Last night’s “Battle of the Bastards” was one of the most nerve-racking hours of television I’ve ever watched. For those of you who never read the books, is this what watching the whole series has been like?
I figured even George R.R. Martin wouldn’t be crazy and sadistic enough to kill Jon Snow again. But man, when he was getting trampled underfoot by the terrified stampede of his own men, I seriously started to wonder. So kudos to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for a major climactic episode whose end result didn’t feel inevitable.
It was also just a really well-staged battle. It’s hard to make two mass groupings of men crashing into one another visually interesting — to give the battle itself a mini-storyline that’s actually original. We arguably haven’t seen it done since Braveheart, really. And “Battle of the Bastards” director Miguel Sapochnik pulled it off in stunning fashion. First we got the initial charge where the two forces met in the field. Then Ramsay Bolton’s decision to just rain arrows down onto both armies because he new he could spare the men. After that he sent his shield-and-spear guys out in a U-shaped formation to surround Jon’s remaining men, driving them back into the pile of bodies created by all the death (Wasn’t that ghoulish image?) and causing that aforementioned stampede. Finally, Ramsay sent the remainder of his foot shoulders to the top of the corpse pile to kill the stragglers.
It all would’ve worked, too, had Littlefinger not shown up with cavalry from the Veil just in the nick of time.
In other words, we got inventive tactical gambits, and the battle took several turns where it was clear what was happening, what the geography was, and how things had gone wrong for our heroes. On top of all that, it was beautifully shot: all grime and dirt and earth tones and blood and another one of those insane extra-long hand-held takes — just like in “Hardhome” — that follows Jon through all manner of destruction.
My one complaint was that the planning scene in the tent the night before didn’t lay out the stakes as well as it could’ve. It was clear Jon wanted Ramsay’s army to come to them, but not what would happen if they went to Ramsay instead. In retrospect, I think it was because they needed to stay put so they could stay within the protection of the trenches and Ramsay couldn’t outflank them. So there was a double horror to Rickon’s death: We saw another human struck down by Ramsay’s sick games — this time a Stark sibling, no less — just before Jon could reach him on horseback. But sending Rickon running off while he tried out a little target practice was also Ramsay’s ploy to bring Jon out into the open. And it was Jon all alone in the center of the field — that shot where it looked like he would be ridden down by the Bolton army was magnificently tragic — that drew the rest of Jon’s army out of the protection of the trenches. Killing Rickon was just how Ramsay got Jon right where he wanted him.
As much as we may love Jon — and as well as he may have performed at the battle at the Wall and the fight at Hardhome — he failed spectacularly here, nearly getting his entire army destroyed with his inability to control his emotions.
The actual hero of the Battle of the Bastards was Sansa, who has been stunningly transformed since those early days when her dreams of kings and queens and royal romance were crushed by Joffrey’s psychopathy. It was Sansa who intuited that Ramsay would have something up his leave to foil Jon’s carefully-laid battle plans — rightfully rebuking Jon for not consulting with her from the get-go on how to deal with this particularly enemy, given her intimate knowledge. And it was Sansa who saved them with that secret message to Littlefinger, bringing in a heavy horse-mounted charge at the last minute to run down Ramsay’s forces.
Last night’s other hero was the giant, Wun Wun. He’s been a recognizable fixture for several seasons now, though more as a presence than a character with any dialogue. (You could probably count the total words he’s spoken in Game of Thrones’ run on the fingers of one hand.) Just like the achingly heroic demise of Sean Bean’s Broromir in Lord of the Rings, Wun Wun was finally brought down last night, pierced by so many spears and arrows his body finally gave out, right before he took one last deadly shaft through the eye. But at the end, he was able to break down the doors of Winterfell, allowing Jon and Sansa to reclaim their home. Wun Wun didn’t speak a word, but his silent passing, standing side by side with Jon and Tormund in Winterfell’s courtyard, was one of last night’s most cutting moments.
Compared to all this, the slave masters’ siege of Meereen was almost perfunctory.
Tyrion was strangely distraught in his initial conversation with Daenerys. He commanded the forces of Kings Landing at the Battle of the Blackwater, so you’d think he’d be able to keep his cool during a siege by now. (It feels like the show’s playing up Tyrion’s thinker-not-a-fighter role a bit much.) But he was able to talk Daenerys off the precipice of slaughtering the masters’ other cities wholesale. That was a bit more evidence that Daenerys has at least some of the Mad King inside her, and keeping her on an even moral keel when she retakes Westeros may be Tyrion’s defining role as Game of Thrones barrels towards its conclusion.
Instead of slaughter, Daenerys and Tyrion unleashed the dragons on the masters’ fleet of ships (Shouldn’t she have a harness for Drogon by now?) and the Douthraki horde on the Sons of the Harpy at Meereen’s gates. Those twin demonstrations of power changed the tune of the masters’ leaders real quick. So when Daenerys, Tyrion, Grey Worm and Missendai met them to discuss terms, they were only too eager to hand over the lowest born of the three to be executed — prompting Grey Worm to, appropriately for a slave rebellion, slash the throats of the other two.
The best scene in this plot thread actually came after, when Theon and Yara showed up in Daenerys’ court to offer their fleet to her. (So who is Varys talking to on that secret mission?) It was a multiway conversation of people coming to terms with their own demons; in the quest, as Daenerys put it, “to leave the world better.” Theon was reminded by Tyrion of his many sins, Yara agreed the Ironborn would give up their reaving in order to secure Daenerys’ loyalty, and everyone in the room was laboring under the legacy left them by some truly terrible parents. But Theon once again showed himself a changed man, by publicly throwing his support behind his sister. It even looks like the major players in the final battle for Westeros will all be women: Daenerys the conquerer, Yara with her fleet, Sansa the primary political strategist, and finally Cersei — who we didn’t see last night — perhaps representing the final desperate attempt of amoral power to hold on to King’s Landing.
Ultimately, my only real complaint with “Battle of the Bastards” was that its quality revealed the big problem of season 6. The conclusion of so many arcs last night was marvelous, but they just needed more time. The siege of Meereen really deserved to be its own episode. Tyron’s doomed efforts to broker peace with the masters, Jon’s doomed attempt to pull together an army to contest the Boltons, Theon and Yara’s partnership and journey east, Daenerys’ self-rediscovery, and Sansa’s personal development all needed more time to simmer so their full weight could fall when all the threads came together.
More than anything, we needed time to get to know Rickon again. The youngest Stark sibling never got a chance to play a major role in Game of Thrones, and was absent for multiple seasons. His death last night existed for no other reason than to draw an emotional breakdown from Jon. Rickon never got the chance to develop as his own character, which sapped his death of a lot of the reverence it deserved.
This thinness in season 6 was even a problem when watching Ramsay Bolton — Game of Thrones’ premiere psychopath — finally, finally get his just deserts. Jon’s final march towards Ramsay, using a shield to catch the Bolton’s arrows, had all the force behind it of cosmic justice long denied. And I think we were all cheering him on when he started beating Ramsay to a pulp with his bare hands. Why did he stop? Was it a twinge of morality? Or perhaps merely the thought that Sansa, more than anyone, should decide Ramsay’s fate?
And what a fate it was: fed to his own dogs. Last night was shot through with themes about what leaders lose when their men follow them out of fear rather than love. Ramsay learned that point applies to dogs as well as people. As Sansa said, Ramsay will be forgotten: The memories of pain fade and scares heal. A legacy left behind — one that the people who come after you for love — is the one thing that endures.
But in the rush to pack two seasons worth of material into one, I think Benioff and Wiess did Ramsay’s defeat a bit of a disservice. Given the overwhelming scale of his evil, and the grief he’s caused so many, his long road to destruction should’ve had a bit more time to breath: more time to feel the tectonic plates of the plot shifting under Ramsay’s feet, as well as everyone else’s.
It was a profound emotional release to see the wolf banners of the Starks finally fly on Winterfell’s walls again. I’m just not sure we took the proper time needed to get there.