Hey, ha ha, remember how the last few episodes of Game of Thrones have seemed to be a bit… low-key? Uh, well, now we know the reason why: It was spending all its time (and manpower, and probably a sizable portion of season six’s budget) on creating what is possibly the most incredible battle that has ever been seen on TV.
Yes, “Battle of the Bastards” delivered in pretty much every way fans hoped… and feared. In a strange way, it wasn’t surprising at all — we knew it would be intense, we knew it would be epic, but moreover we pretty much knew what the outcome had to be in order for the story to continue. Given that this is Game of Thrones, we also knew there was going to be a cost for victory… and those who paid it were all obvious choices. So how did an episode that gave us so much of what we expected still manage to be so unbelievably thrilling? Mainly by doing it so goddamned well. Let me put it another way: What other show could begin an episode with an epic battle in which three dragons stop an entire fleet of warships — and then still completely outdo itself with an even more incredible battle between mere mortals (and one giant) by the end?
Because the episode all about the titular Battle o’ the Bastards begins in Meereen, where Tyrion is making not-so-impressive excuses for the fact that the city is being besieged without by the fireball-catapulting ships of the Masters, and within by the Sons of the Harpy. Daenerys is not pleased… but neither is she that concerned. In fact, she announces she’s just going to kill all the Masters in Meereen, Astapor and Yunkai when Tyrion offers her a sage bit of counsel amidst his stammering — he tells her about her father, Mad King Aerys, and his plan to destroy all of King’s Landing with his secret stores of wildfire rather than cede the city to his enemies. The point is that Dany can butcher all these slave-owning jerks who keep crossing her, but she doesn’t have to, and Tyrion argues that a ruler who butchers her subjects — even the horrible ones — tends to run into problems eventually. The Khaleesi agrees to Tyrion’s plan to parley with them instead.
Shortly, there’s a parley where three Masters superciliously demand her surrender, talk about how they’re going to re-enslave and sell Grey Worm and Missandei, and basically insult Daenerys to her face. It’s groan-worthy for the Masters to hold a woman who has three giant dragons in such contempt, but that just makes it more satisfying when Dany pulls the ol’ “Actually we’re here to discuss the terms of your surrender.” Rather than wait for an answer, she hops on Drogon, watches Viserion and Rhaegar burst from their underground lair/prison in the pyramid and join her, and then the three of them singlehandedly — well, triple-dragonedly — stop the entire fleet by themselves. In the city, the Sons of the Harpy stop their butchery of the people to discover the very unpleasant surprise that literally all the Dothraki in the goddamn world are heading right for them, and they’re about to give them a taste of their own extremely violent medicine. Finally, Grey Worm kills the two most transparently horrible Masters at the parley, and Tyrion tells the last of the trio to tell the remaining slave-owning elites to abandon their slaves, their status and their cities for good, or face the full wrath of the Khaleesi.
While watching Dany go full Mother of Dragons on everything the Masters have put to bear on her is immensely cool, it does seem to be putting a very simple bow on a problem that has been challenging Dany and her cohorts for three seasons. The show gives the impression that this time the Masters will totally listen to her orders, even though they have a 100 per cent track record of not doing that. What makes Dany think she can trust them to obey her this time? Sure, she has three fully armed and operational dragons on her side, but why did the Masters somehow not realise those would be an issue? And how did her exploits killing slavers in seasons 2-5 at least teach them not to insult her to her face?
If there’s a difference between Dany now and then, it’s that Danaerys has the power to utterly annihilate her enemies like she never has before. She has the Dothraki horde. She has the Masters’ fleet. She has three dragons she can aim at things. She has power like never before, and could wipe her enemies out whenever she feels like it. In fact, that’s exactly what she’s going to do until Tyrion reminds her there’s another, less brutal way.
If there’s a lesson Dany’s learned in Meereen, it’s been a tough one: It’s that it’s not her goodness that matters, or the love of the people, or especially what’s right — it’s power. It’s her power that finally enables her to (presumably) end slavery in Essos — the fact that she can force others to do good, but solely because she can destroy them at a whim. What Daenerys has gained in power, she’s lost in humanity, simply in the act of becoming a ruler. If this really is a sudden, almost perfunctory ending to her Meereenese experiment (and I think it has to be, the show can’t keep her in Essos any longer), it’s satisfying in its way to see this cost of her success. And it falls on Tyrion to make sure she continues to use that power only as much as she needs, not as much as she wants.
In the north of Westeros, another parley is taking place, and shockingly this one is much more peaceful — especially as it involves the first-ever meeting of Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton. Ramsay, knowing he has 6000 men to Jon’s 2000, is in a disturbingly pleasant mood, promising Jon he’ll pardon him all his crimes if he’ll bend the knee, telling Sansa how much he misses his beloved wife and almost proudly letting them know he’s starved his hounds for seven full days, just to get them ready for the battle. And when asked for proof that he has Rickon, he genially has his men toss the severed head of Shaggydog to the floor. Sansa, cold as the North, replies, “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Ramsay.”
The night is tense, and full of arguments. After Jon, Tormund and Davos plan a pincer movement in hopes that surrounding Ramsay’s forces will counter his superior number, Sansa quite angrily points out the fact that none of this is going to work.
I’ve already braced for the Sansa haters to come out this morning, and yes, I suppose you could theoretically call someone a whiner for complaining about an issue without offering a solution. However, when the issue is “Ramsay is going to destroy us all” and Sansa has had zero military training or experience to offer concrete tactical advice, literally all she can do to improve things is try to convince Jon that Ramsay is much smarter — and much, much crueller — that he’s giving the Bastard of Bolton credit for. She knows that whatever plan Jon has, Ramsay will have figured out a counter; only something incredible will defeat him, or more men. But Jon’s argument is the same; it’s now or never, and never is not an option.
Like last week, neither Sansa nor Jon are wrong here. However, it’s worth pointing out that Sansa is extra not wrong.
Ramsay may be a psychopath as a hobby, but inside that twisted mind is a very clever, very pragmatic Bolton. Ramsay dominates the battle from the start, and Jon falls into his trap from practically the first minute, when Ramsay drags Rickon to the front lines, frees him and tells him to run to his brother. And then Ramsay grabs his bow.
What happens next is obvious — to both the audience and Jon — and that’s what makes it so difficult to bear. Ramsay starts firing his arrows, missing casually (he even fires one without looking. Jon runs from his front lines to get his brother, but when he’s practically in arms reach, Ramsay’s fourth and final arrow bursts through Rickon’s chest. The last (known) living heir of Ned Stark falls to the ground, dead.
There’s something about Rickon’s death that hits extra-hard. Maybe it’s because he was so young, maybe it’s because so much of his short life was spent on the run, enduring God knows what. But I think the real tragedy is that he’s one of the most glaringly innocent victims of the game of thrones the show has presented. Certainly, there have been countless innocent lives lost in the various battles and wars, but Rickon was a little kid when he was forced to flee Winterfell, only to end up captured and killed. He never played the game. He never even saw the board.
So while we know it’s so incredibly stupid for Jon to charge Ramsay and his entire army, alone, it’s still hard to fault him for his blinding rage. This, of course, is exactly what Ramsay wants; he orders his men to loose their arrows, Jon’s horse goes down, and suddenly Jon Snow is standing alone against Ramsay’s charging cavalry. Only the frantic arrival of Jon’s mounted soldiers save him from a useless, stupid death — and the battle is on.
If the battle for Winterfell isn’t technically indescribable, I feel like it should be. I don’t want to give you a blow-by-blow, and you shouldn’t want it — if you’re interested watch it, or watch it again, or better yet watch it three times (I took two breaks while writing this recap to do exactly this). From Rickon’s murder to the inevitable rescue by the soldiers of the Eyrie at the very last minute, it is incredible in the fullest sense of the word. And just because it ends in that exceedingly traditional narrative fashion doesn’t detract from the battle itself in the slightest.
Because the battle is unlike any other Game of Thrones has ever given us. Not only is it bigger — much bigger — it’s real in a sense that it has never been before. Blackwater, the Wall, Hardhome: All of these incorporated some kind of fantasy element, but the “Battle of the Bastards” is just one giant group of men trying to murder another, and there’s nothing fantastic about it at all — and it’s its simplicity that makes it so harrowing.
It starts out as pure chaos. Jon’s soldiers crash into Ramsay’s. A lot of people die. Jon kills many himself. Arrows rain randomly from the sky, and horses constantly barrel through the fight from every direction. It’s breathtaking how little control anyone has in this madness, let alone Jon. He nearly dies half a dozen times only to be saved by pure luck, including managing to curl into a ball in a hail of arrows, and having a horse run through a man just before he struck. But even Jon goes down, getting trampled by the flood of men in the throes of battle. When he manages to get to his feet, Ramsay’s pikemen have surrounded his forces, trapping them against a literal wall of corpses, crushing them together. Jon scrambles for air in a scene so visceral I felt like I couldn’t breathe while watching it.
It is very possibly the first fantasy battle I have ever seen which includes no glory in any way. Jon kills a lot of people, but no one’s impressed. Even Wun Wun is stymied by Ramsay’s pikemen. The entire battle is basically Ramsay provoking and outsmarting Jon completely, followed by Jon and his soldiers slowly losing and dying, getting surrounded and suffocated and butchered. Jon completely, thoroughly loses this battle… it’s Littlefinger and Sansa and the army of the Eyrie smashing through Ramsay’s phalanx who win it. It’s the only reason any of his men are alive. At the end, Jon is no hero. He’s covered in blood and dirt, his eyes are wild and he has no thought about Winterfell or the North or maybe even his family — nothing other than destroying Ramsay.
Ramsay, unsurprisingly, flees into Winterfell and bars the gate, only to learn that the Starks seem to have forgotten to giant-proof their ancestral front door. Wun Wun smashes through it, receiving a fatal amount of arrows in the process (the final one through the eye, courtesy of Ramsay). Jon rushes Ramsay, and proceeds to bludgeon his head to a near pulp… before he sees an oddly emotionless Sansa watching him, and remembers someone wants (if not deserves) justice more than he does.
When Ramsay awakens, he’s tied to a chair in a cell, with Sansa watching him, that flat expression still on her face. Despite being beaten half to death, the bastard of Bolton sees his bride and immediately tries to dominate her and his situation; he’s flip, he tells Sansa she can’t kill him because he’s “part of you now”. Sansa doesn’t disagree with the latter, but she takes issue with the former — silently letting Ramsay’s beloved, terrifying and very starved hunting dogs into his cell. Ramsay can’t believe that his hounds would ever hurt him, but Sansa knows better. His cruelty has begotten his fate, as the dogs he turned into vicious killers sate their hunger on their former master, eating him alive. Sansa watches for a long while before she turns away, allowing only the tiniest smile to appears on her face. This is as fitting and satisfying a death as Game of Thrones could have given us, and maybe ever will.
But even though Ramsay is finally dead and the Stark direwolf banner flies in Winterfell once again, the price of this justice has been immense. Their baby brother is dead. So is Wun Wun. Goodness knows how many of Jon’s army of Wildlings and Northmen remain. Littlefinger and the Eyrie army are there, and there will be a price to pay for them. The real purpose of this battle was to unite the North, to provide an actual front against the White Walkers. But how can these few remnants fight an army of the dead?
The answer may lie back in Essos, as Danaerys meets with Yara Greyjoy and Theon. It’s truly bizarre to see Danaerys dealing with any Westerosi characters, and the fact that Tyrion is there to give Theon shit about the dwarf jokes he made all the way back in season one actually makes it even more jarring — it’s been so long since then, and they’re all so far from home.
But maybe not for long. Yara offers Dany her ships in exchange for helping her retake the Iron Islands. Tyrion is wary of the precedent of allowing one of the kingdoms to have its independence — I’m going to say he’s likely going end up being right about this — but Dany is very impressed with the woman who wants to be the first queen of her people. After making Yara swear an oath that the Iron Islanders will stop reaving and raping (which is basically their entire society and culture), they shake hands and an alliance is formed. With the ships she’s taken from the Masters, it’s just enough to bring the Unsullied, the mercenaries of the Seconds Sons and every single Dothraki tribe under her command to Westeros.
Look, I fully admit I’m a guy who is frequently guilty of hyperbole. So I worry that you strange few who are for some reason reading this recap before watching the episode may think I’m crying wolf when I tell you that “Battle of the Bastards” is astounding. It’s because of the story it tells, or because it has the most unbelievable scope — it’s because sometimes Game of Thrones is so breathtakingly shot and conceived and performed and edited that it’s unlike anything else on TV, providing a visceral experience most filmmakers can scarcely achieve. “Battle of the Bastards”, by devoting all its energies to its most arguably mundane battle, achieves one of its greatest feats. And that is something incredible indeed.
Also, Ramsay Bolton is finally dead as shit. Bonus!
• Looks like we all need to be a bit more trusting of tawdry British TV listing magazines.
• Tyrion confirms a fun fact that I think we basically knew: Aerys didn’t just fill the underground of King’s Landing with dragonfire, he made a concerted effort to stockpile them in the city’s biggest, most important locations. He was going to make sure to take the entire capital down with him.
• Speaking of, if Jaime told Tyrion about Aerys’ scorched Westeros policy (and why he murdered his king) is that how Tyrion knew about the wildfire back in season two when he was Hand of the King? I can’t remember.
• I swear to God every time I see a close-up of Danaerys riding her dragon, all I can think of is Atreyu riding Falkor in The Neverending Story, and not in a good way.
• During his traditional pre-battle walkabout, Davos comes across a few piles of burned wood… and the wooden stag he carved Stannis’ daughter Shireen. I’m not sure what Davos thought happened to Shireen during Stannis’ battle for Winterfell, but he pretty quickly puts two and two together. Based on the “next week on” he’s going to be verrrry upset.
• Melisandre is in an interesting place; she seems to still believe in the Lord of Light, but no longer trusts herself to know what he wants. As a result, she’s stepped back from the battle entirely (although to be fair her main trick is using king’s blood to kill potential kings, and neither of those seems to be around). She even essentially tells Jon, “Maybe He brought you back to life to die at this battle.” She’s not even trying to guess.
• Jon Snow’s army is 50 per cent Alan Moores.
• There’s a tracking shot of Jon near the beginning of the battle that makes the hallway scene from Daredevil look like garbage. Hell, this shot makes the tracking shot from “Hardhome” look like it’s from a CW show.
• I saw someone posit that Sansa and Littlefinger probably planned to hold the Eyrie’s troops for the very last minute, but that’s nonsense. Sansa wouldn’t have left her half-brother in danger or Ramsay out of danger for a minute longer than necessary. Now, did Littlefinger somehow finagle his way into arriving at the very last minute, perhaps with the use of scouts, relayed messages and very strategic marching? 100 per cent yes.
• Tormund to Davos: “Happy shitting.”