I’m still processing, fellow Throne Geeks, but after having watched last night’s beyond epic ninth episode, entitled “Battle of the Bastards,” three things, in particular, stood out to me.
First: Despite the show often giving us quite satisfying deaths for its villains (Viserys’ death via a molten gold “crown”, Joffrey’s by poison at his own wedding, and Tywin’s ignominious demise by crossbow while sitting on the toilet), I’m not sure they’ll ever top Ramsay Bolton’s long delayed comeuppance (the only one I can think of that may come close would be Cersei…or maybe Walder Frey – to be determined). Ding dong, the insane Bolton Bastard is dead…at the hands of the woman he tormented and the hounds he loved so much. That’s not only satisfying for Sansa, but for us viewers as well.
Second: I’m happy to report that the creators of the show really followed through on their promise that this season would be such a strong one for it’s female characters. Some questionable decisions notwithstanding, several women in the series stepped up in big ways, and this episode showcased, not only Sansa and Dany in that light, but Yara as well.
Third: This is a bit more abstract, but the episode got me thinking about the balance between anticipation, expectation, and predictability in television shows (or any kind of storytelling). Because, as incredibly impressive as this episode of television was, I have to admit to being a little disappointed in the predictability of the storyline. And not just from a book reader perspective, but from a very basic, storytelling 101, perspective.
This show threw the rulebook out the window in it’s first three seasons (killing off main characters…and their sons, introducing compelling people late in the game, flipping the script and making villains layered and likable, etc), but since then, it’s become much more traditional, and that, at times, has been frustrating. If you told a ten year old the basic plot points leading up to the The Battle of the Bastards, he/she could easily have told you that Ramsay would kill Rickon, that Jon would react out of emotion, and that his army would end up on the brink of defeat just to be rescued in the nick of time by the knights Sansa bewilderingly decided not to tell her brother might be coming. The execution of that series of events was breathtaking, but was it enough to mask the unoriginality of the way it played out? I suspect this will be a topic of conversation for the next year or so.
But let’s get into the details, shall we?
In a rather surprising move, the show begins in the midst of the Battle for Mereen (most of us assumed this episode would take place entirely in the North, like Blackwater in season two). Starting with the first of an extraordinary number of beautifully rendered fx shots, we see a fire-y cannonball launched into the city from one of the slave masters’ ships. While the battle rages outside the Great Pyramid, a defensive Tyrion squares off against the Dragon Queen inside, with Dany delivering one of her patented (and tiring), “I will kill them all” speeches as a way to deal with the Masters and their attack. Tyrion, thankfully, convinces her to consider another way to end the battle: make a statement instead (side note: there was more wildfire talk as Tyrion tells Dany about the Mad King and his plan to burn Kings Landing to the ground during Robert’s Rebellion. He even specifically mentions that a cache of wildfire was placed beneath the Sept of Baelor…I’ll be sorely disappointed if we don’t see Cersei try to use it next week as the hints have been piling up this season).
Dany agrees to Tyrion’s suggestion and asks for a parlay with the Slave Masters from Astapor and Yunkai (including the ex-slave trader Yezzan). After disabusing them of the notion that she intends to surrender, Dany demonstrates her ability as a dragonrider. As simple and expected a solution as this is, it is nevertheless bad-ass to watch. Dany and her three dragons; Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion, take out one of the slave masters ships as Daario leads the Dothraki against a group of Harpies outside the gates of Mereen (why were they outside the gates slaughtering random Mereenese people, you ask? I have no idea…).
After seeing this display of power, the Masters’ guards take up Grey Worm’s offer to leave peacefully, while the three leaders are told that one of them must die in retribution for their breaking the treaty. The selfish Master from Yunkai predictably pushes for Grey Worm to take Yezzan (who is more a middle class slave master than an upper class one). Instead Grey Worm kills him and the third leader, leaving Yezzan to return to Yunkai and Astapor, bringing with him the story of how Dany crushed the masters and will do so again should another uprising occur.
An indeterminate amount of time later, peace appears to be restored to the city and Dany meets with new ambassadors from Westeros: Theon and Yara Greyjoy. In one of the best scenes ever shot in Mereen, Tyrion takes some shots at Theon (who he hasn’t seen since season one) which underline how complicated so many of these characters’ arcs have been over the last six seasons. But it is Dany’s interaction with Yara that makes the scene soar.
In a true “Dame of Thrones” moment, Dany meets an equal; another woman who has the guts, ego, and drive to be a leader (and one who understands that sometimes compromises need to be made – so much so, that Yara agrees that the Ironborn will give up their pirate-like ways). It’s a scene that takes on so much added meaning because it plays out as if it was a pact being sealed by two men.
They pledge to leave the world better than they found it, unlike their evil fathers (this includes Tyrion and his father, Tywin) and now that they have enough ships (Yara’s 100 Ironborn ships, plus the slave master ones Dany confiscated after the battle), they can finally head west. Plus, that arm clasp at the end – awesome!
In the North
Another parlay takes place outside of Winterfell, this time between The Bastards: Jon and Ramsay. Sansa also attends, along with Davos, Tormund, and young Lyanna Mormont (as well Smalljon Umber with Ramsay).
Jon attempts to bait Ramsay into settling the battle via single combat (by calling Ramsay a coward in front of his men for being willing to sacrifice them and not himself) but Ramsay, while acknowledging Jon’s cunning in the attempt, merely threatens Rickon’s life (he shows them the head of Shaggydog) and tells them all that he will feed them to his ravenous dogs after winning.
At a final war council, Davos, Jon and Tormund make a plan of attack (lots of hint dropping in regards to Jon’s lack of horses…gee, I wonder who has some?). Tormund’s inability to understand battle tactics is amusing, but Sansa realizes that the three men are underestimating Ramsay and tries to warn Jon.
While their plans are sound (be patient, get Ramsay to charge first, and don’t allow him to envelope them from both sides), Sansa understands that Ramsay won’t play into their hands and will do something to cause Jon to react in a predictable way. She also understands that there is absolutely no reason for Ramsay to allow Rickon to live (he, after Bran, is the rightful heir to Winterfell and has a much better claim, not to mention ability to rally the North, than either Jon (a bastard) or Sansa (a girl)), but Jon is unable to appreciate the depth of Sansa’s insight, which, yes, would be very frustrating for her…but frustrating enough to withhold her incredibly valuable information about the Knights of the Vale??
This would be one of those “strange character decisions” I’ve mentioned before (sort of like Arya sauntering though the streets of Braavos two episodes ago). I completely understand Sansa’s trust issues (no character has more right to be skeptical than she does. Her line “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone” is heartbreaking because it is true), but it makes no sense that she wouldn’t tell Jon that she might have the very thing he is absolutely convinced they can’t get: more men! She clearly wants them to beat Ramsay, she clearly understands that they don’t have much chance of doing that given the army they have, and she clearly knows that Jon is under the impression there is no one left to turn to and ask…he gives her the clearest possible opportunity to tell him when he says that he knows their men aren’t enough but it’s “what they have.”
Yet she still doesn’t tell him, and I see absolutely zero reason for her to withhold such crucial tactical information. Zero. Except to prove that she was right and he was wrong…which is unbelievably petty and juvenile. This seems so egregious to me that I would lay equal blame for the deaths of so many of their men at her feet, as I would at Jon’s (for being tricked into charging first…see below).
Regardless, the members of Jon’s camp settle in for the night, each dealing with thoughts of the upcoming battle in his/her own way. Jon visits Melisandre in her tent and commands her not to bring him back from the dead again, should he fall. Unable to make that promise, the Red Priestess explains the tenuous nature of her power – everything she has been able to do, good or bad, was because the Lord of Light willed it. There are hints of confusion and doubt in her speech (still lingering after her mistakes regarding Stannis) as she admits to not always understanding or correctly interpreting what the Lord of Light wants, and both she and Jon seem disheartened at the God’s seemingly feckless nature. Would the Lord of Light really bring Jon back from the dead just to let him die in this battle? What sort of God would do that? Apparently, “the one we’ve got.” Chilling.
Elsewhere in camp, Tormund goes off to drink some sour goats milk (after thinking Stannis had literal demons inside his skull…thank the old gods Tormund survives this episode!), while Davos walks because he can’t sleep. In his wanderings, he comes across on old burnt out pyre, half covered in snow. Under a log he finds a half burnt carving of a stag: the one he made for Shireen last season. Davos is smart enough to guess what it means – that his young friend was burned, most likely at the bidding of our favorite Red Woman. The showdown I’ve been waiting for since the first episode this season (!) is so happening next week.
Dawn breaks as Jon’s army lines up against Ramsay’s outside the gates of Winterfell. Ramsay has placed rows of flayed men on burning crosses between the two armies; a gruesome sign of his capabilities. But they pale in comparison to the trap he sets for Jon. After freeing his prisoner, Rickon Stark, he tells the boy to run to Jon across the wide field separating the two armies. Once Rickon begins to run, however, Ramsay begins shooting arrows at him. Jon leaps on his horse and races to protect his young half brother, but the distance between them is great and Ramsay is able to fire arrow after arrow.
In a testament to Miguel Sapochnik’s (he who also directed “Hardhome” last season) direction and sense of pacing, there is a brief moment when it seems as if Jon will reach Rickon, but one last arrow strikes the boy through the heart, killing him, which sends Jon into a blind rage. He reacts as Ramsay (and Sansa) predicted, by charging at Ramsay’s army by himself. Davos calls for the rest of Jon’s men to charge as well, barely reaching their leader (whose horse is shot out from under him) before Ramsay’s cavalry tramples him. The moment is pure cinema (I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at an event in Los Angeles and it was absolutely spectacular).
The intensity of the battle that follows plays in stark contrast to that opening cavalry charge and stand by Jon (shot partially in slow motion). The choreography and pacing of the fight is visceral and brutally efficient without being overly disorienting. The music disappears and sound design kicks in as the blood, guts, and mud start flying. Davos refuses to let his archers fire their arrows for fear of hitting their own men currently locked in combat with the enemy, but Ramsay shows no such qualms, and as the battle rages, piles of dead men and horses begin to form.
Jon tears into the enemy as Davos, Tormund, and the wildlings join the fray, but Ramsay puts into motion the next step of his plan. By sending his shield and pikemen around the sides of the battle, he is able to encircle Jon’s army (who now have absolutely no horses left). Smalljon Umber’s men climb the piles of dead bodies to attack Jon from one side, while the shield and pikemen inch forward step by step, effectively skewering the encircled men, who can’t create a breach in the giant shield wall surrounding them.
The claustrophobia and suffocation in this scene is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in movies or television – another testament to Sapochnik’s superb direction. Jon is nearly trampled by his own men as they are squeezed together, trying to avoid the long pikes while also fighting off Umbers’s men.
Ramsay’s methodical and diabolical plan appears to have won the day, but just as the night seems darkest for our heroes, the sound of a horn reaches their ears (in one of many Lord of the Rings–like moments). As we all knew would happen, Petyr Baelish and his Knights of the Vale arrive to save the day (with Sansa at the head of the column). Tormund, who had been getting his ass handed to him by Lord Umber in a fistfight, uses the momentary distraction to take a bite out of Umber’s neck (or possibly his ear…I couldn’t tell, even on my re-watch…in either case, it was a very wilding thing to do and I heartily approve).
As predictable as it was, there was no resisting a cheer as the mounted Valemen swept away the Bolton shield and pikemen, freeing Jon and his mean from encirclement.
With Sansa looking on from a nearby hilltop, Jon spies Ramsay fleeing back toward Winterfell (because Ramsay, of course, never deigned to actually fight with his men). Still in a rage, Jon pursues Ramsay, along with Tormund and the giant, Wun-wun. Once inside the castle, Ramsay is briefly confident that they can withstand a siege, but is quickly rid of that hope when Wun-wun single handedly tears open the gates.
Jon rushes into the courtyard, but briefly pauses as Wun-wun staggers to his knees due to dozens of arrow and spear wounds. As Jon moves to help the giant who agreed to aid him in his quest to take back Winterfell, a final arrow strikes Wun-wun in the eye, killing him. It’s Ramsay, who decides maybe he’ll take Jon up on the offer of one-on-one combat after all.
Jon throws his sword down, grabs a shield, and charges as Ramsay shoots three arrows at him. The shield protects Jon long enough for him to get to Ramsay, who he proceeds to knock to the ground and then completely pummel. I’m not a violent person, but I was not-so-silently cheering Jon on with every punch (especially given Ramsay’s insane half smile as it was happening). Jon stops himself just shy of killing Ramsay when he realizes Sansa is looking on.
In the aftermath of the battle, Stark banners replace Bolton ones as Rickon’s body is brought down to the crypt. Davos silently glowers at Melisandre, who has joined them in the castle, and Sansa visits a bloodied Ramsay, tied up in the kennels. Ramsay still believes he has the upper hand, that he broke Sansa, and that she won’t be able to kill him. Then he notices the doors to his hounds’ cages are open, allowing them into his cell. Sansa tells him that his name, his house, and his deeds will disappear from history, that he will essentially become “no one, “ and that starving his supposedly loyal hounds for a week was a very, very bad idea. The smile falls from his face and Ramsay dies in the same horrific way he killed his mother-in-law and baby half brother earlier this season. Sansa turned the tables on him and walks away with a smile as she gets her revenge. I think Arya would be proud, don’t you?
The Battle of the Bastards was pretty much everything the show’s creators promised. It was bigger than anything they had ever attempted – including the battles of Blackwater, Castle Black, and Hardhome and its execution was on par with the best movie battle scenes ever committed to film (Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, Gladiator, Zulu, etc). The action and emotion were expertly balanced and the payoff, particularly with respect to Ramsay’s final moments, was exactly what fans of the series wanted (and needed). To top it off, the episode also gave us a spectacular action sequence in Mereen, complete with dragons, Tyrion’s best moments of the season, and a concrete plan to move toward Westeros. The Starks are back in charge of Winterfell, Ramsay is dead, and Dany has met a worthy ally in Yara – so this should be the best episode, ever, right?
I don’t know if it is…yet. I just keep going back to how I wish the hour hadn’t played out so predictably. For a show that has bent and broken so many rules, created such complicated characters and arcs, and played with our expectations time and again, the story felt too derivative to me. How many times in movies, shows, and books do we have to watch the little underdog army/group of heroes get rescued just in the nick of time (I am eternally grateful that Yara and Theon didn’t do that in Mereen, as some suspected)? We’ve already seen that in this show (Blackwater and at the Wall) so why couldn’t the writers do something a little different here? And, why oh why, couldn’t Sansa have told Jon about the Valemen? These plot points kept me from loving this episode the way I loved Blackwater and Hardhome, but, at the same time, I cannot deny the impact it had as a truly epic hour of television. The scale and execution of it deserve every technical award it can get its hands on. The acting was also superb, especially from Kit Harrington and Sophie Turner. So, hats off to you Game of Thrones, for setting the bar so damn high, I don’t know know how the rest of television is going to catch up.
- Dany rides Drogon and rallies her other dragons to make a statement to Slaver’s Bay.
- Every single time Tormund Giantsbane was on screen (but mostly when he kills Smalljon Umber).
- Dany and Yara make a pact to rule Westeros.
- Sansa gets her revenge.
Most Shocking Moments (though maybe “shocking” isn’t the best word…:
- The death of Rickon Stark, in front of Jon, at the hands of the truly insane and sadistic Ramsay Bolton.
- Tormund biting and then repeatedly stabbing Smalljon Umber to death.
- Ramsay dies in one of the best examples of poetic justice I’ve seen in long time.
- We obviously didn’t communicate clearly. We’re here to discuss your surrender, not mine. – Dany
- It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it, other people dying? – Tyrion
- You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well. – Sansa
- And I imagine your offer is free of any marriage demands. – Dany. I never demand, but I’m up for anything, really. – Yara
- Your words will disappear. Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear. – Sansa
- Will Melisandre survive the season now that Davos knows what she did to Shireen?
- Will Jon be able to trust Sansa in the future?
- What was more telegraphed: the fact that Jon didn’t have enough horses to defeat Ramsay, that Ramsay would die at the jaws of his hounds, or that wildfire is so happening next week in Kings Landing?
- Who will take over as the show’s resident evil psychopath? Though the real threat is the White Walkers, I suspect Euron Greyjoy could fill the hole left by Joffrey and now Ramsay.
Well, that was one hell of a ride and an episode for the record books. I can’t wait to re-watch it for a third (and fourth) time, and look forward to hearing what you all thought of the biggest episode in the show’s history (so far, anyway). Only one more to go, and I think some big things will be going down in King’s Landing and north of the wall (now that Winterfell has been taken back and the snow is falling (about time…), it’s time to remember the White Walkers are coming) next week. Be sure to tune in here at Geeknation for our final recap/review and some season-as-a-whole thoughts!
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