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. Next up this week is energy writer David Roberts.
David Roberts: The "Battle of the Bastards" was nonstop, visceral action, so visually and aurally overwhelming that it drowned out critical thought. At least while the episode was on.
Later, as I thought about it more, I started agreeing with Matt that it didn’t make any sense. But later still, having thought about it even more, I’ve come back around. Maybe it did make sense. Maybe it did exactly what it intended to do.
"Battle of the Bastards" finally showed once and for all that Daenerys Targaryen and (especially) Jon Snow are horrible people and horrible leaders.
More broadly, it served to underline what is perhaps the central theme of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels: There are no heroes. There is no Chosen One, no leader who was meant to rule and finally bring peace. Every time you think you’ve identified one, he or she either dies or behaves terribly (like Jon and Dany).
Neither survival nor success bears any relationship to virtue. Shit just happens. People are just people, and they’re mostly awful.
The logical end for all of this would be for humans to play the game of thrones right up until the very end, when they’re overrun by White Walkers and wights.
After Martin has upset one genre trope after another, a nice, depressing conclusion would allow him to stick the landing, to stay true to his original convictions and intentions. We keep wanting heroes, so badly that we project our desires onto one character after another. So far, both Martin and the TV show have denied us. If either one gives in at the end — if there really is a Chosen One, if Game of Thrones returns to the ultimate genre trope of all genre tropes — it will be an unforgivable failure of nerve.
From this everyone-is-awful perspective, "Battle of the Bastards" makes more sense.
As a leader, Dany is total disaster
WTF is Dany doing? She freed those slaves, took over Meereen, made all sorts of messianic promises ... and then ruled so badly that everything fell apart beneath her. So she just bailed.
While she went off to brutally slaughter a dozen Dothraki leaders in order to intimidate their horde into giving up their way of life and following her into an endless war in which they have no obvious stake, she left her former allies in Meereen to fend for themselves and almost be killed by vengeful slavers.
When she returned, her immediate instinct was more slaughter — entire cities! — a plan from which Tyrion barely dissuaded her.
Mere days later, she mused to Yara and Theon that they all had evil fathers, but they aren’t going to be evil. No, they’re going to leave the world a better place. They’re going to be heroes.
Yeah, right. What have any of those three done to make the world better? How will the world be better after Dany uproots thousands of Dothraki and drags them across the ocean to fight another round of wars? How is she, or they, or anyone on Game of Thrones different from any of the others, or the generation before them? The minute they get any power, they become dreadful.
But Jon Snow is the absolute worst
Let’s leave aside Jon’s past, with its almost unbroken string of leadership failures. (His one real combat victory was defending the wall from the wildlings — who, by the way, appear to be basically decent people fleeing certain genocide, so nice work, Jon.)
When Jon makes this episode’s pivotal decision — charging Ramsay’s army, alone, after Rickon is killed — it may be the most monstrously irresponsible act we’ve seen on Game of Thrones yet, and that’s saying something.
Think about it. He is falling for exactly the trap that Sansa said would be waiting for him, despite it being obvious from a mile away. He is doing diametrically the opposite of the strategy he agreed upon with his commanders the night before — the only strategy that had any hope of success.
He is effectively dooming his whole army: the last houses in the North loyal to the Starks (those poor Mormonts), the wildlings who put all their trust in him, and the witch who brought him back from the dead.
Not only that, but from Jon’s perspective (he doesn’t know Littlefinger is coming), he is dooming the North to continued Bolton rule, which in turn means the North won’t unite against the White Walkers, which in turn means all of Westeros is f’ing doomed.
So, yeah, as far as Jon knew, he condemned Westeros to annihilation in that moment. And why? Because he had a lot of feels.
Say what you will about the Red Wedding, at least it happened for a reason! At least someone benefited from it. In futilely attempting to avenge Rickon’s death, Jon is committing emo suicide, making a dramatic gesture at the expense of literally everyone else in the seven kingdoms.
No, Jon is no hero. He’s impulsive and stubborn and just as hung up on his own virtue, in his own way, as Robb and Ned were on theirs. He’s a horrible leader, and pretty much everyone who has invested their trust in him has been rewarded by being buried under a pile of pointless corpses.
Sansa ought to just take Winterfell from him. Speaking of which.
Addendum: Sansa Stark is just as bad
Why on earth didn’t Sansa tell Jon she had a giant army on the way? She had a million opportunities to do so — like, say, the night before the battle, as everyone agonized over how hopeless Jon’s plan was.
The only answer I can see is that she needed to draw Ramsay out onto the battlefield, to expose him to Littlefinger’s forces, and the only way to do that was to convince him that he faced a much smaller force. So she sent Jon and his army out as fodder, a decoy.
Admittedly, Sansa tried to talk some sense into Jon, to get him to put up a better fight, but she (rightly) didn’t trust in his ability to keep his cool and out-think Ramsay.
So she let Jon and his sad-sack army go out to get themselves killed. She had every reason to believe that Jon would die too. She was willing to sacrifice the wildlings, the loyal Northern houses, and her own half-brother to get the best of Ramsay. That’s pretty badass, but also pretty unspeakable from a basic-human-decency perspective.
In summary, everyone is horrible
Jon’s battlefield incompetence doesn’t make sense if you think of him as the hero of the episode, or of the overall story. But he’s not. He’s just another garbage fire of a person among many other garbage fires — just with better hair.
There aren’t good people and bad people in the world of Game of Thrones. There are people who are horrible because they delude themselves into thinking they’re good, and there are people who are horrible because they relentlessly take advantage of those who delude themselves into thinking they’re good.
None of them is the Chosen One. None of them has a destiny to fulfill. None is Azor Ahai or any other messiah. They, like us readers and viewers, want meaning, and they project it in all sorts of places, on all sorts of people — but in the end they, like us, are shit out of luck.
There’s no meaning; Game of Thrones is not leading anywhere. Everyone’s just going to knock around, killing one another in endless power games, until hordes of ice zombies arrive and wipe them all out. Amen.