This review contains spoilers.
6.9 Battle Of The Bastards
When you can’t get Neil Marshall, Miguel Sapochnik is a great next choice. Marshall has done wonders behind the camera for Game Of Thrones, but Sapochnik is no slouch either. Miguel Sapochnik is the man who directed the brilliant Hardhome last season, when we saw just how big the Night King’s army is and just how little the Wildlings would be able to do to hold off that threat, Night’s Watch or no Night’s Watch. Now, Sapochnik is ready to show the world once more that he just might be one of the finest action directors working in television.
Battle Of The Bastards opens up with a brilliant special effects shot. A ball of pitch is loaded into a trebuchet and launched towards Meereen. We fly with the ball as it flies over the city, then as it smashes into the wall we leave it and cut to Daenerys Targaryen having a discussion with her adviser Tyrion.
Of course, Dany isn’t here to talk, she’s here to ride dragons and light people on fire, so after being compared to her father by an astute Tyrion, Dany decides to forgo crucifying everyone who has ever owned a slave and sit down to talk peace. It goes about as well as you’d imagine, so Dany does what she’s been aching to do for ages: get on the back of a dragon and go light some people on fire. Grey Worm reminds the remaining master—who was offered up for death by the other two before Grey Worm cut their throats—that this is what happens when Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons came to Meereen.
Of course, a similar tale might be told about when the Bastard of Winterfell and his wildlings came home, too. One of the things Game Of Thrones has done to allow viewers to experience combat on a more visceral level is to bring it down to a human level. We see some of the larger shots of the armies, watch troop movements, see just how certain manoeuvres are executed, but most of the focus tends to be on a single person, in this case Jon Snow. Snow charges into the Bolton forces, draws Long Claw, and then… smash, the two armies collide in a riot of screaming, blood spraying, clashing shields, mud, and death.
The only break from the chaos of battle is to cut back to Davos or Ramsay, ordering archers to launch arrows or to lead the next wave of men into battle. Davos brings the Wildlings (and Wun Wun) into the fray when it seems like things aren’t going Jon’s way, and in the process they very nearly get everyone killed. Ramsay drew them into battle, and then he tightens the noose, sending his foot soldiers in with shields and long spears to surround the Wildlings on three sides, with the fourth side blocked by a giant pile of dead bodies. With every “huh!”, the Boltons close ranks and more of Jon’s troops die.
It’s hopeless. Jon finds himself trampled beneath a crush of bodies, but when he fights his way to the surface—cheating death a second time—all he can see around him are his compatriots, good men like Dortmund and Davos, trapped and fighting to the death because he wouldn’t listen to his sister and lost his cool.
Fortunately, Sansa is smarter than she gets credit for, and while her uncle the Blackfish won’t be there to help her again, she’s got another friend in a very high place. Game Of Thrones likes the “army riding to the rescue of lead characters” trope, but it’s rarely executed as well as the arrival of the Knights of the Vale to the Battle of the Bastards, riding through the Bolton lines and shattering the flayed army just in the nick of time. I applauded at the arrival of the Vale’s banner, and when a smirking Littlefinger appeared with Sansa, well, the applause only grew; for once, Petyr Baelish was being helpful, and for once, the good guys are going to win (at least for now).
Game Of Thrones has shied away from large-scale battles, mostly due to budget and CGI-related reasons, but this week proves that the show is as grand as any sword-and-sandal movie. From the swoop of Dany and her dragons to the charging smash of army versus army, with Jon Snow reeling helplessly in the middle of the chaos, the show has rarely looked so beautiful, or used special effects so spectacularly.
The dragons look better than ever; the massive crowd scenes are a skilled blend of CGI and physical extras, from the Dothraki horde riding into Meereen to mow down the Sons of the Harpy to the charging Knights of the Vale, smashing sidelong into Bolton lines and freeing the trapped Wildlings to batter down the gates of Winterfell, keeping Ramsay from prolonging the battle into a siege situation. He’s a clever foe, cleverer than Jon, but Sansa knows him well enough to counter him despite not being a military commander, and she knows Jon well enough to know that Jon is underestimating Ramsay’s cruelty (and, presumably, she knows Littlefinger well enough not to trust him to show up on time when needed).
As far as I’m concerned, the six-week shoot and the thousands of crew and extras involved in Battle Of The Bastards deserve every bit of praise this episode is going to get. It is a rare thing indeed to see this scope of combat on a small screen budget, and while this is the most expensive episode of the series thus far, it’s also incredibly satisfying. Money well spent, with clever scripting from Benioff and Weiss – Tormund and Davos should be the new Odd Couple – and some brilliant staging to go along with it. Every up and down in the battle worked, from Jon’s possible death to the deus ex Littlefinger to Wun Wun taking an arrow to the eye as a last-gasp bit of evil from Ramsay Bolton.
The most amazing thing is that there’s still a lot left to be resolved. Dany has her horde and her ships and her Greyjoys, Jon and Sansa have recaptured Winterfell, but there are still so many other things yet to be resolved that I can’t help but somehow be more excited for next week’s episode, even if no one else gets eaten by dogs.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, No One, here.