'Game of Thrones' Recap: The Battle of the Bastards
Warning: This article contains massive spoilers for "Battle of the Bastards," the ninth episode of the sixth season of Game of Thrones. Proceed with caution. And go to "Beyond the Wall" for more Thrones recaps, theories, and spoilers.
I take it back. I take it all back. All of those things I said about what a boring and wayward season this has been don't matter anymore, because Game of Thrones just delivered one of the most insane, intense, and incontinent (I shit my pants, maybe... three times?) episodes of television I’ve ever seen.
I don’t know that I agree with all of the creative decisions that were made this year -- the needless distractions in Riverrun, far too much time in Braavos, and not nearly enough of Bran using his powers -- but when we’re handed two amazing victories, some delicious revenge, and a whole lot of dragon destruction, it’s easy to remember why we all watch this show in the first place.
Meereen: Holey ships!
The first triumph of the night was for Daenerys Stormborn, breaker of chains, mother of dragons, and wearer of braids. Last week when she arrived on the back of Drogon I assumed the two had burned all the ships in the bay before dropping her off on the dragopad on the top of the pyramid. I was wrong. The dragon did no such thing. If you have a dragon and you don’t use it to burn the hell out of some ships, what’s the point? That’s like having a blender and not using it to make kale smoothies or being able to pee standing up and not writing your name in the snow.
While the slavers were destroying the city, Dany tells Tyrion that she plans to level the opposition's cities. He snaps back -- that's something that her father would have done. He has a better idea. They cut away from him saying this, like Tyrion had a brilliant strategic innovation to lay down, but his idea was to break the dragons out of their cages, set a few of the ships on fire, and then take the rest of the ships for themselves. Sure, that’s not a bad plan, but it’s not incredibly original. He even leaves one of the masters alive so that he could go back and tell everyone just how freakin’ awesome those damn dragons are. Let’s be honest, they were pretty awesome. The footage of them soaring over the city and setting those few boats on fire were some of the most breathtaking and cinematic moments in a show known for it’s breathtaking and cinematic moments.
Tyrion and Dany’s conversation was packed with information, with one point radiating with possibilities: Tyrion once again brings up the caches of wildfire that the Mad King hid under the city that many assume are still there. The volatile green chemical has come up again and again over the past few episodes, prompting fans to speculate that Cersei may blow up all of King’s Landing if she loses her trial. This would make sense for the finale because (1) it’s a huge freaking cliffhanger (2) we already saw King's Landing in the green explosion of wildfire in the vision Bran had as he was running from the Life Tree and (3) Dany had a vision way back in Season 2 of her walking through the throne room of King’s Landing after it had been bombed out. Many assumed that the throne room was destroyed by dragon’s fire, but what if it was Cersei instead? Wildfire: a Chekhov's gun Game of Thrones could tease.
The dragons were really rad, and watching Greyworm slice through the throats of the two scheming masters from Slaver’s Bay like he’s Mister Miyagi sanding the floor was really a thrill, but the most satisfying moment was when the siblings Greyjoy finally made it to Meereen to have an audience with the queen. (They really got there fast -- did they take the Acela or something?)
Khaleesi doesn’t seem that interested in what they are selling (a Shake Weight, two Slap Chops, and a lifetime supply of Wen by Chaz Dean) until she hears that Theon wants to put Yara on the throne as the first queen of the Iron Islands. Suddenly her ears perk up and she’s ready to play Let's Make a Deal like a kid on a sick day watching daytime television for the first time. She agrees to take their ships and support their claim for the throne if they promise to support her and keep the seven kingdoms intact as well as stop their life of raping and pillaging.
They grasp forearms in that way that people only do in fantasy epics to prove how different things are in whatever universe they inhabit. This may be the first time we’ve ever seen two women make a compact that will determine how world events are going to move forward. Has that been the point all along, a seismic power shift where women rule? Dany will clearly get the Iron Throne, Sansa has just been installed as the Queen of the North, and, last we saw of Dorne, Ellaria Sand and her daughters were lording over that quagmire of boring storylines. Maybe George R.R. Martin set this whole plan in order just so we can have the Westerosi version of Spice Girls. (Dany is Posh, Sansa is Ginger, Yara is Scary, Ellaria is Sporty, and Arya is Baby.)
Winterfell: Tender is the knight
For me, the key to "Battle of the Bastards" wasn’t something that happened in the North, but instead, something that Tyrion said to the masters when he announced that one of them was going to die: “It always seems abstract -- that someone else is going to die.” We see these battles all the time and there is no attention paid to the loss of human life or just how horrible and bloody these confrontations are. That is until this battle where we spent most of it in the mud and muck with Jon Snow, who is literally almost trampled when he and his men are caught in Ramsay Bolton’s death trap.
Ramsay is actually a genius military commander because he is cruel, unpredictable, and manipulative. He uses Rickon, whom Sansa knew Ramsay would kill the first chance he got, to lure Jon Snow out into the middle of the battlefield alone, draw him off his horse, and put him smack dab in the middle of his cavalry’s charge at the very beginning of the battle. It's the right move; get rid of Jon Snow and the whole thing is over. That shifted where the battle would take place, away from the trenches Snow’s Wildlings had been digging, and trapped between an advancing army and a wall made out of the corpses.
The funny thing about this battle is that many of the details are also found in the Roman historian Livy’s account of Carthaginian general Hannibal’s victory at Cannae, which includes using mounds of bodies as a strategic vantage point, soldiers being suffocated under stampedes, and a smaller army winning victory over a larger force. Looks like someone has been doing their Latin homework.
The battle was shot gorgeously, and the pressure that Ramsay exerted on Jon’s army tightened like a choirmaster’s anus at a porn convention. For a brief moment, I thought that Jon might actually lose and the awful Lord of Light really had brought him back to life to just to kill him again.
However, as predicted, the Knights of the Vale swooped in at the last minute to save the day and rout the bad guys. In episode nine of Season 2, 4, and now 6 (all the even-numbered seasons), there has been a huge battle that was decided with reinforcements rushed in just in the nick of time to save the day. First it was Tywin Lannister saving the Battle of Blackwater Bay, then it was Stannis Baratheon prevailing over the Wildlings at the Wall, and now it is the Knights of the Vale deciding the Battle of the Bastards. Jon Snow’s victory had nothing to do with superior planning and everything to do with a half sister of his who knew far better on how to approach this situation than he did. She knew how cruel and unpredictable Ramsay could be and that he likes to toy with people and set traps. Sansa wrote ahead to her creepy godfather Littlefinger, and the day was won.
Some would call this symmetry and others would call this narrative laziness. Does that mean in the finale of Season 8 that Dany and her dragons are going to show up just in time to help Jon Snow and his army defeat the White Walkers for good? It probably does. I’m betting on this plot for the final two episodes now. Someone in Vegas should take this bet.
There were plenty of people in this episode whom I felt sorry for, most notably Rickon Stark, who never got to do anything exciting except follow his brother through the cold, and Shaggy Dog, Rickon’s direwolf who was not only butchered but whose head keeps getting thrown around on tables and dirty fields just to prove that his owner is still alive. The person I feel the worst for, however, is Wun-Wun, the giant that Ramsay Bolton killed with an arrow through the eye. This guy survived the siege of the Wall, the attack of the White Walkers at Hardhome, and a war with the usurpers of Winterfell, only to be taken down by this jerk with a bow an arrow? Unfair!
Eventually, Ramsay got what was coming to him. Every single fan of the show wanted him dead and demanded that he die in some awful and creative way. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss delivered. Not only was he devoured by his own dogs the way so many of his previous victims had been, Sansa Stark got to lord over the proceedings. Those pups ripped off Ramsay's face like he was the world’s biggest Sour Patch Kid at a birthday party full of 8-year-olds.
Sansa and her sly smile were really the MVPs of this episode. As Littlefinger’s troops cut through the Bolton defenses like piss through snow (to quote the great Northern poet Tormund), we see the corners of her mouth turn up just a little bit, like she’s Mona Lisa with a bloodlust. The same thing happens again in the final shot as she leaves Ramsay to be pulled apart by the dogs. She has her revenge and is glad about it.
That is what makes this show so excellent at its best. There are these moments of extreme violence that are hard to stomach, but the action is driven by these fully developed characters who we know so well. We get to relish in their victories just as we are devastated by their defeats. When Sansa smiles, as the song goes, the whole world smiles with her, not only because Ramsay is dead, but because our favorite show is alive once again.
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