Past years have taught us to expect that the penultimate episode of every season of “Game of Thrones” will be a barn-burner, but even the epic conflicts of Blackwater and Hardhome seemed like child’s play compared to the scope of not one, but two major clashes in “Battle of the Bastards,” which made it easy to forget that anything was going on elsewhere. One sortie saw the long-awaited and much-publicized fight between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton for control of Winterfell, which gave the episode its name, while the other followed the sweeping carnage of Daenerys’ defense of Meereen against the Wise Masters, in which we finally got to witness exactly how powerful her dragons can be when they’re let off their leashes. (To learn exactly what went into making both fights, check out Variety’s Artisans deep-dive into the visual effects of “Battle of the Bastards” below.)
While Daenerys dispatched her enemies with typical Targaryen aplomb (aka napalm), things were a little more complicated in the North, where Ramsay had the advantage of men, horses, Winterfell and poor Rickon as a hostage. Despite Sansa’s warnings that Ramsay wouldn’t play by the rules of any game Jon might be familiar with, our noble bastard has the same shortcomings as Ned Stark; he fights with honor against opponents who are all too willing to use that predictable morality against him. While it was virtuous of him to attempt to flip the script and fight one-on-one with Ramsay to avoid thousands of soldiers dying on their behalf, people like the Boltons don’t get into positions of power by thinking about their fellow man.
As this season has reinforced again and again, whether at the Tower of Joy (where Ned was forced to acknowledge the pointlessness of an honest fight), or in The Hound’s brief flirtation with pacifism, you can’t make an omelet — or survive in Westeros — without breaking a few eggs/occasionally hitting someone in the nuts with an ax. But power and cruelty has its limits, and in order to change the world, people need to be willing to change the narrative.
We know that war is good for absolutely nothin’, and yet it’s a habit that Westeros keeps falling back into — mostly because of the men in positions of power, too busy worrying about their houses and their names and their legacies to recognize that by ignoring the lessons of history, they’re doomed to repeat it. That’s why Sansa’s parting words to Ramsay were so potent: “Your words will disappear; your house will disappear; your name will disappear; all memory of you will disappear.” Ramsay was a bastard who craved legitimacy, so the most terrifying fate in the world is not a grisly death — but the knowledge that you’re disposable. Despite everything that he did to Sansa, her greatest victory won’t be killing him, it will be moving on to a better life, instead of letting his memory have power over her. Everyone wants to make their mark, but not everyone feels the need to burn the world down to do it.
Jon’s battle against Ramsay followed all the predictable beats — from Rickon’s tragic but well-telegraphed death to Jon’s underdog army being surrounded by their better-prepared foes, on the verge of a bloody defeat before a last-minute reprieve — which served to emphasize just how futile the whole exercise is. Thousands of warriors and horses die, all for the reputations of two houses that most of them don’t belong to and don’t give two hoots about. Men in Westeros play at war like it really is a game — the lives of their soldiers seeming trivial in comparison to their own lofty ambitions. (For a succinct example of this, see Jaime’s recent monologue to poor Edmure Tully, which spelled out exactly how little he cares about everyone in the world except Cersei.)
After seasons of criticism over the show’s misogyny (sometimes earned, sometimes not), it’s thrilling to see an episode like “Battle of the Bastards,” where women like Dany, Sansa and Yara — and emasculated men (either figuratively or literally) like Tyrion and Theon — break the gears of war and the familiar patterns of violence by attempting to “leave the world better than we found it,” despite the examples set by the “evil men” who came before them.
While “Game of Thrones” will likely never completely do away with its casual use of female bodies as set decoration (though it’s certainly made improvements this season), there’s no denying that George R. R. Martin’s story — designed to dismantle many of the tropes of the fantasy genre that came before his novels — and David Benioff and Dan Weiss’ adaptation, sees its women (not to mention its cripples, bastards and broken things) as the heroes of the story. Those who have spent their lives being oppressed by the game finally seem to be in position where they might have a chance of winning it, and whether the show has a predominance of exposed breasts in the background or not, that’s a story worth telling.
On that note, it was unexpectedly moving to see Daenerys forge an alliance with Yara. These are both women who have escaped the patriarchal systems designed to oppress them after a lifetime of being told that they’re worthless outside of their ability to breed heirs for their husbands, and whose families have disrespected them for no other reason than what’s between their legs.
Yara is perhaps the most competent military leader on the Iron Islands, and yet her people scoffed at the notion of her leading them, just as the Dothraki and the “Wise” Masters mocked Dany for daring to defy their ideas of what a woman was worth. (Dany could do a lot worse than entertaining Yara’s flirtation, right?) And although Sansa had to ask Littlefinger for help despite his earlier betrayal, she at least had the sense to put practicality above her pride for the sake of the greater good. She’ll never forgive him for what he set into motion when he arranged her marriage to Ramsay, but at least she can finally use him to her advantage, the way she has too often been used by the men around her. She’s now the player instead of the pawn, like Dany.
The smile of satisfaction on Sansa’s face as she walked away from Ramsay as he was devoured by his dogs probably should’ve been chilling, but I couldn’t help but let out an internal cheer at how far she’s come — she’s no longer a victim of circumstance, and her leadership saved the lives of Jon and countless other Stark supporters, even if it couldn’t save Rickon, who ended up dead on the field just inches away from safety, another disposable chess piece in the game — too innocent to survive.
After everything Sansa has endured at the hands of men — both well-meaning, like Tyrion, and sadistic, like Joffrey and Ramsay — it’s no wonder that she snorted at Jon’s promise that he’d protect her. At this point, both of them know how unrealistic that reassurance is; they have to rely on their own strength to survive, using any tools at their disposal, not just the ones that suit their conscience. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help each other — Sansa’s presence prevented Jon from surrendering his own humanity in his quest for vengeance against Ramsay, and in return, he was able to give her the opportunity to find some semblance of closure by taking back her agency and determining Ramsay’s fate.
As we look ahead to next week’s finale, Daenerys now has the ships and the numbers to lead her back to Westeros, where the Iron Throne awaits — but right now, King’s Landing is in the grip of a different kind of threat than the Sons of the Harpy or the cruelty of the Wise Masters (and arguably a more insidious one, given that it’s hard to argue with “the gods”), and as Tyrion pointed out to her this week, she can’t simply burn her allies and enemies alike, the way her father planned to take back control of the city. And Jon and Sansa now have Winterfell — but even if the disloyal forces who followed the Boltons decide to pledge their allegiance to the Starks again, there’s still the matter of the Freys and the Lannisters, who started this whole mess. The game is rapidly losing players, but at last, the end is in sight.
“Game of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.