Sure, Game of Thrones is at its best when it tells a story and focuses on its characters. However, the show also has this expectation that the ninth episode will wow us. This season’s ninth episode brings us the biggest and most expensive battle in the show’s history as the forces of Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton did battle for control of Winterfell and the North. And, yes, it was pretty epic.
So let’s start in Meereen since that’s where the episode started. Dany wasn’t happy with the state of the Meereen she returned to with Tyrion in charge. What Dany doesn’t realize is that she’s really not that much better a leader. I’ve pointed out the contrast in styles before. Dany would be quite happy ruling the world even if the path to the top meant that there was no one left to rule. Tyrion attempts to be much more diplomatic about his approach to Dany’s eventual rule of Westeros.
The problem is that neither can seem to bend from their approach and it’s a detriment to Team Targaryan’s rule of Meereen. Tyrion admitted that negotiating a truce was a stalling tactic and clearly the brute force approach of the Unsullied didn’t stop the Sons of the Harpy. It wasn’t until a mix of the both this week that they saw some positive results. Dragons and Dothraki would have laid waste to the Masters’ fleet and army and left nothing for them to use. A combination of dragon-based destruction and leaving a leader alive to surrender on the Masters’ behalf is that combination of both force and diplomacy that will make Dany a threat to the Iron Throne. You can either join us or die is a more powerful negotiating than “F*ck you! Get burnt!” It’s hard to gain allies when they all end up burnt to a crisp.
One of the interesting things that came out of finding out that Yara was a lesbian was most fans with a Y chromosome “shipping” (and use that term in the loosest way possible) Yara and Dany. It almost looked like Dany would actually consider it (and it’s not like we haven’t seen an allusion to it in Season One) but the alliance between the Iron Born and the Dragon Born was formed without coupling and by casting the old ways aside. That part is the most interesting. Dany is trying to crush the old way of doing things by doing things the old-fashioned way: Using brute force to put her family back in charge of the Seven Kingdoms. There’s an irony to every move Dany makes whether she realizes it or not.
About three-quarters of the episode, though, took place very much north and west of Meereen. It was the titular Battle of the Bastards between Jon Snow and Lord Ramsay Bolton, Warden of the North.
For all we hear about Ramsay being a one-note character and being far too perfectly evil, he really was a step above everyone else in this episode. He stayed out of trouble like a seasoned general. He didn’t play to his enemy’s strength. He provoked Jon into making a mistake that very nearly won him the battle. The only thing that cost him the battle was the appearance of the Armies of the Vale led by Sansa and Littlefinger in the best strategized cavalry charge ever. They charged into the Bolton shield and spear line that was slowly killing the entire Stark force rather than do the stereotypical haphazard charge into the enemy.
The battle really was a visual masterclass. As viewers, we were put right into the middle of the battle. Just as it looks like Jon is about to be rode down by Bolton forces, his men ride in to start the battle in a melee of flying bodies and horses and dirt and blood. Many parts of this sequence look like they were done in one long shot as the camera holds tight to Jon as he slices his way through Bolton men and narrowly escapes death repeatedly.
The highlight was Jon getting trampled and nearly suffocated as the Wildlings retreated from the superior Bolton tactics (in a callback to previous assessments of the Wildings’ lack of battlefield tactical knowledge and adaptability). The colour draining from the screen, the muted sound, the dominance of Jon’s hammering heartbeat and gasping for breath dominating the sound, the general chaos as people fought on top of him. It made for a very dramatic scene. Even if we all knew Jon would make it through the battle alive, if ever there was a way for Jon to go, it was going to be a moment like this rather than in direct combat.
We went into this episode being told that this was going to be one of the biggest and most expensive episodes in the show’s history. When Liam Cunningham said this was going to be as big as any Hollywood blockbuster, he wasn’t kidding. Sure, Game of Thrones is made on what would be a pretty good budget for a movie but they’re putting something out there that’s five times the length of your standard movie. They’re working miracles on every front given their budget and medium. This episode really looked the part of a movie and probably looked better than anything that’ll come out this summer.
The biggest problem this episode had was how built up in expectations it was. Given the track record of Episode Nines and the show in general, we weren’t just expecting something epic (which we got) but we were expecting to have our hearts broken. The problem was that the show was severely lacking in the latter. I’m wondering if I’m some sort of masochist when I say that I’m disappointed that nobody of consequence dies in this episode (excluding Ramsay).
Sure, a bunch of nameless grunts were killed in this episode. Wun Wun took an arrow in the eye from Ramsay after breaching Winterfell but he was going down regardless. Smalljon Umber died which means that the Northern Conspiracy was nothing but a fan theory. And Rickon died too. Given that he hasn’t had a line since 2012 (and didn’t have one this week), I wouldn’t consider Rickon’s death to be of any consequence except for the intrigue of who is the Lord of Winterfell between Sansa (the girl) or Jon (the bastard).
Given how the show has been going this whole time, it wouldn’t make sense to bring Jon back from the dead only for Ramsay to kill him (unless Mellisandre brings him back from the dead again) so the outcome of the battle was inevitable. The only questions were if Ramsay would escape to fight another day and who would die in the battle. For a while there, a short while there, it looked like Tormund was a goner as he did battle with the Smalljon and looked like he was going to have a go at Ramsay. Davos poking his head above the crowd was asking for an arrow. Instead, no one died. Sure, it’s nice that our heroes survived a battle for once but it seems out of character for the show. It almost makes you wonder who will die next week.
Overall, this was a great episode. Was it the best episode of all-time? Probably not. I’d say that Hardhome was probably better because of how much more the ending battle means in the grand scheme of the story (which this episode was very light on) and the much more impactful visuals. While the Battle of the Bastards hits closer to home and was much more visually impressive than Hardhome, it was missing that wow factor that Hardhome had just from the battle with the Wights and White Walkers.
Other random points of note:
- So Miguel Sapochnik is now at the top of our list for action epic episodes, right? Between this and Hardhome, he can really direct an action scene. I can’t wait to see what he does next week.
- You don’t want to f*ck with Lady Mormont. If looks could kill, Ramsay’s head would have exploded before the battle.
- If the dragons could have broken out of their dungeon at any time, why didn’t they break out ages ago?
- Best line of the season was Sansa’s: “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.” For the last two years, I’ve been saying that Sophie Turner is killing it when they give her real material to work with.
Next week, Jon and Sansa deal with the fallout of their capture of Winterfell. Jaime is the invited dinner guest of Walder Frey which has never worked out badly for anyone ever before. Bran makes an appearance. Dany has to look forward to Westeros. And Cersei and Loras have their day in the High Sept which is now functioning as a court. It’d look awfully good bathed in the glow of green flame. It’s the season finale! It’s The Winds of Winter!