SPOILER ALERT: This recap contains character and storyline spoilers.
The episode, "The Watchers on the Wall," in a nutshell:
* Mance Raydar's army reaches the Wall
* Ygritte's wildling band attacks the front gate
* Jon Snow leads the Night's Watch to defend Castle Black
Body count: 1 VIP; 2 notables; many, many red shirts
Nudity count: None
Dragon sightings: None
New people/places: None
Best line: "You know nothing, Jon Snow." — Ygritte
Thought "Game of Thrones" couldn't possibly top the Battle of the Blackwater?
Then you know nothing.
The battle at Castle Black, between Mance Raydar's enormous wildling army and the Night's Watch, has been building up all season. Much of the storyline at the Wall has been — let's be honest — a little boring. There's been a lot of politicking, a lot of Alliser Thorne being a jerk, a lot of Sam mooning about Gilly.
But it all finally comes to a head as Mance follows through on his promise to light the biggest fire the North had ever seen. The wildlings attack from two sides, beyond the Wall and from the south gate. The Night's Watch are badly outnumbered, and it takes some heroic effort on the parts of Jon, Thorne, Grenn, and even Sam to beat the wildlings back.
Alas, as Jon grimly notes, the fighting is only over for a brief time. Mance Raydar is going to keep coming at them until he marches right through the Wall.
A rundown of the jaw-dropping, brutal, bloody battle:
Before the wildlings reach the Wall, Sam and Jon are on watch. The latter opens up a little about his relationship with Ygritte. But he's a man of few words. "I'm not a bleeding poet," Jon tells Sam.
At a camp nearby, Ygritte continues to angrily make arrows. She warns her compatriots not to kill Jon; she wants to do it herself.
Sam is reading horror stories about wildlings, when the wise Maester Aemon comes in. They talk about love, and Sam no doubt is wistfully thinking about Gilly. But soon, it becomes more than thinking — he hears her yelling for him at the front gate! She's brought her baby to the safety of Castle Black after the massacre in her town.
The horns start to trumpet on top of the wall. The Night's Watch looks out onto a humongous fire. Mance and his army are here.
But just as they prepare to fire arrows into the advancing wildlings, they hear a horn sound from below. Ygritte, Tormund, and their band of wildlings are attacking the front gate, too!
Alliser Thorne leaves to take charge of defending Castle Black, leaving Janos Slynt in charge on the Wall. But Slynt is useless, and Grenn ends up directing him downstairs. Slynt ends up hiding in the same storeroom as Gilly and her baby. What a coward.
A bloody battle ensues in Castle Black, as wildlings come pouring through the front gate. Pyp is shot dead by Ygritte (sniff). And many others died at the hands of the wildlings. But Thorne, as crotchety and spiteful as he is, can wield a sword and does some major damage. He takes on Tormund, and they clash swords until Thorne is injured.
On the Wall, Jon takes charge, but soon realizes that the wildlings will make it into the tunnel with the help of a giant and his big mammoth. He orders Grenn to take some men and hold the inner gate. As the giant makes it into the tunnel and approaches them, the men repeat their Night's Watch vows and stand ready to face the hulk.
When Jon joins the battle in Castle Black, he immediately starts kicking butt. Like, he's a killing machine. He gets Sam to unleash Ghost, who takes out some wildlings on her own.
Jon gets into a brutal showdown with a cannibal Thenn guy, who bashes Jon's head into an anvil. But Jon manages to get the better of him by sinking an ax into the Thenn's head.
Just as he turns around, though, he sees Ygritte aiming an arrow at him. And the expression on her face indicates she won't be missing this time. But just before she releases, she's shot — by a young orphaned village boy.
Jon rushes to hold her in his arms, and they reminisce about the hot-tub cave. We'll go back, he promises tenderly. "You know nothing, Jon Snow" are her last words.
The morning after
The battle winds down. Tormund is taken prisoner. Corpses are stacked up to be burned. Sam goes to reassure Gilly, and finds Slynt cowering there.
They've held the wildlings off... for now. Jon bleakly notes that Mance will try again that night, and his army still outnumbers them a thousand to one. Their only chance is for Jon to go to Mance and kill him. It's a seemingly hopeless mission, and Jon is likely to die. But he'll die anyway if they allow Mance's army to keep attacking.
As Jon departs through the tunnel, he and Sam find Grenn dead. He held the inner gate, though, against the giant. There's no time for mourning. Jon has to go.
"Come back," Sam pleads. Jon looks back, but he knows what we know — that's a promise Jon may not be able to keep.
Wow, Game of thrones nailed the battle of castle black perfectly, just like the book, what an episode— Dennis Miller (@DennisMiller_) June 9, 2014
The fact that GAME OF THRONES can devote 45 minutes to a sustained practical battle scene is awesome. They threw millions at it and it shows— Brett Cramer (@bcramerjr) June 9, 2014
That @GameOfThrones episode was just as good as the battle in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers!— Jaspal Sangha (@jaspal91) June 9, 2014
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.