"The Watchers on the Wall" begins slowly, with two sworn brothers who might as well share the same blood conversing about women, sex, and love, like young men tend to do. Sam's analysis of the Night's Watch vows regarding sex is rather enlightening when you think about it. The sole reason the Mole's Town brothel exists is to provide sexual relief for the men of the Night's Watch. It's almost a given that some of those liaisons have produced children (it's been known to happen when sex occurs). For Sam, it's not a question of the intimate relations, it's love. The rotund lad who could barely defend himself in the first season now stands ready to fight and die to protect the woman he loves. That form of ordinary heroism is rare enough in Game of Thrones. Seeing Sam finally receive that hero's kiss from Gilly made me giddy for the poor soul. And hearing Sam throw down an F-bomb was priceless.
In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the Elves of Middle-Earth fight what they call the Long Defeat. They know they can never overcome the forces of evil commanded by Sauron but they continue to fight until they are done in. The Night's Watch faces a similar Long Defeat, against a foe not nearly as implacable or evil as Sauron's armies. While some in the Wildling camp are unquestionably evil, they are escaping a fate far worse than the death they might receive attacking the Wall. Seeing the fire Mance promised back in season three was quite a sight, a harbinger of the destruction about to be wrought on Castle Black.
The Battle of Castle Black was given the epic treatment it deserved, just like the Battle of Blackwater Bay in the second season. It's difficult to keep a battle of this length interesting but the show managed to pull it off. Seeing a giant ride a mammoth into battle would make me run for cover. The giant with a bow and apparently harpoons should have pursued a career in whaling. But the battle pulled what was beneath the surface of many of the Night's Watch brothers. Thorne may be a bastard of the first order but he knows how to command in the thick of death. Janos Slynt is a coward at heart, a man who understands little of the ideas of honor and loyalty that drives men like Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly. Sam and Jon both grew into their role as warrior and leader respectively. For Jon, this season has been an arc for him to assume a role as a leader, to become the man who takes the Night's Watch forward into the coming war against the cold, dead army of the White Walkers.
War leads to death and it was inevitable that some of the characters we've known since the beginning would meet their end. Pyp and Grenn were never given great amounts of screen time but they were shown to be loyal to their friends, a loyalty which cost them dearly. The panoramic shot of the courtyard, harsh as ever, encapsulated the desperate nature of the conflict. The final moments between Ygritte and Jon were handled well, bringing these two characters as close as they were in her death as they were in the cave from season three.
For some, their watch ended in blood. For others, it will end soon enough in blood. At the end of "Watchers on the Wall", the only question that remains is when and how that end will be met.