Game of Thrones Review: Battle of the Bastards

Man. This episode gave me the feels. This was probably one of the best episodes of the season, and that is in spite of some of the poor choices made by the characters and some cliché last minute heroics written into the episode. Let’s get to the review:

Meereen

The episode opens with Daenerys confronting Tyrion about the war she has found in her city. Tyrion, for his part, tells her that, apart from the invading army. the city is “on the rise.” And he’s correct, he did a decent job of keeping the city from falling to pieces during Dany’s absence. Aside from being a little short sighted about the former slave masters sending an armada into Meereen that is. One would have expected him to at least have prepared the army for a possible attack…

Dany expresses her desire to kill all of the masters, burn the cities to the ground… basically the old Targaryen method of killing all enemies. Tyrion convinces her to take a different approach.

This is a key character development for Dany. In the past she has been merciful, almost to a fault. Time and time again her mercy, an admirable quality, has let to problems in the future. It shows the contrast between her character and that of Tywin Lannister, who was an able, but harsh ruler. It seems that after she killed the Khals and took over the Dothraki army she has become much harsher. Gone are the days where Dany will try to make peace with her enemies: they will either capitulate, or die.

Credit: HBO
Credit: HBO

What makes things different is that Dany has the power to back things up this time. She has three full grown dragons, as well as an army of Unsullied and Dothraki, the best foot soldiers and light cavalry in the world. Dany is, without exception, the most powerful ruler in Game of Thrones at this point.

Dany’s dragons make short work of the invading ships while Tyrion parleys with the Wise Masters. In a brilliantly acted scene the masters give terms for Dany to surrender: namely that all the former slaves will be returned to slavery and her dragons will be slaughtered. Dany corrects the Masters: they are meeting to discuss terms of their surrender, not hers. She flies off with Drogon and the three dragons burn much of the invading armada while Tyrion explains the situation to the former masters.

Tyrion tells the masters that one of them must die for breaking their truce: they offer a lowborn as the sacrifice but Grey Worm kills the other two. Tyrion, in a scene that shows just how capable a ruler he can be, tells the surviving master to tell his people what happens when they cross Daenerys.

While this is happening the Dothraki arrive, and kill the Sons of the Harpy that were slaughtering freedmen outside the gates.

Sometime later Yara and Theon arrive in Meereen. One wonders why the 100 Ironborn Ships did not take part in the battle, probably for budgetary reasons. They pledge their loyalty to Dany in return for the Iron Islands. They also inform her of Euron’s plans. Their price is independance: they wish to no longer be subject to the Iron Throne. Dany says that she will support Yara’s claim under the condition that they cease reaving. Yara agrees.

This scene was an excellent, if rushed piece of set building. We now know that Dany has (just barely) enough ships to sail to Westeros. We also know that she will most likely encounter Euron at some point, either in Westeros or on the way to it.

Overall the Meereen scenes were excellent, if a bit brief. Dany has finally become who she was born to be: a Targaryen. A conquerer. This is the Dany we saw in season 3, one that we haven’t seen for years. As the series draws to a close (there are only 14 episodes left) we finally get a taste of Dany the queen of Westeros.

The North

This was heart wrenching to watch. Jon Snow made some stupid, stupid mistakes and by any logic he should not be alive. The writers did an excellent job of making the characters make stupid, yet believable, mistakes. One of the problems the show has that Martin rarely faces is following common storytelling tropes such as the heroes succeeding against insurmountable odds or being rescued at the last moment, both of which occurred here. However, these decisions were backed up with episodes of foreshadowing and the writers made the outcome of this episode believable and memorable.

We first see Jon Snow, Tormund, and Davos meet with Ramsey. Jon has never met Ramsey and hopes to get the measure of the man. Ramsey taunts Jon, telling him that he can’t wait to feed the Stark forces to his hounds; he hasn’t fed them in seven days. Sansa and Jon express skepticism that Rickon is alive; they are shown Shaggydog’s severed head. Jon challenges Ramsey to single combat, which Ramsey refuses. Ramsey notes that he would probably lose in single combat but he would almost certainly win with his army.

Later that evening Jon has a war council. They plan to trick Ramsey into breaking the line’s center while the flanks enclose Ramsey’s army. It’s a solid plan, if it works, but Sansa criticises Jon for not taking Ramsey seriously. He makes traps, he doesn’t fall for them. Jon does not listen.

This is one of the first mistakes in the episode. Both Jon and Sansa are making terrible mistakes: Jon for underestimating Ramsey and Sansa for not telling Jon about her letter to Littlefinger. One wonders why Sansa hasn’t told him about Littlefinger’s offer. It is clear why she rejected his offer: she has no trust for the man, nor should she. But after realizing Jon’s army is too small in previous episodes she has since decided to side with the lesser of two evils, it seems.

But the question is: why keep it from Jon? Why not tell him about their new allies? It seems short sighted of Sansa and it’s something I really hope they get into in the season finale.

After this Jon tells Melisandre not to bring him back if he should fall. She refuses, telling him that she follows the Lord of Light, not Jon Snow. Meanwhile Davos and Tormund discuss the coming battle and their differing opinions regarding Stannis. Davos finds the Stag he had carved and gave to Shireen in the remains of the pyre where she was burned.

Credit: HBO
Credit: HBO

I should note that Davos still (somehow) does not know that Shireen was sacrificed to the Lord of Light, something that is surely to take center stage next episode.

The morning comes and Ramsey lays his own trap: he brings for Rickon, bound by the hands and leads him in front of his army. He holds out a knife and we think that Ramsey is going to kill Rickon in front of Jon Snow, but instead Ramsey cuts his bonds and tells him to run towards Jon’s army while he shoots at him with a bow.

While watching this scene I couldn’t help but yell at Rickon “serpentine!”. Jon mounts his horse and races toward Rickon. Each show Ramsey takes gets closer to Rickon until Jon is within an arm’s reach of him. The last shot pierces Rickon’s chest. He dies as Jon Snow watches, having been mere inches from saving his brother’s life.

This was brilliant from a tactical perspective on Ramsey’s part. Davos, and myself, were muttering under our breath “don’t do it” but obviously Jon’s rage took over. It was a stupid, stupid mistake by Jon and by all logic he should have died. Jon charges at Ramsey’s army, alone, ahead of his own without any regard to safety, or battle tactics.

Before going any further let me explain how real medieval battles worked. Unlike what is usually shown on film, battles in the ancient world (before artillery) did not involve a melee. Typically infantry (light or armored) would march toward each other and the two lines would clash. Assuming both armies were of equal size and similarly equipped, the infantry lines would consist of shields and pikes, spears or swords. The objective, rather than a melee, was to break the enemy’s line. Soldiers would hide behind their shields and attempt to kill the enemy, who was also hiding behind their shields. If enough of the enemy died (or fled) the army could punch through the line. At this point, typically, the other army would flee. If not, the opposing army would be able to punch through the line, turn around and attack the soldiers from their undefended backs.

Obviously this ignores archers and cavalry. Archers would be deployed to shoot at a charging enemy, or to fire arrows so it lands at the rear of the line, almost never at the front of the line where one might kill one’s own soldiers; that’s just poor leadership.

Cavalry held sway in medieval warfare. Heavily armored knights would attempt to avoid the enemy’s cavalry if at all possible and charge for the infantry lines. If they were successful a force of cavalry could easily break a line of shields with one or two charges. Often knights would dismount and attack infantry with their swords and shields.

To defend against this the other army could deploy their own cavalry which would charge at them in an attempt to dismount each other. Failing that later armies began using pikes, very long and study spears that would kill the horse (or rider) well before it reached the infantry line. Of course pikes don’t work very well in lines (because a charge of cavalry will eventually break through a thin line), but rather in formations of squares. However, formations of squares are vulnerable to arrow fire.

Now that we’ve gotten this brief overview of ancient military tactics out of the way, we can discuss Jon Snow’s battle plan. Originally, the plan was to let Ramsey’s forces attack (Jon has little cavalry to speak of) and have his center fake a break. As the center of Jon’s line began to “flee” the invading army would move forward as Jon’s left and right would begin to encircle Ramsey’s forces. It’s a sound battle plan, and would have worked especially well if Jon’s forces had held.

Instead, Jon foolishly charges. Again this was a stupid mistake by Jon and Davos has no choice but to order his own meagre cavalry to charge in order to protect Jon. Jon’s own horse is felled by archers and he stands with his sword in hand as Ramsey’s own cavalry prepare to run him down. Just in the knick of time (another common trope which I find deplorable) Jon is rescued by his own cavalry. Both formations of cavalry break (this is not typical in a well trained force; typically the cavalry will charge at each other and through each other, turning as one to charge again) and we see a melee in the center field. And by melee I mean meat grinder. Knights are dismounted, and it’s hard to tell who is on who’s side during this battle. Jon mindlessly fights for his life as both armies prepare their arrow volley. Davos stops his archers; he’d only be killing his own men.

Ramsey has no such qualms. His archer loose arrow after arrow and both Ramsey’s and Jon’s men begin to pile up on the battlefield. Davos orders the rest of the forces to charge and after some time the Stark forces are forced to take refuge under a pile of corpses from the arrow fire.

Let me point out the mistakes made so far: Jon Snow charged alone. Davos sent his cavalry to protect Jon, followed by his regular forces into the meatgrinder. The entire Stark army is in the center being bombarded by arrows while a mere fraction of Ramsey’s forces are in the center.

Then Ramsey closes the trap: he sends in his heavy infantry consisting of tower shields and spears, to encircle the Stark Forces. As one the infantry forms a semi-circle of shields with outward facing spears encircling the stark forces. Then they all take a single step forward, tightening the circle.

Credit: HBO
Credit: HBO

Watching this scene I was enthralled by the accurate use of military tactics. Unlike the more cinematic center melee we’d seen thus far (which, again, rarely happened in real life) we had real tactical warfare. In the Inside the Episode segment we are told that this was modelled after the Battle of Cannae where Roman forces were encircled by a much smaller (but better led) Carthaginian force. As a side note: Romans were indifferent cavalry men and cavalry rarely decided Roman wars because of this. After this scene I realized the planning that had gone into finding a believable way to have both forces removed of their cavalry early in the battle.

I was about to write “it’s at this point that Jon Snow is utterly defeated” but he was defeated the moment he decided to charge alone into battle. As the encircling army closes in Tormund tells his wildings to flee. However, Smalljon Umber takes his force and begins to attack the fleeing Wildlings from the rear.

This was by far the best scene in the entire episode. As the Stark forces are encircled the force truly breaks and they climb over each other, dead or alive, in order to escape. Jon is trampled by wildlings and the director was able to give the shot a claustrophobic feel. As Jon struggles for breath the shots get tighter, and each shot is obstructed by body parts. The sound become muted and all we hear is Jon Snow struggling for breath.

This actually happened in many battles in the ancient world. Fleeing forces would often be caught in front of an obstacle and many of the soldiers would die under the feet of their comrades rather than from the blades of their enemies.

All seems lost, and even as Jon is able to climb above the bodies the camera pans out to show the hopelessness of the situation.

Then a horn rings. In a scene reminiscent of the Battle of Pelennor Fields from the Lord of the Rings (where the forces of Gondor are hopelessly outnumbered and doomed before the Cavalry of Rohan arrives to save the day (this of course is in the cinematic version, the book version is somewhat different). We hear a horn and cresting a hill Jon Snow sees Sansa with Littlefinger overlooking the Knights of the Vale which charge on Ramsey’ unprotected flank.

HBO
Credit: HBO

This is the only mistake Ramsey made. Generally you keep some scouts at your flanks to protect yourself from just such an operation. But, Ramsey surely didn’t know about the forces of the Vale and so such a mistake is not one he can be blamed for. Ramsey’s forces are utterly destroyed by a (correctly portrayed) cavalry charge and the Stark Forces win.

Ramsey flees and Jon gives chase with Tormund and Wun Wun (the giant). It’s a bit of a cliché, but damnit it works. Jon Snow isn’t really thinking right now; he’s in what you would call a berserker fury. Ramsey reaches Winterfell and comments to his men that “their army is defeated”. One of them replies “so is ours” but Ramsey counters that the remaining Stark forces cannot lay a siege. He seems to be forgetting about the forces of the Vale which are fresh and numerous.

It doesn’t matter: Wun Wun breaks through the gates at Winterfell (seems like those gates are rather thin considering it took several giants to breach the gates at the Wall and they failed) before being shot to death by an arrow from Ramsey.

Ramsey challenges Jon to single combat and looses arrow after arrow at him. Jon ducks for cover and finds a shield, charging at Ramsey and beating him to within an inch of his life before Sansa arrives. Jon recollects himself and the battle is over.

Credit: HBO
Credit: HBO

The Stark banners hang from Winterfell once more. Rickon’s body is buried with his father’s. Sansa asks Jon where Ramsey is. The next scene show Ramsey bound to a chair while Sansa stares at him with cold eyes. He tells her that she’ll never be rid of him; he’s a part of her now. She releases his hounds. Ramsey tells her that his hounds will never kill him. They’re loyal. Sansa reminds him that he hasn’t fed his hounds in seven days.

Something that I haven’t touched on yet is the fan theory that Sansa is pregnant. It was hinted at in earlier episodes when Sansa told Jon that she can “still feel” what Ramsey did “inside her”. Ramsey also remarks that “he’s a part of her” right before he dies. It may be, and if this is the case it’s truly tragic, that Sansa is carrying Ramsey’s child. Politically this would be beneficial: Sansa is the last surviving Stark (that the world knows of) and Ramsey was technically the true Warden of the North by Royal decree. If Sansa is indeed carrying Ramsey’s child it would strengthen the legitimacy of their claim to Winterfell, depressing though the prospect may be. I truly hope she isn’t; I think Sansa’s been through enough but the hints are there…

This was an excellent episode. By all rights Jon should have died and the writers did an excellent job of creating a realistic way to explain their hero surviving without resorting to deus ex machinas. He survived in a believable, if somewhat unlikely, way. Jon made stupid, stupid mistakes and it was only through Sansa’s planning that they survived.

I still don’t know why Sansa kept Littlefinger’s offer a secret from Jon even after she decided to call for his help. I hope this will be explained in further episodes. There are a few storylines to be wrapped up but next episode appears to focus on King’s Landing, so we’ll have to see if things get wrapped up before the show enters its final season.

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Christopher James

Christopher James

The Founder of TPK Media.

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