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Game of Thrones' "Battle of the Bastards" was the series' first big win for hope

It wasn’t just good versus evil. It was Jon Snow versus the personification of the show he stars in.

Game of Thrones
Snow 2016: He’ll win our battles somehow!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of Sunday's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. First up this week is culture editor Todd VanDerWerff.

Todd VanDerWerff: In his review of "Battle of the Bastards" for the A.V. Club, Myles McNutt admits a mild disappointment in the episode, which he attributes to the general fact that Ramsay Bolton isn’t as central to the plot as he probably would need to be for the story to work. He is, essentially, a generic bad guy.

Writes McNutt:

"Battle Of The Bastards" felt like a cocktail of inevitability, without the type of uncertainty, fear, and moral ambiguity that defined those previous conflicts. It was a war between absolute heroes and diabolical villains in a show that has often avoided such conflicts, and that binary led to a battle that was as inert as it was impressive.

I’ve read similar thoughts from other critics, because Ramsay’s awfulness was just so severe that Jon’s victory seemed all but preordained. And I can see that, I suppose, especially as someone who wasn’t a big fan of season four’s "The Watchers on the Wall," which I thought was empty spectacle in service of largely uninteresting character storytelling.

But I really liked "Battle of the Bastards," on both a technical level (it was often astonishingly well made, and it should land director Miguel Sapochnik a superhero movie deal or two) and an emotional one. And the more I examine this reaction, the more I realize it’s not just a byproduct of my eagerness to see Ramsay lose — though I’m sure that’s part of it.

No, "Battle of the Bastards," at its core, is about Jon Snow upending the TV show he lives in by scoring the biggest victory yet for goodness or hope or whatever you want to call it.

I raised this idea in my recap of the episode. But I think there’s more to unpack. For as much as any character can exemplify the random chaos that lies at the heart of Game of Thrones, it’s probably Ramsay Bolton. The character seems to understand that the world he lives in is fundamentally sociopathic, so he might as well succumb to his worst tendencies.

For as boring as Ramsay was on a storytelling level, he sure mowed through a bunch of random supporting players over the past couple of seasons. As such, he allowed Game of Thrones to indulge all of its worst tendencies of "shock" based storytelling, while simultaneously insisting that Ramsay was a dark, evil character, and there wasn’t much anyone could do to stop him. "Unbridled sociopath" was just the kind of guy Ramsay was, and if you didn’t like that, why were you watching the show?

Now, Ramsay was never going to win the battle, because that’s not really how stories work. (Brutal killers don’t really get to be the kinds of epic heroes that will likely carry Game of Thrones toward its ending.) But over the past few seasons, Game of Thrones has worked overtime to make you think it could somehow buck millennia of tradition and be the kind of show where Ramsay might somehow waltz his way to the Iron Throne.

So Jon’s victory over Ramsay isn’t just his first victory on the way to greater power, or even his first claim to the rule of the North. No, Jon’s victory over Ramsay is, if I may be so bold, Game of Thrones’ first victory for hope.

Sure, that might seem silly on a show where ice zombies are coming to devour everybody whole, and where casual murder is still the order of the day. It also might seem silly on a show where Dany’s slow march across Essos and Arya’s whole arc seem to have at least vaguely hopeful undertones.

But where those stories have featured largely perfunctory villains or opposition (like, say, the Masters), "Battle of the Bastards" has Ramsay, who is basically the show’s heart and soul given human form. And everybody who’s come up against him has been ruined in one way or another. That he loses against Jon suggests, I think, that we’re headed into the show’s third act.

Of course, I also know we are, because Game of Thrones is rumored to have just two seasons left, with perhaps as few as 13 episodes split between them. And "Battle of the Bastards" is a turning point that tracks with how the series is slowly becoming one where the children learn from the sins of their parents.

Dany even states this explicitly. She doesn’t want to leave a worse world for whomever comes after her. No, she wants to make things better. And for as much death and destruction as we’ve seen on the show thus far, Game of Thrones is ultimately a story about generations giving way to each other, about people finding newer, better, more hopeful ways to live.

Or so I surmise. After all, George R.R. Martin’s planned seventh book has long been called A Dream of Spring.

Read the recap.

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