Disclaimer: This episode contains spoilers and speculation
It has been more than 48 hours since Battle of the Bastards was telecast, and I am still staring at a blinking cursor on a blank screen. Oh wait, damn it. Let me start over.
It has been more than 48 hours since Battle of the Bastards was telecast, and before I wrote this sentence, I was still staring at a blinking cursor on a blank screen. Maybe it’s writer’s block, maybe it’s Maybelline. Maybe I’ve just been stunned into speechlessness. Yeah, let’s go with that for now.
As I write this, Battle of the Bastards has become television’s first major episode since Breaking Bad‘s Ozymandias to achieve the inconceivable 10/10 user rating on IMDb. Mind you, that’s not a rounded up figure: not 9.7 or 9.8, but 10.0, from 73,503 votes at the time of writing. Hopefully that statistic stands on its own, and absolves me of the need to supply adjectives. Spoiler alert: I will supply them anyway.
Let me say at the outset that I don’t necessarily think this was the best Game of Thrones ever, or for that matter even the best this season. However, it is by far the most dazzling and overwhelming hour the show has produced, so I understand the hype. Heck, I believe the hype. The hype knocked the vocabulary out of me, which is why I’m spluttering like Chetan Bhagat at a spelling bee. I have no idea how to write the beginning, middle and end of this review, and so I must shamefully take the modern escape route. With an anguished groan, I present to you Nine Thoughts on Episode Nine:
1) Holy Cinematography, Batman
Immediately following the opening credits, we see a fireball being launched into Meereen from a ship. In fact, we are the fireball: the camera seems to be mounted on the projectile, giving us the impression that we are flying into the carnage of the city. This stunning VFX shot announces director Miguel Sapochnik’s cinematic flair, which turns out to be on ample display throughout the episode. There is a dramatic use of slow motion on more than one occasion, as well as a couple of Zack Snyder-style rapid zooms. There are some beautifully composed frames – Jon Snow’s solo face-off against the Bolton army will adorn desktop wallpapers for years to come. And right in the middle of the magnificently choreographed battle, there is a hair-raising tracking shot that follows Jon in a felix felicis sequence that sees him dodge horses, chop down riders, battle swordsmen and narrowly escape a hail of arrows. That shot sealed it for me: Battle of the Bastards stands above the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan as the ultimate depiction of war on screen.
2) A Few Good Lines
It wasn’t all sound and fury this week; the writers earned their keep too with some fine work. The “Terms of Surrender” segment between Dany and the Masters had me rubbing my hands with glee. The Dany-Yara negotiation / flirting session was simultaneously an exciting plot development and one of the most sexually charged moments on the show. Sansa got in a couple of smashing lines: “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.” and “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone.” D&D even managed to squeeze in a bit of humour, with Tormund channeling Drax the Destroyer in his inability to understand Davos’ metaphors.
My favourite bit of writing trickery on this episode was the conversation between Jon and Melisandre, when they are discussing the possibility of his dying so soon after his resurrection. “What kind of god would do that?” he asks. The reply: “The one we’ve got.” This exchange is a setup for what happens later in the episode: it primes us to believe Jon has a chance of dying, so that when he is later caught in a stampede and the soundtrack changes ominously, we fear the worst. I almost bought the fakeout. The only glaring weakness in the script is the fact that Sansa doesn’t even tell Jon before the battle that Littlefinger’s intervention is a possibility. Might have been a better thing to say than “Don’t do what Ramsay wants you to do.”
3) Who Run the World
Sansa is smarter than Jon. Dany is stronger than Tyrion. Yara is better than Euron. We get it, you sexists.
4) Goddamn Rickon
Q. When fleeing from a sadistic psychopath who is unleashing arrows at you, which of the following actions maximizes your chances of survival?
(a) Run in unpredictable zigzag motion to confound shooter
(b) Run sideways to reduce surface area visible to shooter
(c) Run backwards, or at least look over shoulder periodically, because the arrows are arcing and there’s loads of time to get out of the way
(d) Run to wooden flayed man structures that are helpfully dotted about battlefield, and take cover until your brother reaches you on horseback
(e) Run straight ahead like an idiot without looking back
5) The Hounds of Justice
Ramsay Bolton is gone, and I am celebrating not because I hated Ramsay, but because he was one of the few one-note characters on the show, and his presence was a liability to the storytelling. There is only so far you can push the boundaries of villainy before lapsing into farce, and GoT crossed that line with Ramsay a while ago. One of the things that makes this series special is the refusal to fall into black-and-white characterizations, and Ramsay was an uncomfortable exception that thankfully, is now gone. Still, major credit goes to actor Iwan Rheon, who managed to be terrifying and detestable for one last hour. My spine shivered each time he said “bastard”.
On another note, am I the only one who wasn’t satisfied by Ramsay’s death scene? I would have preferred death by direwolf – why give his own dogs a bad name? Also, Sansa beginning to walk away, but then turning back to watch Ramsay being savaged by the hounds – what a dark, inspired touch. Sophie Turner has been magical this season.
6) A Stark Difference
On the subject of Sansa, the show is clearly suggesting that she would make a better ruler than Jon. She has learned human nature in the hardest way possible, and her experiences have hardened her to an extent where she can coldly declare that they’ll never save Rickon no matter what they do. Everything that she tells Jon turns out to be justified, and in the end, it is her prudent alliance with Littlefinger that saves the day. Remember what Tywin Lannister said – letters, not swords, win wars. Sansa has truly come to understand this, while Jon is still quite clueless. The odds on Lady Stark ultimately occupying the Iron Throne just grew shorter, which begs the question – when is there going to be a payoff to Jon Snow’s resurrection? He is showing no signs of being Jesus Christ.
7) Another Burning Question
For all the incessant talk about winter coming, Westeros seems to hardly be getting any snowfall. Hence, Princess Shireen can drop a stag figurine in the snow, only for Davos to coincidentally stroll up to the same spot months later and find it. Davos’ reaction was intriguing, though. Did he only just realize that Shireen was dead? Or did he only just realize that Shireen was burnt? What can we read into the way he glances at the Red Woman at Winterfell? It looks like we will soon see some conflict between the two. Davos is one of the most likeable characters on the show, so I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for him.
8) Breaking Bad?
I remember an interesting insight about storytelling I read years ago about Charles Dickens’ famous novel, The Old Curiosity Shop. (I write this from memory, so I may be getting several details wrong) The book’s protagonist was a young girl named Little Nell, and the story follows Nell as she takes her grandfather on a journey across England. The novel, which was released as a serial in weekly installments, became a sensation – the Victorian Era’s equivalent of Harry Potter. Several of the weekly episodes ended with Nell in danger, only for the subsequent week’s installment to extricate her from whatever difficulty she was in. When the penultimate episode of the novel was released, with Nell seemingly on her deathbed, Dickens was flooded with letters that pleaded for his heroine’s life. But of course, Little Nell had to die. When the pattern of the story is near death after near death after near death, the appropriate climax is death, not life.
Dany’s story arc has me thinking along similar lines. She has been consistently getting massive fist-pumping moments since Season 1 – for instance, the birth of the dragons, the freeing of the slaves, ‘Mhysa’, the first dragonflight, the inferno at Vaes Dothrak, and this week, the defeat of the Masters. When the story is hero moment after hero moment after hero moment, how should it end? Surely not with the ultimate hero moment. If after all this, she simply takes the Iron Throne, wouldn’t it be rather tame? She could die in her attempt to take the throne, but that would be even worse, nullifying six or seven years of buildup. I prefer two alternative theories (a) She wins the throne but renounces power, delegating it to one of the hundred secret Targaryens running around, and spends her life wandering Westeros and helping the poor and the sick, becoming a kind of Princess Diana-Mother Teresa hybrid (b) She becomes the Mad Queen.
Theory (a) is a completely unfounded fantasy of mine, while theory (b) is a fan theory that states that Dany will eventually become an unhinged tyrant like her father. I find this theory attractive because while Game of Thrones has taken seemingly hateful characters and made us sympathetic to them (Jaime Lannister, Theon Greyjoy), it has yet to do the opposite. A Walter White-like journey for Dany from white knight to ruthless despot would be a wonderful opportunity for GoT to examine how even the most ideal notions can get corrupted. It would fit in with the show’s bleak outlook, and also be a cool character arc for Dany. There are signs that point towards this being a possibility, like her recurring tendency to say she’ll burn cities to the ground. But there are just as many reasons to believe it won’t happen, like her speech about evil fathers or her willingness to listen to Tyrion’s advice despite a huge strategic error on his part. I also don’t know if there’s enough time left in the series for Dany to convincingly break bad. A man can dream, though. Heels are always more fun.
9) Predictions for the Season Finale
We will presumably check in one last time with all the characters next week. What’s going to happen? Here are some predictions:
- Subramanian Swamy demands that Dany remove Tyrion as her adviser, because he is mentally not fully Westerosi. Dany is busy singing a Song of Water and Fire with Yara, so she puts this off till next season. Theon and Grey Worm bond over certain anatomical similarities.
- Varys would have loved to be there too, but he is in Dorne to enlist the Sand Snakes to Dany’s cause. The fact that he’s not entirely a man wins him the approval of the Dornish feminazis, who have been chilling since Episode 1.
- Sam and Gilly make it to Oldtown, where they encounter Mormont Bhai MBBS, dutifully trying to find the cure for greyscale. Mormont mistakes Sam’s Valyrian steel sword for that of his late father’s (Jorah’s, not Sam’s), and this leads to a conversation. The two bond over rejection stories.
- Brienne and Pod continue their journey northward. After a few days of moping on the ramparts, Jaime comes up with some absurd justification about why he needs to follow them, and sets out with Bronn. Either of these two pairs runs into the Hound, or some other stone-hearted person.
- Cersei cunningly challenges Tommen to Trial by Combat over the decision to ban Trial by Combat. In the resulting battle, Zombie Mountain eats Ser Pounce and is stricken with severe allergies. Margery asks Cersei for her wildfire stash, because she’d rather burn the city down than get into bed with Tommen again.
- Bran time-travels and saves Buckbeak.
- Arya gets on a ship. The ship gets hijacked by Euron Greyjoy on his way east. He declares that no one can leave alive. Arya giggles and accepts the offer.
- Melisandre offers her condolences to Jon and Sansa on Rickon’s death, and offers to try and resurrect the little lord. Jon and Sansa exchange awkward glances and mumble under their breath, asking if that’s really necessary.
Overall Rating: 4.5 / 5 Stars