“Tell your people what happened here…Remind them” ~ Tyrion Lannister
Despite what Tyrion Lannister says to the last remaining master of Mereen, I don’t think a reminder is necessary. The former slaver just witnessed the Mother of Dragons — and the dragon’s she’s mothered — eviscerate his and the masters’ fleet, blowing them to Meereen smithereens; the event is as firmly embedded in his memory as it will be in ours. Tyrion’s comment elucidates the gravitas of the event: it’s one for the history books.
The world of Game of Thrones is one full of storied histories and lingering memories. Whether it’s Ned Stark’s beheading or Raegar Targaryn’s assassination at the hands of a Lannister, Westeros — like the North — has no trouble remembering. No reminders needed.
Thrones originally opened on a world reeling from change. Robert Baratheon had just won the great war. Tensions brewed among him, the Lannisters by his side, and the Starks of the North. Recent news of Targaryn twins in the east didn’t bode well, either. Westeros was a post-war state showing no signs of getting any brighter — only bloodier. As we’ve distanced ourselves from the traumas of the past, new traumas have developed: the Red and Purple Weddings, the ominous, imminent Northern Chill. Yet, the Battle of the Bastards builds a different history — one of triumph, not trauma. The best episode of the season — arguably of the series — restores famed families to hallowed halls from Meereen to Winterfell. It looks back to go forward: remembering its histories while forging new ones: new touchstones, new memories, new generations at the fore.
“Our fathers were evil men…they left the world worse than they found it.” Daenerys tells the Greyjoy’s before sealing the deal on their alliance: “We’re going to leave [it] better”.
These are the pivotal moments that will be inscribed in the King’s Landing tomes that Ned Stark once perused.
“The Battle of the Bastards” takes this idea of history-making and runs with it: right into the jaws of the greatest battle scene the small screen has seen.
And what battle it was. Two men enter; one man leaves.
Well, two men and a women enter, one man gets devoured by hounds — but more on Ramsay’s comeuppance later.
The battle is innovative visual storytelling — rivaling cinema’s best. Just as our characters draw upon the past as frame of reference for the future, so too do our directors in their frame construction. Snow’s emergence for near-suffocation mirrors Maximus’s near-death in Gladiator’s opening battle scene (shaky cam and smooth strings accompany both), Braveheart-esque guts, grime, and sheer physicality pervade the scene, too. Lord of the Rings doesn’t get a pass either, the Knights of Vale strongly resemble the Rohirrim in both filmed presentation and their deus-ex-machina arrival. Last season the directors looked at WWII footage in filming Hardhome, this year it was the Civil War — where piles of bodies were described as creating geographical barriers on the battlefield.
The scene, however, works as more than amalgamative homage; it takes the ideas of the generations before it to craft something new: a visceral, gritty, innovative battle scene. Battle of the Bastards blurs the lines between TV and cinema in both scope and technique. To those claiming the small screen is beginning to challenge the silver: look no further for evidence (though if you are looking, Fargo Season Two is the epitome of this growth).
Jon and Ramsay’s confrontation changes the landscapes of Westeros politically and physically — with bodies, arrows and character deaths — but more than that, Battle of the Bastards changes the landscape of television. A battle for the history books, surely, both in King’s landing and for TV.
Let’s look at two examples: the rhythmic editing of Rikkon’s run and the thrilling tracking of Jon’s.
The battle opens with Ramsay’s execution of Rikkon, and the cinematography and pacing make the sequence compelling. There’s no dialogue. Ramsay is framed from below, a position of power. Rikkon Runs. Ramsay draws, shoots. As the last arrow — the one we know will hit its mark — flies, tension is built by moving between three shots: two frantic ones of Rikkon and Jon, and a stagnant, calm, close-up of Ramsay. The arrow hits its mark. The tension is broken. The camerawork stills. It breathes. Rikkon collapses. Jon yells out. It’s all visual, and the emotion is evoked by the framing of the images, and the editing behind them. It’s expressionist filmmaking on television, and it’s fantastic, thrilling, breath-taking and heart-breaking.
Last year, the six-minute tracking shot of True Detective was an arrow in the quiver of those claiming ‘TV is the newest art form’. The Battle of the Bastards has meaning-imbued cinematography, visual-flair and a long shot of its own to give True Detective’s a run for its McConaughey money.
We track Jon through the chaos of the battlefield as bodies fly and arrows volley. The long take not only grips us, but perhaps points to both the luck of a battle and the recently-revived Snow’s immortality. The barrage of editing techniques and curated camera angles present a brilliant representation of a chaotic, zany medieval war.
Visually, this is the best the show’s been all season, from carefully curatedcavalries to claustrophobic birds-eye-views of a suffocating Jon Snow.
But the intricacies of the writing are right there with it. Tyrion’s comments on Dany’s mad father resonate through the episode. He advises her that a rash battle strategy will kill innocents. Later, Davos stops his men from firing, proclaiming that they’ll kill their own should they shoot into the crowd. Ramsay, in “Mad-King” spirit, lets a volley fly without a second thought.
Show runners David Benioff and DB Weiss don’t let us forget our history: Jon is clad in his father’s cloak, given to him by Sansa, wearing his father’s armor, wielding Longclaw.
Davos and Tormund discuss the nuances of their former leaders, and Jon’s kingless blood, and how that makes him a departure from those that came before. It’s a bit that subtly underlies this episode: the embracing of the past in forging a bright, new, future. Next week’s episode, Winds of Winter,implies that winter may finally make the transition from “coming” to “here”Winter may be coming, but these are warmer, winning times for the North. Especially for the Queen of it.
“The Battle of the Bastards” is a fitting title: a generational fight among characters extremely different than their predecessors. A bastard generation, a seemingly lost generation, now found.
There’s no better example of character discovery than Sansa Stark. Oft-maligned by fans of the series, her growth has been a gradual one, and tonight’s episode marks a pivotal moment in it.
Just as Tyrion links Dany to her father, we can’t help but think of Ned in Sansa’s execution of Ramsay (or, see above, in Ramsay’s knife-wielding execution of Rikkon). Our first memory with the Stark dad includes his eponymous line: “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Sansa certainly sees the sword swing, and while horrifying, it’s satisfying. It’s a moment that’s been building since her rape at the hands of Ramsay. This is no longer the little princess from Winterfell fan’s have maligned for years of inaction. She burns Ramsay in the pre-battle banter. She argues with Jon. She saves Jon. She executes Ramsay. She smiles as she walks away. Passive female character? I think not. The Littlefinger-esque smirk that slides onto her face is a moment of joy in a seemingly hopeless world. Among the tumult of the past, we’ve found hope for the future. Battle of the Bastards makes that abundantly clear. How long will it last?
“It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying?” Tyrion asks the masters. It does when its bodies piling on a battlefield, or when its ships sinking in a sea of ships sinking — when its wars.
But when it’s visceral, when it’s real, when its as pivotal as as Ned, as Joffrey, as Robb, as Ramsay — a historical death — death can be concrete, cathartic, conclusive, and game-changing.
Just ask Sansa Stark. She once just saw; now she’s the one swinging the sword, and ushering in a new era of justice and hope for the North, Game of Thrones, and television altogether.