Game of Thrones: 609 “Battle of the Bastards” Review
Reviewed by Mark McCullough.
In the world of Westeros few things are a certainty. One which we can safely bet on is the fact that an Episode Nine will be a stand-out episode. In the first season of the show Ned Stark met his now infamous fate, the following series featured the Battle of the Blackwater, a year later seen the most talked about television moment ever as we were brought the Red Wedding. The next year featured the show’s only single location episode which depicted the battle at Castle Black. Last year’s episode had one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of the show as Stannis burnt his daughter Shireen, and Daenerys mounted her dragon for the first time. Given the pedigree associated with the episode slot if this episode wasn’t a stunner it would have been a surprise. Thankfully Battle of the Bastards lived up to the hype, managed to combine the best aspects of previous Episode Nines and is arguably the best episode of the show produced. In fact, it appears to be so well received that it is sitting level with Ozymandias, Breaking Bad’s tour de force episode. This may be attributable to recent episode syndrome, however I would argue that this episode is more than deserving of the accolade going forward.
Right from the opening seconds you could tell that this episode was going to something very special, the aesthetic appeared much improved. Undoubtedly this can be attributed to director Miguel Sapochnik returning to the show after previously directing episodes Seven and Eight last Season. Such was the level of praise that he received, particularly for Hardhome, that he was the clear choice to direct this key episode. He did not disappoint as the visuals of the episode helped to make the story as enjoyable as possible and he did a fantastic job of giving both the Siege of Meereen and the Battle of the Bastards two completely different feels.
Let’s cover Meereen first where we are literally launched into the action before cutting to a scene where Daenerys confronts Tyrion about what has happened in her absence. Surprisingly he is able to turn the situation to a positive and get her back onside, a testament to his political skills. It is these skills which also see him talk Dany out of her initial plan to burn everyone citing her father yet again. Interestingly he mentions the idea of lots of wildfire below King’s Landing, something which fans have speculated could yet play a hug part in the finale. The outcome of their chat appears to see Dany agree to surrender to the slavers, thankfully it is quickly established that this is not the case.
What transpires instead was actually my highlight of the episode as Dany finally shows how powerful she can be. In contrast with last season’s episode Nine she able to summon Drogon and is in total control of him. Not only that, but following Tyrion’s decision to free them earlier in the series Rhaegal and Viserion are able to break free from beneath the pyramid and join the fight. With the three dragons in play Dany is virtually unbeatable and is able to force a surrender from the slavers whilst simultaneously claiming their ships as her own. Meanwhile Tyrion declares to the Slavers that they have lost and that one of them will have to be killed for it. Greyworm carries out this execution in true badass style.
After a quick visit to the North we return to Meereen in the aftermath of the battle as Yara and Theon Greyjoy arrive to join forces with Dany. We see some strong dialogue between the two women who strike up a good rapport and an alliance between the two becomes a mere formality. This marks quite a lot of interesting narrative milestones: The Show has now completely overtaken the books in all available storylines, so we are in truly unknown territory next week. This is the first time since the first series that so many main characters have been in one place and working for the same goal. Also this is finally the end of Dany’s story in Slaver’s Bay, she has just had her final victory, ensured the slavers will obey for years to come, she has her Dothraki army and Unsullied in place and now she has the ships required to move to Westeros. In terms of possibilities this plot development opens the potential of Westeros for Dany is obviously the most exciting, other potential storylines could centre on Theon and the Unsullied and further developing the relationship between Dany and Yara.
The middle portion of the episode was used to deliver an emotional gravitas, allowing for breathing time between the two battles whilst simultaneously ensuring that the episode is not remembered entire by its action scenes. There is a particularly interesting conversation between Jon and Sansa, which I will come back to later. The scenes are also used to further emphasise the differences between Ramsay and Jon as one is willing to risk it all for his mean, whilst the other shows cowardice. Most interesting however is when Ser Davos learns about Shireen’s fate in the Episode Nine of last year series. This should certainly prove a point of focus for the final episode of the series. The final act before the battle was the inevitable death of Rickon Stark. I know there has been lots of talk about how he shouldn’t have run in a straight line, but as the youngest character who has spent years in captivity, it is not unreasonable to assume that he would not have been educated in risk evasion strategy. Unusually for Game of Thrones we were actually given a warning shot of what was about to happen, again this is something I think was more for Sansa’s characterisation than anything else.
Onto the battle itself, with Jon having been pulled out of his plan by Ramsay’s game with Rickon the whole thing is cranked up a notch in terms of tension. You could say it was foolish of Jon, but recklessness and loyalty have always been two of his main character traits. Ramsay meanwhile as indicated by the discussion earlier opts to sit back and watch his army do the dirty work for him. This stark difference between the two characters is actually reflected in the Choreography of the battle. It is particularly symbolic that Ramsay’s tactic is to surround and suffocate, much in the same way that he took control of the North in the first place. For Jon it is even more symbolic as the fact that he is essentially buried alive, down and out but rises again is representative of the completion of his resurrection. In actual fact Jon lost the battle, Ramsay had him outmanoeuvred, and outmanned. He had the upper hand until a twist that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Lord of the Rings.
In truth the battle was a loss for both Ramsay and Jon, and a victory for Littlefinger and Sansa. As mentioned earlier the latter’s non-disclosure to her brother of the fact that another army was joining them is interesting. Surely it would have made sense to let him know help was on the way so he could adjust his plan accordingly. Another fascinating aspect was the fact that she was so quick to write off her brother Rickon’s chances of survival so early in the day. For someone with the surname Stark this endangerment of family seems really out of character. The timing of the arrival of the Vale soldiers is also quite notable too, especially when you consider that Sansa and Littlefinger were position such that they could see the battle unfold. In that light you have to consider the fact that the moment the Vale soldiers appeared, was when Jon appeared to be buried and certain to die. Is it possible that Sansa and Littlefinger were planning that in order get control of Winterfell for themselves? My initial reaction would have been no, but given her reaction to Ramsay’s death at the hands of his own dog a seed of doubt has been sown. Sansa’s characterisation has been something of a mess since that controversial rape scene last season, and we are yet to get any sort of payoff that justifies that. Should be very interesting to see where they take Sansa in the finale.
With the battle all but over, all that remained for the denouement to deal with was Ramsay’s fate. This came at a cost for our heroes as Wun Wun succumbed to a multitude of wounds, being finished by an arrow to the eye from Ramsay (at least it wasn’t an arrow to the knee). This then freed Jon to confront Ramsay directly using a Mormont shield to avoid his arrows before overcoming him and beating him to within an inch of his live before leaving his fate up to Sansa. For the first time in a long while, Game of Thrones actually delivered a double happy ending. Dany is ready to return to Westeros and the Starks are back in control of their family home.
There was never going to be any other score that was fitting for an episode of this quality. There is literally nothing from the episode that I could pick out to fault. It is amazing to be able to end an episode of the show happy for our characters for once. Iwan Rheon will be dearly missed, he gave an astounding performance in the role of Ramsay and deserves enormous credit for that. If rumours are to be believed the finale could be just as good yet again, but one things for sure I doubt we can expect two happy endings in a row. With the Starks back in Winterfell one cannot help but feel Winter will not be far behind…