Themes of identity and leadership are nothing new in Game of Thrones; we’ve watched characters like Sansa, Jon, and Daenerys grow into roles of powers since the series pilot. Scattered to the wind by tragedy, these highborn children have had to fend off monsters (human and non-human alike) to survive the harsh, mystical realities of Westeros and Essos.
In that way, season six’s penultimate episode "The Battle of the Bastards" was more a culmination of what came before; an incredible, well-shot spectacle that was predictable yet satisfying closure as the series winds down to its final hours.
The more interesting thematic discussion to be had here is the cost and fruitfulness of the entire endeavor of conquest.
As the corpses and charred bones pile up, war becomes increasingly pointless and counterproductive, knowing what is approaching from beyond the Wall. Had the Night King happened upon this scene, a simple hand gesture could have swelled the ranks of his army by thousands. And even as is, the North is severely handicapped as the White Walkers approach.
The Wall is undermanned and now the Northern armies lay in shambles...
Sansa is not wrong when she advises Jon about Ramsay, whose cruelty and violent psychosis make him unpredictable. As Theon and Sansa would know, Ramsay Bolton draws pleasure from mental anguish every bit as much as he does from physical torture. Getting in Jon’s head would be one of Ramsay’s goals, which is why Sansa defiantly rides off when Ramsay offers terms at the parlay.
Sansa’s counsel proves true, as Ramsay arrives on battlefield dragging the youngest Stark Rickon alongside his horse. Ramsay taunts Jon with his half-brother, feigning an offer of freedom before putting an arrow through the boy’s heart. Ramsay has gotten in Jon’s head, twisting both hope and horror into a sadistic game, as is Ramsay’s M.O. Sansa warned Jon of these mind games, and his failure to heed that warning left him exposed in the middle of battle, and he would have been doomed had not his cavalry met the Bolton charge.
Sansa’s strategy and timing is peculiar.
Though the Littlefinger alliance was well telegraphed, her refusal to involve Jon in her plans is perplexing. Waiting half a day could have given Jon and Sansa’s side the favorable numbers, and could have allowed them to take Winterfell with less loss of life.
Despite their relation, Sansa has seemed distrusting of Jon since their reunion. She's withheld Littlefinger from him, and questioned his reliance on Davos and Tormund. Sansa may simply be wary of all the men who have tried to control her before, which she basically tells Jon that he can't protect her, no matter what he says. And given how she foresaw Rickon's death, it seems the eldest Stark daughter is bent on making her own fate without reliance on those around her.
Sansa’s battlefield tactics may have raised questions, but her last conversation with Ramsay only inspired cheers. Fittingly tied up in the Winterfell kennels, Ramsay slowly bleeds out as he is met by Sansa.
Finally confronted with her rapist, Sansa informs Ramsay that his family is done, the Bolton legacy snuffed out while the Stark line prevails. Sansa walks away as Ramsay’s own hounds feast on his festering flesh, a cathartic smile spreading across her snow-covered cheeks.
While Sansa may have been new to the battlefield, Jon Snow is not.
Having survived battles at the Wall and Hardhome, the Bastard of Winterfell has proven himself both a valuable warrior and commander. Even so, Jon is still human, and we see how some of his failings almost cost the Northern resistance. He underestimates Ramsay’s inventive cruelty, marching ahead even with inferior numbers. Too, the wildlings may be a ferocious people, but Tormund’s blank stares show how little the free folk know of military tactics.
His discussion with Melisandre proves illuminating, as Jon may be resigned to a grizzly fate. He asks the red priestess to not bring him back, to which Melisandre shrugs.
Both characters inhabit a similar space at the moment, knowing that they are imbued with destiny and purpose yet being completely in the dark as to how to approach it. Jon was reborn at Melisandre’s hand, but that may have been only to perish beneath the walls of Winterfell. The Great War Melisandre has foreseen is still coming, but whether Jon Snow makes it that far is still hidden to her.
In the early moments of the battle, Jon seemed prepared to die before it began in earnest. As aforementioned, Ramsay easily provokes Jon, teasing him with Rickon’s freedom before murdering him just out of Jon’s reach. Filled with rage, Jon reacts predictably, quickly remounting to pursue Ramsay. Davos deftly takes note, ordering their own cavalry to charge before Jon can be killed.
Jon is thrown from his horse, and looks up to see the Bolton cavalry coming down on him. The show slows down for a brief moment, as Jon goes into Hero’s Last Stand formation with accompanying epic score.
Jon’s recklessness is a bit off putting here; he fell for the very trap that Sansa warned him about, and now the lynchpin of the Northern resistance is inches away from being ridden down. Jon should be more cognizant of his role in keeping the Northern forces together, and his reckless abandon could have scattered his men early.
Before the opposing forces reach Jon, however, his own mounted soldiers crash down as the battle begins proper.
What ensues is perhaps Game of Thrones most brutal look into the cost of war. The body count may not be as large as some other battles, but the way the corpses pile up are a visual reminder of the terrible price paid when the high lords play the game of thrones. The Boltons are monsters who need to be removed, and Winterfell is an ideal stronghold for the Starks when the White Walkers come, but it is still impossible to not be overwhelmed by the senseless violence in all of it.
The sheer chaos is acutely captured by some deft camera and stunt work. The battle mostly follows Jon throughout, and you get a great sense of the fighting enveloping him. There’s barely a moment respite before another horse charges in or a soldier lunges at him.
Survival is as much luck as skill, as the entire battle sequence eloquently if horrifically shows. The suffocating nature of the violence is further explored as Jon gets nearly buried alive amidst mud and corpses, as soldiers keep rushing into the fray.
As battle-episodes go, Blackwater offered greater storytelling moments and Hardhome was a horror story come alive in the best way possible. Where this week’s episode was most effective (aside from the end of Ramsay Bolton) was showing the actual human cost of all these politics.
After Hardhome, we know what each fallen human can become, and that the realms of men must be at its best to beat back the wintery apocalypse.
The events up North serve as a stark contrast to war elsewhere in the story, where they are run by more accomplished military commanders. Riverrun, for example, was taken with the fewest lives lost as possible, due to some deft negotiations by Jaime Lannister. And this week, Daenerys shows fire and blood can be ordered with a side of restraint, as she takes back Meereen at the guidance of Tyrion and sets her sights on Westeros.
"Burn them all," a common refrain of this series, seems to be Daenerys’s first inclination as the fleet of the Harpy batters the pyramids of Meereen. With her dragons, she could easily lay waste to the ships outside and end this siege fairly quickly. Indeed, this is the very route Dany’s father the Mad King would have taken, Tyrion tells her.
Tyrion emphasizes the point by revealing the lengths of her father's madness, describing the caches of wildfire Aerys hid throughout King’s Landing, and emphasizing that he was willing to burn guilty and innocent alike if he couldn’t win. This sort of thinking was a hallmark of Aerys’s madness, and why the high lords of Westeros rose up against him in the first place. If Daenerys wishes to win the Seven Kingdoms to her side, fire can’t be the answer to every incursion.
As discussed in this space before, Daenerys Targaryen has always bounced between mercy and vengeance, revealing the shortcomings of her monologues on justice and broken wheels. This season has shown growth on this front, a development in her character beyond supernatural abilities.
She didn’t need Drogon to burn down an entire Dothraki khalasar for freedom. Instead, a few khals could pay the blood price while becoming a godlike leader to the rest. Similarly, the fleet laying siege to Meereen would be a valuable addition to Dany’s forces, all the while being mostly manned by slaves.
Setting Slaver’s Bay aflame would only waste good men and ships, so she takes a more targeted approach here as well, showcasing her might as the Blood of Old Valyria while inspiring awe and fear in the opposition.
Instead of "burn them all," Daenerys unleashes her dragons on the command ship of the Harpy fleet, all the while buying time for Daario and the Dothraki to smash the soldiers outside the gates of Meereen. Meanwhile, Grey Worm and Tyrion take out two heads of the Harpy, ensuring the third knows he survives by the Mother’s Mercy.
As opposed to the events up North, Daenerys’s more restrained approach wins out with lesser cost to her own forces.
Game of Thrones this week gave us a song of ice and fire; battles in the North and Far East were the mechanism driving the narrative forward. Not only does the geography and imagery create for a fascinating juxtaposition, so too do the characters and their decisions.
In Jon and Sansa, we see that each has complementary tools, but are hesitant or unwilling to work alongside the other. Jon's martial acumen and Sansa's sense for politics could be deployed effectively in tandem, but when each is working on their own, they are overburdened and end up making mistakes, though luckily not enough to cost them the battle.
Daenerys, on the other hand, compounded her might with Tyrion's politic to smash the Sons of the Harpy. What masters lived did so at her mercy, while the slave troops and ships are now part of her military. Daenerys has sacked cities and negotiated peaces, but now we see her political legacy bear fruit on both fronts, resulting in a far less horrific resolution to the war in Meereen.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Following the battle of Meereen, Theon and Yara Greyjoy arrive to treat with Daenerys and Tyrion. Tyrion and Theon had met long ago once, when Theon was more proud and cocksure. Now humbled, Theon speaks of being a changed man and supporting his sister’s claim for the Salt Throne. Daenerys and Yara have an instant rapport, respecting each other’s courage and forthrightness in a male-dominated world.
The scene was a fun intersection of characters, even to the point where they enjoyed a moment that all had terrible fathers which led to their respective thrones being usurped. Yara warns Daenerys that Euron is coming, not only with more ships but also a marriage offer. The Greyjoy children know that Euron’s gifts are poison, however, and that Euron would get rid of Dany as soon as he had the Iron Throne. In exchange for the ships, Yara asks for support in her claim on the Iron Islands, which brings up a fascinating angle. What happens, Tyrion muses, when other allies also offer support in exchange for independence? Is Daenerys willing to take back the Iron Throne if it is only a fraction of what her family once ruled? And how well can she keep those independent kingdoms in check if they choose to disobey?
- While this space is mostly an exploration of thematic and narrative elements, the technical aspects of the Battle at Winterfell were a singularly profound achievement for television. The battle itself was coherently and beautifully shot throughout, with a clear sense of time and space. Too often in battles, main characters have to take a moment to forward the plot or deliver a line of dialogue, and it seems like the character is standing around while war wages on all around them (this occurs frequently in the Lord of the Rings movies). Any brief respite during battle would spell certain doom in real life. Thankfully, that is not a problem here, as any in-battle breaks are short and infrequent, and the cinematography does well to show the unrelenting chaos ensuing outside the battlements of Winterfell.
Other impressive technical moments include the tracking shot mid battle, as the camera does not (appear to) cut as Jon takes on soldiers approaching from all angles, on horseback and on foot. This offers juxtaposition to when Jon is drowning amongst the bodies, as the camera quickly cuts from shot to shot, showing the incoherent, suffocating nature of mass carnage. The camera alternates between steady and handheld cam effectively, pausing appropriately to provide epic wide angle and "hero" shots to break up the more hectic aspects of the battle. The show tapped Hardhome director Miguel Sapochnik to lead this episode, and the battle turned out gorgeous as a result.
- Lastly, the episode has raised the issue of "stakes" and whether the lack of a major protagonist dying lessened the emotional impact (compared to other episode nines, where deaths from Ned and Robb to Shireen and Ygritte have hit hard). While death does hit relatively minor characters such as Rickon Stark and Wun Wun, I think the emotional stakes are still existent elsewhere. Aside from Jon and Sansa, I think any other character (including Davos, Melisandre, and Tormund) could have easily perished in this battle if the showrunners wanted to insert a main cast death to raise the odds. The show has shown no hesitation in killing off characters, either when necessary or when needed for added oomph.
Further, the retaking of Winterfell offered every bit the emotional catharsis as Ramsay’s death would later. Winterfell always existed as an avatar for the Stark family; its ruin reflected the ruin and fall of the family itself. So it is appropriate that as the Stark children reemerge from various ends of the world that Winterfell too reawakens.
Sansa and Jon had left their home in the series second episode. Winterfell would later fall to the Greyjoys before being put to the torch. And of late, a monster has held the castle, decorating it with corpses and entrails of Stark loyalists. So to have Sansa and Jon return to the halls of their father on their own terms was powerful to witness; to see the Bolton banners flung down as the Stark sigil was raised above the gates was immensely satisfying. All this in conjunction with Ramsay’s death offered one of the few moments of relief and victory in the show’s run.
Ultimately, what does and doesn’t provide emotional investment is a personal question that each viewer has to answer. The fact that Game of Thrones delivered an unqualified (if horrific) victory for the "good guys" doesn’t lessen the sense of peril these characters are in. While some surely have plot armor until the final battle against the White Walkers, this show is able to draw on more than just fear of death to endear the characters to us.
Death may be the most prevalent way to set emotional stakes in fiction, but is not necessarily the only one, even in Game of Thrones.