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Game of Thrones Review: "Battle of the Bastards"

          The ninth episode in Game of Thrones seasons is always the episode where something big goes down. The death of Ned Stark, the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding, etc. And with the title “Battle of the Bastards” this episode was sure to be a disappointment if it wasn’t the best episode of the season! I mean it’s arguably the most noble hero on the show going up against the most hated villain -how can that not be epic? And thankfully it is! Even though parts of the outcome we could predict -clearly Jon Snow wasn’t going to die so soon after coming back and Aidan Gillen’s credit kinda spoiled that Littlefinger would come to the rescue -it not only managed to be one of the most gripping and intense episodes of the show, but also provided one of the best medieval battles ever put to film!
          But before we get to that we have to check in on Mereen, especially given how dire things looked over there last episode. I do love Tyrion’s attempts to compensate with how “Mereen is on the rise”. Dany of course is able to end it by burning the entire slavers’ fleet with all three of her dragons now in a pretty great visual. And in a moment that’s almost Biblical two of the masters choose the third to be sacrificed but Grey Worm kills them instead. We see Daario riding with the Dothraki to kill off the Sons of the Harpy and close that story arc. In short, Danaerys manages to save all of Mereen in one fell swoop and pretty much gives us a teaser of what it will look like when she tries to take back her throne: a true force to be reckoned with. It’s a good thing she’s still keeping Tyrion’s counsel though as this episode in particular demonstrated that she’s very much as dangerous as her father, only she’s not mad …yet? Later we get two storylines merge as Yara and Theon finally arrive in Mereen. Tyrion’s comment on the last time he met Theon and the unoriginality of dwarf jokes was nice for a couple reasons: it reminded us these characters hadn’t seen each other since the series’ earliest episodes having changed drastically since, and it injected a bit of needed levity after what was going on in the other plot-line. Dany is clearly taken with Yara and sympathetic to her plight, and when they form an alliance it really does feel good. Maybe it’s because her story is mimicking Matilda and the Anarchy, but I really like Yara this season so it’s satisfying to see her get what she wants. And that lesbian reveal from a couple episodes ago coupled with her flirtations with Dany here is sure to launch a lot of joy on tumblr. 
          But let’s get to the real meat of the story. Like a number of previous battle episodes in Game of Thrones there’s brilliant tension going in. Jon and Ramsay meet with their armies behind them, Jon offering the option of one-on-one combat rather than losing so many lives knowing well that Ramsay will refuse. And on his part it is smart as he explains he has no idea how good Jon is but is fairly certain his army will demolish Jon’s. In fact Ramsay proves to be a surprisingly clever strategist with his Battle of Cannae inspired (for all of you versed in Carthaginian war history) tactic of encircling the enemy and moving in. The night before the battle we get some great moments. My favourite is between Davos and Tormund both reflecting on the failed kings they followed (though in Tormund’s case Mance wasn’t so much a failure as a leader executed after one lost battle). Liam Cunningham and Kristofer Hivju have good chemistry, their personalities work off each other well, and you can feel the anxiety beneath their attempts to overcome it. Davos also finds the remains of Shireen, while Melissandre insists she’ll bring Jon back again if he dies provided it’s the Lord of Light’s will. Sansa also confronts Jon about her worry and insistence he should have waited for more arms. However she’s unable to give him practical advice on what to do and can only offer insights into Ramsay’s character, which as we see Jon doesn’t quite take in. Though his plan was to attack in a pincer movement relying on Ramsay’s army to charge first, the little bastard (literally) lures Jon into charging first by sending the captive Rickon out onto the battlefield. It’s a really tense moment and you hope somehow Rickon will make it to Jon but then you remember this is Game of Thrones. I think too it’s probable that Ramsay who’s proven to be a very good shot, missed the first three times on purpose because he wanted the pleasure of Jon being just out of reach before Rickon died. So it’s a sad farewell to the youngest Stark. Sorry Art Parkinson, I look forward to seeing you in Kubo and the Two Strings. It is a testament to the strength of this show’s character bonds that even though I had barely a connection to this kid, I felt a degree of the anguish Jon did!
          And so Jon’s army is forced to charge ahead and protect him from the onslaught of arrows. We get an amazing shot of Jon facing down a charging cavalry while he himself is on foot and the battle choreography from then on is fucking amazing! Director Miguel Sapochnik who also did last season’s “Hardhome” shoots a bunch of terrific sequences. One continuous take follows Jon along the battlefield dodging arrows as soldiers and horses fight and die around him in a medieval version of a scene from Saving Private Ryan. Even though most of the characters dying we’ve never met we feel the impact of their deaths and the travesty of battle. And bless Davos, up on the hill commanding the archers who once he sees how badly their side is being beaten exclaims “we might as well be taking shits up here!” and courageously joins the fight with the archers in tow. Once the trap is set we get a lot more great war visuals. I particularly like how we saw the bodies piled up on the battlefield, which I haven’t seen often in these kind of movies, but feels ripped right from the pages of a medieval history textbook. This is a medieval battle with all the grim, grit, and gruesomeness therein and because of that I think it’s the best large-scale battle this series has done! Earlier Jon declared that he’s taken on worse than Ramsay before like wildlings and White Walkers, but somehow this more conventional battle against a human foe is so much more epic and I love it. At one point Jon is practically buried in bodies as everyone’s crushed around him, but in the episode’s most triumphant scene, he rises out of it just in time for Littlefinger to show up with an army from the Vale in a very Gandalf at Helm’s Deep fashion and completely overpower Ramsay’s forces.
          The battle then moving to Winterfell was a good idea too. It was Jon’s return home to take it back and it also made for more of an intimate confrontation with Ramsay. Though Jon may have lost his loyal giant, he managed to block each of Ramsay’s arrows before knocking him down and beating the shit out of him in a very satisfactory scene. But the scene doesn’t play out as a complete victory. Jon’s looking so dirty, bloodied, and haggard which helps his actions seem all the more unrecognisable. He goes a little far but stops short of killing him. The battle is won, both Davos and Tormund awesomely survive, and Sansa sticks Ramsay in his own kennels. It’s a very good final scene between these two and again it’s a little disturbing to see Sansa use Ramsay’s methods against him. She tortures him a little psychology by rubbing in that the Boltons have now been permanently exterminated. It’s one thing to talk about doing to Ramsay what he’s done to so many characters, but it’s another to see such a good-hearted character take pleasure in another’s suffering no matter how much they deserve it. That being said it is a fitting end for Ramsay, an ironic one too. He had been starving his hounds for a week with the intents to set them on Jon, and now he himself is fresh meat to them. He’s eaten alive and its especially unsettling how long Sansa stays to watch.
          Ramsay’s dead, he deserved it, “Battle of the Bastards” would have been great JUST for that outcome. But what it delivered was an episode of such quality that that death just happened to be icing on the cake. Like when Joffrey died, it is a slight shame to be rid of Ramsay -he was a very good villain and Iwan Rheon deserves a shout-out for playing this hateable character so well! I look forward to seeing what he does next! And now I’m curious if Jon will go back to the Wall, what will Littlefinger do, there’s bound to be a confrontation between Davos and Melissandre, will Sansa stay at Winterfell as Lady Stark? With Dany and Yara on the road to reclaiming their titles, maybe this world is ready to have a lot more women in power. I’m interested in next week’s finale, Cersei’s trial and everything else that’s going on, but this episode clearly was the high point of the season, delivering stellar performances, fantastic direction, and an intense battle scene the likes of which is unprecedented on television. I’m glad to say the battle of the Snows lived up to all the hype and then some!

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