The Battle of the Bastards

An examination of Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 9, “The Battle of the Bastards”

Thousands of men don’t need to die. Only one of us. Let’s end this the old way. You against me.

This will be a longer review than I’ve written for most of the episodes this season. I rarely favor the idea of overindulgence, but this week offered up many troubling questions and had me thinking more about how character’s were presented than how battles were conceived. While I witnessed a wondrous hour of television that mirrored cinematic levels of technical precision, I mainly want to focus on the underlying factors that will actually be moving this series forward. Some may not agree with my view and that’s okay, but merely writing a puff piece on how incredible, and it really did have some amazing moments, an episode is just isn’t what I signed up for in writing about Game of Thrones.

Alright, ready? Here we go.

For three straight seasons, we’ve become accustomed to the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones seasons to represent larger conflicts where opposition finally comes to a head. Subsequently, these conflicts in the past have done an excellent job of keeping character in check and providing us motivations, tragedies, and arcs that make sense based on what we know of these characters prior to the event. While I deeply enjoyed Sunday’s presentation of Battle of the Bastards, I have to say I was more disconnected from what was happening on screen than I have been in some time, and it all comes down to spectacle over subversion.

Think back to the Blackwater. We knew the main event was going to see the use of wildfire to defend Blackwater bay against the superior Stannis Baratheon fleet, yet it was the moments on the ground with Tyrion and in the tower, with Cersei and Sansa, that really sold the action. We had an investment in what happened to these characters, not because they mislead us or filled a role, but because they acted as they would have given any predicament or situation.

In other words, Game of Thrones has earned its lofty reputation from subverting our expectations. In a season which largely ventures off-book, the notion of a “made for tv” retrofitted finale was always in the cards and it appears that is what we received. In Battle of the Bastards, we see two warring conflicts that emulate the series title, a song of ice and fire, and pit the children of fallen heroes and villains against the shadows of those namesakes. This running theme, segmented within a battle hardened and technical precise episode reminds us, yet again, that the true driving force behind this series has and always will be the human element. What I find troubling though is just how mischaracterized many of the human characters become when fitted for a results driven narrative requiring certain milestones to be reached.

With Hardhome the fallout was clear: the war in the North will consume everything and we may be powerless to stop it. In Watchers on the Wall, the conflict between the Nights Watch and the Wildlings is interrupted and thrust into the political scene with the arrival of Stannis Baratheon. What BotB shares with these episodes is far more surface level than one might imagine, as pieces are shifted across the board and victories are won, yet at what cost to those involved and their relationships?

The most glaring example of this is Sansa Stark, who spent most of this season retreading into her hatred for Ramsey, with a baffling decision to withhold her query to Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale from Jon. When pressed this week, her lack of response becomes even more troubling as she essentially sacrifices Jon, Rickon, and the lives of her men for the sake of retaining the element of surprise. As we see play out in BotB final sequence, Sansa is even willing to go over the line in order to stoop to Ramsey’s level over that of the example her father gave her.

“You can’t kill me, I’m a part of you now”- Ramsey Bolton

This isn’t Ramsey mocking Sansa in allusion to her goodwill, this is Ramsey mocking Sansa in a way that ultimately gives him the last laugh. By Sansa setting the dogs loose on her former torturer, she, to a degree, becomes like him. Now, all that being said, the death of one of Game of Thrones most dastardly villains was indeed a cause for celebration, and Sansa had every right to be the one to do it, yet in a season where the Stark children are gravitating towards that of their Starkish heritage, this feels like the opposite for Sansa.

“He who passes the sentences, swings the sword”- Eddard Stark

Perhaps, and this is mere speculation, the death of Ned Stark did more to dissuade her from a life dedicated to the old ways than anything else. Shipped off to Kings Landing at an early age, with delusions of grandeur filling her head about princes and tourneys, Sansa had always been the most susceptible Stark in regards to how others would attempt to take advantage of her. Ned’s attempts to protect her and her innocence ultimately fell to what she observed firsthand at the hands of the man-child she thought she would love.

While her cloak is that of a Stark, and her newfound position mirroring that of perhaps Catlyn at times, Sansa’s withholding of the truth from Jon, merely for the show to have its “Helms Deep” moment, complicates how dedicated she really is to establishing things as they were for her family. Perhaps its understandable to a degree, given the brutality suffered upon her, but in some senses, this season has depicted her as looking to level the playing field despite the cost to herself and others. That isn’t the Sansa we know or want ultimately.

Jon Snow would have never died in this episode, though the showrunners evoked that possibility in the brilliantly choreographed charge of the calvary and Jon’s claustrophobic attempts at breaking through a body pile up. These moments represent a resilience and a power that we know Jon to have, yet what I found troubling from his perspective this week, is just how willing the show was to depict him as a somewhat blunt and perhaps even dumb military strategist.

For a man to return from beyond and have a second chance at life, and not appear changed in any feasible way save for a brief adherence to non-violence, only complicates matters when you are attempting to build a narrative around his importance. I mentioned to someone a few days ago that what this battle sequence needed was the typical “Braveheart” moment where Jon, vastly outnumbered, gives his troops a reason to follow him to their deaths. Game of Thrones is all about subversion, right? Well giving us that pep talk would be something we WOULDN’T expect this show to do and could have at least given Jon some credibility.

While its noble for him to be willing to face an onslaught of arrows to save his brother, Rickon, and to charge the Bolton calvary on foot despite how foolish that actually is, the decision to disregard all strategy only creates this notion that all the events are just fodder for getting him to the end goal. Like a video game boss level where all strategy and creativity go out the window, Jon gets lost in the role of a warrior and somehow we forget his previous sacrifice. That’s not to say the resurrection and betrayal are far from our minds, given that it only occurred a few episodes ago, but considering how little has truly changed for Jon in how he carries himself is confusing.

Where was that inner monologue that struck us in Watchers on the Wall? Where is that grappling with death and consequence that requires deep emotional payoff and ultimately, stakes which lead to this battle concluding with value, like in Hardhome?

There is also the death of Rickon, which felt more plot-driven than symbolic. Yes, Rickon could have zig-zagged, but the real question I had was: why bring a Stark child back, without every allowing him to establish a semblance of a character, only to turn around and kill him as motivation for another?

I wonder if we could have had the same effect only on a much more confident and creative scale. For the showrunners to merely touch down on the “need” for war is fine but to commit to it whole heartedly as an attempt to continue a yearly tradtion doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the show’s future ability to wrap its narrative up cohesively. I may be in the minority on some of these views, and I did very much enjoy the episode, yet I can’t completely turn a blind eye to some of its misgivings. There is plenty of flash here but I’d reckon the fallout will be the far more interesting component.

The theme of children addressing their parents legacies is one that the series has held onto as its lifeblood. Bubbling under the surface, this idea is clear only is one is willing to rationalize the movements and methods of all its major players, but it is present. In the form of a question, this week asked: (1) How will you pick up the mantle of your parents legacy? and (2) How does this younger generation move from beneath the shadows of their formerly ruling parents?

In mentioning the legacies of their fathers, Dany and Yara come to a newfound alliance and an understanding which presents the Mother of Dragons with her fleet. While we have seen Dany flaring up over the past few episodes, in direct juxtaposition with the Mad King’s relentless tyranny, the scenes involving her this week offer a somewhat conflicted reflection for how she may move past that comparison. By asking the Greyjoys to respect the integrity of the Seven Kingdoms, Dany is attempting to save her future kingdom from destruction before she heads there to… well, destroy it. The Greyjoys and Targaryens have the potential to move away from their father’s shadows in ways that could uphold the livelihood of the common man, but thats only IF Dany adheres to working with others rather than just lapsing into conquest mode. Her altruism has long been a one-sided worldview, bent on taking back “what was stolen”, yet how is that different from her father’s ravings and unwillingness to cede any control to those around him?

With Jon and Sansa, this narrative becomes a lot more difficult to swallow given their characterization this week. BotB is intent on us reading Ned’s demise as a natural conclusion to living the Stark way. However, despite this, Jon leans into his role as the “patriarch” of his clan and risks everything, including any and all strategy, to attempt saving Rickon and destroying Ramsey. Its just as Ned would have done, and did, but perhaps with a more level headed and communicative approach. Just like Ned waltzing into King’s Landing, Jon’s odds are not in his favor, and though he comes out victorious, the aftermath of Sansa’s actions may ultimately split their relationship apart.

While I deeply care about Sansa’s journey and success, definitely stumbled this episode and clearly moves away from her family in a dark move towards embracing a much harsher reality. It is not that she couldn’t come back from it, as we’ve seen this same arc happen in reverse with Theon, but in a season packed with Stark’s rediscovering their family legacy and the model set by their parents, its a least a little troubling. Arya, Bran, and Jon have all accepted their namesake to a degree and have become stronger in that identity, while Sansa has attempted to describe herself as a Stark but never finished playing the game that cost her family so dearly.

BotB blazes its own, highly stylized and brutal battle sequences with grace, and manages to create a compelling sample of carnage and spectacle befitting such an event, yet it came with few if any surprises. Each of our heroes attempt to forge their own path outside the shadows of their fathers, while immersing us into two very different yet complimentary battle sequences. I enjoyed much of what it had to offer but am curious to see what happens next, particuarly for Winterfell and the fallout from the battle.

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