The bastards battle, and other stories.
No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone.
I think I want to start by talking about this being something of a “wish fulfillment” season, and how that’s not a bad thing. Game of Thrones made its mark early and often with shocking deaths and plot twists, defying not just the conventions of the genre of but television itself. But after five years of chaos and cruelty, perhaps now, with (likely) only 14 episodes to go, the one card the show has left to play is…playing it straight. Give the People What They Want. Jon and the Hound return from the dead. Dany torches the Khals. Arya reclaims her identity. Theon reclaims his dignity. Tormund and Brienne become an internet obsession.
So in “Battle of the Bastards” (and while LeBron’s Cavaliers mounted a historic underdog comeback of their own), we got everything we wanted, and most of what we predicted: Jon wins, the Boltons are destroyed, the Vale saves the day, Sansa sics Ramsey’s dogs on him. We only lose two “good guy” characters of note in Wun Wun, pincushioned after breaking down Winterfell’s gates, and Rickon, who — let’s be honest — has been nothing more than a walking loaf of white bread since we first met him. The titular battle itself is an incredible sustained 30 minutes of filmmaking from “Hardhome’s” Miguel Sapochnik who, after next week’s finale, will likely solidify his place at the top of Thrones’ Director Hierarchy (sorry, David Nutter and Neil Marshall).
There are some truly gorgeous images here. Raven’s-eye views of the armies colliding. Dolly shots past bloody banners and stolid infantry. Slow-mo cavalry charges. Jon, hopelessly alone, until he is not. Buried in an undulating sea of bodies, until he bursts to the surface, gasping. It’s an extraordinary hour of television. Only Game of Thrones gets to do this. Only Game of Thrones CAN do this. The fact that none of it is particularly surprising is not a bug, but a feature. This was satisfying. We earned this win together, surviving the horrorscape of previous seasons, and having had weeks (years, even) to discuss and debate how it would all go down shouldn’t leave Benioff and Weiss penalized for, really, agreeing with us.
In fact, the hour’s biggest surprise came far away from the snowy hills of the North, in a place we didn’t expect to revisit until next week: Meereen. Dany has one mode now, and that’s icy vengeance. She lets Tyrion talk himself in circles explaining how this happened (“Despite appearances, I think you’ll find the city on the rise!”), but if she’s angry at him, she doesn’t let on. At least, it doesn’t matter, because she’s about to put a stop to it. “We are here to discuss YOUR surrender, not mine,” she tells the Masters, who seek to force her from Slaver’s Bay like the beggar queen she once was. Right on cue, it’s Drogon once again, who she mounts with the look of death in her eyes, and flies off to roast the Masters’ navy. The Dothraki cut off the Sons of the Harpy at the city gates, viscera flying. Grey Worm talks the rest into surrendering with no trouble, and slices the throats of the two Masters that offered up the third as a sacrifice. “Thank you for the armada,” Tyrion quips; “our Queen does love ships!”
It’s a beautiful conflagration, with Daenerys Stormborn in all her glory, a preview of what may be yet to come — not just at the Red Keep, but perhaps in the Land of Winter. And yet, though she does it in the name of justice, Tyrion also gets a whiff of something more troubling. Is she going mad, like her father and so many Targaryens before her? Not for the first time, he reminds us of the cache of Chekhov’s Wildfire that may still be living underneath King’s Landing (and many believe, and I agree, that this is what Qyburn was onto last week) — is destruction the only thing on her mind now? Might makes Right? There’s a theory gaining traction that Dany might turn out to be the final villain of this story. It might be true. I’ll unpack it at a later date.
The Greyjoys are here too, having upgraded their ships with rockets or gone through a wormhole, and are ready to add to Dany’s new fleet. This marks the first time Tyrion and Theon have crossed paths since the very first episode of the series, and the former makes sure he knows how their roles have reversed. Theon, however, isn’t here to have Dany support his claim, but his sister’s. “Have the Iron Islands ever had a Queen before?” Dany asks Yara. “No more than Westeros,” Yara smirks. Right away, the two women warm to each other. (Easy there, lads.)
It also helps that Yara isn’t asking for her hand in marriage, like her uncle Euron will (“I never demand, but I’m up for anything,” she wisecracks), and Dany only asks one thing in return: that the Ironborn’s days of reaving and raping are over. “No more,” Yara agrees. (And we can assume Theon, bless his heart, does too.) It’s the end of her people’s way of life, yes, but if that’s what it takes for Yara to have unquestioned power with the Dragon Queen backing her up, she’ll take it. As they clasp arms, we are one step closer to finally getting our girl back across the sea. “Our fathers left the world worse than they found it,” Dany says. “We’re not going to do that.” Are you sure, though?
The main event, as I’ve said, is brutal and bloody; Sapochnik was clearly influenced by everything from Kurosawa to Braveheart — note how Ramsey has no problem dropping arrows on his own men, like Edward Longshanks. The echoes begins with Jon and Ramsey’s first parlay; the indomitable Lyanna Mormont gives Bolton the stink-eye (after which, she is regrettably never seen again) as Jon refuses to surrender, and Ramsey refuses to just fight Jon one-on-one. “Will your men want to fight for you when they hear you wouldn’t fight for them?” Jon asks. That pisses Ramsey off, which was the plan all along. “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton,” finishes Sansa. “Sleep well.”
Yet as much brazen confidence as she showed in the meeting, Sansa complains to Jon later about feeling left out of the plans. She’s the only one who really knows Ramsey, she says, and what he’s capable of. She’s even willing to sacrifice Rickon(!), and warns Jon against getting emotional about it — he’s the only real “Stark heir” left, and was doomed the moment Ramsey captured him. This advice proves to be correct later on, when Jon goes and nearly gets himself dumbly killed after Ramsey shoots baby brother down (SERPENTINE, RICKON! SERPENTINE!), and it’s only through sheer luck that either of those things happen at all. Ramsey wasn’t even looking where he was aiming half the time, and Jon was about a half-step from being trampled.
Later, he does get trampled, but by men, so he’s able to survive long enough to hear the horns of the approaching Vale army. Luck, as any soldier will tell you, is often as critical on the battlefield as anything else. Consider the long hero shot Kit Harington gets after the armies collide, a bit of steadycam wizardry, Saving Private Rickon, as Jon takes down dude after dude — and whenever it gets truly dangerous, Wun Wun takes care of the rest. It’s exciting and gripping and so technically audacious that the actual logic becomes of secondary concern, if it’s thought of at all (like wherever Ghost is!) That’s Directing, man.
Like “The Watchers on the Wall” and the aforementioned “Hardhome,” it’s a smorgasbord of individual moments: Davos, leading a gasping final charge on foot. Wun Wun ripping a guy in half. Jon’s forces getting irrevocably encircled, the shield wall creeping closer and closer. Tormund literally going for the jugular of the traitorous Smalljon Umber. But once Littlefinger arrives with his forces, smug as ever, the certain defeat becomes a just-as-certain victory. (This is as much a surprise to Jon as to Ramsey; why didn’t Sansa tell her brother she had sent that letter?) Ramsey bolts, and Jon, Tormund, and the giant give chase. “Their army’s gone,” Bolton shrugs to a soldier. “We have Winterfell.” Not for long, of course, thanks to Wun Wun, the last of his kind, who gets a nod of eternal gratitude from Jon before taking one last arrow to the head. At the end, Ramsey is too much of a coward to even raise a sword to Jon, who rushes his bow and punches, punches, punches the despicable bastard into unconsciousness. (I should give a final shout-out, now that his part is done, to Iwan Rheon. Having played a purely sadistic character for so long, he had a harder job than most. But he was very good this week.)
The Stark banners fly once again; Melisandre’s visions finally came true, though she doesn’t seem all that excited about it. Even having brought Jon back from the dead, she had no council to give him on the eve of battle except “don’t lose,” and now Davos, after discovering Shireen’s pyre, is gunning for her again. No one is truly triumphant, partly because there are so few left. (Jon motions to have Rickon buried in the Stark crypt — put a pin in that, book readers?) But Ramsey, somewhat inexplicably, remains alive; I expected, as I imagine did many of you, that the scene in the courtyard would end with Sansa striking the finishing blow. Instead, Jon lets her have the episode’s final moment in a more twisted way.
“You can’t kill me,” Ramsey taunts Sansa, bound, bloodied, and behind bars. “I’m a part of you now.” This creature of pure evil, that violated Sansa in ways beyond count and has marked the grim undertow of the last four seasons of Thrones, only deserved a death as twisted as he was. “Your words will disappear,” Sansa half-chants; “your house will disappear; your name will disappear; all memory of you will disappear.” He will be stricken from every obelisk and tablet.
And while it’s fitting, even poetic that it came at Sansa’s word, a smile playing on Sophie Turner’s face as one of Ramsey’s half-starved hounds emerges from the darkness, then another, so he can know that even his “loyal” beasts have betrayed him, there’s something profoundly unsatisfying about it. Perhaps it’s how the show revels in the gruesomeness of the act, or what it means for Sansa going forward, or perhaps it’s how no death would ever be bad enough for what Ramsey put other characters (and, by proxy, us) through. Perhaps it’s how his becoming doggy kibble only serves to remind us of all he’s done, and wonder once again why he had to be written as a one-note psychopath in the first place. But regardless of how you felt about Ramsey’s end, there’s definitely one thing we can all agree on: thank the Seven that’s over.
NEXT WEEK: The Season Finale. Cersei stands trial. The Freys send their regards. Dany enters the great game. Bran does something, hopefully.