otIn a glorious triumph of cinematic television, “Battle of the Bastards” gave us a rare victory for the “good guys”—the Starks and, for the time being, Daenerys Targaryen. While the audience has a clear rooting interest in the Starks, Daenerys is more of a wild card these days. For now, we can applaud her victory. However, I wonder if by the end of the series this is the moment we look back on to mark the start of a tyrant’s campaign to brutally conquer the Seven Kingdoms. Only time will tell if Tyrion can continue to smooth out her fire-and-brimstone, “return their cities to the dirt” edges.
In the eponymous battle, the Starks unseat the nasty Boltons and reclaim supremacy in the North. Before he is mauled by his own dogs, Sansa reminds Ramsay, “Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” Will Daenerys be delivering that same speech to Sansa in a season or two? What will conquering the Seven Kingdoms look like for the dragon queen? Tyrion looks horrified when she promises to raze cities in Slaver’s Bay and unsure when she grants the Greyjoys their independence. It felt so great to see the Stark banners unfurled over the walls of Winterfell once again, but how long can these fleeting moments of triumph last with dragons looming on the horizon?
The first battle of the episode occurs across the Narrow Sea in Meereen, where Daenerys’s forces were left under siege at the end of the last episode. The alliance of slavemasters came to destroy the peace Tyrion negotiated in the Dragon Queen’s stead and conquer her once and for all.
At first, Daenerys seems displeased with her trusted adviser. Tyrion defends himself well, negotiating out from under her suspicion with his characteristically deft touch. Daenerys wants to slaughter everyone (“I will crucify the Masters, I will set their fleets afire, kill every last one of their soldiers, and return their cities to the dirt.”), much to Tyrion’s horror. He reminds her (and us*) that her father once took a similar tack with his own people, retelling the story we heard from Jaime in Season 3: “You know his plans for King’s Landing when the Lannister armies were at his gates? …He had caches of wildfire hidden under the Red Keep, the Guildhalls, the Sept of Baelor, all the major thoroughfares. He would have burned every one of his citizens, the loyal ones and the traitors, every man, woman, and child.” He implores Daenerys not to be like her father, and she listens (for now); the lesson appears to stick. Later in the episode, she says, “Our fathers were evil men. All of us here. They left the world worse than they found it. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to leave the world better than when we found it.”
* I say “and us” because I believe the show is setting us up for something similar to happen in the final episode. Unfortunately, the TV show can be predictable because it needs to remind us of stray conversations that happened seasons ago before they once again become relevant. As I wrote about with Episode 6, Bran’s visions of exploding green wildfire in an underground chamber may have been a vision of the future, not the past. Here, Tyrion reminds us that, thanks to Daenerys’s crazy father, there is undetonated wildfire beneath King’s Landing. He even specifically calls out the fact that there might be explosive material beneath the Great Sept, which is where Cersei and Loras are scheduled to stand trial next episode. Last week, Qyburn mentioned to Cersei that a “rumor” had been proven true, and I hypothesized that this rumor was the existence of the Targaryen’s wildfire beneath certain landmarks in the city. We’ll have to wait and see what this means for Cersei, the Lannisters, and King’s Landing, but I think it’s safe to say that wildfire is going to be important in the coming finale.
Tyrion suggests that Daenerys try a different approach with her invaders, and they meet to discuss the terms of surrender. With the city continuing to be shelled in the background, the alliance of masters negotiate with Daenerys and her advisors. At first, they assume that it is she who is surrendering—a bold assumption with dragons about. The only explanation for their stupidity is that dragons have been extinct for over a century and the masters attribute tales of their past greatness to the stuff of legends and fairy tales. However, when Drogon appears larger than we’ve ever seen him, their mistake is evident.
Daenerys rides Drogon herself while Rhaegal and Viscerion finally bust out of the Great Pyramid to join her side. She treats them to a live demonstration of the awesome power of her dragons, using them to focus all of their roasting power on one ship—a bit of overkill at first, until you realize she wants to take the rest of the fleet under her command.
At the same time, Daenerys’s new cavalry, made up of the Dothraki and led by Daario, approach Meereen by land to attack the Sons of the Harpy (the golden-mask-wearing insurgency supported by the slave masters).
With the sight of dragons as the backdrop, Tyrion steps forward to offer the terms of the masters’ surrender. Their ships will be commandeered and one of the three masters must die for their disobedience. Two of the masters push forward the third, citing his low birth as cause for his selection (“He’s not one of us. He’s an outsider, lowborn. He does not speak for us.”). When Grey Worm steps forward to kill him, he instead slices the other two in one motion. The masters did not understand that they were pleading with the “outsiders,” the “lowborns,” and would gain no sympathy by begging for their lives as nobility.
(It is scary to think what this same discussion will look like if/when Daenerys finally invades Westeros. When it is Jon, Sansa, and Davos standing in negotiation with the Dragon Queen, will she slit the throats of the two Starks and leave Davos, the upstart, standing? Perhaps it’s a reach, but not impossible to consider, which is why I’ve stopped unanimously cheering Daenerys’s victories. Though, still, it’s hard to ignore: dragons are so cool.)
Tyrion still wants news of her victories to spread through Slaver’s Bay, so he tells the lone master to “Tell your people what happened here… Remind them what happened when Daenerys Stormborn and her dragons came to Meereen.” This man was the same trader who purchased Tyrion as a slave in Season 5, who now is forced to his knees before him. “I’m a great fighter,” Tyrion promised the slave master before the sale, and before getting smacked in the head for his insolence. Tyrion fulfilled his promise and outfought the masters. On his knees, the master is now the same height as Tyrion. He does not need to slap the slave master to show his power over him; the Imp only needs to rest his hand on the master’s shoulder.
After the victory, Daenerys meets with Theon and Yara Greyjoy, who have made good time in sailing to Meereen. They offer her 100 ships in exchange for her support in their fight against their uncle’s uprising in the Iron Islands and their independence. Tyrion is hesitant to endorse this deal, remembering how Theon once treated him at Winterfell and the Greyjoy’s supposed murder of the two Stark boys. Theon denies this crime, though admits he probably committed far worse and has already paid for them. He once again throws his support behind his sister, denying any claim for the throne.
Daenerys is clearly intrigued by the idea that Yara would be the first queen of the Iron Islands, just as she would be the first queen of Westeros. She agrees to the deal as long as the Greyjoys give up “reaving, roving, raiding, and raping” (their “way of life,” as Yara proclaims). Yara accepts the deal, and breaks off the Iron Islands as an independent kingdom. Tyrion worries aloud that all the remaining kingdoms might follow suit and demand independence, but Daenerys replies, “She’s not demanding, she’s asking. The others are free to ask as well.”
The other major battle of this episode occurs in the North: the Second Battle of Winterfell. Before fighting begins, the Stark camp meets with the Boltons and their allies, the Umbers and the Karstarks. Ramsay offers to pardon Jon for betraying his vow to the Night’s Watch, for which the usual punishment is death. He asks for their pitiful army to surrender, and for “Sansa Bolton” to return to their marriage bed. He makes much use of the word “bastard” in referring to Jon Snow, acting mighty proud for a bastard who had only been legitimized by his own father. Jon challenges Ramsay to a one-on-one battle, then mocks him for refusing. “Will your men want to fight for you when they hear you wouldn’t fight for them?”
Later, after Jon, Tormund, and Davos discuss the battle plan without consulting an onlooking Sansa, she grills her half-brother about the strategy. She criticizes him for not listening to her when she said they needed more men and for not asking her insight in dealing with Ramsay—a man whose personality she knows intimately. “You think he’s going to fall into your trap. He won’t. He’s the one who lays traps,” she tells him, warning Jon not to fall for it—whatever it may be.
She predicts that it may have something to do with Rickon, the unfortunate victim of this game they’re about to play. Sadly, she knows that her youngest brother is doomed, since between a daughter (Sansa) and a bastard (Jon), the trueborn Rickon’s claim to Winterfell is the strongest of all of them. Therefore, he is the biggest threat to Ramsay’s leadership at Winterfell and in the North. With a voice that sounds oddly like Littlefinger, Sansa coldly calculates that her brother will not survive this battle, and that they therefore cannot act with emotion, which Jon seems unwilling (and later, unable) to do.
In the moment, Jon is unconvinced, understanding himself to be the battle-worn commander that Sansa is not, but he at least promises to protect her from harm. “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone,” Sansa replies. This calls back to her earlier conversation with Littlefinger when she said, “You said you would protect me. I don’t believe you anymore. I don’t need you anymore, you can’t protect me.”
Up until now, Sansa has needed a lot of protecting throughout the series. As the eldest daughter of Ned Stark, she’s worn a target on her back since the start. First, it was the Hound who protected her from most of Joffrey’s cruelties and saved her from a certain rape during a peasants’ revolt in King’s Landing. Then, it was Tyrion who shielded her from the worst of his family’s abuses. Littlefinger saved her from King’s Landing when she was pursued for King Joffrey’s murder and groomed her to exert more agency over her life. Only then, he sold her off to Ramsay Bolton, a rapist and a torturer worse than just about anyone in Westeros. Theon helped her over the castle walls and away from Ramsay, and Brienne rescued her from the Boltons’ pursuit.
Since the time when she accepted Brienne’s pledge of service, Sansa has finally shown that she has learned to not only protect herself, but to trust no one above herself. She is determined not to end up back in Ramsay’s clutches, but can no longer trust others to keep her safe. She must act with agency rather than react when things go wrong, or rely on others to save her when they do, as she has long done. When she leaves the tent, it is clear that she does not intend to let Jon fail to reclaim Winterfell, even if he won’t heed her warnings. She just has to hope that Littlefinger’s troops show up on time…
Off-screen, she meets with a well-timed Littlefinger and his army, the man she swore off at the beginning of this season, knowing that the armies he controls are worth the political cost she trades to get them—for now, at least. That raven she prepared a couple of episodes ago was indeed destined for her former mentor and Ramsay’s rapist-enabler, a man who she realizes may be more her enemy than her friend. However, she learned from Littlefinger himself that “the time may come when you need an army loyal to you,” that she cannot simply wait for her brother to save her from Ramsay and reclaim Winterfell. Only she can protect herself by making her own deals. When the Blackfish and his Tully forces don’t pan out, she can only turn back to Littlefinger and the knights of the Vale to fight for her.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, Jon should have taken Sansa more seriously. The man formerly known as “You Know Nothing Jon Snow” shows his inexperience as he leads his undermanned army into a battle they cannot win on terms that he does not set. In preparing for battle, Davos said, “It’s crucial that we let them charge at us. They’ve got the numbers, we need the patience.” But Jon lets emotion get the better of him as Ramsay plays a sadistic game with his youngest half-brother and throws all of their plans out the window. When Rickon is killed in the open field between their two forces, Jon brazenly decides to charge Ramsay’s lines in a heated reprisal, rising precisely to Ramsay’s bait, as Sansa warned him not to do.
Davos sends the troops on to assist him when Jon’s intentions become clear, and what ensues is a horrifying mess of men and horses meeting in the mud of the battlefield. In a taut and gripping sequence, we follow Jon as he bravely, but futilely, fights through the larger army of Bolton men. Eventually, Jon’s dwindling forces are surrounded with a pincer formation—exactly what Davos warned must never happen. The giant Wun Wun and other wildlings try to break through the shields closing in on them, but are unsuccessful in breaking the line.
The only way out of this disaster is over a pile of dead and writhing bodies, which Jon is fighting upon. Tormund, seeing no other way out, orders his men over the hill. In the stampede of bodies trying to mount the hill of bodies Smalljon Umber defends, Jon Snow is knocked over and nearly trampled to death. It is a harrowing sequence that left me feeling suffocated, as well, until Jon is able to finally rise in the crunch of bodies—living and dead—to realize his failure in retaking his father’s ancestral home.
In the moment of his failure, a horn calls out in the distance. As predicted, Sansa rides in with Littlefinger at her side, leading the massive army of the Vale to her brother’s aid. These Arryn forces are some of the best in the land who, up until now, have remained neutral throughout the War of the Five Kings. Sansa makes a deal with Littlefinger to bring them out of semi-retirement and lead the charge on the Bolton forces.
The mounted knights cut through the Bolton ground forces like “piss through snow,” to borrow Tormund’s phrase. In the distraction of this turn of events, Tormund removes Smalljon Umber’s throat with his teeth, then joins Wun Wun and Jon in pursuit of the retreating Bolton forces.
Ramsay hides behind the walls of Winterfell, daring the Stark army to lay a siege on the castle. However, the giant has other ideas, and knocks through the gates of the castle with ease. It ends up being his last fight for the cause of the wildling people, as Ramsay puts a final arrow through his eye just as Jon was regarding him with appreciation for his sacrifice; the giant’s body, filled with arrows, falling to the ground.
With his forces in the castle, Jon approaches Ramsay to finish the invasion. Ramsay agrees at last to a head-to-head combat, shooting at Jon with his bow. Jon uses a Mormont shield to block the arrows, then beats Ramsay to the brink of death. When he notices Sansa looking on, Jon stops, knowing that, after all Ramsay did to her, it is her death to deal.
We cheered when the Stark banners were once more unfurled along the ramparts of Winterfell. (Will they finally return to the opening sequence, where the Flayed Man of the Boltons has appeared for so long? Make sure to pay attention next week.) Jon orders Rickon’s body to be buried in the crypts of Winterfell, the last of the Starks to be murdered by the usurping Boltons.
Sansa asks Jon where he is holding Ramsay prisoner, then meets him outside the cell. It’s not clear to me whether Jon put him in the cage with the dogs, or if Sansa had him moved there, but at least Sansa gets to be there in his final moments. She tells him that he will die by his own hounds, whom he starved for this very purpose, not guessing that they would be used on himself. He assumes that they will be loyal to him despite their hunger, but as a symbol of his own disloyal house, the dogs consume him easily (and savagely) when given the opportunity.
As Sansa informs him before his death, “Your words will disappear. Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” The Boltons are, at long last, put down like the feral beast they became, as Ramsay’s own father warned would happen (“If you acquire the reputation of a mad dog, you’ll be treated as a mad dog: taken out back and slaughtered for pig feed.”).
Before dying, Ramsay tells Sansa that she’ll never be able to escape him, since he will always be a part of her. He’s right; she’ll never be able to outrun the abuse she suffered at his hands, but she survived it and ended it on her own terms. She made a deal with Littlefinger not only to reclaim her ancestral home, but to defeat Ramsay. She took control and helped win the battle, then got to smile as she turned Ramsay’s own instruments of terror against him. Long may she live, the Queen of the North.
Sansa kicking ass, Starks back in Winterfell, and Ramsay Bolton mauled to death at long last—but how long can these good feelings last? Knowing Game of Thrones, it may be brief. Back in Season 3, Ros (remember her?) warned Sansa’s handmaiden, Shae (and her?), to “watch out for her with [Littlefinger].”
When later Shae asked Sansa what Littlefinger’s motives were to save her from King’s Landing, the younger, more naïve girl claimed, “He didn’t want anything, he just takes an interest because he loved my mother.”
“Men only want one thing from a pretty girl… ‘Love’ is not the thing he wants,” Shae replied. At the time, she offered to protect Sansa if Littlefinger tried to get her to do anything in return for his favors.
Now, it’s unclear if Littlefinger will want something from her in return for his assistance at Winterfell. It’s unclear what Littlefinger’s true motives are: does he help Sansa out of penance for his part in orchestrating her marriage to Ramsay, as he claims, or does he hope for something more, like his own marriage to Sansa? Of all the men in Westeros, Littlefinger is someone to watch out for, since he has manipulated so many people and events over the course of the series. Sansa had to make this deal to save Jon from an almost certain defeat and reclaim her home, but at what cost?
In Season 3, Varys warned Lady Olenna about Littlefinger and his desires for Sansa. Back then, he recognized that Sansa could play a part in Littlefinger’s scheming. “Littlefinger was born with no lands, no wealth, no armies. He has acquired the first two. How long before he has the army?” he said then. Clearly, as of this episode, Littlefinger has that army. He has it all.
Varys continued, “Littlefinger is one of the most dangerous men in Westeros. If Robb Stark falls, Sansa Stark is the key to the North.” Lady Olenna added, “And if Littlefinger marries her, he’ll have the key in his pocket.” So, it may just be that his intentions with Sansa have been foretold by Varys all along. “[Littlefinger] would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes.”
Also looming on the horizon is Davos’s slow realization that everything is not as it seems with Melisandre and his young friend, Shireen Baratheon’s, death. When Melisandre returned to Castle Black after the disasterous First Battle of Winterfell, Jon Snow asked about Stannis, but Davos asked about Shireen. Melisandre said nothing, but her sad expression said enough to tell him that Shireen had perished alongside her father.
Up until now, he had no cause to suspect that Melisandre played any part in the young girl’s death—that is, until he finds the carved figure of a stag he had once given her among the logs of a pyre. In Melisandre’s world, Davos understands that that can only mean one thing. As he realizes that Shireen was sacrificed, he now looks on Melisandre with renewed suspicion and hatred. The Red Priestess has proven that she can protect others from death, but can she protect herself?
Other Thoughts on “Battle of the Bastards”:
- This episode was directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who also directed last season’s awesome, battle-heavy episode, “Hardhome.” I thought he did an amazing job again, capturing the mayhem and gruesome realities of medieval-style warfare. He’s slated to direct the finale for next week, which I think can only mean more winning action sequences.
- Many assumed that when Tyrion removed Rhaegal and Viscerion’s chains earlier this season, that meant they were then freed from beneath the Great Pyramid. This was clearly disproved in this episode, as we see them busting through stone walls to get to their mother. After being in captivity for so long, they are significantly smaller than Drogon.
- Up until the very last moment, I, along with others, stubbornly clung to the theory that Smalljon Umber was only pretending to align with Ramsay. Back in Episode 3, I hypothesized that Smalljon presented the severed head of a wolf as a ruse and refused to bend the knee because he actually believed in the gesture’s binding nature. I figured that this once great and loyal ally of the Starks was infiltrating Ramsay’s camp, hoping to take it down from the inside. It seemed almost immediately backed by Osha’s attempt to kill Ramsay with his carving knife. However, as I complained about last week, the show seems much less willing to do behind-the-scenes scheming and subterfuge. Everything is pretty straightforward. What you see is what you get. Still, I held out hope even when his forces surrounded Jon’s army in the pincer movement. I thought maybe they’d then turn and advance on Ramsay. Wouldn’t that have been a surprising development? Maybe they would’ve still needed Sansa, but her acquisition of the Arryn troops was so much more predictable and didn’t pack a true revelatory punch when the first horn blew. It would’ve been fun to have something more surprising happen to help change the course of events.
- I guess the surprising thing was just how bad Jon was as a commander in this battle. He rushes the attack before they have enough troops, he rushes the charge when Davos instructed him to draw Ramsay’s troops out, he falls for Ramsay’s bait despite Sansa’s warnings, he needs Davos to rally his men (he does little, if any, of it), he nearly gets trampled to death, and then he needs Sansa and the Vale’s troops to bail him out. When they’re planning the battle, they decide that they want to force Ramsay to charge, but Jon lets Ramsay do that to him, instead. We knew he wouldn’t be the same after his death and resurrection, but this is hardly the man we hope he’ll be as the forces of the Night’s King amass north of the Wall, ready to attack the lands of the living. He’s got to improve, and fast, if men are to stand any chance against the White Walkers and their zombie army. Luckily, he still does a pretty bang-up job clocking Ramsay Snow.
- This is not Game of Thrones’s first use of the saved-in-the-nick-of-time trope, and the cliché is a little more than well-worn by this point. I cheered just like any warm-blooded person when Sansa showed up with the glittering knights of the Vale, but I still wish they could have been introduced in a less predictable fashion. It happened first in the Battle of the Blackwater, when Loras Tyrell and his army aided the Lannisters against Stannis Baratheon at the last minute. Then, Stannis himself rode in and saved the day for the Night’s Watch just when it seemed like they’d been defeated by Mance Rayder and his wildling army. On a smaller scale, Brienne and Pod showed up just as Sansa and Theon were about to be recaptured or killed by Ramsay’s men earlier this season. Don’t get me wrong, I love that Sansa saves the day. But, it was just an observation that disappointed me a little.
- Why did Sansa keep Littlefinger’s forces a secret? My guess is that she wasn’t sure that they’d show up in time, or at all, and didn’t want to be wrong. However, this doesn’t explain why she wouldn’t at least tell Jon that she wrote a letter for the knights of the Vale. For this reason, I also think that Littlefinger’s warning that she should have an army of her own has been reverberating in her head. If you want to get more suspicious, it could be that Sansa wanted to deal the winning hand in reclaiming Winterfell, giving herself a stronger claim to the head of the house, but that seems unlikely to me (too much of a risk).
- The horses in this episode were absolutely spectacular. According to the production notes, 70 horses were used to shoot an expansive cavalry charge. Normally, you only get to see a couple horses digitally reproduced. The difference was clear and astonishing, especially for a television show. For this and many other reasons, this battle sequence was simply stunning.
- Rickon should have been running in a zig-zagged line. He left Winterfell a very green child, so perhaps—unlike his siblings—he never quite grew up and truly didn’t know better. But still, poor Rickon.
- After Leaf was killed in Episode 5, we wondered if that meant the Children of the Forest were extinct. Now that poor Wun Wun is dead, have the giants become the latest of Westeros’s legendary species to go extinct? Jon looks at Wun Wun with a mixture of gratitude and awe right before he dies, perhaps knowing that he is seeing the last of his kind.
- Where was Jon’s direwolf, Ghost? It would’ve been great to see him fighting alongside Jon in battle. He also might have proven to be a great selling point in their quest to convince the small houses to join them in battle—or, at least, a great motivator for anyone who denied the Starks their forces (looking at you, House Glover).
- Who is the head of House Stark? As Sansa points out, the claim of “a bastard [Jon], or me, a girl” is tenuous at best. With Rickon dead, that leaves Bran as the next in line. However, Bran was last seen north of the Wall and his whereabouts are unknown. For all they know, he may be dead. I’m hoping that, like in the Iron Islands, they find cause to make Sansa the first lady of her house. However, this is just the kind of power vacuum that Littlefinger loves…
- I wanted so much more of this…
- If you needed a cathartic, continuous loop of Jon beating the hell out of Ramsay, one of TV’s worst-ever villains, here you go.
- Anyone else notice a little flirtation between Yara and Daenerys? In the TV show, Yara was recently portrayed as a lesbian (or, at least, bisexual)– though, in the books she is straight. In the books, however, Daenerys is bisexual. In any case, their pairing is unlikely, but not impossible.
- Shoutout to the headless horseman.
- As many people have pointed out online, the similarities between these two shots are interesting. Many have long assumed that the parallels of A Song of Ice and Fire are physically represented in Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. This seems to be yet another example of it.
- That, my friends, was one fun and fantastic hour of television. It was more cinematic than anything I’ve ever seen on TV, topping last year’s “Hardhome.” If the show doesn’t win all the Emmys for it, I’ll be disappointed.