Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 9: “Battle of the Bastards”
“My reign has just begun.”
Once upon the time, the world thought very little of Daenerys Targaryen, Sansa Stark, and Yara Greyjoy, each the daughter of a great house, each overshadowed by brothers elevated by their own failed upstart revolutions, each unseated by rebellion, each quietly waiting in the wings for their moment to come.
The titular bastards of season six’s penultimate episode “Battle of the Bastards” — Jon and Ramsay — waged their bloody fight on the field outside Winterfell’s gates. It was a spectacular and consequential fight, to be sure. But if you want to look at who’s really imprinting their will on the world, look no further than the women. Men bled on the battlefield by the thousand, but it was in the kennels of Winterfell, back rooms of Castle Black, and regal chambers of Meereen where business was getting settled. Whether it was Sansa writing her secret messages to the knights of the Vale or Daenerys confidently dispatching the masters and sealing a new pact with the Greyjoys, the backstage machinations of the daughters propelled the show forward.
Throughout Game of Thrones, we’ve watched the “cripples, bastards, and broken things” of Westeros evolve and strive, outwit and outlast their enemies while the chosen sons and scions of great houses have each gotten their heads lopped off and worse in one fruitless military campaign or foolhardy expedition after another.
“All dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes,” Tyrion once memorably told Jon Snow in Season 1: a reminder to Jon, and to viewers, that the underestimated will always hold a dormant power over the people who thought so little of them. To “cripples, bastards, and broken things,” Tyrion might have also have added “daughters,” who prove to be so much more than their enemies expect.
It’s a theme that resounds throughout the episode, even in the brief close up of the ferocious ten-year-old Lyanna Mormont, who is running Bear Island like a boss while her elder cousin Ser Jorah rots away under a stratum of grayscale in exile and disgrace on a faraway continent.
It’s evinced in the scene where Daenerys makes the Masters understand just whose surrender it is they’re negotiating. And it, of course, is laid bare when Sansa lets Ramsay’s dog chew his face off in one of the most blatant, and yet satisfying, examples of fan service in a series that seems sometimes determined to let us languish in frustrated expectations.
The Battle of Winterfell was, as we’d hoped, a nasty and effective bit of bloody stagecraft. It kicked off with the death of Rickon Stark, which felt both gratuitous in its cruelty and inevitable in its result. Like the death of Balon Greyjoy that ignited the Iron Islands’ intrigue this season, watching the murder of a nominally consequential character doesn’t do much for the audience who hasn’t seen that character in years — especially if nobody onscreen seems to really have time to register the death. Did Rickon even utter a single syllable of dialogue this season?
Moving on. The battle was as brutal and blood-soaked as anything we’ve seen in the show so far. Where previous war-focussed episodes (“Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”) did a remarkable job capturing the scale and scope of the combat, soldiers dying by the dozens in long-shot, “Battle of the Bastards” was more calibrated to the ground-level: rubbing our noses in the muck and grime and guts of medieval-style warfare. “Blackwater” was speckled with intermittent shots of disembowelments and impalings, but nothing in it compares to visceral hell-scape of watching piles of corpses literally remaking the landscape; or Jon Snow being buried alive under a mountain of boots, entrails, and blood; or the ruthless killing efficiency of the Boltons’ shield wall closing in around the Wildlings.
“I understand it’s difficult adjusting to the new reality,” Tyrion says, in what might be a fitting epigraph for this entire season: a long catalogue of reversals, resurgences, and upheavals that has rewritten the power terrain of the show, and pivoted us from the postmortem intermission that followed the War of the Five Kings to the series’ endgame, which is closing in.
And as long as we’re on the topic of daughters blowing stuff up and changing the game, here’s another potential bit of foreshadowing this week: Tyrion mentioning, apropos of basically nothing, that the Mad King had kegs of wildfire ready to go under the Sept of Baelor. Cercei (unseen this week) has her back up against a wall, and, it would seem, very little to lose.
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