Airdate: June 19, 2016
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Showrunners: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss (creators); George R.R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire” by); David Benioff & D.B. Weiss (written for television by)
Tonight may have just seen the best single episode of television ever. High praise? Hyperbole? Perhaps – but in my current state of jangled nerves and adrenaline hangover, I am leaning toward saying that no, it isn’t hype at all. Click through to get my full review of tonight’s penultimate episode of Season 6 of Game of Thrones.
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of Game of Thrones S06E09, “Battle of the Bastards” – spoilers ahead; read more at your own risk.>>
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: the Second Battle of Winterfell, the titular Battle of the Bastards, does for medieval and fantasy warfare what Steven Spielberg did for World War II cinema in Saving Private Ryan. The intensity of the battle, the intimacy, the choice to stay in narrow focus on Jon Snow in the midst of chaos during an extended long-shot, all worked together to create an experience that had me not only on the edge of my seat, but holding my breath as I watched. But more on that later – let’s begin with beginnings.
The episode opens on Mereen, where the Masters are continuing to bombard the city. It’s daylight – so we know the attack has been ongoing for some time. Dany is giving Tyrion her best not-amused face, and he’s doing that rarest of things – acting at a loss for words. It seems more pro forma than anything else, however, as she isn’t calling him out. In fact, he’s the one that ends up calling her out, when she tells him that her intention is to kill all the Masters, and to burn their cities to the ground. He tells her what Mad King Aerys planned to do to King’s Landing when the Lannister forces were arrayed outside its gates, and hints that should she follow through with her plans, she will simply be fulfilling her father’s “promise.” The fact that he planned to burn the city to the ground with wildfire – all the while expecting to be transformed into a dragon himself – spoke to his insanity, and Tyrion’s words serve as a warning to Daenerys lest she become her father, and presumably lose any potential goodwill she may otherwise get when she returns to Westeros.
We shift to a mountaintop overlooking Mereen’s harbor. Dany and her advisers (Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm) meet with the Masters (and assorted guards on both sides). They give her terms – she can leave, on foot, and never come back to Slaver’s Bay again. Of course, they misunderstand. The terms that are being negotiated are not for her surrender, but for theirs. Drogon flies in, she mounts him, and they fly out over the Masters’ fleet. Rhaegal and Viserion, released from their chains a couple of weeks ago by Tyrion, break through the wall of the pyramid dungeon, and join their brother. The three proceed to incinerate a few ships, throwing the fleet into chaos.
For my money, this is the first time that we’ve actually got the scale of the dragons. They’re truly dangerous, and as they hover and spew flame, it was easy to imagine them in some future episode (Season 7 Part 2, perhaps?) doing the same to the Night’s King and his minions.
While the sea battle is going on, we cut to one of the main entrances to the city, where Sons of the Harpy are busily cutting down what appear to be relative harmless and unarmed former slaves. There’s a cry in the air, and they turn – it’s Daario leading a charge with Dany’s new Khalasar behind him. They make short work of the anonymous slave-master sympathizers, entering the city and winning on the ground as Dany wins in the air and sea.
Back up on the hill, the true terms are delivered to the three Masters. Grey Worm encourages the soldiers – slaves all – to abandon their Masters, which they do post haste. The they’re told that Dany requires the death of one of them. Two choose a third, but as he bends knee to beg forgiveness, Grey Worm slices his dagger through the throats of the other two in a swift single swipe. They fall dead, and the remaining Master is told to go home, and to tell others of the Mother’s mercy.
The battle concluded, Dany is up several ships – and then she gets about 100 more, as Yara and Theon suddenly appear. The show is definitely taking shortcuts at this point. I suppose we could assume that there are some chronology issues going on, but that’s never made explicitly clear; instead, it just feels like the worlds’ a whole lot smaller than we’ve been led to believe in earlier seasons (and in the books, for that matter).
Yara is very flirtatious with Dany, stating that should Dany choose to marry her (something she tells Daenerys her uncle intends to do in exchange for his ships), she’s open to the idea. Dany in turn is forthright with the two Greyjoys. She agrees to take them on and to deal with their uncle, now-King Euron, but for a price: they must forevermore give up their raiding, reaving, and raping – the three “R”s. Yara hesitates, but she isn’t really bargaining from a position of power, and the two lock arms in agreement.
Back to the North. The opening is before the battle. The leaders of the two forces meet for parlay, Sansa and Jon with their entourage, Ramsay with his supporting lords. Jon offers single combat against Ramsay in order to spare the thousands of deaths a battle will entail, but Ramsay predictably refuses – he does, after all, have a clear numerical superiority. While it’s primarily Jon and Ramsay that do the talking, there are two clear winners of this exchange: Sansa and Lady Mormont. Sansa is stoic, and her stare is unbeatable. But Lady Mormont? Total death stare. She may have only 62 men, but her stare alone is worth 100 fighters. Ramsay should have known better.
After the typical show of overt hyper-masculinity, the two camps depart, and we go to Jon’s war tent, where the good stones (Stark markers) are clearly outnumbered by the bad stones (Boltons). The battle lines are drawn in very straight lines, and this is symbolic of the linear thinking of the male protagonists. Go forward, hit things, hope to win. Sansa is – rightfully – pissed off at her half-brother over his lack of creativity. For someone who is supposed to be some sort of great strategic thinker, he seems at a total loss here. The planning does lead to one moment of humor, as he tried to explain to Tormund how they’ll fight differently than the battle north of the Wall. He tells his wildling major domo that they won’t be caught in a “double-envelopment” as Stannis did to the wildlings. Tormund just stares at him. “They won’t be able to flank us,” Jon essays again, to Tormund’s continued blank stare. “The won’t be able to attack us from the sides,” Jon tries once more. “Good,” Tormund says. While this is played as a light moment before battle, it still detracts somewhat from Tormund’s obviously keen military mind. He did, after all, use a flanking and rear-attack maneuver when he came at Castle Black, so Jon’s hand gestures and movements should have been ample for him to get the context of the unfamiliar terms.
So after Tormund and Davos leave (and go outside to make some jokes about drinking and crapping themselves before battle), Sansa lays into her brother. She is, after all, the only Stark in the room, and more importantly, the only one with real first-hand experience of Ramsay Bolton. Unfortunately, the whole conversation breaks down to her telling Jon she thinks they should have more troops before they attack, and that Ramsay will try to hurt Jon before the battle. The latter holds true, and the former is more or less foreshadowing for Littlefinger’s arrival on the day of the battle. What I would have liked to see here, is for Sansa to have come up with some sort of a strategic suggestion. She opens on Jon by reminding him that she’s the only one who knows Ramsay, that Jon has only had a single conversation by which to judge the Boltons. But then she has no real follow-up for him, other than to say that Ramsay’s an even bigger bastard than Jon expects.
Outside the tent, Ser Davos goes off on a lonely pre-battle walk. He finds the remains of Shireen’s funeral pyre, and digging around the ashes he finds the stag he carved for her a while back. It’s somehow survived the fire, and he brushes off soot and snow, taking it with him. On the surface, this an overly melodramatic piece, one that comes across as blatantly sentimental. However, it does serve to remind us from whence Ser Davos comes, his connections, and the price he’s had to pay. In addition, it serves as metaphor and symbol for the Stark family. The stag connection with the Baratheons, a dead house, shows that even when something seems to be dead on the surface – such as the Stark family in the North – it still may survive the fire and come back to surprise. It’s a form of subtle resurrection.
The day of the battle breaks cold and clear. The lines set up opposite each other, and Ramsay leads Rickon out in front of his troops. He tells the boy that he wants to play a game. The game is this: Rickon can run to Jon Snow, and the sooner he gets there, the sooner he can see his brother. He cuts Rickon’s bindings, and the boy starts to walk away – Ramsay quickly reminds him that he must run, as this is part of the game. Jon watches, and as soon as he sees what’s happening, he spurs his mount forward.
One of Ramsay’s men comes up to him, handing him a large bow. He draws an arrow, and fires in the direction of Rickon, the arrow hitting off to one side. The second, he doesn’t even look, loosing the arrow and narrowly missing. Rickon, for some unknown reason, continues to run in a straight line. Seriously – the kid is young, yes, but no zigzags? It’s not hard to figure out, but he’s panicking and he sees Jon charging toward him, so he just keeps going. Ramsay dawdles on the third arrow, taking careful aim, making the viewer think that this one’s going to hit – but no, it too misses. A long shot shows Jon just about reaching his brother, when wham – the fourth arrow shoots out from Rickon’s breast. He falls and breaths his last as Jon gets to him.
Jon’s out completely alone, and Ramsay orders his archers to fire. They take out Jon’s horse, and he tumbles to the ground. Back at the Stark lines, Ser Davos rallies the troops and orders them forward to join their commander – they charge, followed by Tormund and his wildlings along with Wun Wun, the lone giant left.
Ramsay orders his cavalry forward, and the archers to continue firing. Jon sees the onslaught approaching, and draws his sword, dropping his belt and scabbard to the ground. Just as the Bolton troops are about to be upon him, the Stark chargers pass Jon, knocking men and horses flying in all directions. What ensues is quite simply one of the most amazing battle scenes I have ever witnessed – and for my money (as I stated in my preamble), the best cinematic battle scene since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan.
If you remember the aforementioned movie, you’ll remember the scene of the soldier carrying his own arm as he walks up the beach. This battle does similar things, just as visceral, with the advantage of both having movies like Ryan to refer to, and much improved CGI and years more practical effects experience. We see men with legs chopped off crawling over bodies; men trying to hold their steaming intestines in as they cry for help; men drenched in blood – theirs and others’ – as they struggle to make sense of the chaos all around them. Jon cuts through numerous foes, but always seems surprised by the next Bolton falling upon him. On more than one occasion, he’s saved from imminent death by the fortuitous advent of another battle knocking through him, or an ally taking down an unseen enemy, or another volley of indiscriminate arrows from Ramsay’s archers taking out both friends and foes around them. Jon has never seemed more vulnerable, more mortal than in this moment, despite having actually died in the last season – even there, there was always a sense that he’d somehow overcome even death. Here, there’s a sense that if he goes down, that’s it – it’s final. Of course, this might have something to do with the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate – or Resurrect, as it were) order he gave Melisandre prior to the battle, but the stakes here seem so much more permanent than anything he’s faced before.
To my mind, a Stark victory in the North was inevitable, but individual survivals were never guaranteed. I figured that one of Sansa, Jon, or Rickon had to survive, else the victory would ultimately be meaningless. Rickon’s death was pretty much a given, as the audience had little emotion invested in him as a character beyond his name, so he was useful as a sacrifice to ramp up tension for the other Stark children. Sansa I felt had to survive – her storyline is too integral to too many others, and she has (had) unfinished business both with Ramsay and with Littlefinger. Jon was the wildcard. I knew he’d be front and center in the battle, and to me his survival was not a guaranteed thing. He’d come back, he’d led the troops to Winterfell in his sister’s name, and now this might be the end of his purpose. This helped to increase the tension for me as a viewer, as I frankly had no idea whether he’d survive or not, unlike my feeling at the end of last season, when I was 95% certain he was coming back.
As the battle progressed, I was thus tense and watching on tenterhooks, something that messrs. Weiss, Benioff, and Sapochnik (tonight’s director – major kudos to him!) clearly were trying to do. Well done, gentlemen!
The cavalry on both sides basically annihilate one another, and Tormund’s men boost Jon and the dismounted warriors – Ramsay calls his archers off, and sends in the infantry. They proceed to create a shield wall encircling the Stark forces on three sides, the mountain of dead and dying horses and men at their backs. The shield wall tactic is long and storied – check out this Wikipedia entry to read about its history. And here, it is used to textbook perfection. The front row locks shields, and the second row pushes long polearms through the gaps, spearing enemies as they slowly advance. Jon is stuck at the back, and can’t fight forward, so it is left up to Tormund and Wun Wun to rally troops at the line. Tormund orders the men forward, and thought they take out a few Boltons, the lines hold, and Tormund himself takes a wound. Jon realizes they can’t get out of the trap, so turns to the mountain of corpses. At the top, he sees Smalljon Umber leading his troops to prevent escape in that direction. It seems the weakest link in the encirclement, so Jon heads that way.
As he moves there, Tormund and others see the move, and follow. But what ensues is a mass panic as the men try to climb over the dead and dying, and others get trampled underneath. Jon falls, and is unable to get up before he’s surrounded by others desperately trying to get away from the pointy ends of Bolton sticks, and is soon pushed under their scrambling boots. This sequence is so visceral, I almost felt as though I were suffocating along with Jon. The sound editing is magnificent, the focus being on Jon’s gasps for breath as the sounds of battle fade into a background roar. We see his blood and muck-stained face in shadow and light as boots trample over him, and there is a very real sense of doom. This is interspersed with shots of Tormund, who has managed to stay above the pile, coming face to face with Smalljon Umber. They battle magnificently, trading blows and headbutts. The tide turns in their individual battle once, having been stuck by Smalljon’s blade, Tormund leans forward and bites the lord’s throat out. Umber falls, bleeding to death.
We cut back to Jon, who finally almost swims his way back to the top of the sea of humanity around him, gasping for breath, and sees both Tormund and Ser Davos in similar straits nearby. They look back desperately at the advancing Bolton shield wall, and forward at the murderous (and oathbreaking) Umbers in front. All seems lost in this moment, and the camera slows, poised on the precipice of disaster.
And then the sound of horns. Over the hill come charging the Knights of the Vale, bearing the banners of the Aerie as they come down upon the shield wall on it’s exposed rear. Ramsay looks confused, and begins to retreat. Jon sees this, and he, Tormund, and Wun Wun give chase. As the Knights enter the fray, we see Sansa sitting astride her horse, Littlefinger beside her looking particularly smug. Despite his self-satisfaction, this is clearly Sansa’s victory – she called on Littlefinger’s help, and brought him to the battlefield in the nick of time. Perhaps her mind understands grand strategy after all.
Ramsay gets inside the gate to Winterfell, and he tells his men to bar the gate. When his sergeant points out that they’ve lost all their men, Ramsay reminds him that they still have Winterfell, and they can hold it. This lasts about two seconds, until Wun Wun begins to hammer the gates down. After a few hard shoulders into the gate, he punches straight through with first his left fist, and then his right. He takes hold of the beam barring the gates, and when his hand is pinned with an arrow, he pulls his hand loose, letting the arrow tear through his flesh in the process. He bursts through gate, and is thoroughly pincushioned.
First Jon and Tormund, and then a couple of dozen wildlings rush through the broken gate. They take out the remaining Bolton archers, and Tormund and Jon take up station on either side of the battered giant. He and Jon look at each other, and just as Jon reaches out to him, an arrow pierces the giant’s right eye, dropping him. It is, predictably, Ramsay who has fired the shot. He reminds Jon of his offer of individual combat, and tells him that he’s reconsidered, knocking an arrow and firing at Jon. Jon grabs a dropped Stark shield, and begins to advance on the Bolton lord. He takes one, two, three arrows on the shield, blocking each shot as an increasingly desperate Ramsay attempts to strike down his opponent. Jon reaches him as he nocks a fourth arrow, slamming Ramsay and his bow with the edge of the shield, and pinning him to the ground. He pummels him relentlessly, breaking and pulping his face, while Ramsay grins through his bloody teeth. Before he killed Ramsay, Jon sees Sansa watching, and he gets up and walks away.
We cut to Stark banners being dropped all around the castle, Bolton banners being piled for burning. She asks Jon “Where is he?” We go to Ramsay, who is bound to a chair in the middle of his kennels. He sees Sansa looking in, and tells her that she can’t kill him, that he’s a part of her. This is a clear reference to his sexual abuse of her during their “marriage,” and the effect he feels he has had on her. She replies, staring stoically at her abuser, that “Your words will disappear. Your House will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” He sits there taking this in, and then notices that the kennel doors are all ajar, and that the hounds are coming out. “My hounds will never harm me,” he says, but Sansa reminds him: “You haven’t fed them in seven days, you said it yourself.” “They’re loyal beasts,” he says. “Now they’re starving,” she replies, and the hounds begin to growl. One steps up on Ramsay’s lap, sniffing at his face. “Down. Down. Down!” an increasingly desperate sounding Ramsay shouts – and then the hound clamps its jaws on Ramsay’s face. As the sound of dogs eating is intermingled with Ramsay’s screams, Sansa walks away, a satisfied look on her face. Cut to credits.
This was one heck of an episode. The brief interlude to Mereen served to tie up several loose ends, setting up Dany’s imminent return to the Seven Kingdoms. Tyrion is now established as her trusted adviser, and the Greyjoys are firmly in her camp. While Yara and Theon’s arrival seemed far too quick and convenient, I suspect this is more an indication of the paucity of episodes left forcing Benioff and Weiss to take some shortcuts. After all, once next week’s episode has aired, there are likely only thirteen more episodes to go (seven and six in each of an abbreviated seventh and eighth season). It was satisfying to see the dragons finally given the gravitas they have so needed throughout the series. While they have been shown to be dangerous, killing a few people (one child) and some livestock, this was the first time that the threatened entire armies – and the army simply had no answer for them. The dragons are now ready for the battles to come, as are Daenerys and her people. She has the ships, she has the army, she has the dragons. She’s arriving at a port in Westeros near you in the very near future (early Season 7, I predict).
The battle for Winterfell was quite simply epic. The very focused camera, sticking on Jon as he is buffeted about by the waves and forces of the battle around him, show the viewer just how chaotic and insane warfare is on the ground. He does well, but is alive just as much due to luck as to his combat ability, and this is perhaps the most honest thing told to us in this episode. The very real sense of claustrophobia that Sapochnik’s close-ups of a gasping and desperate Jon elicited were among the most visceral emotions I’ve ever felt when watching a show, whether in TV or in the theater. This episode of television very easily surpasses most movies I’ve seen, and does so in only an hour of showtime.
The sense of catharsis the audience experiences upon Ramsay’s gruesome demise is well-earned. We’ve come to hate this character who, despite his rather two-dimensional construction, has been played with a certain delectable glee by Welsh actor Iwan Rheon for the past four seasons. Yes, he has been a bit of a mustache twirler at times, but there’s no denying Rheon’s ability to play truly creepy and despicable. Here’s hoping he has a long and storied career as an actor going forward.
The true winner in tonight’s episode is the women. Recently, I’ve been watching Breaking Bad (finally), and while I love the show, and am amazed by some of the twists and turns it takes, I can’t help but notice that it is lacking in one key area: strong female characters. Neither Skylar nor Marie are able to stand up to the men in their lives, acting most often as foils or abettors to various choices either Walt or Hank make. Not so in Game of Thrones.
Beginning with the obvious choices, both Daenerys and Sansa more than hold their own. They are, in fact, the agents of their own success. Dany literally rides her dragon into battle, sinking the enemy fleet and forcing their surrender. Sansa recognized the weakness of the army she has put in her brother’s hands, and she sets out to remedy the situation, bringing the Knights of the Aerie to the battle in the knick of time. When facing her torturer, she shows no compassion, doing what must be done when facing a rabid dog. The moment when she faces him, when she makes the “disappear” speech, shows just how hard she has become. Sansa is ready to lead, and I am looking forward to her inevitable meeting with Dany at some near (series-wise) date.
But these two standouts are not the only strong women in the episode. In addition, we have Yara holding her own with the Mother of Dragons, negotiating hard despite having almost no bargaining strength, and gaining an ally that promises to oust her usurping uncle in the process (and, potentially, interesting a possible future lover). And let us now forget Lady Lyanna Mormont who, despite not having a single line in tonight’s episode, has the best and nastiest death-stare of any character in the show. I knew Ramsay’s hours were numbered when I saw her staring at him.
Is this the best episode of Game of Thrones so far? At this point, a few hours and 4000+ words after watching it, I think so. Even if in later estimation I don’t find it to be the best, it will be a 1b or a 1c in the list of best episodes. I can’t wait to see what happens next week, and next year for that matter.
Steve’s Grade: A+
One of, if not the, best episodes of the entire series run so far, making it for my money one of the best hours of television ever. Woman power has never been more important or more relevant, and I can’t wait to see what the next (and last) fourteen episodes have in store for us. Winter is coming!