This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 9
It’s not often that I find the urge to condone torture, much less the forced feeding of one human being to the bellies of ravenous beasties. Yet, I doubt Sansa Stark was the only one with the wisp of a smile on her face as the sounds of Ramsay Bolton’s tearing flesh echoed throughout the bowels of Winterfell. Aye, that queasy clink of bone meeting tooth reverberated on millions of televisions across the country, along with the undoubted shouts of joy from fans the globe over.
Still, I am again drawn to that half smile that ended the episode. D.B. Benioff understatedly suggested in HBO’s after-hour “Inside the Episode” that this is not the same girl who first left Winterfell all those seasons ago. He’s sure not whistling “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” But this grisly sight of a rather unamicable de-coupling was just one of the many gruesome, and marvelous, moments in Game of Thrones season 6’s penultimate episode.
Following past seasons’ tradition, this was the most spectacularly bloodthirsty hour of the year. Seven Hells, it might be the bloodiest hour in Game of Thrones history. But before we dig into all the goodness that was “Battle of the Bastards”—like the underbelly of a Bolton heir who was ever a Snow until his final scream—let us first examine its unfortunate shortcoming. After all, this was the scene that opened the night!
Indeed, the first scene of the hour was a shocker for those of us who expected “Battle of the Bastards” to repeat previous warring episodes’ formula from season 2’s “Blackwater” and season 4’s “Watchers on the Wall” (both of which were penultimate episodes as well). Whereas those two blockbusters helmed by The Descent’s Neill Marshall focused exclusively on one location, Miguel Sapochnik’s big foray into medieval conflict subversively opens on the Siege of Meereen. Alas then that it plays out pretty much how we all expected last week:
Daenerys comes home super-pissed that Tyrion let his party get out of hand, and then he had some explaining to do about the mess. I suspect no matter what happened in her absence, this Khaleesi would have been annoyed if she found out that her Lannister Hand offered to extend slavery for seven years to cities she already ostensibly liberated. To make matters worse, however, this concession didn’t change anything and the enemies were now at the gate. Hence, quicker than you can count to three, just as many dragons appeared airborne to light the masters’ ships ablaze.
The actual burning of Astapor and Yunkai’s ships unto itself, especially with Dany on the back of Drogon, was a thing of beauty. This cannot be denied. However, its contrast with the much better stuff happening outside the slopes of Winterfell (which I’m about to get to, I promise!) is a bit indicting. While the choices Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, and even Ramsay Bolton made were all informed by their well-defined characters, and each’s noticeable strengths, flaws, and vanities, the stuff in Meereen’s short-lived battle lacked that George R.R. Martin quality. Rather, the battle played out on double-time while bending over backwards to service any and all plot demands.
Last week, Daenerys showed up in the nick of time to almost comedic effect via her Uber Dragon Driver, and tonight the slavers stopped the battle to have a détente whereupon Dany could threaten them once more. Even more fortuitously for the show’s pacing, Viserion and Rhaegal then escaped their Great Pyramid cell to also follow Dany’s command into battle while the Sons of the Harpy were inexplicably chilling outside the city walls, so as to make for easier Dothraki pickings. That dragon bit is especially remarkable since Daenerys never broke either in for battle before abandoning them to the dark, and Westerosi history prior to this point has suggested all dragons must be ridden into combat in order to follow such precise commands.
In essence, this is the long way toward saying that most of the plot points resolved during this battle’s few quick scenes did not emerge from characterization like the grandeur at Winterfell, but from the mere needs of the top-heavy plot. Thus it makes any cool moments like Tyrion letting the slavers pick which will die amongst themselves feel a bit moot when surrounded by such inanity.
Still, all in all, the Meereenese scenes in “Battle of the Bastards” were not a complete disappointment. First, I personally loved watching Tyrion tap dance for his life when Dany came back to have a chat. It also was quite telling that post Dothraki-imprisonment, Daenerys has a new battle tactic: burn cities to the ground. Tyrion ever so helpfully points to that plan’s similarities with her father’s bloodlust for immolation. And in this specific moment, he is able to persuade his queen that burning every man, woman, and child inside Astapor and Yunkai would perhaps be too cruel.
But again, the seeds are being planted for when Dany does reach Westeros, and the fires of war burn with brighter intensity than the threats offered by any nameless eyeliner model’s raccoon gaze. I still think Dany will prove herself to be her father’s heir. But for the moment, I will concede my predictions were wrong about her razing Yunkai and Astapor. However, I was so right about her stealing their ships to get to Westeros.
And speaking of ships bound for Westeros, Daenerys did enjoy one great scene that featured neither dragon nor the mystical beast’s deadly belly-bursts. For there was another scene where the Breaker of Chains might have found a bond not so easily snapped: one between herself and another ambitious career woman trying to make it in this chauvinistic and patriarchal society.
Can we just all admit right now that we love Team Daenerys and Yara? Because their rapport was full of all sorts of win here. What begins as Tyrion dressing down Theon, six years after he similarly dismissed the callow Greyjoy boy with extreme flippancy during season 1, ends with Dany and Yara all but cracking open a bottle of wine and bonding at the thought of a world where men didn’t wear all the crowns (Jon should certainly have listened to Sansa tonight).
Theon also has come a long way in multiple senses when he can admit to anyone now that Yara is the rightful heir, which certainly redeems him a bit more every time he says it in audience’s eyes. But the dreamiest stares were saved for Dany and Yara, with the former seeming to even briefly entertain Yara’s open invitation for exploring Ironborn royalty with no strings attached.
Nevertheless, lest we all get too giddy over the women of the world uniting, as well as Dany helpfully including Tyrion in their budding friendship by noting they all had evil fathers, I still worry about Yara’s claim of authority. Daenerys is offering to make Yara Queen of the Iron Islands if Yara not only helps her take back the Seven Kingdoms, but agrees to never again allow the Ironborn to steal, pillage, burn, or rape those Westerosi landlubbers. Yara points out that the Iron Islands are a rape-based economy, just as I’m sure some bloggers might say about Game of Thrones itself. And just like former Stanford athletes-turned-judges, one does not so easily take away their expectations from this world.
Ergo, Yara’s rule might be a thing shorter than her doomed uncle’s current one…. But it will at least last longer than Ramsay’s tenure as Warden of the North.
So, now let’s really get down to it: Bastard Bowl finally came, proving once and for all that snow-based pottery should be a coveted hobby. Oh sure, the NBA finals were on tonight too, and Cleveland finally has a trophy to call their very own, but that is nothing compared to the sight of these two warriors of Westeros meeting on the field of combat.
In one corner, you have the Bastard of Bolton, the Barber of Blood, and the Bringer of Battle, Ramsay of House Bolton! On the other side, you’ve got the Wingman of Wildlings, the Commander of Crows, and the Most Stoic of Starks, Jon Snow! Of course, it would be epic. And it begins, as these things so often do, with a prize fight press conference where nasty words are traded alongside bravado.
Knowing this was his last episode, Iwan Rheon took full advantage of slouching into his character’s now official reigning title as the evilest man on television. Just the little glances and sneers he’d send to Sansa, trying to make her seem small, before turning his attention to Jon Snow like a hyena examining a cute lion cub attempting to roar is the stuff of nightmares. Sansa of course tries to warn Jon Snow about his awfulness, to the point where one might think she is a desperate vigilante pleading with Commissioner Gordon about not underestimating a clown’s cleverness. Yet, while the show appears to be building up Sansa as the smarter of the two reunited Stark children, I cannot help but notice both characters failed their sibling.
Not until Jon Snow saw his baby brother murdered at the hands of Ramsay did it seem as if Jon’s heart was in this battle. Up until that point, Jon has mostly seemed aggrieved that Melisandre woke him from his peaceful death. Slogging through life with his shoulders perpetually slumped, Jon didn’t even bother building a full army to face a force that outnumbered his 3-to-1. Nonetheless, if there was ever a time for Sansa to finally tell Jon Snow about Littlefinger, this should have been it.
She rightly points out that Jon’s tactic of luring Ramsay into a headlong charge was too simple, but perhaps if he’d known he had a full army of the Knights of the Vale riding to his aide, he would have concocted a sounder strategy? As it stands, Sansa has clearly evolved an eternity since leaving Winterfell, because she not only has dismissed the fantasy of princely dreams, but she has likewise grown too weary to expect help or salvation from anyone, be it Jon or Littlefinger. With an eye on going Last of the Mohicans on her family if Ramsay ever caught her again, she makes plans without Jon. But I cannot shake the thought that more of Jon’s wildling buddies could have lived if he knew reinforcements were at hand.
Whatever the case might be, Jon spent so much time putting the bare minimum of effort into strategy before brooding to Melisandre about not waking him up a second time (and hence creating more suspense in the show’s narrative) that he seemed quite clearly poised for failure. Even Melisandre has been drinking the snow-aide, suggesting that she no longer loves her god. “He’s the best we have” is pretty much damning herself with faint praise.
Albeit, burning Shireen likely already did that to her soul, and Davos finally found out what happened to his favorite teacher. It is quite the beautiful shot of Ser Seaworth at dawn surveying the final resting place of Shireen Baratheon. But before he can quench his own need for revenge, there is first a Bastard of Bolton to slay.
Like Sansa, we all probably knew that Rickon Stark had about the same odds as his father did with Joffrey Baratheon when he found himself in Ramsay’s clutches. So, it’s a credit then to how the scene played out that I held my breath while several friends watching the show exclaimed, “I hate this show!” Rickon ran for Jon’s arms but only found an arrow’s crimson-soaked tip clinging to his body in the end. I did not believe for a second that Rickon would survive that sprint, yet as Rheon continued the Heath Ledger/Joker similarities to his head-twitches while watching the young Stark flee, I hoped for a second it wouldn’t end the only way that it could.
Rickon was never going to be anyone’s favorite Stark, but a young boy deserves better than to die bleeding on frozen grass. And it is more than enough incentive for Jon Snow to doom a countless score of his men by heedlessly abandoning his strategy in a moment of rage and running directly into battle. The actual fighting is a stunning visual of carnage and bloodshed, equal parts Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have made much out of how this hour would show the actual strategy of the battle, however Jon Snow and the heroes abandoned anything resembling strategy for full-on fury. And it is by pure luck then that they were not slaughtered by Ramsay’s much more tactful plan of boxing them into a seven-foot pile of death.
It really is the spectacle where the gore sells the grandeur and horror of this TV event. With so many bodies and horses lying on top of each other, Jon Snow is barely able to crawl through the corn syrup. The shot of him breaking out of the corpse-pile seems to be taken right out of the ending battle in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, where the gyrating movement of a battlefield from God’s vantage point resembled maggots crawling over a piece of rotten meat.
During all of this, though, I have to wonder if Ramsay would even live to see the next day. It is unclear if the first wave he sent in included any of Umber and Karstark’s men, or if they were all Bolton soldiers. But no matter the case, bannermen Karstark and Umber saw Ramsay open fire on his own men with arrows. A lord that does that will not rule any manor for long.
Whatever the case, it turned out to be irrelevant since Sansa and Littlefinger’s expected rescue via cavalry charge showed up just in time, providing Jon Snow with the win. But that wasn’t the real end. We were forced to sacrifice a Wun Wun first before the actual ending came.
Jon Snow’s victory over Ramsay Bolton was well earned. Finally able to come home to Winterfell, Jon proved that Ramsay was just as a bad a leader as he was since his fellow bastard dismissed out-of-hand the loss of his army. But both are still short followers, including those wildlings that Jon sympathized with for so many seasons. And really, this feels like as much Sansa’s victory as Jon Snow’s, including in regards to delivering the final coup de grâce upon Ramsay’s skull.
As a conflict-focused episode, “Battle of Bastards” is Game of Thrones’ most dazzling and stomach-churning hour yet. Men on horses, women on dragons, and a plethora of extras that really teased the immense fog of war. It’s all there. But I still would give the edge to “Blackwater” as being the best achievement in this kind of blockbuster television-making. Sure, when the time finally came to have armies converge outside King’s Landing’s Mudgate, Tyrion’s cavalry charge lost something of its luster when it was adapted as a few men sneaking up on another handful of saps. But the cinematic tension Marshall heightened with an elaborate tapestry of characters surpasses the visual intricacies here, enticing though they may be. Although, for an ending shot, it still might be hard to top “Bastards.”
Thus we are now back again under Winterfell with the Lady of the Manor, a couple of long-starved hounds, and her soon to be ex-husband. Almost resembling a sequence out of torture porn, Ramsay has his hands and feet bound to a chair like he’s an extra in Hostel. Not until one of his hounds bit into his chin did Ramsay truly understand this was the ghastly end of all things: a heinous end for a heinous man. Still, for many, I am sure it was too quick.
It certainly appeared to be that way for Sansa since after motioning to leave, she hesitated and then stayed to watch a bit longer as the dogs gnawed on those eyes and balls that this master previously fantasized about witnessing. Wide-eyed and content, Sansa enjoys her victory over TV’s cruelest villain.
But whatever satisfaction there is to be had in Ramsay’s demise, I have to wonder what the true fallout will be. For all of Jon’s heroism, he likely was leading his men into defeat, and then ensured that outcome when he abandoned strategy in favor of charging on foot a mounted sea of foes. Littlefinger will, and honestly should, take much of the credit for victory. But in doing so, he might try to leave Jon Snow out in the cold. In such a turn of events, where will Sansa land? On the side of a brother who failed to live up to her hopes and his own promises, or to the creeper that she kept in her back pocket to Jon’s obliviousness?
As a fan of Team Stark that loves Jon and Sansa reclaiming their birthright, I hope she will side with her family next week when Littlefinger inevitably makes his move to claim Winterfell as his own through marriage. But I again return to that ghostly smile that closed out the hour. D.B. Weiss is obviously right: she has changed. I doubt many, even a few episodes ago, could have imagined Sansa smirking with delight at the sounds of an enemy’s grotesque torment and dismemberment. But another woman of power who has suffered grievously all her life would have slipped into that scene like a glove—and her name is Cersei Lannister.
History might yet repeat itself if Sansa walks ever closer to finally embracing the teachings of her one-time mentor. But we’ll cross that bridge and its steep price when we get there next week. In the meantime, let’s all replay the sound of Ramsay’s cries one more time. For posterity’s sake.
You can also talk about your favorite bastardly moments on Twitter @DCrowsNest.