Review: Did 'Battle of the Bastards' on 'Game of Thrones' live up to the hype?
A review of tonight's Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as my offer is free of marriage demands...
"You're going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well." -Sansa
By all rights, "Battle of the Bastards" should have been right up my alley. It was much more focused than your average GoT episode, with the bulk of it depicting the eponymous fight for Winterfell, and the rest of it taking place in Meereen. It offered spectacular battle scenes in both locales, as directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who previously gave us the jaw-dropping zombie attack in "Hardhome." And it ended with the nasty, karmically just death of my least favorite character in the entire series.
Pump my fist, rave about all the combat porn, and call it a day, right?
So why did I ultimately find myself so unmoved by most of it?
Part of this falls on how the series has depicted Ramsay throughout, up until the moment of his death. GoT has always reveled in sadism to a degree, but never more than when the Bolton bastard has been on screen, smirking and either threatening to remove people's body parts or actually doing it. Even with occasional attempts to show how growing up in Roose Bolton's shadow — and without his name — shaped him into the monster we see before us, he was always a one-note monster: smarter, stronger, and just plain crueler than anyone who crossed his path, and without the kind of nuance that the series bestowed even upon Joffrey. So his death — eaten by his own dogs, whom he had starved for a week in order to encourage them to devour Jon Snow and friends when victory came — never became something to celebrate. Ramsay had been a blight on the series for far too long, causing enormous suffering for its own sake. While it was satisfying to see Sansa not only administering his final punishment, but promising him that he would soon be erased by history, the way the show had used him for five seasons rendered me incapable of feeling anything but relief that the episode hadn't somehow ended with all the surviving Starks (including Bran and Arya) locked in the dungeons of Winterfell as Ramsay's latest playthings.
(There was also, as with Jon Snow's resurrection, an air of the inevitable that Benioff and Weiss couldn't really work around. Jon's conversation with Melisandre raised the idea that the Lord of Light had brought him back from the dead solely so he could die again in this battle, but that would have been an even dumber idea than if he'd actually stayed dead after Ser Alliser's insurrection, which meant he had to win, which meant Ramsay was surely to die. All that was left up to chance was the manner of said death.)
And though Sapochnik's direction gave the battle the same kind of raw immediacy he brought to "Hardhome," the sheer length of it ultimately felt nearly as exhausting to watch as it must have felt for Jon, Tormund, and Davos to endure it. In GoT's early days, we tended to skip over long battles not only because they would have been too expensive and difficult to pull off, but because the battles themselves seemed besides the point in showing the main characters making decisions and responding to one another. The show has previously devoted a whole hour (or, in this case, nearly the whole hour) to one battle twice: "Blackwater" in season 2 and "Watchers on the Wall" in season 4. But a lot of the former was actually devoted to preparations for the battle itself, and both episodes toggled between so many smaller locations and subsets of characters within the battles — say, Grenn leading the other doomed Rangers in the oath as the giant charged — that they never felt as monotonous as the long fight sequence in the fields outside Winterfell. There were different phases to the battle — archers, cavalry, infantry, Ramsay's shield-bearers trapping Jon's forces in the kind of pincer movement they'd hoped to avoid, the arrival of Littlefinger's forces to turn the tide(*) — but ultimately it was body after body piling atop each other, new layers of blood and grime covering Jon and Tormund's faces, many grunts and bangs and the occasional amazing shot of a horse crashing in at just the right moment. Even great direction and digital effects work can lose their magic if the story doesn't vary itself enough.
(*) This unfortunately felt too reminiscent of the Dothraki horde's arrival during the earlier fight in Meereen, not to mention the way Stannis' forces (as Davos and Tormund discussed tonight) cut through Mance's army when all hope seemed lost at Castle Black. And, for that matter, of the Tyrell army saving the day at the Blackwater.
And it was incredibly frustrating to see our hero go full Stupid Jon Snow even after Sansa had warned him that Ramsay would try something exactly like what he did to Rickon. Had Jon and his allies managed to actually outmaneuver the greater Bolton army, rather than simply hanging on long enough for the knights of the Vale to arrive and even the odds, my apathy for all things Ramsay might have been overwhelmed by my appreciation for what Jon the tactician accomplished. Instead, Jon has almost nothing to do with his own victory, other than proving handy with a shield (and his fists) in the final showdown with his fellow bastard. And Sansa's refusal to tell Jon in advance that Littlefinger's arrival was even a possibility makes no sense. Yes, she looks particularly satisfied sitting next to Lord Baelish as his forces destroy what's left of Ramsay's army, knowing that she was ultimately responsible for arranging her tormentor's defeat, but she's not selfish enough at this stage of things that she would risk the lives of her brother and his forces — who likely would have planned things very differently had they known (or even just hoped) that the fight wasn't going to be so lopsided — just so she could have that feeling.
Nearly all of it looked incredible. No show in TV history has ever done spectacle on this level, as consistently well as Game of Thrones has. But the show at its best finds a way for the characterization to be as powerful as the visuals, and "Battle of the Bastards" ultimately didn't manage to surround all those stunning battle images with enough emotional meat to make it all worth it.
Still, I'm glad to be done with Ramsay, even if I wish the show had gone full Murder on the Orient Express and arranged for every remaining character to have participated in his death.
Some other thoughts:
* RIP, Wun Wun. Even though Rickon grew nearly as tall as him by the end, I'll miss that giant, who in many ways was Jon's equivalent to Dany's dragons: the equalizer in fights Jon otherwise had no business surviving, let alone winning.
* The battle in Meereen, with the dragons taking out the Masters' fleet while the Dothraki carved up the Sons of the Harpy on the ground, was visually impressive in its own right, but also with some caveats. That sequence, like some of the shots of Jon Snow down in the midst of the combat, toggled back and forth between demonstrating how amazing GoT's visual effects can look and how flimsy. There was one shot in particular (of the wall containing the other two dragons bursting open in a ball of flame) that, had I seen it on a screener, I would have assumed was just a temp effect there to convey the idea until the real VFX work could be done.
* The amount of time and money spent on that battle also meant that Theon and Yara got no grand entrance into Meereen's harbor, but simply appeared in the pyramid humbling themselves before Tyrion and the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Slicer of Meats. Dany and Yara make a good pairing, for all the parallels they see in each other, but Tyrion also raises a good point: what happens if all of Dany's potential future allies in Westeros want independence for their little fiefdoms as part of the bargain?
* Also, no time for a Theon/Grey Worm support group this week, but at least Tyrion got to remind Theon of their last encounter waaaaay back at the start of the series. So few of the show's original characters are left, and most of the ones who are are spread far and wide across the world, so it's satisfying whenever two of them cross paths again.
* The geography between Castle Black and Winterfell more or less forced Jon Snow's army to camp in the same place Stannis' did before the previous attempt to defeat the Boltons, which gave Davos the chance during his pre-battle walk to stumble upon the site of Shireen's murder, and to realize that she didn't simply die as part of the battle. In the aftermath at Winterfell, he was not gazing upon Melisandre with any affection.
* Between Tormund's difficulty understanding basic battle concepts like a pincer movement and his tendency to take idioms literally, I imagine he and Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy would get along well.
* The finale is scheduled to run about 75 minutes, which may be necessary, given how many of the current storylines (particularly everything in King's Landing) got put on hold for this battle.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org