Every week this season, Indiewire will be bringing you a unique collection of viewpoints on “Game of Thrones,” as it is a show that elicits a unique sort of reactions. Our writers are well-versed in the world of the show and the culture surrounding it, and we look forward to seeing how their opinions fare in the cutthroat world of Westeros… Sorry, that is, the cutthroat world of television criticism.
What Happened This Week?
If you were thinking that this week’s episode would be nothing but epic battles, you were technically incorrect. That said, there were two important battlefield clashes in “The Battle of Bastards.”
First, Daenerys fought off slaver forces with both dragons and diplomacy, per the advice of Tyrion — because no one tells Daenerys that her reign is over. In fact, her reign has just begun, and has acquired a valuable new ally in Yara, rightful queen (in our eyes and Theon’s alike) of the Iron Islands. (Their negotiation/bonding session proves truly enjoyable.)
It’s followed by the previously billed “battle of the bastrds,” as the forces of Jon Snow and Ramsey Bolton face off — it’s not looking great for anyone involved, especially when Rickon Stark gets killed early in by Ramsey’s arrows, and a giant from the North proves adept at tearing Bolton forces apart. House Bolton looks close to winning until a new swarm of soldiers join the fight — the fight comes to Winterfell, where Ramsey challenges Jon to one-on-on battle, and loses.
The Bolton forces surrender, and then it’s goodnight, not-so-sweet Ramsey, as Sansa glories in delivering him to the dogs he personally kept starving. Maybe we didn’t need to experience every gruesome detail on screen. But it’s good to know that things are done.
Who Let the Dogs Out?
“Game of Thrones” ninth episodes are often huge, and I don’t think there’s been one bigger than “The Battle of the Bastards,” one of the best episodes the show has done to date. That charge, that seemingly endless shot of Jon, standing alone, waiting to die (again) as the entire Bolton army crashes towards him; the mayhem of random death and slaughter that he survives — not through any skill but through dumb luck — only to end up at the bottom of a crush of bodies, gaping for breath; the implacable Bolton circle, pushing them closer and closer, ratcheting the tension, higher and higher… Director Miguel Sapochnik certainly deserves an Emmy nomination for his work, if not an assignment directing some big blockbuster movie.
We’ve been asking for a couple of weeks why Sansa didn’t tell Jon about her communication with Littlefinger––and now we see exactly why: Jon doesn’t listen to Sansa’s warnings about the manipulative games Ramsey excels at, and Jon falls headlong into his Rickon-baited trap. Sansa’s holding back of the Vale forces turns out to be a masterstroke. Now that we’re finally rid of the hateful Ramsay Bolton, let’s celebrate Iwan Rheon, who turned what could easily have been a boring sadist into something much smarter, slyer and scarier. I wonder if Ramsey’s brand of nastiness will really continue to become a part of Sansa going forward.
Not to be overlooked, the Meereen scenes gave us the dragon-mounted combat we’ve all been dreaming about since the end of Season 1, and the shot of Drogon landing and curling himself around Daenerys’s feet was some of the best FX work we’ve seen yet. There was really only one false step in the whole episode, and that was in the way Davos just happened to stumble on the remains of the pyre where Melisandre burned Shireen, a ham-handed way to bring that conflict back. But let’s not bicker over who murdered whom, when we’ve been given such a breathtaking feast.
— Jay Bushman, Award-Winning Multiplatform Writer/Producer (@jaybushman)
“Happy Father’s Day from ‘Game of Thrones’!”
And just like another R’hllor ressurection, “Game of Thrones” is back from a lackluster episode last week and stronger than ever, thanks to badass ladies. In Daenerys’s case, she actually used diplomacy and strategy beyond her usual “burn them all” tactics (although the dragons wheeling in flight were magnificent), listened to Tyrion and found a kindred spirit in Yara in a delightful scene in which everyone commisserated about having evil dads. Happy Father’s Day from “Game of Thrones!”
Also, Sansa deserves credit for Team Stark’s victory over Ramsay, whom she had predicted would be twisted and cruel. Poor Rickon had to die to prove her point, but that’s a pyrrhic “I told you so.” RIP expendable Stark! Oddly enough, I didn’t cheer Sansa’s doggone execution of Ramsay either, although it was both appropriate and expected. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad he’s dead and that she found the agency to act after her rape. But what is the cost? Like Dany, she’s learned to be ruthless (and unlike Dany she’s also learned duplicity) but if she is to rule Winterfell, I would also hope that she will be merciful when appropriate (kill Ramsay but don’t become him).
And that’s where we come to Jon Snow. What he lacks as a tactician, he makes up for in goodness and guilelessness. He wants to do the right thing the right way and is refreshingly transparent about it. Davos and Brienne and Sam are all cut from this serviceable, burlappy cloth. So while I screamed and cursed at Jon for falling into Ramsay’s trap (Seven Hells, why didn’t he send in Wun Wun?), I still wanted him to triumph. And kudos to “Game of Thrones” for creating a horrible, chaotic and gritty battle scene that was far from glorified, especially that dirty mosh pit of death that I thought would finish Jon off a second time. While last season’s “Hardhome” battle was chillingly beautiful, the “Battle of the Bastards” was ugly. This is war, after all.
— Hanh Nguyen, Contributor: The Hollywood Reporter, LA Weekly, GameSpot, Tech Republic (@hanhonymous)
Behold Women, Winning
Here’s what I’m trying to do, after watching Ramsey’s mouth — his mouth, and then his head, his self — be eaten by his own starving dog: I’m trying to remember what it felt like when Dany and Yara clasped arms. Do you remember that moment? It’s a little hard, after spending so long watching men spill their guts, pile up in misbegotten piles of battle brutality. Dany and Yara’s moment was totally different, despite its proximity to battle: it was two women rejecting the world as it was given to them by men, by their “evil fathers,” who “made the world worse,” and imagining it transformed by relating to each other in new ways. It was a triumph.
How does it compare to Sansa’s triumph, in the episode’s last scene, with Ramsey’s devoured face? This too was a woman claiming power over her world. “Your words will disappear,” she says to the man who abused her. Her solitary, gruesome revenge is certainly no worse than Ramsey deserves — the emergence of Sansa as a powerful, successful, strategic force in her world is not just intensely satisfying to watch in the moment, it’s transformative for what this show, going forward, can be.
This episode was about women, winning. Obviously I love that, and “Battle of the Bastards” was by every possible measure a staggering hour of television. The sheer spectacle of the battle was some serious Spielberg-level shit; the elegantly replicating story lines was a writer’s room victory no less impressive than Dany’s dragon assault — they burned that story down. This story spared no opportunity to illustrate the horrible cost of men’s drive to dominate.
So why am I not giving it an A? I guess because, in the moment of Sansa’s victory — not the fact of it, but the staging of it, after the battle, and at the end — the episode seemed to slip back into the same logic of gore the Ramseys of the world represent. I’m not sorry that Ramsey’s face is gone. But what I’m most excited about is Dany and Yara, holding hands.
— Sarah Mesle, Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books (@sunsetandecho)
Finally, A Stark Victory!
The table setting is done. Now it’s time to feast on a sumptuous meal.
That was my feeling while watching all the action in Sunday’s episode, which gave viewers moments they’ve been waiting for since the series’ first season, washing away memories of more plodding episodes where plot points were arranged with deliberate skill. Finally, we saw the mother of dragons use her beasts to defeat an army and consolidate her power. Finally, we saw someone from the Stark family post a win, with Jon Snow and Sansa Stark coming together to defeat Ramsay Bolton in a giant, bloody fight fans are calling The Battle of the Bastards.
And finally, we saw Ramsay endure the kind of tortuous death he so often visited on others, eaten by ravenous dogs which might have spared his life if he’d only treated them well when he had the chance.
This episode also seems to mark a turning point for “Game of Thrones,” which once delighted in dashing fans’ hopes by pulling back from cathartic endings like the one we saw Sunday. This is the series which killed its hero – and, arguably, best known star – in the first season.
Now Daenerys, Sansa Stark and Jon Snow have been saved at the last moment in ways the series used to avoid. Even Ramsay’s death sent the kind of message about evil lives bringing an evil end that “GOT” once avoided like, well, a medieval plague.
It has made this season of “Game of Thrones” a more satisfying experience, giving us the kind of victories we’ve always craved for characters fans have grown to love. But it has also, subtly, changed the show; now that we’re in a moment where heroes might actually win, will “Game of Thrones” become the kind of morality play it once seemed built to subvert?
— Eric Deggans, TV Critic, NPR (@deggans)
Experienced “Game of Thrones” fans know to brace themselves for Episode 9, and this year is no exception. Thanks if only to the execution of the epic war scenes, “The Battle of the Bastards” was impossible to turn away from. (But Yara and Daenerys bonding over lady boss problems may have been even more entertaining.)