Well, that was a blast, if an anticlimactic one. We're used to seeing from the penultimate episode of each season of Game of Thrones the series climax in which major events irrevocably shape Westeros forever, be it Ned Stark's beheading, the Battle of the Blackwater, or the butchering of the Stark clan at the Red Wedding last year.
'The Watchers on the Wall' did not provide anything as groundbreaking, and in fact felt like one huge distraction after the shocking fate that awaits Tyrion in the series finale, but it did deliver a breathtaking battle to rival Helm's Deep, or even it's precursor Zulu, as the Night's Watch battled against the odds to withhold the wildling onslaught from below. Neil Marshall was once again brought in in order to handle the bravura action sequences, but it's what's at stake for the episode's main figures - Jon, Sam, Gilly and Ygritte – that provides meaning to the violent spectacle.
The Battle of Castle Black
But what spectacle it is. Mammoths, giants, blood and fire – you get the impression that writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss gleefully splurged a huge chunk of the budget on this episode like two boys let loose in a toy shop. Jon's been harping on about Mance Rayder's 100,000 strong army, and whilst there was nothing to suggest numbers of that size, the impression of a massive marauding phalanx was definitely given.
The battle was punctuated by a few standout set-pieces, such as one poor member of the Night's Watch being shot with an arrow and falling all the way down the wall, a mammoth being set on fire, and a massive scythe mowing down all wildlings brave enough to climb the wall; topped off with a fantastic long take in which Jon Snow arrives back in the court yard, and the camera pans round to witness the absolute carnage taking place all around him. And that slow-mo shot of Jon holding the dead Ygritte in his arms as the battle takes place behind him was beautiful as well.
"You know nothing Jon Snow"
For it's a bittersweet result for Jon Snow, winning the battle but losing the love of his life. Rather than opening with the ominous tones of battle, the episode starts with a conversation between Jon and Sam over what it's like to be with a woman. Jon struggles to provide ample explanation saying, "You're wrapped up in them, they're wrapped up in you – for a little while you're more than just you."
But these words get to the heart of his conflicted relationship with Ygritte. The Night's Watch and the Wildings might be opposing forces but for a brief time their relationship transcended such narrow definitions, and they became more than just who they are.
They both know it, and it explains her fatal moment of hesitation when with bow primed she has him in her sights. Maester Aemon earlier explained that, "love is the death of duty," and it also proved the death of the red-headed Wildling who unfortunately had to die, despite being infinitely more interesting than the Stark bastard, a figure who provided the show with one of its best catchphrases - "You know nothing Jon Snow".
"I promise you I won't die"
Her loss is a real shame for the show, but it was with great relief that the one character who you'd expect to die first, Samwell, not only survived (for now), but cometh the hour, cometh the man. The arrival of Gilly to the castle provides the young Tarly with fresh impetus to protect her and survive, their parting kiss the most romantic moment in Game of Thrones yet.
He might say that in battle you become nothing, but with steely resolve he inspires the others, kills a Thenn and alerts Jon just in time of the need to defend the castle below. All whilst having friend Pyp die in his arms from Ygritte's arrow.
As dawn breaks the wildlings retreat, and Sam chimes with fresh optimism. But Jon knows the impossibility of the their task if they have to defend the wall again, and so ventures out to kill Mance Rayder in a bid to end the wildling resistance. It's a disappointing ending after all that happened before, and leaves you to wonder if Jon Snow's venture is sacrificial, or just plain suicidal. Maybe Jon Snow knows something after all.