Has there ever been an episode of television this massive in scope, yet this suffocating in tone? Occupying the penultimate position in Game of Thrones‘ sixth season, “The Battle of the Bastards” had five tough acts to follow: the death of Ned Stark, the Battle of the Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the assault on the Castle Black and the “dance of dragons” in Meereen. It stood its own by combining elements of all five: murdered Starks, rampaging giants, fleets set aflame, dragons on the wing, massive action set pieces and brutally intimate violence. Its defining image isn’t Daenerys‘ reptilian children torching her enemies, nor her handshake of alliance with Yara Greyjoy, nor Littlefinger‘s forces repeating the last-minute rescues pulled by Loras Tyrell at King’s Landing or Stannis Baratheon at the Wall, nor even Jon Snow standing defiant against an entire cavalry charge, memorable as all that was. No, the centerpiece is the overhead shot of Ramsay Bolton‘s spearmen encircling their enemies, pressing inward, slowly crushing the life out of them. More often than not, that’s how watching this thing felt.
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Director Miguel Sapochnik previously blew minds with “Hardhome,” last season’s cataclysmic confrontation between the Night’s Watch and the wildlings on one side and the White Walkers and their zombie thralls on the other. Unlike “The Battle of the Bastards,” which had been built to for weeks and referenced explicitly in the episode title, that supernatural slaughter beyond the Wall came as a total shock to viewers — even book readers, since it was effectively the show’s invention. The element of surprise played strongly in its favor, giving each moment an “oh shit, what now?” quality that the chaotic choreography only enhanced.
By comparison, “The Battle of the Bastards” had an air of inevitability to it — yet Sapochnik still made it work in his favor. While the mayhem of “Hardhome” inspired panic and terror, the mud-slinging, blood-spurting maelstrom seen here provoke sheer despair. Horses collide, bodies are smashed and crushed, men are trampled where they stood — even Jon Snow himself nearly dies of asphyxiation from the sheer mass of humanity burying him alive. The effect is strong enough that you didn’t need to believe that House Stark’s ragtag alliance was going to lose, per se, to feel in your guts that the whole thing was a monumental waste of human life.
Literally monumental, in fact. From the burning St. Peter’s crosses on which the Boltons mounted their flayed victims to the enormous piles of corpses that slowly took over the battlefield until they became the battlefield, this episode used human remains like brutalist architecture uses concrete. (Even poor Shireen Baratheon’s ashes, and the toy Ser Davos finds in them, play a part.) The mounds of the fallen in particular evoked the White Walkers and their undead army, which at one point rained down from a cliff — an actual avalanche of corpses — upon the hapless human beings below. All GoT did here is rearrange the elements a bit, so that living soldiers came pouring down a mountain of dead bodies. Either way, the message that this is what war is came through clear as day.
Perhaps that’s why even victory leaves such a bad taste in your mouth this time around. In the end, Jon is saved not by his good-hearted comrades Davos or Tormund or Wun-Wun the giant, but by perpetually sneering asshole Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, brought in at the last minute by a skeptical Sansa Stark. Lord Snow and friends batter down the gates of Winterfell, but his towering ally dies in the assault, taking an arrow in the eye from the Bastard of Bolton himself. Ramsay’s attempt to shoot his Stark rival at point-blank range fails in spectacular fashion when the enraged commander powers through the barrage, but beating that smirking face to a bloody pulp leaves no one smiling but Ramsay himself.
And in the end, the late Lord Bolton dies in a manner sadistic enough that even he’d approve of it, had he not been on the receiving end: fed to his own starving dogs by Sansa, who walks away smiling from the carnage. It’s a complex and unsettling set of images, even putting aside the shot of a gigantic hound tearing a man’s jaw off. Everything about it uses the cinematic hallmarks of badassery: the poetic justice of the method of execution; the exchange of quips and one-liners that eventually leaves the loser speechless; the blasé, almost slow-motion stroll away from the carnage; the vengeance-is-mine smirk. Certainly no one would begrudge Lady Stark her satisfaction, especially given the codes and customs of the place and time.
But righteous revenge is almost always an oxymoron. That goes double on this show: Theon’s betrayal of Robb Stark was repaid by a fate worse than death; Tyrion‘s payback against his awful father Tywin also involved the Imp strangling his ex-girlfriend to death; the murderers of both the Hound’s religious community and Jon Snow himself died slowly at the ends of nooses; Arya’s kill-list victims have gone out in unpleasantly gruesome fashion one by one; and on and on it goes. Seen in that light, Sansa’s smile over her abuser’s hideous death is far from the simple “fuck yeah” moment it might seem. Again, there’s some question as to whether the series sees it this way, or if we’re intended to take her “cool guys don’t look at explosions” exit at face value. Given the unsparingly awful battle that preceded it, it seems safer to assume that it’s intended to make you uncomfortable. What kind of world would it be, what kind of people would we be, if we weren’t?
Previously: Full Circle