Game of Thrones 6×09 ‘Battle of the Bastards’: The price of power

Source: HBO
Tyrion isn’t wrong.  Death really is abstract when it isn’t you that is dying.  It is why the slavers are so confident when they come up against Daenerys, up until the point they know that they’re done.  It is why Daenerys is willing to torch all of these cities until she gets them back.  It is why Ramsay is willing to fire arrows ar his men and Jon’s men alike. But it’s also why Davos, Tormund, and Jon, men who have all been in the thick of a battle, shy away from embarking on a destructive streak.  As men who have survived insane odds, who have experienced the chaos and carnage of large-scale combat, they have empathy for the very real human consequences of the actions of powerful men.  And that’s why people like Ramsay, even people like Daenerys, can be so dangerous.  It’s easy to forget the worth of a life, especially when you command so many lives.

Source: HBO

Source: HBO

I just want to start out by saying that “Battle of the Bastards” is one of the most intense episodes of television that I have ever seen.  The 25 minute battle sequence is absolutely stunning, and even if it isn’t the most nuanced fight (the Battle of Blackwater had no real good guys or bad guys on either side while the Battle of the Bastards is blatantly good versus evil), it is a visual masterpiece.  I still cannot get over the minute-long (or two thirty-second-long) tracking shot showing Jon weave through the chaotic battlefield, completely covered in blood, surviving by nothing more than a ridiculius lucky steak.  Because it is ultimately luck that gets a person through war.  An arrow narrowly misses you.  A gunshot hits your buddy next to you instead of you.  There isn’t a rhyme or reason to survival.  It just happens.

Source: HBO

Source: HBO

It’s that understanding of the cost of human life that permeates and grounds the episode.  Sometimes that understanding affords you some reward, such as the loyalty of your men or simply your soul.  Other times, that understanding damages you, such as when Jon sees Rickon die and can’t help feel a strong burst of empathy and pain.  It is almost as if the battle supports those who lack empathy.  Ramsay doesn’t care that his archers hit his own men.  He has more than enough men to spare.  Only somebody as absurdly unfeeling as Ramsay could devise a battle plan as morbid as creating a phalanx using piles of dead bodies as a means to entrap the enemy.  But other times we see where empathy gets Jon.  Wun Wun is so loyal to Jon that he gives his life to gain access to Winterfell.  Empathy is what gets Jon the wildling army in the first place; it’s what allows him to fight Ramsay.  But its uses only stretch so far.

Source: HBO

Source: HBO

What really brings this all together is how Daenerys’s plot is so thematically connected to Jon’s.  She flies through the sky, raining fire upon those she feels she needs to dispose of.  It’s glorious, to be sure, but there’s something easy about it.  It really isn’t difficult to sit up high and order the death of your enemies.  Jon, on the other hand, is right in the middle of the carnage.  He has been in the middle of it for the entirety of the series, killing Qhorin Halfhand, fighting on the Wall, killing Styr and watching Ygritte die, and fighting the army of the dead, slaying a White Walker.  Daenerys may have these lofty goals, and we may cheer when she strikes a deal with Yara, but on her own, she doesn’t really understand what it really means to fight a war.  It’s a different side of Daenerys than we’re used to seeing, but it’s good to see her challenged in a real way.  Fire and blood doesn’t always work.

Source: HBO

Source: HBO

All of this thematic talk is good, but what this episode really does is bring Game of Thrones back down to earth.  While the violence is entertaining, it is brutal, nasty, claustrophobic stuff.  Watching everybody fight on piles of dead bodies, watching Jon nearly suffocate under the dying and the terrified, watching Tormund and Lord Umber trade headbutts because they are literally too compacted to move their arms, it’s all horrifying, awful stuff, and it’s a reminder of what power truly wreaks when ideas of how the world works clash.  But, in the end, there is a sense of justice in it all.  Sansa watches as she lets Ramsay’s hounds loose on him, the dogs tearing him apart, just as they have torn apart so many of his victims.  While justice may not always exist, we can always institute it as we see fit.

Only even the justice we see is lopsided.  Being a part of the carnage changes us.  Sansa is willing to watch a man get torn to pieces.  Jon is willing to shatter a man’s face.  Is it justice or is it vengeance?  The greatness of the “Battle of the Bastards” doesn’t lie simply in the visceral nature of the battle or in the remarkable visuals.  It’s an episode that forces us to ask the hard questions about power, about war, about what war does to people.  We watched Ramsay torture Theon.  We watched him rape Sansa.  We watched him feed a woman and a baby to his hounds.  And we laughed and cheered when he was torn to pieces himself.  What does that say about us?
What did you think of “Battle of the Bastards”?  Did it live up to the hype?  Let me know in the comments!
Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

Both comments and pings are currently closed.
  • George Liapes

    The battle was definitely a spectacle and the special effects crew at its best. It felt like a bloodier, grittier version of the Rohirrim battle from Lord of the Rings.

    It was pretty shocking at how un Game of Thrones like this episode was, at least in terms of good and evil and how it ended with good winning, at least for now. Rickon’s death did help show the contrast between Jon and Ramsay, but considering how underdeveloped Rickon was, it felt more like a manipulative way to tug at our heartstrings and provide Jon motivation for defeating Ramsay (as if sacking Winterfell and raping his sister wasn’t enough).

    The ending where Sansa lets Ramsay’s hounds devour him was a neat juxtaposition to his murder of his stepmother and brother at the beginning of the season and you raised a good point at how us cheering for his demise showed our morality isn’t as crystal clear as we’d like to think.

    The problem is that Ramsay was such a one note villain that it felt like the show was actively trying to get us to root for his death ( though I did enjoy Iwan Rheon’s Joker-like performance). Like I said, his murder of Rickon and actions ever since the third season did little to add to his character beyond being a psychopathic madman and considering how complex and ambiguous several of the show’s other characters are, it stands out as an issue. Hell, even JOFFREY had some complexity with how he could’ve even manipulated by outside forces.

    Also: I left you a comment on Fear of the Walking Dead’s mid season finale a few weeks back, if you didn’t check it yet.

    • Michael St. Charles

      Thanks for commenting, man! Been pretty busy the last couple weeks, so sorry that I never responded to your FTWD comment. I did see it though!

      More than anything else, I liked how this episode juxtaposed Dany and Jon. Dany fancies herself a great ruler, but it takes what Jon has done (watching his friends and loved ones die, witnessing the real consequences of war and power) to really understand what ruling means. I think it’s that distance from the effects of war and power that is going to have King’s Landing explode (maybe as early as next week).

      It always bothered me that Ramsay was such a one-note villain, but it seemed to work okay in an episode where he really has minimal action (he did kill Rickon and Wun Wn, but was largely off to the side during the episode). It was strange how good vs. evil it felt, but Jon and Sansa aren’t innocent, and I liked how Ramsay’s toxic nature started to seep into Jon and Sansa by the end of the episode.

      PHENOMENAL episode though. Can’t wait to see what happens on Sunday!