Monday, June 20, 2016

Battle of the Bastards

It's become tradition for the ninth episode of a season of Game of Thrones to serve up something special -- an emotional sucker punch, a major departure from a trope of fantasy fiction, or something visually arresting. This season? Well, we kind of got one out of three.

Visually, this is surely the high water mark for the series to date, eclipsing even "Hardhome" (an episode whose director was appropriately brought back to direct this). Game of Thrones has a budget and production schedule that would be the envy of an independent movie, but it is still TV (HBO's famous marketing slogan aside). So what was achieved here for television deserves praise. We got a "Battle of Helm's Deep" that surpassed the original, doing an excellent job of depicting the horrors of war.

Any number of incredible sequences could easily have been the sequence of the episode: the long single take that centered on Jon Snow in the chaos; the claustrophobic press of Snow being buried alive in corpses and having to claw out; the inexorable encroachment of the Bolton shield wall; or the shredding of that wall by the charging Knights of the Vale. And don't forget the opening battle in Meereen, which served up a galloping army of Dothraki warriors and dragons raining gratifying destruction of the slavers. These moments were all incredibly staged, wonderfully realized.

And the episode also did serve up several cathartic moments that have been a long time coming. Besides seeing dragons battle for the first time, there was Grey Worm dispatching the loathsome slavers, the fist-pumping "girl power" moment of Daenerys allying with Yara, and the many come-uppances of Ramsay Bolton. Jon Snow beat him senseless, Sansa got to toy with him, and he was finally and graphically mauled by his own hounds.

Having served up all that, I can imagine no way anyone could think of this episode as "bad." But I did feel there were several things that kept the episode from being truly "great."

It's been a long-running joke among fans that characters on the series travel the world in precisely the amount of time that narrative demands. It's a joke often ignored easily enough, as the show is usually vague about how many days or even months are passing, and each sequestered story line is allowed to unfold on its own timetable. But I found it hard to ignore this time, when Yara and Theon just showed up in Dany's throne room. There was apparently nothing noteworthy in their passage across the ocean, or their preparations to meet the queen. We didn't even get an establishing shot of their ships pulling into Meereen's harbor. Just a sudden, jarring cut to Tyrion smugly taunting them and poof! There they were. I'm not asking for the grueling chapters George R.R. Martin spent covering, say, Quentyn Martell or Jon Connington (two characters cut from the show), but really? That's it?

"That's it?" would also sum up my reaction to the death of Rickon Stark. After he was totally absent for two seasons, there needed to be something to restore the audience's investment in him. Unless I'm mistaken, he didn't even utter one word of dialogue upon his return -- he was mute when he was first brought before Ramsay early this season, and he was mute now as he ran across the battlefield (in a frustratingly straight line) to his death. I mean, Hodor at least gave us some "Hodor"s, and look how much we all cared about him. Rickon felt like nothing more than a plot device.

Some will debate Jon Snow's foolishness at falling into Ramsay's trap... and it's much easier to do that because Rickon was such a non-character this season. In my view, I believe Jon Snow's tactical error here not because a brother was in the crossfire, but because he has been foolishly led into traps before. It's how he died. Jon Snow may be visionary, but he's not exactly smart.

No, the character whose behavior I cannot accept is Sansa. I can't come up with any motivation for her to keep secret the fact that she had a reserve army on the way. The attack could have been delayed and replotted, many lives could have been saved. The only reason for her silence was to serve up a cliché -- something this series (book and show) are usually loathe to do -- the cliché of the last minute rescue when all hope is lost. Gandalf riding in at Helm's Deep. And I understand the desire to have that moment be about Sansa and not Littlefinger, but putting her there with the Knights of the Vale just further confirms: she must have known they were coming, and when. How else could she have been there? Sacrificing thousands of people for the sake of a dramatic entrance? That's cold, Sansa.

Because of the episode's missing emotional beats (and logic problems that impeded some emotional beats that were there), I can't jump on the bandwagon that will probably declare this the best episode of the season (or the series). It looked like a million bucks. (Several million.) It definitely had its share of great moments. But overall, I'd call it a B+.

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