The penultimate episode of the season is here, and ‘Game of Thrones’ fans know what that means. It’s time for a really big action set-piece. They’ve gotten to be predictable, and (in my opinion) often disappoint. This season’s, though…. Whoa, holy hell…
I’ve stated a few times before that the big battle sequences are typically my least favorite parts of ‘Game of Thrones’. The show hit its high water mark in that regard with the Battle of Blackwater in Season 2, and subsequent attempts to top that, such as the assault on the Wall in Season 4 or last season’s White Walker attack on Hardhome mostly felt like a bunch of random characters I don’t know swinging swords at green-screens while lots of CGI crap flittered around in front of them. I understand that I may be in a minority among fans, but my eyes glaze over at that stuff.
As such, when I saw that this week’s episode (called ‘Battle of the Bastards’) would focus on the big war between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton, I braced for disappointment.
I was wrong. That’s it, simply put. I was dead wrong.
I have to assume that this was the most expensive episode the show has ever produced. With not one but two massive action sequences (one better than the other, but both pretty good), it sure looks like an entire season’s budget was expended on this one hour.
In order to accommodate that, the episode hones in on just these two storylines. That’s actually a strength in its favor.
The Slave Masters continue their siege on Meereen, bombarding the city with flaming artillery catapulted from their navy armada. Daenerys has returned to her pyramid castle and looks a wee bit miffed with Tyrion for letting the situation fall so badly out of hand. He protests that the city had actually been in a period of recovery until this. She isn’t interested to hear it and simply asks, “Shall we begin?”
When Tyrion asks what she’ll do, Daenerys has a pretty simple plan: She’s going to utterly destroy the Masters and scorch the kingdoms they come from until there’s no sign they ever existed in the world – which is basically what she wanted to do to them from the start. Tyrion points out that Dany sounds an awful lot like her father, the Mad King. He proposes an alternate strategy.
Daenerys and Tyrion call for a parley with the three chief Masters to discuss terms of surrender. The Masters are arrogant and demand all sorts of terrible things, including the return of all slaves and the slaughter of the three dragons.
You can already see where this is going, right?
Daenerys informs the Masters that they are confused. The meeting was called to discuss their surrender. The Masters scoff. Then Drogon flies down and lands in front of them with a thunderous crash, looking about six times larger than they expected. The Masters collectively shit their pants. Dany climbs onto the dragon’s back and flies off. The other two dragons bust out of their cell and join her in torching the navy fleet.
On the ground, members of the Sons of the Harpy are interrupted from murdering innocent civilians when a tremendous Dothraki army rides in and slaughters them.
The tables turned, Tyrion tells the Masters that, as benevolent as the queen may be, their betrayal is too much to be forgiven. One of them must die. The three Masters turn on each other, squabbling to scapegoat the weakest member. Grey Worm steps in and slashes the throats of the other two. Tyrion tells the lone survivor to return to his kingdom and spread the word of what happened here, lest anyone else get the dumb idea to follow their example.
The next day, Daenerys entertains an audience with Yara and Theon Greyjoy, who’ve arrived just a little too late to be helpful. Tyrion remembers Theon from Winterfell and gloats at his misfortunes. They explain their situation and offer the queen their fleet of 100 stolen ships. Combined with the remains of the Masters’ confiscated armada, Tyrion believes this may be just enough to carry Daenerys’ army to Westeros.
Dany asks why she should make a pact with them rather than just wait for their uncle Euron to arrive with even more ships. They tell her about Euron’s intention to marry her and make her a submissive wife. Hilariously, Yara says that she won’t require marriage as part of the deal, though she’s up for anything.
Theon and Yara also assure Dany that all they want from her in return is assistance taking back the Iron Islands. They have no designs on the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys agrees, but on the condition that the Iron Islands will not be independent. The Ironborn must submit to her rule, and must also give up their marauding way of life. Yara realizes that she will get no better offer, and shakes Dany’s hand.
Against Sansa’s objections, Jon Snow moves forward with his plan to march on Winterfell with an army his sister believes is still insufficient. The day before the battle, the two of them meet with Ramsay Bolton on neutral ground. Ramsay is, of course, smug as ever. He says that he looks forward to taking Sansa back to his bed and feeding the rest of them to his dogs, which he’s starved for seven days in anticipation.
Jon Snow says that there’s no need for a battle, and suggests that they end their dispute the old way, with a one-on-one duel. Ramsay is amused but declines, even when Snow goads him by implying that his soldiers won’t want to fight for a coward. Ramsay then reminds him that he still has Rickon as a prisoner, and tosses out the decapitated direwolf head as proof. He bids them to rest well before the battle in the morning.
That night, Jon strategizes with Davos and Tormund. He emphasizes the importance of luring Ramsay to their ground rather than charging at him, and avoiding getting pinned from the sides or surrounded. (Poor Tormund doesn’t understand any of the military terms, so Snow has to dumb the conversation way down for his benefit.) Sansa asks why Jon challenged Ramsay to a duel. He explains that he was trying to make him angry and reckless.
After the others leave the tent, Sansa argues with Jon about the danger of underestimating Ramsay. She says that he’s too cunning to fall into the traps they’ve laid. She once again insists that they simply don’t have enough men to win this fight. If they lose, she says that she’ll kill herself rather than allow Ramsay to take her.
Davos and Tormund take a walk, discussing the mistakes that brought down their former leaders – Stannis and Mance Rayder. Davos says that he never sleeps before a battle. They part, and he continues to pace the camp until he comes across the remains of an old fire, in which he finds the wooden toy that Shireen had played with. He begins to suspect what actually happened to the little girl.
Jon goes to Melisandre’s tent and tells the witch not to resurrect him if he dies again. She says that she’s obligated to do what the Lord of Light commands.
The next morning, an eerie quiet falls over the battlefield. Ramsay rides out to the front of his army, towing Rickon behind his horse. Jon Snow is immediately unnerved.
Ramsay pulls a knife but, rather than kill Rickon right there, cuts his bonds and tells him to run to his brother as fast as he can. As the boy runs, Ramsay draws an arrow and fires it at him, missing on purpose. Jon Snow jumps on his horse and charges across the field toward Rickon. His army, unsure what to do, hesitates for a moment before Tormund rallies them to follow behind Jon. Davos stays behind with the archers.
Ramsay flings another couple arrows in Rickon’s direction to keep him running, but doesn’t fire the kill shot until just before Jon Snow reaches him. An arrow plunges through Rickon’s chest and Jon helplessly watches his brother die. Enraged, he races forward toward Ramsay, his own army trailing behind him. This is precisely what they weren’t supposed to do.
Ramsay orders his archers to fire a volley of arrows, one of which takes down Jon’s horse. He then commands his army to advance forward. Jon scrambles to his feet and draws his sword, but looks utterly hopeless as the army bears down on him. Fortunately, the Wildlings catch up with Jon just before the Boltons hit him. The brutal battle commences, an orgy of chaos and blood.
Davos holds back his archers from firing, afraid that they’ll hit their own men. Ramsay has no such compunctions. His artillery launches wave after wave of arrows right into the heart of the fracas, indiscriminately killing men from both sides. Bodies pile up and more men scramble over them, only to build a growing mountain of corpses. Eventually, Davos and his men abandon their bows and run toward the battle to give Jon some backup.
Bolton soldiers with heavy shields and long spears swing in from the sides in a pincing maneuver and fully encircle Jon and the Wildlings, then slowly march forward, crushing them into a tight huddle. Everything Jon Snow had warned against in his strategy meeting has come true. The battle is a fiasco.
Davos tries to break the line from behind, but simply doesn’t have enough men to make a meaningful difference. Even Wun Wun the giant, stuck in the middle with Jon and the Wildlings, struggles futilely to smash an exit. As they’re pushed closer and closer, the mountain of bodies grows. Jon Snow is trampled and trapped underneath, desperately fighting to climb out. Tormund is wounded in the conflict but refuses to give up.
Suddenly, the sound of a horn blares from the hills. A new army on horseback arrives. It’s the Knights of the Vale. Standing behind them are Littlefinger… and Sansa. Yes, this must have been what her secret raven message was about.
The knights charge in and break the Bolton line, freeing Jon Snow and the remaining Wildlings. The tide of the battle instantly turns.
Exhausted but still able to fight, Jon sees Ramsay across the battlefield. Ramsay turns and rides back to the castle. Jon, Tormund and the giant chase after him but aren’t able to catch up before Ramsay seals the gates.
At this point, both armies are devastated. Ramsay doesn’t have enough men left to fight, but he does have the castle. Jon Snow doesn’t have enough men left to lay a proper siege. Ramsay believes that all he needs to do is sit tight and wait it out.
The gate shudders. A giant fist smashes through it. The Bolton archers lay into Wun Wun, but the giant smashes and smashes and smashes until the gate comes crashing down and the remaining Wildlings flood in, killing what’s left of the Bolton soldiers.
Filled with arrows, Wun Wun falls to his knees. One final arrow plunges through his eye, killing the giant. It was fired by Ramsay. He snidely offers to take Jon Snow up on that one-on-one duel after all.
Snow picks up a shield and marches forward. Ramsay fires three arrows at him in succession, all blocked by the shield. Jon runs up and knocks him down, laying into Ramsay with his fists and pulverizing his face. He looks up for a second and sees Sansa, then stops short of killing Ramsay.
New flags and banners unfurl over the castle. Winterfell belongs to the Starks again. Jon Snow orders his brother Rickon to be buried in the family crypt. Davos eyes Melisandre suspiciously.
Ramsay, his face a bloody mess, is tied to a chair in the dungeon. His former wife Sansa pays him a visit to tell him that he will die and all memory of him and his house will disappear from history. She then lets his dogs into the cell – yes, the dogs he’d starved for seven days. Poetic justice!
Ramsay defiantly insists that his dogs are “loyal beasts” and would never harm him, but his voice betrays that he doesn’t believe his own words. The first dog gets a scent of the blood and brings its face up to meet his. Ramsay commands the animal to sit. It doesn’t sit. He orders it again. The dog takes a big bite of his face. The other dogs lunge in to get theirs.
Sansa leaves the dungeon to the music of Ramsay’s anguished screaming, a sly smile spreading across her lips.
This episode is incredibly satisfying in ways that the others I mentioned earlier weren’t (for me). It starts strong and keeps getting better through to the end.
The Meereen battle is the weaker of the two. It relies too obviously on CGI and nearly falls into the trap of looking like a bunch of pixels fighting other pixels, but the visual effects are quite good and the scope of the scene is epic. Perhaps more problematic is that all of Daenerys’ storylines over the past couple of seasons have felt like they’re going in circles, and this is no different. She has to fight the Masters to assert her dominance again. Haven’t we gotten past that yet? I’m getting antsy to see her finally move into Westeros, but that’s a small complaint. The scene is very rousing, and I appreciate the acknowledgement that Dany’s rule is uncomfortably starting to resemble her father’s.
I have nothing but good things to say about the battle for Winterfell. It’s, in a word, awesome. I have no idea how something like this was produced for television. It puts most summer tentpole blockbusters to shame. I loved the emphasis on the strategy of the battle, and watching Jon Snow fall into all the traps he tried so hard to avoid. And what a memorable end for one of the show’s most despicable characters!
The last-minute rescue by Littlefinger is perhaps a deus ex machina, but the show set it up earlier with enough clues that it doesn’t come from out of nowhere. I also expect that an alliance with Littlefinger will be cause for plenty of interesting drama later.
This is the type of episode you immediately want to watch two to three times back-to-back. Fans will buy the eventual Blu-ray box set just to get this particular episode in the best quality. I rarely find the time to rewatch TV episodes, but I may need to play this one again before next weekend’s finale.