In one of his Live Journal entries, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin offered the Marvel Cinematic Universe some constructive criticism. Most of the villains, he argued, were the evil opposites of the heroes. Captain America and Red Skull were both powered by the super soldier serum, Ant-Man and Yellowjacket both used the same size-shrinking Pym Particles, and Hulk and Abomination were both giant rage monsters.
It’s funny, then, to consider “The Battle of the Bastards” on this week’s Game of Thrones. Jon Snow could have gone the same way as Ramsay Bolton — both are bastards, both experienced a similar struggle to find themselves, and both faced rejection on a familial and political level. The main difference is their upbringings. Even as Jon straddled the land of the living, he returned still a man raised by Ned Stark to win back his home from Ramsay, whose backstabbing father now lies in the ground because of the spoiled fruit he bore.
After a long wait, drawn out even longer by filler episodes, the two finally faced off in the epic smackdown that many have been waiting for — and it was worth it. But before we got to the eponymous battle, the episode began with a song of fire.
Mereen is literally ablaze. After making her dramatic return in the last episode, Daenerys stares daggers at Tyrion, her appointed advisor who allowed her city to fall into chaos. Flaming black balls of tar are launched through the air and into buildings as the pair try to work out a battle plan. Actually, Dany already has one, but she’s in a similar predicament as Jon.
Rather than face a physical embodiment of her antithesis, hers resides in her past. As Tyrion reminds her, The Mad King who ruled Westeros before her was consumed with slaughtering his enemies. The mention of wildfire also brings to mind the chaotic vision Bran experienced as he fled the home of The Three-Eyed Raven. “This is entirely different,” Dany argues. “You’re talking about destroying cities,” says Tyrion. “It’s not entirely different.”
Still, Dany has proven time and again that she has some wildcards, and she pulls one (or, should I say, three?) during a meeting with The Masters. These slave holders are overly confident and believe they are discussing the surrender of Mereen, but the horrifying reality sinks when they see Drogon. Soon, Dany, flanked by her two other winged children, is flying on the dragon’s back over the water to set fire to her enemy’s ships, while her Dothraki army comes in like a plague to cleanse the city of the Sons of the Harpy. When Dany proclaims “Dracarys,” that too becomes a mirror image to the similar scene from season 3.
Still, she’s very much aware of the sins of her family, as she later tells Yara and Theon when they stand before her in Mereen. The two finally made it to her throne room to strike a bargain with the Dragon Queen. “Your father was a terrible king,” Dany states, though she’s initially caught off guard when Yara retorts, “You and I have that in common.” As the hopeful ruler of the Iron Islands tries to negotiate ships for the throne of her homeland, Dany finds much more in common with her than she might’ve initially thought. They eventually come to an accord, though the Greyjoy children aren’t too happy about giving up the whole raping and pillaging when Dany eventually takes the Iron Throne.
“Our fathers were evil men. They left the world worse than we found it,” says the Mother of Dragons. “We’re not going to do that.”
More time is spent on the battle for Winterfell, but the events in Mereen share common threads. Jon, too, attempts to meet with Ramsay to see about a more peaceful resolution, proposing a one-on-one combat as opposed to a full-fledged battle. “Thousands of men don’t need to die,” he says. “Only one of us. Let’s do this the old way — you against me.” Ramsay, of course, isn’t an honorable man. Preferring instead to play with his prey before slaughtering it, he doesn’t accept.
Equal parts frustrated and fearful, Sansa states before riding off on her own, “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.”
Jon is very much like Ned Stark in many regards — I mean, both were killed for trying to do the right thing. Sansa, on the other hand, is very much like her mother. She counseled her step-brother in the war tent the same way Catelyn counseled Robb. For better or worse, Sansa knows Ramsay. She knows, as she says, how he likes to lay traps and that he’s far better at it than Jon. She also knows that Jon — who is not the schemer he thinks himself to be — can let his emotions get the better of him.
“Did it every occur to you that I might have some insight?” Sansa shouts, later adding, “I don’t know anything about battles, just don’t do what he wants you to do.” There have been theories that “Lady Stoneheart” from the books may return, and perhaps she still might. But even if she doesn’t, Sansa has taken this role in many ways. She even has the Stoneheart part down when she considers letting Ramsay kill Rickon, even though this is the right course of action, considering who they are dealing with. Because her brother is the only legitimate successor to Winterfell (sans Bran who’s off being the Three-Eyed Raven), Ramsay will kill him no matter what.
Jon doesn’t follow her advice, which is something that’ll come back to bite him in the ass.
Outside of the tent, Tormund asks Ser Davos if he’d like to share in a stiff Wildling drink. He declines, choosing instead to walk and think. He comes across an old fire stack coated with snow. If you paid attention to the “Last time on Game of Thrones” footage before the episode, you could guess what this fire stack was from. If not, you got the memo after Davos pulled the wooden stag he gave Shireen from the ash. The end of the episode features another moment with Davos, who clutches the toy while glaring at the Red Woman. It’s something we’ll likely see play out in the future — probably the finale — but now this plot point is just a seedling.
Jon does some walking of his own, though his feet take him to the source of Davos’ pain. Melisandre doesn’t have much advice for him, other than to not die, but he’s really not there to ask for battle strategies. He orders her to not revive him if he falls. Melisandre explains that she doesn’t serve him, she serves the Lord of Light. Perhaps, as she suggests, she was able to bring Jon back from death so that he could die here at Winterfell, though whatever will happen will happen because of her deity. “What kind of god would do something like that?” asks Jon. She answers, “The one we’ve got.”
The Battle of the Bastards
The two forces assemble the next day, the battlefield already prepped with flaming flayed men strung upside down on crosses as living emblems of House Bolton. Soon, Ramsay walks out the young Rickon so Jon can see. It’s time for one of his little games.
Ramsay tells Rickon to run to his step-brother as fast as he can. When the Stark boy complies, his captor takes out a bow and arrows, and proceeds to try and shoot him down. The entire time he’s playing with Jon — Ramsay purposefully misfires three times, each arrow getting closer to its target as Jon races to save Rickon. The last one, though, hits its mark. Earlier, Jon mentioned to Sansa how he wanted to make Ramsay angry during their initial meeting. Now it’s Ramsay’s turn — and it works.
Jon charges in frenzy with his own army hundreds of feet behind him. His horse is soon shot down and, as he faces stampeding soldiers on horseback with nothing but his sword, the Red Woman’s warning plays as a resounding echo in our head.
The battlefield explodes into chaos as Team Jon bursts forth to attack. Jon tries to grab his bearings in the midst of it all, dodging continuous arrow fire, frantic horses, and clashing swords. Davos stays back with the archers preparing to fire, but he remarks it’d be pointless as they’d likely hit their own men. This is something Ramsay doesn’t care about. He commands his archers to fire repeatedly into the fray, killing both friend and foe until the land is barely visible beneath the piles of dirt-stained corpses.
Even the Wildling giant, who was able to bitchslap an enemy horse out of his path, barely makes a dent as Jon and his forces are soon caged by the Bolton shields at their front and a wall of dead bodies at their back. All is grim when Ramsay’s soldiers point their spears and attempt to suffocate their opponents. But then, just as Tormund pulls a Rick Grimes and bites out a chunk of his attacker’s throat, Ramsay’s attention is caught by soldiers waving mockingbird-emblazoned banners.
Many fans suggested that mysterious note Sansa raven-ed out was sent to Littlefinger, and they’d be right. With the true Lady of Winterfell at his side, Petyr Baelish led the Knights of the Veil in what was their Gandalf moment in The Two Towers: charging in with the sun at their backs to mow down Ramsay’s forces.
The Bolton bastard attempts a retreat by locking himself behind Winterfell, but Jon is in pursuit. With his final breaths, the giant, now struck with too many arrows for any living person to withstand, bashes down the front gates as his comrades sweep in. A limping, bloodied Jon has a silent but touching moment with his living battering ram, but even that was taken away from him as Ramsay fires an arrow into his eye.
Jon, now infuriated, knows better to believe his enemy when Ramsay suggests he’s had a change of heart on the one-on-one combat. He blocks every arrow slung at him with a shield before knocking him to the ground and nearly beats him to death. The only thing that saves Ramsay’s life (for the moment) is Jon catching the eye of Sansa, who’s intently watching the situation go down.
Now staring into Ramsay’s cell, Sansa is no longer the naive girl who once wanted nothing more than to marry Joffrey. “Your words will disappear,” she tells Ramsay. “Your house will disappear, your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” As her abuser’s own dogs — which he mentioned earlier in the episode have been starved for seven days — slink out from their cages and tear their master’s jaw off, Sansa does not look away. She begins to turn from the horrific scene, but stops herself. It’s a lesson her father bestowed upon his children, and it’s why Ned would know if the young Bran of episode 1 looked away from the beheading: “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”
This entire season has truly been about the resurgence of House Stark. Bran has ascended to Three-Eyed Raven, Arya finally realized her strength lies in her sense of self, and Jon and Sansa successfully took back their home. For as much as the Red Woman’s words attempted to drum up tension and life-or-death stakes, it seemed clear the latter were going to survive this and be better for it. But this episode never really belonged to the bastards. It belonged to the women.
As Sansa walked away to Ramsay’s screams with a smirk on her face, her transformation was complete. She is now Lady Stoneheart — if not in name, then in spirit.
Rating: ★★★★ Very Fine Television