Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find all of my Game of Thrones reviews here.
Wow. That was a fantastic episode. Season 6’s excellent early momentum may have faltered in the last two weeks, but “Battle of the Bastards” made it all worthwhile, delivering the strongest episode of the season, and one of Game of Thrones‘s all-time best.
“Battle of the Bastards” focused exclusively on two storylines, and it was all the better for this narrow focus.
The episode opened in Meereen, picking up where “No One” left off. I needn’t have worried as I did last week that the defeat of the masters would be skimmed over. “Battle of the Bastards” kicked off with a spectacular, soaring sequence in which Daenerys and all three of her dragons lay waste to the masters’ armies and fleet. Sure, Daenerys always has the same trick up her sleeve, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t an excellent and rousing trick.
A follow-up scene showed Daenerys allying with Yara and Theon Greyjoy. The credulity-straining speed of the Greyjoys’ traveling to Meereen is forgivable, since it’s merely a consequence of this season’s more significant story progress. Daenerys and the Greyjoys is an unlikely pairing that instantly made those two storylines far more interesting. Plus, I loved Daenerys’s fun rapport with Yara.
The meat of the episode was the titular battle of the bastards, and it was incredible. The battle itself was breathtaking, intense, and masterfully executed. “Battle of the Bastards” combined the best parts of Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, and Saving Private Ryan, delivering the kind of epic scope we never thought possible on TV.
From a filmmaking perspective, Game of Thrones has never been better. “Battle of the Bastards” was peppered with technical brilliance and beautiful imagery. The shot of Davos at the site of Shireen’s death. The magnificent heroic image of Jon, alone, facing down the Bolton forces on horsebackk. The requisite long take of the battle, focused on Jon, yet densely packed with gory detail and action all around him. It was magnetic.
Overall, the battle went according to expectations—another example of Season 6 eschewing Game of Thrones‘s tendencies to throw in unexpected (and often heartbreaking) twists. Ramsay sprang a trap that Jon ran right into, an epic battle ensued, all hope was lost until Littlefinger showed up with an army to save the day. And at long last, Ramsay died in a suitably gruesome way.
I’ve seen some cries of “predictable”, but I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before. We’re in the home stretch now. This is the part where the story starts delivering payoffs. Payoffs that, after years of suffering alongside our protagonists, are very much earned. No one can deny that the sight of the Stark banners finally hanging over Winterfell after five long years and an arduous battle was immensely satisfying.
One could argue the satisfying payoffs are coming at a very high frequency this season, but I believe it’s because this is the end of an era. Very soon, Daenerys will return to Westeros, and Game of Thrones will resume breaking our hearts as it pits protagonists against each other. Couple that with the death of the show’s most despicable clear-cut villain, and the lack of the show’s usual moral ambiguity in “Battle of the Bastards” will soon be gone.
That’s not to say the battle went smoothly. There were sacrifices, including the lovable Wun Wun and young Rickon Stark. Rickon’s death was not necessarily a shocker, but it was tragic all the same. Even so, that scene cleverly subverted the typical “Rule of Three”, as Rickon was killed with the fourth of Ramsay’s arrows, after the point where traditional writing tropes had conditioned us to assume he was safe.
Finally, Sansa’s journey this season has been so satisfying. She’s learned a lot from Littlefinger (see: when she pragmatically accepts the reality of Rickon’s impending death whereas Jon stubbornly refused to), but it’s such a joy to see her finally in control of her own situation as well as those around her. She saved the day—although the ever-calculating Baelish will certainly expect something in return.
“Battle of the Bastards” was the best episode of the season, and possibly my favourite Game of Thrones episode since “Blackwater”. At the very least, it easily ranks alongside other battle episodes like “Watchers on the Wall” and “Hardhome”. Any predictability or lack of moral ambiguity was more than made up for in spectacular, gripping filmmaking and immensely satisfying payoffs.