BATTLE ROYALE

Game of Thrones’ ‘Battle of the Bastards’: Jon Snow Seeks Revenge on His Sister’s Rapist

The penultimate episode of the HBO series’ thrilling sixth season featured not one, but two major battles and plenty of bloodshed. [Warning: Spoilers]

Where to begin listing the miracles of “Battle of the Bastards,” the hour Game of Thrones is touting as the crown jewel of its sixth season?

For starters, Team Daenerys earned a victory through (slightly) more than just bluster, recklessness, and earth-scorching violence. The queen relied on fire to quell the Masters’ siege in Meereen, the same consequence-free tactic she employs every time she’s backed into a corner. But for once, crucially, she also allowed room for her allies to use their own wits and strength. And what a difference that made.

Tyrion, having learned not to underestimate Grey Worm’s knowledge and perspective as a former slave, worked in sync with the Unsullied leader to disarm three Masters of their swaggering overconfidence before killing two, scattering their foot soldiers (sans violence, through Grey Worm’s direct appeal to them as humans rather than as property) and striking fear in the heart of the last survivor—and, by extension, any who’d dare oppose Dany in Slaver’s Bay again.

More than any measure Daenerys has used to gain power this season, this last bit is the only one remotely likely to stick—and it’s the work of words other than “dracarys!” Firepower is effective and necessary in Dany’s line of work, but she needs more than dragons to rule Westeros. It’s bordering on lunacy that she hasn’t learned this yet from two seasons of misery in Meereen. (Then again, she is her father’s daughter. A little lunacy is part of the deal.)

Even more miraculous still: the sight of three dragons reunited like the Westeros-equivalent of a nuclear weapon (even the CGI work on Drogon has improved slightly) and the incredible chemistry between Yara and Dany, Westeros’s greatest power couple since Brienne and Tormund.

The battle for which the episode was named, however, contained miracles of a different, more frustrating kind.

Bastardbowl, of course, was visually impressive. “Hardhome” directing maestro Miguel Sapochnik works his magic here again, luxuriating in the same raw immediacy and stunning long takes following Jon Snow through the battlefield. Arrow after arrow misses and one rider is taken down by the next while Jon, half-oblivious, survives by sheer luck.

And yet, the battle never hit with the same emotional punch as “Hardhome” (which had Karsi and the Wildling children as its beating heart) or “Blackwater” (which, apart from spectacle, worked in service of character growth, adding new shades to Joffrey, Cersei, and Tyrion). Even “Watchers on the Wall” contained stirring testaments to the bonds of brotherhood, with men we’d known for seasons reciting their last oath before dying in defense of the Wall.

“Battle of the Bastards,” on the other hand, played like a terrible dream: suffocating and nightmarish throughout, but evaporating by hour’s end with little palpable consequence left behind. Yes, Ramsay is dead—but after devolving into a tedious, one-note caricature of sadism, that death simply felt overdue rather than genuinely satisfying. (It was also hardly unpredictable—they certainly weren’t going to kill Jon again.)

And yes, Rickon Stark also met his inevitable doom, running into it headlong without ever looking back, altering his course, or stopping long enough to evade an arrow. (Wasn’t this boy practically raised by a direwolf and a Wildling, one exceptionally gifted at escape? Serpentine, little Rickon, serpentine!) But apart from the pang of seeing Jon lock eyes with his little brother for the first time in years—a moment as chilling as Ramsay turning his slow, expressionless gaze on Sansa after she dared bark a question at him—Rickon’s death was hardly devastating. The littlest Stark was never around long enough to carry that kind of weight. His only purpose over the entire series seems to have been simply as bait to lure Jon into Ramsay’s ploy.

Which leads us to this episode’s most baffling, out-of-character decisions. Sansa explicitly warned Jon that Rickon, no matter whether he was dead or alive, was already lost and that Ramsay would likely use him to set a trap. (“Don’t do what he wants you to do.”) Jon ignored her but even that hardly mattered. Despite charging into battle entirely alone with his men far behind and playing right into Ramsay’s pincer-like maneuver, Jon escaped unscathed. Sansa swooped in with Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale and saved the day.

Wait, what?

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Why did Sansa keep her allegiance with Littlefinger a secret from Jon until now? If she had Lord Baelish in her pocket, and if she so desperately wanted to keep her only living brother from waging war without enough men to back him up, wouldn’t those crucial moments at the war council have been the right opportunity to tell Jon? Or at least mention that it was a possibility? The information could have saved hundreds of lives. Wun-wun did not have to die!

These were the only named casualties of the Battle of the Bastards, the largest (and most expensive) battle sequence Game of Thrones has ever staged: Rickon, Ramsay, Wun-wun, and Jon and Sansa’s common sense. What a miracle indeed.

But apart from half-cocked decisions meant to inject tension into a battle we already knew the outcome to, Jon’s miracle undercuts another tenet of the season: that Jon was brought back from the dead for a reason. Both the show and George R.R. Martin’s books have established that resurrection comes with consequences—that men revived by the Lord of Light like Jon and Beric Dondarrion come back forever changed, each time a “little less human.”

Jon made the same types of mistakes tonight that he would have before the Night’s Watch ever betrayed him—mistakes motivated by honor, family loyalty, and a shortsighted sense of optimism (“battles have been won against greater odds,” he tells Sansa, absurdly). He fights a bit more viciously, broods even more prettily, but seven episodes have elapsed without visible proof of any irrevocable change in him.

Without that at least, we get battles like tonight’s, when everything seems awful for a moment but it all turns out all right in the end. (Is this even still Game of Thrones?) It gives the impression of an invisible, protective shield around our protagonists in the North, upheld by last-minute miracles and staggering amounts of dumb luck.

In Essos, Arya and Daenerys have benefitted from similar feats of deus ex machina, with Arya’s miraculous recovery from the Waif’s stabbing (despite the same types of wounds having killed Robb and Talisa Stark) and Daenerys evading consequences like Jon Snow evading Bolton arrows. Yes, this is the season of miracles—the Hound, Jon, and Theon have all “come back” from the dead, so to speak. But too many miracles all together only upend the narrative stakes.

With one episode to go before the end of the season, the Starks now hold Winterfell again and Littlefinger is back to claim his reward. Davos, clutching the wooden toy stag Shireen held as she was tricked into sacrificing herself for her father’s doomed cause, now knows exactly who to blame: Melisandre. And a world away, a host of viewers are watching to see if this is still a show about war, love, family, honor, politics, and consequences. It’s a fantasy, sure—but it doesn’t have to feel like a fairy tale.