Game of Thrones is a show that thrives on violence. Its past installments featuring that sort of visceral thrill — from Ned Stark’s beheading to the various battles that have made up the series’ “special event” episodes — certainly tell complete stories, but they don’t skimp on the swords and sangre to help fill them out. Westeros is a world founded on violence, one where those in power gained it and kept it by waging war, killing, and trafficking in the kind of brutality that wins kingdoms and helps break ratings records.
So when Dany mounts Drogon and leads her tripartite crew of dragons off to destroy the slavers’ fleet, it initially feels new and different, since the winged-beast confrontations in the show so far have largely been limited in scope. It is, however, part and parcel with the show’s standard M.O. when it comes to death and destruction. The dragons’ attack on the fleet works well as a fist-pump moment, not only because it’s the first time the show’s depicted all three of them engage in this type of badassery (give or take a Qarth), but because the audience largely believes in Dany and her cause. Flames raining down from the sky, dispatched to guarantee that Meereen never again becomes a land of slavers, feels righteous.
But then there’s that little voice in the back of your head, the one that says the people on those ships are probably slaves too, not devoted perpetrators of evil. The attack may be a necessary evil. It is a show of force to ensure that the other masters of Slaver’s Bay don’t get any ideas and meant to guarantee that they think twice before challenging Dany’s regime.
The deaths of their rank and file soldiers, however, take on a new light when confronted in those terms. Their ends are not simply the result of some awe-inspiring dragons flexing their muscles; they’re human beings consumed by fire and left to die a horrible death. Slowly but surely, Game of Thrones has teased out the idea that violence and vengeance can be as subtly awful as they are glorious, even when depicting them in celebratory tones.
It fits, then, that after an appropriate bit of pre-battle planning at Winterfell and post-battle denouement at Meereen, the episode dives into the titular “Battle of the Bastards,” an armed conflict the likes of which the show has hinted at for ages. In the opening movement of the skirmish, it’s heartening to see Jon Snow face the oncoming cavalry and watch his own forces crash into it just as he steps into battle. It’s undeniably cool to see a fight that the audience has been promised for so long come to fruition. It’s exciting to watch as, within this chaos, John takes down enemy soldiers and Torumund picks him up out of the dirt and Ser Davos orders his men into the fray.
But then the camera pulls back, and you cannot help but notice those piles of bodies. You see people begging for help and trampled over. You see people flanked on three sides by spears and shields, and then blocked in on the other by the amassed dead. You see behind Jon Snow’s eyes as he begins to suffocate within the bloody tumult around him. You see people grasping at their own viscera, the blood spilled all around them, the crying and suffering men in a mass of black and gray and red where friend is indistinguishable from foe.
This is not a triumph. This is not simply some thrill. This is hell on earth, and a horrific price for any person to have to pay to resolve this long-simmering conflict.
At the end of it, Jon Snow pummels the dastardly Ramsay Bolton into the ground, leaving him gurgling his own fluids. But the man is not dead. Sansa goes to visit him in captivity. He taunts her one last time, but Sansa stands there stone-faced, confronting the man who caused her unimaginable suffering. She aims for a bit of poetic justice, as Ramsay’s starving dogs are turned against their master.
This too is a horrible death. We see Ramsay’s own hounds bite and chew at his face. The camera zooms in close on his hands as they drip with blood. Sansa turns away from the carnage, but the hint of a smile emerges as she walks away.
Ramsay’s words linger and carry. “I am a part of you now.” Sansa has been through so much. She has been under many different bootheels, nearly driven into the ground by so many cruel lords and ladies. She has been abused, manipulated, tortured, and somehow managed to live through it all. She is not, however, unscathed.
How long can you commit violence against someone — showing them that this is how the world works and that no one can protect anyone else in this land — until they take it to heart? How long can someone witness such horrors, experience such tragedies, until the abyss starts to take hold of them. Westeros is a harsh world, and perhaps the greatest indignity it imposes on those within its borders is how it can make them just as harsh, just as cruel, just as mired in the muck and the blood, as those who first inflicted it upon them.
“Battle of the Bastards” is a tremendous episode of Game of Thrones. It features some of the best shot, best directed, and best edited action scenes the show has ever done, rivaling many of its blockbuster Hollywood brethren. It keeps those conflicts meaningful, rooted in the characters we’ve come to know, alongside the goals, inclinations, and motivations conveyed over the past several years. But it also gradually invites the audience to recoil from the violence that has, in many ways, fueled the series. There are moments of joy, of excitement, of success, where the audience is supposed to feel a sort of cathartic relief and happiness. Dany is back in power; Winterfell belongs to the Starks once more, and Ramsay is dead.
And yet the episode quietly digs into the hidden costs of all of this. Tyrion warns Daenerys how her father once sought to kill the loyal and the rebellious alike. Jon pleads with his compatriots not to be brought back if he is killed once more, that he not be made to face more of this horror if his time has come. And Sansa makes a deal with the man who shepherded her into such harms before taking a moment to revel in the cruelty of her abuser’s demise.
Each of these leaders has a righteous cause. Each of them has legitimate grievances, noble reasons, and pragmatic motivations for why they do what they do.
But each of them also takes a step toward embodying the ideas they hope to stamp out. As Sansa feels her soul darken just a bit, halfway across the world, Daenerys declares that the old regime is done, and that a new age will come. The regime being left behind is one built on those piles of dead bodies that seem so repulsive and horrifying in the scrum of the battlefield. It is soaked in the blood of the righteous and evil alike. If the heroes of Game of Thrones are not careful, it may just as easily stain those who would carry a new banner and break from the past, before they ever attain the power to do so. Instead, they may find themselves perpetuating the wheel that has ground so many into the dirt, rather than breaking it, while ever more die and suffer for their cause.