Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts on Game of Thrones, s6e9, “The Battle of the Bastards.”
Before I get into the discussion points: Strictly on an emotional response level, this was a phenomenal episode. Thrilling and gut-churning, filled with moments of both primal satisfaction as well as high tragedy, and a handful of ominous events that will be resolved in the future one way or another.
(1) I’m more or less through theorizing that anybody is playing a game of shadows unless they’ve also spent a significant amount of time surviving the royal court (Cersei, Varys, Margaery, etc). Until last week I believed that Arya had engineered everything leading up to her defeat of the Faceless Men, and I was wrong. Until last night I believed that Smalljon Umber had brought Rickon, Osha, and Shaggydog’s head to the Boltons as a Trojan horse, and had refused to bend his knee formally so he could argue he’d never sworn fealty when he betrayed Ramsay — and I was wrong.
In hindsight, I had no reason to believe these things. This version of Martin’s story is clear that the Northmen abide by a culture that cultivates honor at the expense of guile. This has been consistently shown within all Northmen except Sansa — but Sansa as we know her now hasn’t been raised by the North, she’s been raised by King’s Landing and Littlefinger.
(2) Among the many things to admire in this episode’s execution is the way that the creative team decided to structure “Battle of the Bastards” as a nearly one-to-one comparison and contrast between Danaerys’ now-definitive conquest of Essos and Jon Snow’s assault on Winterfell. We not only see battle, but also the parlay and consequences before and after, and are invited to examine what went right in one and wrong in the other.
In Meereen, we watch Danaerys and Tyrion discuss terms of surrender with the Masters from a place of unanswerable, dragon-supported power — although the Masters don’t realize it until their ships are in flames. At Winterfell, we watch Jon fully aware of the odds against him, using other tactics and negotiation at his disposal to try and even those odds. In both scenes, the question of leaders and their soldiers, and who is willing to die for whom, is raised to different effect and different answers. When Jon taunts Ramsay that his men will be unimpressed to hear that Ramsay refused to fight in single combat to spare them the horrific battle ahead, it echoes Grey Worm telling the Masters’ soldiers that they can go home to their families instead of dying for men who would never die for them.
While the retaking of Meereen — which includes the execution of 2/3 of the Slaver leadership and the utter destruction of the Sons of the Harpy — happens in one fell swoop and with relatively minimal loss on Danaerys’ part, Jon Snow’s battle proves ghastly in its price to both sides. Danaerys did not need strategy; like her ancestors of old, she relies on superior force. Jon Snow needed strategy and despite his work on crafting one he found himself unable to overcome his personal drive to behave heroically.
It’s a somewhat bold storytelling decision to make Jon Snow this inept a battle commander — he’s been one of the audience’s protagonists for so long, an elder warrior Stark we could hang our hopes on after Eddard and Robb were both outmaneuvered. He has been shown at times to exhibit a willingness to look beyond the surface, an ability to make hard decisions, a desire to do right by others. These make for an admirable man, but not, on their own, a good commander. As Sansa warns him, he is unready for an enemy like Ramsay Bolton, whose limits of ruthlessness far exceed his own. Jon attempts to make Ramsay angry and force a mistake out of him by appealing to his pride and innate need for legitimacy. Ramsay, however, succeeds in making Jon angry and forcing a mistake out of him by killing his brother — not only in full view, but seconds away from saving him. Sansa had also warned him that their brother was doomed, a realization that doubtless pained her but that she had forced herself to come to terms with. Jon Snow did not and could not, and it very nearly cost him all.
By the end of the battle Jon Snow is seen to be a man who may never be anything more than a highly skilled fighter — a figure that people will speak of in songs and legends, but whose place in the histories will be beneath the lords, ladies, kings, and queens whose names adorn the structures and monuments. What also becomes clear is that Sansa Stark has emerged fully as one of these latter, which is interesting because she began this story with dreams of rising in rank as an ornamental princess and eventual queen, and has instead risen as a cold, tactical-minded survivor. The smile on her face as she leaves Ramsay to his dogs is both frightening and earned. We can feel confident that Winterfell will never again be taken by another House while Sansa is its head…the only thing we don’t know yet is what influence and debt Littlefinger will continue to hold over her.
(3) Until the War of the Five Kings, the most recent cataclysmic event in Westeros was Robert’s Rebellion, which ended centuries of Targaryen dynasty and placed the Baratheons atop the Iron Throne. But as of the Battle of Winterfell, nearly all of the heads of Houses who were in power to see the Mad King deposed have themselves died. Barring the lesser Houses such as the Tarlys, only Mace Tyrell remains — alongside Littlefinger, who is head of a self-fashioned House, and who, we must never forget, set in motion every action that led to the current state of the Realm. That Mace Tyrell and Littlefinger are the two such men left of their age is a study in contrasts between obliviousness and cunning, and my guess is that Littlefinger knows he doesn’t have to care about what Mace Tyrell does or decides because he can be handled with relative ease. Olenna and Margaery remain the formidable members of this family for him to consider, but Olenna has tied herself to Littlefinger inextricably by co-conspiracy to regicide.
The dead patriarchs and matriarchs leave behind a world that their children must navigate and shape instead, and this episode spells this theme out sharply in the scene between Danaerys and the entreating Ironborn. The sins of the past continue to be visited upon the present, but at least a few of the players are considering what kind of future may be built from the wreckage.
All of these plans and visions mean nothing, of course, if the Night’s King breaches the Wall. And right now, there’s no real contingency available for that increasingly likely event. I suspect that it will fall to whatever Sam learns at the Citadel.