Disclaimer: There are no spoilers in this article. I have only read the first three books and I have no knowledge of what transpires in the show moving forward. Any views or content expressed are solely personal theories, opinions and insights.
BATTLE OF THE BASTARDS
This may not have been the episode we wanted, but it was the episode we needed. After a week’s worth of buildup leading up to the ninth episode, and what feels like years worth of buildup leading to the battle for the North, expectations were sky-high for the Battle of the Bastards. This excitement was heightened even further by the fact that the penultimate (second to last) episode of each season is generally the boldest and most shocking (the ninth episode of previous seasons included the killing of Ned Stark, the Battle of Blackwater Bay, the Red Wedding, etc). So it was no surprise that the Thrones world was hyped like never before for the battle that would pit the beloved Jon Snow and Sansa against the hated Ramsay Bolton, with the future of the North and glory of House Stark/Winterfell on the line. In turn, it was also no surprise that the episode simply didn’t live up to these lofty expectations. But like I said, this may not have been the episode you wanted, but it was certainly the one that we needed.
This episode lacked the surprise factor that we’ve come to expect from previous ninth episodes — it was not the beheading of Ned Stark or the Red Wedding massacre, events which nobody saw coming. The battle itself was not glorious, like the Battle of Blackwater Bay that lit up the King’s Landing sky with fantastic green mysterious wildfire. This battle was down and dirty. It was bloody. It was muddy. It exposed the brutal realities of hand-to-hand combat, a form of battle that we haven’t really seen in-depth to date. And to the extent that one of the goals of this episode was to do just that — make you feel the fear, the adrenaline, the rush, the bloody nature of hand-to-hand battle, well then this episode excelled as measured against that goal.
But there was so much more than just bloody battle. In fact, you could argue that the high-points of the episode were found outside the boundaries of the battle altogether. The exchange between Ser Davos and Tormund prior to battle — the most unlikely of characters to have ended up united in their support for Jon Snow. The palpable uneasiness of it being the night before battle, and Jon Snow’s camp not having much of a strategy at all. Jon Snow and Ramsay finally coming face to face as Sansa looks on — the hatred could be felt through the TV screen. These were just some of the moments leading up to the battle itself, which evoked a range of emotion.
Then there is still so many other aspects of the episode to consider. One of the most important, the fact that Sansa totally distrusted Jon Snow and did not reveal the support she had from Baelish and the Knights of the Vale. Good thing this was the case, for if she did reveal this, it is entirely likely that they would’ve gone down with the rest of Jon’s army and the battle would’ve been lost. There was also Sansa finally getting her revenge and symbolically feeding Ramsay back to his dogs. Oh, and let’s not forget finally getting to see the Stark banner fly over Winterfell, as it has for thousands of years. Ser Davos found Princess Shireen’s toy, and is likely onto Melisandre. And then there’s everything that happened in Mereen. In truth, this episode was more important than probably any to date…So again, I remind that this was the episode we needed.
SANSA & JON
A huge piece of this episode which will likely fly under the radar is the fact that Sansa won the battle. She may not have been physically fighting, but it was her newfound attitude which lends her to really trust nobody that ultimately won the battle at a time when all hope was lost. But let’s backtrack for a moment. It is the night before battle and Jon Snow doesn’t have much of a gameplan. He’s outnumbered and even his closest advisors in Ser Davos and Tormund can’t seem to conjure up a plan that makes us feel as though they really stand a chance against the Bolton forces. Jon Snow is so desperate for answers that he pays a visit to Melisandre, who still appears to be in a funk. There’s not much she can tell him, other than that Jon Snow is here for a reason, and that she will bring him back if he dies again, if that is the Lord of Light’s command. Melisandre has been pretty absent from the show as of late, and I thought many episodes back after she revived Jon Snow, that she would fade into the darkness. But, she’s still around, so keep an eye out for what comes next, which will likely involve Ser Davos and his realization that Melisandre was behind the burning of Princess Shireen. But I digress…
Jon Snow can’t seem to muster up a plan, and it is finally Sansa who scolds him for seeking the advice of all his advisors, without turning to her. After all, Sansa lived with Ramsay and knows him better than anybody, wouldn’t Jon Snow want that insight? As it turns out, not really, and see that in many ways, Jon Snow still knows nothing. But he placates and offers her an opportunity to speak, at which point she explains that it will not be Jon Snow laying any trap, but rather Ramsay who will be setting up Jon Snow’s army to fall into his trap. She knows that nobody is better at playing these games than Ramsay, and boy is she right. She also tells Jon that if they are to lose the battle, she will not be taken alive — death is preferable to reassuming her position as Ramsay’s prisoner and play-thing. Jon Snow insists that he will protect her, but Sansa tells him that nobody can protect her…Nobody can protect anybody.
What we are really seeing here is the coming of age of Sansa’s character, which we’ve of course been seeing unfold over recent episodes. She was once the foolish, naive little child who only wanted to marry Joffrey and become queen. Well, after years of torture at the hands of Joff and then Ramsay, any semblance of innocence or youth has been taken from her. She’s also been burned by Baelish, who she trusted to protect her after being freed from King’s Landing, only for him to be the one to turn her over to Ramsay. So now, years later, can we blame her from feeling like nobody can protect her, not even her brought-back-to-life brother?
But the depth of her mistrust runs much deeper. In the face of being drastically outnumbered and desperately needing more men, you would think that Sansa might mention the Knights of the Vale so that he could account for them in his battle plan. After all, if he knew he had them as reinforcements, he could’ve planned accordingly and stood a much better chance at defeating the Boltons. But Sansa doesn’t trust Jon. Sansa doesn’t trust anybody. Not only does she not mention the Knights of the Vale, she doesn’t even let on to the fact that she is in touch with Baelish, or that there could be any possibility of additional troops to support their cause. It’s a pretty bold decision on her part, but she did not trust anybody but herself to control these additional troops. They were her last line of protection for when everything else went wrong. And as everything does in fact start to go wrong, we see what a wise decision she made.
Jon Snow does just what Sansa warned him not to — he falls into Ramsay’s trap. Nobody should have to watch a family member die, but sacrificing Rickon would be a price Jon Snow would have to be ready to pay if he wanted to win this battle. But that’s not who Jon Snow is. So he rides out into hostile territory to save his little half-brother, only for Ramsay to put an arrow through Rickon’s heart as Jon Snow took his front-row seat to watch his brother die. At this point, Jon Snow could’ve retreated, but he takes the bait and rides full force towards the Bolton army, one man against thousands. Sure to be slaughtered, the rest of Jon’s army is forced to charge at his back. Of course, the very limited battle strategy they did have was to force the Bolton’s to charge at them — so now they’re totally screwed, all because Jon Snow fell right into Ramsay’s trap, even against the warning of Sansa. And as Jon Snow is thrown from his horse and the Bolton forces are riding full force towards Jon, it looks like he may just die again. But Jon’s army collides full speed with the Bolton cavalry and we feel the immense impact of two forces charging each other full speed to engage in war.
What happens next is about 20 minutes of bloody, brutal, hand-to-hand combat. This wasn’t the movie version of war, where things are organized and tactical, if not predictable. This was the messy, chaotic, fight-for-your-life version of warfare, which was so unbelievably intense, that it was almost difficult to watch. One of the most powerful takeaways for me in this battle was watching Jon Snow fight, free of any fear of death. We always knew Jon Snow was one of the greatest warriors and swordsmen, but like any man, a natural fear of death can inhibit you in a life-threatening war like this. But Jon Snow has died. And been brought back. He believes that he has a purpose, and he is freed from any fear of death. So he fights like no other man on that battlefield — the weight of death has been lifted from him and he knows no fear.
But that doesn’t mean he is superhuman or supernatural. He eventually gets buried beneath a mound of bodies, and the suspense is overwhelming as we feel the very real possibility that he could die from simply being stampeded and suffocated. But his journey isn’t done, and he rises up, only to find that his depleted forces have been surrounded by Bolton men. In Greek-Trojan style, the Bolton’s form a shielded perimeter, and simply constrict what’s left of Jon’s army, slaughtering them a few at a time. Tormund was prepared to die as he fights with Lord Karstark (once-supporter of House Stark), and eventually kills him by stabbing him in the gut and biting into his throat. But all hope seems lost, and even worse than watching the good guys run almost come to an end, was feeling the emotion of this group of men who now know that their death is imminent. Jon Snow, Tormund, Ser Davos — none of them can do or say anything — they are out of options and out of time.
That is, until Sansa arrives on the scene with Baelish to save the day with the Knights of the Vale, who easily mow down the unsuspecting Bolton troops. We see that Sansa’s distrust of Jon Snow as a commander eventually wins the battle. Her insistency on keeping these resources close to the chest and not telling anybody about them, ensured that the Knights were not swallowed up by the Bolton army, the way the rest of Jon’s army was, and Sansa’s decision saved the day. And just like, Ramsay retreats to hide behind the walls of Winterfell, walls which he believes cannot be sieged. But Jon Snow advances with Wun Wun the giant, who is able to break down the doors of Winterfell, as he is wounded with arrow after arrow. As he serves his fulfills his duty and breaches Winterfell, it is none other than Ramsay who delivers the last arrow to Wun Wun, putting the giant to sleep for good. For context, giants were once powerful creatures that existed north of the Wall for thousands of years, but today there are only a handful left. So, to see Wun Wun die, like we saw some of the Children of the Forest die to save Bran in a recent episode, is sad and powerful. It also speaks to the role that Jon Snow (and likely Bran) will have to play in the greater war that is to come.
With no more games to play, Ramsay challenges Jon to hand-to-hand combat, to which Jon gladly excepts. We once again see that he is totally unbounded by any fear of death, so much so that he throws down his sword and approaches Ramsay as arrows are shot his way. When he gets his hands on Ramsay, he beats him to a pulp, finally looking over at Sansa as to acknowledge that they’ve accomplished what they came for. Winterfell is theirs and Ramsay has been defeated. But Ramsay is not Jon’s to kill, and we see Sansa get her final revenge — the revenge that she has been wanting for so long — as she tells Ramsay that his house will be wiped out and his name will be forgotten. And just like that, Ramsay’s dogs tear him to shreds, as he had done to so many before him. Sansa walks away with a grin on her face, knowing that she has no doubt not only gotten revenge, but also regained some of her freedom, knowing that Ramsay is gone for good. For me personally, I would’ve liked to see Ramsay suffer a bit more. Being torn apart by the hounds is of course an excruciating way to go, but after all the torture, after all the sick and twisted games, after all the terror he inflicted upon Theon, Sansa and so many others, I would’ve surely liked to have seen him tied up and tortured for a while. But, that is not the Stark way, and they have bigger issues to contend with.
The Stark banner once again flies over Winterfell, as it has for thousands of years ago, and the Starks have reclaimed their ancestral home. But what comes next? Well, for starters, Jon and Sansa are going to have to work out their trust issues. The North is still divided, and though they will surely regain a lot of Northern support, they also still have enemies in the North, especially what’s left of some of the houses that chose to back the Boltons. But that’s small potatoes. What really matters is the fact that Winterfell is on front lines with the war against the White Walkers that is heading their way, and nobody is more familiar with this impending war than Jon Snow. Having reclaimed Winterfell, Jon Snow will now have to assemble a much larger army if they are to stand any chance.
There are a lot of question marks about what comes next. Who stays at Winterfell? Who leaves? Who becomes Lord of Winterfell? How does Baelish fit into the picture and what does he actually want? Where is Ghost? Most of this probably will not be tied up in the finale episode next week, as there are larger stories they have to turn back to (Bran, Arya, Cercei/King’s Landing). But for now, we can and should all rejoice in knowing that Ramsay is dead, Jon and Sansa have won the battle and House Stark is back where it belongs — at Winterfell.
KHALEESI, DRAGONS AND A NEW ALLIANCE
As if all of that was not enough, a totally separate and pretty intense battle rages on across the Narrow Sea in Mereen. Picking up where last episode left off, Mereen continues to be assaulted by fiery catapults as Khaleesi and Tyrion discuss their next moves. Khaleesi tells Tyrion that she will use her dragons to burn the slave-cities to the ground. But, Tyrion reminds her that her father, the Mad King, once also planned to burn the city of King’s Landing to the ground. In her father’s plan, like hers, thousands of innocent would have died. It was Tyrion’s brother, Ser Jaime, who prevented that from happening by putting his sword through the back of the Mad King, earning him the honor-less nickname of Kingslayer. In reality, had he not done this, King’s Landing and all those who inhabited it may have been burned to the ground. Drawing an interesting parallel, years later, it is once again a Lannister preventing a Targaryen from burning a city to the ground. However, unlike the Mad King, Khaleesi is receptive to Tyrion’s words, and will settle for simply killing the masters and their army, and letting word spread to the rest of Slaver’s Bay about what happens to anybody who crosses Khaleesi.
We are once again reminded why Tyrion is there and the value he brings to the table. This was a major building block for the relationship between Khaleesi and Tyrion. Following his plan, Khaleesi rides Drogon and burns the masters’ ships, or at least some of them, while Grey Worm executes two of the three masters, leaving the third to go back home and spread the word of what he has seen. In short, the time for peace-talks and half-measures is over, and Khaleesi, under advisement from Tyrion, burns her enemies to ashes. This was the first time we really see Khaleesi fly on her dragon into battle, but it certainly won’t be the last. We also see her other two dragons join as Khaleesi and her three dragons fly the sky. Wisely, they do not burn all the ships, and they claim many of the masters’ ships for themselves.
Speaking of ships, Theon and Yara arrive to Mereen and stand before Khaleesi to plead their case. They explain that they come with the offering of 100 ships and their support for Khaleesi’s claim to the Iron Throne. All they ask in return is that they are allowed to remain leaders and Lords of the Iron Islands. Khaleesi agrees, but explains something very powerful: they will leave the world a better place than they found it. This means that the Ironborn will not be able to go back to their savage ways of raiding the mainland, stealing, raping and pillaging. Yara reminds Khaleesi that this is their way of life, but Khaleesi does not budge on her terms. She also reminds them that all three of their fathers (the Mad King, Lord Tywin and Balon Greyjoy) were ruthless and power-hungry men who brought much evil into the world. The parallels that were drawn between the previous rulers of their powerful houses and the next generation of rulers is very important to consider. What’s more is that this scene is a direct allusion to Aegon Targaryen and his Conquest of the Seven Kingdoms, during which he made very similar pacts with the powerful houses of Westeros. Like Khaleesi did, he granted them lordship and autonomy over their regions of Westeros, so long as they pledged their allegiance to him — the new Targaryen king that would unite all of Westeros for the first time. Those who refused ultimately suffered catastrophic losses. Those who bent the knee (House Stark, House Tully, House Greyjoy, etc) were allowed to live in peace and oversee their lands and smaller-houses autonomously.
Going even a step further, as mentioned above, House Greyjoy was one of the houses that pledged their fealty to Aegon Targaryen. At the time, the evil King Harren Hoare otherwise known as Harren the Black ruled over the Iron Islands and the Riverlands. House Hoare had ruled as kings of the Iron Islands for hundreds of years, and had invaded and conquered much of the western coast of Westeros, including the Riverlands. An oppressive leader, King Harren ruled from his newly built castle, Harrenhal, the strongest castle that Westeros had ever seen. When Aegon Targaryen arrived to Westeros, the first kingdom he sought to overthrow was King Haren and the Iron Islands. At the time, House Greyjoy was a smaller house, but pledged their allegiance to Aegon if he would help them overthrow the oppressive King Harren. When King Harren refused to bend the knee, Aegon and his sisters flew their dragons right over the walls of Harrenhal and destroyed it with fire. Not only did they burn Harrenhal, but they incinerated King Harren Hoare and the entire Hoare bloodline. To this day, Harrenhal appears burnt and black from Aegon’s dragons. As a result of House Greyjoy pledging their allegiance over 300 years ago, Aegon raised House Greyjoy up as lords of the Iron Islands. With this in mind, it is all the more powerful and significant to consider that 300 years later, the Greyjoys are once again pledging their allegiance to a Targaryen leader who is pledging to retake the Seven Kingdoms and award them lordship over the Iron Islands.
This is of course a big win for Yara and Theon, who face a great threat from their Uncle Euron. But, it is also a coup for Khaleesi, who has made her first significant alliance with a major house of the Westeros. With her loyal council, three dragons, armies of the Unsullied and Dothraki, and now the support of House Greyjoy and 100+ ships, things are starting to look pretty good for Khaleesi. My guess is that we won’t see her depart for Westeros until next season, though.
HEADING INTO THE FINALE…
So, heading into the finale, there’s a lot of unfinished business. And unlike previous seasons that had great penultimate episodes with disappointing finales, I think this finale episode will be extremely exciting. So here are a lot of open-ended items, some larger than others, but all good to be thinking about:
- Bran hasn’t been in quite a few episodes and we’re not quite sure what he’s been up to with Meera and Uncle Benjen. I think we’ll see a major development in his storyline that might shed some more light on the ultimate direction he’s headed and the role he’s to play in the war to come. He’s not all that far from Winterfell, so a possible reuniting with Jon and Sansa is possible, though it seems unlikely.
- Arya is another character that was not in this last episode, and while I don’t think Khaleesi will yet sail across the Narrow Sea, my guess is that the finale episode will feature Arya returning back to Westeros. It would be pretty special to see her finally make it back to Winterfell and to reunite with Jon Snow — as Jon and Arya were always very close.
- Perhaps the most important development in the finale episode will take place in King’s Landing, where Ser Loras and Cercei are both due to stand trial. Things will have to come to a head, with Margaery deciding whether or not she will continue to play the High Sparrow’s game, Tommen likely being faced with some important decisions as well, and these very important trials unfolding. After all, let’s not forget the House Tyrell is arguably the most powerful in all of the Seven Kingdoms right now (as measured by wealth, land, standing army, etc) and Ser Loras is heir to Highgarden, so even though he’s been locked up in a cell and off-screen for a while, he’s a very important character. And of course, so is Cercei, but things are looking pretty bleak for her after Tommen outruled trial-by-combat, eliminating her advance of the Mountain. Let’s also remember that Jaime is not in King’s Landing to protect her either, not that he necessarily could anyway. My prediction is that Cercei’s road will come to an end in this finale episode, freeing Jaime from the very thing that has always held him back from being a truly good man — his devotion to Cercei. With her out of the picture, Jaime would be liberated to become the good character that we’ve always wanted him to fully become, and go on to play a larger role in the story to come. It just feels like the days of Jaime and Cercei as a duo are coming to an end.
- The Hound has joined the Brotherhood Without Banners, and it would be nice to see what direction they’re heading in.
- There are still two living Stark wolves out there; Jon’s Ghost, which I would’ve expected to see in this battle, and also Arya’s Nymeria who we haven’t seen in many seasons. With Arya headed back to Westeros, expect her to be reunited with Nymeria at some point.
- I also noted in the primer I wrote before this season started that Gendry is still out there somewhere. Ser Davos risked an awful lot to save his life, and considering he does have King’s Blood, I think we’ll have to see him at some point, though very possibly not in this finale episode.