This is a recap, so, get ready for the spoiler train!
War is a constant in Game of Thrones but we’ve rarely seen it on terms as grand as in “Battle of the Bastards”. The largest fights have been hidden from us. Robb’s defeat to Jaime and the Lannister forces during the Battle in the Whispering Wood occurred offscreen. We did not see the Battle of the Green Fork either. Tyrion was knocked out for that. Season Two’s “Blackwater” is the last time I recall a large scale battle being shown and even that was toned down for the television.
Some of this is a result of budgets, no doubt, and now that the series is a pop cultural powerhouse, we finally get all the chaos and carnage in full glory. It allows the show to expand in a way not previously seen. Plenty of it is raw spectacle but “Battle of the Bastards” goes a long way to making the violence feel terrible, even as we watch in awe.
We start with a battle, but not in Westeros. Instead, the show picks up with the siege of Mereen by the Wise Masters. It is a technically impressive scene that ends with Dany riding her dragons to burn down the masters’ ships – but the more compelling matters come before all the fire and fury. As this season has progressed, Dany’s felt a bit stale. Smug smile, dragons, “I will take what is mine”. It’s been the same song and dance.
Yet, this scenario allows Tyrion to finally thrive. From warning the Mother of Dragons that she is taking another step down the Mad King’s road to managing the surrender of the Masters, Tyrion is at his best. Dinklage’s performance sells his earnestness, his conviction in good that comes paired with a sad cynicism. It’s a strong counter to Daenerys’ arrogance. And while it does all end with the silver haired queen, her dragons, and a Dothraki horde, Tyrion steals the show.
Across the sea, before Winterfell, the two bastards meet. Jon Snow. Ramsay Bolton. The two exchange words, Jon attempting to bait Ramsay into an honor duel. Kit Harrington and Iawn Rheon play off each other well but, much like in Mereen, there is another character that shines. Sansa Stark stares down her tormentor. “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.”
But will he? It’s an honest question. We’ve seen the “good guys” have momentum before. Robb Stark faced down his enemies with confidence but where is he now? Game of Thrones has never been a show about heroes. Not in a broad sense. It’s been about little victories. Small acts. When the larger history is read, the “good guys” don’t tend to fare all that well. As Jon schemes with Davos and Tormund, there is a sense that a plan to counter Ramsay’s many advantages might take root but when Sansa points out that Jon “Knows Nothing” Snow doesn’t really know that much about Ramsay, I was more than willing to concede that even if I want to see good triumph over evil, Game of Thrones would be more than ready to disappoint should it feel fickle.
The quiet moments before the battle are some of the episode’s best. The light rapport of Davos and Tormund. Jon begging Melisandre to not bring him back. It’s not up to her though; she does what God commands. I’ve enjoyed the theme of religion in this season as it matured but it’s hard not to read “god” as something grander and metatextual. Jon might have been brought back from life just to die at this moment, we are told. “What god would do something like that?” “The one we’ve got.” It’s true. George R. R. Martin is a cruel god. I was poised, more than ever, for doom. Davos finding Shireen’s pyre felt equally ominous.
I don’t know if breaking up things to cut to Mereen again was the best idea but seeing Theon and Yara before Tyrion and Dany was certainly enjoyable. This season’s done a great job tossing familiar characters together in unfamiliar arrangements. Theon’s humility in the face of Tyrion’s well placed skepticism was nice but the highlight was Yara. Ever self-assured, the would-be queen of the Iron Islands forms a quick bond with the Mother of Dragons that is wonderfully flirtatious.
Yet, the scene is about more than a new “ship” (which I’m just gonna call Danyara or something), it was also about the future. “We’re going to leave the world better than we found it.” But who determines what is better? Here, it is Dany. “That’s our way of life.” Yara explains when the Queen asks her to end the practice of costal raiding and pillaging. But she is willing to give that up in exchange for the future. It’s not for the best intentions. Yara and Theon also just want to survive and kill Euron until he’s super dead. Still, it does get the job done. Best intentions mean little on Game of Thrones. The truth behind why anything is done is always complicated.
Winterfell. The show does a strong job conveying the scale of the battle once it arrives. It has less to do with raw numbers and everything to do with the tension before the lines break. Ramsay sends Rickon to run to his brother. It is a terrible thing to watch explicitly because of how well it is composed. Game of Thrones has never been higher art. Not in the writing and rarely in the cinematography. But the jarring cuts between Jon, Rickon, and Ramsay as the youngest Stark tries to outrun the bastard’s arrows lets the wider shot of Jon nearly reaching his brother are wrenching. Rickon was never going to make it, but he was close. He was so damn close.
With anger in his heart, Jon Snow runs towards the Bolton lines. It’s a tactical mistake. It’s suicide. But Jon acts from his heart, hell or high water. It really is hell too. Standing before the Bolton charge, ready to face his demise, he is saved when his men arrive in time and crash into the enemy. And it’s good! Like, this is a really well composed and shot war scene.
I was in outright shock. The uninterpupted shot following Jon was a highlight, but the rising tide of blood, dirt, and corpses was stunning as well. Heaps of bodies, high as the hills. The Stark army surrounded. Tormund clashing with Lord Umber. Jon nearly being trampled to death and buried alive under all the bodies.
Things turned dark and defeat approached. A high shot looking down at Jon entangled in corpses made for a dark and strange reprise of the crowd sufing scene from Season Three’s finale, “Mhysa”. But Sansa, Littlefinger, and the Knights of the Vale arrive just in time to smash the Bolton lines.
Although Ramsay flees into Winterfell, the gate is breached by Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun. The giant dies, Bolton forces crumple, and Jon beats the shit out of Ramsay. The good guys won. But it was bloody and terrible and the show, to its credit, did an excellent job of conveying just how dreadful it was.
If Ramsay was going to die, it was only fitting that Sansa be the one to witness it all. To watch as the bastard was ruined and his house crumbled. To bring furious vengeance down upon the man who abused her.
The bastard is dead, eaten by his own dogs. And while the future might seem a bit brighter without him, we know that the real war is still to come. It’s a sobering thought, that we might see something worse than this or Hardhome. But it’s an important lesson. No matter how hard fought a victory and no matter how much sacrifice, there will always be more battles. Still, for whatever it is worth, evil lost tonight. And in a messy world? I’ll take it.