Revenge is a difficult desire to live with. A desire for it can come to define your life as well as the manner of your death. Just look back at last week’s crushing defeat of Prince Oberyn Martell. So engrossed he was in obtaining his revenge that he never saw his mistake until it killed him. But when you consider the crime he was trying to avenge, it was a relatively recent one – less than 20 years in the past. How much greater then is the desire for revenge when it’s a cultural hatred that goes back thousands of years and it has come to define everything about your relationship with the ones you feel have wronged, not just you, but your people for generations on end?
When The Wall was built thousands upon thousands of years in the past, its purpose was not to keep the wildlings out of the Seven Kingdoms. It was designed to hold back the threat of the White Walkers. That’s why it’s so large. That’s why there are spells built on in its ice. That’s why the Night’s Watch was formed: to man it, guard it and hold The Wall against the White Walkers. Because the last time the White Walkers marched against the realms of men, they nearly succeeded in wiping out all that lived.
But what has happened in the intervening 8,000 years is that the White Walkers have not been seen nor heard. In their absence, the Night’s Watch has taken to fighting and feuding with the human inhabitants of the Lands of Perpetual Winter – the free folk as they call themselves, or the wildlings as the Night’s Watch refers to them. They are the people who have not bent the knee to any king they did not elect. The men and women who refuse to acknowledge titles and inherited nobility. The ones who believe in taking as opposed to buying and fighting as opposed to treating. Every time the wildlings scaled The Wall and raided or pillaged south, it became the Night’s Watch job to hunt them down and kill them. And then follow that up with marching north and exacting retribution against whatever wildling tribe was assaulting the realms of men.
For the Free Folk, the Night’s Watch are nothing more than tools of the kneelers, sent north to kill, maim and scatter them with terror tactics. They deny them their rightful claims to what they take in battle and force them back into the harsh Lands of Perpetual Winter; where food is scarce and every day is a battle for survival. For the Night’s Watch, the wildlings are pirates, raiders and killers. They all descend on the lands of men; raping and pillaging as they go. They observe no rules and no laws. Even if they were admitted into the lands south of The Wall, there’s too much hatred and recriminations and anger between them and the Sworn Brothers.
This long history of violence collided with the wildlings’ march at The Battle of Castle Black. Mance Rayder, a former Sworn Brother, has united the hundreds of different clans and tribes north of The Wall and brought them together into a single unit to smash their way through The Wall’s iron gate. He’s also sent a raiding party south under the leadership of Tormund Giantsbane to attack at the moment his assault begin. For he knows that Castle Black is lightly built to the south. After all, the Night’s Watch is meant to defend to the north only – and take no part in the feuds of the noble lords of the Seven Kingdoms.
But this long history of hatred between the Sworn Brothers and the Free Folk is one that’s clouded due to the long relationships that build between them. Men of the Night’s Watch have defected to the wildling cause in the past. And for a reason no grander than love. We see the examples tonight of Sam and Gilly and Jon and Ygritte. They’ve each built relationships even though, as Sam points out, their vows are clear that they cannot marry or father children. Sam also lawyers it up by saying the vows never speak of loving a girl. Maester Aemon is ready to say, “Love is the death of duty” but its his own steward who proves him wrong. Sam loves Gilly and feels compelled to protect her. But he’s also a man of the Night’s Watch and, when his duty calls, he does not hide in the dark like Lord Janos Slynt. He heads out, faces the charge of the wildlings and helps as best he can – even when that help is simply unleashing a direwolf on the unsuspecting wildlings.
As for Jon and Ygritte, he fears that he will be forced to face her and kill her. She, on the other hand, is threatening everyone around her to leave her former lover alive for her to kill. His betrayal has powered her for most of this season as she’s feathered arrows and put them in the hearts, backs and throats of anyone that gets in her way. She will get her revenge one way or another. Except that, when she is at last presented with her chance, the love she still feels in her heart for him stays her killing blow. And gives the young boy Styr released to warn the crows the chance to shoot her in the back. Would Ygritte have really killed Jon? She had her chance for revenge and hesitated. So instead of the crow dying, it’s her that bleeds out and dies in his arms.
For Jon, his night is a bittersweet victory. His lover dies, but he gains the respect of his former tormentor, Ser Alliser Thorne, who finally realizes the error of his ways. He also ascends to the position of leadership that Lord Commander Mormont saw in him. He leads his black brothers in the defense of The Wall and Castle Black. His ascendancy costs him other friends – Pyp who dies at Ygritte’s arrows and Grenn who dies guarding the inner gate underneath The Wall against the might of a giant.
So left with only Sam by his side, Jon makes the fateful decision to head out and confront the King Beyond The Wall. Perhaps he can make him see reason in the futility of trying to get past the Night’s Watch now that his southern band is dead or captured. Perhaps he will get a chance to kill Mance Rayder before his next move happens. He’s under no illusions of his chance at coming back. But he knows that, with so many dead or wounded, the forces at Castle Black cannot stand another assault.
Revenge might be a difficult thing to live with. But Jon has found out something even worse to live with: regret. And for however long he may live, he will think back to the redheaded girl who begged him to stay in that cave while the world tore itself to pieces. After all, the lords of Westeros will continue to fight and kill as will the Free Folk and the Night’s Watch. Why be dragged into bloody war where they can never be together when they can choose to forego it all and be happy and be free and be in love?
Jon Snow will never know the answer.