Spoilers for tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones below.
I hesitate to call tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, “Battle of the Bastards“, the best in series history. Immediate emotional response to something electrifying has a way of coloring your view of history. But when the show ends and is taken as a whole, the episode will certainly be remembered as one of the all time greats. Director Miguel Sapochnik delivered a terrifying and intense depiction of warfare unlike anything seen since HBO’s 2010 miniseries The Pacific, presenting fantasy medieval combat, and war itself, not as a story of simple heroism and valor, but as a brutal, painful slog in which men both prominent and anonymous are ground up like sausage amidst confusion, chaos and terror. And the amazing thing is that it did so twice.
That the episode also reverses nearly five seasons of misfortune for several of the show’s main characters, while at the same time providing perhaps the series’ first truly feminist perspective on immense violence, as well as giving excellent closure to one of the show’s darkest storylines – in the darkest possible way – is just an added bonus.
I’ll get it out of the way now: after much sacrifice, loss, near defeat and amidst numerous mistakes, Jon Snow – and Sansa – decisively won the Battle of the Bastards. Defeating Ramsay Snow, barely, and firmly establishing House Stark as the lords and ladies of Winterfell, the episode ends on one of the few truly hopeful notes the series has so far indulged. It was so cathartic that the episode’s “revenge is sweet” coda only made that point more strongly. But how it got to that point is the most important part.
At least some of what works is due to how “Battle of the Bastards” balances three very distinct storylines and wraps at least two of them up beautifully. While the bulk of the episode is devoted to the title fight, the B story sees us back in Meereen, where Danaerys, having returned Batman style near the end of last week’s episode “No One,” is trying to figure out what to do about the fleet of ships attacking the city that were sent by the slave masters who have rejected her call to end the peculiar institution once and for all. Consumed with rage, she’s bent on crucifying all the masters and burning all of their cities to the ground, a threat she can back up, since, well, she has three dragons.
Fortunately, she’s counseled by Tyrion Lannister, who reminds her what a monster her father, the king of Westeros overthrown in the rebellion that put Robert Baratheon on the throne (remember him?), was in the end of his reign. To remind you, he had planned to torch the city of King’s Landing with Wildfire, “loyal and disloyal alike,” as Tyrion explains, which is why he was murdered in the first place. This talks Daenerys down from the genocide ledge, and she opts instead for a strategic victory over the fleet assailing her city, winning a crucial victory and, it seems, securing her power in Essos. At the cost, of course, of hundreds of anonymous soldiers burned alive in their ships.
Victory secured – in a truly epic scene with some of the best VFX yet seen on the series with Dragons burning some of the ships in the Masters’ fleet in Meereen harbor and Daenerys claiming ownership of the rest – Daenerys is next visited by Theon Greyjoy and his sister Yara (Asha in the books), on the run from the Iron Islands after being marked for death by their crazed uncle. Offering Daenerys their fleet of ships in exchange for her help in retaking control of the Iron Islands. The scene is one of the season’s better quiet moments, a chance to express some core themes, specifically Daenerys extracting the promise that the Iron Islanders will stop raiding the coat of Westeros and give up piracy in exchange for their independence, and her vow that she, and all who serve with her, will “leave the world a better place than they found it.”
Not to mention the hilarious moment in which Yara flirts with Daenerys but you should really see it for yourself.
However, the main event is of course the battle. Describing it will not do it justice, but it is the first time I’ve seen medieval combat filmed with the immediacy of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, and as I said above, HBO’s later The Pacific. It begins when Jon Snow, egged on by the fact that Ramsay Bolton has captured and is threatening the life of his half brother, Rickon Stark, chooses to face the Bolton Army in combat despite having vastly inferior numbers, 3000 men to Ramsay’s 6000. Of course, the fact that where in previous seasons armies numbered more like 20,000 gives an indication of just how much the show’s destructive civil war has ravaged Westeros, but never mind that for now at least. The point is that Jon Snow and his makeshift army of Wildlings, and whatever vassals will still right with him and his sister Sansa, are outnumbered 2 to 1.
It’s at this point that Sansa demonstrates the show’s total tonal shift. Previous seasons have been heavily criticized – not taking sides on that, but surely readers have their own opinions – for the detached, often exploitative way it approaches the rapes and other sexual violence done to female characters. Here however, Sansa draws on her trauma as experience – she knows far more about the kind of man Ramsay Bolton is than Jon Snow does – urging Jon not to let Ramsay lay a trap for him. She also points to the abuse she suffered at Ramsay’s hands as evidence that her advice should be heeded.
Unfortunately, while Jon accepts what she says is true, when the battle begins, he does the exact opposite when Ramsay kills Rickon in cruel, cold sport. This leads to Jon’s armies crudely charging after him as he races to murder Ramsay regardless of wisdom or strong tactics. What follows then is is a miserable melee as both armies clash, become mixed, and all hell breaks loose. Here is where director Sapochnik demonstrates what a talent he brings to a show like this. The camera, rather than providing a panoramic view of events, instead drops right down into the morass with Jon Snow, treating the audience to a slaughter from almost first person perspective.
In one scene, a man about to fight off an attacker is randomly killed when an armored horseman crashes into him. In another, a soldier about to be killed is saved when a random arrow slices through his attacker’s face. It’s a bloodbath that continues until Jon Snow’s army is surrounded and he’s nearly suffocated as his ranks break and he’s stampeded by people trying to climb out of the trap they’re in. Made even more significant when Jon barely crawls out of the scrum and looks around the field of battle, realizing his errors as he sees his men massacred.
In the end, they’re saved by the timely assistance of Petyr Baelish, who brings the army of the Vale to aid in the nick of time, a nice callback to season 4’s penultimate episode when Stannis Baratheon’s army saves Jon from certain doom at the hands of the Wildlings. The battle turned, Ramsay flees the field and is finally caught inside Winterfell, where Jon beats him to within an inch of his life first with a shield, then with his bare hands, before stopping to let Sansa mete justice out. The episode ends with Sansa, finally getting her revenge for his abuses, turns his own dogs on him, who devour him alive as he screams in terror.
Game of Thrones spent all of season 4 and most of season 5 meandering, but freed from the novels, it’s a changed show and season 6 may be the best in series history, certainly since the third. Certainly “Bastards” is a stand out, especially the numerous gif-able moments like “Happy Sh-“, well, you’ll see it for yourself. What remains? Next week’s “Winds of Winter,” also directed by Sapochnick, that promises to resolve certain other lingering threads, including the human sacrifice of Stannis’ young daughter last season. Check back next week for our coverage.
This post was edited after publication.