by Marc Reichardt
A little bit of the old ultraviolence
For most of the series, the 9th episode has been the big battle scene of one kind or another, whether it was a domestic dispute or something more explosive. “The Battle of the Bastards” was no different in that respect, but it was still somewhat different in that much of it was taken up by a depiction of the brutality of warfare, rather than genuinely heroic or shocking or even interesting events. In truth, I actually found the earlier battle in the harbor of Meereen to be much more interesting, since it was the first extended action we’ve seen of the dragons as a group since the famous “Dracarys” scene and the first we’ve seen of them, collectively, in their adult forms. That’s not to say that the battle in the North was done poorly but I’ve mentioned before how tired I’ve grown of the close-up angle that gives audiences the “real-time” experience, but also often leaves them asking what happened instead of remarking on what did happen. There was plenty of that tonight.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about the depiction of battle in as messy and chaotic a form as it often is. To quote a noted Confederate general: “It is a good thing that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we should grow too fond of it.” The modern film that is most noted for introducing the concept that war is, indeed, hell (to paraphrase one of the aforementioned’s Union counterparts) is Braveheart and the main battle of this episode borrowed heavily from the (woefully inaccurate) Battle of Stirling Bridge and (almost equally so) Battle of Falkirk in said film. We have the infantry charge, the cavalry response, the indiscriminate arrow volleys into the combined forces, and even the attempt to pursue the fleeing commander from the field. I don’t know that Martin has this scene planned in the same way (or if it’s even planned), but it seemed fairly obvious that D&D were at least drawing inspiration from the way the battles in Braveheart had been staged. And, given that so much of the episode was taken up by said fight, there’s not much of a theme to follow other than the title I’ve given this review.
Interestingly, though, if you’ll indulge the historical geek for a moment. I jotted down a note when Jon mentions in the planning tent that Ramsay has to fight because otherwise the houses of the North would lose faith in him. That note was: “This is Rome and Carthage.” Hannibal’s campaign in the Second Punic War was meant to draw the other cities on the Italian peninsula away from Rome in the same manner, by beating them in the field when Rome felt their clients might waver. As soon as I typed that, Jon began talking about avoiding a “double envelopment”, which is exactly how Hannibal won the Battle of Cannae, the most significant defeat for the Romans in that war (and which led to them waiting to train an entirely new generation of legionaries before they took the field in standard formation again, fighting a pseudo-guerrilla campaign all the while. You think Westerosi are dedicated to war? You have no idea.) But as a contrast, the Boltons actually engaged in hoplite tactics (shield wall crushing the opponent back with long spears (sarissa)) when they encircled Jon’s forces, rather than the more flexible approach of Roman legionary tactics. Here endeth the geek lesson.
Why am I going on about all of this history? Because it represented the most interesting part of a long sequence that probably could have been wrapped up a bit sooner except that, again, this was episode 9 and, thus, required the big fight. But, again, I’d have been a lot happier with more of the big lizards doing the Greek fire thing (Byzantines; more history, sorry) to a bunch of ships loaded with pitch than watching the “chaos of battle” bit on the northern heath because I felt like I’d seen it before. Yes, this was a culmination of several storylines (including Rickon’s basically absent story) and accompanying impact was necessary, but I guess I was expecting a bit more. Or perhaps a bit less repeating of history, cinematic and otherwise. All of that said, there was some decent drama in the scene where Jon was being buried alive by other corpses. That drama was defused by the fact that there’s no way they’d kill Jon again at this point so, in the end, it was just a matter of getting to the conclusion.
The fact that that conclusion was entirely bittersweet is just exemplary of what life is like for the Starks. They reclaimed the ancestral home, but lost the last direct male heir (Bran is not coming back, folks.) They crushed the Boltons and finally ended the menace that was Ramsay, but they had to get back in the debt of Littlefinger to do it. Life is full of tough choices and this was just the most prominent series of them. On the other hand, Daenerys didn’t have to struggle too much with her choices, since it gained her a fleet, expanded her forces (I’ve heard the Ironborn are pretty good fighters…), and maybe even got her a date with the next Seastone queen. Life is good. She also needed Tirion to talk her out of a plan of depredation that was every bit as destructive as anything Ramsay Bolton might ever have done, so there’s no telling what the urge for vengeance might do to anyone; even the most ethical of tyrants.
In that respect, you can see some of what Davos was talking about in his discussion with Tormund: this is still the game of thrones. The small people like a former smuggler and a Wildling leader are just caught up in it, usually to their detriment, if not death. Watching Sansa walk away with a little smile as Ramsay was torn to shreds by his own dogs is exemplary of that urge for vengeance. It’s also potentially a warning that even the most innocent and ethical person among all those involved in the game might be pushed far enough to commit an act of savagery; exchanging one tyrant for a potential other, as it were. In the end, everyone is subject to the old ultraviolence whether they’re going to get something good out of it or not.
From a technical standpoint, I thought there were a couple hiccups. As noted, the “up close and personal” battle stuff has become tiresome. I much preferred last season’s episode 9 fight where it was still done in “real time”, but also showed the whole battle so the audience could follow events as they went along. Similarly, the contrast between the dragons burning the fleet and the negotiation scene in Meereen was pretty stark. It felt very much like those sequences were kind of spliced together, as I didn’t get a feel for any connection between the two completely disparate scenes. I’m not sure if the cuts from the action over the bay to the hill above were too abrupt or what exactly struck me as odd, but it was the most prominent scene I can recall of the actors looking very much like they were standing in front of a greenscreen, rather than part of the setting.
I kept waiting throughout the battle for the Smalljon to turn on Ramsay. As a book reader, knowing the contempt that House Umber holds for House Bolton makes it difficult to swallow that alliance. The Karstarks are understandable, but the Umbers aren’t. Show watchers have no such hang-up, so the whole Rickon sequence this season probably played better to them. In the end, it was obvious that Sansa’s letter to Littlefinger from a couple episodes ago was going to be the key moment in the battle, but part of me continued to say “Really?” as the Smalljon urged his men forward.
I continue to be impressed with Carice van Houten’s portrayal of the lapsed Red Priestess, Melisandre. Despite her obvious cynicism, she’s so programmed with the dogma that she persists in citing the will of the Lord of Light even as she disdains his unknowable nature and motivation. (“What kind of god would do that?” “This one.”) Any religious leader will tell you that it’s natural to doubt, but her attitude goes beyond that right now. Continuing to believe in Jon as the latest “one who was promised” seems to be her clinging to something to keep her moving forward, rather than being sure that she is bringing the Red God’s prophecy to fruition. That’s good character stuff.
Likewise, Sansa and Jon arguing over the truth (“We have to do this!” “We’re not capable of doing this!”) is like any diplomatic planning room I’ve ever seen. You acknowledge what you can and can’t do and then you move on with what you want to do. Jon paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld for the second episode in a row (“You fight with the army you have!”) continued to be funny.
On a diplomatic/political note, D&D have introduced something that GRRM won’t have to face: a second cultural transformation for Dany. She’s already instituted one in Slavers’ Bay and reinforced it by slaughtering the forces that Astapor and Yunkai sent against her. But now her alliance with the Greyjoys rests on the idea of the Ironborn giving up their Viking ways and becoming… what? Merchants? Farmers? Fishermen? That’s a bit like declaring Jim Crow illegal and expecting the culture to change overnight. The Vikings eventually changed because they became landed gentry in other lands and the increased trade meant that raiding other places (and better defended places) was no longer so enticing or necessary. Telling everyone on the Islands that they now serve the Dragon Queen and she’s declared that everything has to change and right now is more than a bit unrealistic. That’s not to say that aiming high isn’t something that Dany has done before, but doing it again? Eh.
Finally, at some point you have to imagine that Jon will stop doing everything his id tells him to, right? I mean, even after Sansa warns him repeatedly about Ramsay’s head games, Jon dives right in and leads his army to the slaughter. This is the guy that’s Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and a potential heir to Winterfell (and other… things…) and yet, if you piss him off, you can get him to dance on a string better than any marionette ever made. I really think they’ve overplayed that for the last time, especially since it almost killed him for the second time in his life. Putting the mechanical rabbit in front of the greyhound is only interesting the first couple times you do it.
Also, what’s with the conquistador helmets on the Boltons? Intentional historical allegory or just something that they thought worked visually? I found them to be jarring.
Lines of the week:
“Despite appearances, I think you’ll find the city’s on the rise.”
This is like public pronouncements of how good the economy is doing because some rich guy made a killing on derivatives.
“Will your men want to fight for you when they hear you wouldn’t fight for them?”
That was the one moment when you thought Jon might be able to bait Ramsay and another reason that the Umbers continuing to follow the latter seems unlikely.
“Maybe that was our mistake: believin’ in kings.”
Davos, the Onion Knight, continuing to speak the truth.
“I have some goat’s milk. Stronger than any of that grape water you southern twats like.”
Tormund doing the same.
“If the lord didn’t want me to bring you back, how did I bring you back?”
Religious tautologies always work when they’re serving the purpose of whomever is speaking them.
“I’ve done other things just as bad. Or worse.”
“And he paid for them.”
“Doesn’t seem like it. He’s still alive.”
Even Tirion has limits that encourage him toward the ultraviolence.
“They’re loyal beasts.”
“They were. Now they’re starving.”
Funny how that works.
And the winner:
“He’d like to give you his big cock. You won’t get one without the other.”
“And I imagine your offer is free of demands.”
“I never demand, but I’m up for anything, really.”
Asha inviting the queen to bed is the biggest display of balls this season.
Marc Reichardt is a life long fan of books and comic books who wrote for indie comics for a decade in the ’80s and ’90s. He now writes prose–both short stories and essays on film, TV, and politics. You can find more of his work at on his blog, Dichotomous Purity and in Ghostwoods Books Cthulhu Lives! and Cthulhu Lies Dreaming anthologies.