case missing a couple out confuses the issue too much. LIke the way Slaver's Bay only displays the worst of the worst of slavery, not things like slaves being considered more trustworthy than free people so often appointed to positions of importance (not uncommon in the cultures it's meant to be evoking) - we can see stuff like that and still get that slavery is bad.

    Cf the way the Proletheans don't actually rape Helena alongside the rest of the shit they do to her, but are still doing an astounding impression of pure evil, and we can still make that out.

    1. Hmm, that's a good point. The bad guys here have to be so absolutely bad, whereas real life is rarely so clear. I really wanted more complexity in this issue, since the Wildlings have a very valid complaint here, but the show seems to really hate complexity.

      Or the writers are just super lazy. Which is, again, dumb. Their source material is anything but simplistic, so it's a sad day when the show fails to live up.

    2. It's not just that. Bad people can be clearly absolutely bad without including every single possible crime on their docket. As I said about the Proletheans, they're pretty much pure evil, but their evil has a *shape* - and some crimes will fit that shape, and some won't.

    3. Very very true. I think the Proletheans are a great example, and I think it all goes back to the simple concept of a shared humanity. In any good story, the bad guys have just as reasonable a motivation (in their own eyes) as the good guys do. Everyone sees themself as the hero of their own story. And that is a very important thing to remember in writing villains and antagonists.

  2. So much of what I hear about this show (everyone is a fan in my house) really makes me wish I could watch it. Unfortunately the over the top violence and rape scenes and shityness of every single human in the show renders it unwatchable to me.

    1. I always have a rough time when people ask me if they should watch it. On the one hand, the storytelling is amazing and it really is an entertaining piece of art. On the other hand, how do you like being horrified for an hour every week?

  3. I want to have complex feelings about this battle. Because the Wildlings are right, this is their land and the men from the South stole it from them.

    Furthermore, their main motivating for trying to get through the wall in force is to escape a zombie apocalypse led by ice demons.

    Ygritte shoots Pip in the throat and he dies horribly.

    Having seen it now, something I like about this battle is that they do a good job of setting characters of comparable likeability against each other. Ygritte is the one who kills Pip, the boy operating the lift is the one who kills her. The asshole Wildling leader guy is the one who takes on Thorne. John's friend and his suicide squad were pitted against a giant only after we got a clear look at his (the giant's) own grief over a lost friend - and he was being something of a suicide squad himself. I like that touch.

    1. Yeah. Escaping zombie ice demons is a pretty reasonable excuse.

      The intentional humanization of both sides really spoke to me. I like that this was, in a love of ways, an unwinnable battle. No matter who won, we were going to be sad. And that's good writing.