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The Battle of the Bastards largely ruined Game of Thrones for me – even though it’s one of the most highly-rated TV episodes of any show, ever. The day after it aired in June 2016, I wrote a post for a friend’s blog, outlining my problems with it. He’s now taken the blog down, so I’m re-posting the article here.
A Bloody Mess: How Game of Thrones lost its Crown
This week on Game of Thrones (Season 6, Episode 9: Battle of the Bastards), something important and tragic happened.
On the plains of Winterfell, helplessly gasping for breath as it slipped from the light under a slew of mud and corpses, something died. It wasn’t one of the three Plucky Heroes caught up in the carnage – Jon, Davos and Tormund: against frankly ludicrous odds, all three of them actually survived in pretty good shape. No: what drowned in the muck was the show’s credibility.
What makes this so frustrating is that this episode should have been, and very nearly was, a showcase of everything that’s brilliant about Game of Thrones; and what’s more, the damage was avoidable. Visually, the episode was extraordinary. The eponymous Battle of the Bastards, self-evidently designed as the stand-out sequence of the entire season, was perhaps the most visceral, intense and traumatic pre-modern battle scene ever to reach our screens. The director, Miguel Sapochnik, created an onscreen experience so harrowing that the audience felt the full horror of medieval warfare like never before. And if that wasn’t enough, the first half of the episode was dominated by an epic action scene at Meereen which finally, finally, saw Daenerys’s dragons put to full use in a proper battle. So what went wrong?
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Quite simply, the Battle of the Bastards was let down by woeful storytelling. However well-directed it was, however memorable the stuff onscreen, the whole edifice was built on rotten foundations. Let’s go through it.
The Problems with Littlefinger
The most obvious problem with the Battle of the Bastards was Littlefinger’s army. Never mind the way they arrived in the nick of time, which was only one of the many all-too-convenient moments in the episode. First of all, why had Sansa chosen not to tell Jon about the reinforcements that were on the way? This was inexcusable on her part, and on the part of the writers. Perhaps in the next episode they’ll come up with a reason, but it will feel like justification after the fact. How can we root for Sansa after we saw the horrendous carnage that she caused, by not telling her brother that he should stay put for just one more day? She no longer has the excuse of being a foolish child, as her scene with Jon revealed her to be a better general than him (more of that later).
The only reason I can see for this failure of Sansa to do the obvious thing was because it let the writers manufacture the moment in the Battle of the Bastards when Littlefinger’s host rides to the rescue. Two problems here. Firstly, we all knew that Littlefinger was on his way. We’d seen Sansa write that letter a couple of episodes ago. We saw how shifty she looked when a frustrated Jon said that there was nobody else who could be expected to come to their aid. One of my two main thoughts during the Battle of the Bastards was “I imagine Littlefinger will be along any minute – just as soon as we get to the point when All Seems Lost.” I’ve come across a couple of people saying “I was so wrapped up in the battle that I clean forgot about Littlefinger and his army!” Which is to say, the visuals were so intense that they managed to obscure the predictability of the plot. Not a good enough excuse: it just makes it all the sadder that the choreography was wasted on such weak writing.
The second problem with Littlefinger’s cavalry pouring over the hill at exactly the opportune moment: we’ve seen it before. It’s the most obvious and the cheapest trick in the book when you’re writing a battle-scene in which victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. And it’s exactly the same conclusion as the show’s two previous great victories, the Battle of the Blackwater in Season Two and the defence of the Wall against Mance Rayder in Season Four. This season, the show has quite obviously reduced Littlefinger’s role to a couple of brief appearances, evidently in the hope that we’ll forget about him enough for his arrival to be a surprise. A story can get away with the Last-Minute Reinforcements once, maybe even twice. But in the Battle of the Bastards, the trick felt hackneyed. We went through all that bloodbath, only for some random knights from the Vale to win back Winterfell? Jon deserved no credit for the victory, and Ramsay can hardly be blamed for the defeat.
Two Disappointing Bastards
So it’s time to look at Jon and Ramsay, the Bastards themselves. The acting of Kit Harington and Iwan Rheon was stellar, and we inhabit poor Jon’s mind so thoroughly by the end that we readily understand that he’ll be suffering from some serious post-traumatic stress disorder after this. Or will he? Is the show going to show hard truths, consequences and character complexity, or is it now content to coast its way between action sequences? I’m no longer so sure.
Rickon’s death was deliciously evil, and it felt so right: it hit Jon right where it would hurt him, it illustrated once more how cruel Ramsay can be, and it showed that Sansa has a firm grasp of the brutal rules of the game. I’d even forgive the conveniently perfect arrow-shot which killed Rickon at exactly the right moment. But Jon’s response…
Jon Snow, who would appear to be the hero of this whole saga, essentially threw away his life and his army, despite having been warned about this very thing by Sansa. Okay, so he was angry, but the whole point of Sansa’s speech was a reminder that Game of Thrones doesn’t play by the rules of conventional happy-ever-after storytelling. By the show’s rules, a man who puts his feelings, or his honour, before his people is a bad leader, and shouldn’t last much longer. Sansa recognised the grim realities. Jon violated them: he did something incredibly stupid and selfish and a lot of people died horribly as a result. If I were Davos or Tormund, or anyone else in that army, I’d quit Jon’s host there and then. After the Battle of the Bastards, he’s lost legitimacy as a leader.
I don’t want Jon to be perfect. I don’t want him to be unaffected by the death of his youngest brother. But the way it was handled just didn’t work. The second of my two main thoughts throughout the Battle of the Bastards was, “This is entirely avoidable and entirely Jon’s fault.”
Next, Ramsay. The way he lost was very disappointing. Ramsay was unpredictably savage, dangerous to all in his vicinity, blinded by his sheer sadism. And yet he lost fair and square, simply by having no answer to a vast enemy army and a bloody-minded giant. Tywin Lannister himself could not have salvaged a victory from that situation. All Ramsay’s terrible leadership qualities were ultimately irrelevant. I wanted him to have nobody but himself to blame when he was finally defeated. Instead, Littlefinger’s bloody cavalry meant he’s effectively been doomed since the moment the Vale started assembling an army. Fine, Ramsay’s actual death was poetic justice (if we ignore the convenient timing that when Sansa came to visit, the hounds just happened to choose that moment to maul their former owner). But that’s cosmetic. From a plot perspective, Ramsay was dead from the moment Wun-Wun smashed open the gates of Winterfell. And the bloody demise of the Bastard of Bolton was entirely not his fault, which is more lazy storytelling.
Just quickly, let’s leave the actual Battle of the Bastards and go over Daenerys. She had arrived in the city the previous night, amidst a hail of fire falling upon her city. And for absolutely no reason she waited until well into the following day to do anything about it. This time-lag is so glaring that I wonder whether it was simply a continuity error: maybe the director of Episode Eight didn’t get the memo that Dany’s scenes in Episode Nine needed to be in the daytime. How simple to solve this would have been, if at the start of the episode they inserted twenty seconds of dialogue arranging a truce until morning, so that Dany could meet the slavers by the light of day.
Then comes an even more fundamental problem. This was a crucial episode for Dany, finally beginning to fulfil her destiny: she fights from dragon-back, she assembles the fleet that she needs, and she shows more of her true colours as a dangerous Targaryen. And for some inexplicable reason – again, the writers’ fault, not the director’s – Dany attacking the ships with her three dragons was presented as some sort of twist. It’s not even the first time this season that the fact that Dany now rides a dragon was presented as a “ta-daaa!” moment, as if we keep forgetting this rather important aspect of the show. Were we meant to be surprised? “How’s Dany going to get out of this sticky situation?! …Oh yeah, right, she used those three dragons that she’s had since Season One.” We didn’t need suspense or artificial drama – we needed the show to demonstrate to us that it was finally moving forward with Dany’s story. That’s why the scene with Yara and Theon, played straight, was much more successful: the obvious, necessary plot development occurred with minimum fuss. Why couldn’t the writers be upfront about Dany’s plan to use her dragon? After all, it’s far more obvious even than Littlefinger’s last-minute rescue. Or have they really decided that the audience is that stupid?
Why I Am Sad
Here’s the issue. Game of Thrones presents itself as something different, not just a fantasy epic with swords and breasts. It promises truthful, powerful, character-driven storytelling. It claims to show the way that medieval politics and battles really worked – and that applies to this episode especially. We were given the least glorious battle-scene imaginable, so that when we we limped, shell-shocked, into the court of Winterfell, a victory that we have longed for since Season Two, we were unable to shake the horror of what we just witnessed and there was a bitter taste in our mouths. “This is what it was really like!” the show cries. And here’s me, completely taken out of the experience by the shoddiness of the plotting.
Once, the Game of Thrones story felt engaging and exciting: it felt raw, it felt real. It wasn’t the big-budget battles that kept us watching: they were just the cherry on the cake. On the whole, despite some glorious moments, it’s had a weak couple of seasons. Storylines have meandered, and meaningful themes have been harder to come by. This episode, the production department had clearly committed the full extent of their resources and efforts. So a hell of a lot was at stake, and if it had delivered, then it would have proven to the world that it still justifies the hype and the huge budgets. The fact that the storytelling let this episode down, reducing it to contrived spectacle, was a severe blow to the Game of Thrones brand.
They could have got it right. It wouldn’t have been so hard, and they could have kept all the best bits of the episode. Here’s how.
The Better Battle of the Bastards
If we thought about it, we all knew that Jon could not take Winterfell without Littlefinger. And if he’d arrived before the battle, the impact of this development would have been enhanced, not reduced. Suddenly Jon thinks he has a realistic chance against Ramsay, and his determination to push ahead with the battle has more weight. Sansa’s warnings have more force, too, because we know that by getting Littlefinger onside, she’s contributed a great deal to Jon’s coalition.
Now Ramsay kills Rickon, cruelly and in front of both armies. Of course Jon is angry and his judgement is clouded. So he falls into Ramsay’s trap. But that doesn’t mean he does his idiotic Lone Ranger stunt. Perhaps he advances too soon, or falls into an ambush. Perhaps he engages before Littlefinger’s contingent has got into position. Ramsay is winning the mind games, but Jon is not totally discredited as a leader.
The battle goes disastrously, as per the actual episode. Jon, Tormund, Davos and Littlefinger may be too important to kill off, but somebody should die in this chaos: why not Lord Royce, the knight of the Vale? That way we actually feel the peril and the cost of the situation.
The heroes are trapped, and nobody is coming to their aid. Ramsay keeps ordering his archers to fire into the havoc. But what’s this? A useful part of the story that’s been emphasised from the very beginning?
The North remembers. The North is loyal to the Starks. The northerners are opinionated and fiercely independent.
Ramsay has just killed a Stark in front of his whole army of northmen. Earlier in the episode, Jon actually told Ramsay that his men wouldn’t want to fight for a man who wouldn’t fight for them. And now Ramsay is firing on his own troops.
Is a man like Lord Glover (from Episode Seven) going to put up with this? Ramsay is a cruel and dangerous man, and his own father warned him that if he keeps acting like a mad dog he’ll end up treated like one. The arrogant Ramsay’s cruelty has gone too far, and he’s the architect of his own undoing. If we want Sansa to have her moment of heroism, perhaps she chooses this moment to gallop towards the enemy, demanding that they switch sides – she’s the last known Stark, after all. All across the battlefield, northerners abandon Ramsay and rally to the Starks. The North remembers.
This alternative Battle of the Bastards reaches the exact same conclusion (except for Lord Royce, I suppose). But it’s more dramatically powerful, it is truer to the characters and to human nature, and it relies on aspects of the northern character that have been set up from the very beginning. Sapochnik’s masterpiece would have gone down as perhaps the greatest episode of the show to date, re-energising the franchise when it needed it most. Instead, as far as I’m concerned, Game of Thrones has been holed below the waterline, and it’s a damn shame.