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Two battles test the season’s sense of hope on Game Of Thrones (newbies)

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Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO
Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO
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Game Of Thrones (newbies)

"Battle Of The Bastards"

Season 6 , Episode 9

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Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. 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. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss whats coming? Thats what our experts reviews are for.

I didn’t expect my biggest cheer in an episode called “Battle Of The Bastards” to come from Meereen, but the episode’s generous that way. We get two battles for the price of one in the ninth episode: Dany’s rescue of Meereen and Jon’s attack on Winterfell. In an odd season we might be watching someone we like brutally die, like Ned in “Baelor,” the Starks in “The Rains Of Castamere,” and Shireen in “The Dance Of Dragons.” Instead we get battles that—like Tyrion’s defense of King’s Landing in “Blackwater” and Jon’s defense of Castle Black in “The Watchers On The Wall” and “The Children”—turn out well for the relative good guys thanks to the last-minute arrival of foreign armies.

“Battle Of The Bastards” misses Neil Marshall’s specificity, but “Hardhome” director Miguel Sapochnik realizes the grandeur of every movement of his battles: the dragons torching the Masters’ fleet, the cavalry sweeping in to take care of the stragglers, Rickon’s run, the Bolton phalanx backing Jon’s forces against a wall of corpses, the “all is lost” moment as a trampled Jon gasps for air beneath a pile of corpses. For a moment it’s convincing enough to make you wonder if Jon might die after all. It’s the right show for that, after all.

Photo: HBO

But it’s the wrong season. I’m not talking about the odd-even split. With a reported plan to wrap up the series somehow in just two shortened seasons, the end is in sight. So it’s time for the good guys to start winning. And they haven’t stopped, give or take a dozen second- or third-tier casualties like Osha and the Blackfish. It’s a season of resurrections, from physical ones like Jon’s and presumably The Hound’s to narrative ones like the Brotherhood and Team Rickon. A couple seasons ago The Mountain’s resurrection would have been a bad thing for the good guys, but now he’s here to avenge Cersei against people the audience likes even less. Arya’s on her way to the Stark family reunion just in time. Old friends like Bronn and Pod are given their own friendly reunion, and so are old enemies like Davos and Melisandre. Dany is finally ready to make good on her six-season promise to get to Westeros. And at last women who have been shafted by tradition and law are asserting power. No, only one outcome makes sense for “Battle Of The Bastards.”

I’m speaking in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys,” because that’s what they are at this point. There’s plenty of moral gray to go around—what’s the right thing for a Tully soldier at Riverrun to do?—and Dany’s impending conquest of Westeros ought to be a fun examination of the audience’s situational loyalties. But for the most part, we have heroes like Jon and Sansa, victimized underdogs who are growing into power, and villains like Euron and Ramsay, unrepentant killers who seize it.

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

That framework is bolstered by Dany’s conversation with Yara. When Dany tries to get a dig in about what an awful ruler Yara’s father was, Yara shoots back that they have that in common. Dany can’t resist a smile. It’s like when she was charmed by Daario, another warrior who managed to get past Dany’s mighty authority face. Dany says it plainly: She and Yara had evil fathers who left the world worse than when they found it. “We’re going to leave it better.” That’s not a bad way to distinguish between good guys and bad guys.

Or at least those with good intentions from those with selfish ones. Dany’s conquest is the murkiest part of Game Of Thrones. What right does she have to conquer Slaver’s Bay, let alone Westeros? The way she sees it, she’s the rightful queen of Westeros because she’s the last surviving child of King Aerys, who was murdered by the Kingslayer. We’re way past that now, thanks to Robert’s Rebellion, but the legitimacy of the Baratheon reign might not matter if either Tommen dies, as the witch predicted, or Tommen’s revealed to be Jaime’s bastard, either of which seems imminently plausible. Like the Boltons, the Baratheons are all dead now. The “most legitimate” successor might just be Daenerys after all. Then again, the laws that suggest Dany’s the legitimate heir undermine her claim on account of her sex. Putting too much stock in what’s legitimate chains you to some bad law. The Herod-ing of Robert’s bastards was legitimate.

What really makes Dany a hero isn’t legal but moral. She wants to make the world a better place than when she found it. Which mostly means liberating slaves and ending pillaging practices. As Tyrion skeptically observes, she opens the door to independence and self-determination, and with no heirs, her reign demands a new, more considered succession plan than simple paternity. In short, Dany thinks we can all play nice without violently dominating each other. The problem is she wants to create such a world through violent domination. And so far, that’s worked out okay for her. Meanwhile, Tyrion’s stab at diplomacy only made the Slaver’s Bay quagmire worse. Is the only way to achieve the greater good to impose it with an iron will?

Photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Tyrion asks if she has a plan, and she says yes, but all she really has are intentions: burn the fleet, crucify the Masters, yada yada yada. “I’d like to suggest an alternate approach,” says Tyrion. Instead of destroying everyone who dares question the mighty Daenerys Stormborn, they focus on cutting off the head of the insurgency. Grey Worm tricks the three masters sent to negotiate with some wisdom of Solomon, killing the two who sell out the third. It’s especially sweet because their case is that the third is lowborn. The victory is solidified in the symbolism of the surviving master kneeling before freedman Grey Worm. A moment later, Tyrion dwarfs him, too. Meanwhile Drogon, bigger than ever and flanked by his newly escaped siblings, focuses on a few lead ships, sparing most of the attacking fleet. When Dany first conquered Meereen she had every single master crucified, against the counsel of Barristan Selmy. Look how much better things work out for her with some restraint. She’s learning how to rule in a way that’s closer to her more liberal values. I’m not sure if there’s a kinder, gentler way to conquer, too, but all in due time.

Things come easy in Meereen in “Battle Of The Bastards.” The producers don’t even try to pretend otherwise. The closest they get is stalling, like that brief window of time the masters think Dany’s offering to surrender or that long wait until it’s revealed which visitors have arrived. The best is when Yara reaches out her hand in alliance. Dany milks the moment for all it’s worth. We know what’s coming, but the tension only increases the excitement until at last Dany clasps her new partner. I haven’t smiled that wide since Brienne swore fealty to Sansa.

“Battle Of The Bastards” has a way of making the expected unexpected in the moment. It even tells us upfront the two major casualties of the battle for Winterfell. Sansa predicts the two major casualties, Ramsay and Rickon. Ramsay, sure. We’re all hounds at this point, desperate for Ramsay’s corpse. The producers have gone way above and beyond the call of duty on priming us for Ramsay’s death. Whatever else happens during the battle, it’s Ramsay’s time. But Rickon didn’t necessarily have to die. It’s not likely he would have survived, but a boy can dream. Sansa cuts him loose, though, and she does it before the battle’s begun. That tells us to cut him loose, too. Then, when his death actually happens, just after Ramsay’s third arrow misses Rickon, running across the battlefield to his brother, it’s surprising and unsurprising. He’s so close to Jon, and it’s happening so fast, and we don’t see Ramsay nock another arrow, and then one flies through Rickon’s little body just in front of Jon anyway.

The title suggests a knock-down drag-out fight to the death, and even though Ramsay rebuffs Jon’s offer for a one-on-one, the battle lives up to that brutality. The “all is lost” moment is a long, tough passage in which Jon gets trampled into the mud as what remains of his force is penned in between a Bolton phalanx moving like a Death Star trash compactor and a wall of bodies. Jon’s perspective is a strobe-like flurry of black shapes moving across white sky, none of it very distinct. Amid the sounds of battle we hear him gasping for air. You wouldn’t think Jon would be resurrected simply to die again, but in the moment it’s tense. Melisandre tells him the night before, “Maybe you’re only needed for this small part of [the Lord Of Light’s] plan and nothing else.” When the bodies atop Jon grow higher and higher, you start to wonder if that’s true. Or if there’s a reason that Sansa threatened to kill herself if the battle is lost. Or if maybe the knights of the Vale will arrive to save her but too late for him as part of the season’s commitment to boosting women. I wasn’t thinking about how ridiculous that would be for his story.

It’s not his story that needs reconsidering. The knights of the Vale save the day, with Sansa at Littlefinger’s side. Jon, Tormund, and Wun Wun survive the phalanx maneuver, Tormund stabbing Lord Umber to death on his way out. Ramsay retreats to the castle, and for the first time he looks afraid. He’s playing like he’s still got this, but he looks nervous nonetheless. It’s the beginning of the end for the new Joffrey. Wun Wun busts through the Winterfell gates like he did at Castle Black, only this time he’s finally taken down by the enemy. Not that it matters for Ramsay. The Boltons are swiftly vanquished, all except him, and Jon beats his face to a bloody pulp. At long last, the man who spent a season torturing Theon, the man who spent a season torturing Sansa, the man who murdered Osha, Rickon, and his own family, is bested.

At last Sansa appears, and Jon climbs off Ramsay. He’s going to let her have this one. In the final scene, Sansa hoists Ramsay on his own petard, feeding him to the hounds he kept in Winterfell’s kennel. I’m not sure how they could possibly have orchestrated it, opening the doors to the kennels, installing Ramsay in the middle, and getting out before they attack, but whatever. The hounds dutifully wait until Sansa’s done talking to come out and feast. He says, “My hounds will never harm me.” She replies, “You haven’t fed them in seven days. You said so yourself.” He tries to get in her head, telling her he can’t die because he’s a part of her now. While it’s the sorriest excuse for a mind game Ramsay’s ever attempted, I wonder how much he has rubbed off on her. If this is a formal execution, the episode gives no indication. Okay, maybe the formality is somewhat beside the point. But surely this counts as cruel and unusual. It’s hard to imagine Ned concocting such a scheme. Then again, Ned’s dead. And as surely as this is cruel and unusual, it’s also his just deserts, Ramsay’s karmic reward for his deeds in life. Sansa walks off and can’t resist a smile. Relishing someone’s death seems so base, so Ramsay-like, but it’s understandable for Sansa. She finally won. She won by outsmarting and outnumbering Ramsay. And now she’s truly free. And yet. Joffrey’s death is played for horror. That boy’s bulging purple face is hard to look at. Ramsay’s is more easily enjoyable. Even the cut away from the hound lunging at his face spares us any trouble. What a happy ending.

I hate to look a gift-horse in the mouth, but like a lot of the triumphs of this speedy season, it’s just a little easy. Ask anyone at the end of season five what they want to happen to Ramsay and the answer will be to have Sansa feed him to his dogs. Not that it doesn’t cost her to get there, but for once the expected doesn’t feel unexpected at all. It feels mechanical.

I’m only concerned because of all the warning signs, like Sansa’s secrecy. Was she afraid Jon would reject Littlefinger’s help? Was she swayed by Littlefinger’s offer to have an army loyal to her rather than her half-brother? Maybe she was hoping she wouldn’t need the knights of the Vale but wanted them there in case. More than likely, this will be the most merciless Sansa will ever be as a queen. More than likely her life through the end of the series will trend upward. It’s just that Game Of Thrones keeps preaching non-violence while practicing violence. If it has any conviction at all, things like Ramsay’s execution wouldn’t be quite so satisfying.

Now we’re back to that question that’s been dogging the season’s Essos arcs: What was the point of the last few years? We’re back where we started, in a way. The Starks are back in power in the North. The Bolton rebellion has been so thoroughly quelled that there will never be another Bolton, and history will rightly remember the family for its betrayals. Maybe the Dreadfort will become a museum. Meanwhile Arya’s on her way from Jaqen to Winterfell, and Dany has successfully conquered Slaver’s Bay and looks westward. But things have changed for these characters in the intervening seasons. Battles have tested the survivors, coalitions have expanded, and first instincts have been tested. What happens now couldn’t be more in keeping with the season’s tone: second chances.

Stray observations

  • “Battle Of The Bastards” is written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Miguel Sapochnik.
  • R.I.P. Rickon, Wun Wun, Smalljon Umber, and Ramsay. Also the fan theory that the Umbers were double agents. Still no word on whether Talisa was a Lannister spy.
  • Like Osha, they brought back Rickon just to kill him off. Unlike Osha, he wasn’t a character. If the producers had kept with him, maybe fleshed out who he is and what he’s like even though he’s just gonna get killed off here, he could have been a character first. As it is he’s just been a plot point his whole life.
  • Tyrion: “It always seems a bit abstract doesn’t it? Other people dying.”
  • Jon tells Sansa, “I won’t ever let him touch you again. I’ll protect you, I promise.” It’s what Littlefinger tried to tell her, but she’s wiser now. “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone.”
  • Davos is going for a walk far enough away that nobody can hear him shit. Tormund: “Happy shitting.”
  • Jon: “Any advice?” Melisandre: “Don’t lose.” There are lots of good little moments the night before the battle, but it’s strange that Jon, Davos, and Tormund don’t come up with a better strategy than the one they’ve got, even though none of them have much faith in it. I kept expecting someone to get an idea and then tell the others, or for Melisandre to pull out some magic.
  • Tyrion marvels at how the tables have turned with Theon, who smirked at him way back at the beginning of the series. Theon admits, “I didn’t murder the Stark boys, but I did things that were just as bad and worse.” Yara adds, “And he paid for them.” Tyrion says, “Doesn’t look like it.”
  • Dany: “Has the Iron Islands ever had a queen before?” Yara: “No more than Westeros.”
  • Dany intuits that Yara’s offer doesn’t come with a marriage demand like Euron’s does. Yara smiles. “I never demand, but I’m up for anything really.” Called it! (Just kidding. I’m not really convinced their partnership will extend beyond business, but we’ll see.)
  • So which not-quite-legitimate heir becomes ruler of the North: Lord Snow or Queen Sansa? I was half-afraid Littlefinger would wait to conquer the castle himself. The fact that he didn’t suggests he really does love Sansa. So what exactly do the Stark-Arryn-wildling forces do now—take a breather before continuing the fight against the Lannisters?
  • Speaking of which, it’s now been eight episodes since Ellaria conquered Dorne because its ruler had done nothing, and in all that time she has…done nothing. To be fair, it’s been just as long since Cersei found her only daughter dead, and she hasn’t don’t anything about it either.
  • The season finale will be the longest episode of the show yet, which is good, because there’s still a lot left to deal with even after the North wraps up: Cersei’s and Loras’ trials, Bran and the White Walkers, Sam at Oldtown, Euron at Meereen, Davos and Melisandre, Arya probably gets a scene, maybe Jorah gets somewhere, maybe The Hound or Brienne does, and if the season keeps up we might just get one last resurrection of some variety. My money’s on Renly rescuing Loras just in time. You heard it here first.