Game of Thrones is a show that wallows. Through the course of six seasons, the camera has gleefully lingered on a pre-teen being burnt alive by her parents, the only fun-having man in King’s Landing getting his skull popped like a piece of bubble wrap, a pregnant woman and her baby getting stabbed to death, and a man getting his head burnt up by liquid gold. The show’s visual signature is over-the-top violence, and when a major character died at the end of Season 5, fans speculated that he was alive because there was no gory end for him on screen.
Last night’s “Battle Of The Bastards” finally gave fans what they wanted while simultaneously managing to reach a new plateau of violence. Ramsay Bolton is dead, but the price for his departure was a relentless horror show of a battle. It was an utterly satisfying conclusion and a stomach-churner of a journey. The show’s writers said that they were inspired by anecdotes from ancient Roman battles and the carnage of the American Civil War, and they combined what they learned and created the most sickening 20 minutes of television in Game of Thrones’ run.
The battle began as Jon Snow—the most heroic character left on a show that disposes of heroes as a matter of principle—faced down an oncoming charge, strings soaring as he drew his sword. Like a dumbass, Jon went and abandoned his carefully-made plans with a ludicrous charge. Any illusions of Jon as the gilded hero ended abruptly, as hundreds of horses smashed into each other, turning the ground to a muddy hellswamp and the next 15 minutes of screen time into a Bosch tableau. Wun-Wun the giant rips a man in half, recalling a Goya painting. Tormund ends a brutal headbutting contest by ripping out his opponent’s arteries with his teeth. A legless man feebly tries to claw his way atop the writhing pile of the dead. Even if you are desensitized to on-screen violence, last night was a trip to hell.
Jon gets more of the screen time, and the camera follows him as he slashes guts out of bellies, watches his friends get minced up, and finally gets swallowed whole by a sea of roiling, murderous humanity. The hero is supposed to float through battle with ease, untouched by the frothing rage with which his subjects fight his enemies; think Lord of the Rings, when Aragorn and Legolas make jokes and appear to have fun while bloodlessly murdering their foes. In contrast, the lingering image from “Bastards” is Jon looking past the camera, shellshocked and covered in grime and viscera after climbing through a tangle of dead bodies.
The logic behind pummeling the viewer into submission with endless carnage is clear: For a show concerned with the political minutiae and ramifications of war, they’ve never made clear until now just how disgusting it is. Jon Snow doesn’t get to fulfill lofty prophecies about his place as a hero or the savior of the North without knowingly sending his soldiers to disgusting deaths. You have to see his men get turned into muddy goop to truly feel the gravity of his decisions. The most off-putting slices of violence from last night weren’t the discrete moments of blood and guts, but the disorienting swirl of the battle in the mud pit as all order got lost in the swirl.
Jon got lucky because he had to to keep the narrative moving, but the show portrayed the chaos of battle as the death cauldron it is. You don’t have to do anything wrong to die in some grisly way; the battlefield can eat you up no matter how good you are. He would have died if not for his sister saving him with a perfectly-timed delivery of the cavalry.
The climactic death of Ramsay Bolton wasn’t nearly as gory as the battle scene, and his fitting end as a meal for the very dogs he used to terrorize his enemies was a suitably gross happy ending. The very last shot is of a grinning Sansa, showing how much she’s changed from the naive girl who spent the first few seasons pining for a world of storybook heroes. (That world, of course, doesn’t exist.) The show isn’t necessarily arguing for or against violence, but it isn’t shying away from depicting the extreme dehumanization that is always its consequence. Sansa, of all people, reveling in dogs tearing a living man’s face off shows that ruling takes an acceptance of violence and an understanding of how to mete it out. She finally has her revenge and and along the way, she turned into a cunning pragmatist (which could be, among other things, the showrunners compensating for the backlash to last season’s infamous rape scene).
Across the ocean, Daenerys can cleanly end a battle by burning a single ship and slicing two throats, but that’s a luxury she alone enjoys. The aesthetic difference between the two battles showed off the messianic properties of Daenerys. If war is what took place in front of Winterfell, then intimidation via dragon is a much more sophisticated, less brutal solution to conflicts. The show’s writers surely don’t intend to cast the dragons as easy instruments of clean death, but Targaryen-mounted flamethrower action is a much sharper blade than ground combat.
As gross as “Battle Of The Bastards” was to watch, I’m sure the show will top it, or at least attempt to. Throughout its run, Game of Thrones has continually managed to scale up the horror, and we have dragons and barbarians approaching Westeros and a cache of wildfire is waiting to destroy the capitol. If this bonkers fan theory is correct, we could also get a Cthulu-type monster eating an entire city and maybe killing a god. Either way, as the emotional balance of power on the show is finally tilting towards the good guys winning, it’s not going to get any cleaner for it.