WARNING: This story is dark and full of spoilers
So, have you recovered yet?
There are television series that feature major fighting sequences, with groups of foes clashing to bloody climaxes. Then there’s “Battle of the Bastards,” Game of Thrones’ most spectacular episode yet. This was a war episode, and it was simply epic.
Despite what promotions leading up to Sunday’s episode wanted us to believe, Bastard Bowl wasn’t the only battle we were treated to. The Mother of Dragons was back in Meereen, a city under siege, and she brought the masters down in the most tremendously exciting way imaginable.
Of course, though, the main focus of season 6’s climactic episode was the war for the soul of the North. It was far from smooth sailing for our heroes, to say the least. Victory came at a heavy cost, and was only brought by Sansa’s play for the knights of the Vale. But Ramsay was FINALLY killed in the most Ramsay-esque way, and that makes almost everything better.
From the shores of Meereen to the snows of Winterfell, major chapters of Game of Thrones came to an immensely satisfying close. Let’s get to it.
Thrones likes to start episodes with a focus on singular objects; “Bastards” started with a giant flaming ball being fired from a trebuchet onto Meereen, with the camera following it all the way to impact. The shots once again echo Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings in showing the large-scale chaos of the assault.
High in the Great Pyramid, Daenerys is none too happy watching the attack unfold. Tyrion is (understandably) jittery, spinning to the best of his ability the state of the city’s affairs. “Despite appearances, I think you’ll find the city is on the rise.” Dany doesn’t initially seem to agree, but he has a point. Meereen was well on its way to thriving in a post-slavery society, and that was something the old masters couldn’t abide by.
Dany comes around to his thinking, but not before suggesting a strategy of crucifying all the masters they can and burning their cities to dust. Tyrion shoots this down, however, by telling her the plan her father, the Mad King, had for destroying King’s Landing, friend and foe alike. Dany can be ruthless -- she is a conqueror, after all -- but she cannot be heartless if she wants to change the world for the better. Instead, Tyrion has an alternative idea.
Outside the city, overlooking the bombardment, Dany and her crew meet with the three lead masters who had previously negotiated with Tyrion. The aggressors are feeling quite confident and offer Daenerys severe terms of surrender (leave your Unsullied, kill your dragons, walk home, become a jester, etc.).
“Your reign is over,” master Yezzan zo Qaggaz tells Dany. She disagrees: “My reign is just beginning."
On cue, Drogon makes a classic entrance, swooping over the group and landing by mommy (Good gods, the boy has grown). Emilia Clarke has mastered the “power glare,” staring at the stunned masters like, “yes, in case you forgot, I have very large dragons.” She climbs onto Drogon and flies off to save her embattled city.
Viserion and Rhaegal blast their way outside to join their brother and mother, and we’re treated to something we’ve waited YEARS to witness: Dany’s dragons raining hellfire on her foes. The camera swoops with the dragons almost as if we’re struggling to keep up. With the magic order from Dany (“Dracarys!”), the trio spectacularly set several ships aflame. The remaining armada stands down, undoubtedly questioning their life choices up to that point.
At the gates of Meereen, dozens of Sons of the Harpy are butchering citizens trying to flee the city. Fortunately, Dany’s recently acquired Dothraki horde, led by Daario, comes charging down and puts an end to that nonsense.
Back at the negotiations, the tides have turned. Tyrion thanks the wise masters for giving them a new armada, and Grey Worm asks them which one should be killed to make an example. Qaggaz and the second master shove forward the third, the master who bought Tyrion and Jorah back in season 5. As that man gets on his knees to beg for mercy, Worm kills the other two instead with a single knife stroke. (Gods, why haven’t we seen him fight more often?!) With that, the siege is over.
Later in the episode, Tyrion and Dany meet two entrepreneurs in the throne room: Theon and Yara Greyjoy. (Aside: I'm a little bummed the showrunners didn't have them join in the fight, but this episode is just too good to think sad thoughts). The imp dresses down Theon for mocking him in Winterfell (waaay back in season 1) and questions his worth as an ally, but it’s Yara who holds the chips here.
Dany’s quite impressed with Yara’s desire to shake up the status quo, a trait they both share. They get along swimmingly.
Yara reveals that they’re not the only Greyjoys wanting to make a deal with Dany; their Uncle Euron wants to offer her more ships -- and, erm, his “huge” manhood. It’s a marriage deal likely to go sour for Dany, so they offer an alternative: Their loyalty and 100 ships, supplementing the ships Dany gained from the masters, if she’ll help the siblings retake the Iron Islands and grant them independence.
Tyrion’s concerned what precedent it might set if one of the Seven Kingdoms is granted sovereignty, a concern Dany seems to share. She offers new, one-sided terms: They can be allies if the Greyjoys respect the sovereignty of the Seven Kingdoms as a whole and cease all pillaging, raping, etc. These are hard terms for a Greyjoy -- pillaging is the islanders’ livelihood -- but Yara can see there’s something to this Dragon Queen after all. They shake on it, and Dany officially has her first great Westerosi house on her side.
All of the Meereen scenes in “Bastards” were among the best yet. Tyrion was back to being witty and smart and useful, we got more worlds colliding with the Greyjoy/Targaryen alliance, all the dialogue was on point and the cinematography was spectacular. I’d gush for days about this, but there was another minor conflict worth discussing.
Outside of Winterfell, the leaders of the Stark and Bolton armies meet for something akin to negotiations. Of course, Ramsay Bolton (who was mercifully absent from the last three episodes) isn’t one to negotiate for anything, so what transpires are awkward and nasty threats.
Ramsay “thanks” Jon for bringing his wife, Sansa, home and says all will be forgiven if they bend the knee to him. Lady/Queen of our Hearts Lyanna Mormont’s stink-eye response speaks for us all.
The “bastard” Jon instead suggests that they both fight one-on-one, an idea Ramsay scoffs at. He’s got numbers on his side, after all, so why risk it? This does put things in scary perspective for the viewers: Despite their efforts to rally the North, the Stark forces still only have half as many men as Ramsay, at best.
Sansa isn’t enjoying any of this; she asks directly how they can know he even has their brother, Rickon. To put their concerns to rest, Smalljon Umber tosses the head of Rickon’s direwolf at their feet (I almost thought he had Rickon’s head in that sack). The disgust Sansa feels is palpable: “You’re going to die tomorrow. Sleep well,” she warns Ramsay, before getting the heck out of there.
That night, Jon & Co. strategize for the morning battle. In case it wasn’t clear to you how outnumbered they are, the rocks on the table representing troops make it quite apparent. Despite the odds, Jon and Davos come up with a respectable plan: Guard their flanks from a cavalry sneak attack, make the Bolton forces attack them, lure them further into Stark lines with a false retreat and then surround them for the kill. Some of the terms are lost on our favorite wildling Tormund (“double envelopment,” “pincer movement;” just say come at ‘em from the sides!), but all seem comfortable enough to end the meeting on that plan.
All, that is, except Sansa. Jon’s confident that he’s got Ramsay riled up and anxious to attack, just where he wants him, but his sister thinks he’s foolish to think he knows Ramsay. She’s mad that, in the lead-up to everything, Jon has ignored her council on an enemy she arguably knows better than anyone. Sansa says attacking Ramsay like this is foolhardy and that he’ll never fall for Jon’s trap -- it’s Ramsay, always Ramsay, who sets the traps.
Jon won’t have it. He’s convinced that he’s faced far worse north of the Wall, that Ramsay isn’t all he’s said to be. They also won’t get more men to fight with, he says, and they can’t wait any longer. This is the perfect, perfect time for Sansa to bring up, oh, I don’t know, that the knights of the Vale may be at their disposal, but she once again keeps this vital information to herself.
Before leaving, Sansa tells Jon that Rickon is essentially a lost cause, as Ramsay will never let him leave Winterfell alive. Jon’s skeptical, but her words prove prophetic.
A couple minor scenes are left before the battle -- Davos and Tormund share their pre-battle routines, and Jon asks a refreshingly blunt Melisandre to not bring him back if they lose (her sage advice: “Don’t Lose”). The real kicker, though, follows Davos on his walk to clear his head. Remember, this is where Stannis camped last season before his doomed march on Winterfell.
He comes across a snow-covered pyre, burned in the not-too-distant past. Rummaging through the burned wood, he comes across what remains of a small, hand-carved stag. A stag just liked the one he gave Stannis' daughter, Shireen, before he left her at that camp. The realization of what happened to his small friend washes over him at once: Shireen was burned alive as a sacrifice. By Melisandre. Before he can collect his thoughts to take action, a horn blows from camp. It’s time to go.
Two armies have amassed and stand ready in total silence outside of Winterfell. On one side are the outnumbered Stark forces, ragtag and battle-worn. On the other are Ramsay’s men, in terrifying formation with giant flayed man shields. Ramsay rides through to the front of the line with a prisoner in tow: Rickon.
As Jon watches from across the field, Ramsay takes Rickon to the front and cuts him loose so they can play a "game.” He tells Rickon to run to Jon as fast as he can. The scared boy hesitates until Ramsay is handed a bow and arrows.
With his little brother sprinting towards him, Jon takes the bait. He rides towards Rickon as fast as he can while Ramsay casually fires arrow after arrow in their direction -- he’s not even trying to aim; it’s all just to mess with them. We scream at our televisions for Rickon to not run in a straight line ("Weave! Serpentine!"). Just when it seems Jon might reach Rickon, it happens. An arrow buries itself into the boy and kills him.
Jon stops feet away from his brother, the shock and realization of the moment hitting him. Volleys of arrows fly at him, but Jon charges at his foes until his horse is shot out from under him. Ramsay orders his cavalry to attack. Jon seems resigned to his fate. Davos isn’t, however, and orders their forces to go to their commander.
Horses, wildlings and one angry giant charge across the field. Every shot in the upcoming battle is magnificent, but the slow-motion view of the cavalry storming into the fray in particular induced goosebumps. When it seems that Jon may die once again, the two armies finally clash.
What follows is, without a doubt, the finest battle ever to grace television, rivaling even some of the best conflicts in film. Words can barely do it justice; you just have to watch it.
The immediate fighting evokes memories of the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, as a barely-there Jon tries to fight while bloody madness ensues around him. We follow him the entire time, wincing with every swing of his sword, while trying to absorb the barbarity around him. Horses collide, arrows strike, heads smash.
It’s nothing less than a slaughterhouse as hundreds fall on both sides, with the bodies piling into horrific, massive mounds. Ramsay sends in his infantry to finish them off. They surround the Stark forces on three sides with the body mounds blocking off the fourth: Ramsay has just used Jon’s own trap against him.
Moving like Roman Legionnaires in perfect rhythm, the Bolton spear and shield men begin to squeeze the Stark army, stabbing as they go. Smalljon Umber leads his men over the mounds, blocking off any hope their enemy had of fleeing. Desperate to escape, Tormund leads the wildlings in a last-ditch attempt to climb over the mounds. Unfortunately, Jon gets caught in this crush and is flung to the ground and trampled.
Jon’s unable to get up as wildlings stream over him, their slayed bodies falling on top of him. It once again seems like Jon might die, but he gains the willpower to climb his way up into the crush. And it is a crush, as a bird’s eye view of the scene shows just how tightly all his men are packed together.
When it looks like our heroes are surely doomed -- seriously, this battle could not have gone worse -- a horn sounds in the distance. Not expecting company, Ramsay turns to see an unwelcome sight: thousands of screaming knights of the Vale charging forth.
Was this a really unexpected turn of events? No. Was it beyond epic and scream-inducing for us viewers? Absolutely.
Our second slow-mo cavalry shot drives home how insanely awesome this moment is. With Sansa and Littlefinger watching from the hillside, the knights carve their way through the Bolton forces like a lightsaber through butter. Jon climbs to the top of Corpse Mountain to see Ramsay hauling it back to Winterfell.
Ramsay thinks they’re safe inside the fortress, nevermind that his army’s just been annihilated, when we hear a familiar smashing at the gates. Despite the dozens of arrows sticking in him, Wun Wun smashes his way through the gates so the wildlings can break in. This proves to be all that the friendly giant can give; he’s just taken too many hits. With the wildlings overwhelming the remaining Bolton men, he and Jon share knowing, touching glance -- just before Ramsay puts a friggin arrow through the giant’s eye and kills him. I’m so ready for this a**hole to die.
As the last Bolton standing, Ramsay says he’s had a sudden change of heart about the offer for one-on-one combat. Screw that. Jon grabs a shield and marches towards him, while Ramsay fires arrow after arrow at him. Each one strikes his shield, and none slows Jon down. He smacks Ramsay in the chest with it and proceeds to beat the crap out of him. Ramsay’s smile quickly goes away as Jon beats him bloody. He only stops when he sees Sansa staring at him. As much as he wants to end this little bastard, Jon recognizes that Ramsay’s not his to finish. The battle is over.
Without any score, we see Stark banners unfurl in Winterfell for the first time in years.
Melisandre seems pleased inside the fortress, but Davos is still clutching that stag he found. He’s not finished with the witch yet.
Before we can see that conflict resolve, though, there is the small matter of what to do with Ramsay Bolton. He awakens tied to a chair inside the kennels. Sansa stares at him from the other side of the gate. Ever the cocky jerk, he snarkily talks down to Sansa. Even in captivity, Ramsay cannot fathom that he isn’t on top of his destiny, that he can’t somehow get out of this situation.
He tells Sansa that she cannot kill him, that he’s forever a part of her. She responds that his name will be forgotten, his family will be forgotten and that his very existence will be wiped from all memory. Before Ramsay can laugh too much at that, his beloved hounds emerge from their cages. He refuses to believe that the dogs, starving as they may be, will turn on him -- right to the very moment one attacks his face.
With that glorious mauling, Ramsay Bolton is finally dead.
Sansa turns from the gruesome scene and walks away, a sly smile breaking across her face as a twisted version of the Stark score plays over. Sansa may be back in Winterfell, but this isn’t the same girl anymore. Darth Sansa is here to stay.
Game of Thrones often denies us viewers the things we want to see, which usually ends up being the right call. Tonight, the right calls and what we wanted were the same things. Dragons doing bad-A things? Check. An epic, jaw-dropping battle? Check. The Starks victorious? Check. Ramsay mauled to death by his own dogs? Checkcheckcheckcheck.
Although it's still just hours after premiering, the more I think about it, the more I believe this may be my favorite episode of Thrones period. It packs in the spectacular scenes we’ve come to expect (and turned them up to max) while still saving room for a couple of the smaller moments that make this show more than a brutal war flick. Nothing was done halfway in “Battle of the Bastards,” and for that I am eternally grateful. This is the Game of Thrones we deserve.
BONUS LINES OF THE WEEK
Tyrion, to the wise masters: “Thank you for the armada. Our queen does love ships.”
Tormund, to Davos, when the Onion Knight was about to leave after sharing his pre-battle routine of walking away from camp to, erm, s*** his insides out: “Happy s***ing!”
Yara, to Daenerys, after asking Dany for the Iron Islands and telling her what Euron wants to do to her with his manhood: “I never make demands, but I’m up for anything.” Blushing. So much blushing.
Not a line, but Wun Wun seeing that horse with a headless rider and just smashing the crap out of it without breaking a sweat. Oh, Wun Wun, we will miss you terribly.
Questions? Comments? Shell-shock? Find me on Twitter @HJuncensored