Following the precedent it has set every season, the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones for season six was centered around a battle. Unlike previous seasons, it was actually settled around two battles – one in Slaver’s Bay, and the other at Winterfell. The stakes are higher than ever, with fewer central characters still surviving and allegiances completely realigned. The showdown fans have been waiting for since Jon Snow’s resurrection – the “Battle of the Bastards” – is finally at hand.
Warning: Spoilers are coming.
This week’s episode started in Meereen, with Daenerys grilling Tyrion about the state of the city and the choices he made. When he explains to her that the Masters will never allow Meereen to survive because it will cause revolt in their cities once people see that they can survive without slaves, she agrees. He asks her what her plan is, and she goes into a very Targaryen rant about razing their cities to the ground. It’s a moment that reminds viewers of the madness that lies within her family line, the danger that can come with power. Tyrion reminds her as well, tells her of her father and his plan to burn King’s Landing to the ground when Lannister forces surrounded it. They argue and Tyrion wins, using his words to calm the Mother of Dragons as surely as he did her children earlier this season. The dynamic between Dany and Tyrion continues to be fascinating, and it’s clear that he respects her but also fears her, which is probably smart.
Dany and her small council then meet with the Masters to discuss terms of surrender. The Masters believe that they will win, given their massive fleet, but Dany and Tyrion inform them otherwise before Drogon swoops in and carries Dany off to make kindling of at least part of the Master’s fleet. Tyrion then explains the new terms of surrender to the Masters (whose soldiers have fled after Grey Worm tells them they can go home to their families) and informs them that one must die. They immediately push the Master of low birth forward, and as he begs for his life, Grey Worm slits the throat of the two other Masters. Tyrion tells him to go home and tell everyone what happened, to spread the word about the vengeance that Daenerys Stormborn will wreak upon those who have wronged her. As the dragons make flaming meals of Daenerys’ enemies at sea, the Sons of the Harpy are ambushed by the massive khalasar she has formed, removing her enemies from the land as well.
With the majority of the Master’s fleet now under her control, Dany’s eventual trek across the Narrow Sea seems to be even closer at hand. To expedite the process, Yara and Theon Greyjoy arrive at Meereen to pledge their fealty in return for help taking back the Iron Islands. Dany is unwilling to even consider until Theon explains that he wishes to take the throne for Yara, and we all know Dany is a fan of girl power. The siblings explain that if Dany waits for Euron, she will have to accept his marriage proposal as well. When Dany comments that there must be no marriage proposal in her agreement with the younger Greyjoys, Yara smiles and says she’s open for anything. It’s a brief moment of levity and one that makes this reviewer’s heart sing. In the end, Daenerys agrees to join forces with Yara and Theon if they agree to stop reaving and raping – something Yara only reluctantly concedes to.
Across the Narrow Sea, in a locale with no dragons and far colder than Essos, Ramsay Bolton and his men meet with the leaders of the Stark army the evening before the big event. Ramsay is his usual smarmy self, calling Jon “bastard” at every chance and making comments about his bride being returned. Sansa, for her part, is not having it and tells Ramsay that he will die tomorrow before riding off. Ramsay stays cocky, though he seems at least slightly shaken (though this could be a ruse, considering his penchant for them).
Both sides retire and Jon consults his war council, reassuring Tormund that Ramsay will not flank their army the way Stannis did the wildlings and trying to convince his comrades that there is hope for victory. Sansa channels her mother and confronts Jon, warning him that Ramsay will find a way to trap him. With angry tears welling in her eyes she informs Jon that there is no way to beat Ramsay if you’re playing his game, and that if their army should lose, she will not return to Winterfell alive. Jon promises to protect her and she tells him that no one can protect anyone, something she has learned the hard way.
Out in the camp, Tormund and Davos discuss the chances of surviving the next day and their poor choices in kings. Tormund goes off to get drunk on fermented goat’s milk while Davos walks the perimeter of the camp, only to discover the pyre where Shireen was burned. He finds the stag he had carved for her in exchange for teaching him how to read and is visibly distraught. Until now he had believed her dead at the hands of the Boltons, but now he must question his tenuous allegiance with Melisandre. The shot of Davos standing over the pyre as the sun begins to rise is one of the most poignant in the series’ history, his head low in silhouette as he mourns his princess once more.
Morning comes, as it always does, and the armies line up opposite one another. Ramsay leads the captive Rickon to the front of the line and cuts his bonds, telling him to run toward Jon. Once the poor boy starts running, the bastard Bolton shoots arrows at him, one after another. Jon races toward his baby brother on horseback but is ultimately too late, watching in horror as one of Ramsay’s arrows drives through Rickon’s chest. The youngest Stark falls and Jon is filled with rage, running full-bore toward the massive Bolton army. His horse is brought down by arrows and he gets back to his feet and unsheathes Longclaw only to have his own cavalry arrive in a momentous clash of horses, men, and steel.
Thus the battle for Winterfell begins, in complete chaos. Jon wheels about, Valyrian steel slicing through many a Bolton man, the camera following his every move. There’s a lot of shaky-cam and the battle choreography is a mix of Saving Private Ryan and 300, but for the most part, it works. Occasionally viewers may get lost in the pandemonium, unable to determine who fights for whom, but there are moments of such incredible violent catharsis that it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, Ramsay plays a card out of the ancient Greek handbook, having his soldiers deploy a circular phalanx around the true army of the North, closed off by the growing pile of bodies to their rear.
What follows seems like the finale to the battle as the Bolton army begins to move inward, crushing the trapped soldiers and wildlings. Jon falls and is nearly suffocated by the ever-shrinking mob. The dead still stand, their bodies held in place by the crushing force of the group, much like anyone who’s ever been trapped in the pit at a concert. Jon pulls himself above the madness just in time to see the episode’s deus ex machina in action as Littlefinger and Sansa appear on the horizon leading the Arryn army. The Arryn cavalry make quick work of the shield-bearers and allow Jon, Tormund, and Wun Wun to chase Ramsay back to Winterfell.
Wun Wun breaks through the doors and the true northern army surges in, killing the Boltons left and right. Ramsay tells Jon he wants to fight him man to man, as Jon suggested in their meeting the night before the battle, but then begins to try and shoot him with arrows. Using a Bolton shield to defend himself, Jon storms his foe and knocks him to the ground, using his fists to make pounded meat out of Ramsay’s face. He only stops when he looks up and sees Sansa watching, her gaze merciless. Whether he is saving Ramsay’s death for her as retribution or he is unable to beat a man to death in front of his baby sister is something only Jon Snow knows.
After Jon commands his men to bury Rickon in the crypt, Sansa asks where Ramsay is. The next shot is of Ramsay’s bloodied, beaten face, then to his damaged body as he sits tied to a chair in the kennels. The individual kennel doors are open, Ramsay’s hounds waiting in the shadows. He tells Sansa that his hounds are loyal beasts and she reminds him that they have not been fed for seven days, as was his command. The hounds rip Ramsay to pieces in one of the series’ more violent moments, the camera moving to focus on Sansa’s face as she watches his savage ending. She turns and walks away, and in the firelight you can see the faintest hint of her smile.
After such an emotional hour of television, it’s difficult to even begin to think of next week. Watching the Stark banners unfurl over the gates at Winterfell once more was perfect catharsis, payoff for six seasons of the Starks being wronged at every turn. The characters have grown, referenced with a wink and a nod as Daenerys and Yara discuss their fathers and the world they left behind. The characters who were children and teenagers when the show began are now adults, taking the reigns from their forebears and trying to make things right. Everything up until this point has been the history of their rise to power – now it’s time for the real battles to begin.
Jon Snow is no longer a pouty boy with a chip on his shoulder – he is the born again commander of the army of the North and the free men, a proven leader and perhaps the Prince who Was Promised. Sansa’s smile at Ramsay’s demise echoed her happy grin when she was freed from Joffrey‘s wrath in the throne room years before, though it may signal that Ramsay’s comment about being a part of her now has some truth if she finds pleasure in the pain of others. Daenerys has accumulated armies, ships, cities, and more titles than you can count, plus she has three dragons and a small council to rival many throughout the world’s history.
So what’s next? What lies in store for the season finale and beyond? There are more battles to be fought, though they may not be with swords and shields. Loras Tyrell must face his fate at the hands of the Faith Militant, the Lannisters and Freys have teamed up again, and Dany must prepare to make her way across the Narrow Sea. The finale is sure to be filled with twists and turns as well as setup for next season, much like the series’ previous finales. If Lady Stoneheart is going to turn up, it’s going to be at the very end of next week’s episode.
Now that the young characters have grown into rulers and warriors with their elders to council them, the future lays in their hands. Arya will be on her way back to Westeros and hopefully Winterfell, where she can join her siblings in their coming retribution against the Lannisters and the Freys. Dany and Yara’s allegiance will hopefully prove to be a strong one, and perhaps the two will become romantically involved and be a ruling Queen power-couple (Daenerys has a same-sex trysts in the books, so it’s not an impossibility).
The previous generation isn’t going to go quietly into that good night, however, and Tyrion’s tale about the Mad King’s plans for King’s Landing might prove prophetic. With Cersei so concerned about the wildfire beneath the city (as revealed by Qyburn last week), she may try to do the same thing and burn the Sept of Baelor (or the entire city) to the ground. Maybe Cersei is really Rhaenyra Targaryen reincarnate, willing to sacrifice everything for pride.
The only thing a girl knows for sure is that after next week, the months until season seven are going to feel as long as a Westerosi winter.