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‘Game of Thrones’: Inside Four of the Biggest Battles

An in-depth look at epic fantasy’s bloodiest episodes from “Blackwater” to “The Battle of the Bastards”.

“Blackwater.” “The Watchers on the Wall.” “Hardhome.” “The Battle of the Bastards.” It’s rare enough for characters on a TV show to become household names, but on Game of Thrones, all it takes is a major battle for an episode title to lodge into pop-culture consciousness – like a sword plunged through steel armour.

So far, HBO’s smash-hit series has served up a quartet of colossal clashes: the episode-spanning fights for King’s Landing and Castle Black that served as climaxes for Seasons Two and Four, and the shorter but no less striking struggles against the White Walkers and House Bolton that served a similar function in Seasons Five and Six. Each involves filmmaking on a scale rarely if ever seen on television before, and each represents a threat to the characters and a turning point in the overall storyline as big as the battles themselves. Now that last night’s showdown between Jon Snow and Lord Ramsay has entered the history books, it’s the perfect time to take a look at the similarities and differences between all four battles, analysing how they work–and what they have to say.

When it comes to the Big Four, the most obvious difference is directorial. “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall” were both helmed by Neil Marshall, the auteur of intelligent big-screen genre fare from The Descent to Centurion. As much a tactician as a technician, Marshall made his battles things of terrible beauty and precise calibration. He gave his attackers concrete goals – storm this wall, breach this gate – and based his battle choreography around them, making the spacial relationships and physical stakes involved in each physical clash easy for audiences to grasp. Nothing demonstrated Marshall’s clarity of action better than the stunning 360-degree swing around Castle Black during the fight for the Wall – shot in a single unedited take that revealed the location of every major character mid-battle, it involved moving the camera so quickly that the director worried someone might be struck in the head and killed. But his use of CGI is every bit as ambitious as his more practical effects; from the massive scythe and chain released from the Wall to sweep away its attackers to the enormous emerald-green wildfire explosion that sets Blackwater Bay alight – in terms of sheer scale, it’s still the show’s most jaw dropping special effect – Marshall is a master of spectacle as well as mise-en-scène.

As the man behind the camera of “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards,” Miguel Sapochnik has taken a different approach. Some of this is no doubt necessitated by the scripts: Unlike Marshall’s battles, Sapochnik’s share screen time with other scenes throughout Westeros and the world beyond, with the nearly simultaneous fight for Meereen last night the most obvious example. But if “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall” are about control, their successors are chaos incarnate. In these episodes, it’s not a matter of one side attempting to dislodge the other from an entrenched position, with all the logistical challenges and physical beats that entails – it’s a Hobbesian struggle of all against all, a swirling morass of the living and the dead and the bloody blades that turn one into the other. Whether it’s the Watch and the Wildlings fleeing for their lives amid a swarm of zombies, or the forces of House Stark and House Bolton being sandwiched together in a solid mass of violence and vulnerability, these battles rely on being fundamentally incomprehensible in their fury.

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Tormund Giantsbane Helen Sloan/HBO

But the differences between the battles go beyond tone or technique. For example, what makes “Blackwater” truly stand out – and most likely cements its status – is how evenly it divided our sympathies. Both sides of the conflict contained characters we really cared about, in roughly the same configurations. You had the vicious but oddly endearing leaders, Cersei and Stannis; the good-hearted Hands of the Kings trying to make the best of a bad situation, Tyrion and Davos; even the menaced sons, Tommen Baratheon and Mathos Seaworth. Granted, House Lannister had far more players on the field, good bad and ugly alike – Joffrey, Varys, the Hound, Bronn, Tyrion’s girlfriend Shae, Cersei’s hostage Sansa, and eventually Loras Tyrell and Tywin Lannister – and thus our rooting interest could be seen as lopsided, especially since the Seaworths were swept off the board so quickly. But Stannis’s forces served as an psychological proxy, if not a literal or legalistic one, for our primary protagonists, House Stark. When that invasion started, it was hard to say which side you wanted to win.

This was decidedly less true up at the Wall two seasons later, when the Wildlings faced off against the Night’s Watch for access to the south and its protective barrier against the White Walkers. Even though the brothers in Black were relatively underdeveloped compared to their Lannister counterparts – beyond Jon, Sam, Gilly, and mean old Ser Alliser Thorne, the speaking characters were largely interchangeable – it was abundantly clear who we were meant to root for if civilisation was to stand.

Yet even so, the Free Folk were not without their selling points. In Mance Rayder and Tormund Giantsbane, they boasted two charismatic commanders who moreover seemed like alright dudes, if it weren’t for the fact that they had to slaughter everyone in Castle Black to get what they wanted. They were augmented by the presence of Ygritte, who with her star-crossed ex-lover Jon Snow formed what’s still the show’s white-hottest couple to date. Throw in the “wow” factor of the giants and mammoths in the attackers’ vanguard, as well as the fundamentally humanitarian nature of their mission – save an entire people from genocide by zombies and ice demons – and rooting for the wild side made at least some emotional sense.

By the time “Hardhome” came calling, the gotta-hear-both-sides approach was abandoned entirely. Against the Night King and his undead hordes, there can be only one option: Root, root root for the humans. The show therefore had to rely on other methods to maintain audience interest. One of them was developing deeply likeable characters among the living, only to threaten them with, and in some cases sacrifice them to, the dead almost immediately. From Wun-Wun the giant, who made it, to Karsi the wildling chieftainnes, who didn’t (though her adorable children survived, thank christ), the episode created compelling protagonists out of whole cloth in the space of mere minutes.

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Ramsay Bolton and Rickon Stark Helen Sloan/HBO

Indeed, speed was “Hardhome”‘s chief asset, since simply put, the whole thing came out of nowhere. With no antecedent in George R.R. Martin’s source novels aside from a rumoured event we hear about in a letter but don’t witness directly, the assault on this remote wildling outpost was a complete shock to viewers, readers, Free Folk, and Night’s Watch alike. From the moment it began, the panic-inducing sense that anything could happen at any moment never let up, thanks to a series of stunning twists, turns, and visuals. The high-speed, high-density zombie attack itself put anything we’ve seen on The Walking Dead to shame. The rampaging giant rivaled if not bested the Hulk’s similar role in the big Avengers battles. Karsi’s death came as a devastating blow despite the fact that we’d never even heard her actual name. The presence of the White Walkers on the ridge overlooking the carnage evoked both the Ringwraiths and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The discovery that Jon’s Valyrian steel sword could kill a Walker added a key element to the show’s overall mythology. The literal avalanche of dead bodies that flowed over the cliff to rise again and attack the living is perhaps the show’s most powerful metaphor for the horror of war. And finally, the sight of the Night King raising his arms and nonchalantly staring Snow down while the corpses of the slain rise up around him in silence was almost physically overwhelming to behold.

If anything, “The Battle of the Bastards” was even more lopsided. That’s right: As Sansa herself tried to argue, Ramsay Bolton’s not the White Walkers – he’s even more awful, certainly in terms of our gut-level reaction to his countless crimes. For God’s sake, the opening shot of the battle is an arrow through an unarmed child, Jon and Sansa’s baby brother Rickon. It’s impossible to root for House Bolton and its amoral allies; the question then becomes how badly you want them to suffer in defeat. So the challenge for this fight, in terms of complicating audience expectations, is to make the suffering so palpable the only thing you really want it to do is end.

Thus, more than any other major action set piece so far, this one overwhelms the senses in an effort to drive home the senselessness. Each major beat of the battle – the initial cavalry clash, the Boltons’ rain of arrows, the infantry charges, the encirclement by the spearmen, the rescue by Littlefinger’s forces, the final rush into Winterfell – involves dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths. A truly shocking number of these are visible on screen, either in the moment or as their inevitable outcome of corpses builds into towering piles of the dead. Jon, our ostensible hero, is frequently shown totally surrounded rather than heroically charging: facing the oncoming horses only to be eclipsed by the arrival of his own knights, chopping his way through a chaotic swirl of opponents in a long take that highlights the horror around him, nearly suffocating beneath the weight of the massed warriors. The combat ends less like a glorious clash of kings and more like a street fight. And in an echo of previous ironic punishments – Daenerys crucifying the slave masters, the Freys mounting the head of Robb Stark’s direwolf on his corpse – the loser is fed to his own dogs. It’s hard not to feel like you’ve emerged from the action just as dirty and bloody as the combatants themselves. Consciously or not – and there’s little this show does by accident – it mirrors the storyline’s increasing tendency toward entropy as the White Walkers approach and the armies of humanity are slowly ground down to a nub. If the Big Four battles have anything deeper than daring, danger, and destruction in common, it’s this message: Winter is coming, but war already has this world in its cold, dead grip.