The quality of Game of Thrones in terms of narrative and production value has been so consistently high from the very beginnings of the series that it becomes easy to lose perspective on just how much the show has grown and continually raises the bar for the key elements of the show. The scale of Game of Thrones production is enormous and unprecedented, with a considerable amount of resources at the team’s disposal. What one does with those resources from a creative standpoint, though, is what really determines the quality of programming such as this, and Game of Thrones has reached a new pinnacle in several respects with “Battle of the Bastards.”
Of all the remarkable achievements of the battle sequence at the heart of “Battle of the Bastards,” what impressed me the most was the balance they were able to strike between the chess match aspects and logistical grandeur of the battle and the emotional resonance it held for the character we the viewer follow into it. The battle for Winterfell was as deft an exercise in perspective as I’ve in any media. I can’t recall any moments of the sequence where I felt a lack of perspective on the larger picture of the battle or the personal stakes of the characters, particularly Jon. It was a masterpiece of screenwriting, directing, and editing the likes of which are exceptionally rare.
The most persistent flaw in even some of the most well done and innovative onscreen battle sequences is the distance from the fray the viewer is so often made to feel. Especially in period pieces, so many battle sequences come across as well choreographed pageants of extras, stunt people, and/or computer generated combatants engaged in a physical struggle of no particular relevance to the emotional journey of a character.
From a technical standpoint, it is exceedingly challenging to achieve the first person intensity Steven Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and editor Michael Kahn were able to capture and exude so unforgettably in the Omaha Beach sequence in the first moments of Saving Private Ryan, or the almost journalistic thrill Alfonso Cuarón and DP Emmanuel Lubezki were able to conjure with the incomparable long tracking shots of Clive Owen weaving through a hail of automatic weapon fire amidst a hellscape of urban ruin and rubble in Children of Men. Achievements such as these are rare enough for cinema, much less on television, but what Weiss, Benioff, director Miguel Saphochnik and their entire team are able to accomplish in “Battle of the Bastards” has no rival in its medium.
While the last few years have given us some very significant leaps forward in brining cinematic techniques and production value to television, most notably with Cary Fukinaga’s masterful direction of True Detective season 1, the technical pinnacle of which being the flawless tracking shot in episode 4, as well as last season’s epic massacre at “Hardhome” on Game of Thrones (also directed by Miguel Sapochnik), “Battle of the Bastards” surpasses them both. On its own merits, the battle sequence in “Battle of the Bastards” is the single best medieval battle sequence I’ve seen. The achievement here is even greater when one considers the emotional and dramatic impact the battle and the episode as a whole delivers, as well as its importance to the series.
In the battle sequence in this episode one truly got the feeling of being on the ground with the combatants and what it must have felt like to be in that suffocating fray in a way quite reminiscent of the aforementioned Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan. But the viewer was also given the birds eye perspective when necessary. It was this balance in perspectives that made this sequence truly special.
The cinematic quality and technical brilliance of this episode really can’t be overstated and is almost overwhelming to consider, especially in the context of “television.” Frankly, I haven’t seen anything this ambitions in cinema lately, with the notable exceptions of The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, two of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in quite some time. Given that, I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out what are now my two favorite shots of the entire series, one being that absolutely exquisite wide shot of Davos standing at Shireen’s pyre at dawn, the other being the exhilarating, epic, and terrifying shot of the Bolton cavalry charging at Jon.
“Battle of the Bastards” continued to drive home this theme of rebirth that’s been running throughout the entire season to such an extent that I can safely assert that its the central unifying theme of season 6. The most potent instance of this was the moment where Jon was nearly trampled and suffocated by the scrum of his own forces retreating in panic from the circular phalanx they found themselves trapped in and finally fought his way up to the surface, gasping for air like a newborn taking his first breath. What happened next, of course, was the rebirth of the Stark era in Winterfell which, however triumphant, should prove to be quite dicey going forward.
It is significant that during the aforementioned siege of Winterfell, Jon picked up and used a Mormont shield to absorb Ramsay’s arrows and eventually knock him down. While the connection between House Mormont and Jon in the text of the series is rather obvious, the aspect of this that most interests me going forward is to what extent this relationship drives a wedge between Jon and Sansa, if at all, especially given that Sansa and Lyanna Mormont did not exactly hit it off when they met on Bear Island.
As for the developments across the Narrow Sea, the bit I found most interesting besides Yara flirting with Dany and making her blush in a way we’ve only seen Daario achieve up to this point was the notion that the arrangement she made with the Greyjoys is basically the first true political agreement she’s ever made. She didn’t seize Yara’s fleet or demand tribute as she might have in the past or in dealings with another entity; terms were negotiated and agreed upon resulting in both sides getting more or less what they needed from the other. When Yara extended her hand to seal the pact, Dany looked at Tyrion as if she didn’t even know how to respond to the gesture.
I don’t think its a coincidence that the Dany/Greyjoy storyline was the only non-Winterfell material in the episode, given that I would predict that these two arcs are going to intersect at some point in the future. The arrangement made between Dany and Yara becomes interesting in light of the Stark recapturing of Winterfell, specifically as it concerns the nature of that takeover and the two Starks at the head of it. Sansa and Jon are both reluctant leaders with contestable claims who seem unwilling to either press or concede their respective claims with each other. It’s as if neither one of them wants to be the one to bring up the elephant in the room.
I bring this up to highlight the point that the Starks are going to need some friends to hold the North and there’s an alliance to be made with Dany and the Iron born, one that I think Sansa would be much more willing to enter into than Jon for several reasons. For one, having spent enough time around Littlefinger, Sansa is a far more political animal than Jon is, unpolished though she is. Tyrion is the key figure here since he and Jon got along well back in season 1 and Tyrion did as right by Sansa as he possibly could have during their marriage. The tricky part is going to be Theon, because I don’t see Jon forgiving him for his betrayal during the war, however crucial he was in Sansa’s liberation. The way Weiss and Benioff have shuffled the pieces on the board in this episode is fascinating, and that they did it through the vehicle of the masterful battle sequence in what is arguably the strongest episode of the entire series so far is a testament to their brilliance as screenwriters and showrunners.