Game of Thrones Explained: A Bloody Brilliant Night of Television
A night of basketball and Game of Thrones for the history books.
It’s impossible to talk about what happened last night on my television without first acknowledging the reason why this column is later than usual: the Cleveland Cavaliers, my #1 most favorite sports team for the entirety of my conscious sports fan life, won the NBA Championship last night. It was a euphoric and triumphant experience that preceded my viewing of Game of Thrones. The 8-year-old me that still lives inside my brain was going crazy.
There’s a strong possibility that the dramatic fashion in which Lebron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cavs defeated the Golden State Warriors on the biggest stage possible colored my experience with Game of Thrones. Had I attempted to write a column about “The Battle of the Bastards” last night, it would have been a garbled mess of GIFs and all-caps tangents. For approximately 12 hours, I lost all sense of reason.
Now that I’ve returned to Earth (mostly), we can talk Thrones. In an episode directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who gave us season 5’s high-point with “Hardhome,” Thrones delivered on several promises that were six years in the making. You have to go back to the dutiful setup work in season one. From establishing the honor of The North to the unforgiving brutality of the world of Westeros, it feels like HBO’s crown jewel has been building to this sort of battle all along. For our loyalty through all the death and despair – some of which has been unbearable for portions of its audience – Game of Thrones would eventually reward us with a cinematic display of violence worthy of its carefully constructed world.
There’s also the matter of dragons, introduced in the waning moments of that first season. When Daenerys Targaryen rose from the ashes of her dead husband’s funeral pyre holding three baby dragons, Game of Thrones showed its audience a magical card unlike anything modern television has promised before. Eventually these dragons would grow up and do something amazing.
In “Battle of the Bastards,” we received the payoff for both of these promises. A Braveheart meets Helm’s Deep battle for dominion over The North juxtaposed with massive flying death machines roasting the mechanics of slavery itself. It was a technically proficient episode, one that expanded the visual scope of the show greatly, but it was also an episode crafted to maximize the micro-levels of drama at the expense of say, logic. It was the first time in a long time that the show had to find a way to balance big action with the political nuance for which it is known. The other recent battles – “Hardhome” in particular – were about an overwhelming force crashing down upon our heroes. Their survival was the ultimate prize and strategy the only gamesmanship was “Holy shit, run!”
The last big battle in which the audience was an active observer was in season two in “Blackwater.” Between Tyrion’s military strategy and the push-pull effect of Cersei’s machinations versus doing what was right to repel Stannis’ considerable force, the show found perfect balance between the politics atop the embankments and the brutality of the war on the ground. “Blackwater” was an episode paid for with house money, as it was a fairly faithful adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s text. They didn’t quite have that with “Battle of the Bastards,” as we’ve moved beyond the books.
If “Battle of the Bastards” failed to achieve something that “Blackwater” accomplished, it was overplaying some of the political drama. It forced them into situations where characters made unreasonably bad decisions that cost lives. Specifically Sansa’s refusal to tell Jon about the Knights of the Vale possibly being on the way to support their cause. This allowed the show to squeeze every last drop of drama out of its most expensive battle before the Deus Ex Mockingbird of Littlefinger’s army arrived. It may also allow them to explore the consequences of such an action. As someone who wants to believe that the best of this show is still to come, I hope that’s what happens. This week proved that even though the execution gets sloppy at times, the show’s creators are still playing an excellent long game. We didn’t enjoy what happened on Sansa and Ramsay’s wedding night, but would the end of this episode have been as satisfying without it? We’ll never know, but it’s clear that the show was playing for this moment all along. Now Sansa is faced with the consequences of aligning with Littlefinger behind the back of her brother the war hero. It’s with this concept – that of fallout – that we begin the spoiler section of this column. Time to talk about the details of “Battle of the Bastards” and what it means for the future.
If Jon had died, would we blame Sansa?
The size and scope of this battle was impressive. As promised, it was unlike anything we’ve ever seen on television and unlike a lot of things we’ve seen in modern movie theaters. Some of the specific stuntwork – including the long shot of Jon Snow fighting amidst the chaos, a favorite tactic of director Miguel Sapochnik – was masterful. Amid the chaos was this week’s was the real thematic meat of the episode: the show’s writers wanted us to believe that Jon Snow wouldn’t make it. Whether it was him telling Melisandre not to bring him back; or having him try to save Rickon amidst a hail of arrows; throwing him out in front of a charging Bolton army only to be saved at the last minute; or having him emerge Daenerys-like from a sea of bodies after nearly being trampled by his own men; every narrative inch of this battle was about making the audience believe that Jon wouldn’t make it. Did you ever fear for the safety of Davos? Not really. And for good reason. The show wanted you to believe that Jon, as Melisandre explained earlier in the episode, was brought back only to fight and die at Winterfell in a Game of Thrones-ian way. Like the heroes we’ve followed throughout this series, his battle would ultimately be a losing effort.
If he had died, what would we make of Sansa’s withholding of information about the Knights of the Vale being en route? It’s easy to say now that her decision cost hundreds of lives on her side, but what if it claimed the life of our recently resurrected hero? It’s all part of the show’s play to heighten the drama, even if the decisions its thrusting upon its characters make less sense. There’s part of me that doesn’t want to get all snobby book reader about this, but it’s worth asking: would GRRM have made the same decisions?
The question is ultimately silly, as its answer is unknowable. And it doesn’t matter. The show and the books are two different things at this point. And as much as we can believe that they’re better together, that’s not something that’s in the cards any longer. It will be interesting to see how the books execute such a battle, assuming it gets that far. What we can’t take away from the show is that, character decision making aside, this was one hell of an impressive episode of television. It wasn’t just paying off a season’s narrative, it was paying off years of promises.
It’s all about the fallout.
The one way the show continues to act in the spirit of Martin’s books is the exploration of consequences. And while Sansa’s decision to withhold information – seriously, I was shouting “Tell him!” at my television during their post-war-council chat – doesn’t make a lot sense in the moment, it’s rich with potential. The longform narrative of Sansa Stark is a little girl being raised by the horrors of the world in which she lives. Her survival has turned into her rise as a player in the ultimate game. The problem is that Sansa and Jon are playing different games. Sansa believes that she’s making power moves a la Littlefinger to gain control over the lands that belong to her family. Jon wants to unite The North and the people of Westeros against what he knows is coming. You know, Winter.
These two ideas are not only in a sort of opposition, they are also two completely different games with different sets of rules. Sansa’s still playing the smaller, less significant Game of Thrones. Jon has already advanced to The War of Ice and Fire (between the living and the dead). Her decisions will cause a lot of conflict. Littlefinger will be coming for his reward (probably something unsavory), Jon isn’t going to be thrilled that his sister is moving pieces around what he thought was his war map, and even though they’ve dispatched Ramsay in brutal fashion, they might not be any closer to being ready for The Night King and his undead minions.
Daenerys is fun, finally.
The same concept applies to Daenerys, who for the first time in a long time got to simply be an agent of righteous vengeance. With her three dragons, she once again torched the Slavery Industrial Complex, followed by a scene ripe with girl power and sensual tension and an alliance made with the Greyjoy kids. That was all fun and games, but what happens now?
The brilliant CGI work on those dragons is one thing, but where will Daenerys go first in Westeros? With whom will she form alliances? And what does she do with Meereen when she leaves?
The answer to the first two questions rests with the secret mission Varys embarked upon prior to the Slavers showing up to sack Meereen. If he’s going anywhere, it feels like Dorne would be the most Daenerys-friendly place to start. They are all about girl power and are now ruled with a more aggressive hatred of the Lannisters. If he’s really working out a master plan, he may be talking to Tyrells, as well. Regardless of whether Cersei or The High Sparrow come out on top in King’s Landing, Lady Olenna is going to need help if she’s ever going to get her grandkids back.
Now that she’s done with Slaver’s Bay (we have to assume), Dany will begin the delicate matter of moving her army back to Westeros for some conquering. It was made clear to us in the scene with the Greyjoys that Tyrion is still uniquely qualified to be her best arbiter for alliances. He’s been sitting around talking for much of this season, but it’s nice to see his skills being put to use in a meaningful way.
What comes next…
As much as I enjoyed “Battle of the Bastards” with all its beautiful bluster, the real meal is what comes next. There will be plenty more to say as we close in on “The Winds of Winter,” the season six finale. Let’s take a look at the episode preview and I’ll make some haphazard predictions:
- Loras is in trouble.
- Cersei is going to do something major.
- Jaime being at the party with Walder Frey is… interesting.
- Melisandre, also in trouble.
- White Ravens mean that Oldtown is declaring that Winter is here. Which means we may get a little Oldtown, finally.
Until we meet again on the battlefield, our watch continues…