(Spoiler warning: Go watch “Battle of the Bastards” before you read this.)
Yes, “Battle of the Bastards” was a thrill ride of a “Game of Thrones” episode. If you just like raw, adrenaline-filled, visceral action, this episode had it in spades. This episode alone took nearly a month to film and is a testament to how much money HBO is willing to throw at its biggest cash cow since “The Sopranos.”
But contrary to the breathless enthusiasm this episode has received from many outlets, “Battle of the Bastards” does not hold up to previous “Game of Thrones” battle episodes once the rush of the initial viewing wears off. Its main battle is hinged on contrivances and cliches, and unlike previous battles, attempts at ambiguity just turn everything into a confused mess.
Some credit should be given to this episode, though. On a purely aesthetic level, director Miguel Sapochnik has elevated his game, creating a battle that beats his work from last season’s epic “Hardhome.” The tracking shot of Jon fighting his way through the battlefield and surviving by pure luck captured the chaos that battlefields often become. The moment where Jon gets caught in a human crush becomes terrifyingly claustrophobic through the use of shaky camera and the increasingly muffled sounds of the battle. Meanwhile, in Meereen, we get to see all of Daenerys’ dragons in their full destructive splendor, providing a soaring contrast to the bleak terror of the battle up north. And, of course, the final demise of Ramsay Bolton was just as satisfying as we all hoped it would be.
Yet the episode still fails to reach the emotional depths of “Blackwater,” an episode that lets us see the preparations being made by both Stannis and the Lannisters for battle and then challenges the audience to root for a side when both parties have sympathetic characters. That ambiguity is not present here. Ramsay and his men are simply bad guys that must be destroyed. What makes George R.R. Martin‘s world so successful is that it constantly blurs the lines between good and evil and makes you sympathize with characters who do despicable things. That’s why Jaime and Cersei’s arcs are so compelling. To return to a good/evil dichotomy for this season’s big showdown feels like an abandonment of the show and books’ greatest narrative strength.
“Battle of the Bastards” further dives into the fantasy cliches that this series has rejected for so long with the battle’s ending: a deus ex machina rescue by the Knights of the Vale just as all hope is lost. Martin once said that he wrote “A Song of Ice and Fire” as a deconstruction of the fantasy tropes made popular by “Lord of the Rings.” Now “Game of Thrones” has replaced that deconstruction with a blatant lift from Tolkien’s book, with the Vale forces riding in to save the day like Gandalf riding in to save Helm’s Deep. “Game of Thrones” has done last-second rescues before, but nothing this obvious or perfunctory. Instead of the subversiveness we’ve come to expect, we get an ending ripped straight from a TVTropes page.
Of course, while the rescue isn’t the least bit surprising to any of the viewers, it is surprising to Jon, and that’s only because Sansa didn’t tell him about her secret weapon. The night before the battle, Sansa tried to keep her brother from racing into battle. Couldn’t she have slowed him down by telling him and Davos about the possibility of reinforcements? Did she know that Littlefinger was going to attack the way he did, considering how she rode out to meet him before the Vale charged into battle?
While the motives of every major player in previous battle episodes are made clear, there is no clear reason for Sansa’s reticence other than to allow the writers to end the battle with a big rescue that makes Sansa look like some sort of mastermind. Only she’s not a mastermind, because she has now given Littlefinger more power than ever over the North, since he is now arguably the person with the most men under his control. The Starks need him. And we’re guessing this will become an issue once the thrill of victory ebbs.
The contrivances and plot holes only go on from there. The writers have Davos charge in with lightly armored archers who can do nothing in battle simply to make the Vale rescue feel like a bigger moment. Daenerys, who was completely unable to control her dragons last season, has suddenly become a master dragon rider in no time at all. Rickon’s death should be a major moment, but because Rickon has no personality, his death feels more like a narrative tool than the tragedy it should be.
“Battle of the Bastards” had all the spectacle of a summer blockbuster, but it lacked the intricate storytelling that was woven into episodes like “Blackwater” and “Watchers On The Wall.” It will be beloved by “Game of Thrones” fans for the long-awaited catharsis of seeing Ramsay getting his face ripped off, but all the other interpersonal conflicts in the North remain the same at the end of the episode as they did at the start. All that changed was the scenery, and the reclaiming of Winterfell should have had so much more dramatic weight simply being a change of scenery.
With Ramsay gone for good, check out who takes his spot in the top five of our “Game of Thrones” power rankings below.