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Thrones stages an epic battle, but to what end? (experts)

Heroes and villains / Just see what you’ve done

Game Of Thrones (Photo: HBO)
Game Of Thrones (Photo: HBO)

Game Of Thrones (experts)

"Battle of the Bastards"

Season 6 , Episode 9

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This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will address events from the books more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers just in case (although we acknowledge that this is less relevant now than it was before the show “caught up.”) For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish.

“There’s no need for a battle.”

It’s sort of hilarious that Jon Snow says this in “Battle Of The Bastards.” He’s in the midst of a parley with Ramsay Bolton, his first time ever interacting with him, and he tries to goad him into one-on-one combat. It’s a dumb move on a strategic level: Ramsay Bolton may be prideful and vain, but he is not going to risk losing his hard-won power and status in a fight with one man. He’s got the plan and the power: Winterfell is his, his army is over twice as large, and no amount of mind games from Jon could disrupt him.

However, it’s also kind of silly on a meta level. The fact is that Game Of Thrones does sort of need a battle: The stakes are continually being raised in terms of the show’s scale, with the producers feeling the need to create (and promote) larger sequences each season. It’s not enough that Game Of Thrones comes back and delivers the same type of thrills as the previous season (which is often how I felt about the books, which I never expected to necessarily escalate so much as move forward narratively)—the show’s raison d’être has become one-upping itself, enabling the actors, directors, and writers to do interviews discussing how they’ve once again topped the previous year’s spectacle. And so there is a need for a battle, and “Battle Of The Bastards” exists to satisfy that need.

Photo: HBO

But is that enough? There are stunning visuals from director Miguel Sapochnik in this episode, and some of the moments in the midst of the battle are the most visceral the show has put onscreen to date. Following in the footsteps of “Blackwater,” “The Watchers On The Wall,” and “Hardhome,” we see epic tracking shots of Jon fighting his way through blinding chaos, and wide shots that sell scale on a level that seemed impossible in early seasons (even if there are still some dodgy moments here and there). There are moments of intense quiet alongside moments of noise and terror, and moments where Jon’s inability to breathe is echoed with claustrophobic camera work that uses “shakycam” with stylistic purpose. As was intended, it becomes easy to lose yourself in the lengthy battle that is waged in the fields outside Winterfell, catching your breath and realizing that they truly are upping the bar as far as production scale is concerned.

But, as the title of the review suggests, to what end? If we think about “Battle Of The Bastards” in context of its three predecessors, I’m not convinced that this battle—as in the procedural events that make up the conflict—ends up accomplishing much of anything beyond sound and fury. Now, to be clear, many things are accomplished in the episode as a whole, and sound and fury is not a useless end in and of itself. However, whereas the three previous battles have all felt in some way transformative or generative as far as storytelling is concerned, “Battle Of The Bastards” played as a cocktail of inevitability, without the type of uncertainty, fear, and moral ambiguity that defined those previous conflicts. It was a war between absolute heroes and diabolical villains in a show that has often avoided such conflicts, and that binary led to a battle that was as inert as it was impressive.

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

“Blackwater” was not a battle between heroes and villains: We may root for Tyrion, or empathize with Davos (particularly as book readers in both cases, I’d argue), but it’s the corrupt Lannisters against the religious fanatic Baratheons, with the opportunistic Tyrells riding in to save the day. When the wildlings stormed the Wall, the Night’s Watch were ostensibly heroes, but the wildling forces included characters we knew, and a leader whose goals were noble if in opposition to the goals of the heroic character; Mance was no villain, even if he was indeed a flawed man who threatened the security of Westeros. And while the White Walkers and the wights are undoubtedly villainous, that battle was really the origin of the Night’s King as a “big bad,” with the battle itself built around the fact that it was their own dead that they were fighting. It was a story of fear and survival, and therefore resonated in the larger narrative accordingly.

But by comparison, “Battle Of The Bastards” seems to exist exclusively to give Ramsay Bolton what he deserves, concluding his villain arc. A Song Of Ice And Fire has villains, perhaps, but I would argue that the books never dwell on Ramsay or any other character as a “villain” in more traditional terms. Game Of Thrones has fleshed out several characters into more significant villains in the narrative sense: Tywin’s expanded presence further reinforced his role in the Red Wedding into a meaningful villain arc, and the choice to show Theon’s captivity meant Ramsay was introduced earlier and with the increased power of seeing—and not just reading about—his sadistic worldview. Whereas the books’ close POV focus meant the villains were always framed through the eyes of other characters, the show has gone out of its way to show us Ramsay torturing a wider range of our “heroes,” reveling in his evilness and creating someone that we absolutely want to see get ripped apart by dogs because he deserves it.

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

But the ways that “Battle Of The Bastards” builds to this moment seemed disconnected from that central goal. While the show emphasized Jon’s motivation in both rescuing his brother and avenging his sister’s mistreatment, I don’t know if those were emphasized enough for Jon and Ramsay to be a particularly meaningful showdown. The Rickon sequence that opens the battle is an elaborate bit of staging, but Rickon’s long absence robbed the character of any particular meaning to the larger narrative, and I felt the season was missing a scene or two where Rickon could be reaffirmed as a character and not just a tool in this particular conflict. I never questioned whether Rickon would be felled by one of Ramsay’s arrows because Rickon dying was the only way the show could reasonably sell Jon’s motivation. Rickon never had a place in the larger narrative, and so his place here feels arbitrary, and yet also functionally necessary in ways that speak to the emptiness of the battle itself. The storyline doesn’t work without Rickon, and yet Rickon’s presence adds nothing, creating a justification for a battle to mark the climax to Ramsay’s villain arc and yet doing nothing to make that battle more compelling. Ramsay’s evil is not escalated by his killing of Rickon: I’ve long been desensitized to Ramsay’s acts of torture and murder, and this just felt like more of the same.

And that’s where “Battle Of The Bastards” let me down. Given how impressive elements of the sequence are, it shouldn’t feel as perfunctory as it does. Rickon’s death shouldn’t have felt so choreographed, Littlefinger’s triumphant arrival shouldn’t have been so easy to see coming, and I’m not sure that the “leave” of the sequence, if you will, should have been so muddled. I sense that Benioff and Weiss were aiming for something similar to the ambiguity of the Tyrell and Baratheon arrivals in previous conflicts, but I remain wholly confused by the nature of Sansa’s communication with Littlefinger: We saw her write him a letter, but was he always planning to ride in? Why was he late? Why was she with him? Did she know when talking strategy with Jon that Littlefinger might be coming? Why wouldn’t she tell Jon to wait? Why is she hiding this from Jon other than—and here’s where the meta comes back—ensuring that there’s an epic underdog battle that lets the show one-up itself?

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

It’s deeply satisfying to see Jon punching the shit out of Ramsay Bolton. I was disconcertedly happy to see Ramsay get his face eaten off by dogs. The show successfully built up Ramsay into someone that I wanted to watch suffer, a true villain, and then allowed two of the show’s most long-standing heroes to punish and eventually kill him. But that satisfaction has nothing to do with the battle that came before it, which I’d argue is in stark contrast to the previous battle episodes where I didn’t need the direction to invest me in what was playing out in front of me. I care about Jon, and Tormund, and Davos, and Wun Wun (especially Wun Wun), and so on a basic life-and-death level I was invested in “Battle Of The Bastards.” But whereas the other episodes ended with the sense that the battle that just took place would change these characters’ fate, here it just felt like the show was pushing Ramsay out of the way, intending to just keep telling the same stories it was telling before: Jon and Sansa’s mistrust, Littlefinger’s unclear motivations, Melisandre’s prophecies, etc. They’ve just moved from Castle Black to Winterfell, pushing the story ostensibly forward but without the battle contributing to that beyond a few (thousand) dead bodies.

There are similar issues in the previously unannounced Meereen component to the episode, which relies heavily on symbolic power and efficiency to put a bow on whatever George R.R. Martin wanted—or what the show writers chose—to accomplish in the city. The efficiency is part strategy and part the show’s love for pageantry. It seems grossly inhumane for Dany to allow her city to be attacked for hours before unleashing the dragons on the Masters’ ships—she arrives at night, on Drogon, and yet it’s daylight by the time she parleys with the Masters and hatches her scheme. But I’m willing to accept that she needed a formal space of surrender in order to make an effort to claim the remainder of the Masters’ ships, even if the show shuttling Dany’s plan-making with Tyrion off-screen still portrays as a fairly neglectful ruler of these people that the Sons Of The Harpy are straight-up murdering under her watch.

Photo: HBO

But I find it difficult to judge “Battle Of The Bastards” for glossing over Meereen and rushing ahead to Dany’s turn toward Westeros. The arrival of Theon and Yara lacks any and all fanfare: We just cut to Tyrion speaking to someone he last met at Winterfell, and we’re left to realize that their journey from Volantis was wholly uneventful. Yara and Theon present their feminist plan for independence—No forced marriage! Female ruler! At least a significant drop in raping and pillaging!—and Dany accepts on the spot, with no muss or fuss. And while that seems too easy, the scene underlines a clear and important generational dynamic to the emerging forces. They are all sons and daughters of the previous generation of rulers in Westeros, all having inherited the war that their crazy, evil, or brutish parents created. Dany’s image of a new world order has typically been framed through a broad altruistic lens—she just wants a better life for the people of Slaver’s Bay on principle, really—but here Dany is actively thinking in terms of legacy, and we’re starting to see those legacies converge. As much as the Meereen story was awkwardly fast-forwarded here, the place where the show chose to press play goes beyond bringing characters together in new and exciting ways and actually articulates why that’s important and what type of thematic work they see that convergence building to in the future.

And that’s what was lacking at Winterfell. While Ramsay’s death felt like the end of a narrative tracking across four seasons and tapped into the value of that seriality, the actual battle in “Battle Of The Bastards” never managed to articulate that same type of climactic energy. This is the Starks reclaiming their ancestral home, but the switching of the banners felt perfunctory instead of powerful, muddled by the fact that none of the characters seemed to be feeling it as any type of climax. Rickon’s death is not meaningless, but his long absence means that it pays off only weeks of storytelling, where Rickon never actually—to my recollection—spoke a single word. Really, the only part of the battle that resonated for me was the death of Wun Wun, which was also so choreographed that I had written him a eulogy of sorts in my notes long before he became a pincushion (and the final symbol of Ramsay’s villainy).

Photo: HBO

Perhaps the ultimate test for “Battle Of The Bastards” is this: If this were a chapter in Martin’s books instead of a visually stunning episode of television, would any of this work? The spectacle has value, do not get me wrong, and I appreciate an adrenaline rush as much as the next person, but if we were to imagine a written version of this battle would there be any depth to Jon’s inner monologue? Would Sansa’s motivations make any sense? This battle works as a climactic moment for Game Of Thrones as a cultural event, selling us on the scale and ambition of the producers and their production teams, and all should be commended for their accomplishments from a technical perspective. But I’m not convinced that it does enough for the actual narrative of the show to make this as meaningful as the battles that came before it, making for a surprisingly hollow spectacle to lead into the finale.

Stray observations

  • I don’t know what precisely happened, but this season in no way explained why Davos would have never once considered what happened to Shireen before now. I don’t understand: Did he think she was killed with Stannis’ army? Did he wonder if she might still be alive? The “Previously On” sequence was left to do any and all lifting on that sudden return to Shireen’s story, and it seems like something that just fell through the narrative cracks, which is disappointing.
  • Beyond the predictability of Littlefinger showing up, it was disappointing to see them go to the exact Helm’s Deep well I expected them to.
  • In contrast, Tormund going full Mike Tyson on Umber was immensely satisfying—Tormund doesn’t exactly have an “arc” at this stage, but I liked his repartee with Davos, and it’s good to have a warrior we care about to keep the flow of fights like this working even when the stakes aren’t as strong as they could be (and the flow was fine, overall, to the episode’s credit).
  • While I won’t spoil Warcraft directly in case any of you intend to catch it after it leaves theaters—it’s clear no one else is seeing it in theaters in the U.S., at least—Rickon’s death reminded me of the way that film choreographs one of its narrative “twists,” failing to do any of the work to make it meaningful on anything more than a symbolic level. Game Of Thrones has the benefit of seriality, so it’s not as egregious, but it still came to mind.
  • If Bran’s visions weren’t enough—and surely the writers knew people would be breaking down those flashes online in intense detail—Tyrion recounts the Mad King’s stashes of wildfire he intended to use to burn the city, which could certainly matter when we return to the King’s Landing storyline.
  • I already gave my condolences on the loss of Shaggydog, but my heart goes out to the truthers who were convinced he wasn’t really dead—I hope the hope you created didn’t only bring you greater pain when the head was reproduced.
  • I know why they looked at the scale of this battle and said, “Do we really want to add a CGI direwolf to the mix when we’ve got a face-eating hound to animate?” But real talk: Where is Ghost?
  • Seeing Rickon die didn’t really impact me, given how predictable it was, but seeing the arrows flying into his corpse did kind of alarm me, I’ll admit.
  • Also: As I’ve seen others saying on Twitter, I was also yelling “Serpentine” at my TV as Rickon ran.
  • Lots of great shots from Sapochnik (especially the featured image above with Davos on his walk), but I particularly loved the aerial shot of the courtyard after Jon beat down Ramsay, as Sansa’s pristine, clean white face—while subtle—stands out as the only bit of lightness amidst the mud and bloodied warriors. It’s incredibly striking, and one of many such painterly compositions (like Sansa riding away from the parley).
Screenshot: Game Of Thrones

The Night Is Dark and Full of Spoilers (Of A Sort)

  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: The generational theme, from my perspective, both supports and works against Lady Stoneheart. On the one hand, she could emerge as a check on the younger generation, enacting the vengeance of the old and serving as a “test” to Brienne and those who intend on extending Catelyn’s legacy in their own ways. However, the efficiency of the generational shift makes me feel that having Stoneheart fighting Stark battles muddles and delays their assuming of a major role in the larger conflict, and that seems counter to the show’s broader pace.
  • Presuming that Euron did indeed chase after Theon and Yara, I’m wondering if we’re heading toward the Dragon Horn after all—it would disrupt the seemingly perfect plan (creating the possibility Euron could in some way control the dragons and force Dany’s hand), and create conflict/tension where there seems to be none following the swift dismantling of the Masters.
  • There are currently two lone wolves unaccounted for in addition to Euron: Varys, who left Meereen under mysterious circumstances, and Jorah, who remains on his quest for a cure to greyscale. Could they end up in the same place? Are they both potentially headed toward Varys’ last spot in the books? We’ll see if we get an answer next week.

Speaking of next week…

I’m going to be out of the country without consistent access to HBO and in time zones where reviewing it would be the very definition of disadvantageous, so someone else will be stepping in to write about the finale. Thanks for reading this season, and coming along on this journey into the unknown for us book readers, and I’ll hopefully see you next year where we may or may not have a new book to be drawing on (I’m choosing to be optimistic; let’s think positive here), and when it seems plausible we still won’t be caught up to Sam’s story yet.