Warning: Spoilers from season six, episode nine abound.
Last night's Game of Thrones was the big one: A spendy set piece waged between warriors and cavaliers (did you know there was a basketball game on last night too?) in which the few of us who still pay for HBO were rewarded with a special-effect bonanza that punished the cape-swirlers, the baby-stabbers, the dick-choppers, and rewarded our cast of a thousand beards with the battle royale we've been waiting for. Is this the stuff of television legend? Maggie Simpson saying "Daddy," J. R. in the shower, that guy from M.A.S.H. seeing that chicken?
For sure, then, if there's one episode that the newly Ironborn will reenact in their cribs, one in which we dispensed with the usual jaunty anachronisms, winking fan service, grammar lessons, and jokes about beehives, then it is "Battle of the Bastards."
Here we beheld the stuff of Icelandic sagas and Led Zeppelin albums—and lo, it was truly the sport of kings. So pick your poison, sour goat's milk or that "grape water," this is the second-to-last episode of the season, a contender for the most epochal hour of Game of Thrones to date, and the classy prestige Emmy-submitted episode of the year. So happy shitting, America.
Our first hint that this was not your average hour of Thronefeld was that the part where the dragons raze a harbor of ships full of slavers was a mere prelude. That's not a complaint, as it's the little touches that keep six seasons of choosing violence fresh. For example: Didn't Daenerys look like the sun was in her eyes throughout the entirety of her confrontation with the trifecta of masters in Mereen? Didn't Tyrion seem to suddenly perk up after a season of boozy banter and eunuch gags by saying unsayable dialogue like, "The masters cannot let Mereen succeed because if Mereen succeeds, a city without slavery is a city without masters; it proves that nobody needs a master?" Wasn't it great to see the three worst people in Essos forced to play fuck, marry, kill with one another at spearpoint? And didn't it seem like Yara and the Khaleesi were taking a Sapphic shine to each other? (And wouldn't you rather watch the latter show, where warrior princesses dismantle the patriarchy brick by brick?)
Typically, these are the questions we'd be mulling over the week following an episode of the world's favorite revanchist fantasy program, but this time around, we have business in the North, so to dragons, multiple beheadings, ships, and pirates, let us say, just this once, "Meh."
He's Good. Verrrry Good!
Ramsay Bolton doesn't usually come off as a funny guy, but he recognizes talent when he sees it: "He's good," he says of Jon Snow's man-to-man shenanigans, "he's very good." Jon, for his part, tells Sansa, "You don't have to be here," but the way I see it, she's one of the three parties tuned in for this war on Winterfell: the Sansas, who have suffered through worse and worse on the show, the Jon Snows, who have paid for their loyalty and come back again, and the Rickons, who haven't seen the show in two seasons but thought they'd check in again this week and... holy shit. You beheaded whose beloved childhood pet? Where's Catelyn Stark, and why isn't she ending this? How old was that little girl when she was burned at the stake?
Jon, Sansa, and their advisors are lit like Rembrandts as they strategize in their tents. But for all the Barry Lyndon candlelight, Davos Seaworth gets the Golden Hour shot, cradling poor little Shireen's wooden stag in the pyre (and, all things being equal, if Davos had to wait a year almost to the day to learn what happened to the Baratheon princess, then we can wait an episode for Davos to exact vengeance from Melisandre, whose "don't lose" war counsel is a real blip on the Patton scale). But the best Davos moment this episode has to be when he clarifies to Tormund that he only meant "demons" as a figure of speech. For there is no metaphor north of the Wall.
I do not understand the enduring morale of the Westeros Pinkerton class. Who are these swords-for-hire who stick around after their liege sets children on fire, shoots down Rickon in an old-fashioned Gallipoli relay, stabs dads (though, lest we forget, Roose Bolton was "poisoned by his enemies"), and fires on their own minutemen? And yet the men in Bolton army, with their stupid helmets, watch Ramsay join the Stark-killers club, and then charge past the flayed burning corpses of—who? Probably more tools who shilled for the Boltons—to fight the combined forces of the Starks, the Mormonts, and the Wildlings.
The scene that follows manages to communicate both the precision-architecture of warfare and the total disorientation of an individual in the thick of it. In this case, the camera sticks with Jon Snow as he draws his sword like a hero prepared to face down the whole blockade himself, only to be quickly lost in the slo-mo carnage. The most salient dialogue for ten minutes is when Tormund meets up with Jon in the eye of the scrum and goes, "Hey!" Horses charge in and out of the long take, friends and foes vanish as fast as we can register them, and the technical crew more or less clinches the award for greatest simulated proximity to actual death.
Once the Boltons' phalanx surrounds the Starks, we, with Jon, are buried beneath a mountain of corpses, caked in gore, and helpless to protect Tormund, who sees your headbutt and raises you a throat-biting, and Wun Wun, who punches a horse in the face, then succumbs inside the castle gates to something like 20 good arrows. When the camera backs off to show Jon up to his neck in combatants, it resembles a Magic Eye pattern; like if you squint, it's going to turn into a sailboat, or a horse, or a butterfly.
In the end, of course, the heroes triumph and a show that has prospered by foiling our expectations simply rewards our attention. The Knights of the Vale ride to the rescue of the embattled Starks, Jon Snow beats his opposite number Ramsay to a bloody pulp, and then, for good measure, Bolton is eaten by dogs at Sansa's command. And yes, we may have lost a giant in the process, but seems to me Wun Wun has a bright future as a spokesmonster for GEICO or something. As straight-up, visual storytelling spectacle, the episode was a marvel. As plot resolution, it killed all the right people. There's more pleasure in life than the reaving of hordes, more to Thrones than poop jokes and swordplay, but as far as the give-and-take of season six is concerned, this is a high water mark by any standard. Shoot it into space and let foreign planets quake in fear at our mettle.
Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.