Game of Thrones just gave us everything we wanted.
Not merely the obvious — Sansa letting slip the dogs of war to turn her sadistic tormenter and the show’s biggest villain into kibbles and bits — but everything else was pitch-perfect thrilling, too. We wanted a massive battle that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before, and we got it. We wanted to see Dany’s three dragons fighting an enemy all at once. We wanted Theon and Yara to meet Dany and form an alliance. We wanted to see resurrected Jon Snow in action-hero mode. We wanted Davos to get a clue about Shireen. We wanted Jon and Ramsay to have an actual conversation — and for them to fight one on one. We wanted the Starks to reclaim their home. And of course, yes, we wanted comeuppance for Ramsay and sweet revenge for Sansa.
Sure, there was tragedy in “Battle of the Bastards” too — Rickon, Wun-Wun. But can we be honest with ourselves? On some level, we wanted that, as well. What we don’t want is a huge climactic episode 9 battle without any loss. That would not be war, and that would not be Game of Thrones.
Was this the show’s best episode? It’s hard to immediately process that question. Quite possibly. It’s almost certainly the most exciting hour and had the most jaw-dropping battle sequence we’ve seen yet on TV.
But we start with…
Meereen: Oh Thrones, you’re so Thrones! Here we’ve been teased with this incredible battle in the North this week with publicity photos, previews, and interviews. Yet the BastardBowl isn’t the only huge action sequence in this hour — there’s this whole other clash in Meereen that was kept entirely hidden from view.
As you’ll recall, at the end of last week, mom returned home and found her kids had trashed the house and a party was raging out of control.
We open with the sounds of war, setting a theme straight away. Within seconds of the fade in, we get an awesome point-of-view shot of a makeshift cannonball being fired at the city.
In the pyramid, Dany is pissed. Tyrion is spinning his stewardship while the city burns, selling a tale of “the rebirth of Meereen.”
Dany’s initial idea is to dragon-nuke the other Slavery’s Bay cities whose masters are attacking Meereen. Tyrion points out her Mad King father once had a similar reaction to an invading army. It’s admittedly a bit worrisome that a varation on “burn them all!” is Dany’s first instinct. He dares to push back on her, suggesting a different approach. While he arguably mishandled running the city, he re-earns his status by giving strong advice.
They meet with the trio of masters. They arrogantly order her to surrender. “My reign has just begun,” she tells them. She mounts Drogon as her two less-appreciated dragons, Rhaegal and Viserion, bust out of their prison and finally get to stretch their fully grown wings.
Then it’s on: an extraordinary sequence where the dragons torch the attacking ships. There’s this swooping sense of aerial movement to this sequence that we haven’t felt when Dany has been on Drogon before that makes you feel like you’re watching the action from a dizzying height. It’s almost like some dragonfire fantasy version of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Director Miguel Sapochnik tells us he studied World War II fighter footage for making this sequence (as did George Lucas for making the dogfights in Star Wars); he wanted to have shots where the dragons “break the frame” — as if the dragons were really there and the cameraman is having difficulty capturing the fast-paced action.
What’s also clear for the first time is that Dany can fully mentally control her dragons now — Drogon appeared right on cue, Rhaegal and Viserion burst out to help, and they all attacked in unison. Dany commanded “dracarys,” but she probably doesn’t have to say it aloud anymore. We just get the feeling that she likes to say it. Burn ’em all!
NEXT: Targaryen, Greyjoy 2016: Stronger Together [pagebreak]
Later, Theon and Yara arrive (and thankfully their fleet wasn’t torched by dragons in the mayhem). We get that tingling surge of pleasure at seeing GoT combine more characters together for the first time. The Greyjoys make their pitch: They have 100 ships. They pledge their fleet to Dany if she’ll help them defeat her power mad uncle and support Yara as queen of the Iron Islands — “I’ll help you get your throne if you help me get my throne,” she basically says.
Dany notes there’s never been a queen of the Iron Islands, which rather perfectly sets up Yara to point out, hey, isn’t that exactly the precedent you’re trying to set in King’s Landing?
Tyrion is skeptical. He remembers Theon acting like a tool back in season 1 and never forgets a joke about his height. But that was before Theon lost his tool — and his arrogance along with it. (I’m bummed that Varys was sent on his Top Secret Mission so he can’t form that Theon-Varys-Grey Worm eunuch super-hero group, an idea one reader dubbed the “Ex-Men”).
The Greyjoys point out Euron will make Dany a similar proposal and quote their uncle’s ill-worded description of his wooing process for Dany. Yara points out he’s proposing marriage, but she’s suggesting an alliance. Then Yara absolutely hilariously adds: “But I’m up for anything, really,” thus spawning instant fandom fantasies everywhere. The way Yara looks at Dany, you get the feeling she’d gladly pay the iron price for her.
Dany has a demand of her own, however: Under her reign, the Iron Islands must stop raiding and raping. Stop being themselves. Theon nods in approval, though it’s Yara who hesistates. That’s going to be a tough sell back home. But Yara agrees. They also bond over the fact they had terrible fathers, but pretty much everybody on this show has terrible fathers.
Dany accepts their proposal to form a glass ceiling shattering Hillary Clinton / Elizabeth Warren-esque “Stronger Together” power-ticket.
Outside Winterfell: Using the word “epic” to describe Game of Thrones became an overused cliche by the end of season 2. So what do we even call “Battle of the Bastards”? Not TV, surely. Thrones has been riding well above what’s considered television for a while now. The biggest clashes on The Walking Dead, Daredevil, or Outlander look like backyard-shot fan fiction compared to what we see tonight in this sequence between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton. S6E9 was an action spectacle that resembled a big-budget feature movie, yet the hour didn’t make the mistakes commonly seen in so many modern films — the action remained character-driven and cohesive, you could follow every shot. There was, if anything, a devotion to hyper-clarity throughout. And also unlike so many box office action hits (Marvel and DC titles especially), the fighting mattered; there were fatal consequences on both sides and emotionally meaningful impacts all over the place.
The most important of these consequences, of course, was the ridiculously satisfying multi-stage downfall of sneering Ramsay Bolton, the most hated Thrones character of all time (and that’s saying something; Joffrey set a high bar).
Staging a clash of Ramsay vs. Jon in the first place is a genius move. They are both, as Ramsay actor Iwan Rheon points out in our interview, two sides of the same coin. Both born to lords of great houses. Low-born mothers (allegedly). Saddled with the Northern bastard surname of “Snow.” With the War of Five Kings, both rose to greatness — Ramsay cruelly and opportunistically clawing his way to run the Dreadfort and Winterfell. Jon Snow acquiring an army through his noble drive to protect others. They’re both so similar, yet couldn’t be more different.
NEXT: The Glorious Bastards [pagebreak]
There is a parlay. Ramsay and Snow, together at last. Sansa, too, who looks like she’s about to vomit just being near him.
The bastard of Bolton starts with sarcasm, thanking Jon for bringing his wife back. He tries to tempt Jon: Nobody has to die, just give him what he wants and everybody will be fine. We know, of course, that this is bull — if Jon handed over Sansa, Ramsay would have his army attack anyway. Ramsay says he’s a man of mercy and we half-expect Sansa to bark an Edna Krabappel-like, “Ha!”
Jon has a counter proposal: Let’s fight it out. We lean forward: Fight! Fight! He tries to play on Ramsay’s ego, baiting him. As Rheon tells us in our interview, Ramsay wants to take him up on it, but he’s too smart to fall for it. He’s researched his opponent, and he’s got the numbers. So we’re disappointed on one level, but Thrones is going to give this fight to us later anyway.
Ramsay also notes, foreshadowing, that he hasn’t fed his hounds in a week and wonders which part of Snow’s men they’ll eat first.
Sansa gets in the last word: “You’re going to die tomorrow Lord Bolton, sleep well.” Now this is a very interesting and non-Sansa-like comment. She’s trying to get into Ramsay’s head, and using some sarcasm to do it. It’s actually like something Ramsay would himself say.
Strategy meeting. There are multiple levels of strategy talk here, with each character focusing on a different element. For Tormund, a battle is an act of aggression, not planning. For Jon and Davos, the battle is about military tactics. For Sansa, it’s about Ramsay’s psychology. So Tormund seems bewildered by the tactical talk, while Sansa is frustrated that Jon won’t seek her advice on Ramsay’s behavior.
Jon and Davos plot a pincer movement. They hope to spur Ramsay into charging with his entire force, and then they can surround him and attack from two sides. (This is, of course, precisely what Ramsay gets them to do instead, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).
“He’s going to play games with you,” Sansa warns. “Whatever it is he wants you to do, don’t do it.”
“What have I been doing all my life, playing with broomsticks?” Jon shoots back, which seems like a shoutout to fans who compared Jon’s season 1 story line to Harry Potter.
Sansa also warns him that if they lose, Ramsay is not going to take her alive. Jon promises to protect her. We’ve seen Sansa change so much over the past few seasons, but her next line is probably the most striking example of that. “No one can protect me,” she says. “No one can protect anyone.”
Jon has a separate sidebar with Melisandre. He wants her to promise she won’t bring him back again. I buy that his mental state is such that he’s in post-resurrection depressive funk. At the same time, if he found death to be a scarily empty experience, I would think he would want to come back again, if this is all there is and there is so much at stake. But this conversation actually serves an unstated higher function: It’s Thrones’ way of telling us that the stakes are real — just because the Red Woman is on Team Stark doesn’t mean that Jon Snow can’t die, and for real this time.
Melisandre nonetheless annoys him by saying he’s not the boss of her and she’ll keep bringing him back if she can. Her only advice is simply “don’t lose” — clearly she’s finished trying to predict or influence battles. Next time Jon needs a pep talk he should probably avoid Melisandre, she’s even more morose than he is.
Speaking of that, Davos goes for a predawn walk and finds the remains Shrieen’s execution pyre. He discovers the wooden stag he carved for her shortly before she died. That little scene between Davos and Shrieen from season 5 now serves a new purpose. Davos now knows, or at least strongly suspects, what happened to Stannis’ daughter — but also knows that conversation can wait until later. Behind him is the blooming reminder that the battle is approaching as dawn creeps in, a gorgeous shot in an episode full of them.
NEXT: Battle Royale [pagebreak]
The morning of the battle. Ramsay has flayed and crucified some people just for scary decoration. He then produces his trump card: Rickon Stark. Fans have been assuming Rickon is doomed. So has Sansa. They were right.
Ramsay tells the terrified kid that he wants to play a game. He asks Rickon to run as fast as he can toward his brother. Rickon’s choices are to stay with Ramsay or run to Jon, so it’s not much of a choice at all. He takes his chances and bolts. What follows is agonizingly suspenseful and beautifully shot.
Ramsay leisurely begins firing off arrows. We think he’s trying to kill Rickon. He’s not. Not yet anyway.
And Jon does exactly what he must. He can’t help going after Rickon even though it’s a poor strategy any more than Ramsay couldn’t resist torturing Theon and Sansa even though that was a poor strategy too. It’s their natures.
Jon almost reaches Rickon in time. An arrow goes through the Maggie Simpson of the Stark family, shot down (like a shaggy dog?). Then Ramsay’s archers take aim at Jon Snow. We get a staggering shot of Jon facing down a calvary charge. This is not CGI, but was staged for real (the camera flatens the distance between Jon and horses to some degree). Jon is ready to accept his death. His army is not. They charge, falling for Ramsay’s trap. And the battle begins.
What we get next is a series of epic (dammit…) battle moments. Instead of narrating each bit of action, here are a few highlights:
— Jon Snow’s single-shot battle rampage amid the mayhem and charging horses: What’s incredible about this is normally battle scenes are either chaotic and you have a difficult time understanding what’s going on, or they’re very focused on a couple people at the expense of what’s going on around them. Here you have both: The action is crystal clear, following Jon as he takes on one Bolton man after another — or tries to, anyway — yet the action feels messy and frantic too, all without losing track of what exactly is going on.
— The Bolton pincer movement: Producer Bryan Cogman described this sequence as the Thrones version of the trash compactor scene from Star Wars. Snow and his men are surrounded, and the Boltons advance with shields locked together and spears forward, creating a unified killing machine.
— Jon Snow’s “rebirthing” scene: As Sapochnik tells us, this was improvised after heavy rain made the showrunners’ original sequence unworkable. Jon gets trampled during the pincer movement chaos by his own men and is in the process of being buried alive, becoming just another member of the body pile. What Jon sees here is an eclipsing darkness — just like the nothingness he saw when he died. He realizes he doesn’t want to go back to that. Jon finds the will to live and fights his way out into the light. He was resurrected in epsiode 2, and now born again in episode 9.
— The body pile: Just a visually striking and horrifying visual, as men try to escape the squeeze play and are cut down one after another by Boltons on the higher “ground.”
And then, Team Snow is rescued by the knights of the Vale — Sansa’s letter to Littlefinger (we can now assume the letter was to him) worked. If you groaned at this, thinking that a last-minute rescue by a larger army has capped Thrones battles more than once before, I think that’s a fair point. But that’s squinting pretty hard to find a complaint in this hour.
Now let’s take a moment before we proceed to appreciate what an unexpected team of “good” guys that have gradually joined forces here. At the start of the season, nobody had predicted this collective. Two years ago it would have been inconceivable. Three seasons ago, totally mad — it’s Jon Snow with Tormund Giantsbane and Sansa Stark and Melisandre and Ser Davos along with freaking Littlefinger. They’re like The Avengers of the North. Wun Wun is their Hulk.
NEXT: Release the Hounds [pagebreak]
Winterfell: Ramsay flees to the castle. He thinks he’s safe. He can wait it out, he figures. But his castle wasn’t built to withstand a giant. Wun Wun just dismantles his drawbridge like it’s a lemoncake. And with this, Jon Snow’s entire bet on the Wildlings over the past few seasons pays off — not just in terms of supplying an army — no Westerosi army could have breached that gate. Only the wilding have giants and a giant is what it took to win.
Wun-wun takes arrow after arrow. The final blow is struck by Ramsay himself — even though Wun Wun was clearly dying — just to be a dick about it. The only consolation is that Wun Wun is his final victim.
Ramsay cheerfully says he reconsidered one-on-one combat and begins firing arrows at Jon, who grabs a shield and advances. We feel the impact of every arrow and flinch. Nothing is going Ramsay’s way today. Jon beats the hell out of him. At a certain point Ramsay just relaxes and lets it happen. His changing expression almost looks like some kind special effect, but it’s not. This is cathartic for us. But before Jon gets too carried away, he sees Sansa and remembers. He doesn’t say “he’s all yours,” but he doesn’t have to.
Later, Ramsay is tied to a chair in his cell. And there is Sansa. Fans on Twitter are having a full revenge-gasm meltdown.
“Hello Sansa,” he says, channeling Dr. Lecter. Ramsay isn’t even worried here. He’s so arrogant that he thinks this will turn out fine. It’s like he’s the hero of his world and everybody else isn’t even a real person. What if the Starks just kept Ramsay locked up down here and used his unique insight into Westerosi tyrants to take on enemies in the future? Sansa could start wearing pantsuits and be his Clarice…
“You can’t kill me, I’m part of you now,” Ramsay says, and we wonder if that’s true.
“All memory of you will disappear,” she promises.
Enter Ramsay’s hungry, hungry hounds. Ramsay says his dogs won’t harm him, even though he’s starved them and he’s dripping with blood. He’s very much mistaken. Nom-nom-nom. Revenge is a dish best served while screaming his bastard head off.
Sansa starts to turn away, then takes a creepy peek. Then, walking away for good, Sansa gives a cold smirk. We’re not even sure we know exactly who she is now, but for the first time since her father died, we’re no longer worried for Sansa Stark.
I might be out of superlatives to describe this episode. Even being on set for this battle and knowing basically what was going to happen didn’t prepare me for the level of execution here — this was an extraordinary hour. IMDb already has it rated a 10 out of 10. I can see why Thrones is betting heavily on this episode in the Emmys.
We have so much more exclusive BOB coverage: Read our exit interview with Ramsay Bolton actor Iwan Rheon here. We also have a very detailed interview with Sapochnik about pulling off the battle scenes that really gives you a rare sense of what it takes to make an episode like this happen. Separately, Sapochnik also weighed in on staging Ramsay’s final scenes. Also: Sophie Turner reacts to her final Ramsay scene. Also, if you haven’t check out our Game of Thrones Weekly podcast yet, here’s the new episode below where I discuss what it was like on set during this incredible battle.
We’ll also have a trivia question tonight (courtesy of the HBO Store). Tonight’s prize is a sigil pint glass. The question for the first person to email the correct answer to email@example.com: Rickon Stark did not have any dialogue in this episode. Has he ever had any lines? And, if so, what was the last line that he spoke on the series?