On Sunday night, one of the biggest and most pivotal events in “Game of Thrones” thus far will occur: the Battle of the Bastards. Sansa Stark and her bastard half-brother Jon Snow will lead an army of wildlings against legitimized bastard Ramsay Bolton at Winterfell.
As with anything in “Game of Thrones” at this point, the story of how we got here is pretty complicated. And it’s not actually one story that led us here, but several: Ramsay’s story, Sansa’s story, Jon’s story (which includes the wildlings), Melisandre and Davos’ story, Brienne of Tarth’s story, and Rickon’s story. All their threads are converging, and it’s likely that at least one or two of them will end here in some kind of brutal fashion.
Before we dive into all that death and mayhem, it’s important to look back on those winding paths these characters have taken, either willingly or otherwise. Those long roads are what give the Battle of the Bastards significance. Without them, this showdown in the snowy north is just more violent spectacle.
But the Battle of the Bastards is far more than just spectacle. It’s a fight for the soul of the North, and the first big step in preparation for the Long Night ahead when the White Walkers move south. For everyone involved, everything is on the line.
Despite the “Battle of the Bastards” name, the legitimately born Sansa is really the driving force here. After years of being passed around from one man to another like a commodity, she decided she’d had enough and taken her fate into her own hands for the first time.
Sansa’s story is long and tragic. In season 1, she was pledged to marry Prince Joffrey, who soon became King Joffrey. Though at first enamored with the idea of becoming queen, Sansa saw the real Joffrey when he had her father publicly executed despite her pleas for mercy. The incessantly cruel Joffrey went from dream to nightmare in the blink of an eye, as he began throwing out all sorts of horrible ideas for what he was going to do to her in the coming years.
After House Tyrell allied with the Lannisters at the Battle of the Blackwater, Sansa was thankfully freed of her commitment to Joffrey when Margaery Tyrell was betrothed to him instead. Though Sansa was then passed to Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion was at least nicer, but Sansa was distraught by the news of her mother and brother’s murder at the hands of the Freys as well as Joffrey’s continued threats. Sansa married Tyrion, but that marriage lasted only until Joffrey was poisoned at his own wedding.
Little Finger spirited Sansa out of King’s Landing then, knowing she and Tyrion would likely take the fall for Joffrey’s murder (Little Finger himself was responsible). After a detour to the Vale, Little Finger passed Sansa along to the Boltons, who controlled the Starks’ ancestral home at Winterfell. Roose Bolton legitimized his bastard son Ramsay, who then married and subsequently abused Sansa. Finally, Sansa convinced Theon Greyjoy to escape with her, and they did — Theon returned to his home in the Iron Islands, and Sansa met up with Brienne and went to Castle Black to meet with her brother Jon.
For a more detailed look at Sansa’s path, check out our gallery of Sansa’s story below.
One of the two titular bastards in the Battle of the Bastards, Jon Snow is the bastard son of Ned Stark and former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Jon joined the Watch at the beginning of the series, looking to carve out a place for himself in the world separate from his family.
Jon’s time in the Watch was incredibly eventful. Groomed by Lord Commander Mormont to be his eventual successor but despised by many of his brothers, Jon was captured by wildlings north of the wall and pretended to join up with the forces of the King Beyond the Wall Mance Rayder. But the ruse was short-lived, and Jon soon rejoined his brothers — leaving his wildling lover Ygritte behind. Ygritte was eventually killed when the wildlings attacked Castle Black, and Jon’s perpetual pouty face got even poutier.
Jon was, fortunately or unfortunately, popular enough to be elected the new Lord Commander after Mormont was killed by mutineers. Jon used his new standing to form an alliance with the wildlings — move he deemed necessary ahead of the imminent invasion from the north by the White Walkers and their undead armies. But some of his brothers, including Alister Thorne, didn’t like this, and a small group of Black Brothers murdered Jon because of it.
Fortunately for Jon, and probably everyone else, the Red Woman Melisandre was able to resurrect Jon. Jon then had the mutineers hung, before quitting the Night’s Watch. He had, after all, served until his death.
Then Sansa showed up, and she and Jon gathered a small army and headed south to Winterfell, to take back their home from the Boltons. That army includes the wildlings he had allied with as Lord Commander.
For a more detailed look at the history of Jon Snow, check out the gallery below, which features a timeline of his path through “Game of Thrones.”
Ramsay was the bastard son of Roose Bolton, legitimized because Roose had no other heirs. Ramsay is a really twisted guy — he first appeared in Season 3, and that entire season he did little other than torture Theon Greyjoy, even going so far as to castrate him and turning him into a trained pet he called Reek.
After Roose was named Warden of the North by the Lannisters, Ramsay moved into Winterfell and was married to Sansa Stark in a gambit by the Boltons to legitimize their claim to the North. Little Finger gave Sansa to the Boltons in a hugely miscalculated move — Little Finger thought she would be safe there, but of course no one is safe in Ramsay’s clutches. Ramsay sexually abused Sansa throughout her time there.
With Stannis Baratheon moving against Winterfell with a massive force, Ramsay was key in defeating them. He devised a plan to sabotage their supplies with a small group of men, a move that worked spectacularly with the first heavy snows of winter blanketing the region. By the time Stannis’ army managed to reach Winterfell, it was a shadow of its former self, and the Boltons easily defeated them. But Sansa and Theon escaped in the aftermath, weakening the Boltons’ hold on the North in an important way.
Roose’s wife Walda, meanwhile, finally gave Roose a trueborn heir. This, Ramsay took as a cue. He murdered his father, Walda and their baby, and claimed the title of Lord Bolton for himself. He forged alliances with several houses that were previously allied with the Starks in order to fend off an inevitable uprising. With Sansa and Jon gathering forces in the North, Ramsay still has the advantage in numbers.
Ramsay’s crimes against humanity cannot, of course, be summarized that quickly — for more on all that crap he’s pulled over the years, check out the gallery linked just below.
The Red Woman and Davos Seaworth
Both were pledged to Stannis for years: Melisandre as his religious advisor and Davos as Hand of the King. They never agreed on anything — Davos saw Melisandre’s magic as an abomination, and Melisandre resented Davos’ refusal to worship the Lord of Light. Melisandre did, however, realize that Davos had an important part to play, and prevented Stannis from having Davos executed after he attempted to kill her.
They both stood with Stannis to the end, though neither participated in the battle at Winterfell where Stannis was killed. But they both knew the end was coming before it did. Stannis sent Davos to Castle Black for supplies before the battle, knowing that he would try to interfere with any troubling religious ritual they would carry out to ensure their success. Melisandre’s last gasp attempt at saving Stannis involved burning his daughter Shireen alive — but when all that accomplished was causing the suicide of Stannis’ wife and half his forces abandoning the cause, she knew it was over and rode for Castle Black as well.
With Stannis dead, they both found themselves without a cause, all their hopes and dreams shattered and both knowing that something far worse lay on the horizon: the White Walkers. Melisandre, who it’s revealed is actually an ancient human, had counted Stannis as the savior of mankind, but that clearly was not the case. Castle Black becoming quite a hostile place with Jon Snow dead, Davos convinced her to attempt the same resurrection ritual Thoros of Myr had performed on Beric Dondarrion multiple times. She did so, and it worked.
Davos and Melisandre once again had a cause. The Red Woman now believed Jon Snow was the savior she previously thought Stannis was, and Davos believed the same thing but for more practical reasons rather than prophecy.
Brienne of Tarth
Lady Brienne is one of several major characters on “Game of Thrones” who has always been looking for her place. She began as a devotee and member of the kingsguard of Renly Baratheon, whom she had known for most of her life and had treated her well when others mocked her large size. When Renley was killed by Stannis’ ghost baby, Brienne pledged herself to Catelyn Stark, who charged Brienne with returning Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing and retrieving the Stark daughters.
Brienne did deliver Jaime, but Arya was out of reach and Sansa was married to Tyrion Lannister. Oh, and Catelyn and Robb Stark had been killed at the Red Wedding. Brienne had made an oath, but that oath had become more complicated.
After Joffrey’s death and Sansa’s disappearance, however, things became more clear. Jaime, in thanks for saving him, gave her his Valyrian steel sword and told her to use it to help Arya and Sansa however she could. He also presented her with the services of Podrick Payne as her squire. The two set off across Westeros in search of Arya and Sansa.
They found Arya in the company of the Hound, and Brienne critically wounded him but Arya ran away. They later found Sansa in an inn with Little Finger, and Brienne offered herself to her — but Sansa refused. Knowing they were traveling to Winterfell, Brienne and Pod followed them, and waited.
Meanwhile, Stannis’ army attacked Winterfell and lost. In the aftermath, Brienne found a wounded Stannis in the woods and finished him off.
After Sansa escaped Winterfell, Brienne found her, slew her pursuers and again offered herself to Sansa. This time, Sansa accepted. They traveled to Castle Black, hooked up with Jon Snow, and then Brienne traveled south to Riverrun to attempt to secure the services of Sansa’s mother’s family, House Tully. She was unable to do so, and set off north again ahead of the Battle of the Bastards.
Rickon has done basically nothing the entire series, mostly hovering in the background at Winterfell for two seasons before going on the run with Hodor, Osha and his brother Bran. The quartet roamed the North for a little while, before Bran and Hodor split off with Jojen and Meera Reed and headed beyond the Wall to find the Three-Eyed Raven.
Rickon and Osha took refuge with the Stark bannermen of House Umber, but that refuge didn’t last. When a new Lord Umber took over the house, he pledged their men to Ramsay Bolton and offered Rickon and Osha as gifts. Osha was murdered by Ramsay, and Rickon, so far as we know, remains in the Winterfell dungeons as Sansa and Jon make their move against the Boltons.
And that’s your “Battle of the Bastards” primer. I hope you’re ready for some mayhem and death.