“Let’s get ready to rumble!” The pros and CONS of GoT’s “biggest” episode (Spoilers abound, my fellow free folk.)

SO…

YOU GUYS KNOW THE DRILL BY THIS POINT RIGHT?

….

….

SERIOUSLY?

LIKE…FOR REAL?

…..

JEEZ…

OKAY FINE.

SPOILER WARNING.

….

LIKE…IT’S IN THE TITLE….

KEEP GOING DOWN AT YOUR OWN RISK…

THERE ARE ONLY SO MANY WARNINGS…

HOPEFULLY THIS IS THE LAST ONE OF THESE I DO FOR THE SEASON.

I REALLY WANT TO WRITE SOMETHING ABOUT THE HOUND…

BUT I THINK I’LL WAIT..

AS OF NOW HE’S MY FAVORITE CHARACTER…

I WANT TO SEE HOW HIS ARC PLAYS OUT A LITTLE MORE FIRST…

THAT BEING SAID…

I’M SURE SO BIG STUFF IS GOING TO GO DOWN IN THE FINALE…

IT HAS TO, RIGHT?

IT’S LIKE 70 MINUTES…

I.E. THEY HAVE A LOT OF SHIT TO FIT IN…

IF I CAN THINK OF SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT I WILL…

JUST A LOT OF STUFF GOING ON AND…

WAIT…

THIS ISN’T MY DIARY…

ER…

I MEAN I DON’T HAVE A DIARY…

YOU DO…

SHUT UP.

OKAY, CAN I GET TO THE EPISODE YET?

PLEASE?

….

….

OKAY.

LET’S DO THIS.

We’re six seasons into Game of Thrones…we’ve seen a major battle or two…three to exact. Each has shown significant growth, both in terms of story-telling and the ever-growing budget the show is continually granted season after season.

Battle of the Blackwater

The show’s first stroke at achieving movie-level status in terms of both scope and story-telling. Sure, it wasn’t as MASSIVE as it was in the book, but the show was still working on the above-average success of the first season. The brilliance in the battle, as it were, is that is not simply a fight between heroes and villains. We may root for Tyrion, or empathize with Davos but it’s the corrupt, amoral Lannisters against the religious fanaticism of Stannis Baratheon and his legion of followers, with the opportunistic Tyrells riding in to save the day.

The Siege on the Wall

Also directed by Neil Marshall, “The Watchers on the Wall” picks up on the same strengths of its predecessor. It dedicates an entire episode to the conflict, allowing for a narrower focus on an incredibly epic battle. Put simply, we are granted a grand scope through an intimate prism. Unlike “Blackwater” however, viewer loyalties could be split. When the Wildlings stormed the Wall, the Night’s Watch were what we could basically consider heroes (although assholes like Ser Alister and Janos Slynt were among their ranks), but the Wildling forces included characters we knew and even cared about to some degree or another, and a leader whose goals were noble if in opposition to the goals of the heroic character; Mance was not a villain, even if he was indeed a flawed man who threatened the security of Westeros.

The Massacre at Hardhome

I’ve written in-length about the majesty of “Hardhome” before, so I won’t bore you with it once again here. Unlike the last two battles, Hardhome was a defiantly good versus evil. The White Walkers and the wights are 100% villainous, and that sequence was really an introduction of the Night’s King as the “big bad” of the series as a whole. The battle itself was built around the fact that it was our own dead that we would be fighting en mass. It was a story of fear and survival, and therefore resonated in the larger narrative accordingly.

Which brings us to last night’s episode, and my problems (and praises) of it.

“Battle of the Bastards” more than less serves as a pin on the cinematic gap that “Hardhome” effectively closed last season. 

However…

It was…

A tad…

Underwhelming, at least from a story-telling standpoint from a show that I’ve come to expect better from…at least in most instances….

There are some of the most awe inspiring imagery on display in “Battle of the Bastards.” In fact, in terms of sheer spectacle, I don’t think I’ve seen anything of its scale on not only this show, but television as a medium before. Director Miguel Sapochnik does his damnedest to put us in the battle, allowing for some of the most visceral imagery the show has shown onscreen thus far, with nice little touches such as a headless horseman that will demand repeated viewings once the episode hits Blu-Ray next year.

Jon’s stand against the Bolton’s incoming cavalry ranks high among one of the single shots the show has produced. I was always made incredibly uncomfortable by the suffocation scene as someone who hates crowds and carries a massive fear of being crushed to death. It’s made all the more impressive that the sequence was the director’s idea and not originally scripted.

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Tormund going full Mike Tyson on Lord Umber just felt….good. Like…don’t mess with The Beard, for real. Much like Krieger on Archer, the guy doesn’t have an arc, per se, but he is almost always a high point of any scene they throw him in. He is the perfect example of a peripheral character that is awarded just the right amount of screen-time.

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Anything with Wun-Wun was absolutely sublime. Then again, anything this show has done with its giants (Hodor included) has been utterly poetic. I maintain that I am completely unsure if this show will EVER do something that makes me as happy as was when that giant shot that fucking arrow.

That epic tracking shot that follows Jon fighting his way through the chaos is one of the finest examples of medieval warfare I think I’ve ever seen. How utterly random survival was has never been portrayed so fluently before, as Jon just sort of gets lucky through the whole affair. Although one could argue that the sacrifice of Shireen last season may have left enough residue magic to ensure that the true “Prince That Was Promised” (i.e. Jon) survived. Remember, kids: when you’ve backed yourself into a writing corner and need a plausible solution, a witch or wizard did it.

It’s important to note that I’m really only going to be speaking exclusively of the Battle for Winterfell here. The opening siege and subsequent liberation of Meeren was grandiose and badass without a doubt, but it was too clean. Once dragons are dropped on the table, there isn’t much in the way of tension, that is until they meet ice zombies that is. Then all cards are off the table. I’d also argue that battle also did something the fight in the North did not, and that’s build to something. The board has once again changed with players joining forces and marching towards the future…i.e. the next season.

And that’s something all of the best major battles have in common on Game of Thrones. All those previous battles I listed before felt transformative in one way or another. It’s not about just the “FUCK YEAH” and “OH NO!” but about the outcome. They also didn’t feel work-shopped, an issue I will address shortly.

The Battle for Winterfell almost felt too…manufactured. It needed to happen because this season needed a big battle. As if it existed only to ensure Ramsey got his comeuppance, and conclude his villainous arc least we forget that the TRUE threat is turning its attention towards the south. I’d be a bold faced liar if I said I KNEW what was going to happen, but having now seen the episode…it feels…I don’t know…obvious? Before you pick up your tomatoes, I 100% could not have written this better.

Why in the living fuck didn’t Sansa tell Jon about requesting help from Littlefinger and the entire host of the Vale?! It’s a plot point that was introduced fairly early on this season and I still cannot wrap my head around.

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We saw her right a letter to him an episode or so back, and the utter stupidity of keeping it in the dark only raises a plethora of questions, including:

Why is he late?

Why is she with him?

Why wouldn’t she just tell Jon to wait?

Is she literally only holding this CRUCIAL information back as to allow for a heroic last minute save?

Instead of drown in anger, I’ll wait until the season finale for some explanations. If they provide some solid reasoning beyond, “I’m not sure I could trust you, Jon,” I’ll come back with an editor’s note or something and own up to my rush to judgement. However, it (and the functionality of the battle itself) play into the larger problem I have with the episode…which brings me to Rickon.

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Let’s face it: Rickon Stark was never a character, in the show or the books; unlike Osha, he was a plot device from the second he showed up again this season. Where her murder by Ramsay was infuriating, Rickon’s is an inevitability. In a moment so meta that it kind of makes me wince, Sansa writes him off to Jon. Much like Hodor, he was never a part of the larger narrative. Hell, I don’t think had 1 line since returning. His death was arbitrary and frustratingly necessary to the functionality to the episode. The writers needed a reason to lure Jon (and his army) from his side of the field as to lead to the battle’s lowpoint which in turn allows for Sansa and Littlefinger to ride in and save the day. It speaks volumes to the emptiness of the battle itself.  As the AV Club writes, “The storyline doesn’t work without Rickon, and yet Rickon’s presence adds nothing, creating a justification for a battle to mark the climax to Ramsay’s villain arc and yet doing nothing to make that battle more compelling.”

Ramsay’s evil doesn’t achieve greater heights by killing Rickon: I’ve been desensitized to and quasi-annoyed by Ramsay’s acts of torture and murder for more than a season by this point, and this just felt like more of the same. Let me clarify that I’m not taking shots at Iwan Rheon or his portrayal of the Bolton bastard. The show’s done a pretty solid job of setting him up to be a character we NEED to see punished and unlike Jeoffery before him, there isn’t that stinger of, “He’s just a shitty kid put in a position he has no place being in.” Seeing Jon beat the living fuck out of him followed by Sansa feeding him to his own dogs was deeply satisfying…but that satisfaction had really nothing to do with the battle that proceeded it. It’s something that could have come at any point in this season, and I’d still be cheering.

And I think that’s where this episode really let me down.

Rickon’s death shouldn’t feel manufactured.

Littlefinger saving the day shouldn’t feel like an inevitability.

I cared on a basic life-or-death level about the episode. I was rooting for Jon, Tormund, Wun-Wun, Sansa and the gang to win the day. But whereas all the past major battles on the show ended with a sense that the hour before had completely changed the lives of its surviving participants, this one ended with Ramsey out of the way and everyone basically at the same place they started. Those episodes also didn’t (at least noticeably) have to manipulate me in the same way this one did.

So, I don’t agree that this was “one of the finest hours in television history” like a lot of others are echoing. There are a number of episodes of this very show I’d argue achieved that status better than this one. But it was a solid episode. I’d even say it was a great one, and deserves just about every technical award it will inevitably be up for.

I argue that the ultimate test for ‘Battle Of The Bastards’ is if this were a chapter in one of Martin’s books instead of a incredibly well-directed episode of television, would it still work? The spectacle of it all has value and I appreciate an adrenaline rush, but if we were to imagine a written version of this battle would there be any depth to Jon’s inner monologue? Would Sansa’s motivations make any sense? The battles in the books all come from a singular perspective. We may get more than once characters thoughts on it, but we typically only experience it from one or two sides. The siege on the Wall comes entirely from Jon in the books. I’m going to give it time but I’m not 100% percent convinced that this episode does enough for the actual narrative of the show as a whole to make this as meaningful as the battles that came before it, but what the fuck do I know? I write blogs about movies and TV for free!

See you at Season 7, jerks!

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