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Game of Thrones Review: "Battle of the Bastards"

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<i>Game of Thrones</i> Review: "Battle of the Bastards"

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.

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Shane,

Battle of the Bastards went head to head with Game 7 of the NBA finals tonight. I know how you love the basketballs, but LeBron James’ triple-double didn’t come with calvary charging him, his own men trampling him and Ramsay Bolton shooting arrows at him. Sorry, but tonight belonged to Jon Snow.

Sansa tried to warn her half-brother, that he knew nothing, Jon Snow, about the ways in which the bastard Bolton would try to toy with him. And I cringed when I saw Ramsay pulling on a rope. We all knew that would be Rickon Stark at the end, and we all knew that it wouldn’t end well for the boy. I’d hoped besides Robb, the Stark children would be spared from George R.R. Martin’s tendency to kill off beloved characters, but as Sansa said to Jon the night before the battle. “No one can protect anyone.” Wars without the death of innocents are as much a fantasy as dragons and giants. And my heart broke for Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun, when that same sadistic bastard pierced him with a final arrow, just as it did when he shot Rickon.

Never did I root so much for the death of a villain as when those starving dogs came creeping out of their cages. but after his torment of Theon, his rape of Sansa, and his murder of Rickon, Ramsay Bolton needed to die (Wun Wun was the last straw.) I’m fully anti-death penalty in real life, but I can enjoy the catharsis of a nice, violent comeuppance on the screen. It was the perfect way to end the cruel rein of a man who had his enemies flayed alive.

The battle itself was as intense and exhilarating as any the show has delivered, even if the eventual arrival of Littlefinger’s army was expected. Sansa could have saved a lot of lives by letting Jon in on that secret, and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in the aftermath. But Ramsay forcing Jon’s hand early, the penning in of his forces, the claustrophobia of men squeezed into a shrinking field with no escape—the horror of war felt all too real. The Battle of the Bastards lived up to its billing.

The battle for Meereen was much less intense. That was more LeBron James showing up in an over-40 rec league. Like Indiana Jones bringing a gun to a sword fight, Danaerys and her dragons are always going to beat your fleet of wooden ships. That didn’t make the evaporating arrogance of the Masters any less fun to watch.

I also loved seeing Tyrion squirm when his queen showed up to find her city being ransacked. And Dany’s handling of Asha and Theon was equally enjoyable. The patriarchy ruined Westeros. It’s time for women to save it. Essos provided just enough respite from the adrenaline rush of Winterfell, while still allowing plenty of time for the battle to play out.

This was one of the most anticipated Game of Thrones episodes of all time. Do you think it lived up to the hype? More or less than James vs. Curry?

—Josh

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Josh,

First off, as a Golden State Warriors fan, let me just say that Game 7 played out exactly like the Battle of the Bastards, except without the Knights of the Vale arriving to save the day. Just a slow, claustrophobic death where your heroes end up looking very frail and vulnerable, and not as smart as you wanted to believe.

Now, to Thrones—I like Jon Snow, we all like Jon Snow, Jon Snow is a good, fun guy. But if Sansa wants to turn him into her personal Reek at this point, I’m okay with that, because she told him exactly what was going to happen in that battle, and not only did he not listen; he let himself and all his men charge into certain slaughter because he couldn’t keep his cool. Sansa had it right—Rickon was a goner no matter what. If you’re going to let one person hold an entire military effort hostage, my strong personal opinion is that you shouldn’t be leading an army.

Josh, let me ask the question more bluntly: WHY ARE ALL THE STARKS SO FUCKING STUPID?! There have to have been some brilliant Starks somewhere along the line, right? Otherwise, they never would have become the most powerful family in Winterfell. If all the Starks from history were like the ones we’ve seen over the course of six seasons, the first Bolton would’ve told the first Stark men that a bear had insulted his honor, and the first Stark would have believed it wholeheartedly and tried to fight the bear, and—voila—no more Starks.

Do you realize what George R.R. Martin has done to us? Forget all the realism and the heartbreaking deaths and the way he plays with moral ambiguity and his dichotomy of rigid and fluid thinkers. What he’s actually accomplished, when you get boil it down to the essence, is that he’s made us root for the idiots.

Show me a smart Stark, Josh. I challenge you. Show me any of these people being smart:

Eddard: Probably the worst hand in King’s Landing history, didn’t realize his life was in danger even when Renly Baratheon left the city, and actually told Cersei he knew about her incest just in case they weren’t already anxious to kill him.

Catelyn: Let Jaime Lannister go so she could get back her daughters. Got back exactly zero daughters. Cost Robb any leverage he might have, just in case someone wanted to murder him and his mother in a “crimson matrimony” type situation.

Robb: If the dude had honored his marriage vow to the Freys, nothing bad would have ever happened. (Not strictly true, but it’s amazing to think of the deaths that could have been avoided if he’d just chosen whichever Frey girl looked the least like Walder. Instead? Everyone dies, and the north comes under the sway of a sadist that makes Joffrey look like Mr. Rogers.)

Jon: Right now, R’hllor is up in Red God heaven shaking his head, going, “look, I know I’m capable of resurrecting this guy, but does that mean he has to try so hard to die?” There’s nobody like Jon Snow for ignoring signs of his imminent death. Even when he had Ramsay surrounded by his own men in Winterfell, he insisted on charging at him with only a small shield for protection.

Sansa: Actually seems smart now, but let’s please remember that she was super into Joffrey at one point. Bad judge of character.

Bran: Don’t climb high walls. Don’t touch the Night King. Don’t be a dick to the stable boy and ruin his life.

Arya: Don’t know about you, Josh, but if an assassin was ever after me, I’d march around town throwing money everywhere, stand around in public places with my back turned, and generally be as conspicuous as possible.

Rickon: Hey, dude, when someone is shooting arrows at you? Try swerving. Like, just a few zigs, a few zags. Hide behind a flayed man, even if it smells bad. Literally do anything but run in a straight line. You know that phrase “straight as an arrow”? It’s based on how arrows fly, which is straight.

And I’ll tell you something else, Josh, and you might want to put on a flame retardant suit, because this is a scorching hot take:

I will miss Ramsay Bolton.

That’s right, I said it. First off, Iwan Rheon is hilarious—one of the most underrated actors on the show. I was hoping Ramsay would die as creepy and arrogant as he lived, and I totally got my wish. This, to me, was the funniest line of the entire season: “You suggested one-on-one combat, didn’t you? I’ve reconsidered. I think that sounds like a wonderful idea.” I even laughed at the weird, dreamy smile he wore when Jon was caving his face in.

More importantly, the dude is brilliant. He ruined Stannis’ shit with “twenty good men,” and he made a fool of Jon Snow and would have wiped his entire clan out if not for the Deus Ex Littlefinger. It’s too bad he’s evil, because he’s a genius, and Westeros needs a lot more geniuses (and a lot fewer Starks) if they’re going to hold off the White Walkers. Count me in as #TeamRamsay. Also count me in as a Ramsay truther—we never saw him die. If you ask me, those hounds were so loyal that they knew they had to pretend to eat him for a little while so Sansa would go away. The minute she was gone, they freed him, and one day very soon, Ramsay will ride again.

On a serious note, I do think there’s something legitimately unsatisfying about the way Jon “won” here, from beginning to end, and it’s the kind of nagging dissatisfaction that GRRM is too smart to allow in his books. The Vale army comes at the perfect moment, they bust into Winterfell because they happen to have a giant, and Jon manages to dodge a bunch of arrows before beating Ramsay to a pulp. Everything that goes well for them goes well because of luck. Everything that goes well for Ramsay goes well because of careful planning. At a certain point, I want my heroes not to be complete morons, or I start to feel like the show is treating me like a moron.

All that aside, let’s take a moment to tip our caps to Miguel Sapochnik, the director of this episode and the man behind the mind-blowing Hardhome ep last season. From the very first shot of the fire balls being launched in Slaver’s Bay, to the storms of arrows and the awful gruesome reality of the shield wall pressing in on the wildlings, this episode was full of beautiful, dynamic imagery. The Battle of Winterfell felt like an actual medieval battle. Sapochnik is officially a stud, and I have a feeling I’ll be re-watching that battle more than once over the next couple days.

And I guess we should talk about Meereen too. I loved the following bit of dialogue, which I’m pretty sure I remember verbatim:

Yara: We want total independence for the Iron Islands, even though our only real bargaining power is 100 ships, which, at this point, you could pretty much get anywhere in Essos.

Tyrion: That’s crazy. Go away.

Daenerys: Do you want to make the world better, unlike our shithead dads?

Yara: Definitely.

Daenerys: You drive a hard bargain, but I like your style. I agree to your terms, as long as you stop raping and pillaging.

Yara: No deal.

Theon: I don’t have a penis.

Anyway, Dany has her ships, and she’s ready to make for Westeros. Also, we got another reference to the Wildfire in King’s Landing, which pretty much guarantees Cersei is at least going to try light the place up next week. What else do you expect from the finale, Josh? Am I being too harsh on poor resurrected Jon Snow? And do you agree with me that as awesome as this episode was, next week should be pretty intense in terms of plot development?

Long live Lord Ramsay,

—Shane

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Shane,

I’m glad you noticed that little smile on Ramsay’s face as Jon was shattering every one of his 14 facial bones. It’s kind of crazy to think, despite how tired of the Ramsay-Reek torture porn show we’d gotten, you actually missing the creepy bastard. But he did manage to out-plan his rival; unfortunately for him, Littlefinger out-plans everyone.

The Starks haven’t been the smartest to date, but Sansa is beginning to show some shrewdness and Arya did play the servants of a death cult, which you get the feeling never happens. All of these kids have gained some hard-won wisdom, even if they sometimes still let their emotions (and sense of honor) get the better of them.

But the good guys of this story haven’t always been the brightest or the strongest or the most powerful. There are plenty of exceptions. Tyrion has the brains. Hodor had the brawn. Syrio Forel had the sword skills. And Daenerys has tried to rule justly. But most citizens of Westeros are just trying to do their best, while evil men sacrifice them as pawns. That’s the George R.R. Martin way.

Next week should be big, but without the breathless quality of the battles. Loras and Cersei have a pair of trials coming up, and I don’t know that wildfire is actually her next play. Ser Davos has discovered Shireen’s horrible fate and will be looking to make the Red Woman pay. I loved Carice van Houten in this episode, by the way. Now that the Melisandre has been humbled by failure, she’s become strangely sympathetic.

We may finally see Daenerys make a move towards Westeros, so expect some seasick Dothraki. Euron Greyjoy has most certainly been busy. And the White Walkers are still knocking at the Wall. There’s no way we find out the fates of Bran and Arya and the Hound and Sam and Varys and and and … yes, it should definitely be huge night.

By the way, I share your admiration for the way Sapochnik directed this episode. There was a single long tracking shot on Jon Snow in the midst of the bloodshed that was phenomenal. My final question to you is: There have been several epic battles in Game of Thrones. Rank all the ones you can think of. Was this the best?

—Josh

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Josh,

What’s crazy is that in a ranking of the greatest Game of Thrones battles, there’s a terrific argument that both no. 1 and no. 2 came from this episode. Because we’ve barely talked about the short but very epic Battle of Meereen, which boasted the following:

—Gray Worm with a sick double throat slash—a quick hint at what this dude is capable of. Also, I love the fact that the master tried to beg for his life by saying that his colleague was “lowborn” and deserved to die first. Yes, when you’re pleading for survival with a man that you’ve gelded and enslaved, the best point you can make is definitely, “Don’t kill me, I’m rich!”

—The Dothraki horde laying waste to the Sons of the Harpy, who are still the same fun guys we remember, killing women and children. Daario with the clean arakh head slice was a personal highligh.

—THE DRAGONS! Rhaegal and Viserion are a little malnourished from their time in captivity, but they can still breathe hot fire. Other than Drogon lighting up that slavemaster, this is the first time we’ve really seen them in action, and damn, Josh, they really destroyed that one ship. And probably many others. It was a brief look at the beasts in power, but I thought the CGI was solid, and I’m racking my brain for how anybody is going to kill these things in battle. The only two people smart enough to come up with a sweet plan are Ramsay, who’s dead, and Tyrion, who is fighting for the wrong side. Maybe Bran can warg into one and smash himself into the wall until death?

And then, of course, the Battle of Winterfell, with the gorgeous action sequences, the sad, ominous build-up (I’m thinking of the beautiful shot of Davos silhouetted by the sun at Shireen’s pyre, and also Sansa summing up the entire series with the line, “no one can protect anyone”), and some classic Ramsay lines…in addition to his change of heart re: one-on-one combat, I loved how he called himself a “man of mercy” in the pre-battle parlay.

There was almost too much greatness in this battle to mention, from Jon’s near death by stampede to Tormund’s ripping out Smalljon Umber’s traitorous carotid artery with his teeth, to that initial moment when Jon bravely faced his death against a cavalry charge, only to be overtaken by his own horses in the instant before the massive collision. Then, of course, the shield wall completing a circle started by the mounds of dead bodies, which looked super unbreakable until it was broken by that awesome sweeping charge from the Knights of the Vale. (Side note: Why didn’t Wun Wun have a weapon?) (Double side note: Where was Sweetrobin? I wanted to see that little weirdo shooting errant arrows at his own army as he screamed with perverse joy.)

One other funny parallel to an earlier scene: Remember when Jaime challenged Robb to single combat, and we all loved Robb for refusing (“if we do it your way, Kingslayer, we’ll lose…we’re not doing it your way”)? When Ramsay pulled the same exact move, I think everyone’s brain went to the same place: “YOU ABSOLUTE COWARD!” The one smart move Jon pulled all episode was completely owning Ramsay in the parlay by pointing out that he wouldn’t fight for his men. For a second, I thought he might out-wit him, especially when Ramsay kept calling him “bastard” and thinking that Jon wasn’t completely numb to the insult. But then everything else happened.

So, to your question, here are my top ten battle rankings:

10. Battle of the Whispering Wood—we barely got to see anything. I still wish we could have seen Jaime in action before he lost his hand.

9. Battle of the Fist of the First Men—my only real memory is Sam getting spared by the White Walkers because he cries. This was the era when Game of Thrones didn’t have enough money to show full-scale battles.

8. First Battle of Winterfell—again, all I really remember here is Stannis getting merked by Brienne, and Ramsay’s 20-man raid that basically annihilated Stannis’ forces.

7. The Siege of Meereen—This was the one where Daario, Jorah, and Grey Worm sneak into the city, kick insane amounts of ass, and then get all the slaves to revolt. Not a full-scale battle, per se, but watching those three go HAM, all in different styles, was one of the best fight scenes the show ever had.

6. Tower of Joy—not technically a full battle, but I counter that argument thusly: SWORD OF THE MORNING, MOTHERF****ERS.

5. Battle of the Blackwater—History will recognize Tyrion’s heroism! Plus, we had the added bonus of Cersei being drunk and creepy inside the Red Keep while she psychologically tortured Sansa. By the way, I just realized that Davos loses every single battle he’s in, and badly.

4. Battle of Meereen—Dragons, baby! Plus, Tyrion being cocky.

3. Battle of Castle Black—Our first indication that Jon Snow was more than just a whiner, and one of the best extended battle sequences that show ever pulled off. It’s crazy to remember that this was a time when Olly was a brave kid we all loved instead of the simpering douche who stabbed Jon, and we even briefly respected Aliser Thorne for being a badass who fought toe to toe with Tormund. It also featured Green and his five brothers holding the passage beneath the wall against Mag the Mighty, and the death of poor Ygritte.

2. Second Battle of Winterfell—ridiculous.

1. Hardhome—Still the tops, because along with the unbelievable fighting scenes, I’ll never forget the eerie final shot with the Night King raising the dead as Jon and his wildlings look on from the boats.

Which brings us to the end of another incredible episode 9, and the end of another email exchange. This is the point in every season when a small dose of melancholy sets in as I realize we’re near the end. But at least we’ve got next week, Josh—our watch has not ended yet.

Please bring Ramsay back to life before Davos kills you, Melisandre. But mostly, please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.

—Shane

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Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.

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