If there’s one over-riding feeling from ‘Battle of the Bastards’, it’s inevitability.
The battle had to happen, not only because the Starks wanted to reclaim Winterfell and the North, and not only because Ramsay Bolton was holding Rickon hostage and threatening more desecration of the Stark family. It had to happen because narrative momentum was craving a cathartic release of tension.
We must be careful what we wish for.
Last week Game of Thrones failed to give us our sacrifices. No siege, no death of a major antagonist, no death of a main character. They kept deaths offstage and let us know that the real story was happening elsewhere, the real meaning to the show was not in who lives or dies, but what they live for.
Tyrion effectively reminds Daenerys of this in their interludes this episode, but the point is overwhelmingly hammered home by the aforementioned inevitable battle. When Jon confers with Sansa about their battle strategy he knows she’s right that they could have planned differently, but the battle still has to come now. But why?
If Rickon is as good as dead, why attack the Boltons? If Sansa knows Littlefinger is on his way, why not wait for them? If the real battle is against the Night King, as Davos said last week, then why waste lives taking back Winterfell?
The motivation for this battle isn’t really clear, except in the audience’s minds. We hate Ramsay, with good reason, and we want him dead. We are attached to Winterfell as our axis mundi for Westeros, and we crave a return. But our emotions deceive us. Marching on Winterfell now is just a larger scale version of Sandor Clegane taking an axe to rogue Brotherhood men last week. It might feel satisfying at the time, but what does it get us? As Tyrion says to Daenerys:
‘It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying?’
The story demands we march, so we march. Outnumbered and out-manoeuvred, Jon exemplifies our folly when he falls for Ramsay’s trap and wades into certain death when he is caught by the lure of a fleeing Rickon. For a moment we almost hope that Jon does reach him in time: the editing and camera work here is marvellous in stretching our hopes to the very edge of belief, particularly in a wide-shot that places both Jon and Rickon in the same frame, even if for half a second.
But Rickon dies, and Jon realises our mistake. The cavalry is coming, he is alone and horseless, and the only thing left is death. The only thing war brings is death.
This realisation comes to him repeatedly in the battle.
The battle itself is masterful in its technical execution, and there are visual moments that permeate through the muck as singular visions of a terrifying battle: the long shots of Wun Wun in amongst the hordes, the mounding piles of corpses that becomes a barricade, the arrows that hit bodies already dead – for all its battlelines familiarity, Game of Thrones still manages to be cinematically inventive and daring when it counts.
And on the surface this episode excels as one of the greatest examples of dramatic action in the medium. The cinematography, effects work, stunt work, editing – everything combined leaves the viewer with the impression that this is masterful television. If last week’s talkative, shifting-pieces episode was disappointing for some fans, this week’s episode should serve them well. The tangible details are Game of Thrones at its strongest.
And yet there is no triumph in this conflict. Tied to Jon’s point of view during the battle, we suffer the claustrophobic terror of being buried alive under corpses. He is alive when everyone around him is dead, but this traps him. Then, on reaching air and clarity, Jon becomes just another face in a sea of lost soldiers, trapped between the shields and spears of the Bolton army. He shares a look with Davos, and both recognise that this is, again, the end. There is only death, but it is awkward and slow and they are literally standing in a crowd waiting to die.
But then the inevitability takes over once more. Littlefinger rides in with the knights of the Vale and saves the day, much as we anticipated weeks ago. Ramsay retreats to Winterfell only to be overrun and abandoned by his men, and then fed to his dogs as Sansa watches on. It’s a procession.
And though we may feel good at this, though we may relish the sniffing, then licking, then eventual savaging of Ramsay’s face by his own hand-reared dogs, we can only walk away like Sansa and look at what we’ve done. Winterfell is ours once more, but the exchanging of banners from Bolton to Stark is perfunctory. Superficial, even. It’s window-dressing on a sea of corpses.
So what does this all amount to?
We have a lonely and nervous Davos stamping his feet through the snow to avoid inevitability. We see him find the charred stag statuette, and know instinctively: all of this death has a consequence. It may not come this episode, but it will come.
It’s hard to imagine Jon embarking on a siege like this again. Something was broken, something lost. It’s telling that we don’t have a moment alone with him at the end, that there’s no emotional salvation at the close to make the battle worthwhile. Game of Thrones isn’t making yet another case that war is hell, it’s suggesting war is all-too inevitable, and all-too pointless. In a season that has swiftly replaced all the old men with young women, it is welcome to see them also pushing firmly against violent conflict, given we know there is more war to come.
As Daenerys and Yara discovered with relish, it is now becoming the norm for the young women to amend the mistakes of old men, and it was good to see Lyanna Mormont making an appearance alongside Sansa. For the young men like Jon, they’ve had to die and be reborn, and allow countless others to die for them before there’s an epiphany that the old ways are over. Like Bran earlier in the season, Jon benefits from the sacrifices of others, most dramatically in Wun Wun’s final charge to hold the door open so that Jon can have victory.¹
(And for that act to happen on literally the same ground as where young Wylis collapsed and died across time to allow Bran to escape is a remarkable layering of symbolic gestures.)
Someone needs to save the characters of Game of Thrones from themselves, otherwise they’re all walking corpses. If every battle before ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ was a build-up to this slaughter-fest, it is unlikely the show or the characters will go back to the same well again. Whatever the conflict is that takes shape between the Night King and those who are still standing south of the Wall, it can’t be one that feels like this episode’s gluttonous rage of human bodies.
The battle for Winterfell has both exceeded all battles in Game of Thrones thus far, and ended them for good.
Tyrion and Daenerys’ scenes in Meereen underscore this point, with the dragons’ attack on the slavers’ ships punctuating a final stop to the ongoing conflict around the bay. Tyrion effectively pulls Daenerys back from the brink, reminding her that her natural instincts for quelling those who oppose her is what led her father to his madness, and ruin.
This both suggests the future direction for Daenerys’ character, and sets up potential consequences in King’s Landing next week. While we can cheer on the slaughter of the slavers and gape at the spectacle of the dragons’ attack, it is horrifying. It is horrifying to consider what would happen were they raining fire and brimstone on characters we actually empathise with. The immediate contrasting of joy at slaughter in Meereen with nihilistic exhaustion of Winterfell invites us to speculate on the relationship between these two sets of characters. Would Jon sign up to Daenerys’ cause just as Theon and Yara do? Tyrion knows this, and he knows that eventually they will need to reconcile Daenerys’ all-consuming desires with competing interests when she arrives in Westeros.
The scene with Yara and Theon suggests as much, and if anything is giving the end-game away, we see finally the beginnings of democracy in Game of Thrones. Different leaders all talking calmly and rationally and reaching agreement about what is best for the people. While this might neatly tie up two disparate storylines in the show, it also sets a precedent that will be hard to roll back, if Daenerys still wants claim to the seven kingdoms.
Stories are rising and falling in Game of Thrones. Those who rise – Sansa, Yara, Daenerys, even Arya to an extent – realise that they can challenge what is expected of them, they can craft new stories. Those who are falling or fallen – Cersei, the Boltons, the Freys, the Blackfish – are unable to change with the times. If this week’s battle achieved anything, it’s to force Jon into a choice. He isn’t so much the hero of the battle as its catalyst. He is a tool put to work but that work – all the killing that Ramsay claims Jon is famed for – is meaningless now. He can rise with the others, or risk falling for good.
Jon has died already, and he might’ve died several times over in this episode. He doesn’t want Melisandre to bring him back but she claims they have no say in the matter. So long as there is a battle to fight, Jon will live on. But is that all he can do? Is that all he is here for?
How this plays out next week will be telling. There are pieces to pick up and lives to mend. But now that the Starks are in Winterfell clears the table for the North to rally around a new common purpose. Now that Daenerys has ships and allies in Westeros, her charge can finally begin.
With the futility of war writ large in the fields around Winterfell, and the dangers of wanton destruction learned in Meereen, two major storylines have learned enormous lessons in this episode about what path to take in the future. That these two storylines effectively surround King’s Landing throws into sharp relief the disunity and decay that Cersei and the High Sparrow preside over, and this can only come to a climax in the season finale.
That much is inevitable. But when the ending comes next week, we have to wonder what will be left to fight for and what legacy these surviving characters can provide.