Game of Thrones might be edge-of-your-seat stuff, but it also knows the value of order and structure, too. The political scheming taking place in vast castles and the endless trotting across the countryside are part of what makes the show what it is. But the show has also devoted an episode per season (or thereabouts) to a big battle – an all-or-nothing sort of spectacle that the whole season can build towards.
In season two, it was Stannis’ impending attack on Kings Landing. In season four, it was the Night’s Watch defending the Wall against the Wildlings. And last year we had the inescapably grim Hardhome – where Jon Snow witnessed first-hand the destruction and death surrounding the White Walkers.
This year, Game of Thrones’ much-anticipated big battle was the fight for the North, or, as it’s referred to by the show, The Battle of the Bastards, as Jon and Ramsay Bolton clashed over who would rule over Winterfell. And, though it could have been a bit of a mess (Ramsay has been bordering on cartoon-villainy in Season Six), it ended up being one of GOT’s most exciting, powerful and gruesome battles, instead. Here’s what went down.
Daenerys took control over Meereen – again
That’s right. Before we headed North we got to check in on Dany, who last week arrived back on her balcony with the kind of acrobatics that would impress Spider-man.
With Tyrion, Missandei and Grey Worm at her side she meets with the slave masters outside her pyramid. They call her campaign a failure, order her to surrender, give back the slaves and back off. But Dany simply commands her (now gargantuan) dragon Drogon to her side, mounts him, and sorts the invading ships out herself, Targaryen style.
What follows is a sweeping naval battle, as the dragons (plural – Rhaegal and Viserion get released after Tyrion unchained them earlier this season) swoop low across the bay, torching the masters, burning their ships and blowing a lot of things up.
On the ground, the Sons of the Harpy are wiped out by Dany’s humongous khalasaar, who slice them up with their huge curved blades. And after Grey Worm performs some pretty nifty dagger work, only one of the masters is left to live.
And she is finally going to Westeros
After sitting back in her Queen seat, Dany is greeted in her throne room by none other than Yara and Theon Greyjoy, whose harrowing journey across the ocean actually went off with zero complications. They pledge their allegiance to her cause, and offer to bring her home to Westeros with their 100 extra ships if she lets the Ironborn rule their islands in peace. Dany introduces a strict ‘no raping, pillaging and general pirate stuff’ rule, which Yara ends up reluctantly agreeing to, and they shake on it.
Game of Thrones’ loves impressive spectacles and horrific plot twists, but it’s still a thrill to see its cast mixing and interacting with each other. Having Tyrion and Theon together after they met (and clashed) in the show’s pilot is smart, while having him pledge to Dany and backing his sister’s plans to be Queen is a reminder just how progressive Westeros’ new political elite are becoming.
Even better is Yara’s mild flirting with Dany. When Dany questions Euron Greyjoy’s plan to marry her, she asks if Yara, the self-proclaimed Queen of the islands, will demand her hand in marriage, too. “I never demand,” Yara says, shrugging, “But I’m up for anything, really.” Dany, while not necessarily interested, is fascinated at Yara’s assertiveness. What a team.
Ramsay strikes Jon’s Achilles heel
Jon and Sansa’s interactions have been really solid this season; similar to Robb and Cat’s parlays about tactics, strategy and politics. Sansa, who seemingly wrote to Littlefinger for help two weeks ago, reminds her half-brother that they don’t stand a chance, but Jon, desperate to save Rickon, knows they can’t stand by and wait.
With a surprising amount of pragmatism, Sansa says she believes Rickon won’t make it out the battle alive, and that they’re foolish to think otherwise. It’s a pretty grim thought, but it turns out to be right; when the battle lines are drawn, Ramsay sends Rickon racing across the field back to his family, before firing several arrows and striking him down dead.
It’s an emotionally-charged blow to Jon’s battle plan, which was to let the larger Bolton force attack first. Spurned by Rickon’s collapse, Jon leaps off his horse and races into battle, before the Bolton army descends on him. Davos and Tormund command their troops forward to protect him, drawing Jon’s team into the fight way too early.
Rickon’s death was inevitable given season six’s fondness for offing anyone who isn’t crucial to the storyline, but that doesn’t mean it was particularly effective. He hasn’t said a line since he came back; we saw none of his experience in Ramsay’s clutches, and we didn’t learn anything about his time with the Umbers. RIP Rickon. We hardly knew you. Literally.
Sansa’s networking pays off
Jon is an incredible fighter, and his outreach programme with the Wildlings proved that he has a good heart and a noble approach. But unlike Robb, he isn’t a seasoned battle commander. He’s been able to fight Wildling armies – savage groups with little to no discipline – but he soon becomes completely submerged by the Bolton forces and their more professional, fine-tuned tactics.
After a slew of his men are dead, so dead they’re literally piled up, Jon’s army is surrounded on three sides by Bolton forces and their large spears-and-shield technique (curiously, it’s a similar style used by the Unsullied). The Boltons march slowly but with every step they pin the Starks down inch by inch.
Luckily, the banner of a falcon can be seen and Littlefinger leads his huge army in to sweep behind the Boltons and strike them down from their incredibly unguarded position.
It’s right out the cliché book, but that’s not the point – The Vale never fought in the War of the Five Kings, giving them the largest, fittest and strongest army in Westeros. Coupled with the numerous hints both last and this year that Littlefinger would intervene, it makes a lot of sense.
The question is, though; what will Jon say when he finds out Sansa went behind his back, letting him lose thousands of men in the process? And did Littlefinger anticipate Sansa’s plea all along?
The Starks retake Winterfell
Ramsay flees to his castle, but Wun Wun the giant smashes the gate, with Jon and Sansa hot on his heels. Despite trying to fend Jon off with arrows (leading to a beautifully-shot close-up sequence where Jon deflects Ramsay’s weaker and weaker blows with his shield) Ramsay is finally defeated, and Jon wastes no time pounding his enemy’s face until it practically collapses in on itself.
Yes, the sight of a bloody, destroyed and defeated Ramsay is incredibly compelling after all these years. But Jon gives Sansa the power to end his life. She has him chained in his own kennels, where Sansa was briefly locked in last year and where Ramsay fed his stepmother Walda and her baby to his dogs.
Earlier, Ramsay mentions his dogs have been starved for seven days, so Sansa tests their loyalty to their master by letting them into his cage. Sure enough, after licking the crusted blood from his face, they tear into Ramsay’s flesh and rip him to pieces.
It’s a harrowing moment in the show, and after playing it so low-key this season it’s horrible hearing Iwan Rheon scream at the top of his voice. But more chilling is Sansa’s flicker of a smile as she walks away from him, having boasted of extinguishing his family line and ensuring his legacy is ground to dust.
Game of Thrones loves to play with the notion of identity, and Sansa in particular has learned valuable lessons about ruling and handling power from the people around her – her Stark family, the Lannisters, even the Tyrells. But she’s having to realise that there might be a cruel Bolton streak in her after all, even if she had to adopt it to survive.
Watching the Stark banners fly from Winterfell again is a striking image – but waving a flag and keeping your people happy are two separate things, as Dany has already learned in Meereen.