Ah, episode nine. As just about everyone knows by now, you tune into episode nine of Game of Thrones to see the excrement hit the fan. Season one gave us the beheading of Ned Stark. Season two gave us the siege of King's Landing. Season three delivered the Red Wedding. And this year we got the Brawl at the Wall. Of course, the shock value at the end of episode eight with the death of Oberyn was worthy of an episode nine for those who didn't know what happens in the books, which I imagine only increased the anticipation of the much ballyhooed episode nine.
So with the ante upped, did they pull it off? A friend of mine contacted me on Facebook last night, wanting to know my thoughts on the episode. His take was, and I quote: " ...felt like they took the natural drama, pathos and tension of the battle on the Wall and over-Hollywood-ized it to me."
He's not incorrect with his analysis. Of course, I was expecting this very thing to happen, so I took this episode for what it was going in and was able to enjoy it. As I said to my friend, the siege of King's Landing worked better, but this was to be expected. First of all, that episode was written by George R. R. Martin, so any deviations from the source materials were handled more skillfully, because no one understands his world or characters better in any medium than George. Also, when the siege of King's Landing happened, there weren't as many deviations in the story as we witnessed at the Wall. This is important, because if we take the episodes that George writes out of the equation (I always tend to consider his scripts as being more canon than the others), I would guess that seven out of ten times when the writers change the source materials, it is for the worst. Two out of ten times, I'd say these changes are about comparable to what's going on in the books. And one out of every ten times, I'll actually sit up and say, "Great choice!"
A sampling of some of those great choices for the curious would be as follows (as I see them): Jaime and Ned fighting in season one, Khal Drogo fighting in season one, revealing that Jaime was dyslexic (pretty sure that's not in the books), and Catelyn blaming herself for all the tragedies that had befallen her family because she couldn't bring herself to love Jon Snow. The first two I see as great choices for the visual medium, the second two were just great choices in general. But more often than not, these changes weaken the story or do nothing to really impress me. So with all this said, let's dive into the latest episode, so I can praise and defend where necessary and rip apart where warranted:
So during the opening credits, one thing that immediately caught my attention was the fact that the first actor they listed was Kit Harrington, who plays Jon Snow. This was an instant deviation from the usual, as (these days) it always starts with Peter Dinklage, followed by his siblings. But this time they did away with everyone, except the characters/actors at the Wall. This was a major clue that the entire episode would be focused on the Wall. I'm not sure if they've ever had such a tight focus before--even the first episode featured Winterfell, King's Landing, and Pentos. Maybe the siege of King's Landing took place entirely here? I'm not sure. I would have to go back and re-watch it. But off the top of my head I can't think of another episode that took place in a singular location. At the end of the credits scene, it's also worth noting that the director was Neil Marshall, who directed the siege of King's Landing episode. There haven't been any major battles in the books since the Brawl at the Wall, but more of them are certainly on the way early on in The Winds of Winter, and you can be sure that more will follow later on. I wouldn't be surprised if they bring Marshall back to handle one of the future episodes.
Moving on to the episode itself, no new characters of note were introduced, so we can finally dive in. Let's start with Samwell. In A Storm of Swords, he was not present during this battle, but still trying to get Gilly and her babe to safety while north of the Wall. By default then, Gilly obviously wasn't at the battle either. As to the way they handled Samwell given the changes in his arc, I thought this was fairly well done. If you're going to have him here, you can't have him a quivering blubbering mass the whole time. He needed to find his courage, and protecting Gilly and the babe were his incentive. Yes, he protected them last season, but in those episodes he was reacting with blind frightened instinct. Everything here was far more measured and calm, which demonstrates some of the growth that he started exhibiting in book four after he leaves the Wall. The kiss with Gilly is also speeding up their romance a bit. They had sex in book while on the ship to Braavos, and I'm pretty sure that also marked the first time they kissed. So while the sex remains to be had, the kiss is coming early, but that makes sense if this is the episode where Samwell starts finding his courage.
This was a pretty chaotic episode (understandably so), so if I'm a little haphazard with how I discuss stuff this time around, bear with me. The next thing I'll note is that this double assault on the Wall with the army and the raiding party never happened, at least not in conjunction. In the book, the raiding party struck first, and it was during this raid that Ygritte died. In the book, George is also vague about who kills Ygritte. I believe Jon Snow actually wonders if the arrow that kills was fired by him. In this past Sunday's episode, there is no ambiguity at all, since Olly kills her with an arrow when she has the chance to kill Jon. This worked for me since they established in earlier episode that Olly was good with a bow (or so Olly claimed), and he would have cause to kill the wildlings after what they did to his mother.
Speaking of Olly, I don't think I've ever mentioned him before, probably because I didn't know his name until this episode. I'm reasonably certain he was an invention for the show, and until this episode I'd been of the opinion that he was filling in the role in the book played by Satin, the male whore from Mole's Town who helps the Night's Watch defend the Wall. But this episode the one who reminded me of Satin was Pyp. Right before Ygritte kills him, Pyp excitedly says to Samwell how he got one with his crossbow, to which Samwell basically says, "And is the battle over? Well ..." This interplay in the book actually comes from Jon and Satin. Satin is excited after killing a wildling and says to Jon something like, "I got one!" And Jon basically tells him, "Kill another!" The fact that I can recall such a minor piece of dialogue is proof positive how deeply this story is burned into my very soul.
Since I'm already talking about Pyp, obviously this will be our next subject. Pyp hasn't died yet. He's still alive in the books. Same goes for Grenn. In the book, it is the one-armed blacksmith Donal Noye who defends the inner gate from the closest thing the giants have to a king, Mag the Mighty, and both of them end up dying. But with Donal written out of the show (too bad--he was a great supporting character), someone had to defend the inner gate. Pyp's death caught me by surprise, but the second Jon sent Grenn down to defend the gate, I understood that he was a goner. While Grenn's death can be explained for him substituting for Donal Noye, I suppose some people might be wondering why Pyp had to die as well. To me, the answer seems pretty obvious. This cast is already huge. Next season it's about to get a hell of a lot bigger as they add Doran, Quentyn, Areo Hotah, Arianne, perhaps a few Sand Snakes, Euron Crow's Eye, Victarrion, and Aeron (assuming they don't write him out of the show--he hasn't done anything that essential in the books ...yet). That means a bigger budget for all these important characters (not to mention all the new lesser ones), so if they can find a way to pare the cast back in other spots, the show runners need to take it. By default, Pyp becomes an obvious casualty. Perhaps he'll still do something interesting in later books, but I'm sure they can easily shift this to another character in the show.
So I've covered all the other deaths, so we might as well touch on Styr, the Magnar of Thenn. Originally he died in the same raiding party as Ygritte, but for the purposes of the show having him die in single combat with Jon Snow was a nice change. And speaking of Jon, it's about time they made him competent. Yes, he had some growing up to do in the books, but too often in the show they depicted him as a bumbling fool. When Jon took command at the Wall, this was the Jon Snow I remembered. This isn't to say that I've hated HBO's Jon Snow--Kit Harrington does a great job with the material. I just think at times the material could be better. As to the Magnar, I wouldn't be surprised if they drop the resulting story line that follows his death, where his son Sigorn marries Alys Karstark in A Dance with Dragons, as Jon wisely begins building alliances between the North and the wildlings. It's great maneuver that illustrates Jon's leadership abilities outside the field of battle, but it also seems like a place for a natural cut in the HBO series. But I suppose we'll have to see.
What else? Well the arcs for Ser Alliser and Janos Slynt were completely made up. Both of them were on the way from Eastwatch-by-the-Sea when the wildlings attacked the Wall, and didn't arrive until after the battle was over. But as long as they were both there, I have to say that both of their arcs rang completely true to me, so no complaints here either.
Tormund Giantsbane is another character I need to talk about. In the book, he was never part of the raiding party. He was with Mance's army north of the Wall and was present when Jon goes to find Mance, as we see happen at the end of this episode. He was never captured, though I expect that his story arc will gradually come back to match up with takes place in book five, but being as this write-up is already taking far too long, we can save further discussion of this point for another time.
So these are the big bullet points. Here are a few smaller ones that occurred to me while watching this episode:
1) I'm 99% sure that giant scythe was not in the books, but I'm 100% sure it was pure awesome.
2) Before the raiding party attacks Castle Black, Ygritte reports that there are twenty men on the ground ...wow, that was a hell of a lot of slaughter and chaos for only twenty men, a preposterous amount in fact.
3) I approved of the bravery Samwell displayed during the battle, but after Pyp dies, why didn't Samwell have the good sense to load his crossbow before making his move. Instead, he starts running with an unloaded crossbow, sees a Thenn running at him, hurriedly loads the crossbow, and fires it just in time to save his life. That makes absolutely no sense, until you factor in that some dimwit must have decided, "Never mind realism and good sense, this is more dramatic!"
4) I understand why Jon left Mormont's sword with Samwell, but did he just leave to kill Mance without taking a different sword? Just when I thought they were done making Jon Snow act like a boob, they decide he still knows nothing.
5) In the trailer for next week's episode, they seem to be suggesting the Hound will get in another battle. If so, I suppose it will be with more soldiers trying to collect the bounty. If this is the direction they go, I find it a bit puzzling, since they seemed to be hinting in the previous episode that the bite on his neck was taking its toll on him. OTOH, I suppose this an opportunity to deliver that terrible wound to his leg that he receives in the book that leads to Arya abandoning him to die. We'll see.
So that's everything, and damn, it was way too much. I suspect I'll have to write another one of these long-ish write-ups next week, because they have A LOT of material to cover in the season finale. I wouldn't be surprised if it runs seventy minutes. At least it will be the last write-up for a while. I enjoy the show, but come the end of each season I find myself rather sick of these write-ups because they always become exponentially longer as the season progresses.
Also, I imagine this post is littered with typos and such. Please excuse them, but it took me long enough to write this. I'm not about to check it over and make it perfect. Until next week!