It’s less epic in its scope than, say, season four’s battle between the Night’s Watch and Wildlings, "The Watchers on the Wall" (an episode I’ve always found a touch overbearing), but compare it to season two’s "Blackwater" (featuring the battle for King’s Landing) and it's easy to see just how much the show’s scope has increased.
Of course, "Battle of the Bastards" has a leg up on both of those predecessors, because its geography and stakes are 100 percent clear for almost the entire hour. By focusing on a very small battlefield, Game of Thrones is able to give us an episode that captures the chaos of war as well as television ever has.
There’s a lengthy unbroken shot (courtesy of director Miguel Sapochnik) of Jon fighting his way across the battlefield, one that underlines just how much of a role sheer luck plays in war. Arrows fly around him but don’t hit him. Swordsman coming to decapitate him are stopped by others. Last-minute saves are the order of the day.
And while on the whole, "Battle of the Bastards" is perhaps a touch overstuffed — I’m not sure the Dany stuff helped the episode, even though I understand why it’s here — it’s still riveting television and an excellent setup for whatever next week’s finale holds.
Here are five winners and six losers from the "Battle of the Bastards."
Winner 1: Jon Snow
Well, obviously. Jon doesn’t just win the titular battle. He also effectively wins a battle against the entire dramatic apparatus of the TV show he lives in.
In some ways, Ramsay Bolton is Game of Thrones in a nutshell: nasty, brutish, and willing to kill just about anyone. He’s like the heart of the plot turned into a person, cutting his way across the North.
Now, anybody who’s read a story before would likely realize that Jon was going to come out on top of this matchup. But by putting a character who’s essentially Game of Thrones incarnate between Jon and victory, the series gave the battle far more weight than it might otherwise have had.
But Jon also earned his win. Yeah, he was saved at the last minute by his half-sister and Littlefinger (more on that in a second), but he kept his troops rallied, even when they were surrounded on all sides by men with shields who were slowly killing all of them.
"Battle of the Bastards" takes careful pains to even depict this literally, as Jon is very nearly trampled by his own men before pulling himself to his feet — at which point the tide of the battle starts to turn. All of a sudden, Wun Wun the giant is throwing around some of Ramsay’s forces and Tormund is taking a nice big bite of an enemy’s throat.
Yeah, someone else saves the day, but Jon gets everybody to the point where the day can be saved.
(Also: The scene where Jon slowly advances on Ramsay as Ramsay fires arrows into his shield is pretty effective small-scale combat. Nice work, everybody!)
Winner 2: The Sansa/Littlefinger alliance
This might have been the best Game of Thrones episode for Sansa …ever. She gets to deliver all manner of great lines — I’m particularly partial to her dismissal of Jon saying he’ll protect her — and her decision to contact Littlefinger proves the decision point in the whole battle. It’s like her journey in a nutshell: Women in the world of Game of Thrones can’t count on anybody but themselves. The best you can hope for is to convince a man to drag his army across half a continent for you.
For his part, Littlefinger now seemingly controls the largest army in the northern half of the Seven Kingdoms, which makes him as much of a force as he’s ever been. Slowly but surely, he’s been working his way up the ladder of power, and he’s as close to the throne as he’s ever gotten before. Maybe with a strategic marriage…
Of course, he’ll clearly try to marry Sansa, and the show is — a bit weirdly — playing Sansa and Jon’s scenes as if they’re a romantic couple waiting to happen. (People keep doubting me on this, but seriously, compare their scenes to the way the season two scenes between Talisa and Robb were shot.) So Littlefinger might be hinging much of his plan on someone who won’t be interested in his affections. But for now, he’s riding high.
Winner 3: Daenerys and company
After Dany returned from her walkabout to find Meereen under siege, I assumed "Battle of the Bastards" would feature internecine squabbling among her many influential supporting staff members. But, no. Dany pretty much just tells the Masters they can surrender to her, then uses her dragons and the Dothraki who are loyal to her to retake the city.
It’s a pretty easy win for Dany, and she quickly strikes an alliance with the Greyjoys as well, neatly wrapping up a plot that, ultimately, didn’t have much meat on its bones. (Euron proves to mostly be a distraction to chase Yara and Theon across the Narrow Sea.) Dany in full conquest mode might be a little terrifying, but she’s fun to watch.
One quibble: When Dany looks back at Tyrion to get his blessing for the alliance with the Greyjoys, it plays as a weird moment. I get why the show does it (Tyrion likely knows more about the Greyjoys than Dany does), but it still feels odd that she would so publicly turn to anybody for advice.
Winner 4: Theon and Yara
Theon and Yara make their way across the Narrow Sea, seemingly without incident, and they strike a deal with Dany, also seemingly without incident.
Yes, Dany makes them promise to give up their people’s thieving, pillaging, and raping ways, but that detail will almost certainly be kindly looked upon by future historians.
Also, Yara makes a joking proposal of marriage to Dany. All in all, this is the best week for the Greyjoy siblings in quite some time.
Winner 5: The people running the show’s campaign for technical Emmys
On every level, "Battle of the Bastards" is a joy to look at. Yes, Emilia Clarke still looks a little weird when she climbs atop one of her dragons (a special effects problem the show seemingly can’t solve), but that’s my only minor quibble.
Everything from the effects work to the hushed din of the battle when all seems lost to the camerawork in that impeccable uninterrupted take feels like the show heading out on the open road and hitting the gas. It’s a series that knows exactly what it’s doing at this point, and though I have my problems with the often lazy filmmaking in other episodes, Game of Thrones always brings its A game when it’s time for a giant battle.
Game of Thrones is generally an Emmy favorite, and last year, it won the most Emmys for a show in a single year ever, thanks largely to its technical elements. "Battle of the Bastards" almost singlehandedly assures that it will win many of those technical categories again.
Loser 1: Ramsay Bolton (and his hounds)
Okay, the hounds get a nice meal (though one that might give them indigestion), but Ramsay ultimately finds himself the final victim of his own sadism. Rather than face trial and execution, he’s gobbled to bits by the beasts he bred to gobble people to bits, which are unleashed upon him by the woman he raped and assaulted endlessly.
Ramsay has been a horrible time suck of a character, with the show only able to play one or two notes with him since he debuted. And even in his final moments — when he smiles as Jon beats the hell out of him, as if he’s enjoying it — he gets to be an eye-rolling irritation.
But Iwan Rheon was always good in the part, and in these final moments, he did capture some of how Ramsay always felt small in comparison to the seeming giants around him, and how he overcompensated by playing up his own monstrosity. I’m not sad to see Ramsay or the show’s interpretation of him go (indeed, I’m rejoicing), but I hope Rheon uses this to get some great work elsewhere.
Loser 2: Wun Wun the giant
JUSTICE FOR WUN WUN!
(Seriously, though, going the full King Kong with Wun Wun and having him gradually succumb to a bunch of smaller slights, until he toppled over like a gigantic pincushion, worked far better than it should have for a character whose dialogue has been … let’s say, limited.)
Loser 3: Rickon Stark
Blink and you might miss the neat irony of "Battle of the Bastards." Jon talks about how he must use Ramsay’s need to strike fear into the hearts of the Northmen against him. If he can trick Ramsay into being too brash, he can hopefully gain the upper hand, even though he has far fewer fighting men.
But Ramsay’s plan similarly uses Jon’s Achilles’ heel against him: his endless reservoirs of loyalty. When Ramsay looses Rickon and tells the boy to run toward his half-brother, it’s clear something terrible will happen. And it immediately does, as Ramsay begins firing arrow after arrow after the youngest Stark brother.
Either he lets Rickon live for four shots to draw Jon out far enough, or it takes four shots for Ramsay to finally bring Rickon down (nicely letting the audience think Rickon might escape by really building up the third shot as the one that will end Rickon’s life). But either way, by that time, Jon is way out past his lines, in the middle of nowhere, seemingly about to be ridden down.
His own brashness almost costs his forces the fight, and it’s all because of Rickon, a character I literally couldn’t tell you anything about beyond "He’s the youngest Stark."
RIP, RICKON. (RIP, SHAGGYDOG, TOO.)
Loser 4: The Masters
I enjoy how casually Dany dispatches of the Masters, first by burning their ships and overwhelming their forces, then by telling them that one of their little trio must die, before killing the two other than the one selected to be killed, hopefully earning herself some degree of fear and/or loyalty.
The Masters — to say nothing of the Sons of the Harpy — have always been one of Game of Thrones’ weaker villains. They seem to arrive whenever the plot deems it convenient, and their actions vary from "nuisance" to "city-shattering force." Plus, the series never gave us a recognizable character on their side, so they functioned mostly as a very well-funded terrorist organization.
Anyway, they appear to be done for as well. Goodbye, Masters!
Loser 5: Euron Greyjoy (by implication)
When Theon and Yara show up in Meereen, they pretty much just show up. We don’t even really get an establishing shot of their ships pulling into the harbor or anything similar. We know they’re going to show up at some point, so they just do.
To that end, wouldn’t it be sort of amazing if the show similarly dispatched of Euron? Dany clearly isn’t going to listen to his proposal — which contains a literal proposal — so why not just have Drogon noshing on a human leg next week, then have Yara say, "Poor Euron!" or something similar?
Oh, I’m sure we’ll have to have some sort of naval battle. But, again, Euron is such an ill-defined character that whatever happens won’t have the dramatic weight necessary to really hold its own.
Loser 6: Fans of both Game of Thrones and the NBA
The final game of the NBA Finals and this episode of Game of Thrones — two events you couldn’t safely ignore without somebody randomly popping up outside of your window to shout spoilers at you — aired opposite each other.
There hasn’t been such a difficult sports versus pop culture choice since a football game between the then dominant Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers aired opposite one of the final hours of Breaking Bad. (The game was a disappointment. The Breaking Bad was "Ozymandias," one of the greatest TV episodes ever made. So.)
Anyway, both episode and game ended up being surprisingly compelling, so I guess everybody wins. But in the moment of making that choice, I can see where you might have felt overwhelmed by the bounty of your options.
Tell me what you think in comments. I’ll be by to chat about this episode — and any other pop culture topics you want — at noon Eastern
And answer my question for you while you’re at it! Pixar’s Finding Dory dominated the box office this weekend. What’s your favorite Pixar movie?
I’ll be by at noon Eastern to talk about this episode and any other cultural topics you might like.