Who owns the north?
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
"Battle of the Bastards" is considered to be one of Game of Thrones' all-time greatest episodes, ranking right up there with the likes of "Baelor", Blackwater", "The Rains of Castamere", and "Hardhome". The episode deserves such high acclaim, featuring wall-to-wall action unlike anything you'll find in any standard action-adventure movie or television series, Even better: it's wall-to-wall action that season six has been building up to for quite some time now, and after several scenes of characters planning, contemplating, and arguing, the swords are raised, horses come running from both directions, and hundreds die in a blood-soaked battle. Seeing how successful the final sequence was in "Hardhome", only a fool would not bring Miguel Sapochnik back to direct these action scenes.
As the title indicates, the majority of the episode is dedicated to the battle for Winterfell between Jon and Ramsay. The funny thing is, Jon and Ramsay did not spend one moment of screen time together before this episode, so it's good that we are able to get at least one conversation between the two before the fighting actually gets underway. Jon and Ramsay are on polar opposites when it comes to how honorable and heroic their characters are, and yet, they occupy the exact same positions: they are bastard children who rose to power and are now leading their forces in a fight to the death. Jon and Ramsay have walked almost the exact same paths of life, the only difference being that Jon's path led him to righteousness and fighting for what's good, while Ramsay's path made him embrace evil and develop a morbid pleasure for causing others harm. You could say that Ramsay has always been something of Jon's evil twin, and that it was destined for the two to one day clash.
And boy, what a clash it is. The battle makes you almost forget that this episode starts off with Daenerys reuniting with her dragons, taking them to the skies to burn the slave masters' ships. Daenerys has always been hesitant to unleash her dragons' full power; she could burn an entire city to the ground in a few short hours if she were to command her dragons to attack and burn everything in sight. After six full seasons, we finally get a problem that can only be resolved by the dragons, and what a glorious spectacle it is to watch them make breakfast out of the hapless slave masters. The three dragons flying around and breathing fire is a visual I know everyone anticipated (and desired) ever since the dragons were born back in "Fire and Blood". Finally, after having to wait for the dragons to fully grow and mature, we finally get our first taste of what this almighty trio can do. As the hour of Daenerys' return trip to Westeros draws near, rest assured the dragons will be back in action again very soon.
So then, back to the battle for Winterfell. I actually took a strong liking to the conversation-turned-argument that Jon and Sansa have after Jon makes his final battle plans. Sansa desperately tries to convince Jon that Ramsay will pull some kind of trick, and that Jon can't straight up ignore how outnumbered they are. The dialogue between the two is miraculous, especially from Sansa, as she calls out Jon for not trying to consult her help while preparing for the battle. Jon counters with the fact that he traveled beyond the Wall and seen things much worse than Ramsay Bolton, and that they did the best they could with recruiting other Houses, and the army they have is what they're going to get. It's a strange mix of emotions for Jon going into the battle: confident, yet slightly hopeless.
Ramsay gets one last cruel act in before the fight begins: killing Rickon Stark with an arrow before he can reach Jon. I'm not going to get into that whole, "Why didn't Rickon run in a zig-zag??" nonsense. Thinking too much into stuff like that kind of ruins the experience, so let's just move on. The ensuing action is nothing short of fierce: bodies and horses fly everywhere as bodies pile up by the hundreds. Miguel Sapochnik is fully aware that a long stretch of nothing but hacking and slashing would grow tiresome, and that's why he keeps things spicy by frequently changing up the point of view, so that we don't have to always see the battle through Jon's eyes.
The early parts of the battle have a series of shots that are at an almost perfectly even 180 degrees, so as to make it clear that neither side has the advantage early on. Sapochnik then alternates to lengthy shots of Jon running through the battlefield, slaying several Bolton soldiers and nearly getting run over by a couple charging horses. I especially love the little bit of shakiness that these shots have, as if Jon went into some kind of psychedelic daze, watching men getting slaughtered left and right. He did say before that he was tired of all the fighting. The widespread fighting soon transitions into the surviving members of Jon's army getting encircled by Bolton men, resulting in Jon nearly getting crushed to death. Here we get what is considered to be Jon's "rebirthing" scene, which many have compared to the scene at the end of "Mhysa" when Daenerys if lifted up by all the newly freed slaves. I think "rebirthing" is a bit much, because all it is is Jon finding the strength to rise up out of the crowd of bodies around him and breath. He doesn't all of a sudden become a demigod and start slashing away at all the remaining Bolton men. No, in fact, Jon ends up not being the hero of the battle, which is part of what makes this episode all the better. It turns out Sansa is the hero of this battle: arriving with Petyr Baelish and the Knights of the Vale, who easily break through the remaining Bolton army, forcing Ramsay to retreat to Winterfell. The look on Ramsay's face when he sees Sansa and the charging Knights of the Vale is the first time that he's ever looked genuinely shocked, and it's all the more juicy because Ramsay knows he's in deep trouble.
In what is easily one of the most satisfying moments of television of the 21st century thus far, Jon and his army breach the Winterfell gates, and Jon punches the living daylights out of Ramsay. You have no idea how good it felt the very first time I saw this episode a few years back, finally getting to see Ramsay get what he deserves. After several seasons of watching him torture and kill innocent people, Ramsay is finally backed into a corner where he has no escape. While I think no one would have minded Jon beating Ramsay to death, it is a bit more satisfying to watch the beaten and bloodied Ramsay get killed by his own starving hounds, while the triumphant Sansa watches without so much as a grimace. The good guys almost never win in Game of Thrones, but for the first time in a long time, House Stark reigns in Winterfell.
Daenerys and her dragons burning the slave master's ships is a delicious appetizer before the main entree: the battle for Winterfell that makes "Battle of the Bastards" into the masterpiece of an episode that it is. Miguel Sapochnik's flawless direction and D&D's always sharp screenwriting are the engines that make the battle's incredible stunt work and impressive fight choreography flourish. The cherry on top is that Jon is not the invincible hero who leads his outnumbered army to victory. The hero is the Stark girl who has experienced more grief and abuse than anyone will ever know, and we couldn't be more proud of her. Ramsay Bolton finally gets his, and we are finally free of his twisted, maniacal ways (sad to see Iwan Rheon go. I think the man has done more than enough to prove himself to be a tremendous actor). The North will always remember this battle, just like us.
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