This is the first episode of season six that I’ve found more enjoyable than not, and there’s really quite a lot to like about “Battle of the Bastards” from an artistic standpoint. With only two settings to worry about this week, it’s a relatively well-constructed episode, and it seems obvious where all the show’s budget went this year—the battle scenes are truly spectacular. The titular conflict in particular is well done in its grim, dark, ugly bloodbath fashion, while in Meereen we finally get some dragon action. Unfortunately, once you really think about what’s underneath the spectacle, there’s still a remarkable amount of stuff going on that doesn’t make sense, a lot of obvious contrivance, and a heavy helping of the same contempt for the show’s source material and audience that has characterized the show since at least season four. And that’s not even touching on the patronizing disrespect with which the show still treats its female characters, even as so-called critics continue to fawn over how “different” the show is this year.
In short, “Battle of the Bastards” is an episode that looks good and was enjoyable to watch with a bottle of wine in hand, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as a real quality episode of television.
As always, spoilers under the cut.
The episode opens with what I suppose is intended to be some version of the Battle of Meereen that has been teased in early-released chapters of The Winds of Winter. That said, it’s not very much like anything in particular that happens in the books except that it is a battle, in Meereen, and Daenerys’s dragons are involved.
As we saw last week, the Masters of Astapor and Yunkai have arrived in force in Meereen, presumably still disgruntled about the prospect of ending slavery several years down the road. Daenerys has arrived just in time to see all of Tyrion’s plans falling apart, though he has managed to more or less secure Daenerys’s position inside the city. I actually found myself feeling slightly bad for Tyrion as he tries to explain for his queen why her city is under attack; Dany just stares stonily at him and speaks short sentences in a sort of unreadable monotone that makes it hard to tell if she, you know, has emotions at all anymore. Tyrion’s account of things is somewhat confused and confusing, and it’s not even entirely clear exactly why the Masters have attacked Meereen, to be honest, except that it’s vaguely reminiscent of some stuff that happens in the books. However, without everything else that happened in the books as Daenerys struggled to rule Meereen, most of what’s happening now doesn’t make any real sense if you think about it for more than half a minute.
In any case, after Tyrion updates her on the state of Meereen, Daenerys offers her own plan for how to proceed, which is basically to kill (to crucify, even) the Masters, destroy their fleet, and then fly to their cities and destroy those too. Tyrion is somewhat understandably disturbed by this plan, though I think we’re might be intended to understand it as Daenerys testing him. He reminds her about her father and the wildfire under King’s Landing, and this talks her down from going on a murderous rampage, I guess? Or maybe it’s Tyrion passing some test? It’s honestly not clear. If it’s a test of some kind, it doesn’t make sense and I have no idea exactly what she’s testing (his humanity, maybe?). If it really is Tyrion talking her down from committing atrocities, then it’s the first part of a ridiculously sexist narrative in Meereen this week as she defers to him for every major decision she makes and then lets him do most of her talking for her in all the subsequent scenes they share, which is all of them. I’m not going to sit down and time their speaking and screen times to compare, but I’m fairly certain that Tyrion has at least as much, if not more, dialogue as Daenerys does this week, and he certainly is shown to be much more effective than she is. Sure, Dany gets to hop on Drogon and burn some ships (because it’s not like she needs every ship she can get or anything), but Tyrion gets to be the rational, levelheaded and diplomatic one of the pair.
Much has been made, elsewhere, of Daenerys’s first meeting with Yara Greyjoy, which happens this week as well, but it’s underwhelming at best. For one thing, it’s distracting that Theon and Yara have even managed to travel to Meereen so quickly. Secondarily, too much of the meeting was lowkey played for laughs. We get it, Yara’s into women. Hilarious. Finally, I cannot overstate how much I despise that the show has made Tyrion effectively the ruler of Meereen. For all that this scene is framed as being about women leaders working together, both Daenerys and Yara defer to the men standing next to them in this negotiation, and in fact as much of the discussion is about and between Tyrion and Theon as otherwise. The part that infuriated me the most, though, was Dany’s glance to Theon before she clasps hands with Yara to cement their alliance. It’s an obvious callback, though likely unintentional, to the look Sansa gave Theon before taking Brienne into her service, and it communicates the same thing—namely, that even the (ostensibly) most powerful woman on the show is, ultimately, subservient to whoever the nearest man is.
But, sure, let’s keep giving this season all the credit for being super feminist and totally changing the way women are treated on the show. Right.
The Battle of the Bastards
Before we get to the actual battle, there’s still a good amount of other stuff to deal with. First off, there’s a parlay with Ramsay Bolton in which Ramsay acts predictably monstrous and Jon Snow acts predictably stupid. Jon suggests that the two of them just duel one on one instead of engaging in the senseless slaughter of whole armies of men, but Ramsay, sensibly, declines as he’s unsure if he could beat Jon, who is apparently some kind of renowned swordsman now in spite of having only fought at the Wall and most of the people who have seen him fight being dead or otherwise in no position to spread stories about his prowess. Viewers of the show will probably have trouble recalling any time at which Jon was shown to be a “great” swordsman, and even book readers will remember that while Jon is competent and well-trained, he hasn’t distinguished himself in battle in any particular way. But okay. Sure.
The thing that irritates me the most about this parlay, however, is when Ramsay points out that Jon doesn’t have the men, the horses, or the fortification (Winterfell) to give him a good chance of beating Ramsay in an actual battle. This is all true, and Ramsay ought to have been able to hold Winterfell against Jon’s forces with only a fraction of the men he has. However, instead of holing up inside the castle, Ramsay leads his forces out into the field anyway, which results in a massive, unnecessary, and profoundly stupid loss of life and of course ends up leading to Ramsay losing Winterfell altogether. And here’s the thing: in the books, it is suggested that Ramsay is in fact this stupid, with his worst tendencies only held in check by Roose Bolton’s controlling influence, but show!Ramsay has up until this point been shown to be almost hypercompetent, with things almost always working out for him regardless of how nonsensical and contrived that has made his plot. Just like this week’s events in Meereen, events in the North suffer greatly from the lack of all the context and character work and meticulous groundlaying that exists in the books, and the overall effect is to make it feel as if the only reason for this battle to happen this way at all is because the show’s writers wanted to stage a huge, bloody battle. Because that’s pretty much what they always do in episode nine every year.
That said, if you’re willing to pretend as if the books and every other episode of the show up to this point don’t exist, there’s a lot to like about this scene. Jon is of course the worst, prone to the same maladaptive sense of “honor” as Ned Stark was, but Iwan Rheon turns in an incredible performance as Ramsay. His early self-assurance, his barely concealed cruelty and madness, and his fury as his genial mask starts to crack under pressure is nicely done. It’s just too bad that this level of nuance isn’t really backed up by the rest of the show to date. Worse, before the end of the conversation, Ramsay slips right back into cardboard caricature of evil territory as he threatens to feed Jon and company to his dogs.
Sophie Turner, meanwhile, continues to shine as Sansa, but I’m not sure I like the way she threatened Ramsay and then rode off in a sort of huff. It’s a weird moment that seems intended to be empowering but is actually infantilizing. Knowing that Sansa and Jon are at such a distinct military disadvantage—and knowing that Sansa knows this—her bold words feel like false bravado and her riding off feels more like a flounce than a mic drop. This unpleasant perception is only enhanced by the next scene, in which Jon, Davos and Tormund are discussing strategy while Sansa stands meekly and silently against the wall of the tent in the background. It’s only after the other men leave that Sansa speaks up and confronts Jon about how he hasn’t asked her for advice about Ramsay. Infuriatingly, however, when Jon is like “okay, so what’s your advice, Sansa?” she doesn’t have anything useful to contribute. She does have some interesting insights, and she seems to have a better understanding of the situation that either Jon or Ramsay, but the truth is that by not giving her something—anything—to offer Jon in terms of advice or strategy, the show has only reinforced that Jon is actually right to exclude her from his war council and made Sansa look childish and irrational.
The actual battle, when it happens, is incredible to watch. The sheer number of men and horses and the amount of blood and dirt is impressive, and it really does capture something of the terror and chaos that one might experience in this sort of battle. I imagine that it will be heavily praised for its realism, and I’ve already seen quite a few pieces that have talked about the historical influences for this episode. However, I don’t think realist is the right term for it at all. Certainly, there is a sort of heightened reality here, and there is a level of filth and gore that probably feels real to modern audiences, but the marks of stylization for dramatic purposes are unmistakable. For example, Jon Snow spends an absurd amount of time standing alone, or at least separated from the fighting, in the middle of the battlefield, with several shots being heavily (and I’m guessing unintentionally, which adds a shade of hilarity to them) reminiscent of that battle in Highlander where no one will fight Connor MacLeod because the Kurgan has claimed him. There’s also that ridiculously high wall of bodies that Jon and his fighters find themselves trapped against. How does that form naturally in the course of combat? Even the arrival of Sansa with Littlefinger and the Vale forces is too coincidentally timely and creates too picturesque an image to be considered even remotely realistic.
The least realistic part of all, though, and the most disappointing part of the battle, is the ease with which Jon and his forces are able to get into Winterfell itself. As cool as it is to see the giant, Wun Wun, break through the castle gates, it also makes Winterfell feel terribly small. After the more or less epic battle outside, the events inside Winterfell all feel decidedly anticlimactic. Wun Wun’s death is sad, but it doesn’t have the impact it could have had if the show had spent even a few seconds more on addressing the tragedy and the melancholy brought about by the passing of one of the last giants. Together with the total lack of any other major character deaths on the Stark/Wildling side of things (Jon, Tormund, and Davos are all apparently heavily protected by plot armor), this makes all of the Winterfell stuff feel low stakes in a way that is distinctly at odds with how I think we’re intended to feel about it. Ramsay’s remaining supporters inside the castle are easily defeated, and there’s even a slightly comical bit where they are pouring out of a sort of doorway and just being shot one after another as they emerge; if it wasn’t on Game of Thrones, I’d call it Monty Python-esque. Even Jon’s fight with Ramsay is without any sense of visual style; it’s just ugly and brutal, which is understandable but not very interesting to watch.
In the end, of course, Ramsay is turned over to Sansa, and the episode ends with a kind of justice as she feeds him to his dogs, but this is, frankly, both predictable and trite. I don’t know what else the show could have done with Ramsay, but I can’t help but feel like this ending is largely unearned. The entire battle in this episode was nonsensical in ways that aren’t at all made up for by how cool it looked, and in order to buy this particular ending as part of Sansa’s character development you have to give the show and its writers credit for a lot of work they didn’t actually do to get to this point. Absolutely, one of the problems with bringing Sansa to life on screen has always been that so much of her journey as a character is internal, but the show has barely even tried to find ways to externalize things in a way that makes consistent sense or effectively shows Sansa’s character arc. So, how did she get to this point? Who knows, really. Something, something, hardened woman making a choice, I guess.
- The brazen beasts just murdering civilians with blood spurting everywhere was a bit much, though I’m glad the Dothraki weren’t entirely forgotten.
- I still wish that the show had managed to color the dragons a little more distinctively. The differences between them aren’t that obvious, especially when you see them from more than a couple of feet away and in anything other than bright daylight. Also, while Drogon looks pretty good for the most part, Rhaegal and Viserion appear to be clones of each other, down to their movements, and I’m pretty sure they are both just slightly reskinned and scaled down versions of Drogon to begin with. If they had a little more individuality, they’d feel much more like real animals. As it is, it’s impossible to forget that these are computer-generated monsters, albeit cool-looking ones.
- Where is Ghost? I guess it makes sense that Jon might keep the wolf out of the actual battle, since even though it’s big it’s still, you know, a wolf and very vulnerable to humans’ weapons. But he doesn’t even bring Ghost to the parlay, which would have been a powerful image, especially with everyone on horseback, to highlight just how large a dire wolf is. Not to mention the symbolic power of the wolf in-world on the show; just having the wolf there would be impressive, particularly if Jon is hoping to steal the Karstarks and Umbers away from Ramsay by reminding them of their ancestral loyalties. It even would have worked nicely in contrast to the way they tossed Shaggydog’s head on the ground as yet another layer of symbolism—the pristine white wolf in contrast to the desecrated corpse of the black one.
- I would be okay if I never had to hear the word “bastard” again. Also, “cunt.”
- There is still very little actual snow, even in the North, in spite of it being supposed to be winter for ages now.
- That said, the splitting of the episode, visually and thematically, between ice (the North) and fire (Dany in Meereen) was nice, if a little on the nose.
- Good to see that Melisandre is still around, although she’s even more cut out from the main action than Sansa is.
- How did Davos wait all this time before wondering what happened to Shireen? Alternatively, in the whole North and all the land surrounding Winterfell, they seriously decided to just camp in the same place Stannis did? Alternatively to that, how did Davos, in this huge camp covered in snow, manage to find the exact pyre where Shireen was burnt? And how did that little wooden stag survive? And if this is where Stannis’s army fell, what happened to all the bodies?
- Still, that shot of Davos silhouetted against the dawn is striking. Definitely one of the prettier single shots of the season so far, even if it is again with the on the nose symbolism. Say one thing about Game of Thrones, say it’s heavy-handed as all get out.
- Speaking of people who are childish, how about that bit with Tyrion sniping at Theon?
- I’m not sure why Rickon didn’t run back and forth to make it harder for Ramsay to hit him. Medieval style longbows aren’t terribly accurate, and the way Ramsay fires—in high arcs through the air—is relatively easy to dodge.