Make no mistake, "Battle of the Bastards" is a magnificent hour of television.
I'm just not sure it's a great episode of Game of Thrones.
Though it may have been due to budgetary limitations more than creative choices, Game of Thrones has largely eschewed battle scenes. The entire War of Five Kings was fought with our only seeing one real clash of armies, at the Battle of the Blackwater in Season Two. Since that war ended, we've had only two more combat heavy episodes: Season Four's "The Watchers on the Wall," and last season's "Hardhome." Each of these—deliberately, one suspects—has been more elaborate, more impressive, and no doubt more expensive than the last. HBO seems determined to prove—as if it hadn't already done so with Band of Brothers and The Pacific—that television need not bow its head to cinema when it comes to depicting war.
And "Battle of the Bastards," directed by Miguel Sapochnik, is a staggering piece of work. It was a shock to rewatch the episode and realize that the actual fight—from the first volley of arrows to the defeat of Ramsay Bolton—occupies less than 20 minutes of screen-time. On first viewing, it felt epic: a full-scale, Hellish, endless immersion in the raw chaos of medieval-style war. I do not want for a moment to undersell how impressive this episode is from a technical standpoint. The battle scenes are frenzied, grotesque, and imbued with real terror. If they sometimes lack "good" storytelling elements—a clear logic, a consistent sense of space, a clean narrative thread—these sacrifices are intentional: the goal here is not to show a battle the way it plays out on diagrams, but the way it feels in the shit. It is haphazard, arbitrary, impossible to understand except moment to moment. Survival depends more on sheer, dumb luck than on skill or strategy. (Once the battle commences, Jon Snow—its commander—gives not a single command: he simply cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of war.) It is brutal and ugly, and it is supposed to be brutal and ugly.
But is there meaning in the mayhem? To be honest, I never minded that Game of Thrones left out the battle scenes, because Game of Thrones has never been an action-adventure series to me. And the previous episodes that were heavy on action were about something more than action. "Blackwater" featured visually dazzling battle sequences, but it also found room for vital conversations, and used the pressure of the siege to reveal deep emotional truths about several of our central characters. "Hardhome" was the most impressive (and surprising) fight sequence the show had attempted, but it was also the thematic core of Season Five, putting the argument about the commonality of humanity in stark and undeniable terms.
I'm just not sure "Battle of the Bastards" has as much to say. It's a masterful exercise in horrific spectacle, and that's not nothing. But is it anything more than that?
I haven't fully answered these questions for myself yet, and so this post is going to be—as many of my posts are—more a process of thinking through the issues than a pontification on my conclusions.
Let's begin with my reservations.
First of all—and, as far as I'm concerned, least importantly—there are some plot problems. Sansa's decision to keep Littlefinger's probable intervention a secret actually turns out to be the most interesting thing about this episode, because on paper it makes very little sense. It therefore takes on an air of mystery, of character complexity, that may or may not be intentional. (I am reminded of T.S. Eliot's reading of Hamlet, in which he basically suggested that we find the play so fascinating only because it was an "artistic failure" that made little coherent sense.) Which is to say, it is entirely possible that Sansa's "decision" was motivated not by internal logic, but by dramatic need: the desire on the part of Benioff and Weiss to provide a "surprise" victory.
I'm going to come back to Sansa in a bit, but for now let me say that the resulting problem with "Battle of the Bastards" is that nothing else about it is surprising: nothing. From the moment we discover that Sansa has not told Jon about soliciting Littlefinger's help, we know the Knights of the Vale will arrive just in the nick of time. And that means, of course, that the battle will have to go badly until then, that our underdog heroes will need to be brought to the brink of total destruction before they can be rescued. Every beat of the battle is predictable. We know Sansa's warnings about Ramsay's treachery will not be heeded. We know Rickon is going to end his non-existent character arc as a lamb sacrificed on the altar of emotional stakes. We can predict the sad spectacle of Wun Wun's death. We assume there will be some suitably gruesome disposal of Ramsay, and we feel certain it will be—as narrative rules say it must be—at Sansa's hand. (Personally, I was surprised Tormund made it through the battle alive, but otherwise I think I could have sketched out all the major events of this episode before I watched it.)
Game of Thrones has always carefully, deliberately, wonderfully avoided the standard tracks and tropes of fantasy, but "Battle of the Bastards" feels like it's on narrative rails. (Even the stylistic choices—though expertly executed—feel familiar and by-the-book. I think of Game of Thrones as being above dramatic, slow-motion shots of men galloping on horseback, for example. And god save me from anymore of that slow shutter-speed effect that has been de rigueur for every battle scene since Saving Private Ryan.)
And, what makes it worse, the predetermined outcomes are not particularly connected to character, or theme. In a show that is largely about different uses of power—and about the importance of recognizing the humanity of others—it bothers me that Ramsay's completely inhuman view of the world has no contribution to his defeat. What I'd have hoped for from this battle—and what would have made it tie into Game of Thrones' thematic core—would have been for Ramsay's army to turn on him. (This is a point the show made clear with Stannis, for example: half of his army abandoned him after he burned his own daughter at the stake.) "Fear is his power," Davos observes of Ramsay. "It's also his weakness," Jon says. "His men don't want to fight for him, they're forced to fight for him." This should have ended up mattering to the battle, but it doesn't. The seeds were planted as far back as last season for Ramsay to be defeated because his sadism alienated the North—Roose warned him of exactly that thing—but we see no evidence of it here. How much more meaningful would this battle have been if Ramsay's own brutality came back to bite him in the ass? If his callous murder of Rickon—the trueborn son of Ned Stark—had elicited some rebellion from his Northern troops? If it became clear that fear is not as effective a source of power as love and loyalty?
I do not have a heart of stone, and so, yes, I was happy to see Ramsay Bolton—the most purely evil fuck in all of the Seven Kingdoms—get his just desserts. But that's another problem for me: Game of Thrones is usually careful not to provide quite that kind of happiness. For example, George R. R. Martin went out of his way—and Benioff and Weiss followed him, in the television version—to make sure Joffrey's death was not satisfying. We had all wanted Joffrey dead since practically the first moment we saw him, but his death, when it came, did not tick any of the narrative boxes we might have expected. It was not achieved with a big, Inigo-Montoya-type speech, by one of our righteous heroes delivering revenge. It came from nowhere, and anonymously, and it was not so much emotionally satisfying as disturbing, and a little pathetic. It was not a cause, in short, for fist-pumping celebration, and shouldn't have been. (As this season has taken pains to remind us—through the character of Lady Crane—it was a moment of genuine horror and grief as much as it was a moment of deserved retribution.)
Game of Thrones has always known that life is not a fairy tale, in which order is restored and villains are satisfactorily dispatched with narrative inevitability. (And it has always known that every monster was just a screwed up person underneath. In retrospect, I have to say that Ramsay was too absolutely and cartoonishly evil, in the end: his pure sadism worked better when he was a minor character in the service of the more nuanced Roose Bolton, but he was too one-dimensionally nasty to serve as an effective adversary on any grander scale. He took Game of Thrones out of the realm of complexity and into the fairy-tale tropes of absolute good vs. absolute bad.)
All of which makes the final scene of "Battle of the Bastards" sit uneasily with me. Yes, Ramsay is an evil, sadistic, raping bastard, to be sure, and he deserves to die: the show leaves us little room for argument there. But Ramsay's death—unlike Joffrey's—is "satisfying" in a way Game of Thrones is usually careful to avoid being. And it is satisfying in a way that caters to instincts that Game of Thrones does not usually encourage, let alone celebrate.
Jon Snow, remember, is the man who put an arrow through the heart of Mance Rayder, rather than see him suffer gratuitously. He and Sansa are both the children of Ned Stark, who executed men cleanly, and with dignity, when it absolutely needed to be done. Even Sandor Clegane, last episode, learned to be satisfied with a quick, just execution instead of indulging in prolonged revenge.
Torture has never been something Game of Thrones celebrates, but torture—of the most gratuitous and grotesque kind—is exactly what Sansa inflicts on Ramsay.
Which is why the final scenes of "Battle of the Bastards"—and Sansa's choices throughout—are the most interesting aspect of the episode, but also the most troubling. It is vital, I think, that we do not read Sansa's murdering of Ramsay as a cause for celebration— however justifiable we think it is—anymore than we should have reveled in Arya's brutal murder of Meryn Trant. It is not a question of whether these men deserved it. (In both cases, I think we can all agree they did.) It is a question of what these women risk becoming by committing these acts. "You can't kill me," Ramsay says. "I'm part of you now." What Sansa demonstrates, by unleashing the starving dogs on her former husband, is that he is right. The little smile she gives in the final shot, as she walks away from his screams, should be chilling to us as viewers, not satisfactory. It is a small step towards her becoming a monster herself.
Which may be where Game of Thrones is heading with Sansa: she may, in the end, become Cersei, as she seemed groomed and destined to do when she was first brought to King's Landing, nearly six seasons ago. Certainly, her withholding of information from Jon in this episode complicates her character in interesting ways. (Why wouldn't she tell him about writing to Littlefinger? There may be valid, innocuous explanations—she didn't know for sure whether Littlefinger would come, perhaps—but none of them hold much water.) Either it is an illogical contrivance for the purposes of plotting—which would be unusual, but not unthinkable for Game of Thrones—or else it was deliberate, and cunning.
If it's the latter—which would make me feel better about Benioff and Weiss, but worse about Sansa—then Sansa has become a much darker character through her trials than we have realized. Because what she has done is make the battle—make the victory—hers, not Jon's. She has proven that she does not trust her brother. (She does not, after all, really know him. And, certainly, we can understand why Sansa would be hesitant to trust anyone who claimed to be on her side at this point. How many people have promised to look out for Sansa, and how many times has she been disappointed, used, betrayed? "No one can protect me," she says now to Jon. "No one can protect anyone.") And so she has sacrificed untold numbers of men—losing one brother, and risking losing another—in order to set a devious trap for Ramsay Bolton that she, and she alone, would spring. She has ruthlessly taken power and refused to cede control of that power to anyone, even Jon.
Which leads me, finally, to my biggest reservation about "The Battle of the Bastards": for most of its running time, it plays out as Jon's story, when really it should have been Sansa's story all along. Without her somehow at the center of the action, the emotional focus of this episode just feels wrong. Jon and Ramsay—the titular bastards—have never even met, and Jon's storyline, for six seasons, has been largely divorced from House Stark, Winterfell, and everything happening south of the Wall. As a result, Jon and Ramsay's major confrontation on the battlefield, and their one-on-one confrontation in the courtyard of Winterfell, both lack any real depth of meaning or emotional weight. I've no doubt Jon loves his family—and mourns the loss of most of its members—but this doesn't feel personal for him in quite the same way it is personal for Sansa. And it doesn't feel personal for any of the people fighting: this is not—though it should have been, thematically—a battle for the soul of the North. As a result, the battle itself—though technically impressive—also feels impersonal: a lot of anonymous people dying in a battlefield meat grinder, until a lot of other anonymous people show up to save the day. It is not a clash of personalities, let alone of ideologies: it is just a clash of bodies.
On the whole, then, the "Battle of the Bastards" left me a little cold: it felt like Game of Thrones becoming for an hour a different—more common, more familiar—kind of fantasy series than it has been all along: less smart, less nuanced, and ultimately less interesting.
Where I think the episode becomes a little more interesting, however, is in the juxtapositioning of the Battle of the Bastards with the other—albeit shorter—battle that takes place this episode: the one for Meereen.
Shall we call these, respectively, the last great battle of the Old World Order, and the first great battle of the New? From the moment she began to gain power, Dany's entire approach to the uses and purposes of power have stood in stark, accusatory contrast to all the predominant paradigms across the Narrow Sea. She finds a different way of doing things than have ever been tried before. More importantly—nine times out of ten—she finds better reasons for doing them.
She has the capacity to become a vengeful monster: that much has been made painfully clear. But she usually manages to resist those instincts, and to listen to the better angels of her nature. This week, that better angel is Tyrion, who talks her out of her first impulse: to crucify all the masters and burn their cities to the ground. "This is entirely different," she protests, when Tyrion compares her to her father, the Mad King. "You're talking about destroying cities," he says. "It's not entirely different." When thousands of innocent men, women, and children suffer and die, the motives don't matter: Dany once said she wanted to "break the wheel," and that means not continuing to ruthlessly crush those on the ground beneath it.
Dany's Plan B is not exactly pacifistic—she burns a healthy number of invaders with dragonfire, unleashes her Dothraki horde on the Sons of the Harpy, and has Grey Worm execute two of the three emissaries of the Masters—but it is a far cry from the total destruction she might have wrought. It is an appropriate application of force: a necessary surgical strike, not a vengeful annihilation. Compared to the raw human carnage taking place at Winterfell, it's downright civilized, and damn-near diplomacy.
And Dany's meeting with Theon and Yara puts the contrast in even starker terms. Dany and Yara are spiritual counterparts, in much the same way that Jon and Ramsay are. As they realize here, the two women have a lot in common: both the daughters of horrible rulers, they are each seeking to become the first women to rule their respective kingdoms. (Come to think of it, they even have/had similarly weaselly brothers.) Their recognition of mutual affinity—and even their slight flirtation—is one of the pleasures of "Battle of the Bastards."
What Yara does not yet have—what a lot of people, including Tyrion, didn't have before they met Dany—is an understanding that the world can be different than the way it has always been. "Our fathers were evil men, all of us here," Dany says, quite correctly. "They left the world worse than they found it. We're not going to do that. We're going to leave the world better than we found it." For the new Queen of the Iron Islands, this will mean no more roving, reaving, and raping. "That's our way of life," Yara protests. "No more," Dany says, and Yara agrees, considering for the first time that there might be another way to live.
The sight of these two strong women, peacefully agreeing to make the world a better place, stands in obvious contrast to the two strong men turning each other—and thousands of people around them—into hamburger across the Narrow Sea. If the battle for Winterfell seems rather gratuitously brutal and pointless, perhaps it is intended to do so. Perhaps the Battle of the Bastards is not so much a major step forward for the Seven Kingdoms as it is a last reminder of the status quo—of the cruel, feudal, patriarchal system—whose time is coming to an end.
The bastards are still slaughtering each other, in the same vicious, mindless ways that bastards always have. But it's the bitches who are going to change the world.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Just because I have serious reservations about the battle scenes, doesn't mean I didn't appreciate them. There were some fantastic sequences—Jon's near suffocation in bodies was one of them—and more gorgeously framed images than I could possibly screenshot in one post.
- And for all my reservations about Sansa's character development, I should mention that she has never been cooler. "You're going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton," she calmly says to her husband. "Sleep well."
- I love the scene between Tormund and Davos, on the night before the battle. Davos mentions Stannis's "demons," and Tormund just assumes they were real demons. (After all, Tormund has seen far worse things: demons are as likely as anything else.) Also: "Happy shitting."
- The deal Jon offers Ramsay—to end the war by fighting him one-on-one—is the same one Jaime offered Robb way back in "Baelor." (Robb wasn't dumb enough to fall for it then, and Ramsay isn't dumb enough to fall for it now.)
- Davos finally learns the truth about what happened to the Princess Shireen. I like that he puts it aside long enough to fight the battle—this is a man who understands his priorities—but Melisandre's comeuppance for this (and other crimes) is long overdue.
- Adding to the mystery (and implausibility) of Sansa's secret: did no one ever think to ask about the Knights of the Vale? Robin Arryn, the Lord of the Vale, is Jon and Sansa's cousin: wouldn't House Arryn have been the first approached when Jon and Sansa went recruiting?
- I'm not so hard-hearted that it didn't warm my cockles to see the Bolton banners fall to the mud, and the Stark banners raised once more over Winterfell. (If the show hasn't replaced that damned Flayed Man in the opening credits next week, I'll be sorely disappointed.)
- Will one of my craftier readers—perhaps someone with an Etsy account?—please begin manufacturing and marketing Wun Wun Pin Cushions? Here are your specs. (And feel free to send me a small percentage of the profits for the idea.)
- Yes, yes, I know, I'm posting this late (again), and you've already moved on to thinking about the season finale. Believe me, my primary motivation in finishing this post was so I could move on and write about "The Winds of Winter." It's coming, I promise…