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Fantasy Fandom: Battle of Bastards, Burial of Thousands

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Things that are hyped for a year seldom live up to expectations. "Battle of the Bastards" is an exception to that rule.

I can take you all! I'm the protagonist!
I can take you all! I'm the protagonist!
HBO

The opening sequence of Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode of Season 6 seated viewers in the perspective of a ball of tar and pitch, loaded into a trebuchet, set alight and launched into the action. Over the next fifteen minutes a battle exploded before us, with more soaring fireballs, sword fights and ultimately a dance of three dragons breathing hellfire down on a ship of the slave masters until it ruptured and sank. After two comparatively docile weeks, all of this action was merely prologue to the show’s long-ballyhooed centerpiece, the "Battle of the Bastards." Though the story line played almost entirely as most had predicted, the episode did not fail to surprise and delight. Perhaps it mortified us a bit, too. Or, at least, it should have. Honor scored two victories--one with the magic aid of dragons, and the other with the more traditional blood sacrifice of men (and a solitary giant).

Slicing the Meereenese Knot

Last week Daenerys returned on Drogon’s back to find Meereen under siege. The following morning, with the slavers’ armada still raining fireballs on the pyramid, Tyrion is trying to convince his queen that the city is on the rise, though obviously not all her subjects (most notably those trying to kill them) support her reign. He finally finds the winning argument by outlining the reason for the assault: The slavers cannot allow Meereen to succeed because a city without masters would prove no one anywhere needs a master.

Daenerys proposes to solve the problem by crucifying all the masters, killing all their soldiers, and returning their cities to dirt. Tyrion disapproves. He tells her the story of her father, Mad King Aerys, who planted wildfire beneath the Red Keep, the main thoroughfares, the Sept of Baelor—all the places where throngs of people would gather in King’s Landing—and ordered it ignited when the Lannister army invaded at the end of Robert's Rebellion. Rather than carrying out the order, Jaime broke his vows as a knight and killed the king. Dany proclaims her situation "entirely different," but Tyrion points out that, like her father, she is proposing to destroy cities, indiscriminately killing the guilty and the innocent alike. He suggests "an alternate approach."

The three envoys of the slave cities meet with Daenerys and her council to discuss terms of surrender. They say she must leave the city on foot, like the beggar queen that she is. The Unsullied and Missandei, who she stole, will be taken to the market and sold to the highest bidder. The dragons beneath the pyramids will be slaughtered. Dany brazenly tells them they must have been misinformed; they were meeting to discuss the terms of the slavers’ surrender, not her own. Right on cue Drogon, the source of all her bravado, lands in their midst. She climbs on his back, and as they soar above the city, his smaller brothers, Rhaegal and Viserion break through a wall at the base of the pyramid (So they stayed there waiting all this time, even after Tyrion freed them weeks ago? That's weird.) and fly up to join them. While they are circling about Daario and the Dothraki horde gallop into the city and interrupt a Harpy murder party by murdering the Harpies. Daenerys meanwhile settles on a target, gives the command, "Drakaris," and the dragons, hovering like enormous fire-breathing hummingbirds, spew flames at a ship until it explodes.

Back on the ground Tyrion thanks the slavers for the armada, noting that the queen does love ships. Missandei says that Dany has decreed that for breaking their pact and attacking the city, one of the envoys must die. Echoing one of his common themes Tyrion says, "It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it, when other people die?" Razdal and Belicho urge Grey Worm to kill Yezzan, who is baseborn and an outsider who does not speak for them. Yezzan kneels to beg for his life, and Grey worm deftly kills the other two with a single backhanded swipe of his dagger. Tyrion, uncomfortable with violence even upon those who are deserving, looks away. With a hand on Yezzan's shoulder he exhorts him to tell his people that he lives by the grace of Her Majesty, and to remind them what happened, "when Daenerys Stormborn and her dragons came to Meereen."

Daenerys’ behavior has spawned speculation that she may not be the ultimate source of good she believes she is. She crucified slave owners in eye-for-an-eye retribution for the deaths of slaves when she entered Meereen. When she killed the Dothraki Horselords and again while immolating a ship—undoubtedly manned by slaves and hired sailors—in this episode, she seems to feel no remorse, even to enjoy the spectacle. She professes to have lofty ideals, and she will happily kill to pursue them. Now that her dragons have grown into the fantasy version of the nuclear option, Tyrion will be tested to bring the voice of pragmatism to her council.

Iron Born Proposal

Daenerys shows her own reasonable side when Yara and Theon propose an alliance. They will offer their ships to finish out a fleet large enough to transport her armies to Westeros and will support her claim to rule the seven kingdoms, if she will agree to allow Yara to rule the Iron Isles and perhaps help them dispose of a troublesome uncle or two who don't think women are fit to rule. Tyrion, recalling that the juvenile version of Theon Greyjoy back at Winterfell joked about his height as if he were the first clever person ever to tell the same five or six jokes he had heard all his life, challenges Theon, reminding him of his failures since then. Theon denies killing the Stark boys but acknowledges he did things just as bad, and worse, and that he is not fit to rule. The Greyjoy siblings tell Dany that their uncle Euron is on his way with more ships and an immodest proposal of marriage in exchange for transport. Yara says she would never demand marriage, but she is "up for anything, really." Daenerys takes an immediate liking to Yara’s cheeky wit. Noting that all of their fathers were evil men who left the world worse than they found it, she pledges they will leave the world a better place. She agrees to the Greyjoys’ proposal, but only if Yara will force the Iron Born to give up reaving and raping. Although seaborn marauding has been a way of life for her people, Yara agrees, and they cement the girl-power alliance by clasping arms.

With the slavers’ ships and a hundred more supplied by the Greyjoys, and with the slavers sufficiently chastened to (maybe) abandon their evil ways at last, the stage appears finally (FINALLY!) to be set for Dany and her troupe to get out of Meereen and on to Westeros. Euron still presents a thorny challenge. But the afore-mentioned nuclear option should solve that, if all else fails. The conflict between Dany’s lofty ideals and her fire fanaticism bears watching. Also, she chained Rhaegal and Viserion in the dungeons for a reason. Remember the distraught father, the charred bones of a child? Will she be able to control the dragons’ dangerous natures? Or could they, like Gregor-Stein and Ramsay’s hounds, endanger everyone around her, even those she does not intend to threaten?

The Parley

Ramsay announces to Jon and his captains that those dangerous hounds of his have not eaten in seven days, and he intends to see what parts of his enemies they will devour first. He rejects Jon’s offer to avert war by settling their dispute in single combat, since he’s unsure whether he could beat Jon, but he knows his army has superior numbers. Jon infuriates him by suggesting that Ramsay’s men may not want to fight for him, since he would not fight for them. He responds by calling Jon "bastard" repeatedly, as if anyone has forgotten that, legal legitimization aside, he is a bastard, too. Lord Karstark throws Shaggydog’s head on the ground as proof that they actually have Rickon. Sansa icily tells Ramsay, "You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep Well."

Later at war council Tormund asks Jon whether he really believed Ramsay would fight him man-to-man. Jon says he only wanted to make him angry because they need Ramsay to come at them full tilt for their battle plan to succeed. The difficulty of their planning is exacerbated by the wildling’s minimal understanding of basic war strategy, though he does know from experience that mounted cavalry will cut through the free folk "like piss through snow." After the advisers adjourn to rest for battle Sansa demeans their planning, saying none of them know Ramsay like she does. Jon gets defensive and spouts his war resume, but Sansa is unmoved. They don’t have enough men, she says. But Jon says battles have been won against longer odds. Though this would be the perfect time for Sansa to disclose that she expects Littlefinger to bring the forces of the Vale to aid them, she keeps the secret to herself. To Jon’s promise to protect her, Sansa says no one can protect her. In fact, no one can protect anyone. Her world view has certainly changed since her empty-headed days dreaming of charming princes and knights in shining armor.

The Night Before Battle

Even though she succeeded in bringing Jon back to life, Mellisandre seems detached and disconsolate in her tent. (Strange detail: Her tent has a wooden floor, which seems extravagantly unlikely.) Jon orders her not to bring him back if he should fall in battle, but she says she does not serve him and will do the will of the Lord of Light, if she can discern it. She admits her reading of his will has been imperfect in the past, and says maybe the LOL only brought Jon back to die in this battle. "What kind of god would do that?" Jon wonders. "The one we’ve got," she replies. Even after performing a resurrection, the Red Lady’s crisis of faith continues.

After turning down Tormund’s offer of fermented goat’s milk to calm his nerves, Davos walks the perimeter of their camp the night before the battle. Coming upon the remnants of the pyre where Shireen was sacrificed, he finds the charred remains of the carved wooden stag he had given the girl the last time he saw her. Before he can deduce the meaning of it, war horns sound from Winterfell.

The Battle of the Bastards

Any description of the battle, no matter how precise and thorough the prose, would fall woefully short of capturing the spectacle that director Miguel Sapochnik and the rest of the company produced. I’ve watched it half a dozen times, and the richness of detail stuns me with each viewing. The sheer logistics of staging the battle must have been staggering. The production team shot the sequence over 25 days in Northern Ireland, using around 500 extras, 160 tons of gravel, 72 horses, 65 stuntmen and women, 7 principle actors, 4 camera crews and often up to 600 crew members. Nothing this ambitious had ever been tried on Game of Thrones, or perhaps any other made-for-television program, before.

Often special-effects achievements come at the expense of story lines. The Battle of the Bastards managed to retain its focus on the key players and generally struck the correct note to keep their stories consistent. The confrontation on the battlefield, demarked by several men that Ramsay had burned in crude effigies of his house’s gory flayed man sigil, begins with Ramsay leading Rickon to the front of his battle lines on a rope. He asks Rickon if he wants to play a game, then sends him running toward Jon while he shoots arrows in his direction. Jon gallops for his brother as the arrows miss their mark. Just as the two are about to reach each other, an arrow pierces Rickon’s back and heart. He falls gasping and dies almost instantly. Though Jon aimed to infuriate Ramsay at the parley, it is Jon whose fury causes him to abandon the careful planning that gave his forces the best—maybe the only—chance at victory. He charges recklessly at the Bolton line, and his forces are compelled to follow their leader. When a volley of arrows fells his horse, Jon stands to meet the charge of the Bolton army alone on foot, Longclaw at the ready. The cinematography of the charge is phenomenal, from the picture above, to the slow-motion advance of the horses, as if time itself dreads events to come.

Miraculously, the forces ride past him without landing a blow. Jon’s own cavalry meets them head-on, and a grisly wall of dead bodies, horse and human, begins to form. Though Davos orders their archers to stand down to avoid hitting their own men, Ramsay sits safely behind the lines, sending hail after hail of arrows into the melee, indiscriminately killing friend and foe alike. The battle scenes spare no sensitivities. A horse gallops across the field, bearing a headless man. An Umber tries in vain to put his intestines back in his abdominal cavity. A legless man tries to climb the mountain of dead to safety on the other side. Wun Wun the giant tears a Bolton spearman completely in half. The horrors of medieval warfare are on full display.

Whether because he is, in fact, the Chosen One or simply because he enjoys the unqualified immunity of a fictional hero, Jon avoids certain death again and again. He kills numerous Boltons, too. But as the casualties quite literally mount, a phalanx of Ramsay’s men joins their shields in a semi-circle and begins closing against Jon’s forces, pressing them back against the pile of bodies with spears. The ease with which they set this formation is shocking and, frankly, a bit unrealistic. Smalljon Umber’s troops advance over the pile to cut off any hope of retreat. He winds up in hand-to-hand combat with Tormund, who is losing the fight until he bites a chunk out of the Smalljon’s neck, causing a geyser of blood to erupt before he finishes him off.

In the press of bodies, Jon goes down and is being trampled. As he struggles to regain his feet, the pile of bodies shifts, and Jon is suffocating, drowning in death. Through sheer force of will he pulls himself toward the light and raises his head above the roiling sea of living, dead, and soon-to-be-dead. Behind him Wun Wun continues trying to break the shield line, several spears and arrows standing out of his flesh like porcupine quills. It seems the Stark forces must succumb, and Ramsay’s smug grin confirms all must be lost, when a horn sounds on a distant hill. Mounted knights bearing the sigil of House Arryn swarm down and break the Bolton lines, very much like the arrival of the Rohirrim at Helms Deep. Sansa sits on her horse beside Littlefinger, watching the Stark fortunes change.

Inside Winterfell

With the tide of battle so suddenly turned against him, Ramsay gallops away for Winterfell, where he believes he can outwait a siege by the sad remnants of Jon’s army. Wun Wun thwarts that plan by breaking down the door. He is a pin-cushion of projectiles, and Ramsay finishes him with an arrow through the eye, possibly exterminating the last member of an ancient race. Jon uses a shield (a shield emblazoned with the bear sigil of House Mormont, it turns out) to block three arrows Ramsay aims at him, then swings the shield to flatten him and commences beating his face to a bloody paste. Seeing Sansa watching, he stops.

Later, after the Stark banners have replaced the Boltons’, after Jon has pledged to bury Rickon in the crypts beside his father, and after Davos has glared meaningfully at Mellisandre while contemplating the remains of the carved stag, Sansa demands to know where Ramsay has been taken. He is in the kennels, tied to a chair. With his face bloodied and his eyes glazed, Ramsay’s "Hello, Sansa" strikes eerie tones of Hannibal Lecter. He says, "You can’t kill me. I’m part of you now." If he means part of his cruel nature has taken residence in the once-moon-eyed fool of a girl, he is correct. She releases the hounds, and though Ramsay believes they are loyal beasts who would never harm him, the hounds have been starved for seven days. They attack his face, snarling, as he orders them uselessly to heel. Blood drips from his fingers. As he screams in agony, Sansa walks away with a smile. Ramsay is dead, but his effect is not fully expunged. And if suspicions about the meaning of Sansa’s line a few weeks back, "I can feel what he did in my body standing here right now" are correct, Sansa’s promise that Ramsay's house, his name, and all memory of him will disappear may turn out to be a lie.

Beyond the Basics

Aside from telling the story of Mad King Aerys’ last resort, the show has again hammered the notion that King’s Landing is rigged to explode with wildfire.  It has been foreshadowed so heavily that it would be a shock not to see Cersei use it in the season’s final episode.

Although Sansa got to have her moment, and on many levels it was both deserved and rewarding, her story has veered again. On the one hand, she realizes now that no one can protect her—that she must see to her own security. On the other, she played a foolish charade with the battle. In order to preserve her silly lie, she did not tell Jon that she had requested aid from Littlefinger. If she had shared this knowledge, the entire battle strategy could have been altered, and countless lives could have been spared. There will be a price to pay for Littlefinger’s assistance, certainly. Might there also be a price for his agreement to help preserve her secret? Sansa may very well have put herself back into a position where others control her destiny. That would be sad, indeed.

Having won Winterfell back, Jon and Sansa must now decide who will take the role of Warden of the North. Though Sansa has apologized for mistreating Jon when they were younger, we will see just how much she has grown, and how much she remains her mother’s daughter, unable to see Jon as anything more than an illegitimate half-brother. They must sort out their differences and reform Northern alliances quickly. Their army is decimated, and with the Night’s King’s forces ever advancing, the odds of prevailing in the battle to come appear long indeed.

Next Week

We’ve come to the end of the season far too soon. Episode 10 is titled "Winds of Winter," a title ripped off from the posthumous sixth installment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which, let’s face it, is never actually going to be published.

The previews suggest Jaime may be fed up with the Freys. Since he disappointed a number of smarty-pants fans by not riding to aid in the battle to expunge the Boltons, maybe he’ll make amends by dealing with Walder Frey and his loathsome brood. Cersei’s trial will begin, and Jon will counsel Sansa about trusting each other, since they have so many enemies now. Too bad Sansa has secrets to keep. Davos will demand the truth from Mellisandre, and Littlefinger will extract the spoils of his assistance from Sansa. It's creepy even to contemplate. The episode runs sixty-nine minutes, longer than any episode of the show to date. With satisfying outcomes in successive weeks, expect HBO to unearth something infuriating to drive off-season controversy.

Scenes not Seen

Everything we saw happened in Meereen or Winterfell. All of your other favorite characters, story lines and locales were kept in Limbo. Don’t complain, though. It’s only for a lousy week. George RR Martin pulled that rotten trick and kept his readers in Limbo for years when he published A Feast for Crows. And he’s doing it again now, darn him. In book world, Jon Snow is still dead, for crying outloud.

If you are interested in knowing how HBO accomplished the production of this show, I highly recommend this link.