(Spoilers for the ninth episode of Game of Thrones Season Four are below).
The Watchers on the Wall bears a striking resemblance to Season Two’s climactic episode Blackwater. While this episode may be less of a spectacle, it certainly put some interesting issues on the table to think about, especially about the idea of conflict.
Conflict Pure and Simple
Conflict is essential to every story, and Game of Thrones is particularly strong at creating memorable conflicts. What makes The Watchers on the Wall so unique is the fact that the conflict between the Night’s Watch and the Wildings is purely a conflict for survival. True, characters in Game of Thrones frequently come into conflict with each other, but usually it’s over their aspirations for power – which is a type of conflict that tends to be shallow in the grand scheme of things. A conflict of true necessity is rarely seen on this show, but in Watchers on the Wall we have just that.
Conflict leads to some interesting observations about simple and complex ideas throughout the episode. Simplicity leads to purity and heroic actions. Complexity leads to destruction. However, that’s not to say that characters who chose the simpler choices don’t suffer, but rather when they do suffer, they are doing so for a higher calling. This is an episode that ultimately showcases how simple ideas are bigger than individuals.
Conflict of Survival
The Night’s Watch must hold the Wall or the Wildlings will kill all of them. The Wildlings must get over the Wall or they will all be killed by the Wight Walkers. The need to win this battle should create sympathy for both sides fighting. Even though the show has displayed preferential treatment for the men of the Night’s Watch, it’s still very easy to sympathize with the Wildling’s cause: they don’t want to turn into/be destroyed by lunatic undead ice monsters.
This is a pointless battle, when you really think about it, and it’s something Jon Snow finally realizes at the end of the episode as well. The Wildlings and the Nights Watch should be allies against their common enemy the Wight Walkers, but alas they would rather kill each other due to centuries old blood feuds. The conflict that dominates this episode exemplifies the idea that taking a simple idea like destroying the Wight Walkers cannot be accomplished when ideas between two different groups of people get complex. Throughout the episode a number of conflicting ideas are showcased, it’s the people that look at these ideas simply that are able to accomplish their goals, while people who complicate things don’t.
Love vs Duty and the Destruction of Complexity
Maester Aemon does a nice call back to his love vs duty speech in Season One, as this conflict frequently appears in the Watchers on the Wall.
“Love is the death of duty.”
Sam loves Gilly, even though he never admits it, he has plenty of other characters in this episode who state the obvious for him. Sam unfortunately complicates his feelings for Gilly, oftentimes by denying or ignoring his feelings for her. Other times he tries to potential justify his lack of action: “she never offered.” Most humorously though was Sam’s attempt to deconstruct the vows of the Night’s Watch, so that he could at the very least justify have sex with her. Sam isn’t able to kiss Gilly until he simplifies the situation: Sam’s probably going to die tonight, so it’s either express you love now or never express it at all.
At the end of the Third Season, Jon Snow chose his duty to the Night’s Watch over staying with Ygritte and the Wildlings. Fortunately for Jon Snow, it at least spares him his life, as all of the Wildlings who attack the Southern Gate are either captured or killed. Ygritte on the other hand, arguably chose duty as well, as she continued on with the Wildlings to attack Castle Black. Ironically, it’s not duty that gets her killed, rather it’s a single hesitation, due to her complex feelings about killing Jon Snow.
Ygritte dies because of her feelings, and the sacrifice of her life is meaningless as the surprise attack on the Southern Gate fails. Since Ygritte had parted from Jon, she’s killed a number of innocent villagers, and generally undergone some changes that have made her less humane. It’s only fitting that her dieing words resort back to the simplicity of the cave that Jon and Ygritte first made love in, an ideal place both characters wish they had never left. If only she and Jon had thought simply, they may not be in the situation they’re in now.
While the love vs duty conflict is never resolved in this episode, it’s still a complicated situation. Characters who both fell in love and remained loyal to their duty paid the ultimate price with their lives; Game of Thrones doesn’t play favorites.
Simple Ideas Are Bigger Than Individuals
How did Sam kill the Wight Walker?
He became nothing, and by becoming nothing he conquered his fear in that moment. Nothing is simpler than nothing, and that’s what it took for the craven Sam to finally grow a pair. It’s this revelation by Sam that allows him to continue fighting, and presumably kill the Thenn he hits with a crossbow later in the episode. This speech is ultimately used to inspire Pyp who’s never been in a real battle before.
Pyp eventually conquers his pre-battle fear and begins to fight effectively until he’s killed by Ygritte. Pyp’s death represents a simple idea: sacrifice for a greater cause. It’s an idea that ultimately won the battle for the Night’s Watch.
Grenn also meets a similar fate to Pyp. Jon sends Grenn and five others to hold the gate against the Giant that will inevitably be breaking through. As the men watch as the giant charges towards them, Grenn keeps their courage by having them latch on to a simple idea: the vows of the Night’s Watch. As the five men utter the words, they stand strong and hold the gate at the cost of their lives, but in the process they save the lives of their surviving brothers. A simple idea grants these five men the courage to save the lives of many more.
Perhaps the most important idea discussed in this episode is the idea of leadership. Thorne pulled a lot of surprises in this episode: he proved he can admit he’s wrong like he did when he admits that they should’ve sealed the gate, he can hold the men’s courage which he proved by giving an impassioned speech about the difference between nocking and drawing arrows, and he rallied the remaining members of the Night’s Watch at the Southern Gate to face the surprise attackers.
Thorne’s leadership philosophy summarizes what this whole episode is essentially about: doubt yourself and you will pay the price. His speech silences his biggest detractor, Jon Snow, and for one night these two become allies. Thorne may have a very simplistic look at things, but it’s keeping things simple that prevails in this battle setting, and it’s what ultimately allows the Night’s Watch to the win the day … dar… I mean night. Thorne’s speech to Jon seems to even have had an effect on him.
At the end of the episode Jon states he’s going to kill Mance because realizes that’s the only chance the Night’s Watch will have of surviving. Jon realizes this is bad idea, but neither he nor Sam can come up with a better one, so he decides to carry out this bold plan. The question for viewers is will success seen with following simple ideas carry over into next week’s episode when Mance and Jon presumably confront one another?