“We were a bit annoyed because we think everyone’s gonna think it was CGI. And it wasn’t.” No, that’s not Kit Harington talking about finally riding a dragon. Rather, he’s referring to one of Game of Thrones‘ most awe-inspiring shots, in which Jon Snow faces off against the Bolton cavalry during the Battle of Winterfell (read: the Battle of the Bastards).
This was one of the most anticipated moments of Season 6, as the Starks finally protested love-to-hate-him villain Ramsey Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) claim to Winterfell. Between his seizing of their ancestral home, his abhorrent treatment of Sansa (Sophie Turner) during their brief but horrific marriage, and his kidnapping of poor Rickon, the Starks’ vendetta against Ramsey ran deep; the House had a lot to fight for.
Led by director Miguel Sapochnik (“Hardhome,” “The Winds of Winter”), the Game of Thrones team set out to match these stakes by producing something on a scale never before seen on television. Employing a cast of 500 extras, 80 horses, and 65 stunt people, it took 25 days of filming to realize the conflict between the massive Stark and Bolton armies.
The battle begins with Ramsey’s signature ruthlessness as he releases his prisoner, Rickon, to run across the pitch amid relentless arrow fire. Sansa, always knowing better than she’s given credit for by the men around her, knows Rickon’s death is unavoidable, and she even warned Jon about it the night before the battle, but still, Jon sets off across the battlefield, desperate to save his brother. He couldn’t save Ned or Robb or even himself, but he has to do anything he can to protect the little family he has left.
Unfortunately, Sansa is proven right and a shot from Jon’s point of view atop his horse looks down at the child as he takes his final breaths, pierced with an arrow at just an arm’s length away. From then on we stay close to Jon and experience Game of Thrones’ most expansive battle through his perspective. Overhead shots reveal a massive scale battleground with flaming crosses adorned with flayed men dotting the horizon, replicating the sadistic House Bolton sigil as Jon gallops across the field.
Volleys fly and after being flung from an arrow-laden horse, Jon rises and turns toward his distant enemy and comes face to face with a charging cavalry.
From dragons to fully imagined cityscapes, Game of Thrones has always taken advantage of CGI. However, terrifying as it seems, Harington really did stare down 40 charging horses to capture the battle’s iconic opening shot. The result is truly impressive, and kicking off the battle with such a breathtaking, practically crafted image sets the tone for the ensuing 30 minutes of carnage.
Inspired by the real Battle of Cannae, the Battle of the Bastards showcases a fittingly ruthless war tactic put on display by the Bolton army. During this historic battle, Hannibal led the Carthaginians to victory by ensnaring the Roman army. As the Romans pushed forward across the battlefield, Hannibal’s infantryman trapped them in a tight U-formation, crushing the army from either side.
Just as Hannibal’s men crushed the Romans, the Bolton army crushes the Starks. The shield and spear-wielding soldiers form a similar formation around them and push inward. When the quickly depleting Stark army attempts to retreat (triggered by a resounding “FUCK THIS!” from unofficial Free Folk leader Tormund), the expansive Battle of the Bastards comes to a contrasting climax.
Jon Snow, whom the audience has been so closely following for the entire battle, lets his guard down for just a moment and is promptly trampled. Stuck beneath a growing pile of bodies, horses, and entrails, he’s nearly suffocated. The weight on Jon is palpable — he can’t breathe and neither can we.
Finally, after three impossibly long minutes, Jon emerges from the pack, gasping for air the same way he did on that slab just a few episodes prior. Once again, given another chance to live. Once again, he is reborn.
Despite this stellar end result, “Battle of the Bastards” was originally planned differently until budget and time constraints forced a quick rewrite. Although we’ll never know for sure how the battle was originally planned to look, Sapochnik says it was to be derived from another famous conflict, The Battle of Agincourt. That one was fought between the French and English in 1415 and resulted in an English victory.
Though Sapochnik moved away from fully basing the Battle of the Bastards on Agincourt, its brutal conclusion still took some inspiration; at Agincourt, the French infantrymen were in such a tight formation due to the pressure of the English, they had no room to even raise weapons. Similarly, the Free Folk and the rest of the Stark men are trapped by the Bolton army in addition to Jon’s suffocation.
When Sapochnik presented showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss with this sudden change, he was given the chance to follow a new vision. The resulting image of Jon’s rebirth through such a mess of gore is satisfying and poignant, it’s hard to imagine this as Plan B. It allows Jon’s perspective on the battle to become physically apparent to the audience and drive home his evolving character.
The choice to focus so heavily on any one character in such a large scale battle is interesting, and to pick Jon seems obvious — he is the clear good guy of the titular bastards. However, this decision does remove a level of stakes from the episode. Just a few episodes prior, he was brought back from the dead, relieving distraught fans after Season 5’s somber cliffhanger that saw Jon murdered at the hands of his own men. Knowing his recent experiences with death, it was hard to imagine Jon ever perishing during the Battle of the Bastards.
With that said, following his perspective puts Jon’s character growth on display. The battle may have been between two bastards, but Jon’s motivation is rooted solely in protecting his family. It starts with Jon reacting emotionally rather than tactically to his family’s pain and murder as he races across the battlefield to save Rickon, to no avail. Now, at its bloody conclusion, he’s given the chance to redeem himself, to think through his actions and their consequences. Ultimately, he sacrifices for his family one final time.
At the end of the grueling and exhausting battle, we finally arrive at Winterfell where the titular bastards finally face off mano e mano. Throughout the show, Jon has always been righteous and honorable, but rage surges through his eyes as he pummels Ramsey to the ground, laying into him punch after punch. After years of loss, Jon feels he is finally given the chance for retribution. But just as it seems Ramsey will draw his last breaths, Jon sees Sansa in his periphery.
“There’s nothing he wants more than to beat Ramsey to death with his own fists. And then he sees his sister,” Weiss explains. Regardless of any hatred that Jon feels towards Ramsey, it doesn’t hold a candle to Sansa’s pain. She’s been battered and raped, sent to Hell and back, and Ramsey is hers to take care of. Jon may have refused to listen to her insight before the battle, but his willingness to immediately back off is his attempt at an apology; he’s able to recognize this means more to her than it could ever mean to him. And thus, a satisfying battle concludes with an equally satisfying ending as Sansa regains some semblance of dignity from her abuser.
“You will die tomorrow,” Sansa somberly declared the day before. And at the end of the night, she makes sure that statement rings true. Just a day after threatening Jon with them, Sansa sics Ramsey’s starving hounds onto him and they tear him apart, starting with that punchably smug face of his.
As his shrieks ring out, Sansa saunters away, the smallest inkling of a smirk creeping at the edge of her mouth as the Stark sigil flies proudly at Winterfell once again.