*** WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW***
Surprise plot twists, political back-stabbing, actual back-stabbings, nuanced characters, cartoonish villains, shock deaths, unsurprising resurrections, tits and dragons – all are staple elements of the formula which have made Game of Thrones the biggest, most talked-about show on TV. But nothing exemplifies Game of Thrones’ uniqueness as its battle episodes.
For a series set in a medieval-esque setting, there have been remarkably few of them over the course of the show’s now 59 instalments. Season two had Blackwater, and Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing being repelled by Tyrion’s bravura and wildfire cache; season four brought us The Watchers on the Wall, featuring Jon Snow fending off the a dual attacks of the wildlings at The Wall; and last year Jon was back for possibly the best of the lot – the massacre at Hardhome.
The battle episodes don’t always feature the greatest moments of dialogue or necessarily the most iconic deaths, but they do showcase the attribute which places Game of Thrones in its own realm: the sheer size of its production.
There are plenty of valid arguments for other shows being “better”, but none can match Game of Thrones in a competition for who is bigger.
The scale of the production is simply mind-boggling – up to four separate crews can filming simultaneously across several countries, with the biggest budget, cast and crew of any show on television (supposedly there are more people employed on Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland than by the civil service).
And these resources aren’t left to waste, as The Battle of the Bastards well and truly shows. For this episode alone over 500 extras, 600 crew members and 70 horses spent 25 days shooting – a production to rival many Hollywood blockbusters.
But besides all the numbers and remarkable effort involved in its production, The Battle of the Bastards is a standout moment of television for its technical brilliance.
Directed by Miguel Sapochnik, responsible for the aforementioned Hardhome, this episode sets a new highwater mark for television production. As a piece of filmmaking, it was absolutely breathtaking; a perfect collision of all involved working perfectly in sync.
From this standpoint the episode is nearly impossible to fault – from Daenerys taking wing to roast some ships, to the violent spray of red mist that frames Davos as the truth of Shireen’s demise dawns on him, to every gut-wrenching, blood-soaked moment of the Battle of the Bastards.
If there has ever been a more horrific, stomach-churning and well-staged medieval battle featuring horses put to film in history, I am yet to see it. The charges, the rain of arrows, the crashes of cavalry, the growing piles of bodies, the circle of death, the men slowly squashed to death in the mud, the eventual salvation by the Knights of the Vale – every machination of this was filmed brilliantly.
So now that we’ve tipped the hat to all those involved in production, we can turn attention towards the plot – and here, I’m afraid to say, is not a completely positive spiel.
First and foremost, the deus ex machina appearance of Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale raises some serious questions about Sansa and why in God’s name she had decided to shield their offer of help from Jon.
Jon specifically says that they have absolutely no choice but to initiate battle because they don’t have the numbers to wait – Sansa not only has an offer of assistance of help from an entire kingdom of knights at full strength, but then contacts them to ask them to come, and at no point ever mentions any of this to Jon.
She says that no one can shield or protect her … before going to ask for shielding and protection from the creepy guy who had been using her as a pawn in his own games with little apparent concern for her safety.
I would like to root for Sansa, but I can’t help but think that by neglecting to tell Jon about Littlefinger and then conspiring with him for a “here comes the cavalry” moment, she inadvertently caused thousands of people to die needlessly and horrifically.
I asked a few weeks ago if Game of Thrones is beginning to feel too safe; if too many characters have reached the point where they are so intrinsically linked with the story’s ‘end game’ that they are indispensible.
This episode did little to assuage my fears. Sure, the overarching villain of the past couple of years, Ramsey Bolton, met his end at the hands of his own hounds, but no other character of consequence fell along the way.
The death of Wun Wun, the last of the giants, was sad, but he was also a CGI-created character who couldn’t speak the Common Tongue. Rickon’s death fleeing the fury of Ramsey into no-man’s land was also terribly heart-breaking for Jon.
But apart from these exceptions, no other named character was a casualty of the most horrific conflict to hit the show yet. My gripe isn’t necessarily with the lack of body count, but rather with the stakes of the conflict. The show’s most powerful moments come when we see the consequences and feel the impact of the character’s choices.
But for Jon, Sansa, Davos, Tormund and co, there really is little cost to their efforts to retake Winterfell. Sure, thousands of nameless, indistinguishable extras perished and Tormund received what looked like a slightly annoying graze to the arm. With Davos smouldering and Melisandre in the firing line, there may yet be some more blood spilled on the floors of Winterfell yet.
In the midst of the bloodbath outside Winterfell, it’s almost disarmingly easy to ignore the goings-on in Meereen.
The siege of the city was over as quickly as it begun, but the events that led its conclusion were visually stunning. Viewers have been baying at the bit for years to finally see Daenerys and her dragons incinerate some of the obstacles in her path and at long last, we saw her toasting an entire ship of the Masters’ soldiers. Spare a thought for those aboard the ship though, they too were slaves.
The most interesting scene was the back and forth between Daenerys and Tyrion. Her time with the Dothraki has set Daenerys on the path of conquest, no longer does she seem willing to contemplate compromise but is set on destroying all in her path. It’s only with the input of Tyrion that she decides to moderate her approach and settles for an awesome display of force over complete annihilation.
With her sights now set on Westeros, this intervention and Tyrion’s more calculating approach may be required. If the conflict for future seasons starts to become Daenerys v our favourite characters in Westeros we may feel more conflicted about what amounts to genocide and the complete annihilation of entire cities.
Speaking of, we also got a rather nice piece of exposition from Tyrion detailing the Mad King’s past plot to burn down King’s Landing before the intervention of Jaime and his sword. (What’s that you say? A whole lot of wildfire? Underneath the Sept of Baelor? Well I’m sure this is completely unrelated to anything else. I’m sure this is something we’ll never hear about again.)