Game of Thrones S6E9 “Battle of the Bastards”
Game of Thrones has always been a show famous for its violence, but through fifty-eight episodes, not once was there a traditional battle. We’ve seen the Battle of Blackwater and the Battle of Castle Black and even to a lesser extent the Massacre at Hardhome but all those events were night time raids by one party on the settlement of the other party. With “Battle of the Bastards”, Game of Thrones finally does get its traditional battle. Two opposing sides in Stark and Bolton, an agreed upon battle field in the field outside Winterfell, daytime battle, both armies at full strength just going at it until there’s a winner and a loser. And how does it fare? It fared brilliantly. Any description one could give about the battle would come down to being some iteration of “masterful”. Whatever shortcomings “Battle of the Bastards” faces with the writing (there’s a few of them), they are overwhelmingly negated by the cinematography aspects of the episode which honestly is on par with the best movies and television shows around. “Battle of the Bastards” is a pretty narrowly focused episode so we’ll talk about the two battles we got to see (You nearly forgot about Meereen didn’t you?) and what I personally thought of them so let’s get it rolling.
With only two places to talk about, we’ll talk about the “opening act” of sorts in Meereen. Tyrion find himself having to explain the currently violent situation in Meereen to Dany and you kind of feel bad for him because for the most part during his interim reign, the city was peaceful. Dany managed to show up at the one point where things were going bad. Tyrion saves himself by telling Dany the city is only violent because Meereen has been successful and a successful free city is a threat to slave cities. Satisfied with the reasoning, Dany decides it’s time to talk course of action. Dany shows off some of that famous Targaryen craziness by suggesting the complete destruction of the slave cities and Tyrion who obviously isn’t cool with all of that, talks her down to his plan.
As you’d expect, the Tyrion plan involves negotiation so Dany, Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm meet the three slave masters outside. The slave masters go first and say they’ll allow Dany to live if she leaves Slaver’s Bay, allows the dragons to be slaughtered and allows Missandei and the Unsullied to be taken back and resold. Dany declines all of this and reminds the slave masters that they’re here to discuss their surrender, not hers. On cue, Drogon takes to ground and Dany climbs on him for her second on screen dragon ride. Dany soars to the skies with Drogon and his dragon siblings aren’t too far behind as they’ve broken out of the catacombs and taken to the skies as well. The slavers fleet is no match for the dragons once they start raining down dragon fire and the ground attack isn’t faring any better as they get slaughtered by Daario and Dany’s massive khalasar.
Back to the masters. Tyrion tells the masters that one of them has been ordered to die by Daenerys. The lowborn of the group is quickly jumped on by the other two and just to send a message, Grey Worm kills the two high born masters instead. Tyrion tells the lowborn to return to his city and spread the word of what happened here so no one will ever think to attack them again. With that battle done and dusted, Dany can return to holding court and she’s got some highborn supplicants in Theon and Yara Greyjoy. They offer Dany 100 ships from the iron fleet in exchange for her help in killing Euron and recognizing Yara as Queen of an independent Iron Islands. Tyrion seems hesitant to want to work with them considering he still thinks Theon murdered the Stark boys but Theon tells him that he didn’t, he did something just as bad, and he more than got fair punishment for it. With that out of the way, the negotiations proceed. Dany agrees to form an alliance with the Greyjoys if they likewise support her claim as Queen of Westeros, and the reaving, raiding, and raping culture of the Iron Islands is eliminated. Yara initially is surprised at the offer, considering that those are the cornerstone of the Ironborn’s culture but is convinced when Dany says that together, they are going to leave the world better than they found it. With Tyrion’s approval, Dany formally offers the alliance and Yara accepts. A great alliance for both parties.
And now the featured presentation. The day before the battle, Jon, Sansa, Davos, Tormund, and the lords of the houses they recruited meet with Ramsay, Smalljon Umber, and Harald Karstark for a parley. It’s as ineffective as you’d think it be, with Ramsay offering pardons in exchange for the Stark surrender but you know he would just go back on his word and flay everyone. Jon declines and offers to fight Ramsay one on one to settle the score for good, but Ramsay wisely declines as he’s not much of a fighter while Jon is one of the best around. With no deal being struck, the two parties depart, agreeing to fight it out tomorrow morning.
Later that night, Jon holds a war council to talk strategy and when you’ve got a significantly smaller army than the opponent, there’s not much you can do. After talking out their limited options, all leave the tent except Sansa, who has some words for Jon. Sansa chastises Jon for not asking her opinion on what to do and it escalates into a shouting contest. I get what Sansa’s getting at, but even when Jon asks her what they should do and how they can get Rickon back, she doesn’t offer any real advice. For the former question, she says don’t do what Ramsay wants, a bit obvious. And for the latter, she says Rickon can’t be saved and Ramsay will absolutely kill him. Sansa ultimately predicts that Ramsay will win and should he win, she tells Jon she’s not going back. Jon promises Sansa that he’ll never let Ramsay touch her again but Sansa cynically tells Jon that no one can protect anyone. Real productive conversation there.
After that’s done with, Jon seeks out Melisandre in her tent to ask her something. Jon tells Melisandre that if he dies again, he doesn’t want to be brought back again. Mel tells her that she will have to try, because the Lord of Light has given her the power to bring him back once, and she’ll continue to do it until it doesn’t work and Jon’s role has been fulfilled. Melisandre ponders that Jon’s purpose may have just been to die in this battle and Jon wonders what kind of God would give him such a pointless role after being resurrected. We aren’t getting anywhere productive tonight are we?
The night’s not an entire loss though, because Davos finally gets some clarity on something that probably should have been addressed a long time ago. After the war meeting, Davos tells Tormund that he gets insomnia the night before a battle so he takes long walks instead of sleeping. Davos walks long into the night and he stumbles upon something familiar. He finds the wooden stag toy that he carved for Shireen back in season five and sees that it’s next to the remains of a used pyre. That’s all the evidence Davos needs to realize that Melisandre burned Shireen alive but he’s not going to get to confront her about this because the sun is rising, and the Bolton war horns are sounding. The Davos Melisandre confrontation will have to wait.
The next morning, the armies have gathered on their respective sides and Ramsay decides he’s got a rather interesting way to start the festivities, he’s going to play a game. In full sight of Jon and his forces, Ramsay brings out Rickon and cuts off his ropes. Ramsay tells Rickon that they’re playing a game and the only rule of the game is that he has to run towards his brother. The game gets underway and Rickon looks back in horror to see that Ramsay is going to be shooting arrows at him. Jon immediately gets on his horse and starts racing to grab his brother. The first few arrows miss, but Ramsay is really just toying with Jon and Rickon. Ramsay is a master archer and a master torturer and he brings both skills together by waiting until Jon is a mere ten feet or so away from saving Rickon until hitting Rickon with an arrow that enters his back and comes out his chest. Ramsay’s game has successfully baited Jon into his archer’s range. He’s got no choice but to charge forward so he can at least see the arrows he’s attempting to dodge so he rides forward, while Davos sends the Stark cavalry to Jon’s defense. As Jon gets closer, an arrow knocks down his horse and he stares down the Bolton army, seeing that Ramsay has sent the cavalry towards him. In an absolutely gorgeous shot, Jon unsheathes Longclaw and drops the sheathe entirely, convinced he’ll never need it again. Jon raises Longclaw and prepares to kill as many Bolton men as he can before they do the same to him. The shot is so captivating that you forget that Davos sent the Stark cavalry already and they violently bash into the Bolton cavalry before they can trample Jon. And so the Battle of the Bastards begins.
Once the cavalries charge into each other, the battle turns into absolute pandemonium. Jon kills as many men as he can, but at the end of the day, even a skilled swordsman such as Jon only manages to survive the initial onslaught by sheer luck as arrows fly in groups, a mere inches from puncturing him. Ramsay has sadistically ordered his archers to fire into the battle despite the overwhelming majority of the soldiers being a part of his army, the reason becoming apparent very soon. Davos refuses to have his archers do the same, insisting they cannot afford to knock down their own men. Ramsay seems to know what he’s doing though, as he’s created a massive wall of dead bodies. Davos realizes that his archers will be useless here and orders them to charge into the battle. When Ramsay sees that Jon’s entire army has committed to enter the battle, he calls in his master plan.
Ramsay orders his men to march towards the Stark army and has them surrounded by a horseshoe shaped phalanx, the only free side heavily obstructed by the great wall of dead bodies. While Wun Wun and Tormund try to break the Bolton phalanx, they realize they’ve got no real shot at actually breaking it and Tormund decides to order his free folk to take their chances climbing the wall of dead bodies. The climb works too well though, and the free folk end up accidentally trampling Jon, who was on the safe side of the phalanx the entire time. In one of the better camera shots of the series, Jon gets repeatedly trampled to the point that he’s down on the ground and struggling for breath. Despite the fact he was only just brought back to life seven episodes ago, you begin to wonder if Jon may just in fact die here. The incredibly uncomfortable and claustrophobic scene ends when Jon, who could very easily just lie there and accept his death, decides to live, and climbs his way to the top of the massacre. War is such an ugly affair in actuality and this shot so perfectly captures a filthy and bloody Jon Snow climbing to the top of a group that’s just as bloody and filthy as he is. If you didn’t notice by now, I think “Battle of the Bastards” has some of the best cinematography I’ve ever seen.
As an iconic of a moment as Jon deciding to live was, it didn’t change the fact that he was still easily losing the battle. The tides turn dramatically though when everyone hears a war horn off in the distance. With Smalljon Umber distracted, Tormund ends the personal fight between them by brutally biting out his foe’s throat and stabbing him several times. The camera pans to the source of the sound which we learn are the Knights of the Vale, represented by House Arryn, and in effect Littlefinger answering the plea of Sansa Stark. House Arryn at this point basically has the only army who hasn’t fought in the War of Five Kings so the intact army makes quick work of the Boltons. Sensing the tides turning, Ramsay decides to fall back to Winterfell, a fully determined Jon, Tormund, and Wun Wun in quick pursuit.
Ramsay make it back to Winterfell and the fact that he has never faced a situation that he isn’t in control of becomes very apparent here. He tells his generals that having Winterfell is enough to win, and that the Stark army doesn’t have the men or supplies to withstand a siege. Ramsay forgot to account for Wun Wun though, and the giant very quickly breaks through the barred entrance gate to Winterfell. Wun Wun pays the price for breaking through though, as Ramsay sadistically shoots Wun Wun in the eye and kills him, when he had an open shot at Jon. Ramsay is all about inflicting as much pain as possible on his enemies though and this falls in perfect line with his character. After killing Wun Wun, Ramsay turns his attention to Jon and says he now accepts his offer to fight one on one. Ramsay begins firing arrows on Jon but Jon repels them with a shield until he’s close enough to Ramsay that he can brutally beat him up, punch after punch on his face. Jon probably would have beaten Ramsay to death if he didn’t see Sansa waiting there. Jon realizes that Sansa has as much right as anyone to kill Ramsay and leaves his ultimate manner of death to Sansa. A fitting ending is picked for Ramsay as Sansa decides to end Ramsay’s life with death by hound. Ramsay’s once loyal beasts turn on him and devour him to death, as Sansa walks away with a sly smile. House Stark is finally back in control of Winterfell, as we conclude a masterpiece of an episode.
Writing flaws first. Why the hell did Sansa not tell Jon that the Knights of the Vale were on their way? If Sansa didn’t know Littlefinger was coming, she didn’t really save the day as the day was saved entirely by Littlefinger. If she did know, she’s not a hero at all because rather than tell Jon to wait for the army that would turn the tides in their favor, she let Jon and his army march into the battle, allowing the great risk that thousands could die instead of just telling her brother to wait it out. The out of universe reason is that Littlefinger’s secret arrival provides more dramatic tension but it better be addressed in the show, because in universe, there’s no real reason.
Iwan Rheon, take a bow. Your portrayal of Ramsay Bolton was masterful. Never have I rooted against a character more than I did yours and that is a true testament to how well you played Ramsay. I won’t miss the character of Ramsay, but I will certainly miss your portrayal of him, and it’s all thanks to your legendary performance. Simply brilliant.
Y’all ready for Davos’ confrontation with Melisandre about Shireen? This probably should have happened earlier but I’ve been waiting so long for it that if the confrontation is good, I’ll pardon the unrealistic wait time for it.
Cinematography for the episode was obviously legendary. Among the best shots are Davos discovering the stag toy as the sun rises, the Stark cavalry charging in slow motion, Jon unsheathing Longclaw and preparing to face his destiny, Jon nearly getting trampled to death and his decision to live and climb to the top of the human pile, and the shot of the Bolton banners dropping off the walls of Winterfell and being replaced by Stark banners. What a brilliantly shot episode.
Tormund’s “simple” way of thinking was brought to light several times and it was hilarious each time. Tormund not knowing what a double envelopment or a pincer move is despite them being the same thing was hysterical. Tormund then thinking Davos literally meant Stannis had “demons in his head” was equally awesome. I thought Tormund would die in this episode so I’m glad to be proven wrong and am eager to see more Tormund humor in the future. And “Happy shitting” was a great quote.
Why they didn’t give Wun Wun a tree or something to use as a weapon will go down as this episode’s biggest mystery. You guys had a giant, use him to his best ability.
Will the season six finale finally be the episode that Daenerys sets sail for Westeros? Tyrion is asked if the Iron fleet will be enough to sail Dany’s army and he says that it probably could with the addition of the slaver boats that they didn’t burn. Please Dany, it’s time, come to Westeros.
“Battle of the Bastards” pits Ramsay Bolton against Jon Snow in a battle that holds up with the great battles in television and film history, and will go down as one of the best Game of Thrones episodes ever.