It’s fitting that “Battle of the Bastards” uses a term in its title as archaic and brutish as the narrative it depicts. As much as characters in HBO’s Game of Thrones use “bastard” freely to describe those of questionable parentage, and as much as the word reflects the medieval settings surrounding it, there’s something off-putting about contemporary producers using it to refer to a climactic moment in their show’s season. Combine that with the episode’s fixation on gory, too-easy resolutions to issues that feel more complex than they’re made out to be, and “Battle of the Bastards” gets derailed by a primal bloodthirst keeping it in a tier below signature Game of Thrones episodes such as “Blackwater” or “Hardhome.”
Of the two revenge narratives taking place in “Battle of the Bastards,” the evening’s undercard battle (Daenerys’ attack on the Masters) receives the more nuanced and satisfying depiction. Tyrion’s decision to try and reason with Meereen’s enemies had previously posed one of the season’s more intriguing ethical debates, and them reneging on the ceasefire adds yet another wrinkle. It certainly colors Daenerys’ conversation with Tyrion as their castle comes under siege, which more or less definitively establishes her as “the violent one” and him as “the strategizer.” A reversal of gender stereotypes (i.e. the association of Daenerys with masculine violence) makes their dynamic a bit less boring than it could be, but the dichotomy developed between them ultimately oversimplifies complicated issues.
Regardless, it’s hard not to take some measure of satisfaction in Daenerys’ inflammatory airborne attack. Even if her destruction of the Masters pales in comparison with the perfectly set up and executed burning down of the Dosh Khaleen in “Book of the Stranger,” any shots of Daenerys wreaking havoc with dragons are hard to quibble with too much. Add Grey Worm’s execution of two of the Masters’ janissaries to the equation, along with his mercy on the lowborn schlub they hope to be their sacrificial representative, and the scene in Meereen makes for a promising first act in an episode with ambitions of winding up in the Game of Thrones pantheon.
But that promise diminishes with the cut to the inevitable Stark/Bolton showdown, the main event to which Game of Thrones has been building ever since Ramsay’s sneer first made him an obvious target for vengeance. After all the time the series has spent establishing him as a despicable human being who Westeros can’t get rid of fast enough, yet another indication of his awfulness seems superfluous, but David Benioff and D. B. Weiss seem to disagree: not only is Ramsay a sadistic rapist who feeds helpless mothers to dogs, but he’s also too timid to fight Jon Snow mano a mano. “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton,” Sansa says, keeping the confrontation from being entirely subsumed into a cock-swagger pissing contest, yet also maintaining a distinct secondary role as the boys hash out their grievances. She may be a powerful backseat driver, keeping watch with Littlefinger and delivering Ramsay’s final judgment (more on that later), but the episode is cast too heavily as Jon’s personal mission to have the emotional payoff of his familial reunion with Sansa after he comes back from the dead. Her grievances, as well as Thormund’s lingering anger towards Stannis for killing Mance, lend some levels of nuance to “Battle of the Bastards,” but the episode is overall far less interested in these than it is in Ramsay’s admittedly overdue comeuppance.
The Greyjoys’ negotiation with Daenerys, by contrast, provides much needed layers of intrigue to an episode too obsessed with vengeful pleasures for its own good. Yara’s homosexuality has generally been approached without enough subtlety to be effective, but it does add meaning to the touching shot of the two women’s intimate grasp of each other’s elbows. Theon’s willful negation of his own claim to power makes the shot all the more meaningful as a feminine claim to authority before the boys’ schoolyard squabble soon to come.
And come it does. The moving three-shot of Daenerys, Theon and Yara kicks off the long awaited titular battle, which takes up the entire second half of “Battle of the Bastards,” marking the most time spent on a single story in an episode since “Hardhome.” On paper, this should be a cause for celebration: throughout its run, Game of Thrones has been most hamstrung by a surplus of characters and plots without enough time to properly explore them. With an entire half-hour to dedicate to Lord Bolton’s demise, “Battle of the Bastards” appears perfectly pitched to make viewers feel maybe just a little less bad about the excruciating hours spent watching Theon suffer.
There’s certainly some hint of that satisfaction. Even if the excitement surrounding Jon’s burial amidst a mound of bodies is hampered by the ostensible necessity of his survival after being resurrected, it provides a helpful narrative to cling to in a battle sometimes overwhelmed by sheer scale. Rickon’s murder on the battlefield offers yet another last minute reason to detest Ramsay, in case viewers were still were unsure. And the shaky cam shots throughout the carnage are immersive, placing viewers in the shoes of men whose possible uncertainties over their motivations are trumped by the primal need for survival.
But “Battle of the Bastards” still ultimately disappoints, particularly as the culmination of Ramsay’s godforsaken arc: did all those hours of torture really lead to this? Sansa’s execution of him by hound, most notably, feels particularly obvious and sadistic. As much as Ramsay deserves any and all punishment that can be directed at him, watching anyone be eaten by dogs remains unpleasant. Sansa’s guilt over having blood on her hands could perhaps be explored later on, but for now, the brutality of her revenge and the uncritical approach to depicting it is too celebratory to work. There’s a lot of carnage in “Battle of the Bastards,” for sure (RIP Wum Wum), leaving no time for whatever ambivalence Game of Thrones may have towards the gore.
With the surfeit of other stories left to be addressed in the finale, any hypothetical ambivalence seems unlikely to be addressed before the end of Season Six, if at all. Game of Thrones has long thrived on the ambiguous moralities and complex psychologies of its anti-heroes, but “Battle of the Bastards” pushes its current season towards culminating in a jarringly tidy climax.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.