Game of Thrones "Battle of the Bastards" Review
There's trouble brewing on the Internet, for there are people out there who didn't absolutely love Game of Thrones' annual budget-blowing ninth episode "The Battle of the Bastards." Crazy, right? Amid the chaos and carnage of Ramsay Bolton's (Iwan Rheon) forces clashing with Jon Snow's (Kit Harington) army, the chants of "BEST EPISODE EVER" are being accompanied by peeps of "It was just okay" by some top critics.
Game of Thrones is uniquely set to cause this sort of reaction. There are those who unconditionally love the show -- myself among them -- thanks to a strong attachment to the books, the dazzling production values that rival the GDP of smaller countries, and fans who are turned on by dragons. And there are those who constantly look for something to complain about with Game of Thrones, because it isn't matching with their visions of the books, it's just "tits and dragons" (and rape and story stalling), and because backlash against the top dog is America's new pastime.
Well, everyone's right in this case. "The Battle of the Bastards" was a tremendous episode of television, the likes of which we rarely see without paying $14 for a large popcorn as some kid kicks the back of our chair. But there were also some head-scratching moments that made us doubt the competence of our supposed heroes. Namely, how did the Starks win this war when they made so many tactical mistakes? Even the littlest Stark, wee Rickon (Art Parkinson), found a way to do something awfully puzzling.
Run in a straight line and let's talk about what happened in "The Battle of the Bastards."
"I'm a man of mercy." - Ramsay Bolton, big fat liar
We knew the battle was coming so a pre-fight chit chat between Jon and Ramsay felt kind of moot, but Game of Thrones gave it to us anyway. Fortunately, it was a talk we didn't know we needed, as it perfectly illustrated the differences between these two bastards. On one side, Jon was goading Ramsay into a one-on-one fight with honor and duty, saying how they could settle this without costing the lives of thousands of men. It's classic boring Jon Snow, the guy who wants to rob us of a grand-scale battle between two massive armies. C'mon, Jon! HBO already spent the money for extra red-colored corn syrup, may as well use it.
Ramsay essentially made wanking motions at Jon's proposal, because he's not an idiot and he knew where the advantages lay. Take your honor and shove it, Jon. Ramsay's got the numbers. He's no dummy. This was a microcosm of what would happen later, and a repeat of the theme that George R.R. Martin has made so obvious throughout the Song of Ice and Fire books and the show: It's better to be smart than honorable. Just ask Ned Stark.
Except the rule was broken! Following some intense in-tents strategizing about the big battle, the Starks did just about everything they could to lose the fight and -- despite warnings from Sansa (Sophie Turner) -- Ramsay got into the head of Jon, forcing him to throw all his pre-battle planning out the window and take on Ramsay's 6,000 men by himself. Spoiler: the Starks won the fight, but they certainly didn't deserve to win.
It started with Ramsay toying with Rickon Stark, telling the shaggy-headed sprout to run for his life towards his big half-brother while Ramsay slung arrows at him. Sensing this, Jon jumped on a horse and galloped toward Rickon, hoping to snatch him up before Ramsay could stick him. It's never clearly stated, but Ramsay's arrows missed Rickon purposefully as part of Ramsay's mind games with Jon. This, despite the fact that Rickon ran in a straight line instead of evading the arrow's flight path with zigging and zagging.
Pro tip: the best way to dodge something that travels in a straight line is to not run in a straight line. Bullets, arrows, ninja stars... try lateral cuts and curly Q's. Rickon probably should have known that. Likewise, if Ramsay's weapon was a boomerang, we probably would have seen Rickon run in half circles. This was the first Stark mistake.
Apparently Ramsay is some superhuman archer, because he had the patience to wait until Rickon was juuuust close enough to Jon before hitting the bullseye and felling the young Stark. What was that shot, like 200 yards on uneven ground with the outside elements? Ramsay may be the jerkiest of jerks, but the man can shoot an arrow. Still not putting an apple on my head for him.
Injury, meet insult.
Anyway, let's all mourn Rickon for three microseconds, which is probably longer than we should because he was essentially a prop and not a real character. But he was more to Jon, so Jon turned on berserker mode and heatedly decided to charge Ramsay's men all by his lonesome. I'm no battle tactician, but in my humble opinion that was pretty dumb. This was the second highly questionable decision by a Stark in this battle.
After being so adamant about how to engage Ramsay in battle to counter the unfavorable odds, Jon lit his battle plan on fire and played right into Ramsay's wishes, vaporizing any hope of employing a pincer tactic or holding advantageous defensive ground. Instead, Jon's emotions turned things into a scrum, which was advantage Ramsay. At least it gave us cool shots like this:
What happened after that was undeniably spectacular and some of the best battle sequences that our televisions have ever seen, the kind of big-budget fantasy creations fully realized that make movie executives happy they wore brown pants while they watched it. Horses smashed into each other like crash-test dummies, men in dark armor fought for their lives against other men in dark armor (how did they tell each other apart?), and Jon swung his sword wildly while near misses happened all around him. That part with Jon on the ground hacking at guys? WOW. Director Miguel Sapochnik, who also helmed last year's epic wildling-white walker battle in "Hardhome," made plenty of great decisions here, showing how gnarly these kinds of battles can really be.
But for all the incredible action, the episode as a whole was docked a few points by some odd character decision making. Yeah, Rickon running in a perfectly straight line along Ramsay's aiming sights was pretty stupid. And Jon charging headfirst into battle after making such a big deal about showing patience was disappointing. But there was also Sansa, who saved the day by making a secret pact with Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aidan Gillen) to have the Army of the Vale (House Arryn's men) join the fight at the end, overwhelming Ramsay's forces to turn the tide of the war. (We all knew that was coming, right?) Just as the Dothraki helped Dany earlier on in the show, just as the Tyrells and Tywin Lannister came in late to save the day in "Blackwater," and just as Stannis' men helped fight the Mance Rayder's wildlings in Season 4. Lots of people show up late in this show, apparently.
If Sansa knew there was a chance the Army of the Vale would show up, why didn't she tell Jon? Why did she feel the need to keep that a secret? Jon gave her the perfect opportunity to say that when Sansa continually said they didn't have enough men to fight Ramsay, but she kept her trap shut. There has to be a reason for Sansa's silence, because her deal with Littlefinger went a few episodes back to when she sent out a letter. Maybe a heads up that we may have thousands more men showing up would have done Jon a few favors. Obviously that would change the entire strategy of battle preparation, and all they would have had to do was wait another, what, 20 minutes? We can only hope that Sansa promised something to Littlefinger that she felt Jon would disagree with, and that was why she didn't tell Jon (and let him charge into an extremely lopsided battle where he should have died). Otherwise, this is one of the strangest and inexplicable thingsGame of Thrones has ever done.
Rickon's running, Jon's impatience, and Sansa's secret keeping lessened their heroism, and in a battle that was for the most part played straight as good guys versus bad guys, those inexplicable actions drew attention away from what should have been a celebration of violence, blood fountains and clanging shields. Jon's rush into battle nearly got everyone killed, and the entire fight might have been avoided if Sansa told Jon that Littlefinger's men were joining the fun. Wun-Wun's blood is on Sansa and Jon's hands, and giant's blood is not easy to wash off.
Because we compare everything to everything else, we should also ask if "Battle of the Bastards" was better than "Hardhome," or even Season 2's "Blackwater." And really, it depends on your point of view. "Battle of the Bastards" was the first big battle that felt totally in favor of the good guys (Wun-Wun's death the big blemish). Jon fought Ramsay and won. It's a continuation of the relative feel-goodness of Season 6.
"Hardhome" was the opposite of "Battle of the Bastards," it was an indisputable ass kicking of the good guys as the wights and White Walkers tore through the freefolk and then had the audacity to resurrect their victims' corpses and add to their army. It was downright terrifying. That, for me, was more emotionally stirring and impactful than Jon defeating Ramsay through a lucky last-minute save by Littlefinger's men. Even "Blackwater," which was a fight where no good guys were involved unless you were on #TeamStannis way back then, had its chilling moments that went beyond the violence on the battlefield. Remember Cersei ready to kill Tommen if Stannis' forces stormed King's Landing? Remember the awesome power of unleashing wildfire on Stannis' ships? "Battle of the Bastards" had the larger scale, but lacked the impact of the others.