Game of Thrones: To the Reckless Go the Spoils

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Battle of the Bastards,” the ninth episode of the sixth season.


Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.

Spencer Kornhaber: Go ahead, bask in relief at Winterfell returned to the Starks, Ramsay cast to the kennel, Daenerys slaying slavers, and all of Game of Thrones’s most compelling characters still breathing despite the demise of few-to-no-liners like Rickon and the giant Wun Wun. But don’t let the endorphins distract you from the grand lesson of this episode, which is that Jon Snow really and truly knows nothing.

The safest-seeming prediction for how the Battle of the Bastards would go was that the Stark coalition would fight to the verge of defeat before Littlefinger’s army would save them, allowing Sansa a moment of revenge on Ramsay Bolton. The one big counterargument was that such an outcome seemed, well, too predictable. Tonight, Melisandre was even heard equivocating like a Thrones blogger writing a preview post, telling Jon that he could die again. But as is typical lately, the show chose the most obvious route—then executed it with cinematic verve and just enough suspense.

That suspense largely relied on Jon making like a typical Stark man by putting emotional displays of honor over practical concerns. A lot of planning went into this battle, involving chips on tables and furrowed brows and synonyms for “flanking.” The result was a big, clear strategy for how to reverse the odds: Let the Boltons make the first attack. Sansa pleaded with Jon to be aware that Ramsay would try to goad him into doing something stupid. Jon said he wouldn’t fall for it.

And yet fall for it he did, abandoning logic at the first sign of toying from Ramsay. Granted, it would have been difficult both morally and morale-wise for him to do nothing as Rickon ran from Bolton arrows. But for him to then charge against the Boltons after Rickon’s death, spurring his army to give up its important defensive position, was madness. As it was then demonstrated, this mistake should have gotten him and all his men killed, Sansa raped and/or killed, and the North lost permanently. Salvation only came thanks to the sister who he’d ignored, calling upon her frenemy (frenemuncle?), the de factor leader of the Vale.

Big-budget fantasy battles are easy to come by in Hollywood these days, but this one did stand out by breaking up the hack-and-slash slog with a few concrete, memorable elements. The longbow is a pivotal invention in military history, and here we saw the advantage that its coordinated use gave the Bolton side—an advantage ensured by the fact that they were the ones being charged at and not vice versa. While the phalanx is more reminiscent of ancient Greece rather than the medieval Western Europe that Westeros most directly resembles (and here are helpful Reddit historians explaining why that is), its implementation tonight came as a surprise and created some very tense viewing. Jon drowning in bodies will go down as one of the squirmiest, most unsettling moments in Thrones history.

Part of that squirminess owed to a sense of danger: Thrones usually kills off characters who err in the manner that Jon did tonight. If he wasn’t going to be trampled to his doom during the main skirmish, his weird confrontation with Ramsay in the Winterfell courtyard seemed like it might have resulted in him joining Wun Wun as a sad, dead porcupine. After all, running into a hail of arrows instead of having your soldiers gang up on your last remaining opponent is some Oberyn-level hubris. But the Lord of Light or at least the gods of Thrones ratings needs Jon alive, plausibility be damned.

The warfare in Meereen was far less tense than at Winterfell because it felt like the culmination of all of Daenerys’s too-sudden conquests, but with even more video-game camera swoops. You could even say it was a hat-trick of her greatest hits: 1) dragons; 2) converting enemy forces with promises of freedom; 3) murdering/intimidating pompous emissaries.

Far more interesting were the conversations before and after battle. Tyrion admonishing Dany to avoid scorched-Essos tactics so as to not be like her father should only fuel online speculation that the Khaleesi may turn into a Mad Queen. But her exchange with Yara and Theon showed that she’s actively trying to avoid becoming a villain. It was among the more overtly feminist scenes that the show has ever provided, a satisfying depiction of two women trying to break with millennia of gender roles so as to also break with millennia of injustice. Yes, Yara represents a smaller fighting force than uncle Euron, but Euron would force Dany into another marriage while Yara, delightfully, is merely open to the idea of a gay royal wedding.

The women-power themes in the East were matched in the West by Sansa ensuring victory for her house and then telling her longtime tormentor that she’d erase his name. Will she make like Dany and use her clout to try and “break the wheel” of cruelty in the realm? Throwing Ramsay to the dogs doesn’t exactly speak to a merciful heart, but if anyone has earned the right to feed a human to animals, it’s her and this human and these animals. More telling will be how she chooses to use wield influence with Littlefinger. Tonight’s battle wiped out the Stark army almost entirely; if Baelish wanted to take formal control of the North, he could. Why shouldn’t he, really? He’d be a smarter ruler than Jon.

Chris and Lenika, you’ve written a lot about anticipating the death of Ramsay. How do you feel now that it’s happened?

Christopher Orr: Regular readers of the roundtable—or occasional readers or once-ever readers, or anyone within earshot of my home following an episode over the past, say, three-plus years—will know that there may be no Game of Thrones watcher alive who has been more eager to see Ramsay Snow/Bolton erased from the show. He was a horrific character in the George R.R. Martin novels, but he existed mostly in the margins, encountered by second-hand report, like a medieval Keyser Soze. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss instead decided to make him an almost omnipresent Big Bad: stabbing, flaying, raping, emasculating, and feeding people to his dogs on a near-nightly basis. As I have catalogued at length, he has been by far the single greatest vector of the show’s grotesque—and frankly, tedious—obsession with sexual violence.

So tonight’s episode ought to have thrilled me. Factor in the fact that “Battle of the Bastards” moved the narrative forward in very significant ways—it’s been a long while since the Game of Thrones playing board has been so radically reconfigured—and I should have been utterly overjoyed.

Instead, I felt very nearly the opposite. On a straightforward entertainment level, tonight’s episode was solid, and in places genuinely thrilling. But on a “what it tells us about what the show is becoming” level, I found it rather depressing. I’m assuming that this episode was the most expensive to date: Dany on Drogon (with backup from Rhaegal and Viserion) annihilating the slaver ships; the vast and cinematic Battle of Winterfell—it felt like a particularly lucrative Father’s Day for anyone working in CGI.

But unlike past bursts of FX—Dany’s first slaver confrontation in Astapoor, the horror of Hardhome last season—in this case the spectacle felt largely devoid of surprise or urgency or emotional heft. Of course Dany and her dragons were going to defeat the slavers handily. Of course the Knights of the Vale were going to arrive just in time to save Jon and Sansa’s army. For seasons, one of the principal pleasures of Game of Thrones—arguably the principal pleasure—was its deep cunning and ability to shock us with unanticipated twists. Tonight’s episode was indisputably cinematic, but I felt as though nearly every beat advertised itself thuddingly ahead of time. This felt like a second-rate Hollywood movie (300, anyone?), rather than first-rate television. (And, yes, for those not paying attention, the latter is now much better than the former.)

When did Ramsay become a master archer, capable of toying with a victim before bringing him down at 100 yards? More ridiculous still, when did the army of House Bolton become such an impossibly disciplined and formidable fighting force, with its impenetrable turtle of shields and lances—the Unsullied of Westeros? The answer is “never.” At no point were these ideas in any way set up (and they’re certainly not true in the books). Like so much else in this episode, it felt as though Benioff and Weiss simply asked themselves “what would look cool?” and proceeded accordingly. For most TV shows, this would be a perfectly valid animating premise. But I hold Game of Thrones to a higher standard.

Which brings me to the episode’s central—arguably only—“twist.” Jon is being crushed by the inexorable shield-wall of the aforementioned Super-Boltons. We’ve been primed by his conversation with Melisandre to believe he might die again. (As if!) What could possibly happen?

Well: We knew Littlefinger had offered Sansa an extra army, and that, when she realized the Stark-friendly forces of the North were scant, she’d sent a letter requesting reinforcements. (Those who paused the shot or paid attention to others who did would have known that the letter was, as presumed, to Littlefinger.) The result was perhaps the laziest form of narrative “surprise” there is—one that makes no sense in the context of the story itself, but is intended solely for the audience. Why, after all, did Sansa never mention the Knights of the Vale to Jon—even when she was schooling him about underestimating Ramsay? Hundreds if not thousands of loyal Northerners no doubt died because she didn’t mention that heavy cavalry was on the way. There was no internal logic to her reticence whatsoever. The only explanation was external: We were supposed to think Ramsay might win before he (very quickly) lost. There have certainly been worse episodes of Game of Thrones, but when I look back years from now I suspect this may be the one where I think it fundamentally jumped the shark.

That said, Ramsay is dead, which may be the best thing that has happened on the show … ever? The Cersei-Qyburn-wildfire-theory, of which I—among many, many others—am a proponent got a significant boost.

And amid the righteous battlefield victories, there were a few nice, quieter moments. Like you, Spencer, I enjoyed the sisterhood-is-powerful tête-à-tête between Yara and Dany—especially the former’s marital acknowledgement that “I never demand, but I’m up for anything, really.” (Now that would be a dynasty, if the biology could be appropriately ensorcelled.) And there was also Tormund and Davos’s pre-battle convo, in which the former offered booze and the latter preferred to go for a walk and relieve himself. Indeed, if there’s a single line from Game of Thrones that I could see far outlasting the show itself, it might be the ginger Wildling’s closing admonition: “Happy shitting.”

I’m going to miss the roundtable next week for the first time in as long as I can remember (maybe ever?), and I hate that it will be for the season finale. But it has been, as always, a pleasure.

Lenika, what did you think? Were you as down on this episode as I was?

Lenika Cruz: While I sympathize with some of your complaints, Chris, I’m not as down on the episode as you are. Even though I found myself exactly twice saying out loud, “I hate this show so much” (when Ramsay was shooting arrows at Rickon, when Ramsay shot Wun-Wun in the eye), I still came out of “Battle of the Bastards” thinking it was an overall marvelous hour of television.

Yes, it had its flaws, the majority of which you and Spencer both touched on. To me, it seemed as if the show was shamelessly using the viciousness of Ramsay’s impending death to justify his cruelty one last time—cruelty that detracted more narratively and emotionally than it added. The message behind Ramsay hunting down Rickon or shooting Wun-Wun in the face amounted to: “Ramsay likes to play games! You should have listened to Sansa! She told you so!” Which is predictable and dumb and horrible. I’m going to have to slot those moments into my already overstuffed box of Ramsay’s Unnecessary Evils.

I understand, Chris, why you and others might later judge this episode as the one where Game of Thrones jumped the shark. The story is finally softening in its tendency to frustrate viewers’ expectations, which I know is a problem for many. But it’s also delivering some well-deserved payoff to years of emotional and narrative buildup. I’m not confident the show can pull off many iconic reversals so late in the story: If Jon had died in battle that would have been a shock, but also an enormous waste. Ramsay’s death seemed written specifically to appease fans, which I have mixed feelings about, but I’m glad it’s over with.

I’m also happy these plot movements took place in one of the most beautifully shot episodes in the history of this series. It seems like we all knew what was coming (a last-minute rescue from the Vale, if not a surprise Gandalf the White-esque surge). But, like Spencer, I was surprised by how well “Battle of the Bastards” kept me guessing, even though I suspected it was just a matter of time before the deus ex Littlefinger showed up (apologies for the endless “deus ex [something]” references this season; there really have been a lot of those).

While it’s possible Sansa (stupidly) chose to wait until the last minute to rush in with the troops from the Vale, it was more plausible that she had stowed away far from the frontlines and was simply hoping that Littlefinger would show up. I figured she didn’t mention his troops to Jon because she couldn’t be sure they’d show up in time (if at all) or that Littlefinger could be trusted. There’s also the fact that she had to go behind Jon’s back to even reach out to Baelish.

While the show gave us a surprisingly fairy-tale ending (seeing the Stark banners unfurled at Winterfell is the definition of “fairy-tale” at this point), it also masterfully wove together aesthetic and theme. “Battle of the Bastards” offered a comparison chart of the fighting styles for different characters—Jon likes to be in the thick of it, Ramsay prefers to let others do his fighting for him, and Dany offers a mixture of both (she simply climbs on her dragon, who requires nothing from her other than a bored utterance of “Dracarys” and some really good core and lower-body strength to stay mounted). But anyone watching this show for six years could understand what Tyrion meant when he said, “It always seems a bit abstract doesn’t it? Other people dying.”

The magic and agony of “Battle of the Bastards” was how visceral all that otherwise predictable dying felt. Every squelch and crunch and spray of blood came from some human body that mere moments earlier had been intact, and none of the methods people had devised to make war a little less personal changed that. The director Miguel Sapochnik, who directed the stellar “Hardhome” from season five, kept the lens trained closely on the various distancing implements of battle (those Meereenese canons, those Bolton arrows) even as they soared into the sky. The camera both luxuriated in and recoiled at the messiness, especially in the Winterfell battle: corpses that seemed at once dead and alive, mud that could have been blood and blood that could have been mud, soldiers who could have been fighting for either side (it was hard to tell with everyone moving so fast).

I recognize that in saying all this, I’m also treating other people’s deaths as an abstraction. But this confusion and feeling of helplessness had never been captured so hauntingly in a Game of Thrones battle before (unless you want to count the Red Wedding). Usually, there’s a sense of sprawl to fights (think the epic battles at the Blackwater or at The Wall in season four), but Winterfell went the opposite direction and compressed the fight into a claustrophobe’s nightmare. The sense of smallness and insignificance Jon felt in those moments being crushed by his own soldiers recalled for me how he felt when he watched an army of wights rise at Hardhome. Now that the Battle of Winterfell is over, we can move on to the more important one between, yep, the living and the dead. At the very least, it’ll be a Ramsay-free one.