Game of Thrones: Season 6, Episode 9 – Battle of the Bastards

“Let’s end this the old way. You against me.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Wow. Have you been missing those epic battle sequences Game of Thrones does so well of late? Yes, there’s been some awesome political manoeuvring, backstabbing and the general nastiness the show is so good at. But perhaps you hanker for those slightly more formulaic days of the early seasons, when episode 9 was guaranteed to centre around a stonking, rip-roaring epic battle.

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Worry not then, for this year’s penultimate episode serves that up in spades, giving us not just one epic battle but two.  As ever in these kind of eps, the usual sprawl of plotlines was abandoned for a tighter focus; though unlike season two’s Blackwater or season four’s The Watchers on the Wall, this time there were two of them.

Benioff and Weiss, on scripting duties as they have been for most of this year, pulled off a clever switch by actually starting with an epic battle, which took up most of the opening fifteen minutes. Plunging us straight back into the chaos of the Masters’ naval siege of Meereen from the ep’s very first shot, it was nonstop action (and, of course, violence) as the returned Dany unleashed first her dragons then her Dothraki hordes on the unsuspecting slavers.

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Well, I say ‘unsuspecting’, but these guys must have been really dumb. OK, the Dothraki were probably a surprise, but they did know about the dragons – even if they thought two of them were chained under the pyramid, where did they think the other one was? Still, stupidity has rarely been in short supply during war, and it was undoubtedly satisfying when their smug grins froze on their faces. Though I have to say, Dany came off as more than a little smug herself when pointing out it was their surrender she’d come to discuss and not her own.

Thankfully Tyrion managed to talk her down from her ‘plan’ of razing the other Essos cities to the ground with the touching story of how her father attempted to destroy the entire population of King’s Landing, guilty and innocent alike. Further blindingly obvious parallels were brought home with the surprisingly anticlimactic arrival of the fugitive Greyjoys and their stolen fleet. Dany, realising that “all our fathers were monsters who made the world worse”, may be learning a lesson her father never did.

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It was a heck of a battle sequence, directed with such verve by Miguel Saponchik it was easy to forget that most of it was generated inside a computer. But the real trick was in foregrounding that battle only to follow it up with an even more spectacular one – and this one was, for the most part, all staged with live action.

It’s a clever tactic: start with a ferocious battle, only to follow it up barely five minutes later with an even bigger one. But where the battle for Meereen showcased the show’s fantasy elements with its soaring, fire-breathing dragons, the next one was one of the most gruesomely realistic depictions of medieval warfare I think I’ve ever seen. Giants aside, anyway.

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We’ve all been waiting for the big showdown between the sparse forces of Jon Snow and the huge, well-equipped army of batshit crazy Ramsay Bolton. But after all the roaming around the North trying to rally support of late, I wasn’t expecting it to come this soon. Given the show’s fondness for offing major ‘heroes’, it was by no means certain that Jon’s underdog forces would prevail, and that more than anything made this a breathless, edge of the seat spectacle.

Saponchik’s direction plunged the viewer into the heart of the battle, using the kind of jerky, hand held camera POV shots that have become de rigeur since Ridley Scott directed Gladiator. But unlike that movie, he also took the time to sometimes cut to a wide shot, so we could see the tactics being used.

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And I have to say, they looked pretty daunting for the Army of the North. Sophie Turner, who’s improved in leagues since her ordeal hardened the previously wet Sansa, had it right – Ramsay may be a crazed, sadistic psychopath, but he’s not stupid. In keeping with her prediction, he manipulated Jon into a stupid, hotheaded attack by playing with his head. In this case, by seemingly releasing, then killing ‘little’ Rickon Stark.

I have to say, it’s rather sad that we won’t be seeing more of young Art Parkinson as Rickon, just when he seemed to be growing up. But this show’s like that, and expectations aside, I knew he was doomed from the moment Ramsay cut him loose and told him to run.

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It was a long, LONG battle scene that, I think, took up about half the ep’s run time,but the pace and the suspense never flagged. There was some epic heroism on the part of Tormund Giantsbane (literally head butting the treacherous Lord Karstark to death) and the army’s sole giant, smashing his way through Winterfell’s barred door covered in arrows and spears. Only to receive a finally fatal blow from Ramsay, Iwan Rheon as hissable as ever as this absolute worst of bad guys.

I don’t know if any kind of agonising, protracted death could really make up for his unspeakable acts (and I say that as a staunch opponent of the death penalty, but this is Westeros). Still, his final end had a sense of poetic justice to it, devoured in gruesome detail by his own prized but half-starved hounds. You reap what you sow, I guess.

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As, presumably, will Sansa. That last minute cavalry charge by the forces of Petyr Baelish may have saved everyone’s arse, but just look at the smug smile on Aiden Gillen’s face. This is not some altruistic favour.  Like all of Littlefinger’s ‘good deeds’, it’s going to come with a price.

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Sex and violence

Well, no sex. But unfeasible amounts of violence this week, in  what may have been the show’s bloodiest episode yet. With two massive battles, it’s hard to even decide on the carnage highlights from the mass on offer; so here’s just a few:

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Choice dialogue this week

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Tyrion, trying vainly to reassure his Queen as flaming cannonballs erupted outside: “Despite appearances, the city is very much on the rise.”

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Ramsay, greeting Sansa in the most terrifying way possible: “My beloved wife. I’ve missed you terribly.”

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See Davos, ever the ordinary man, when asked how he prepares for battle: “I walk. Think and walk. Think and walk far enough that no one can hear me shitting my guts out.”

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Equal opportunity lech Yara Greyjoy, musing on Dany’s question of whether she would be expecting marriage too: “I never demand, but I’m up for anything really.”

This was an incredible episode, full of sound and fury that actually signified quite a lot. True, the show’s usual artful character work was in short supply, but those battles more than made up for it – and it still found time for that wordless, affecting little scene where Ser Davos found the remains of Shireen’s funeral pyre.

I especially liked the way each battle highlighted the show’s extremes – one a work of epic fantasy, the other a wince-making exercise in gruesome reality. And along the way, we bade farewell (at least I assume we have) to the heinously nasty Ramsay Bolton in truly satisfying style. Yes, it may hearken to the slightly more formulaic days of earlier seasons to have an epic penultimate episode followed by a more contemplative season finale (if that’s what’s in store), but with episodes this good I don’t mind a bit.