“Battle of the Bastards” opens with a pitch-covered cannonball being lit afire and then launched at Meereen, suggesting the vast number of pieces and the human effort that goes into an epic battle. It then cuts between a calm dragon’s-eye view and chaotic stabbings in the streets, demonstrating how violence is merely a matter of perspective and proximity. The culminating sequence isn’t the ululating horde of Dothraki charging the city, nor all three of Daenerys’s (Emilia Clarke) dragons beginning to immolate the Masters’ fleet, but rather Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) informing a Masters triumvirate, including his former owner, Yezzan zo Qaggaz (Enzo Cilenti), that as a result of breaking of their pact, one of the three of them will now have to die. “It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it?” Tyrion asks. “Other people dying.”
The power of the “Battle of the Bastards” largely derives from director Miguel Sapochnik leaving nothing to abstraction. When Daenerys first offers up her plan for defending the city, she vaguely suggests that she will “crucify the masters, set their fleets afire, kill every last one of their soldiers, and return their cities to the dust.” Instead of following in her mad father’s bloody footsteps, however, she accepts Tyrion’s compromise. Their idea utilizes a specific example to cow the Masters for good, which results in Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) killing the two Masters who were so easily willing to sacrifice one of their own to save themselves and leaving that survivor, Yezzan, with a concrete message to carry back to his people. Later, when Theon (Alfie Allen) and Yara (Gemma Whelan) arrive, Daenerys gives them a similar bit of clarity, agreeing to help Yara retake the Iron Isles so long as she helps to reform them: “No more reaving, roving, raiding, or raping.”
But it’s not until the battle at Winterfell that the reasons for Daenerys’s desire to leave the world a better place than she found it become clear. “War is hell” isn’t just some hoary cliché; it’s an understatement. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) brings three thousand men against Ramsay Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) six thousand, and the bodies constantly felled by tempests of arrows become mountains of corpses as the battle surges on. And while Ramsay spends the battle smugly, cooly belaying orders to his archers, the camera lingers on Jon, who’s stuck in the middle of the melee after unwisely rushing out into the field in a failed attempt to save Rickon (Art Parkinson). The battlefield is calm and empty but for a few breaths, long enough for an artful slow-motion shot of a hopeless, reckless Jon preparing to single-handedly fend off a line of cavalry, and then the action explodes, as Jon’s troops suddenly burst into scene, colliding in a mess of broken limbs all about Jon.
It’s the closest Game of Thrones has ever come to putting us in the shoes of its characters, which makes Ramsay’s claustrophobic tactics all the more horrifying. Toward the end of the fight, Smalljon Umber’s (Dean S. Jagger) men form a seemingly impenetrable wall of tower shields and long pikes around Jon’s surviving forces. They slowly and deliberately step forward, skewering Jon’s defenseless men, crushing them up against what is now a massive heap of the dead and dying. There’s no valor or glory in these moments, and Jon himself is trampled by his own men, practically buried alive in blood, mud, and bodies, gasping for air much as he did upon his resurrection at the end of “Home.” When Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) faces down Smalljon, he doesn’t win through swordplay, but rather by surviving a hail of headbutts and an impalement long enough to bite out his opponent’s throat.
In the end, the battle is won by Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who had warned her brother not to do what Ramsay wanted him to, and who instead stayed back to await the arrival of Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) and the Eyrie’s forces. “No one can protect me,” she says. “No one can protect anyone.” And so she wins by allowing Jon to fall into Ramsay’s trap, by recognizing that Rickon is never going to make it out of Winterfell alive, and, in general, by knowing the sort of man Ramsay is. But there’s no valor or glory in this battle, even if the Stark banners once more fly from Winterfell.
By the time Jon finally gets the opportunity to go one-on-one with Ramsay, he knocks the man to the ground and cathartically beats him bloody, stopping only when he notices Sansa watching, a moment in which he sees his own temporary inhumanity reflected in Ramsay’s broken body—one bastard mirroring the other. As for Sansa, she has no such bloodlust afflicting her when she coldly allows Ramsay to be sentenced to death. Viewers are meant to applaud Sansa for at long last seizing power, and the poetic justice of a man, tied to a chair and left for his own hungry dogs, ripped apart by the results of his own cruelty, but the smile on her face as she walks away from the snarls and sounds of tearing flesh and fabric (sounds not dissimilar to those from her rape in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”) suggests that Ramsay isn’t wrong to suggest that “I’m part of you now.”
This, then, is what Daenerys is fighting against—not the ugliness (and righteousness) of revenge, but the fear that it will lead to a world that’s no better than the one each person inherits upon their birth. The evening before the battle, Davos (Liam Cunningham) finds himself at the pyre that now marks innocent Shireen’s grave, and in those ashes, he picks up the wooden horse that he’d carved and given her just before her father, Stannis, sacrificed her for what he believed was the greater good. But Shireen was that greater good; everything else is just a series of abstractions that allow those who would rule the justification to do so. Even faith, which provides so many with motive, is unmasked by Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who tells Jon that a true god’s intentions could never be understood: “Maybe he brought you here to die again.” Jon asks, “What kind of a god would do that?” And to which she replies: “The one we’ve got.”
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