Game of Thrones' Battle of the Bastards a cut above TV battle scenes

Starks fight the Boltons in a battle for their ancestral home in the second-to-last episode of Season 6 of HBO's Game of Thrones. But alliances are shakier than they appear.

A big-screen-worthy bloodbath takes centre stage in the penultimate episode of season 6

Sansa Stark and Jon Snow, played by actors Sophie Turner and Kit Harington, wage the battle for their home in episode 9 of season 6 of HBO's Game of Thrones (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

NOTE: The following story contains major spoilers about Episode 9, Season 6 of HBO's Game of Thrones

"What kind of God would do that?"

Jon Snow asks that of Melisandre before his big battle, after she says the God of Light's plans may or may not be for him to now die.

"The one we've got," says the Red Woman, her faith wilting faster than her body when she takes off that necklace.

Such is the cynical world in which the heavily touted 'Battle of the Bastards' takes place, a confrontation that basically pits the closest thing Game of Thrones has to a hero, Jon Snow, against the embodiment of unadulterated evil, Ramsay Bolton.

The episode ended as we all thought it would: with the Starks taking back their home. So why is it that when the wolf banner finally flies over Winterfell again, the poor, tormented Starks finally triumphant, we don't feel more satisfaction? Because this battle was won not just on the blood of the countless wildlings, but on shaky alliances and morally compromising decisions that make "the wars still to come" even more intriguing.

For this, and the production marvel that was 'The Battle of the Bastards,' this episode deserves all the kudos it will get, despite the show-runners' continuous pursuing of the perilous course of serving the fans exactly what they want (Ramsay Bolton's death makes Joffrey's poisoning look like a mercy killing).

Brawn, brains and bloodbath

Mr. Miguel Sapochnik, you make good battle scenes. The director who brought us last season's devastating 'Hardhome' episode also helmed 'Battle of the Bastards': it apparently took 25 days to film and involved 600 extras and just as many crew members. So how did it look? More like something out of a big-screen epic like Gladiator or Braveheart than a TV show battle. 

Starks and their allies face off against the Bolton armies in "Battle of the Bastards," the epic penultimate episode of Season 6 of HBO's Game of Thrones. (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

Yep. And that was at the beginning of the battle. Of course, Jon Snow being the earnest warrior we know and love, he gives Ramsay an opportunity to fight him one-on-one. Of course, being sneaky and too enamoured of carnage, Ramsay refuses. After an uncomfortable conversation with Sansa the night before the battle, where she reminds him that she knows Ramsay and he doesn't, where she implores him not to fall into Ramsay's trap, Jon does just that.

Just as Sansa suspected, Ramsay uses Rickon to provoke Jon to discard his carefully strategized "pincer movement" plan and just attack the superior Bolton forces head-on. Letting Rickon run the field towards his brother, Ramsay shoots arrows into the air, only to get one right through Rickon's heart just as he reaches Jon.

RIP Rickon. We never knew you, really, but you seemed like a sweet kid. The only solace to take here is that a death by an arrow is the kindest death Ramsay Bolton ever gave anyone.

Many Canadian Game of Thrones pirates argue it's not easy to legally access the show without a pricey cable subscription. (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

Oh, how bravely Jon and his allies fight. The wildlings would make Mance Rayder proud, with Tormund chewing off half the face of Lord Umber when he's deprived of weapons. But the most fascinating aspect of the battle scene was a P.O.V. shot taken from Jon's perspective as he's crushed under a pile of bodies, human and equine, dead and alive, as the Bolton shields are closing in on his tiny army.

Bolton army's frightening "Flayed Man" shields encircle jon Snow and his allies in Game of Thrones' "Battle of the Bastards" episode. (HBO Canada/ Bell Media)

Miguel Sapochnik masterfully uses sound and silence (remember the deadly hush in 'Hardhome' as Jon has his stare-down with the Night's King?), and here, we hear what Jon hears: screams and bellows followed by muffled sounds and Jon's own gasps for air. The true mastery of this scene is that battle sequences can often seem a bit abstract and overwhelming in their violence, but here, the horror of the battlefield feels fully personal and immersive, even if it is a little unlikely (and typical of this season) that Jon survives it all. 

Sansa Stoneheart

In the end, Jon & Co are triumphant because Sansa shows up with the trump card we suspected all along: Littlefinger and his Knights of the Vale, who close in on the Bolton forces, overwhelming them.

Wun-Wun the giant beats down the gates of Winterfell, where Ramsay has retreated, but then, the giant whose only real word ever was "Snow" is also felled by Ramsay's arrow. This provokes Jon to finally, rightfully, beat Ramsay to a pulp. But then, because he's still Jon, he decides not to end his life and keep him as a prisoner instead.

As bloodied Ramsay is tied up in a jail cell, Sansa shows up, her face colder than the coming winter. Ramsay throws a few more taunts her way, before she finally unleashes his infamous hounds, the ones he hadn't fed in seven days. Not sure the initial chomp of Bolton's face had to be shown to be understood, but perhaps this was one for the viewers (we really are sick people, us Thronies). As Sansa walks away, the smile on her face is understandable … and unsettling all at once.

Sansa Stark, played by Sophie Turner, has one of the biggest character evolutions in Season 6 of HBO's Game of Thrones. (HBO Canada/Bell Media)

Sure, the viewers did not get Lady Stoneheart, the undead Catelyn Stark whose kindness in life has been replaced only by a vengeful instinct. But what if we did get her in her look-a-like daughter, the daughter whose kindness and humanity were killed by the rapist monster she was married off to, the stone-cold redhead who lives only to avenge?

Either way, such is the unpredictable Sansa that Jon must now share Winterfell with. With that, and what will be the inevitable clash between Davos and Melisandre over the burning of Shireen Baratheon (in the episode's most touching moment, the Onion Knight found the charred stag he gave the little girl), Jon seems like he's got quite a few altercations ahead of him before he ever gets to the Night's King.

Meanwhile, in Meereen

In the episode's most inexplicable storytelling decision, we also veered off to Meereen. In fact, the episode opened with Dany's ships under attack and the Mother of Dragons facing Tyrion over his inept leadership. Happy to report that all ends well, thanks to Dany's newly freed three dragons and the Dothraki hordes, and that the slavers will likely never be back to bother her again.

But things might finally get interesting in Meereen because Theon and Yara have arrived and offered their ships in exchange for Dany's support of their claim to the Iron Throne. Dany and Yara, in serious mutual admiration of each other's power, are an obvious alliance, even if Dany has a few ground rules (no raping and pillaging, even if it is the way of the Iron Born).

Making their deal official (and perhaps alluding to Tyrion's previous admonishment that she's becoming a bit fire-happy like her daddy the Mad King) Dany makes a Westerosi-style Father's Day greeting: "Our fathers were evil men, all of us here. We will leave the world better than we found it."

And you know what they say about the road to hell and good intentions.


Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Senior Education Reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a senior education reporter for CBC News. Appearing on The National and CBC Radio, she has previously reported on arts and entertainment, and worked as a current affairs producer.