Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Game of Thrones 6.09 Battle of the Bastards
I've written about a lot of television episodes in my years as a writer. I've recapped some really great episodes, and some poor ones, and many really good ones. But every once in a while an episode comes along that is so stunning it raises the bar of what quality television should be. "Battle of the Bastards" is one of those episodes. Yes, this season has had a different tone than the seasons before it, and yes, there are times it's moving too quickly, and other times things are happening that don't seem to have any rhyme or reason, and it's possible the show is hurting by not following the books at this point. But this episode proved that Game of Thrones still has a lot of ground to cover, and the battle for Winterfell is one of the best hours of television I've ever seen. Before I begin, I wanted to point out something I noticed as I was collecting photos to accompany the post. Maybe I spent too many years dissecting Lost and now I just see light/dark images everywhere, but check out this screen capture of Jon Snow about to be suffocated in defeat by Ramsay's army:
The scene seems to be the dark version of a scene of victory in a much earlier season:
Coincidence, or foreshadowing?
As always, I'm joined by my banner brother, Christopher Lockett, and this week I'll go first.
Nikki: Welp, in true Game of Thrones fashion, the penultimate episode was SPECTACULAR. Which means next week’s will probably be a wrap-up episode with a lot of exposition in the first half, a few surprises in the second, and something huge happening in the final two minutes.
As is often the case, this episode leaned heavily on the battle (I think every even-numbered season has a battle in episode 9, and the odd-numbered seasons have shocking deaths in episode 9). We all knew this episode would feature the showdown between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton (I love that on Father’s Day the show featured a fight between two men whose fathers wouldn’t legitimize them, ha!) but first, we start off in Meereen and another battle that’s already waging.
The episode opened with the men working for the slavers (seriously, that word to me looks like slayers with the y having been cut off) loading catapults on their ships, which they are expertly aiming at various sites on Meereen. Meanwhile, inside the pyramid, Tyrion is discussing the state of affairs with Daenerys. When she was taken away, it seemed she had some grumblings happening, but things were mostly under control. Now she comes back and after a few weeks under Tyrion’s control, the place appears to have gone to shit. The thing is, as he explains, it’s like many cases of new leadership. A new leader is nominated to come in and clean up a country’s mess, but when he first comes in, he encounters so many problems he’s suddenly blamed for everything. But it’s not necessarily his fault — it was the previous leader who caused all the problems, and now it’s his job to use his cunning and patience to actually fix them. Daenerys didn’t fix the city’s problems by freeing the slaves, she simply created new ones by angering the masters for destroying their way of life. As he tells her, the rebirth of Meereen is the cause of all the violence. If her way succeeds, it sends a message to all that a city without slavery proves that no one needs a master. And the masters can’t have that little tidbit getting out, now, can they?
So, Daenerys has a simple solution. She will crucify the slavers, she will destroy their ships, she will go to their cities and burn each one to the ground, and she will win. And so Tyrion must once again stop her and remind her — as he did last season — about who Aerys Targaryen really was. He reminds her that the Mad King had buried wildfire throughout King’s Landing and was planning to set the city on fire, to kill every man, woman, and child in order to get to the few leaders he needed to wipe out. And so Jaime Lannister had to stop him in order to prevent a mass slaughter. If she follows through with her plan, she’ll be no different than the monster her father was, and they need to rise above that.
And so, he says, they need to come up with another plan. Cue the meeting at the top of the pyramid with the three masters Tyrion already spoke to. They tell the slavers they’re here to discuss the terms of surrender. With a smug smile, the masters begin explaining the terms they want Daenerys and Tyrion to follow, before Daenerys cuts them off and apologizes for miscommunicating — what she meant was, they’re here to discuss the terms of the masters’ surrender. Cue faces ranging from shocked to angry to amused. That last one doesn’t last for long.
As we all knew would happen, Drogon shows up and Daenerys climbs on his back. Watching him grow for six seasons is totally worth it (well, it was always worth it) just seeing the looks on the masters’ faces when he lands in front of them. She flies off and Viserion and Rhaegal emerge from the chamber where they’ve remained all season despite the fact Tyrion let them go several episodes ago, but perhaps they needed the scream of Drogon to draw them out through the wall of the place. And now that they’re flying for the first time in months, they get to have some playtime, flying around the harbour and burning everything in sight. It’s a beautifully shot scene as Daenerys, stone-faced, leads her children through the skies and orders them to immolate everyone working for the slavers.
Of course, this only takes care of the people on the ships — the Sons of the Harpy are on the ground, getting all stabby with the slaves and Daenerys followers on the ground. Hm... if only Daenerys had someone loyal to her who could handle th—
Cue Dothraki. We can only imagine the fate of the Sons of the Harpy, but I think it’s a safe guarantee that what’s left isn’t gonna be pretty.
Meanwhile, back up on the pyramid, the masters watch in horror and realize they’ve lost. Tyrion gives them a chance to help him choose one master who will die, and two of them immediately push a third one forward, mentioning he’s low-born and not one of them. As the third one bows and begs for mercy, Grey Worm steps forward and in one motion, slashes the throats of the other two masters. Tyrion steps over to the third one and places a hand on his shoulder. He tells him they will let him go, and he needs to go and find the others, and “remind them what happened when Daenerys Stormborn and her dragons came to Meereen.”
This isn’t just an episode about battles, but about preparation for and strategy within those battles. Daenerys was just going to push headlong into pure destruction before Tyrion calmed her down and explained that there was a better way to handle this, and he was right. We’ll see more scenes in this episode of discussions for what to do in battle, where not everyone will be as open to the proposed strategies as Daenerys was.
From here we move over to Jon Snow meeting his monstrous brother-in-law for the first time (a scene that included my new favourite character, Lyanna Mormont). What did you think of the initial meeting between the bastards, Chris?
Christopher: I thought it set a particular theme and tone that ran throughout the episode, which might be best summed up as the sins of the fathers. Bastardy versus trueborn, illegitimate versus legitimate sons, as we’ve seen over the course of six seasons, is a fraught and freighted issue in Westeros. In this respect, GRRM is more indebted to Shakespeare than anyone else: Edmund in King Lear and Falconbridge in King John are two of the most compelling of his creations, both of them attractive villains whose villainy proceeds from a grievance with the universe—and their fathers—that they were born “base,” and therefore ineligible to inherit wealth or titles. “Why bastard? wherefore base? / When my dimensions are as well compact,” Edmund asks, “My mind as generous, and my shape as true, / As honest madam's issue?” Jon Snow has always nursed resentment that he was the odd one out, but of course has given the lie to the charge of bastardy’s “taint.”
Indeed, he has never been more his father’s son than in this episode, and by the same token neither has Ramsay. Ramsay himself might seem to be an argument for the corruption of the bastard; Roose himself explained his proclivities as its product, but it is hard to make the argument that Ramsay is somehow different in kind from his father, or from his family’s historical fondness for cruelty and torture. Roose rebuked him at the beginning of the season for letting his “habits” occlude his strategic common sense where Sansa was concerned, but it has been obvious from the moment Ramsay murdered him that his cold cunning and ruthlessness has metastasized into Ramsay’s sociopathy. Like Jon, Ramsay is very much his father’s son, bastard or not.
The parley between Jon and Ramsay is itself broadly symbolic of the traits that originally set the narrative rolling way back when: courage versus cunning, honour versus calculation, justice versus ambition. Or to phrase it another way, Stark versus Lannister. In spite of the fact that the former categories have not fared well, in Jon Snow we see their distillation, and that should give us pause. It certainly does for Sansa, who explodes in anger and frustration at Jon when they’re alone. In the preceding war council, both Jon and Davos lay out a sound strategy. Let them come to us. With any luck, anger and confidence will send them charging full tilt. Hold your ground. “They’ve got the numbers,” Davos says. “We need the patience.” He then lays out what has often been a winning strategy for inferior forces: let the center give, and surround them on three sides.
Sansa, however, raises a crucial point that Jon is unwilling, or more likely unable, to grasp: that Ramsay is unpredictable, and whatever Jon thinks he understands about him is simple delusion. Sansa understands him in the most horrible and terrifying ways possible. Jon does not, and cannot.
Jon, however, so completely misunderstands Sansa’s concerns that I want to shake him by his man-bun. “I’ve fought beyond the Wall against worse than Ramsay Bolton,” he retorts. “I’ve defended the Wall from worse than Ramsay Bolton.” Oh, Jon—this isn’t about your honour, courage, or masculine pride. Of course he’s fought worse than Ramsay, at least in terms of scale (defending the Wall), and in terms of the enemy’s implacable malevolence (Hardhome). But in both of these cases, he fought an enemy singular of purpose and uncomplicated in motive—the White Walkers, who seek the destruction of all that is living, and the wildlings, who just wanted to get the fuck away from the White Walkers. It’s worth noting that the only time he’s fought an enemy with nuanced motives, they murdered him.
Ramsay, by contrast, has no desire or purpose beyond the accrual of power to better facilitate his own pleasure and cruel entertainment. He will play with enemies for the sheer fun of playing with them. Jon is thus as uniquely unfit to deal with Ramsay as his father was with Littlefinger and Cersei Lannister. In this respect, for all his experience with battle, Jon is little better than a naïf beside Sansa, who brings not only her knowledge of Ramsay, but her experience of watching her father executed, her torment at Joffrey’s hands, and her confusing sojourn with Littlefinger at the Eyrie. At this stage in the game, she has the equivalent of a postgraduate degree in power and its abuses, while Jon has yet to pass his GED.
If we were unclear on this point, Sansa’s brutally realistic assessment of Rickon’s life expectancy shows us how much she has learned: “We’ll never get him back. Rickon is Ned Stark’s trueborn son, which makes him a greater threat to Ramsay than you, a bastard, and me, a girl. As long as he lives, Ramsay’s claim to Winterfell will be contested, which means … he won’t live long.” Sansa’s words prove prescient, as it is precisely with Rickon that Ramsay will taunt Jon into abandoning his careful battle plan. Two Starks with one stone, one might say.
I thought Sansa was pretty magnificent in this episode, save for one crucial inconsistency. Why has she not told Jon about Littlefinger and the Lords of the Vale? It is understandable that she would have held back that information when she was determined to reject Littlefinger’s help—shortsighted and selfish, perhaps, but understandable considering the hatred she must feel for the man who married her to a monster. Considering that we know she’s sent a raven asking for his help after all, why would she not tell Jon? It’s not as though he’s ecstatic about attacking a force three times the size of his. “No, it’s not enough!” he shouts, a tinge of despair entering his voice. “It’s what we have!” It really makes no sense to withhold this from him, and that one point nagged at me throughout what was otherwise one of this show’s best episodes ever.
But whatever her reason, her heart or her shoes, she refuses to give Jon Littlefinger’s news. Which leads to bleak parting words that hearken back to season four. Sansa avows that she will not go back to Ramsay alive. When Jon promises to protect her, she says bitterly, “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone.” I don’t know about you, Nikki, but this line made me think of Cersei’s sad reply to Oberyn’s claim that they don’t hurt little girls in Dorne: “Everywhere in the world,” she says, “they hurt little girls.” Jon’s promise is no doubt sincere, but again, she knows more of the world than he does, and he can never understand what she’s been through. He’s been murdered, and he can’t grasp what she’s been through.
She leaves Jon alone in his tent, brooding, and Davos’ question to Tormund gives us a sound bridge over the edit: “So do you think there’s hope?” War makes for strange bedfellows, none stranger than these two. “You loved that cunt Stannis,” Tormund growls, “and I loved the man he burned … I believed in him. I believed he was the man to lead us through the Long Night. But I was wrong, just like you.” Perhaps, Davos counters, believing in kings is the mistake. Between Mance’s failure and the (not literal) demons whispering the Stannis, between Tyrion’s remind to Daenerys about her father’s madness and Daenerys’ acknowledgement that she, Tyrion, and Theon and Yara all had terrible fathers who left the world a worse place … we get a mini-seminar in this episode about the potentially corrosive aspects of power, and how desiring, getting, and possessing it can deform the mind.
And speaking of the demons whispering in Stannis’ skull, our next stop on our Night Before Battle Tour is Jon visiting Melisandre. Before you comment on that, Nikki, I’m curious: when Tormund thought Stannis’ demons were literally real, did you flash to Guardians of the Galaxy and Drax the Destroyer’s inability to understand metaphor? Or was that just me?
Nikki: Hahahaha!! Tormund was the BEST in this episode. When Davos says Stannis had demons talking to him, and Tormund says matter-of-factly, “And did you see those demons?” I laughed and laughed. I want to see Davos and Tormund do “Who’s on First” together. Though... I guess then you’d have to explain the concept of baseball to the guy and... yeah, probably wouldn’t be as funny as Abbott and Costello doing it. (Though Abbott and Costello never finished a routine with the punchline, “Happy shitting.”)
And one quick word about Sansa: I could be completely wrong on this one, but my thinking is, Sansa didn’t know Littlefinger was coming until the day of the battle. We saw her send a raven; we never saw her receive one. I’m sure many fans are probably coming down hard on Sansa (though it never occurred to me they would until I just read your thoughts above) but when I watched this episode, I automatically assumed she brought in Littlefinger’s troops the moment they arrived. And leave it to that cock to show up at the last minute after Rickon was already dead. I don’t think Sansa would risk Jon being killed because she wanted to make a dramatic entrance. Petyr? Yes. Sansa? No. I think she was hoping Jon would reconsider the battle, and part of her desperation in begging him to do so is that she hadn’t yet heard back from Baelish.
And why didn’t he RSVP? He received the Facebook invitation saying the battle would be happening on Saturday, and by god he wasn’t going to show up a full night early and have to pay for all of his soldiers to stay at the Best Westeros, so instead he just brought them in the day of, and they showed up a wee bit late. But just in time to stop things from becoming atrocious. Besides, I don’t think I have to go out too far on a limb to assume Baelish is going to want something in return (duh) and that something is Sansa Stark. And since he ALSO wants the North, I would assume he would be quite happy if every other Stark kid died off so Sansa would be the last heir, and he would become king. If Sansa knew he was coming, she would be able to warn Jon to hold off on the beginning of the battle, thus possibly saving Rickon’s life and ensuring Jon wouldn’t die. Baelish ensured the youngest Stark would die and was probably hoping Jon had already been crushed by the time he showed up.
It never occurred to me that Sansa was withholding information — I don’t think she had a clue Baelish was actually coming until he rang her doorbell on Battle Day.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
Back to the night before the battle, Jon Snow goes to the Red Woman to seek her advice on the battle, but more importantly to ask her not to bring him back if he should die. She tells him it’s not within her control; if the Lord of Light wants her to bring Jon back, she must do it. “What kind of god would do something like that?” Jon asks. “The one we’ve got,” she replies.
Meanwhile, Davos goes on his traditional walk the night before battle, and finds Shireen’s stag. It’s a gut-wrenching moment where you can see the wheels turning in his head, and he turns back to the camp with only one thought: what monster have I brought into this fray? The same one who gave life to Jon Snow and is vowing to follow him to the end took Shireen’s life when she had vowed to follow another. Remember, it was last season’s penultimate episode where Shireen died, so the show took an entire season to bring it full circle. Also, on a purely production note, as Davos stood on the hill with that gorgeous sunrise behind him and the dark, dark sky above, I thought how long did it take them to line up that perfect shot?
And these two quick scenes bring us back over to Meereen, where Tyrion and Daenerys are meeting with Theon and Yara. As you mentioned, Chris, apparently they took a TARDIS to get there that fast, but hey, let’s give the writers some artistic license. After all, we really can’t rule out that the Doctor may have spent some time in Westeros.
I really loved this scene. Tyrion won’t let Theon get off easily after making the remarks about his height way back in season one. A Lannister might always pay his debts, but it also seems that a Lannister never forgets. He reminds him of some of the ruder things he said about his dwarfism before telling him how unoriginal they are, and topping it off with a, “So how have things been going with you since then?” Ha! I know Theon has been through hell, and he’s actually become a character I quite like, but I despised him in season one as much as Tyrion despises him now, so I understand why Tyrion would have held onto his resentment.
But the far more important connection in this scene was that between Yara and Daenerys. Half girl-power, half flirtiness, the little smiles and knowing looks between the two were priceless. Theon explains that he’s handing rule of the Iron Islands over to his sister because he’s not fit to rule, but she is. Daenerys looks surprised, and asks Yara, “Has the Iron Islands ever had a queen before?” “No more than Westeros,” says Yara, cunningly. And Daenerys gives her quite the sly smile when she says it. Yara and Theon explain that their uncle Euron plans to come to Meereen and give her his cock in the form of a marriage proposal, and if they were to pledge the Iron Islands back to Yara, that wouldn’t happen. “I imagine your offer is free of marriage demands?” asks Daenerys flirtily. “I wouldn’t demand it, but I’m open to anything,” says Yara. And the two queens smile knowingly at each other again.
This bit of banter ranked right up there with meeting Lyanna Mormont for the first time.
Daenerys acknowledges that everyone in the room had shitty fathers who were shitty leaders, and that it’s up to the four of them to bring about change in the world. Again, the Father’s Day is about learning to be better than the piece of crap their fathers were. (Now if that doesn’t have the trappings of a Hallmark card, I don’t know what does.) Daenerys steps up to Yara and tells her they have a deal under the condition that the Ironborn can no longer rape, raid, or pillage. “But that’s our way of life,” says Yara, without even the slightest touch of irony. But if she wants to leave the world a better place than her father did, she must change. And with that, Daenerys and Yara grasp hands, and the Daenyara/Yarnerys ship is born.
Before we get to the play-by-play of the final battle, were you as thrilled with this scene as I was, Chris?
Christopher: I thoroughly enjoyed it, TARDIS and/or jet-powered longships notwithstanding. I was particularly pleased that Daenerys seems to be learning. At least, that is what I took from her willingness to grant the Iron Islands a measure of self-determination in exchange for Yara’s loyalty. She corrects Tyrion when he voices his concern that other regions might demand their independence as well, saying, “She’s not demanding, she’s asking. The others are free to ask as well.” It’s early days, of course, but Daenerys appears to be thinking in terms of alternative political models—perhaps this is part of what she had in mind when she spoke of “breaking the wheel.”
Which brings us to the final battle, which is easily the most spectacular and well-shot of the entire series. And, unsurprisingly, the most expensive—between the dragons routing the slavers’ fleet and the Battle of the Bastards, this episode cost around $10 million to make, the most the show has spent to date. It was money well spent, especially in the latter battle. While the fight for Meereen was necessarily CGI-heavy, for the Jon and Ramsay throw-down, the director (Miguel Sapochnik, who last season gave us “Hardhome”), went a much more Lord of the Rings direction, eschewing the CGI for a far more tactile depiction, employing a legion of extras rather than an army of computer animators. CGI was of course employed, but it is far harder to see where it ends and real people begin than at any other point in the series so far. Though the battle took twenty-four days to shoot, it pays off in one of the dirtiest, bloodiest, and most realistic battles I’ve seen outside of the beginning of Gladiator.
It actually has a bit of the Gladiator feel to it, especially in the opening moments when we see the serried ranks of the forces facing them across the field, as Jon Snow walks his horse to the front. Jon, alas, is no Maximus however, and this battle demonstrates the truth of Ygritte’s repeated charge: he really does know nothing.
Before getting into a discussion of Jon’s rash stupidity and respond to your thoughts on Sansa’s silence about the Vale knights, Nikki, I just want to point out something that should have been obvious to me but wasn’t until I happened across this article. Namely, this is the first time Game of Thrones has treated us to a proper set-piece battle. By that I mean a battle in which opposing forces draw themselves up on opposite sides of a battlefield and close on one another, with the various stages of the battle itself shown in some detail. All of the other battles we’ve seen on Game of Thrones have been sieges and/or assaults on fortresses, such as the Battle of Blackwater or the wildlings’ attack on the Wall; ambushes or routs, like Stannis’ attack on the wildling or his defeat by the Boltons; or small but bloody skirmishes, like Jon’s attack on Craster’s Keep. In fact, the show has done a scrupulous job of keeping all of the other set-piece battle off-screen, usually just showing us the aftermath—perhaps most notably in season one, when Tyrion gets knocked out just as the Lannister army is about to take on the Starks, and he wakes up afterward.
This reluctance to depict large-scale battles in all their brutal glory is understandable. Such spectacles are extremely expensive to shoot, as this episode’s price-tag attests, and can too often end up being underwhelming when not done well (the Battle of Phillipi in season two of Rome comes to mind).
But they got this one right, from start to finish, and as the article I mentioned above points out, it demonstrates a solid grasp of historical military tactics, to the point where the original conception was based on the Battle of Agincourt, with Jon &co. playing the part of the beleaguered English. Though this idea had to be abandoned because of the ever-niggling question of budgets, the prominence of longbows as a crucial weapon lingers on in the thick flights of arrows punctuating the battle.
In fact, never mind Gladiator. It occurs to me just now that this battle’s closest filmic cousin is Kenny B’s Henry V.
The difference of course being that Henry V was not a raging idiot, and was not goaded into a suicidal charge by the Dauphin.
Oh, Jon Snow. You really do know nothing. I wrote in my notes “LISTEN TO SANSA!” as soon as Rickon appeared at the end of Ramsay’s rope. There’s that moment of tension as he raises his dagger over Rickon’s head, but it’s only tense for the characters in the scene and anyone who, for whatever reason, just started watching Game of Thrones with this episode—all the rest of us know that Ramsay’s not going to make things so simple.
And Jon, not unpredictably, falls for it. Sigh. As I said, he is his father’s son. Can we imagine a scenario in which Ned Stark would stand still when a loved one is in danger? Sansa’s dire prediction about Rickon is realized the moment we see him at the end of that rope. The one chance Rickon had of surviving, we realize, was to have been left moldering in the Winterfell dungeon by an overconfident Ramsay.
Again, this battle proves to be a distillation of Jon and Ramsay’s characters. Jon is honourable and brave to a fault; Ramsay is cruelly cunning, but also cowardly. He remains comfortably ensconced in his rearguard, from which vantage he can enjoy watching the blood and brutality of the battle. And his weapon of choice throughout this episode is the longbow, which symbolizes both his precision and unwillingness to close the distance between himself and his foe. It is worth remembering that among our first encounters with Ramsay were his “hunting” escapades, when he and the late unlamented Miranda shot fugitives like deer.
By contrast, none can fault Jon for his courage—nor for his skill. While he seems to have a preternatural capacity for avoiding arrows, he is in the thick of the battle from the start. When we’re on the ground and in the midst of the blood and mud, here the filmic analogue is more Saving Private Ryan than anything else. The chaos and confusion is visceral, and Jon’s struggle to escape the press of bodies was not good for my claustrophobia. The sequence did a fine job of shifting between shots establishing the overall shape and geography of the battle, and the ground-level anarchy of the melee.
Before handing it back to you, Nikki, I just want to say another word or three on Sansa’s recalcitrance, re: Littlefinger and the Vale knights. Considering just the story in and of itself, it seems likely that yes, Sansa did not want to say anything because she didn’t know if (a) her message would bring allies, or (b) her message was received at all. But that still makes no sense, mainly because this is no longer the naïve Sansa of season one. Which is why in this case I have to step outside of the story itself and just say that this was bad writing. I understand the need to bring things to a keen dramatic pitch, but in a season that has over-relied on deus ex machinas anyway, this was just hamfisted … especially when there was a way to have the Vale cavalry ride to the rescue and keep Sansa’s behavior consistent. Basically, the arrival of the Vale forces could have been revealed as something orchestrated by Jon and Sansa. If they’d had their fierce argument about the paucity of their forces just one episode ago rather than at the eleventh hour—perhaps ending with Sansa saying something like “There is one possibility …”—we could have had the Vale cavalry summoned by a signal from Davos after Ramsay committed all his men. In this scenario, the battle would have been won by strategy rather than mere chance, it would have been consistent with both Sansa’s character and, well, LOGIC, and it wouldn’t have been yet another deus ex machina but a clever tactical coup.
End rant. Thoughts?
Nikki: I so agree with you on the Gladiator comparison, and Branagh’s Henry V. I kept expecting to hear the soaring music from Gladiator in this scene (and while we didn’t get it, the score was gorgeous, and kept our hearts pounding throughout the sequence). I’m going to stand my ground that Sansa didn’t know Littlefinger was coming, and yes, she could have mentioned something about having sent the raven, and that in itself was a mistake not to have said something (even Brienne commented on that) but I don’t believe she knew he was coming. I, of course, could be proven 100% incorrect on this in the next episode and if so I’ll admit my mistake, but for now, I’m going to say that one of the themes of this episode was about leaders and advisors. Daenerys wanted to go in headlong and kill them all, but when Tyrion suggested an alternative, she listened to him. Jon Snow wanted to go in headlong and kill them all, but when Sansa suggested an alternative... he disagreed with her. As you pointed out, he believes he knows battle, and as much as he loves Sansa, she’s a girl. What does she know? Daenerys easily and handily wins her battle. And while Jon Snow ultimately wins his, it’s at a very grave cost, and only after Sansa saves them from annihilation at what I’m going to continue to contend was an 11½th hour arrival by Baelish.
But you’re right, Chris, in evoking the modern-day war imagery in what Jon Snow goes through on the ground. We always get the sweeping overviews in these medieval battles, with men on horses and men with arrows and swords. But in WWII epics we get the men in the trenches, in the mud, covered in the blood spatter of their victims while trying not to sink in the muck that surrounds them. This episode featured both.
And I’m going to take this opportunity to announce that my husband has NO FAITH in Jon Snow whatsoever. After Rickon met his horrible and inevitable death at the hands of Ramsay (my notes are just a frantic scribbling of ZIG ZAG... DAMN YOU, ZIG ZAG!!! Isn’t that how you outrun an alligator? Wouldn’t it have worked to throw off Ramsay? Sob...), Ramsay unleashed his army and they went headlong at Jon. “Well, that’s the end of Jon Snow,” said my husband. “No it’s not,” I replied, with an “are you effing KIDDING me?!” tone to my voice. “He doesn’t stand a chance, that’s the end of him,” he persisted.
So I guess they had SOME viewers convinced he was going to die. I wasn’t one of them. From a purely writerly standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to bring him back to life, wander around the north for a few episodes, and then kill the guy again. That would be terrible writing, and then what? Just bring the dude back to life again? Even I would consider giving up the show if they pulled a stunt like that. That said, this scene was BRILLIANTLY filmed, where you don’t see Jon’s army at all, and when they come it’s an utter shock. Just beautiful. I can’t remember seeing anything like that in any other show. And then the choreography of Jon Snow dodging the horses and swords as he spins throughout the chaos — incredible. Yes, yes, I have no doubt it was green screened but I don’t care. Short of having Lyanna suddenly ride in with a Xena yell and kill them all with her superpower sonic hand cannons, this was everything I could have hoped for in the scene.
The episode didn’t back down on the gore, as you said, Chris. The pile of bodies that form a human death wall is enormous (and I couldn’t help but think, man, whoever ends up taking Winterfell in the end is going to have to deal with one hell of a stench in a day or two) and Jon ends up falling beside a horse just on the edge of the body wall. As the men use him to climb over, not realizing he’s not a dead body, he begins to roll under the actual dead bodies, quickly buried (once again my husband figured this was it for the bastard), and one can see how easily something like this could happen in battle. How often throughout history have men died in battle, not from a gunshot wound or an arrow or a sword, but simply being buried under the dead bodies of their fellow men? The idea is horrific.
And then Smalljon Umber’s men come flying down the hill, and for one brief hopeful moment I thought they were going to turn traitor, and actually mow down Ramsay’s men in fealty to House Stark. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, and his men suddenly make the death tally in Snow’s column rise even more quickly than before.
But before Snow can be completely suffocated, he manages to pull himself free, and uses the shoulders of his comrades to pull himself up on top of them. But by this point, Ramsay’s men have surrounded them with shields, and are pushing inward, bit by bit, until they’re being crushed like people in the front row at a Morrissey concert. At this point, I’m yelling, “STOMP THEM, WUN WUN!! STOMP THEM!!” But our poor last giant on earth is being slowed down by the vast number of swords that are hitting him. And then Sansa shows up with Baelish’s men, and they make mincemeat of Ramsay’s men. Or, in the case of Tormund, he, like, eats one of their faces. AAAHHH!!
And just as you said, Chris, what happens next? Ramsay turns and runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, because he’s a coward. And Jon—who is the opposite of a coward— is in hot pursuit, along with Wun Wun and Tormund. I just want to pause here and say that this season has not been kind to the giants of the show, whether literal (Wun Wun) or gentle (Hodor). And in both cases, a door is involved right before they die. Hodor dies holding the door, and Wun Wun dies opening it. There was a part of me that wondered if this might have been a merciful end to the creature; after all, there are no other giants alive besides him, if the legends can be believed, and therefore he is alone. He doesn’t sit around campfires gabbing with the Free Folk; he sits apart. They only want him for battles, where he can take out 15 men in the time it takes them to kill one. Otherwise, I imagine he’s pretty alone. But it’s because of him that everything that happens next, happens.
And I will leave you to break down what happens next, and the very end of the episode, Chris. My last words on this episode are twofold: when the direwolf banner unfurled along the wall of Winterfell, I thought I was going to weep tears of joy. What a beautiful thing, even if at such a cost. And secondly, I think someone got off easy at the end—they could have funded the next 10 years of Winterfell upkeep just selling tickets for people to come and take one thwack at him like a pinata.
Chris, take us through the rest of it.
Christopher: The simple image of the Stark banner is perhaps the most poignant visual in this episode, much more so than that of Daenerys’ dragons burning the slavers’ fleet—precisely because of what it cost. By the same token, the retaking of Winterfell is far less triumphal than Daenerys’ victory. Her victory was quite literally unequivocal, both in terms of how completely she crushed the slavers, and also because (whatever Tyrion’s mitigating influence) it came without compromise. Indeed, Daenerys returned to Meereen more powerful than ever, as the Sons of the Harpy learned when the khalasar came thundering around the corner.
However many problems she had in ruling Meereen, Daenerys nevertheless comprises a sort of revolutionary ideal, or, perhaps more accurately, an idealized revolutionary. Breaker of chains, freer of slaves, she is an unequivocal saviour and hero.
By contrast, Winterfell represents the accrual of blood and pain and sacrifice that comes with war. The Starks limp into Winterfell battered and nearly broken. The defeat of Ramsay came at a staggering cost, and everyone is somehow compromised. Winterfell is Sansa’s home, yet it will also always be the site of her rape and systematic brutalization at Ramsay’s hands. For all they know, Jon and Sansa are the last of the Stark children. Rickon was killed. Robb and Catelyn were murdered by the people who took Winterfell from them. Jon came within a hairsbreadth of losing everything. The last of the giants gave his life for people who, a mere year ago, would have happily seen him dead. Davos looks with loathing at Melisandre, who he now knows was Shireen’s murderer. And lest we forget, victory came at the cost of Sansa putting her trust in the man who handed her over to Ramsay to start with. We don’t know what the cost of that compromise will be—what will Littlefinger name as his price?
That being said, it is not as though the final moments of this episode, from the appearance of the Arryn forces to Ramsay’s ultimate demise, don’t possess a significant number of deeply satisfying elements. Ramsay’s face as the scope of his defeat dawns on him was definitely worth the price of admission; ditto for Jon advancing implacably through his hail of arrows to beat him bloody. And of course his final fate. A few episodes ago, a friend and I started gaming out the Ramsay Death Odds, figuring that there was a reasonably good chance he wouldn’t make it out of this season alive. Given that most of the big bads’ deaths have been at the very least ironically appropriate, I put Sansa killing him at 2:1, and being eaten by his own hounds at even money.
How about that? Called it! As big bads’ deaths go, I rate it Five Tywins On The Shitter.
The final scene was a testament both to Sansa’s evolution as a character, and the quiet strength and dignity Sophie Turner brings to her. She remains silent as Ramsay speaks, until he says “You can’t kill me. I’m part of you now.” His words reflect his particularly pernicious species of evil, which is not merely his penchant for cruelty and torture, but his need to break people, as he did in turning Theon into Reek. It was obvious he had similar plans for Sansa. When she stands outside his cell, with the guttering torches in the background and snowflakes drifting by, it is a visual callback to last season and the shot of her through the cross-hatched casement window as she prepares for her wedding. Though she still carries the trauma of that night and the many that followed, she has survived. The shot through the window turned her tower into a figurative prison cell, but now she looks in on Ramsay in his literal one. The tableau could only have been improved by letting Ramsay know that, as they speak, Theon is on the other side of the world, bargaining with a queen to win his sister a throne.
“Your words will disappear,” Sansa tells him. “Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” As she speaks, the camera pans down Ramsay’s battered profile, until we see the hound framed in the open door beside him. “They’re loyal beasts,” Ramsay protests. “They were,” she corrects him. “Now they’re starving.”
As I tweeted after watching this episode: to quote Buffy Summers, as justice goes it is not unpoetic.
Well, that’s it for now. Join us next week as we wrap up yet another season of Game of Thrones. Thanks for reading, and remember: it’s never a good idea to starve your pets for a week. Not hounds, and especially not dragons.