Published on June 23rd, 2016 | by Bean0
Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 9 – “Battle of the Bastards”
WARNING! MASSIVE SPOILERS!!
If tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones teaches us nothing else, it’s that leadership must be earned if it is to benefit anyone but the leader. Who the head of the Seven Kingdoms will ultimately turn out to be may still be up for grabs, but at the crux of both conflicts in “Battle of the Bastards” is a fight for change to the accepted order of things. The conventions of the known world of Game of Thrones are past their sell-by and no longer serve even those in power, let alone the populace they are entrusted to rule and protect. And so we see a shift from medieval patriarchy toward something more all-encompassing, and the women with power begin to really utilise their force to bring about reformation and rebirth.
“Battle of the Bastards” begins with a fight the goodies are likely to win. With the return of Danearys and her beautiful dragons, the fleet laying siege upon Meereen stand little chance of victory in their puny wooden boats. However, the imperious, ruthless quality at the heart of the Targaryen nature that Danearys displays as she condemns cities to ruin must be acknowledged, contextualised and redirected if it is to be of use, and if she is to be any better at ruling than her father, The Mad King. As Tyrion points out the similarity – “We’re talking about destroying cities – it’s not entirely different” – Daenerys is visibly chastened, but it isn’t a moment that weakens her, but which stabilises and reinforces her growth as a ruler.
There is much that Daenerys and Tyrion can find in common regarding their offending fathers. Wether they grew up under the oppressive presence of them, as Tyrion did, or never knew them at all but live with their legacy, as Daenerys does, they must both overthrow the shadows of their dominion and act differently.
Their paths may wend a new way of course, as the difference is that Aerys was mad and his Hand was the massively untrustworthy Tywin Lannister; Danearys wishes to ultimately be a beneficent leader and she can trust the advice of Tyrion. He is as different from his father as she is her own. He once equated himself to a bastard in an early conversation with Jon Snow. His status as fugitive, and the person who ended his father’s command and life, sets him apart from the rest of his family, or any Lannister before him. As he says, “No-one needs a ruler”, and you can sense the echoes of this as he grows into his own man. The way in which Daenerys deals with the siege at Meereen with Tyrion’s guidance therefore ends up a show of immense force restrained. She makes examples, but is ultimately merciful to the masses.
The ‘bastard’ as underdog or outlier becomes the notion that bind the two stories Game of Thrones chooses to focus on in “Battle of the Bastards”. As Yara points out in her flirtatious and effective meeting with the Mother of Dragons, both of them would be the first women in history to rule their respective realms. But there must be change. The patriarchy which supported or allowed violent oppression of it’s subjects and constant clashes with neighbouring lands will be replaced by a new way, something better. As Yara allies with Daenerys and commits to ending the reaving custom of her people, she becomes her own and most regal self, someone with something bigger and better to believe in than the repellent habits of her forefathers.
As the two sides of the battle for Winterfell meet for the first time we watch as each tries to get the measure of their opponent. Twice Ramsay calls Jon ‘bastard’, seemingly setting himself apart in the flush of anger Jon’s calling him out in one-to-one combat causes. Jon and Ramsey may both be bastards, but the similarities begin and end there. Jon has had leadership thrust upon him, from beyond the grave, while Ramsey stole his post with intimidation and brutality, murdering his father, step mother and baby brother. At their meet, each is playing with the other, or trying to, but it is Sansa who makes the definitive statement of intent. “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.” There is such steel in Sansa, real distance from the marionette child she once was, that her words feel like prophecies. Which becomes concerning once we see inside the full workings of her mind – she has solemnly written off her brother’s life and states that “No-one can protect me. No-one can protect anyone.” It isn’t callous cynicism, it is hard-won, bitter realism, and it is chilling.
“Battle of the Bastards” makes interesting investigations into the different way men and women deal with war and threat. Tormund and Daavos reveal their respective methods of preparation (passing out from too much sour goat’s milk vs thinking/walking/shitting), while Jon learns from his argument with Sansa and seeks the counsel of another woman, the Red Witch Melisandre. Both parties are struggling with doubt and facing the unknown. When Jon asks what sort of god would resurrect him only to die again in a more brutal fashion, she replies “the one we’ve got”, echoing his stance with Sansa that their forces are “.. not enough – it’s what we have.” In the face of overwhelming odds and an uncertain fate, you make do with what you’ve got and get on with it.
Meanwhile, aside from Melisandre who claims to ‘have no power’, the women of Game of Thrones deal with threat by consolidating their force, making alliances, taking measured action, and plotting or wreaking cold vengeance upon their enemies. Daenerys, Yara and Sansa all calculate their odds and weigh the bargains they make. It is Sansa’s decisive (and dangerous) action of enlisting Littlefinger’s help turns the tide at Winterfell, after the Battle of the Bastards threatens to be lost to the unrighteous Bolton forces.
And what a battle! Game of Thrones’ production values have always been impeccable, but this episode rises above even it’s own lofty standards. As the horse-guard charge upon the lone figure of Jon Snow, it’s easy to imagine the whole thing is CG. In fact, 80 very real galloping horses are heading down on Kit Harington in this scene and the actor’s adrenaline is palpable, making the entire experience thrilling. The spectacle of the conflict is constantly breathtaking, but again and again the show relies upon the emotional core of each scene or encounter to be what really packs the punch.
Rickon’s fate, a horrible foregone conclusion at this point, still manages to be immensely distressing and tragic. This is quite a feat for a character sidelined or missing from most of the narrative arc of Game of Thrones. Certainly, he is a Stark, a name which garners affection, but Art Parkinson brings a subtle determination to his brief scene that makes his terrible ending all the more agonising. It has the desired effect, and Jon falls into Ramsey’s traps one after another, taking his men with him.
The dichotomy of planned tactics and the randomness of war becomes the fulcrum for ensuing events. Ramsey has a superior strategy and more men, but in the melee there is brutal slaughter on both sides. As the weight of Bolton numbers begins to depress Jon’s forces, they are forced to the edge of their fear, first fighting back against the encroaching circle of shields, spears and faceless opponents, then fleeing to the awful higher ground of the mound of dead soldiers that lies at their back.
Everybody suffers damage – Wun Wun is too big a target to remain unscathed though his size borrows him time before he finally falls at Ramsay’s hand, Tormund manages to break the shield rank but takes a sword wound in the effort, and the losses to Jon’s side are devastating. As Jon’s rage and momentum fail, he is caught in his men’s dreadful flight and the sequence as he is trampled, crushed and buried is harrowing. For one interminable minute of screentime, it seems our resurrected hero has been brought back from the dead to fulfil nothing so much as be massacred by his own men. Again. In the actor’s own words, it is a moment of giving up, just as his heaving breath and resurfacing among the crush of bodies is another kind of rebirth for the character.
And into this frey, as Jon and Daavos exchange despairing glances, comes Littlefinger! Always one for the trick up his sleeve, it seems the puppet master extraordinaire was successful in his bid to keep ties with Sansa at their last meeting. There will obviously be a price to pay for this rescue, and Sansa will surely not be blind to it, but for now the trumpets of the cavalry ring out, and our heroes are saved. Baelish’s smugness is only rivalled by Sansa’s look of calm certainty that finally justice can be done to the man who caused her and her loved ones so much anguish.
First though, Jon must earn his leadership role, and Game of Thrones does not shy from showing how gruelling and dehumanising this transition can be. Jon’s face as he spies the retreating Ramsay is feral, blazing with the mad light of monomania. At the last, they go toe to toe, and Jon’s grief outweighs Ramsay’s capacity to bully and torture. The vicious beating that ensues shows Jon pushed over the edge, and he pulverises Ramsay to within an inch of his life. The moment that halts Jon is seeing Sansa, the one who truly deserves the dubious honour of finishing this wretch’s reign of terror.
The final scene displays just how far Sansa has evolved. She is calm, barely moved by the brutality of what is about to happen. There is even the merest hint of pleasure at the irony of his demise, as she lingers long enough to watch the deed done. She is now beyond victimhood, his words and actions will no longer haunt her, the abuser is vanquished once and for all. Her experiences have changed her irreparably, and what she makes of these new facets to her character in this new world will remain to be seen, but I no longer fear for Sansa, and that is no small thing.
Review by Nina Clark
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