Game of Thrones is a show that lends itself to an assortment of reactions. As an adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, it naturally generates comparison between the written narrative and the on-screen action. As a pop cultural phenomenon, Game of Thrones has ignited wild theorizing on a scale that hasn’t been seen since LOST — especially since the show ventured off the edge of Martin’s published map. As a nuanced and subversive work of fiction Thrones inspires essays and think pieces which try to grasp at and enunciate the overarching themes in the show.1
Yet sometimes the best response is the simplest, most visceral one. In the aftermath of The Battle of the Bastards all the book comparisons, wild theorizing, and profound contemplation burned away like a Slaver’s Bay armada, leaving one simple reaction — awe.
The episode’s undercard bout — Daenerys laying waste to the forces of the masters — was hilariously overqualified as such. The entire sequence in Mereen is almost certainly among the top five action sequences in the entire series, and surpassed Daenerys’ sacking of Astapor in season three as the best dragon sequence in the show. In almost any other episode of Game of Thrones, Drogon, Viserion, and Rheagal incinerating an entire fleet of ships would have been a worthy climax. Last night it was foreplay.
Game of Thrones has constantly set, then reset the bar for what a battle sequence can accomplish on television with episodes like Blackwater, The Watchers on the Wall, and Hardhome. Yet with last night’s episode Game of Thrones unequivocally announced that it was done playing in the minors. The Battle of the Bastards wasn’t measuring itself against anything on television, it was coming directly at the Iron Throne held by the likes of Braveheart and Lord of the Rings.
For the first time, Game of Thrones dropped us right into the middle of full scale open field combat. 2 In the past the show had been deft in conveying the scale of battles without actually showing it. By keeping the on screen action more intimate through the eyes of main characters fighting in smaller spaces, the confrontations still felt epic in scale. Yet The Battle of the Bastards the show completely eschewed any filmmaking tricks and let the action flourish in the open.
The episode gave us everything we’ve come to expect in a big-screen battle, then a bit more. There were cavalry charges the likes of the ride of the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings. There was close quarters battle with dismemberment and beheadings that could easily have been plucked from Braveheart or Gladiator. There was the epic, hectic tracking shot of Jon Snow, slicing and dicing his way through both mounted cavalry and an endless wave of Bolton infantry. We got a brutal mano a mano clash between Tormund and Smalljon Umber in the thick of the battle.3
But there also was the trampling scene that for just a moment made you fear that perhaps Jon Snow really was about to perish for a second time. I’ve honestly never seen anything like that sequence on screen. The shots of constant trampling forces punctuated by glimpses of light superimposed with the sound of Jon Snow’s gasps created an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. While the scene likely only lasted on the order of minutes, it felt like an eternity during which my blood pressure steadily crept higher and higher. Combined with the imagery of piles of dead and wounded bodies, Game of Thrones somehow seemed to created an even more realistic sense of medieval combat than what we’ve seen before on the big screen.
To cap everything off Jon Snow making Ramsay #catchthesehands followed by Sansa’s ice cold monologue — “Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear” — before watching Roose Bolton’s bastard get devoured by his own beloved hounds somehow managed to satisfy our long burning desire for the character to finally get his comeuppance.4 While staying true to its established tone Game of Thrones gave us its best, most satisfying episode yet.
The Battle of the Bastards didn’t live up to the hype. It surpassed it in the first half hour then danced circles around it. What an amazing hour of television.
- The main reason for me writing this column for the past three years ↩
- Mostly thanks to Jon Snow falling directly into Ramsay’s trap ↩
- As distressing as it was to see Rickon and Wun Wun bite the dust, Tormund and Davos surviving was the best part of this episode. ↩
- Let’s take a moment to appreciate the amazingly creepy, sadistic performance by Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton these past few years. Now can we please get a light hearted buddy cop comedy with him and Jack Gleeson? Please and thank you. ↩