How the Game of Thrones episode 'Battle of the Bastards' forever changed TV


When David Benioff and Dan Weiss pitched Game of Thrones to HBO in 2006, they made network executives a reassuring promise that wasn't actually true: That they had no plans for their show based on George R.R. Martin's novels to stage expensive battles.

A decade later, as Game of Thrones grew into the biggest global television sensation of the 21st century, season 6 unveiled "The Battle of the Bastards," an episode that was not only a massive production, but also an equally monumental accomplishment in dramatic storytelling.

There was jaw-dropping action with a field battle centerpiece that critics praised for its character-driven twists and coherence. There were quiet, moving character moments, like Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) finding Shireen's (Kerry Ingram) toy amid the ashes of her funeral pyre. And there were crowd-pleasing payoffs, such as the show's most hissable villain, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), finally getting his comeuppance at the hands of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). The episode was showered with seven Emmys, including for writing and directing, and overnight erased any lingering perception that TV is in some respects less than cinema — while also raising the bar for all competitors to come.

"There are certain battle sequences committed to film that are unforgettable, and the Battle of the Bastards ranks with the best of them," says Netflix executive Channing Dungey. "Dave and Dan devoted a decade of their lives to Game of Thrones, and all that work is evident in what feels like the pinnacle moment of the series. The degree of difficulty here is just massive — night shoots, stunt work, the CGI dragons — and director Miguel Sapochnik delivers all with incredible scope and specificity."

The battle itself was shot amid rough conditions in a Northern Ireland valley and took 25 days to film — then unheard of for a television action sequence. "Wet, muddy, windy, a bit gruelling, occasionally painful," recalls Sapochnik, who was recently announced as co-showrunner of the upcoming GoT prequel House of the Dragon. "BoB was a meticulously planned war in every aspect. We were battling time, the elements, fatigue, and ourselves."

Crunched the most — quite literally when he was smothered in a body pile of panicking soldiers — was star Kit Harington, who had to wordlessly communicate Jon Snow's ever-shifting perspective on the battle while also riding horses and swinging swords, including a stunning long tracking shot where he hacked and slashed his way through a sea of enemies. Yet looking back on even that famous one-take shot, Harington still sees things he'd want to change.

"I loved it, and to everybody else it looks good, I guess," the actor says. "To me, I look at it and see the things I could have done better."

And that was the real secret to pulling off BoB, an attitude that was pervasive among the GoT cast and crew: That noting they did was ever quite good enough.

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