It’s been an interesting time for the Night’s Watch. Mance Rayder’s amassing a huge army of wildlings beyond the Wall, dead people keep coming back to life, and now white walkers have begun marcher ever-closer to civilisation. When we left the band of sworn brothers at the end of season two, they were fortifying themselves on the ancient landmark that is the Fist of the First Men. Jon Snow had gone off on a reconnaissance/assassination mission with a squad of rangers that included the near-legendary Qhorin Halfhand, and Sam Tarly was left to steward for Commander Mormont in Jon’s absence. Now, the Halfhand is dead, Jon has been taken captive by a band of wildlings, and Sam has made a mess in his trousers after coming face-to-face with an army of white walkers. What lies in store for all them now?
Jon has gone from being the steward to Aemon Targaryen, to a double agent involved in a ploy to infiltrate Mance Rayder’s massive army of free-folk. Last we saw of Lord Snow, he was standing atop a cliff with Ygritte as they looked down into the valley of the Milkwater and the enormous camp Mance and his wildlings had set-up within it. Her last words to him were “time to meet the King-Beyond-The-Wall”, as they began to make their way down the cliffside.
Jon may have been forced to kill Qhorin Halfhand, but that’s earned him the trust of a great many of the free-folk, including Mance himself, and now he’s ready to get all sorts of dirt on the wildlings for his brothers back in the Night’s Watch. Or so the plan goes…
Jon is introduced to Mance a short while after he and his former captors make their way into the camp. The King-Beyond-The-Wall is a rather unassuming man; he is sitting in the corner of his tent playing a lute and singing “The Dornishman’s Wife” when Jon first enters, and at first Mance is almost almost completely ignored by him. After some time alone with the King, however, Jon soon earns the trust and respect of the leader of the free-folk. After a short while, Jon is dispatched on patrols with the likes of men like Tormund Giantsbane, and has a number of further run-ins with Ygritte, who has genuinely fallen in love with the apparent turncloak.
That being said, the reason Jon abandons the Night’s Watch may be a completely different reason altogether. White walkers are marching towards the wall, and thus the Seven Kingdoms. With Mance’s army heading in the same direction with ultimately the same goal, there is a chance the two factions may run in to each other. The wildlings do stumble upon the recently-ruined remains of the Fist a short while into the book, so there is a possibility they may catch up with the roving army of Others that are but a few leagues in front of them. In trailer two, Jon is seen saying to someone “I want to fight for the side that fights for the living”, so could it be he chooses to eventually side with the wildlings simply because they’re an army of the living that is soon to be at war with the dead?
The King-Beyond-The-Wall dreams of taking back the North for the people who rightfully own it, which is why he has assembled a force beyond reckoning to breach The Wall and reclaim the land below it.
At the start of season three, Mance and his people are making the long march towards the Kingdoms and have all but around two-hundred men of the Night’s Watch between them and the wall. Even with the garrisons at Castle Black and the Shadow Tower, I doubt the small forces of rangers and watchmen would be able to hold off the onslaught of twenty-thousand wildlings that are soon to be knocking at their doors. That is, of course, unless they bump into the horde of white walkers along the way…
It would at least explain why Mance wants to light “the biggest fire the North has ever seen”; white walkers don’t like fire, and they’re immune to steel and arrow. The only weapon that can bring them down in a fight is one made from dragonglass, and none of Mance’s soldiers have any.
It would seem a great deal of Mance’s clansmen don’t actually reach the Wall, and rather remain in the frozen wastes battling both the living and the dead. That’s not to say they never get there at all though; some of his men do reach the Wall at some point soon, as you can clearly see Tormund Giantsbane and some other of the more hardcore wildlings scaling up the side of it with pairs of ice axes.
Our last sighting of Sam had him hiding behind a boulder with an army of white walkers heading straight towards him. His future remains a mystery after we see him make eye contact with a peculiar looking fellow on a zombie-fied horse. All I know is in the book he survives, but instead of first seeing the walkers from behind the pathetically ambitious safety of a boulder, he has to pay witness to a complete slaughter on the Fist of the First Men as the horde of undead make their way up the mountain, near unstoppable with the rangers’ weaponry. He makes it out alive with a handful of other rangers, including Commander Mormont and some of the more seasoned of the Watch’s troop. Naturally, they flee the area, and attempt to pull back to the Wall with what they have left.
Sam nearly gives out from a combination of the cold and the long slog through the wilderness, and starts to warm to the idea of simply lying down in the snow and dying a quick death. He survives that as well, after being picked up by Small Paul and carried like a pig. They slowly lose track of the rest of the rangers however, and end up on their own in the middle of the forest. A walker catches up with them, kills Small Paul, and is about to put an end to Sam when he charges at the Other with the dragonglass dagger Jon had given him a week or so prior, and drives it square into its head. It’s at this point he realises they can actually be killed with such a weapon, and the walker melts into the snow and evaporates in an icy light-blue mist. Sam, having nearly lost hope, regains some confidence about his current position and he is a bit more motivated in his march back to the Wall.
What happens to the rest of the rangers, however, is a mystery, but the army of walkers and zombie bears that ravaged them at the Fist is right behind them. If they slow down, or stop for any reason, it goes without saying they shan’t live for much longer.