“For a TV budget”- it's a phrase we hear all the time in assessing spectacle of shows and one that I’ve used more times than Donald Trump can count (at least twice) but what does it really mean? It’s a compromise, an acceptance of the 2nd rate and substandard in comparison to the big screen benchmark we’ve come to define. It’s a declaration that we should manage our expectations and dream on a budget whenever the small screen is concerned. But then, there are those moments. The moments when the stars align and somehow all rules of economics and expectations are flipped on their head. When a TV show delivers something greater than a 9-figure budget Hollywood blockbuster. When 60 minutes later, we’re left breathlessly muttering, “Did that really just happen?”. This is one of those days. This is not battle of the bastards; this is an epic. Brace yourselves for one of the finest ever Thrones episodes.
Battle of the Bastards – As Daenerys attends to the siege forces of The Masters in Meereen, the forces of Jon Snow and Sansa face off against the massed forces of The Boltons for control of The North.
Contrary to some belief, this was not a single location episode as the second siege of Meereen makes its own epic contributions. From the very first “catapult cam” ,everything that follows is pure indulgent delights. Dany composed and ready to dominate all before her; Tyrion witty and every single detail on screen looking like a masterpiece as the full forces of the Mother of Dragons make their counter offensive. It’s such an efficient narrative too, still finding the time to highlight how the choices of Dany’s actions differentiate her from a ruler or a mad tyrant despite its minimal screen time. That even when the enemy is at your gates, massacring everyone in sight might not be the right choice. It’s a great little statement to the nature of Dany’s character. Her power is not just a matter of her strength but the way she inspires those who follow her. If she tries to win by becoming like her enemies, she will lose everything. Similarly, the conclusion also provides a good point of advancement to her story and lays the foundations for departing Slaver's Bay now that things have finally stabilized. Despite the lack of fire, the follow-up thrown room scene is in its own way quite fantastic. While the reunion of Theon and Tyrion brings a little humor, it’s the immediate chemistry of Dany and Yara that really impresses. It’s not until this face-to-face that we really understand just how much these two ladies have in common, which makes their subsequent alliance feel not just that of convenience but of desired choice.
Then we have the main event. In terms of drawing the battle lines, this setup could not be more perfect. We have a bunch of protagonists we genuinely care about and want to survive facing seemingly impossible odds against a villain that although we “love to hate” want nothing more then to see them finally get what’s coming to them. This is like Game of Thrones does Wrestlemania, and more importantly all involved are completely aware of that. The scenes in the first half of the episode tick all the right boxes in terms of build-up. A few good lighter moments get squeezed in before things turn grim (Tormund gets a couple howlers in). There’s some great examination of just what the battle means to key characters, especially the planning tent argument between Jon and Sansa. While for Jon, this is a physical ordeal, its army versus army, man versis man. For Sansa, the stakes are emotional. This is about destroying the source of her trauma, and we even see that becoming an asset (whether utilized or not) as she understands the sadistic and torturing nature of her raping bastard of a husband better than anyone else. In fact, throughout much of the early parlay, although Ramsay is throwing his taunts at Jon, the feeling is they’re aimed more at Sansa, which is why it’s so satisfying to see her shut him down. The episode also does well as it does keep Davos relevant as he fears for the past repeating itself.
Then, there is the battle itself. If I was one those YouTube commentating/reaction video people in the top corner of the screen, almost immediately I’d just shut the seven hells up and let you watch it.... it’s that good. It delivers everything it promised in terms of scale and spectacle to make you feel like you’re watching a re-mastered version of Gladiator’s opening battle. Despite the awe of the battle wide shots, it is the close quarters camera work that provides all the thrills. The clear intent is not just to show you a battle but make you feel it. From the frantic and chaotic nature of the initial charges and frays (especially Jon’s insane tracking shot) to the later themes of horror and desperation as the bodies pile up like groaning sandbag walls. Director Miguel Sapochnik (the mastermind behind last season’s Hardhome) even manages to make The Battle of the Bastards become more than just a catchy title as each army seems to embody the traits of their given Snow. Jon’s forces do everything the hard way despite good intentions and get no shortage of suffering for it. While by contrast, Ramsay’s army is precise and sadistic in executing its maneuvers and inflict pain rather than just achieving victory. The unexpected events and level of despair this all generates are enough to successfully to suspend belief from the more likely conclusion, making the episode’s climax all the more rewarding. The larger quantity of CG effects or the vast ranks of extras are not just thrown onto the bonfire of the episode, they are skillfully and efficiently worked into the structure. This doesn’t feel like an episode given new toys to play with; it’s more caged animal finally released.
Yes, this isn’t something we can expect the show to deliver every week and even my opening “TV budget” comments should come with an asterisk as this was one of the most expensive and lengthily shot episodes (6 weeks of filming for the battle scenes) in the show’s history but screw it; this is a Christmas of an episode. We don’t complain about not getting it all year round just enjoy the hell out of it when we it comes around. It’s an episode that leaves a few interesting questions hanging that will likely be addressed during next week’s extended season finale. Is this the best episode of the season (so far)? Hell yes! Is it the best Thrones episode ever? ot quite; I’d put it third behind Blackwater and Hardhome. The Battle of the Bastards is a cold hard victory for anyone that loves epic fantasy entertainment. This will become one of those episodes you re-watch again and again right down to the last super. They’ll do bastards.... that’ll do.