My loving Throners,
I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the season, to watch and gasp amongst you all; to lay down for my Red God, and for my seven kingdoms, and my Throners, my honour and my bad puns, even in the dust.
I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman (I really need to get back to the gym), but I have the heart and stomach of a recappespondent, and a recappespondent of Game of Thrones too, and think foul scorn that any prince of Westeros should dare invade the borders of my column; to which rather than dishonour, I myself will take up arms; and with those arms, type.
Of course I’m sure if the great Elizabeth I had been fighting Jon Snow circa 1588 she probably would’ve back-ended her speech to the troops at Tilbury with a jaunty “But Jon Snow can invade my borders anytime, hur hur,” before waggling her eyebrows and making the sexy finger in hole gesture. There’d be no more Virgin Queen after that, I can tell you.
Anyway, beloved Throners, I bastardise the words of Queen Bess for three reasons: one, I feel rather like a warrior leading the charge into this recap; two, because WHO RUN THE WORLD? GIRLS!; and three, because there were no great speeches to the troops in the Battle of the Bastards. There was only a state of not fighting and a state of fighting. And in that, we saw the real truth of war - no heroics, no subtleties, just blood, sweat, adrenaline, death, and occasionally a bloody miracle.
Now normally one of these recaps would start with a whole load of hooting along with phrases like “NO!”, “NOT THE FACE!”, “YES!”, “GOT ‘IM!” “SANSA IS MY QUEEEEEEN” and “LET ME LICK YOU BETTER JON SNOW”.
But I am legit physically and emotionally exhausted after this episode. It hit me like a wrecking ball, Miley-style.
I don’t even know if I can come up with a coherent theme, beyond “GARRRARGHHHARGH GHGHHHHAAAARRRGHH THIS SHOW”.
But perhaps, given the full moon and the Winter Solstice upon us here in the southern hemisphere, it might be time to hand over to the twin faces of war: majesty... and lunacy.
Season 6, Episode 9: The Battle of the Bastards
We only had two locations in this episode, so let’s start over in Meereen and summarise Daenarys’ latest QUEEN SLAY manoeuvre, for it ‘twas magnificent.
Meereen, as we recall, had been under attack by the Masters, freshly returned to betray their deal with Tyrion and reclaim their profitable slave-selling ways.
Tyrion, bless him, intersperses the thudding and smashing noises of enemy projectiles hitting the Great Pyramid by insisting Meereen is on the up and up. Of course, not everybody supports his plan for jobs and growth, but then, you’re never going to please all the voters all the time.
Dany’s combat strategy is straight out of The Children’s Big Book of Brutal Dictators 101: kill them all, raze their cities. It’s Tyrion who reminds her that just because the Mad King was her father, doesn’t mean she has to be his daughter. That particular truth bomb lands just as another flaming missile crashes through the nearest window.
Tyrion suggests an alternative approach, which sees the Meereen Team talking surrender treaties with the Masters somewhere just outside the city.
Tsk-tsk, the Masters say. You could have left when we first offered peace, lady. Now as punishment we’re going to kill your dragons, sell your Unsullied Army and make you take part in The Briefcase on Channel Nine.
“We’re here to discuss YOUR surrender, not mine,” Dany throws back, far too languidly for someone not in total control of the situation. It’s at these moments that Dany most reminds me of a crocodile, and not just because her flawless skin would make an amazing handbag. It’s the uneasy air she creates as she lies in wait, letting her idiot opponents mansplain themselves right up to the water’s edge, before being chomped on like Linda Kowalski in that g-banger.
The keen-eyed among you would have spotted the initial appearance of Drogon as a blurry collection of CGI pixels behind one of the Masters. It was an ironic sight gag worthy of The Simpsons.
Drogon heralds his arrival with an almighty screech, and soon Dany is up and onto his back, flying high across the bay towards the attacking fleet. Along the way she collects Viserion and Rhaegon, who’ve busted their way out of their dungeon prison (one hopes they left papier-mache dragon effigies behind, Escape from Alcatraz-style). Together, the soaring reptilian trio turn their attention to the ship leading the attack - and on Dany’s call of “Dracarys!” let fly with the biggest flaming upchuck since I overdid it on the Hot and Spicy wicked wings last Christmas.
Meanwhile around at the city gates, a bunch of Sons of the Harpy are getting their stab on when all of a sudden they hear a great rumbling approach. It’s not a dragon, rather, it’s every fricking Dothraki warrior currently living headed straight for them. Plus Maario, whose use of an arakh to decapitate a bad guy not only engendered whoops and cheers, but made me feel a little bit disturbingly sexy.
It really is amazing how violence done to your favourites is gut-wrenching and traumatising, but violence done to your enemies can have you punching the sky and laughing like a ticklish hyena on nitrous.
That’s a recurring feature of this episode, and it crops up again when Tyrion, Grey Worm and Missandei insist that one Master will have to be killed for breaking the agreement they had. In a wholly expected move, two of the cowardly Masters push their third compadre to the front, saying he’s low-born and doesn’t speak for them. He also wears a lot of eye make-up, so that could also have been a factor.
Eyeliner Master begs for mercy, but no sooner has he fallen to his knees then Grey Worm whips out his dagger (euphemism not applicable in this situation) and slices the throats of the other two Masters.
It’s left to Tyrion to pass on the key learning from today’s events to the trembling Eyeliner Master. Should any of the other Masters have fanciful ideas of trying again to reintroduce slavery, “tell them what happened when Daenarys Stormborn and her dragons came to Meereen”. To quote those 90s philosophers, Wayne and Garth, if she were President she’d be Babe-raham Lincoln.
And then the Greyjoys show up.
I loved the sudden appearance of Theon and Yara in the Throne Room, with Theon being dressed down by Tyrion for telling dwarf jokes back when they last met at Winterfell.
Theon’s keen to move on from both his youthful and serious adult indiscretions, but Tyrion wants a bit of a gloat. It’s Dany, resplendent in a moss-green toga that would add “Queen of O-Week” to her many titles, who gets negotiations back on track.
The Greyjoys have offered 100 ships from the Iron Fleet, which coupled with the remaining ships from the now-defunct Masters is almost enough to get her entire army over to Westeros.
The biggest threat to this plan is Euron Greyjoy, their mad and murderous uncle who intends to offer Daenarys big wooden ships and, well, big wood.
The recent revelation of Yara’s Sapphic tendencies paid off big time when Daenarys joked that her offer would not come with marriage demands. “I never demand, but I’m up for anything really,” Yara sasses back with extra sassy sass. It really was wonderful to see both Dany and Yara enjoy some cheeky banter about having mad Dads, usurper troubles, and misogyny dramas.
Dany resolves that everyone there has a duty to leave the world in a better state than they found it - unlike their respective fathers. So Yara may claim the Salt Throne once Dany is restored to the Iron one, but on the condition that they respect her rules. No more raiding and reaving for the Ironborn, it’s time to settle down and grow up. “But that’s our way of life!” protests Yara. But she can see the writing is on the wall, and it’s kudos for both women that they can see the potential for a better future. As we’ve said in the past, the Ironborn need to diversify their economy. “Coastal raping” should not be a line item in a country’s budget.
And so on a firm handshake we leave Meereen with the exciting promise that the Mother of Dragons might soon launch her ships and head towards Westeros. It’s only been eleventy million years, but we’re getting there, guys!
It’s time to head to Winterfell, and to the inevitable showdown between Jon Snow, Ramsay Bolton and their respective armies.
The two sides have an initial meet and greet on the prospective battle site outside the castle. It’s the first time we’ve seen Ramsay in a fair few episodes, and he hasn’t improved. Captain Smuggy McEvilSmugface demands the immediate return of his bride Sansa, and for Jon Snow et al to bend the knee and swear allegiance to him as Warden of the North. I’d try to describe my face as I listened to Lord Slimebucket ooze words, but Lyanna Mormont pretty much summed it up.
The Starks, of course, are having none of it. Jon even offers to take Ramsay on mano a mano, an offer Bolton is super quick to turn down on account of knowing Jon would KICK his measly backside. Of course, Ramsay wouldn’t be Ramsay without a creepy trick up his sleeve, and it’s at this point he throws down the head of Shaggy Dog as proof he has their brother Rickon.
It's Sansa, wonderful, badass Sansa, who shuts him down.
“You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.” And then she rides off and doesn’t look back, because she is a Queen.
Ramsay laughs and describes her as a cool chick, then tells everyone he looks forward to feeding them to his dogs. Now just keep this bit in mind, as there’s a slight continuity snafu here that I’ll bring up later.
That night, we see Jon, Sansa, Tormund and Davos doing some mind mapping vis-a-vis their battle plans. Tormund is hilariously unaware of the rules and manoeuvres of open warfare, and Davos reinforces the need to make Ramsay charge first.
But after they leave, Sansa lets rip, telling Jon he’s completely overlooked her insights, having actually been subjected to Ramsay's "personality" for more than five minutes. He lays traps, he plays with people, and he will make you make a mistake.
The pair have a right proper argument, and it’s a joy to watch. Here are two siblings, who’ve both gone through so much, trying to solve the same problem but coming at it from different angles. Jon is trying to retain the honour of the Stark house by wanting to save Rickon and use strategy to boost their meagre numbers. Where Sansa is a revelation is when she urges him to cut Rickon, her own brother, loose. He’s the legitimate heir, more valuable that she or Jon. Ramsay won’t allow him to live. It’s the kind of cold insight that only someone who had been at the Bolton bastard’s mercy could know.
Not being battle-hardened, Sansa can’t offer much in the way of advice on what he should do. But she’s clear on one thing - “Don’t do what he expects you to do”. Ramsay plays with people, he knows how to hurt them, how to make them make mistakes. Jon would be wise to heed this advice.
When Sansa makes for the exit, she tells Jon if Ramsay wins she will top herself rather than go back into his custody. Jon promises he won’t let Ramsay hurt her again, but Sansa is resolute. “No one can protect anyone,” she says, almost mournfully. Remember that prissy little girl who believed in knights and honour and being an adored lady? Nope, I don't either.
Jon’s inherited Ned Stark’s honourable streak, and while I adore it like I adore my foster kittens when they’re asleep and not destroying stuff in my house, it’s something that we will see come back to bite him squarely on the backside come battle time (Oh! If only I could bite Jon Snow … you get the drift).
Meanwhile, Davos and Tormund are taking a turn about the campsite. The bushy-bearded wildling has the confidence of someone who doesn’t know what a “pincer movement” is, and the two trade stories about their former kings, Stannis Baratheon and Mance Raydar. Neither turned out to be the Prince they were promised to be - although the Onion Knight does have to explain that Stannis’ demons weren’t actually real demons.
Tormund invites Davos in for a sour goat’s milk libation, but Davos turns him down. I’m not surprised - I had sour mare’s milk in Mongolia once, and seriously, I can still taste it. That stuff burns. Davos instead opts for his pre-battle routine of pacing around the campsite so nobody sees him, well, requiring a change into brown trousers. Tormund farewells him with a cheery “Happy shitting!” and Davos heads off.
Then, in an amazing coincidence, he finds the pyre upon which Shireen Baratheon was sacrificed. He finds her little stag doll, and instantly knows something was very wrong about the manner in which she died. Of course this spells doom for his recently patched up relationship with Melisandre.
Meanwhile Jon has gone to see Kate Bush, who doesn’t even attempt an inspiring version of Don’t Give Up, but just looks bored and majorly bummed out.
Jon wants her to stay out of things if he happens to get deaded again, but the Red Woman is #sorrynotsorry about it.
Melisandre can’t answer Jon’s question about why she was able to bring him back from the dead, only that he may just be needed for this particular battle and then bang, dead again. “What kind of god would do that?” he asks, and Kate Bush answers with possibly the smartest four-word lyric she’s written since Running Up That Hill: “The one we’ve got.”
Yep, it’s a nice reflection on a lot of religions and some of their more… interesting… beliefs.
The morning of the battle dawns, and Jon Snow does a very dishy impersonation of Henry V while inspecting the troops on horseback. But anybody expecting a bit of “Once more into the breach” talk is to be disappointed; Jon, as we know, has always been a man of meaningful, not flowery, words. And given the size of the army they’re up against, it probably is best to stick to the adage that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
At this point, Ramsay Bolton initiates his most fiendish plan ever.
We see him on horseback walking through his troops, while dragging something on a rope. We know, we just KNOW, that it’s poor Rickon Stark. Once again, he’s a character who’s shot up in height, but he retains enough babyish innocence to remind us he is yet another innocent victim of the Bastard of Winterfell.
The show messes with us here; first by having Ramsay brandish a knife high in the air, and Rickon bow his head waiting for a killing blow, then by having Ramsay cut Rickon’s bonds and send him off running towards Jon.
If you were anything like me, you felt icy fingers slide their way down your throat and snake around your heart. Rickon was doomed, but I didn’t want to accept it. Jon’s solo ride out to save Rickon was too noble to fail, surely?
The pacing here was incredible as we watched Ramsay fire arrows in a seemingly indifferent manner towards the vanishing Rickon, and as Jon galloped his steed towards his brother, hand out and down ready to lift him up onto his back. It would have been a golden moment, a superhero rescue.
But this is Game of Thrones. Superhero rescues are the exception, not the rule.
Jon and Rickon got close, so close, then Ramsay finally aimed to hit his target, and the arrow speared the youngest Stark through the back. It may as well have hit Jon in the heart too, as he goes numb for a moment - the first time he’s seen his littlest brother in years and he’s in his death throes.
Sansa warned Jon about this, but even if he did listen it’s a forgotten memory in this heated moment.
Looking on, Tormund urges him to remember the plan, with the simple utterance “Don’t.”
But it’s too late. Jon has fallen into Ramsay’s trap, and he charges forward. Davos sends the rest of the cavalry after him, but Jon has a bit headstart. Eventually his horse takes too many arrows and collapses underneath him.
Jon, survivor of Hardhome, draws his sword and faces these enemies, such different enemies, but sharing the same intent to kill him.
A beautiful slow motion shot captures Ramsay’s cavalry bearing down on Jon, sword drawn, one man ready to take on an army.
Thankfully the rest of his mounted forces catch up and the two sides begin a brutal, visceral clash that is possibly one of the most extraordinary fight sequences ever committed to film.
The camera places us primarily with Jon in the middle of the quagmire, illustrating how a medieval battle quickly divulged from being two one-dimensional sides clashing to a three dimensional mess of men, horseflesh, blood, mud, and flashing steel. There is no sense to be made of the slaughter, no battle rules, only the biological fight response in full flight.
Ramsay continues to run his military operation so sadistically that the Marquis de Sade would turn in his grave to hear his name so besmirched.
While Ser Davos holds off his archers because there’s a risk they might hit their own men, Ramsay has no such compunction. He has his archers fire on the battlefield, happy enough to kill his own men as long as Stark forces and free folk are copping it too.
Before long the whole landscape of the battlefield has altered, with previously flat ground replaced with piles of bodies, flesh mountains that take your breath away - figuratively and literally. For a while Jon is trampled into one of the death mounds, his senses and movements constricted and his body fighting for air. Despite all the blood sprays, the removal of limbs and the horror unleashed on the horses, this remains one of the most horrifying experiences of the battle, because it leaves Jon so utterly helpless.
Meanwhile Ramsay sends in his foot soldiers to surround the remaining Stark forces in a manoeuvre best described as a giant spiky donut. Every few moments the Flayed Men shields squeeze inwards, followed by a thrust of their pikes.
Tormund, insane with awe-inspiring rage, hurls himself at some of shields, encouraged by the leadership of Stampy the Giant, who just starts sweeping some of them aside.
Unfortunately the spiky donut continues to choke the Stark forces, their clever plan to draw the Boltons to them now a bitter regret. In a bright moment, Tormund bites the neck right out of Smalljon Umber, and Jon manages to push himself upwards, inhale, and keep battling...
...and then the Knights of the Vale show up.
We knew they were going to, of course, as Sansa had sent the letter to Littlefinger two episodes ago. They cut it damn fine, but I can’t tell you how happy I was to cheer “Finally! The Knights of the Vale have FINALLY done something decent in this series!”
In a magnificent aerial shot, we saw the mounted Arryn knights both break the Flayed Man spiky donut, and surround it from the outside. It was like the most violent depiction of a sperm impregnating an egg you’ll ever see.
Best of all, it wiped the smug grin off Ramsay’s face for the first time ever:
Knowing his time was up, Ramsay fled back to Winterfell. But Jon, Tormund, and Stampy the Giant were hot on his tail. Thanks to Stampy’s efforts they crashed through the castle gates and took the fight right up to Ramsay. Wildlings flooded in, killing Bolton forces, although poor Stampy finally gave out from one too many arrows.
Ramsay and Jon finally faced off in one on one combat, and sure, you could be forgiven for wondering why one of the other Wildlings didn’t just fire an arrow or throw a knife at Ramsay. But then we wouldn’t have an awesome sequence in which my bruised, bloodied and beloved Jon Snow walked determinedly towards Ramsay, shielding himself from arrows, then took the bastard down and BEAT THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF HIM.
He stopped, eventually.
In 1815 the great Duke of Wellington said “My my! At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender.” That of course hasn’t been historically corroborated, but he did say “The next worst thing to a battle lost, is a battle won.”
Never has that been more clear than here, with so much bloodshed, so much death. Rickon’s small body is brought in, and Jon sends him to be buried in the crypt next to Ned. We also Ser Davos throw dark looks at Melisandre, while cradling Shireen’s stag.
But there is triumph too - in seeing the Flayed Man sigil ripped from Winterfell’s walls, and the Direwolf of Stark returned to its rightful place.
Finally, Ramsay Bolton.
Sansa demands to see him, and is shown to the cell where the hateful monster is being kept tied to a chair. “Is this where I live now?” he asks, altogether too cheerily.
But Queen Sansa, my amazing hero, absolutely slays when she tells him his words, his house, his name will all disappear. And then we hear the growling.
Ramsay doesn’t believe his loyal hounds would attack him. But as Sansa points out, they’re now starving.
Now if you were playing along earlier I mentioned a small continuity error. Here’s where it comes into play. Sansa tells Ramsay “You haven’t fed them in seven days, you said it yourself.” But she’d actually ridden away from the parley before Ramsay SAID that. So how did she know? Did John or Davos or Tormund mention it? I would have thought they’d be too tired or caught up to do so. But I guess someone had to place Ramsay in the cell, maybe they discussed it then.
One of the doggies starts to lick Ramsay’s face, and then bang, they all attack. Ramsay trained his dogs to do this, he set them on Lady Walda and her newborn baby, and it is only right that he go out like this. It is horrific, utterly deserved and immensely satisfying.
For her part, Sansa walks away from the cells, never looking back. In fact, she leaves with a tiny twist of a smile, a Mona Lisa moment, but one in which we know exactly the reason for the grin.
Jon Snow may be a hero. But Sansa is a Queen.
Also, I've learned a valuable lesson - never let the foster kittens go hungry.
Yay! Best Moments
There are SO many this episode that it’s hard to nail down. But I reckon just Sansa’s face. Whether it was resolution in the face of Ramsay’s threats and Rickon’s potential death, despair at not being listened to by Jon, fear that her brother’s army would be overrun, and intense pleasure at seeing the Bolton forces and Ramsay himself brought down, it was the most captivating thing of the whole shebang.
Zing! Best Lines
Jon: We’re digging trenches all along our flanks. They won’t be able to hit us the way Stannis hit you, in a double envelopment.
Jon: A pincer movement.
Jon: He won’t be able to hit us from the sides.
Pick a moment from that battle, people. Pick any moment.
While Rickon’s loss was shocking, Stampy the Giant’s was actually heart-breaking. Who among us didn’t love that big guy? Short on words, tough on idiots. His actions during the spiky donut sequence saved so many of the remaining soldiers, and he single-handedly broke the Winterfell gates to let Jon and the wildlings in. He took so many arrows and kept fighting, and the look he gave Jon just as Ramsay shot the coup de grace with a King Harold special made tears come to my eyes. Vale Stampy. We hardly knew ye, but boy did we love the way ye beat tens tons of shit out of everyone.
Also, there have been a few commenters already asking "Where was Ghost?" I think we can all agree the answer is "in his CGI kennel". With SO much to plot, plan and execute with that battle sequence, throwing in a fake wolf would have been too much. Yes, it was sad to not have him bite some faces off, but at least he's alive.
I cannot believe there is one episode left of this season. What on earth am I going to do without you, beloved Throners? Why yes, I probably will sit at home rocking back and forth singing “All by Myself”. But until then, there are a few things we need some resolution on next week:
Will Dany head to Westeros? Will Varys have teed up some friendly faces?
Where is Bran? Will he be reunited with Jon and Sansa at Winterfell? Will we see the end of the Tower of Joy flashback?
Will Davos take revenge on Melisandre for sacrificing Shireen?
Will Arya return, perhaps meeting Nymeria along the way?
Will Cersei face her trial, or will Jaime return in time to rescue her? Will the High Sparrow get his comeuppance?
Will the Hound axe a lot of dudes? Where will he and the Brotherhood end up?
Will Sam and Gilly make it to Old Town?
And perhaps most importantly….Brienne and Tormund. Will they or won’t they?
Thank you all SO much for bearing with me during this incredibly long recap.
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