Journey to the Throne: S6E9-10; When the Show Peaked

SPOILERS UP TO GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8 FINALE

Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 9: “Battle of the Bastards”

HBO Official Synopsis: “Jon and Sansa face Ramsay Bolton on the fields of Winterfell. Daenerys strikes back at her enemies. Theon and Yara arrive in Meereen.”

I’ve mentioned before in this series how when you try to pick one single best episode in the series, there’s a healthy debate that can be had as to which episode is the best. However, if you were to expand that question to “what are the two best consecutive episodes of Game of Thrones?” Suddenly, there is a very clear answer; “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter.” Let’s be clear, this is the show at it’s very best.

And as far as “Battle of the Bastards” is concerned, I don’t ever remember being as excited for any other episode as I was for this one. I rewatched the preview for it just about every day in the week leading up to it, often multiple times.

Battle of the Bastards is an undisputed action masterclass. The impact it had on the rest of the show is undisputed. Every battle there after was measured against this episode. Director Miguel Sapochnik was then trusted with some of the show’s biggest episodes, such as “The Long Night” and “The Bells.” (One could argue that he was granted the role of primary action-director after his direction of “Hardhome,” but in terms of action, “Bastards” is on another level.) This is an absolute classic.

First and foremost, let me work through the Meereen storyline just because there’s just not as much going on there. It’s still fun to watch, but it’s definitely the opening act, and the conflict at Winterfell is the headliner.

I do like that Daenerys, Tyrion, Grey Worm, and Missanei meet with the slavers. It gives us that amazing shot of Drogon taking to the air in the background as the one guy says “Your reign is over!” Which is definitely one of the episode’s coolest visuals (and that’s saying something).

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And I like that during that sequence, the camera – when it is not pointing on Dany/Tyrion/Grey Worm – first focuses on the masters, but eventually moves towards focusing on the soldiers behind them.

The Meereen battle isn’t terribly exciting, it’s just the dragons lighting up the enemy ships and the Dothraki and Daario arriving to attack from another angle. But again, the real standout is the negotiation; Grey Worm telling the soldiers to throw down their spears and go home is a great moment, and parallels Jon telling Ramsay that men won’t want to fight for him when they hear he wouldn’t fight for them.

Then, towards the middle of the episode, there’s the great scene where the Greyjoy siblings arrive in Meereen. I’m glad to see that Tyrion didn’t forget the insults that Theon said to him way back in the fourth episode of the show. But even more, I like the natural friendship (and flirtation) of Yara and Daenerys. It definitely has a feeling of all the pieces getting to the right side of the chess board to have Daenerys sail to Westeros.

I alluded to this earlier in the series, but I kind of hate the fact that the dragons get locked away and released after changing nothing in particular. Dany does nothing to tame Drogon or them, so their freedom doesn’t feel as earned. (I suppose Tyrion had that scene with them, but that’s about as much we get.) Since Season 4, despite being in the wild for just about the entire time and spending almost no time with Daenerys or in society, but somehow knows not to kill innocents. (Whatever, I’m complaining too much about this.)

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But the action at Winterfell is what we’re really here for. Out of all the preliminary dialogue scenes, the one that stands out the most is the parley between the Bolton forces and the Stark forces. Jon is clever, and Sansa is silent. The above-mentioned challenge to fight Ramsay one-on-one results in Ramsay’s refusal and Jon’s taunt, “Will your men want to fight for you after they hear you wouldn’t fight for them?” And that really riles Ramsay up, but doesn’t feel quite formidable as Sansa’s only words at the meeting; she asks Ramsay to prove he has Rickon, and the head of Shaggydog is produced. After that, she coldly says, “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well,” which probably ranks in the top ten most badass things said in the series.

The interlude where Team Stark have a strategy meeting has some interesting elements such as Jon asking not to be brought back but Melisandre saying that she will do whatever the Lord of Light commands, and a cute little exchange between Davos and Tormund but more importantly has a scene which shows the tension between Jon and Sansa; Sansa thinks they should have waited longer and Jon argues that they couldn’t have.

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The battle has a lot of moving parts. We should have known from the very beginning that Ramsay had some kind of trick up his sleeve, and he indeed did – that he had plans to toy with Rickon. When Ramsay tells him to run, it does a great job building tension, because of the way Rickon looks at Ramsay uncertainly and then begins to run as Ramsay knocks an arrow. Everybody criticizes this sequence for being unrealistic because, “Why wouldn’t Rickon just zigzag?” I don’t know if zigzagging would have actually worked, but I definitely think it would have slowed him down, and it doesn’t make sense for a terrified child who simply wants to get reunited with his brother.

And another thing; I’m fairly certain that Ramsay intentionally missed those first three shots to just to toy with Rickon and Jon, and to make his murder of Rickon that much more heartbreaking.

One of this episode’s most elaborate sequences is an almost minute-long single shot that shows in the fog of battle, while people around him are dying and charging at him, and there’s a general feeling of chaos.

And another great horrifying sequence shows as Jon snow is almost smothered by dead bodies falling on him and he fights his way to the surface and gasps for air, giving us a shot that is darkly reminiscent of the “Mhysa” shot from the end of Season 3.

From recent years, one of the most technically impressive war movies was Chrisopther Nolan’s Dunkirk, which (although it came out after this) captured the same feeling of the horrors of war; it’s a traumatic, claustrophobic experience that is unfathomably unpleasant. It’s something we would never know without having people die all around us in horrible ways, but Dunkirk and “Bastards” likely get as close as we can.

Two brief highlights with minor character Smalljon Umber; I like when he shouts “Who holds the North?” and then charges into battle. Conversely, I also like when Tormund bites his ear off – that’s metal.

The moment when the Boltons are closing in and all appears to be lost is agonizing, but it’s relieved by the Knights of the Vale charging into the battle, evening the odds. It’s not a complete shock because we see Sansa writing the letter in an earlier episode, but by the same token, it doesn’t diminish the relief that comes from seeing them arrive. One really neat decision here is the fact that Littlefinger’s face has this smug look, while Sansa’s has one of resignation, as though she doesn’t want to be allied with him, and he is thrilled that she needs him.

The storming of Winterfell is so cool because we get to see it happen from Ramsay’s perspective; we watch as the gate shakes because Wun-Wun is slamming on it; and when we see him blast through the doors, it gives a reason to cheer with joy.

So, when Ramsay shoots and kills him, it feels appropriately devastating. This sets the stage for the fight between Ramsay and Jon. (Basically, Wun Wun’s death is everything Rhaegal’s death in Season 8 should have been – it sets up the confrontation between the hero and villain, making the villain more evil, while managing to feel earned and not just shock value.) And I think that the way the Jon/Ramsay duel goes down is incredibly satisfying.

Ramsay suggests it as him taking Jon up on the offer to fight one on one from earlier in the episode; Jon goes along with this because it is the honorable thing to do, but Ramsay does it because otherwise, everyone there will kill him. Ramsay uses bow and arrow (which has pretty much been his weapon of choice), Jon uses shield and fists. Jon manages to best him, because we know Jon is the better fighter. Jon seems like he is about to punch Ramsay to death, but he ends up leaving Ramsay to Sansa’s judgment, because Sansa is the one who should be condemning him.

And I’ve been saying through this entire series that all of the best character deaths are the consequences of the character’s wrong decisions; it’s no different here. Roose Bolton at one point told his son that if he “acted like a mad dog, [he] would be treated like a mad dog: taken out back and slaughtered for pig feed.” Ramsay is killed very savagely by Sansa because he mistreated her; Ramsay’s dogs tear him to shreds because he mistreated them. With that in mind, Ramsay’s death by his dogs at the hands of the woman he abused feels like the only way he can go out.

This episode is just superb action with some excellent character work; it’s unsurprising that many consider it one of the show’s best.

Favorite Line: “You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.”

Favorite Scene: Jon in the fog of battle. That one continuous shot is an amazing piece of filmmaking that captures the claustrophobia and horror of battle as well as any other media can.

Season 6, Episode 10: The Winds of Winter

HBO Official Synopsis: “Cersei and Loras Tyrell stand trial by the gods. Daenerys prepares to set sail for Westeros. Davos confronts Melisandre. Sam and Gilly arrive in the Citadel. Bran discovers a long-kept secret. Lord Frey has an uninvited guest.”

The musical score in this episode is a cut above the others. The themes for various characters have always been distinct, but here we hear something which is new and distinct; “The Light of the Seven.” Ramin Djawadi’s score here uses a soft piano and cello, along with vocal accompaniments that it hadn’t used often before.

And that isn’t the only point in this episode that has some great musical accompaniment. We get a powerful use of the House Stark theme during the Tower of Joy flashback as Ned sees baby Jon Snow, which leads into a triumphant reworking of the main theme as Jon is proclaimed King in the North. And finally, we get another great composition of the main theme and the House Targaryen theme as Daenerys sets sail, which is an incredibly triumphant moment, one that the series has been building to.

But back to Cersei. The music is eerie and quiet, as most Game of Thrones music isn’t. And then it slowly builds, making the audience anxious and tense.

This is often referred to as Game of Thrones equivalent of the Godfather baptism scene; we get to see all of these characters being guided into a trap as the person who orchestrates it. It solidifies Cersei as a clear villain.

Perhaps the most unsettling fact of this scene is how close everything is to turning out all right; Lancel almost blows out the candle. Margery almost evacuates everyone. But we, as viewers, know how this sequence will end.

And also, I just want to say – not to throw more shade at Season 8, but – this episode is the payoff of extensive foreshadowing to indicate that Cersei would burn the city to the ground; but the end result feels in-character, and doesn’t feel rushed. It makes sense for our characters to say “Cersei would burn a city to the ground to protect her children” and then to see her actually do it. This is quality foreshadowing. (And again, actions and consequences – Tommen tells Cersei he loves Margery, and Cersei kills Margery, so she loses Tommen. It’s a clear cause-and-effect pattern.)

In this episode, in a great scene that parallels one from the Season 1 finale, Jon is proclaimed the King in the North, just as Robb was.

We get to see Lyanna come to support Jon, and other Northern lords apologize for not participating in the battle. Everyone pledges their swords and shouts, “King in the North!” And it’s funny because this feels like a victory almost as big as the battle.

The Jon Snow birth scene is dramatic and interesting; people will complain that the whole reveal doesn’t matter much in the end, and I just think it ultimately means that he should be king, but isn’t. In the context of this episode, the important fact is that the circumstances of his birth were not what we thought they were, but his people were ready to proclaim him king even without that.

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It’s easy to see the consequences of this in the long run of the series. It puts a bit of a rift in between Jon and Sansa; Jon gets all the credit for a battle he almost certainly would have lost without Littlefinger’s – by extension, Sansa’s – help. This is obviously highlighted by the glance between Littlefinger and Sansa, but I think it has longer-term consequences than one might initally assume, with this eventaully leading to Sansa spreading the truth that Jon is a Targaryen to undermine his connection with Daenerys.

I love the conversation between Jaime and Walder; and I’m not sure if this is something that proves that David Bradley is a great actor, but everyone who acts with him in this series does a spectacular job of seeming like they really don’t like Walder Frey, even if they’re allied with him (see also Frey’s conversation with Roose in Season 3 or any scene he has with the Starks). I appreciate that Jaime’s criticism of Walder starts as soon as Walder mocks the Blackfish – it comes across that Jaime respects the Blackfish even if the Blackfish didn’t respect him. The way that Walder seems to relate to the man who he thinks Jaime is, reminds Jaime of the man he has become – one that is far, far, better than he was.

In perhaps this episode’s most brutal and awesome kill, Arya is disguised as a serving woman for House Frey, only to reveal to Walder Frey that she’s killed his sons and baked them into a pie. The slow reveal of this scene is perfection, as the serving girl repeats, “They’re here, my lord,” when Walder asks where his sons are.

It’s been pointed out (by other people) that all three orchestrators of the Red Wedding are killed in ways that are revenge for the Red Wedding. Roose is stabbed in the torso, as he stabs Robb, Tywin is shot with a crossbow as many Stark loyalists were, and Walder’s throat is cut like Catelyn’s.

One interesting factoid about this scene is that Arya sees, acknowledges, and likely recognizes Jaime Lannister; so, why doesn’t she kill him? Does Arya know he’s a good guy now? He wasn’t specifically on her list, but does she not deem him as a threat to House Stark? Maybe she does.

I also really like the sequence of Jaime arriving back in King’s Landing and seeing the destruction that Cersei has caused. I wish this drove more of a rift between them in Seasons 7 and 8, but this scene is still good on it’s own – Jaime’s look of disgust at Cersei on the throne is some prime acting from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

Sam has the absolutely adorable moment where he arrives at the Citadel and gets to see their library; I know that being at the Citadel doesn’t quite pan out for Sam, but still, it’s cute to see his awestruck face looking at all the books.

Tyrion is made Hand of the Queen, which is a great moment for him, especially because Season 6 didn’t have a lot of character development for him, so to be offered a position and a badge, it’s a coming-full-circle moment for him – it’s a milestone.

And then, Daenerys sets sail for Westeros.

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Best Line: “There will be more fights to come. House Glover will stand behind House Stark as we have for a thousand years. And I will stand behind Jon Snow. The King in the North!” (Even if Lord Glover does not hold true to those words, it’s still a cool line.)

Best Scene: Three way tie; Dany setting sail, Jon proclaimed king, and Cersei burns the sept.

This is where the show really peaked; and watching these episodes does disappoint me a little with certain directions seasons 7 and 8 took. How can the show proceed from Jon being named King, Cersei becoming an outright irredeemable villain, and Daenerys setting sail to achieve her goal?

Well, I’ll be talking about that in the next three posts in Journey to the Throne – I’m aiming to have three more posts, with one post for Season 7 and two posts for Season 8.

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