A Time for Wolves
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and to a lesser degree, the subsequent television adaptation Game of Thrones at their hearts are about the cyclical nature of violence, the disease Septon Ray noted couldn’t be cured by spreading it to more people. It echoes what Tyrion told Hizdahr zo Loraq as they watch the Great Games of Meereen unfold in Daznak’s Pit. There is so much violence inherent to the world that he lives in, he feels that in a moment where there is no necessity of carnage, no blood ought to be shed. Then about five seconds later a man’s head is chopped off by a much brawnier opponent and his body collapses meekly into the sand. Violence in that moment, as Tyrion so aptly notes, is a display often of power and that power is displayed far more often by the few who sit upon the pedestals that allow for that power to be festered in the first place. Martin’s novels are more interested in the lives of those who become the objects of the powerful, that is of no dispute, but they also notably have a significantly larger expanse of storytelling real estate to do so. In the titular Battle of the Bastards, however, there are key shots that might unfortunately be glanced over in favor of the cathartic moment that sent the entire fandom into a rousing cry for joy and for once put a smile on the visage of Sansa Stark. They’re the shots from director Miguel Sapochnik (who truly outdid himself with his superb camerawork here; he should hopefully be looking forward to carrying an Emmy statuette) as things look undoubtedly dire for House Stark. They’re the shots focusing on the unnamed soldiers lying slaughtered on the ground, their thick, viscous blood oozing over each other, all enmity and creed forgotten as they awaited their deaths while two highborn lords and a highborn lady looked around the battlefield, awaiting their own fates in turn. One of them shouts for help audibly while thousands’s screams are lost in the frigid Northern winds, but his screams will never be heard. He will die amidst the stench of the newly dying and decaying. Another crawls over a pile of bodies, bits and pieces from his severed legs spilling onto the bodies he was crawling over, trying to breathe.
There is no room to breathe, however, and the infamous episode nine is leaving no room to breathe for those who await the confrontations seasons in the making. It is, as folks have somberly pointed out, the final episode nine of the series that made its penultimate installments ones to fear, beginning with the infamous Baelor. The Battle of the Bastards may not match the absolute despair of that hour, but it is a magnificently executed hour of television that stands out as being one of the most impressive installments of the series as a whole. Everything, from the script to the acting to the music to the cinematography and to the aforementioned direction fell neatly into pieces as seasons’s worth of storytelling for Daenerys and the North culminated in magnificent displays of fire and ice. Rapid moment after moment arrives, stopping just long enough to give its characters some well-earned respite before the trembling of the earth begins once more, but even those moments are brimming with unbridled, absolute tension. Sapochnik also knows that constant carnage can become tremendously exhausting and so he takes moments not to breathe, but plunge even more deeply into the chaos of the battle itself. The shots of Jon being stomped over before he broke free and gasped for heavenly breaths were stunning, a keen display of a camera whose handler understands how to bring out the chaos and claustrophobia of a battle onto screen in every sense of the words. There’s exhaustion, there’s terror, there’s fear permeating throughout the very air even when constant arrows and swords aren’t being shot and swung about because at any moment, it feels like they may come again. Even when Jon took a moment to breathe, there seemed an inevitable moment that because he is dressed like a Stark, an arrow might arrive and cut him right through the face. But as a Stark, such luck doesn’t follow Rickon, who unfortunately follows the season six tradition of bringing back long-lost characters, only to kill them off in their second or third appearances. It’s a teasing game, one that Sansa warned Jon so ardently about, and Jon falls for it.
The North was the focus, however, but before we wrap up the biggest battle in Game of Thrones history, we must take a detour to Meereen. The shots of Meereen under the bombardment of the slavers were astounding from the get go, the impressive night shots seeming like a well-executed teaser for the onslaught that is ravaging Meereen by daylight. Daenerys is fairly angry at the bombardment, turning towards Tyrion and demanding an explanation from the man whose supposed key training was in handling massive, ungainly beasts of cities. Tyrion notes that Meereen was on the upswing, an admittedly difficult argument to make when literal fire shells are being blasted throughout the city. But as Tyrion does, he notes that the rising prosperity of a slave-free Meereen was what made the Masters come and invade in the first place and he reminds her here, and pointedly at that, of what her father was. Daenerys’s plan is one fueled by an understandable anger, but it arrives with some frustrating short-sightedness on her part. She wants to destroy the slavers’s fleet, burn the Masters, and turn their cities into dust. But Tyrion, in what looks like apt foreshadowing here, to be perfectly honest, reminds her that her father’s idea of defeating his enemies involved stashing secret cases of wildfire beneath the Red Keep, all of the Guildhalls, the Sept of Baelor, and all the major thoroughfares of the city. He was going to turn the entire capital into dust, with innocents and enemies alike perishing in the fire, dust, and smoke alike. Daenerys mellows her temper upon that reflection, instead having the three emissaries arrive before her with terms of surrender. The arrogance of the Masters is short-lived, timed aptly by an appearance of Drogon, who puts a protective wing around Daenerys and simultaneously offers her a ride on his back. Daenerys and Drogon take off into the Meereeneese air, followed closely by Rhaegal and Viserion. A nimble “Dracarys” destroys a handful of the slaver ships and two of the Masters, the highborn ones who were so quick to throw the lowborn representative of Astapor under the bus have their throats slit by Grey Worm. Tyrion approaches a terrified Yezzan, noting that it fell upon his shoulders to keep future rebellions in line. The tale of what Daenerys and her dragons did there in Meereen would travel far and wide and it would be wise not to tempt the Dragon Queen’s temper once more.
The tempering of tempers is something Ramsay has never learned, never understood, never felt, never needed the excuse to fulfill. Only the desire for his father’s approval and the legitimacy of his father’s name could keep him in check. Varys once told the tale of a sellsword who is hired by three different men to kill the other two. The true power didn’t lie in the three men and what each of them was offering. The true power, as Varys so acutely understood, lay in the hands of the sellsword, who could kill all three and take everything they were offering. But for that, the sellsword has to be calculating, shrewd, and carry the ability to read a room. Ramsay may be calculating and shrewd, but that third ability is key and he simply doesn’t have it in this instance. Roose noted that the smartest strategy was to stay inside Winterfell and allow a siege to continue unabated until the enemy was worn out. Then you open the gates and destroy them. Ramsay doesn’t have that sort of patience and he ends up like the dog his father so acutely warned him about. Davos noted that he had something to prove to the Northern lords and perhaps he did, but there is little excusing the absolutely idiotic decision on his part to openly engage an enemy when he had no need to. There’s an arrogance in his assumed sense of victory and it’s an arrogance that arrives within the mind of someone who is on a pedestal of power and has lost all sense of (not that he had much of it to begin with, mind you) intelligence and understanding of how to keep himself upon that pedestal. And he dies for that. Yara has certainly understood the necessity of tempering one’s temper, of reading a circumstance that may not give her what she wants, but that may give her the most, the best of what she can garner. She has no home and a crusading uncle who would slaughter them both and all of the men that followed them home. She and Daenerys craft a wise deal that would give her ships and a supporter in Westeros for her claim to the Seven Kingdoms and Yara in turn would garner back the Iron Islands and her right to rule. The underlying current of everyone in that room having terrible fathers was a great thoroughfare, but it is beat by Daenerys and Yara understanding that they are powerful women in a patriarchal society and they will craft a better world than their terrible fathers had left in their wake.
Martin and Game of Thrones, regardless of whatever their ending is, will leave behind a legacy of the power of a narrative that doesn’t sink into complacency, that subverts expectations in ways one would and wouldn’t expect to tell a tale that is remarkably intact with human emotions. The most telling aspect of that was the seemingly wholesale slaughter of the Starks at the hands of their enemies. The Red Wedding, the event that truly catapulted this show into unbridled and unparalleled stardom, felt like the championing of a reality that Westeros and Essos aren’t really for the good, that they exist to tear people down and never build them up. For a certain segment of the story, that is true, no doubt. There are few expectations that the series will have anything but a bittersweet ending, as Martin himself has expressed repeatedly, but within that bittersweet, there is the sweet people often forget. It’s an understandable lapse, given the series’s rather cruel and bloody record, but it leads to a false equivalency of unbridled despair. An obvious note are the Knights of the Vale coming to the rescue, an expected narrative beat but one that arrives in my view not out of tired, sloppy simplicity in writing but an inevitable result of the groundwork that had been so carefully ingrained throughout this season and before. Sometimes, it’s okay to delve out the outcomes promised by foreshadowing. That’s a proof of trust within the story itself and an understanding that not everything has to be constantly full of shocks and surprises. The most grand one, however, may be the realities of how House Stark has risen from the ashes of all the houses that had lit it aflame to begin with. House Lannister is in disarray, House Bolton has been wiped from the map, and one would hope that House Frey meets the same fate. But even if the third doesn’t happen, the resilience of the direwolf to rise again on the walls of Winterfell as the flayed man falls is evidence that in spite of all the misery and carnage, Thrones, in both mediums, believes wholeheartedly in the worldview that Tyrion expressed to Hizdahr. Honor and loyalty may not win in the short-term and they will, without a doubt, results in incredible sacrifices, but they will win.
The final sequence of the hour is a perfect encapsulation of that thematic understanding, Sansa coming face to face with locked Ramsay in the kennels after Jon had pummeled his face into a bloody mess for Rickon. She looks upon a man who is sure that his dogs won’t turn on him because he is their master, the rapist who feels no remorse while he looks upon the visage of the woman he so cruelly tortured. Sansa looks upon the man who had taken so much from her, taking away his power second by second. She makes him feel the absolute death that awaits him, that his own choices left behind, how worthless he truly was before he’s wiped from the Earth. He tells her that in spite of everything, in spite of all that he had done to her, she could never hope to be free of him. He was a part of her, he would always be a part of her and that exertion of power, that display of unbridled, toxic masculinity is what rapists and abusers thrive off of. That power is something that allows them to believe that they are in control, it is what allows them in every sense to control at all. But Sansa is no longer a woman who can be controlled, who can be thrust under the thumb of the patriarchy and expected to remain there. She orchestrated the move with Littlefinger that allowed the Starks to win the day and without her, the North would be in seemingly permanent grips of the Boltons (at least until the White Walkers showed up). She knows that the power rested in her hands and Ramsay was trying to undermine that power in the same way every abuser does. But she has suffered far too much to allow him to undermine the strength she has accrued. She notes, quite calmly at that, that the abuse of starvation he had unleashed upon his dogs made the blood-coated Bolton quite the target. He had lost power by abusing it upon everyone until he had none at his own hand. He tries, in vain desperation, to save himself but he fails in every aspect. He drowns in the hunger of his hounds, who begin by biting into and ripping his face to shreds. He screams in absolute pain and terror as the blood and flesh of his face falls upon the very hands he used to abuse Sansa. Sansa watches her rapist be torn to shreds before she turns around and walks towards the courtyard of Winterfell, her home, with the quietest, brightest of smiles etching itself upon her triumphant visage. The flayed man has fallen and the time of wolves has come.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+I cannot emphasize enough how ASTOUNDING the direction from Miguel Sapochnik was tonight
+“The city’s on the rise?”
+The Sons of the Harpy destroyed by the riding Dothraki warriors
+“Our queen does love ships.”
+“Only one of us.”
+The notions of loyalty
+“You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.”
+“My dogs are desperate to meet you.”
+“I know what mounted knights can do to us.”
+“Did it ever once occur to you that I might have some insight?”
+“We’ll never get him back.”
+Sansa noting that if they lost, she would kill herself
+“No one can protect anyone.”
+Davos and Tormund’s conversations about their likenesses and not just their differences
+“Don’t lose.” The dynamic between Jon and Melisandre continues to absolutely fascinate me. She’s no longer the seemingly inhumane character she was but that display of humanity may not save her next week.
+“If I fall, don’t bring me back.”
+“What kind of god would do something like that?”
“The one we’ve got.”
+Davos discovering the stag from Shireen’s funeral pyre as the outlines of a fire lit the backdrop was heartbreaking and stunning in equal measure.
+Tyrion and Theon’s culminating relationship movement from season 1
+“I’m not fit to rule.”
+“I never demand, but I’m up for anything, really.”
+The six burning crosses
+The Bolton shields
+“Do you like games, little man?”
+The headless horseman
+The wall of shields
+Wun Wun getting a true warrior’s death
+“Your word will disappear. Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.”
Episode Title: Battle of the Bastards
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Image Courtesy: Collider