Ever since Ned Stark’s death in season 1, episode 9 has held a special place in the GOT-universe. Followed by the Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the battle for the Wall and Drogon’s arrival/Shireen burning, this season, we get the titular Battle of the Bastards. After being absent for most of the season – certainly one of the wiser decisions the showrunners made this season -, Ramsay is finally meeting his fate. It’s not exactly like the outcome of this battle was very much in doubt, after all. That kind of inevitability, of course, doesn’t need to take much from the experience. Arya’s exit from the Faceless Men and Dany’s victory at Meereen, after all, weren’t surprises, either. It’s all in the execution, which determines whether something works or not. With that being said, let’s have a look if this episode works, in reverse geographical order.
In Meereen, Dany listens to Tyrion’s excuses as to why everything is in reality hunky-dory and please don’t burn me. I’m more than a little annoyed that he floats Jaime’s wildfire story like this, because he should have no business knowing it, but I guess it sets up Cersei using the shit next episode, as foreshadowed heavily this season. Dany is now out of the picture, especially given that she still has issues in Meereen.
Speaking of issues, the little problem with the Yunkish army is resolved as fast as it should be. Dany, only a little bit tempered by Tyrion’s cautionary tale of her father, resolves to go full fire and blood, releases her other two dragons and goes full dracarys on the enemy fleet. All of it resembles the easy cleanup that it should be. After all, what danger can the fleet pose to dragons? The biggest danger that Dany faces is, indeed, the incredibly inconsistent CGI. Some shots look great, others are simply awful.
The more important part comes afterwards, when – after the mandatory murder of some Yunkish and the Dothraki arrival – she talks to Yara and Theon, who arrived off-stage. Tyrion comfortably manages to be advisor and court-jester in one person and berates Theon for being stupid before we get some cool bonding between Yara and Dany over women ruling and having awful fathers. Really, this is a great scene, and it provides a powerful payoff for Tyrion’s criticism earlier as they make a pact to “make the world a better place”, in which Dany forces the Ironborn to give up on their way of life. Really good stuff, executed efficiently and with inspiring acting, just as it should be.
And with that, we head North where we start off with a parlay between Jon, Sansa and Ramsay. From the start, there’s an intense pressure of inevitability laying over it. When Jon tells Ramsay that it’s needless for thousands to die, that’s the hard truth of it. All those people could really be needed at the Wall, manning it to “guard the realms of men”, but instead they have to defeat the monsters in human flesh first. From Ramsay’s perspective, this makes sense. While the “best swordfighter in the North” stuff is surely hyperbole, he doesn’t have anything to win in a duel with Jon, and both know it. From the outset, one can be doubtful whether Jon really got under Ramsay’s skin.
This flame of doubt is only fanned by Sansa, who (rightly) criticizes the battle plan that Jon and Davos draw up. Not only does their most sizeable force not understand it – Tormund continues to serve as a hilarious comic relief here – but the numbers simply don’t add up, no matter how many ditches you dug. There are more red flags going up when Sansa mentions that Rickon is dead meat anyway, no matter what they do. It’s true, Jon knows it, and he already explodes at the mention here. The frictions between Jon and Sansa that have been simmering along for the whole season are coming more to the fore here.
She needs someone with the military chops and reputation to match her own political ones, but she only has Jon, revered by his own troops and Melisandre as the messiah. Hard to argue with that. Jon himself also isn’t really sure about any of it. He goes to Melisandre for advice – of all people! – but she can only tell him that he better not loose and that she will resurrect him if she can, no matter what he wants. You can easily see here that Jon still hasn’t come to grips with his resurrection, and to me, this almost looks like a death wish, which kind of matches the desperate fighting to stay alive that we see later. It’s not like he’s the first one to get that whiplash of emotions there.
At least they can get Ramsay out of Winterfell. His legitimacy is such that he can’t simply wait out the siege as Roose does in the books, so it makes sense that they come out. Of course, Sansa is right. Jon simply equates Ramsay with himself and thinks that making him angry will make him run into an obvious trap, but “he plays with people”, and his cold-blooded execution of Rickon was the exact thing he needed to push Jon over the edge. Without the unswerving loyalty of Jon’s troops, it would have ended then and there, him being overrun by a Bolton cavalry detachment.
The camerawork, throughout the battle, is fantastic. As Jon stands there, holding up his sword in a defiant gesture, for a moment, it seems like everything will end. That can’t happen, of course, but the show really comes close to fool you. The whole episode is tense as hell. As it happens, though, his own people arrive to save him. We get a chaos of bodies and horses ramming into each other or being sliced and stabbed. It’s a numbing, nauseating cascade of images and easily the longest drawn of any GOT battle sequence. Ramsay pulling a Braveheart and ordering his archers to shoot in the fray only underscores the central, powerful message about the uselessness of it all, the almost frivolous loss of life in the face of a more important foe.
The battle drags and drags, and Jon and Tormund are getting bloodier, dirtier and more exhausted the longer it takes. In yet another hyperbole, this time a visual one, the bodies of the dead are piling up literally to a mountain of corpses that becomes a central feature of the battlefield. In case you didn’t get the metaphor until now, the Bolton footmen are moving in and recreating Cannae by encircling the remaining wildlings. In the process of this total encirclement, which is executed with huge tower shields that completely obscure the people behind them, Jon is trampled by his own suffocating people, and as the Umber and Karstark troops come running over the corpse pile, the dead bodies slide and bury Jon under them. Get it? It’s suffocating. And you, as viewer, feel it, because the battle is looooooooong. It’s exhausting. It’s superfluous. It’s messy. It’s bloody. It’s costly. GOT works wonders in conveying all these feelings to us in those moments. That’s a heck of a feat of filmmaking.
Now, I want to make a little detour to the logistics of it all in this moment. Many critics have pointed out that it doesn’t make much sense and that Jon is simply acting incredibly stupid in this scene. And he is, but for a change, it’s in service of the larger narrative. For him, this is incredibly personal. He’s fed up with leading and stuff. The savior narrative is more or less pushed upon him. He doesn’t take Sansa seriously, and he doesn’t plan long term. He wants it to be over, and if he dies in the process, that’s all the better. Therefore, one shouldn’t become too involved in the tactics of the battle, they don’t really matter here. One has to take this more metaphorically, because there’s just no way that mountain of corpses makes any sense. But as a metaphor, it works wonders. So, with this service announcement over, let’s return to the proceedings.
Just when everything seems to be finally over, of course, the cavalry (literally) arrives. Littlefinger’s rescue in the last minute also cannot count as a surprise in the vein of Tywin’s arrival at King’s Landing or Stannis’ at the Wall. Why? Because it wasn’t one, and it wasn’t intended as such. That’s why, for me, the allegations that it was obvious and that the show did it way too often falls flat for me. That’s not what matters. I have to reserve final judgement about this specific story arc for the next episode, because so much of it hinges on how this resolves. It they don’t address the obvious fact that knowing about them beforehand might have saved quite some lives, I will be more inclined to call it failure, but right now, too much hinges on how it will end and fit in the larger narrative, so let’s wait and see.
So, with a sudden reversal of fortunes and a crash course in why phalanxes were extremely vulnerable to flanking attacks for the Bolton forces, they crash into Winterfell. Now, I have often bemoaned the unnecessary reminders of Ramsay’s cruelty, but in this episodes, his killings of Rickon and Wun-Wun really reinforce the themes that are told and are not superfluous exercises in sadism. As with Dany’s nudity, it’s all in the context. While Rickon’s death serves as the catalyst for the whole battle and has already been foreshadowed/priced in by Sansa’s comments, Ramsay’s denying Jon a goodbye with Wun-Wun sets the stage for the final confrontation and allows him a small existential triumph pulling back from beating Ramsay to death.
It’s for Sansa to off Ramsay. However, fitting for a bleak episode about the uselessness of it all, there is no catharsis to be found. While Ramsay being eaten by his own dogs certainly plays for poetic justice – and will most likely play out in the books as well – it’s not like anything’s achieved. The rift between the forces of good is clearly visible despite the victory, and there’s no unity to be had. Davos, who finally put the puzzle pieces together about what happened with Shireen murderously looks at Melisandre. Jon and Sansa have a reckoning coming for sure. It’s hard to say how the wildlings will react after losing what seems like more than half of their people and “the last of the giants”. And no one has any clue as to what Littlefinger’s up to. So, this is surely not a fist-pumping moment, and if you thought that the episode would end in one, then, to quote Ramsay one more time, “you really haven’t been paying attention”.