‘Battle of the Bastards’
In any season of this show, arriving at episode nine is a big deal, but this year it felt that bit bigger. The combination of Jon’s resurrection, the departure from the known canon of the books, Dany’s arc coming full circle, Sansa’s ordeal last season, and the fact that this will likely be the last ‘episode nine’ the show will ever actually have (hyping ‘episode six’ next year just won’t have quite the same ring to it…) meant that this was set up to be a vital episode for the future of the show.
So, how did ‘Battle of the Bastards’ fare? Well, to me that entirely depends on each particular viewer’s agenda for the show, but that’s something I’ll touch on at the end of this review, as the point will become clearer once we talk about the plotlines themselves.
Firstly, we’ll deal with the smaller of the two arcs featured this week – Meereen. Given that the title and preview clip exclusively focused on the battle at Winterfell, many people were no doubt surprised to see the episode open away from Westeros, but it was a choice that worked well. With the battle there already under way, there was immediate momentum carrying through, and so by the time Winterfell came on screen, viewers were in the mood once more.Yet functioning unto its own plot, I felt somewhat underwhelmed by the events in Meereen this week. Just like Daenerys’ speech from episode six, it was an undoubtedly majestic, yet ultimately empty affair. Seeing the three dragons reunited and doing what they do best – burning things – was exciting, sure. But how many times is Dany’s storyline going to boil down to an extended sequence where that great sliding, screeching, musical motif of hers accompanies shots of objects and people burning? Each time it’s exciting to watch, but each time, it also loses some of its impact. I worry that her end game is going to end up being just a bigger version of that same tactic, and if that is the case I doubt I’ll be alone in feeling even more underwhelmed than I was this week.
The other section in Meereen offered evidence of the other side to Daenerys, but fell short too, as Theon and Yara turned up rather suddenly. By which I don’t mean to say their arrival wasn’t expected, but rather that we completely skipped the part where, after repelling a fleet of ships attacking the city, there isn’t a second confrontation when another fleet of ships turns up, baring the banner of a faction with whom you’re not yet allied, and who by default are actually enemies of your family.
The discussion itself seemed to just take the easiest route to cementing this new alliance. Having these four characters coming from entirely different backgrounds should have made for better dialogue than it did. Yet instead, Yara ceded the entire culture of the Iron Islands after the briefest of arguments, and in turn, Dany ceded the fact that she sees all of the Seven Kingdoms as her birthright, including the Iron Islands. Perhaps this all signifies an ending where Westeros returns to be numerous independent kingdoms, with Dany as some sort of figurehead, but until that point I’m calling it a bad development.Which brings us to the central events of the episode, the eponymous ‘Battle of the Bastards’. The focus on tactics and details from the build-up in previous episodes continued into the first scenes of this week, with Jon laying out a plan of action that, even if it didn’t seem particularly convincing, was still a plan. Sansa was right in suggesting she had knowledge of Ramsay that the others didn’t, but why didn’t she just air them, instead of waiting and then complaining to Jon that she wasn’t asked? Her departure from the parley between the two factions, and her concealment of Littlefinger’s potential involvement in previous weeks, both showed she was unafraid to make decisions if she thought they were the right options, yet she withheld her information until the planning of the battle was over. That’s not really the character making a mistake, it’s just inconsistent writing.
But, in any case, tactics was at the core of the battle, even if Tormund had absolutely no idea what those tactics really were. That is, until Rickon was killed off in a way that was so clichéd that it seemed almost meta, as if the writers were aware of how stupid it was, and went ahead with it anyway. There had been speculation prior to the episode of Rickon being one of the burning, flayed corpses displayed between the two armies, but instead, the writers went with the old ‘dramatic escape fails at the last second’ trope.
Rickon’s death was gutting despite the silliness, even if the writing did nothing to earn that sadness, exploiting the excitement of his return to the show just to illicit an emotional connection with the audience. But it was exactly as Sansa had expected, given his significance of being a trueborn, male Stark, and so I had every expectation that Jon would return to the army, and the battle would begin, albeit with the added emotional kick of the death.Instead, things got even worse. Jon charged forward on foot against the oncoming Bolton cavalry. Had he died, it would have been a tragic departure, but fitting of the mad rage that had consumed him at that point. And he should have died. But he didn’t, and at that moment, a lot of the tension left the episode. The term plot-armour gets used a lot to describe points where important characters survive events that they otherwise wouldn’t if they didn’t matter to the material. Can anyone truly say it made sense for Jon to survive that sequence? He had two horseback forces converging on him. Surviving the first charge was bad enough, but then he somehow fought through the next few minutes of people all around being cut down by horses, stabbed from all directions or struck by arrows.
It was devastatingly effective visually, and I should point out that the saving grace of this episode for me was the fantastic physical direction by Miguel Sapochnik, working with what he was given. But Jon should have died. He should have died again a few more times during the episode – the circle tactic that trapped their force, being crushed to death, having incredible reflexes to block an arrow – but he survived. The piles of bodies and the scenes of unrelenting loss of life are shocking and difficult to watch, but ultimately, they are completely irrelevant if the main characters come out unscathed.People will point to Rickon and Wun Wun and say that some of the heroes did die. But Rickon wasn’t a casualty of the battle, he was a casualty of being captured episodes back, and seeing as there was sadly no conspiracy behind the scenes to aid him in Winterfell as some of us had hoped or suspected, he was dead from that moment onwards. Wun Wun dying was sad, but there has never been any established logic to his strength, and thus his survival. He survived Hardhome, he survived the circular Phalanx trap (I’m sure there’s a proper name for it), and it feels a lot like he only didn’t survive here because the plot necessitated that someone should die. Meanwhile alongside Jon, Tormund and Davos both survived, despite Tormund being stabbed by a spear, something which killed all the other redshirts, and Davos joining the fray late, and thus logically being on the outer layer of the trapped forces, and thus most in danger.
And then of course, we had the twist that was telegraphed so obviously that it wasn’t really a twist in Littlefinger arriving to save the day. And we were back to the same development that happened at the end of ‘Blackwater’, that happened at the end of ‘Watchers on the Wall’, and, if you count Drogon as an army in impact, that happened at the end of ‘The Dance of Dragons’. Things are looking bleak. Suddenly, an army appears and saves the day. The director M. Night Shyamalan gets a lot of criticism for his use of ‘twists’, and it feels like Thrones is starting to fall into that same pattern with this episode.
Am I focusing too much on the detail? No, because that’s what the show tried to do. It made a point of the need for more men, and the way the battle would be fought. If the battle had been framed like Stannis’ on this very same field last season – more emotive, less tactical – then this week would have worked. But instead, we got a theatre of death where somehow the heroes survived and we’re meant to cheer. And I’m sure a lot of people did.Which brings us to my earlier point concerning what the viewers want, and the ending with Sansa and Ramsay. The ending of course saw Sansa get retribution, walking away to the exact same musical motif that played during the rape scene last year, as his own dogs tore him apart. It was logical for him to die at that point, but look how much they had to twist realism to get there. For fans of the Starks, it was a cathartic moment as much as it was for Sansa, but it was also the culmination of the show preferring objective morality and fan service over realistic development. The show and the books are not a matter of good versus evil. This isn’t about watching the Starks prevail against any and all odds. The show at its core is exploring numerous ‘grey’ characters – Cersei, Jaime, Tyrion, Sandor, Dany and on and on – and making us question our empathy with them at any given moment. It’s not about one heroic force ‘winning’ irrespective of logic. Except, that was exactly what this episode was about.
As stated above, the only thing that stops this episode getting a poorer rating is the technical feats it accomplishes, and the fact that, working within nonsensical writing, the cast portrayed the emotions and motivations their characters were meant to have well. But it’s overall a very disappointing episode of the show.