The ninth episode of each season of Game of Thrones has become a ritual of sorts. It’s always the most action-packed, but it also tends to have the most consequences. The episode that set this ritual in motion was “Baelor” from the first season, where Ned unceremoniously gets decapitated and brings forth a world filled with oathbreaking against a backdrop oxf the most violent game of chess. Big set pieces also varied it up with episodes like “Blackwater” that highlighted the show’s expansive budget. With “Battle of the Bastards,” Game of Thrones has expertly woven set piece action with personal demons and political ramifications in one of its best episodes ever.
We begin this episode with a look at Daenarys and her plight as the slavers of Astapor and other regions wage war against Meeren. This battle would be over just like that had Daenarys wanted it to be, but Tyrion got one of his few moments to shine this season. Tyrion has always been politically-minded throughout the show. In this scene, he explains to Daenarys why her ideologies could ruin a civilization and bring slavers to her doorstep.
Tyrion’s ability to convince her to have a conversation with the slavers is one of the ways in which this show manages to uphold a fairly entertaining level of political action. The main reason is that Daenarys really could just destroy everything. Her dragons are free; Drogon is back; Nothing is stopping her. No one poses a threat to her dragons and no one will for a while, I’d assume. But Tyrion makes her see reason. She can’t just go burning everything to the ground, innocent or not, just because it stands in her way or threatens her ideologies. A scene like this matters because it shows Daenarys how much she needs Tyrion for diplomacy. But then we get the meeting between Daenarys and the slavers… which continues the ramifications for the world.
Daenarys has officially beaten a foe that tried to take her down. This is something that hasn’t really happened. She has gone into places and taken them, but she has never really had to defend them. Not only does she try to invoke diplomacy, but she does it in a similar way as Ramsay does later in the episode. The two both believe they are the most powerful. One believes it because of how many soldiers they have (Ramsay), and the other believes it because of how strong their forces are (Daenarys). The difference is that Daenarys is willing to play with politics, while Ramsay finds them more of a hindrance. Plus, it seems fairly obvious that Daenarys had always intended for Grey Worm to kill two of the three leaders, and let whoever was being chosen for sacrifice to live. It helps to put the one who lives in his place, while also giving plenty of reason to tell everyone what happened that led to him living.
The final moment that mattered most besides Daenarys just going around burning boats like it’s nobody’s business, is the introduction of Theon and Yara to Daenarys. Now that we know Yara is into ladies, it became this weirdly tense scene of seeing how badly Yara wanted to have sex with Daenarys. Yes, they were bartering and Tyrion would jump in every once in a while, but the admiration that both women have for each other felt like it had some sexual undertones to it. That being said, I loved the entire conversation, and seeing Yara essentially meet an idol of hers was fun and helped bring things closer to the end. The Greyjoys recognize that they are nothing without the Iron Islands, but do not need more than that either. Even the Greyjoys state what I already believed would happen, which is that they are not going to be huge in the series, but they will play a part by the end.
Finally though, let’s get to the title of this episode. The “Battle of the Bastards” was centered around the war between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton. It was a war that this season had been setting up for, and the odds seemed stacked against Jon. Not only did he have less men, but he had no bargaining chips or even proven war experience with the army that he had. This was the first time bringing together some families with others, and the Wildlings are another addition to the mix. That being said, it was obvious Jon would win.
We got to see Ramsay cower behind his troops as he refused to meet Jon in one-on-one combat, knowing full well he’d lose. It was clear that Jon didn’t really understand Ramsay still because an attempted sleight on Ramsay’s “honor” really did nothing to sway him. Even Sansa was infuriated at Jon for how much he misunderstood Ramsay’s thinking. Even when they agreed to fight in the next morning, I was adamant that Ramsay would do a sneak attack on Jon in the middle of the night a la Stannis against Renly. However, the two met fairly in the battlefield and Ramsay ended up doing a lot of damage.
A lot of that damage came right from the beginning though as Ramsay wasted no time toying with Rickon in front of Jon. He freed Rickon, then let him run towards Jon. Of course, this is Ramsay we’re talking about so instead of just letting him run free, he kept shooting arrows towards him to try and hit him before he reached Jon. I feel like Ramsay was definitely misfiring on purpose to ratchet the tension, proving how important he was to Game of Thrones and its feeling of suspense. When he finally hits Rickon and kills him before Jon reaches him its not really surprising, but because of the tension it is still extremely effective. Now let the battle begin.
This was by far one of the best battle sequences that the show has ever done, with some people comparing it to Saving Private Ryan in its portrayal of the fight. There was an incredible one-take sequence during part of it that helped showcase Jon’s resilience and his efficiency with a sword. Also, how about that scene with all the dead and alive bodies all smothering Jon? There was a type of brutal beauty that maintained throughout the fight, highlighted by a lot of the camerawork. But the reason this is one of the best battles in Game of Thrones history is because it doesn’t let the personal moments dissipate in service of action. We still get Jon being overwhelmed and concerned of his impending defeat, or the giant sacrificing himself for the fight.
What also makes the fight work so well is that there is legitimate strategy at play from both sides. Ramsay seems like the kind of person who would just savagely attack, but he loves games and this time he played the game of being a real military strategist. The move to enclose Jon’s men with shielded soldiers wielding spears was extremely smart, though I definitely knew that the giant would just start ripping them apart. The soldiers hold their ground, though, which maintains the strategy’s effectiveness. The idea to begin with loosing arrows for a bit at the beginning was also smart as it started dwindling Jon’s forces.
Now, here is my only gripe with this episode: Littlefinger’s arrival. Remember last week when I said that Daenarys showing up at the last minute before the battle with the slavers was about to happen was more coincidental than epic? Well, the show did what they do most which is make every battle seem decidedly one-sided with an inevitable defeat on its way for Jon, until Littlefinger shows up with his army from the Vale to help Jon. They literally come in at the last minute and devastate Ramsay’s forces, suddenly putting things in Jon’s favor. I know that the tide of battle can change at any moment, but this happens all too frequently in Game of Thrones. Stannis also arrived last minute to help Jon against the Wildlings, and we see battles almost always decided by a last minute addition.
I also think there is a problem where Game of Thrones withholds information to make us forget that characters are in play. Littlefinger has only two or three scenes in the entire season, but the show doesn’t really do a good job of reminding the audience that he will show up to battle. If you remember several episodes ago then you would remember him talking about helping Sansa, but the way it is introduced in this episode is jarring and disconnected. However, it really is my only gripe with the episode.
Now we get to those exceptional personal moments of the episode. After the giant dies from storming Winterfell and taking a million arrows to his body, Jon faces Ramsay one-on-one. However, Ramsay has a bow and arrow and Jon has a shield with a lot of ground to cover. It is no surprise Jon makes it to Ramsay and then just starts beating the living daylights out of him, but what is less surprising is the next moment of vengeance that takes place.
Sansa is a character who often does not get to act out revenge. She has to let others do it for her, but in this episode we saw Sansa kill off Ramsay with his own hounds. After starving them for a week, Ramsay believes they still wouldn’t eat him because of their loyalty to him. Of course, that doesn’t quite work out. It’s an act of vengeance that feels earned after all of the horrible, horrible things Ramsay has done to Sansa. In addition, it shows Sansa might have a newfound ruthlessness to the enemies of Stark, making her a bit more like Cersei than maybe she wants to be. But there’s a diplomacy that is proven in her going behind her brother’s back and getting an army from Littlefinger that makes her far more of a threat in my opinion.
This episode was by far one of the best the show has ever done, as is usually the case with the penultimate episodes of a season. However, this episode had many moments where I was emotionally invested in more ways than just being tense. Mainly, I found this to be because the characters were ones we’ve traveled with for an exceptionally long time. Jon comes back from the dead, and as Melissandre says, maybe it’s just to die again, but you get the feeling that he is part of something greater. Add to that the goodness that he represents, and it feels like there is finally a hero in the series.
Then you go to Daenarys and see that there is so much room for her to slip and fall into the same crazy powertrip that her father had. Without Tyrion or Jorah by her side, I would not be surprised to see her lose it. Daario seems to be far too agreeable with her to say anything, and the same goes with her council of Grey Worm and Missandei. Plus, if you look at her army at this point, it consists of Unsullied–who are bred to fight– dragons, Greyjoys, and Dothraki. Essentially, she has powerful allies but ones who rely solely on their power as a means of defeat. If this all does lead to Jon versus Daenarys, it will be strategy versus power, and I think that may make for a very interesting fight.
Next episode is the final one of the season, and I have a hard time believing it will top “Battle of the Bastards.” That being said, the last three episodes, including this one, have been absolutely amazing with very little to complain about. I’m expecting a little bit of conflict between Davos and Melisandre based on him remembering what she made Stannis do to Shireen. I would also expect Bran to make a return just so we can maybe get another glimpse into what’s inside the Tower of Joy. So stay tuned next week as we discuss the season six finale.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO
Game of Thrones:
- One of the best battles in Game of Thrones history
- Tyrion reminded us why he is important to this series
- When people died, it felt like it mattered
- The camerawork was ridiculously good, portraying the battle in a visceral and brutal manner
- Baelish's army shows up last minute, like every army does when someone is about to lose