In an unexpected twist, Game of Thrones this week actually happened to satisfy, if temporarily, our innate desire for the good guys to win. But as “Battle of the Bastards” hammered home many times, none of us can be anything but what we are—and “no one can protect you”—and so, to reach its triumphant, series-pivotal end, a lot of poor mufuckas had to die.
Through a season that’s been slightly uneven, particularly with pacing—recall director Jack Bender’s freneticism in “The Door” and “Blood of My Blood,” amid relentless scenes of Arya tediously stick-fighting The Waif—Sunday night’s episode was all worth it, so good that it seemed almost out of place in the scheme of things. Game of Thrones’s penultimate episodes have historically been the tightest and most explosive (heh), but the writing on “Battle of the Bastards” was so confident, it felt like a referendum on the rest of the series. Additionally, this episode must have cost a fortune.
Did you ever think Thrones would become so pointedly, resolutely feminist, though? We’ve had a taste of this through the season, but this episode was practically a libbers march, for how explicitly it leveled its woman-unity imagery. Daenerys, freshly back from becoming the One True Khaleesi to find her pyramid-kingdom aflame, was not as mad at Tyrion as one might expect (in stark contrast to his family, which cast Lannister rules of engagement in the trifling, petty light they deserve). He convinces her, though, not to destroy every city in Slavers Bay, adding a bit of diplomacy by reminding her that her dad was The Mad King. (Who happened to hide wildfire under the Red Keep in case he had to destroy King’s Landing, a nice bit of foreshadowing for next week’s episode, where Cersei has been looking for an easy, spiteful exit.)
Instead, Dany’s just like “DRACARYS” and Drogon unleashes a blowtorch on the invading fleets; Rhaegal and Viserion break out of their pyramid pokey to join in, and millions of Dothraki storm in on horses to put the Sons of the Harpy out to pasture. Daario beheads a guy! It’s awesome! It’s not even the episode’s namesake battle! This shit must have cost a fortune!
Bobby was like, “YEEAAAAAAAS!,” and spoke for all of us.
After Dany and her dragon-children lay waste to these idiot slavers, the Greyjoys arrive from the Iron Islands to see if she’ll negotiate. At this point Yara and Dany are vibing SO HARD on being strong and badass rulers—they’re both the first queens of their kind, both of their dads sucked at being king—plus Dany likes Yara’s pluckiness, especially when she basically says “Yeah girl, I’ll marry you if you want!” The terms: the Ironborn give Dany ships and troops if she agrees to give back the conquered Iron Islands to the Greyjoys. “We’d also like you to help us murder an uncle or two who don’t think a woman’s fit to rule,” and Dany’s like “YEEAAAAAAAS! LET’S LEAVE THIS WORLD A BETTER PLACE THAN OUR IDIOT FATHERS, GIRLFRIEND!”
Back in Westeros, the bulk of the episode was comprised of the most painful and epic battle this series has ever done, amplified by a sense of psychological desperation and its typically brutal turns. Jon’s been having an existential crisis since his rebirth by the hand of Melisandre, but particularly now, as he faces death yet again while still unclear as to why the Lord of Light would want him alive. They discuss it with a brilliant bit of quietude, both an appropriate somber moment for a man who believes he’s marching to his (second) death, and a killer suspense builder for an audience who simply cannot deal if Jon Snow gets got AGAIN. Sansa sums it up when she tells Jon, jadedly, “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone.”
That turns out not to be entirely true. Though Rickon gets an arrow straight to the heart in a cruel play by Ramsay that recalls King Joffrey’s own sickening games, it ends up backfiring on him, eventually. Jon’s need to protect his younger brother fuels his drive to destroy the Boltons, as he expert-swordsmans a shit-ton of their evil men in a flurry of blood and dirt. Ramsay’s deranged cruelty, as Jon predicted in the war room, was his weakness, and his pathetic cowardice was revealed with a quickness both when he refuses to squash their beef with a little game of one-on-one, and refuses to even enter the battlefield, shithead that he is.
The battle itself was breathtaking; director Miguel Sapochnik began his career in the ‘90s doing storyboards (Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary), a skill which clearly paid off in the complicated choreography of these scenes. He and Kit Harington engaged in a harrowing dance that relied on both quick camerawork and Harington’s physical prowess; both deserve Emmys and Golden Globes and whatever else, and the cinematographer, too, for those beautiful scenes from below, focusing on Jon’s leathers whipping around as he sliced and diced his enemies to and fro.
The biggest reveal here, or at least explicit revelation, was how truly cowardly the Bolton army is. Of course they fought dirty, surrounding the Stark army with their shields and advancing methodically with their polearms erect; it was a disgusting play befitting their pathetic leader, whose psychoses were little more than a proscenium for his lack of nobility, in both virtue and in title.
That Jon Snow almost died several times added to the gripping terror of this episode, but that the final time was nearly by suffocation would seem to be Game of Thrones’s own sense of cruelty; uncharacteristically, he climbed out of that pile, in a scene that would point towards a true reason for his resurrection and also foreshadow both his future and his parentage:
While it’s not exactly the scene from “Mhysa”—there’s no weird racial undertone, for instance—the way the camera began at eye level and panned out to show a leader at the center of their followers was quite evident there’s a parallel there. Of course, there’s a theory that Jon Snow’s parents were Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, which would make Daenerys Targaryen his
cousin AUNT (THIS SHIT IS CONFUSING); the dream team, in Season 7, would be for their houses to unite to fight off the White Walkers (who, in this episode, seem worlds away).
Just as the Stark army is about to croak en masse, of course a woman swoops in to save the day. Sansa, ever the leader (and more like Catelyn by the day), has enlisted Littlefinger for troops. The look on her face is utter satisfaction, for her and us. In her pain, she’s learned how to become a master political maneuverer.
When Jon, Tormund and Wun Wun stormed the doors at Winterfell, the suspense was still intact. Jon pummeling Ramsay’s face is also satisfying, but when Sansa arrives he knows he’s got to leave the killing to her, and when she tells Ramsay in the hound cage that no one will remember his name, that’s a fate worse than death. His sole motivation was to gain notoriety as a Bolton, not a bastard; he paid for his sins alone with a hungry puppy ripping off his balls. Good riddance.
Loss informed Ser Davos’s drive, too, having stumbled upon Shireen’s grave before the battle; for now all is peaceful in Winterfell, but Melisandre is getting a little too comfortable. See you in “The Winds of Winter,” boo.
Deaths: Wun Wun is toast, something I’d feel sadder about if I didn’t know his name was Wun Wun. (That shit is straight out of the Ewok playbook and I’m not having it.) Rickon is toast, which is sad but let’s face it, our attachment to him was in theory only at this point. Mad other people are fucking toast. Tormund ripped out that guy’s throat with his teeth, which was SATISFYING! RAMSAY IS TOAST! BYE YOU MEAN PISSANT!
Images via HBO.