Monday, June 20, 2016


Ah, that hit the spot.  “Battle Of The Bastards” was light on surprises and heavy on stupidity, but it was still quite satisfying for all that.  It delivered payoffs years in the making, in particular the horrible death of Ramsay.  Any episode that included him getting pummeled by Jon and fed to his own dogs by Sansa was going to automatically be one of the most favored episodes of the series, but we also get to see Tormund rip the throat out of badjon Umber and the slavers put down once and for all over in Mereen.

In Mereen, the stupidity is on the masters’ side, as they somehow managed to be blindsided by Dany pressing the “DRAGONS” button.  Even assuming they somehow missed that the big one dropped her off at the top of the giant pyramid they were in the process of attacking the night before, they make reference to the fact that she still has 2 others chained up in the city, either one of which would’ve been enough to burn through their fleet.  And besides, it’s not like Drogon appearing out of nowhere to ruin the Harpys’ surprise attack was without precedent. This was like attacking a McDonalds and not having a plan for when they start throwing McNuggets.

"Wait a tick...didn't this exact same thing happen to us in episode 9 last year?"
Despite the most extensive dragon action maybe ever, Grey Worm swiping a hard left on 2 of the 3 main masters, and the most ridiculously overpowered cavalry charge ever when Daario brings an entire hoard of thousands down on about 10 Harpy footmen, the more exciting development was four people standing in a room talking.  The masters have never been more than a speed bump, albeit a frustratingly persistent one.  The Greyjoys are much more significant characters, and their significance is to Westeros, which is what actually matters in the end.  Letting Dany interact with real characters is always better than watching her awkwardly mount CGI dragons.  She and Yara hit it off pretty much instantly (oh, there will be fanfic…), which leads to the women agreeing perhaps too quickly to major concessions in cementing an otherwise natural alliance.  On Dany’s end, she agrees to grant the Iron Islands’ some measure of independence mainly because they asked nicely, which Tyrion rightly points out will lead to Dorne and the Vale and the North asking why they shouldn’t be independent as well.  While on Yara’s, she agrees to overhaul the entire cultural identity and economic backbone of the Islands at a stroke, something that is easier promised than delivered.

"My dad was an evil murderer."
"Shut up!  My dad was an evil murderer!"
"Did we just become best friends?"
But there will be more on that once Euron is dealt with, I imagine.  The rest of the episode is given over to the titular Battle, where none of the Starks are operating at their sharpest.  They could all stand to learn something from Davos, who susses out what happened to Shireen, but has enough sense to deal with the battle at hand before seeking retribution.  Tormund is shown to be no great mind when it comes to tactics (or idioms), but even he or Rickon “never heard of a zigzag” Stark look like geniuses compared to Jon and Sansa.  Jon at least he has seething rage to justify his abandoning all strategy and charging the entire enemy army alone.  It’s still extremely dumb, particularly considering that they had specifically discussed the impossibility of saving Rickon and importance of not letting false hope of doing so trick them into giving up what meager advantage they have.  

But his emotional stupidity is at least grounded in the minor death wish he's manifested since returning from the relative peace of oblivion, as evidenced by his request that Melisandre not resurrect him a second time.  And it is nothing compared to the abject, ludicrous idiocy Sansa displays by not telling Jon that, oh yeah, there is a whole other army out there that has offered to help.  I understand her rejecting Littlefinger’s offer in the first place, but once she decides to write him I can’t fathom why she would keep it secret from the her own men at arms.  Particularly once she’s pleading with Jon not to force the battle until they have more men and he’s point blank asking "when are we going to have more men??"   Now, maybe she thought the element of surprise was worth more than getting houses like the Glovers onside by convincing them it was not a lost cause.  That still seems like something to discuss with the battle commanders, but I can still get behind it as a plausible, if not wise, decision.  But you don’t have to be Sun Tzu to know that they would draw up very different battle plans if they knew there was an extra thousand cavalry coming to help.  And then to argue that we should wait for more men while actively hiding the availability of those men is completely dumbfounding.  I mean, what happens if Littlefinger shows up 3 minutes later?  Oh right, the entire Stark force is wiped out and either the Boltons retain Winterfell or it goes to the pimp by default.

Though I suppose she did learn the art of stupid subterfuge from the best
What particularly irks about this is that you could have played out roughly the same events without the suicidal stupidity by the characters.  Instead of the arrow game, have Ramsay start strapping Rickon to a cross in preparation to flay him on the field.  That could force Jon to order a charge despite knowing it was a bad idea to give up their protected position, and one that would not be a complete act of suicide since he would be bringing the entire army instead of just himself.  And on Sansa’s end, have her tell Jon about the knights of the Vale, but give him a reason to advocate not waiting for them.  Something as simple as a winter storm coming in, that they do not have the provisions to wait out if they are stuck outside Winterfell.  So he says we have to fight today, or become sitting ducks, while she says wait for reinforcements.  Same basic conflict, but with defensible motivations to support their positions.

But that’s enough dwelling on the dumbness, because we got to see Ramsay’s demise, and “only” lost Rickon and Wun Wun (sidebar:  lucky for Jon that Ramsay decided to put his arrow in the already dying giant’s eye, rather than his bastard rival, huh?)  in the process.  That’s enough to be one of the most memorable episodes of the show, even if I think it falls short of standards set by previous Big Battle episodes like “Blackwater” (still the show’s finest hour, imo), “Hardhome” (the show’s best action sequence, imo), and “Watchers On The Wall” (similarly huge scale, without making the characters’ completely dunderheaded).  And if this episode is light on surprising twists, I think that's a natural symptom of the show entering the home stretch.  In the early and middle portions, a show like this can get a lot of mileage out of upending convention and spinning the story in unexpected ways.  But when it comes time to conclude things, after years of establishing a particular storytelling ethos, the possibilities become much more limited.  Once all the set up is locked in place, there are only so many pay-offs that will register as earned.  Which is to say, if the twists aren't quite as shocking anymore, it doesn't necessarily mean that Benioff, Weiss, or Martin have lost a step; just that we've had more time to study their habits and practice predicting their moves.

I would also be remiss if I didn't comment on how superbly directed it was by Miguel Sapochnik.  The claustrophobic terror of Jon being crushed under the mob of fleeing men was exceptionally, queasily realized, and Jon’s ride to save Rickon was edited to perfection to make a foregone conclusion hit as hard as possible.  Then you have the long one-take of Jon fighting, the incredible hero shot of him facing down the cavalry charge with Longclaw in hand, and things like Tormund and Wun Wun climbing out of the scrum to chase Ramsay, or the gorgeous shot of Davos standing by the pyre as the sun begins to rise.  “Battle Of The Bastards” may not have been the heroes’ smartest hour, but it was tense, brutal, genuinely exhausting and generally as well-realized as medieval battle sequences get.  Plus Wun Wun picked up a guy and ripped his head off his body, so he gets awarded a posthumous Who Shmushed It Better? Award.

Subplot Report Card: 

Mereen:   B+  

The North:  A- (no amount of Stark stupidity can ruin Ramsay’s utter defeat and gruesome demise)

Season Morgulis:  Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, Areo Hotah, Roose Bolton, Walda Bolton, Balon Greyjoy, (-Jon Snow), Shaggydog, Bowen Marsh, Othell Yarwyck, Alister Thorne, Olly, Osha, Khal Moro, Euron Greyjoy (-Euron Greyjoy), Summer, Leaf The Child Of The Forest, The Wargist Formerly Known As The Three Eyed Raven, HODOR, Septon Swearengen, Brynden “Blackfish” Tully, Lady Crane, the Waif, Rickon Stark, Badjon Umber, Wun Wun, Ramsay Bolton

Death Watch:  I think Tommen burns up in the sept next week, with Lancel, Septa Unella and the High Sparrow as well.  I’m also going to say Walder Frey learns that A Girl is not No One. 


  1. I agree with the stupidity of the characters' motivations, especially after the creators have done so well in similar circumstances. (As you said, the Battle at Castle Black is a great example of this.)

    But, in thinking about it, I think they've been doing a few blundering moves in terms of character motivations in order to get to certain payoffs. So, that means that likely Jon's rage and Sansa's subterfuge will pay off in the future - just at the expense of believable moment to moment motivations to get them there.

    It feels to me like they have an exact plot structure to hit and they are simply pushing characters towards more and more unearned arcs, shortcutting with deaths of minor characters (and rape, in some cases.)

    Which, if it must be this way in order for the whole enterprise not to come crashing down, then so be it. It's still the best longform fantasy series period. I'm just starting to get the feeling like they aren't going to stick the landing (particularly when the most emotionally resonant story so far involves holding the door.)

  2. This is going to have an especially tough landing to stick, for sure. There are practically 5 different shows to bring together and wrap up for the end.

    I do think the added TV-ness of the show has made this season weaker than those prior, but the highs are still so damn high.