This will be the EUGOTSOC Committee review of Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 9: ‘Battle of the Bastards’ written by myself – Alexander Petkov: Publicity Officer.
In this episode, quite fittingly, we have a battle of ‘Ice’ and a battle of ‘Fire’. In that sense the title ‘Battle of the Bastards’ could be a reference to the underdog status of our protagonists (when extended to both storylines). Sansa and Jon are in the position of trying to reclaim their home with little resources against a powerful foe. Such is also the situation with Yara and Theon (less so with Daenerys herself). The battle of the bastards is (other than the obvious literal Ramsay-Jon clash) the fight of those deemed less worthy to reach a station of power in the world.
Before I get into specifics concerning characters and moments from the episode I shall talk about my overall impression as it highlights important aspects of the whole season and the series in general. I have to say, this is definitely the best episode of the season so far (finale still pending), with only Episode 5 ‘The Door’ getting a close second. I was more than impressed with the brilliant cinematography – and was seriously surprised when I found out the director of photography for the episode has worked mostly in TV. The actual battle of Winterfell was certainly the best battle sequence I have ever seen period – capturing both the horror and the confusion in war, representing the true scope of the fight and having the focus on the main characters without needing to separate them physically from the army mass. In that regard the scene is truly unique – it was a sequence that was both visually and thematically rich. Similarly, the battle for Meereen also did not disappoint as it finally gave us what we wanted – dragons in battle! And again, every scene of that was magnificent to watch. With that said, I still have some mixed thoughts on the episode.
It’s safe to acknowledge it – ‘Battle of the Bastards’ will go down as one of the defining episodes for ‘Game of Thrones’ – one of those episodes that you like to re-watch on their own, the ones you would show your friends to prove how great Game of Thrones is. And while it certainly represents the scope and the grandeur of the series, it strays away from some of the show’s defining characteristics – mostly the notion of consequence. Let’s examine the other big defining episodes of the series. S1E10: ‘Fire and Blood’ – Ned Stark is already beheaded and Dany’s baby dragons hatch, but only after her khalasar abandons her and she’s forced to kill Drogo. Daenerys’ triumph comes at a steep price. In S2E9 ‘Blackwater’ we have Tyrion defeat Stannis’ fleet with wildfire. However, in that case we have protagonists and antagonists on both sides of the conflict. Also this undoubtedly big episode for Tyrion ends up with him getting his face somewhat disfigured by a member of the Kingsguard and him being discredited from his achievements in the battle. Every triumph comes at a price and characters have to pay for every mistake they make. This is even more evident in S3E9 ‘The Rains of Castamere’. We see it later again in the fight between the Mountain and the Viper in S4E8. Joffrey’s death in S4E2 is a triumphant moment for fans of the show but it comes with Tyrion’s imprisonment. In S5E8 Jon manages to kill a White Walker only to have his overall mission suffer incredible losses at the hands of the Night’s King. All these defining moments from the show’s history have that in common – the notions that triumphs don’t come free and that you pay for every mistake you make.
This is a very important part of the show and the books, especially since both pride themselves on realism. In the end, I’d say the sentence ‘In the Game of Thrones’ you win or you die’ is wrong, but rather ‘In the Game of Thrones you cannot afford to make mistakes’ is more accurate. And that was not the case this episode. During the battle of Winterfell Jon made every single mistake he could have made (facing Ramsay with an inferior army, compromising his own position and by extension the position of his troupes, forcing his army away from their defences and having them surrounded, etc…) and still won the day without any of his mistakes costing him. In the end what we got was devoid of any story-related surprise (as unlike the characters on the show, we –the audience were quite aware of the existence of the Knights of the Vale, but more about that later) and represented a story that is ideologically against the spirit of Game of Thrones. This is not the first time this has happened this season – we saw Brienne abandon her duty to protect Sansa at the end of last season in order to pursue personal vengeance, only to save the Stark Lady in the very first episode this season without her previous choice having any effect. Another example is Arya’s storyline in which she got stabbed by the Waif after walking around Braavos so carelessly. Any character really should have died from that, but in the end these wounds proved mostly immaterial – and the only truly bad consequence that came from the stabbing for Arya was that she had to endure Lady Crane’s soup. This all feels like the type of story that Game of Thrones is purposefully trying to criticise and to me it feels wrong that such story-beats would seep into the show. This is one of my bigger criticisms of the current season and my only issue with this amazing episode. I feel like the simplifying of character motivations/struggles is alienating that specific part of the audience, which really appreciates all the hard work and all the impressively incredible detail put into the show (and the crew have outdone themselves in that regard this episode – so much brilliant hard work – and an absolutely wonderful result).
Our episode starts with Tyrion and Dany having a clever and engaging conversation (something we hadn’t seen from either of them this season until now) as the Masters continually bombard Meereen. Emilia Clarke’s face of blank disappointment is great and certainly makes the scene. Tyrion returns to having witty dialogue and he even talks about the Mad King’s plans to burn King’s Landing with wildfire (which I hope is foreshadowing for the finale). The whole battle and all of the scenes with the dragons look amazing and I loved them completely. One thing that I feel I need to point out, however, is concerning Dany and how the show’s been dealing with empowering its female characters. I’m still not sure whether the show wants me to perceive Daenerys as a hero or a villain. She wants to slaughter the Masters and burn their cities to the ground, but since she agrees not to after Tyrion’s Mad King comment, that must mean she’s a hero, right? I understand how great it is to give incredible power to all your female characters, but when you get too heavy-handed with it – your character becomes unrelatable and dehumanised. I no longer see the strong leader that I fell in love with – I see a bundle of power, hate and violence. And this is certainly the case for other characters as well.
It’s also perpetuated in the scene between Yara and Dany. Their bonding moment in which they casually and flirtatiously agree that ‘Killing an uncle or two’ ‘Sounds Reasonable’ is another example of when our strong female characters become unrelatable. Anyway their scene was quite interesting as it suggests a hopeful future for the Seven Kingdoms under the rule of these queens – and hints at the possibility of peace. (It gets a bit ruined by the ‘killing uncles’ comment as it perpetuates senseless violence and makes them seem generally misguided rather than progressive). However, it is impossible to ignore the amazing chemistry that Dany and Yara shared during their scene as it was both refreshing and intriguing to witness. We did also get a weird exchange between Tyrion and Theon in which the latter gets accused of being mean to the former when they last met at Winterfell. Of course, that’s quite strange as back in Season 1 it was in fact Tyrion who was being unbelievably cruel and nasty to Theon, but whatever.
Sansa is another character whose path towards taking charge is heading in curious directions. In the end of the episode she watches Ramsay getting brutally eaten by his own hounds, which is something that she couldn’t have done as her previous self. She even taunts Ramsay by telling him that he himself boasted of how he hadn’t fed his hounds. Of course, she was not present at the time when Ramsay actually said that earlier in the episode, but whatever. Even though his death was a bit of obvious wish fulfilment, it was also nicely symbolic. Instead of having his army turning against him (at the wake of his cruelty losing its power and intimidation) – this role was given to his hounds. Thus we get the theme of violence collapsing onto itself. And this raises an interesting question about where Sansa is headed. When Ramsay tells her that he’s part of her now, I can’t help but feel that he’s right. She’s learnt to be cruel and vicious and we’ll see how that plays out when she reunites with Littlefinger. In any case her withdrawing the information of the Vale army from everyone is puzzling and I hope it gets resolved in the finale. Does she actually secretly thoroughly dislike Jon? Probably not, but an explanation is due. It’s bad enough that the Boltons were completely oblivious of the existence of a huge army ravaging through their lands and taking control of castles such as Moat Cailin.
Concerning the actual battle for Winterfell, a lot of moments stood out. The scene in which the Bolton cavalry is charging a sans horse Jon Snow is incredibly tense and beautifully composed. It builds up the promise of glory and the inevitability of the end and pays it off with an ensuing chaos and a feel of the unfamiliar. It’s a brilliant contrast. The huge piles of dead bodies at the wake of the battle are a truly disturbing sight, yet they also serve a symbolic purpose. In the scene where the heroes’ forces are surrounded and panic ensues Jon gets almost trampled to death by his own men. It’s a perfectly composed claustrophobic scene of weighing life and death. You can feel Jon’s powerlessness in that sequence and when he does rise up to take a breath – that’s a resolve to rise above the horror of war, a horror in which he is a centrepiece. The beauty of that scene is that you cannot tell which of the limbs reaching out to him belong to men and which to corpses. In that way this scene represents the death within and provides a perfect commentary on war. It’s also a fitting mirror of Dany being embraced by the former slaves at the end of Season 3 – while she’s leading them to freedom, Jon’s leading his men to death. Notable mentions in the episode are Lyanna Mormont, who is amazing and Davos who finally realised what had happened to Shireen and remembered that he hates magic and by extension – Melisandre. I also find it curious how leading the Vale army were Littlefinger and Sansa while Robin was nowhere to be seen. I know that Baelish is pulling the strings but he’s supposed to be a background man – behind the curtains – while the puppet lord should be in focus. However, that logistic issue is minor.
‘Battle of the Bastards’ has already joined the pantheon of great Game of Thrones episodes. I can’t say whether that’s a good or a bad thing given my personal issues with the tone and ideology behind the development of the storylines, but I can confirm: I loved that episode and none of the ‘problems’ I’ve raised can come close to preventing me from enjoying this masterpiece time and time again.
Thank you for reading my review of ‘Battle of the Bastards’. Episode 10 will soon be upon us so let’s all get excited one last time for this season!