“Battle of the Bastards” is peak Game of Thrones. Characters die. The money the visual effects department saved on CGI dragons last week is spent and then some. And after almost six full seasons, the show gets a perfect thesis statement.
Jon Snow is on the warpath. His ancestral home, and arguably the entire non-ice zombie world, is on the line; his little brother has just been murdered in front of him. So he tosses his carefully laid battle plans aside and makes a one-man charge, facing down an entire line of Bolton cavalry with only Longclaw to fall back on. For about 15 seconds, director Miguel Sapochnik lets us forget the last half decade of our lives and think this is actually going to work. The music swells. Everything goes into slow motion. Jon assumes his battle stance. Then the Bolton forces straight-up ignore him. There are bigger fish to fry a few dozen yards down the battlefield.
It’s a moment of pitch-black humor in an otherwise dead-somber hour of TV, but it’s also convenient shorthand for so many of Thrones’ favorite life lessons: Conventional heroism is overrated; war is about chaos and death, not glory; the underdog rarely ever wins. And when the underdog does, it’s because of a well-timed letter, not a rage-blind quest for vengeance.
Which is why, despite its name, the Battle of the Bastards is ultimately won by Sansa Stark. It’s a reversal that’s foreshadowed early in the episode, when she warns her half sibling that she’s the only person in the room who speaks Ramsay’s twisted, cruel language. But it’s also signaled by virtually everything else we’ve come to learn about Westeros and how it works. Robb won every battle, but he lost the war because of a backroom deal between the Lannisters and the Freys. Ned didn’t even have time to get his forces in order before Littlefinger and Cersei teamed up behind his back. Battles may make for great event television, but they’re not what get things done.
Unlike her half brother, Sansa has taken this message to heart. The result is a victory that’s satisfying on multiple levels: Not only has she learned to use the tactics of her family’s enemies to her advantage, she’s even enlisted one of those enemies to do it. (What the Littlefinger-Sansa alliance lacks in reliability, it makes up for in karmic symmetry.) And it’s Sansa who ultimately gets the Stark banners back on those walls, a fact Jon tacitly acknowledges when he backs off her estranged husband and lets her do the honors — and, once again, she crafts a more fulfilling payoff without actually getting her hands dirty.
It’s a theme that even plays out in the episode’s structure: The battle is indeed a major set piece, but after all that hype, it takes up less than 30 ugly, brutal, and deliberately confusing minutes. This is Game of Thrones’ first proper, full-on medieval faceoff, ditching wildfire gimmicks, White Walkers, and massive, magical walls for trenches, pincer movements, and men running at each other in broad daylight. (Plus, yes, one giant. Rest in peace, Wun Wun; you died as you lived — the most endearing character on this show even though, or perhaps because, you could only grunt.) And it’s horrible. So horrible, in fact, it takes only one look at a corpse wall to be grateful that we see most of it from Jon’s limited vantage point underneath the army that trampled him.
The battle also pairs well with the goings-on in Meereen, a pleasant surprise for a series that’s grown less and less thematically unified as it’s expanded. Daenerys also has a military triumph, one that initially seems to confirm her preference for awe-inspiring force over any kind of negotiation. But her dragons merely keep Slaver’s Bay from going further into free fall. It’s diplomacy, in the form of a pact with the Greyjoy siblings, that gets her closer to her ultimate goal. Tyrion’s knack for soft power may be rubbing off.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Daenerys’s subplot gets precious real estate in the most anticipated Thrones episode of the year. Like Sansa, Dany is a former victim who has fought her way into a position of authority. Like Sansa, Dany is a canny observer of her family’s failings. And like Sansa, Dany is slowly learning to play the long game. That’s how you take over the world.
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