Game of Thrones – 59

“Battle of the Bastards”

I’ve staked out some lonely positions since I started this site, but I suspect this is going to be one of the loneliest.

To paraphrase a Leicester City chant from this magical season: I know you won’t believe me, but “Battle of the Bastards” was just as much everything that’s wrong about the TV version of Game of Thrones as everything that’s right about it.  I semi-seriously considered bagging this post altogether in terms of personal reaction, because there are some arguments so utterly hopeless there’s no real point in starting them.  But in the end, who cares?  The legions of viewers who’ll love this episode are no more wrong about it than I am – we just disagree, that’s all.  So in the end, what’s the harm in pointing that out?

Here, in a nutshell, is my problem.  Much more so than in the books – and much more so now that they’ve eclipsed the books – Benioff and Weiss seem incapable of winning over viewers except with fanservice.  What they did with “Battle of the Bastards” was eminently satisfying.  It was also easy.  Not easy (or for God’s sake, cheap) in the sense of the massive logistical undertaking to pull it off, or in terms of the choreography or the CGI.  But in literary terms?  It was low-hanging fruit.  Give the audience what they want, give it to them in as flashy (and gory) a manner as possible, and give it to them exactly how they expect it.  And that’s exactly what this episode did.

Let’s dispense with the whole Meereen side of the story quickly, because in the larger sense it was mostly an afterthought.  The best part, by far, was Tyrion reminding Daenerys of how dangerously like her father she might easily be seen to be.  The rest of it was the usual Daenerys storyline – grand speeches, special effects and burning corpses.  We’ll see how this grand alliance with the Greyjoy siblings works out – if nothing else, it threatens to tie Daenerys’ storyline in with the rest of the series at long, long last.

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The entire time I was watching those Meereen scenes play out, I just kept thinking “This is not why we’re here and you know it.”  I suppose B & W wanted to congratulate themselves for fooling the audience into thinking this would be the usual Episode 9 single-location narrative (anyone paying close attention knew it wouldn’t be) but really, this was just killing time until we got to the main event.  And killing time is a big part of the problem with Game of Thrones, as held up against A Song of Ice and Fire (which has problems of its own, don’t get me wrong).  It puts me in mind of the old Big Bang Theory notion that Indiana Jones has no actual impact on what happens in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  So much of what happens in GoT seems to have amounted to very little when it’s all said and done – it’s noise and violence and gore for its own sake.  But in the end, it doesn’t seem to change much of anything.

We’ve seen thing recently with Arya’s Braavos arc, which turned out to have been much ado about almost nothing.  What have we gained from the whole Ramsay Bolton nightmare, apart from a character to hate and whose death we can glory in?  What have we gained from Rickon’s existence in the story at all?  I would argue very, very little.  From Ramsay we got a lot of horrible things done by a horrible man, we got Sansa brutalized and dehumanized (and I would argue there were other ways she could have developed into a strong, hard-hearted force – they just would have required more heavy lifting), we got another tragedy for a Stark – this time one who was never given a place in the story at all – and we got the horrible man getting what was coming to him.  Sure, it was satisfying seeing Ramsay torn apart by those dogs (as the smile on Sansa’s face would tell you).  But was it really worth all that?

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If you give the Game of Thrones audience an epic battle, they will beat a path to your door.  And boy, was this one epic.  B & W took great pains to show us the gore, the claustrophobia, the sheer horror of battle.  I applaud everyone who worked on the episode for that, because it was magnificently brutal.  But here’s the challenge I would make of you, the viewer.  Can you honestly look at this battle and say it had as much grounding in the story and as much genuine unpredictability as Hardhome?  As The Blackwater?  And can you honestly look at Ramsay’s life and death and say the entire arc of it was as powerful or as integral to the entire story as, say, Joffrey’s?  If you can, more power to you.  I can’t.

What did we learn from “Battle of the Bastards”?  That Sansa is a far more hard-headed realist than Jon.  She knew Ramsay would try and bait Jon into acting unwisely, and indeed he did – and Jon took the bait.  Rickon never stood a chance, it’s true – and all those tinfoil-hat theories about a “Grand Northern Conspiracy” and such proved to be wishful thinking.  I get the notion – I wanted to believe it too, that there’s no way this Byzantine story we’d been following for so long could have become so linear, so predictable.  But if wishes were fishes no one would ever go hungry.

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What else?  We learned that Davos is a strong enough man to keep his commitments and put his life on the line even after his heart has been utterly broken.  Knowing what he knows, he cannot possibly let this go – and I can’t imagine he could ever willingly serve in the same force as Melissandre than Brienne could.  We learned that Petyr Baelish has impeccable timing – which should come as no surprise, as impeccable dramatic timing is another low-hanging fruit that Game of Thrones often picks lately.  We learned that the Karstarks (or perhaps the Boltons) somehow managed to read about Hannibal and the Romans.  And of course, we learned that hunger is stronger than loyalty in a hound (but not of course the Hound).

So there it is.  Enjoy Jon punching Ramsay’s face into a blood pudding (I keep getting consolation prizes for my Mayoiga disappointment, at least).  Enjoy Jon realizing that Ramsay wasn’t his to finish off – and thank Sansa for doing Jon the favor of bringing Jon back to himself before he completely gave himself over to beasthood.  And of course, enjoy that little smile on Sansa’s face as she walks away from Ramsay’s gruesome fate – that smile is there for your benefit, after all, just as almost everything in Battle of the Bastards was.  If you’re going to pander to the audience, you may as well do it spectacularly as Game of Thrones did it this week – just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

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34 comments

  1. Y

    Fuck this. FUCK this. FUCK THIS. I may have known Rickon for a grand total of screen time of half an hour or so, but I nearly wept. And that’s saying something, considering the fact that he has had such brief appearances throughout the seasons. Was Ramsay’s end glorious fan-pandering? Absolutely. But for once, I do not mind. I absolutely revelled in it, and I am so, SO grateful Sansa was the one to do it. I still think she should have killed him during their wedding night, but I may be able to half-forgive that missed opportunity now. Maybe. Half. Regardless, like you, I have lots of mixed feelings regarding this episode. As always, props to Davos for his tremendous heart, in both kindness and strength. And props to Tormund for being one tough son of a bitch. Same goes for Wun Wun, that death broke me almost as badly as Rickon’s. Ugh. I don’t really know what else to say. I hoped I would enjoy this episode much more than I actually did. I’m heartbroken, and not in the dramatically efficient way — which is unbelievably disappointing.

  2. M

    I found it hard to care about a character I barely know. All I had to really go on was Jon Snow’s reaction to the death.

  3. D

    So how come Sansa didn’t tell Jon, “Oh yeah, there’s a massive army coming from the Vale pretty soon, wait it out pls.” I know Jon doesn’t exactly trust Littlefinger, but not even consulting him about it? And did the masters forget that Danny has 3 dragons? I mean, they knew they were locked up, but did they seriously not think she wouldn’t use them in a time like that? I’m also disappointed that the Umbers didn’t back-stab Ramsay. I expected him to start stabbing some Boltons when he was shouting his war chant.

    Overall, I really enjoyed the episode, but these logical inconsistencies really take me out of the show.

  4. Y

    I think the reason Sansa didn’t tell Jon was not just because she was afraid he wouldn’t trust Littlefinger and he’d refuse to accept his help, but also because if word got out that the Vale was coming in to help, Ramsay could somehow catch whiff of it and screw up their surprise attack. Remember, at this point in her life she is extremely suspicious of everyone around her, even those she is/was close to. In order to not risk Petyr’s surprise attack, she withheld the information. The Northeners had to truly be as depserate as they appeared to effectively fool Ramsay into thinking he had them cornered. Granted, there’s no guarantee Ramsay would have found out even if she had told Jon, but in a stiuation as crucial as hers, would you not want to play your cards as close to your chest as possible? Even if it means having to sacrifice some of your forces? Ramsay’s good at reading people, and he’s an expert at messing with their psychology — he probably could have sensed if they were too calm/confident in their eventual victory. Jon and the free folk are good fighters, but are they good actors? Are they good enough to fool Ramsay, whose expertise is fear and desperation, who expects traps at every turn and flips the tables on those who set them as easily as he toys with people’s heads?

    Plus, with major Northern players openly betraying them, I’m not surprised Sansa may have thought it safer to act the way she did. She clearly struggled with not telling Jon during their fight, you can see it on her face several times. But in the end, I kind of agree with her; I, too, would not want to risk even the slightest whisper if I had to give the green light to the orchestration of my home’s salvation.

  5. D

    But…WUN WUN DIED. SHE COULD’VE SAVED HIM.

    In all seriousness, I see your point. I still think Sansa should have said SOMETHING to Jon, considering he could have died in the battle. Now the question is, what is Littlefinger getting out of this? He sure as hell not doing this out of the kindness of his heart. My guess is that Sansa promised to marry so he could have Winterfell, but that might me too obvious.

    Another thing, now that Davos knows what happened to Shireen, what do you think is going to happen to Milesandra?

  6. Y

    I do think he will ask her to marry him, but I doubt she’d agree to give him Winterfell. This might just be wishful thinking, but I’d rather she left Winterfell to Jon (as the only pure-blooded Stark there, she has control of the place now, technically speaking), then joined Baelish in the Vale, where they can scheme further against their remaining enemies in the North. As for poor old Davos, bless his soul, I think he might finally snap — and subsequently demand that Melisandre pay for her crimes, be it through expulsion or execution. Poor guy is so tired of all the world’s shit at this point…

  7. Actually by Westerosi law Bran is the Lord of Winterfell – not that he’s in any position to claim it. Jon could be legitimized at any time of course.

    I think for Sansa to withhold that info from Jon was a huge betrayal, actually. Assuming she actually did. How could you send your army into battle with their commander not knowing that? If she doesn’t trust him to that extent, their relationship is really screwed.

  8. A

    I think that she simply didn’t know if Littlefinger would come or not. After all, she sent a raven asking for help, but that’s all (at least that’s all we saw). Considering who Petyr is, she might have been wary of promising help that might end up not coming, or coming “sadly too late” or whatever.

  9. They already goaded Ramsay into fighting outside instead of taking a siege. Even if Ramsay did know, what could he do? The army would have been numerous and fresh. They could have elaborated a better strategy. With cavalry to match his, he could have well lost the old fashioned way – by being outmaneuvered and outnumbered.

    And in any kind of mildly realistic setting, the idea that the lord of a region wouldn’t be informed by anyone of the huge ass enemy army marching straight onto his capital or didn’t have any scouts and spies disseminated around is absolute nonsense.

  10. GoT can be entertaining. It’s engaging given what it is. Most series are like this though. Their function aims for broad stroke payouts, not granularity. The last time I saw a hero in something was Sachiko from Boku Dake ga Inai Machi. Most series never build one as they only have protagonists. They just sort of tell you that a thing is true or try to implausibly show you and well, then you just follow the plot armor to the end.

    So, free sub next episode. Can’t believe I’ve not just bought, but eaten so many.

  11. M

    Who are you even addressing with this post?

    I’m confident that most people (i.e. the ones actually reading this) agree that as a whole the show has become grand spectacle without substance.

  12. D

    The show has lost steam, but I don’t think the change has been as dramatic as you make it out to be. Unless you consider the early series as a show with very little substance, and now it has none.

  13. So why are you guys still watching if the show is so bad? Drop it and go find something more to your liking.

  14. D

    Why would you choose my comment to reply to? I still like the show, I was basically saying the poster I was replying to was being overly dramatic because he/she uses the phrase “the show has become grand spectacle without substance” so as to imply at one point the show had substance and now it doesn’t. I can see the argument that this has been the slowest season thus far, I don’t see it as all that different from the earlier seasons, though.

  15. From the small corner of the internet where I lurk, it seems that most people are generally lukewarm about the episode. The way the whole battle was shot was very interesting, it felt very close-quarters and personal as opposed to the huge scale of Hardhome, although I did think that Jon and Rickon running to each other was a bit goofy(and could only end in tragedy).

    Ramsay Bolton was another problem from the previous season that they needed to address, but his death has been long overdue in my opinion. Maybe they could have mined some poetry if he wasn’t so goofy with both he and Jon being bastards but that moment is long gone. Overall if we’re ranking storylines that amounted to nothing I would say I liked Arya’s arc better, at least that had some genuine unpredictability(and that play was good).

  16. To be honest, when I saw this as the highest ranked ep ever on IMDB, I assumed the worst. Glad readers around here seem to have escaped that trap.

  17. I don’t understand why the fool boy ran in a straight line towards Jon. Common sense said he should have zig zagged. Make it harder for Ramsey to kill him.

  18. It would have been pretty fun if Rickon had tripped and narrowly dodged Ramsay’s arrow.

  19. I really hoped it’d go that way. I mean, it would have been a surprising twist (saving one character who seemed doomed) and a nice first true moment in which Ramsay’s self-confidence bit him in the ass. Which could have anticipated of course a far more interesting battle where there is an actual story to the action rather than “2000 men foolishly run to their deaths, are saved by magically undetectable army of knights”.

  20. J

    I would agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. I think the best part of the episode, or the part that at least resonated most with me, was the feel of claustrophobia during Jon getting nearly trampled to death. I think that bit was well done.

    Rickon’s death? No emotional impact. In fact, it angered me that the show didn’t even give Rickon enough intelligence to think of a zig-zag maneuver to make it impossible to be shot at that distance. Yes, arrows are fast, but being shot from so far away is really easy to dodge. Rickon’s stupidity was laughable. I saw an analysis somewhere that summed it up perfectly. “Rickon died doing what he loved: advancing the plotline for other, more important, characters.”

    And Dany’s return and subsequent use of her dragons barely moved the needle in my interest in anything she does. The show has been trying SO HARD to make her the big hero of the series, and I just don’t connect. It was a decent interaction between Tyrion and the Greyjoys, though.

  21. D

    I think it’s safe to say Sansa is evolving into Elizabeth I. I predict she will somehow end up on the Iron Throne based on real history and on how her character is progressing. Though I remarked to my brother last night that they show her smile because she is becoming more ruthless, but really I think it would be weirder if she wasn’t happy and vengeful. The average person, in that situation, would feed Ramsay to the dogs ten out of ten times.

    As for the fan service, I think we’ve basically had a show devoid of it up to this point. Most of the characters the audience likes have been killed or put through hell. The ending will be bittersweet, Martin himself has said this. They either throw a little fan service in now or this story will literally never have a moment where you can happily cheer on your favorite character (unless Danerys is your favorite… bleh).

  22. I agree a lot with you on this, Enzo. All during the battle I wasn’t enjoying the epicness, I was screaming internally at how stupid it all was. Oh so somehow the cavalry catches up to Jon without him realising despite his enormous advantage and manages to clash equally with the Bolton’s. And of course Jon being utterly stupid – yeah, I know, Rickon had just died, but still! he was basically throwing away the lives of thousands of men, and his only chance at victory. And somehow the free folk are completely fucking stupid and are suddenly surrounded by a phalanx of that comes out entirely of nowhere. And obviously no one has scouts and could know of the HUGE army coming! Or Sansa couldn’t tell Jon so they could wait one hour more and save the lives of a lot of their men!

    This was so idiotic. It was like playing everything through the motions but at any deeper level it did not make SENSE. Yeah, it’s satisfying to see Ramsay defeated but I’d have wanted to see also some actual maneuvering, tactics, Jon not being a total idiot and making his conviction that battles could be won “even with worse odds” sound like more than an empty desperate boast. We got none of that of course.

  23. T

    I loved the dragon scenes in this episode. I have been having a shitty time and THIS is what I needed. I like the Dany’s storyline and I get why you dont care too much but we can agree to disagree.

    As for the battle of bastards I liked it too, but honestly Wun Wun death cut me deep. I can accept Rickon death (I made terms with it already) BUT WUN WUN!!!!!

    I dont really have a deeper analysis on this one except finally the Starks are rising again, but they need a strong support system because as of now with the exception of a few Northern houses the other houses cannot be trusted.

  24. J

    Don’t really understand what people expected from this episode?

    We all knew what was going to happen, the Boltons would be on top for the majority of the battle but lose, but at the end of the day it depicted a battle better then anything I’ve ever seen before. For me it was incredible they made a necessarily predictable battle very entertaining by painting the fight with realism not cinematography better then anything else.

    Enzo don’t really like one of your comments above where you say, paraphrasing here, you’re glad that people on here don’t really like this episode. On the post you yourself say that you’re not right regarding your opinion of this episode, just that people will have different opinions on it, so why are you insulting the people who like it?

  25. “Don’t really understand what people expected from this episode?”

    Personally I was hoping to see Jon have a better role and the battle to be more surprising and/or interesting and/or believable in the details of how it unfolded. As it was it was really poorly written IMHO. It was the military equivalent of those Hollywood style kung fu fights where two celebrity actors duke out random blows in front of a green screen but there’s no weight or point behind any of them. It was action but the action did not tell a believable story, it didn’t even have a sense of space and time (far too often the characters are surprised by the appearance of huge groups of armed men that really ought not to be exactly *sneaky*).

  26. I have to be honest here, James – I really don’t know what you’re saying here. Nowhere did I say that I was glad people didn’t like the episode, nor did I say my opinion was wrong. I just said my opinion was no more or less right than anyone else.

  27. You do seem to be saying that you’re glad and perhaps relieved that many on here also thought little of the episode, but for some reason in your lonely (misunderstood?) write up, you underestimate your readership’s critical thinking to make a stronger case for your own.

  28. Y

    I totally agree with you on this one. Actually I’d go ahead step further and point out all the gimmicky plot twists… but… DRAGONS!

  29. M

    Yann, don’t really get your point. Game of thrones has always put forward dragons and white walkers as a critical to the plot, how is it gimmicky. It’s like saying Star Wars is gimmicky for having light Sabers lol

  30. R

    The whole grand scale aspect of this story is falling more and more flat for me as the show progresses. I could watch the politics of King’s Landing – and stuff in the same vein from elsevhere – all day long (it’s not unimportant that the actors can actually act in these situations instead of being relegated to set pieces),. but the various “quests” and “the winter is coming” stuff is standard fantasy fare and honestly not particularly novel or interesting.

    The Winterfell battle was a great technical achievement, but it’s kind of meaningless to try and emphasize how “it’s all so random and a matter of luck” when it obviously still totally depends on writer fiat how it all works out.

  31. r

    Some of this episode made me think of 300……i thought that Jon was an utter fool………courageous but a fool……Sansa at least seemed to have more brains. He didn’t want to listen to her, that’s why i think she hid the fact that she asked Bae for help. She might have had doubts about Bae aswell….

    I’m also a bit disappointed how they are handling Tyrion, who was such a great character, something totally seems lacking in that area……he just doesn’t seem to be the tortured, witty, intelligent imp he was before……….maybe it’s just me….

    I do admit that i still enjoyed it………the filming is appealing to the eye…….i just hope they don’t lose the soul of the story……..

  32. D

    I’ve said it last week and I’ll say it again – GoT turned into trope-ridden, pandering pile of bullshit. Even the seasons before, there were moments in spite of some greatness, where I wondered what a particular event has achieved and what will certain elements mean in the longrun of the story. And the answer is usually nothing. The Indiana Jones theory you brought up fits remarkably well there, because more often than not it seems like it’s not the characters that drive the plot. It’s some kind of weird, aimless momentum, set in motion by one thing and now things just sort of… unfold.

    In more specific terms, I found most of this episode largery infuriating. It’s a tragic sign when the Daenerys part of the story actually seems like the most interesting. Jon and Sansa’s dialogue after the council, Jon just charging the front lines by himself. Yes, his brothers death as tragic, I get that. But it was totally predictable, just as Sansa pointed out, as if talking to the audience about how paper-thin the plot has become. He was also barely even a character in the show, so as a viewer, I feel a slight sense of disconnect. I think we’re meant to share Jon’s agony but the whole scene kinda fell flat. Jon still gets saved by his men at the last second, then again by Littlefinger.

    As if all this wasn’t ridiculous enough, Ramsay turns out to be a tactical genius who throws out a phalanx formation out of nowhere. The very same man who shoots down his own people and then rides off into his keep, which happens to not only be completely undefended, but the guards are not even watching the walls! Jon just walks up to the gate and they only realize someone is there when the giant bashes it in. And lets not forget the coat-of-arms that is made to look eerlily similar ot a real world flag. Guess we’re also doing historical commentary and references now, huh? Wouldn’t want the viewers to think that we’re morons or something. Then Ramsay gets beaten up and fed to his own dogs. An outcome, I feel, that any person who is vaguely familiar with this show could’ve predicted.

    I’m sorry if this seems like a rant, but this episode really brought home a key point for me: this show is mostly carried by it’s actors and everything else has become stale, uninspired and frankly stupid. I’ll stick around till the end of the season, but I’m probably calling it quits. GoT has reached the intellectual consistency of the last few seasons of True Blood.

  33. M

    To be honest it’s a shame all that acting, set design, costuming talent is let down by such poorly thought out scripts.

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