The long wait episode finally arrived, Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton’s armies finally faced off in battle on Game of Thrones, and what a face-off it was. And, oh, did they pull it off. Plotwise, the ultimate outcome, in which Jon Snow and his forces defeated Ramsay with a last-minute assist from Littlefinger and the knights of the Vale (who Sansa had secretly written to requesting aid), was pretty predictable.
But production-wise, the Battle of the Bastards was spectacular, easily topping any combat sequence we’ve seen on Thrones so far, thanks to director Miguel Sapochnik. And that stunning production and direction helped the episode become a tonal and emotional success — bringing home, for instance, just how desperate and beleaguered Jon’s army seemed to be against seemingly impossible odds.
In tonight’s episode Game of Thrones presented not one but two epic battles for the fate of Westeros and Essos. Daenerys Stormborn and her dragons squared off against the slavers while Jon Snow and his northernmen fought back against the Boltons. The stakes seemed incredibly high and HBO has been promoting the episode all season as the one to watch out for. But were the stakes actually all that high?
A Stark died, sure. But one we hadn’t seen for several seasons and, even when Rickon was a series regular, we hardly saw him at all. All of our “heroes” who faced battle—Jon, Sansa, Tormund, Melisandre, Davos, Daenerys, Grey Worm, Daario, Yara, Theon, and Tyrion—made it out in one piece. The most upsetting story involving death in the episode belonged to Davos reflecting back on Shireen—a death that happened last season. And the deceptive stakes of “The Battle of the Bastards” are part of a larger problem running through Season 6 of Game of Thrones.
Toward the next week season 6 finale of Game of Thrones, as many have noted, a recurring theme of Game of Thrones this season is resurrection and rebirth. That’s a reference to not only the literal resurrection of Jon Snow and the fiery baptism (again) of Daenerys, but also the return of many long-lost characters. But those returns partially exist to feed the body count of the season. Osha, the Blackfish, Balon, and, yes, Rickon all came back just to die after very little screentime.
The show is banking on our nostalgia for these characters (well, not you Balon) to up the stakes of their deaths. Yes, it does matter when a Stark dies, but Rickon is hardly on the level of Robb, Cat, or Ned. And while it was incredibly gratifying to watch Sansa have her revenge, the death of Ramsay Bolton feels long past due. Gruesome though it may have been, Ramsay’s death didn’t carry the same satisfaction as the death of King Joffrey or moral murkiness of the murder of Tywin Lannister.
Perhaps all this hollow-feeling carnage can be traced back to the resurrection of Jon Snow—which still feels like it has no enduring consequences in the world of Game of Thrones. We saw Jon go a bit feral as he nearly beat Ramsay to death, but there’s still no indication that he came back wrong. That seemed linked to Rickon more than anything else.
Ditto the (admittedly welcome) return of the Hound. Sandor Clegane also doesn’t die in the books, but don’t all these resurrections make death feel cheap in Westeros when once it was the show’s most famous calling card? Game of Thrones became so popular because anyone could die, especially your favorites. But that wasn’t the case tonight.
There still one episode left, a nice chance for Game of Thrones to give us some believably high stakes. The finale promises plenty of carnage at King’s Landing—perhaps even some involving characters we actually care about. There’s also the opportunity for the show to pull back a bit from spectacle. Every episode doesn’t have to have a moment that’s meant to drop jaws while leaving our heroes intact. In my opinion, the quieter moments of “The Battle of the Bastards” were truly the best with the triumphant return of the Stark banners to Winterfell and the scene between Davos and Tormund being definite highlights.
But those quieter, dialogue rich moments are becoming rarer and rarer on a show that feels increasingly addicted to spectacle. “The Battle of Bastards” (or the Battle of Ice and Fire, as some prefer to call the episode) was certainly “exciting,” but was it satisfying? I guess that all depends on how much you care about Rickon Stark.