Game of Thrones S6E9: bubble of the bustards

spoilers below the cut. also I feel like I should say – every week I do these. And they’re pretty much my first impressions. usually a week later i’ve changed my mind on some stuff.


THE CUT

Okay, let’s talk about Meereen first.

I very much enjoyed the spectacle of the three dragons, the naval battle. Opening on the ball of pitch being lit was a nice little start to the episode; it very much evoked a similar shot from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King where a massive boulder is loaded into a catapault. In fact, the bombardment of Meereen was very visually similar to the siege of Minas Tirith, and the battle even ended the same way as the siege (in the movie): a supernatural presence led by the last scion of an ancient line of kings, coupled with a massive cavalry charge from an unlikely, tenuous ally.

I think it was a huge misstep to have Tyrion know about the Mad King’s wildfire caches. Or rather: they sacrificed two characters (Tyrion and Jaime) to develop a third (Dany). Having Tyrion know about the wildfire opens all sorts of questions. Why didn’t he look for this wildfire? Is it implied that he used it all in Blackwater? (Spoiler alert: no way. Cersei’s about to use that leftover substance to make King’s Landing glow like the Bikini Atoll). And as for Jaime – Brienne is the first and only person he tells about the wildfire. He tells her in a feverish fit of vulnerability. He’s this 90s antihero guy who knows a horrible secret but keeps it to preserve his pride. The fact that he doesn’t tell anyone else isn’t a plot hole in the books, it’s a character trait.

But of course it’s crucially important that someone warns Dany about the Mad King. (Gee, if only Barristan was around…) And yeah, blowing up King’s Landing was pretty relevant to the situation. (Also, I don’t like how Tyrion is continually lionized by the producers. Oh, he did the best he could? No he didn’t. You don’t negotiate with slavers and terrorists). But at least they made Tyrion look like a bully to Theon, which I appreciated. Look, maybe this is twisted, but I want to see them make Tyrion a horrible, nasty person. Stop making him such a charming, affable, generally-okay dude. He’s on a dark path to a dark place. Show us that! Oh, and Gemma Whelan (Yara) and Emilia Clarke (Dany) are a match made in heaven. Seriously, that was one of my favorite scenes this season – Yara and Dany negotiating an alliance. Even if it did have another Theon Nod of Approval – is it ok to stop murdering and reaving innocent people, Theon? It is? Oh okay. Thanks.

BUT ENOUGH ABOUT APPOMATTOX. Let’s talk Winterfell.

There was a lot of good and a lot of bad. Well, actually, there was one particular bad that was worst of all –why didn’t Sansa tell Jon about the Vale Knights? – but we’ll come back to that elephant on the battlefield later.

Here’s what I liked:

The character stuff was, for the most part, great (again, except for the Sansa and the Vale Knights thing. Later! Not now!) We got good scenes with Davos&Tormund, Jon&Melisandre, and Sansa&Jon. And honestly, I thought they played the battle plan portion very well, in terms of creating a battle that was complicated and messy but still immediately comprehensible to your Average Snow. And I liked that Jon charged forward like an idiot to try and save Rickon. That’s probably the most Jon Snow-y moment they’ve ever had on the show: Jon tries to do The Right Thing, at a massive cost to human life. We even got some belated, retroactive characterization this episode. Why hasn’t Sansa been playing up Rickon’s role in all this? Because she thinks he’s as good as dead. What is the relationship between Jon and Mel like after the resurrection? Well, it’s complicated. Does Davos know about the Shireen-B-Q? WELL NOW HE DOES.

The battle was indulgent. They milked the hell out of their budget, even stooping to slow-mo shots of riders (what ever happened to “no slow-mo,” producers? Oh well, they did it with Blackwater too). I did get a little kick of glee out of recognizing the Cannae massacre – I don’t care if that style of shield wall fighting is completely anachronistic/out of place for the setting, it was amazing to watch. I also enjoyed them bringing back Roose Bolton’s old favorite tactic from the books: rain arrows down indiscriminately on the melee. Ramsay in the books is a brutish idiot without a clever bone in his body, but that’s not show-Ramsay, and show-Ramsay was played perfectly here. We watch him playing with armies the way he played with Theon. In the books, he’s basically Theon’s personal demon, but in the show he’s a much larger character (for better or for worse). And they stuck to their guns on that. Ramsay’s defining characteristic in the show is his ability to get inside peoples’ heads, to manipulate them. So it makes sense that he would outthink his opponent here. Is it cheesy to have him be an Evil Marty Stu? Yes it is. Does it still work? I think so, yeah.

Just an interlude for a moment. This episode was largely about the relationship between ruler and subject, master and servant. Dany and Jon specifically criticize the same aspect of the slavers and Ramsay – “Would you fight and die for a man who would not fight and die for you?” It was a powerful theme, especially for an episode that killed so many people. When Jon stood alone facing the cavalry charge, I turned to my fiance and said “honestly, they should just let Jon die.” And she said “but that’s the only reason they’re there! For Jon!” And it’s true. They laid the groundwork for that very well this season.

The end of the battle – in Winterfell – was great. Silly? Okay, maybe a bit. Wun Wun breaking the gate was a great end, though – a marriage of plot and theme, the indomitable strength and right-ness of the Jon Snow Side. And Jon catching arrows on a Mormont shield? Ahhh, whatever. I can’t complain. It was fun as hell. Again, it comes back to that indomitable sense of right-ness. You have to earn a scene like that, and when you have Jon trampled in a Cannae Massacre, covered in blood, shot off his horse – you’ve earned that catharsis at the end of the episode. And speaking of catharsis – way to knock it out of the park with that death scene, Iwan Rheon. It’s something the show does well – give us a weird/out of place scene (Fat Walda’s death) and then echo it/answer it later in the show. And so Fat Walda’s drawn-out-death has a parallel in Ramsay’s extended death by dog. Now, was it really necessary to make a parallel there? I’m not convinced. It’s like a really good poem about a pile of dung. It feels like wasted creative energy.

The whole purpose of the episode seemed to be “question violence, viewers.” That’s why Tyrion’s little spiel about the Mad King was so important – when you see battle, don’t just think of heroes. Think of the villains of history as well. Mass death – death of any sort! – isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration. Even Ramsay’s death isn’t necessarily a heck-yeah moment; it’s a moment that makes you pause and go “damn, that’s a lot of people dead.” If this episode did one thing really, really well, it was selling us the horrible responsibility of fighting for what is right.Nobody comes out clean.

Now, let’s talk about the Big Dumb Stupid Thing: the Vale Knights.

Obviously I’m going to talk about Lord of the Rings. The movies, specifically. I’m that dedicated type of nerd who thinks the movies would’ve been better with Tom Bombadil, but I’m going to leave the books out of this and just talk about the movie version. Because that’s the relevant cultural touchstone.

When Gandalf rides in at Helm’s Deep with Eomer and the riders, it has a specific character meaning. Throughout the battle, we feel Gandalf’s absence, especially with the night/day contrasts. So when Gandalf returns, it’s a big release of tension – we know he’s coming back, but when? And he comes back when the heroes decide to die at last, to ride out in a blaze of glory. That ride sets up the next big charge…

At the Battle of Pelennor Fields, we have not one but two last-minute charges to save the day. First, the Riders of the Rohirrim. This is a powerful character moment, because we’ve seen Theoden’s struggle before this, we’ve seen his reluctance to aid Gondor, all the conflict at the heart of that charge. That charge isn’t just the arrival of the cavalry, it’s the culmination of a character arc – and an important moment for Eowyn and her little hobbit buddy.

Then, later in the battle, Aragorn arrives with the Dead of Dunharrow. This turns the tide for good. More importantly, it cements Aragorn’s role as the savior, the king, the true king. He arrives with a powerful symbol of his righteousness, something that indisputably puts him in charge. He, too, has realized his character arc – this is the true Return of the King. It’s earned, and it develops characters.

So keep all those in mind as we ask:

Why didn’t Sansa tell Jon about the Vale Knights?

She has one scene with Littlefinger. In this scene, she rebukes him and tells him to go home, even though he’s offering a couple thousand knights. In episode 9, she yells at Jon because they don’t have enough men. Why would you write her character this way. Why would you do that? Supposedly she “doesn’t trust Jon.” Remember? That’s what that last line from Littlefinger was about – he’s “your half-brother,” he’s not necessarily trustworthy. But we’re never actually given a reason for that. There’s never any plot development that makes us go “hmm, Jon and Sansa seem to be at odds, and she should keep her plan with Littlefinger a secret.” Jon doesn’t know Littlefinger. For all he knows, Petyr Baelish is a pretty cool dude. So the entire plot point about the secret Vale army saviors rests on this really, really shaky foundation of “Sansa doesn’t trust Jon, I guess”

Maybe this seems like a bunch of unimportant background stuff. But it matters, dammit! Those big battle set pieces don’t mean jacko without strong characters underneath them. I can’t for the life of me figure out why they thought it was so important that Sansa keeps her Baelish Buddies a secret. And it didn’t have to be written that way. Here, let me show you:

Sansa tells Jon she’s written to Petyr Baelish asking him to bring his army north. They camp near Winterfell, but just like Stannis they are battered by weather and morale problems. Davos warns Jon that this is how Stannis fell, and they have to attack now or give up. Sansa counsels patience. They receive a letter from Ramsay with a piece of Rickon’s skin, and Jon decides the time is now. Sansa gives him the same talk she did this episode – Ramsay’s trying to goad you, don’t fall for it, etc. Then you can have the whole battle play out the same way if you want! Rickon, the backfired trap, the Cannae massacre, all that great spectacle, and now you have characters underneath it – Jon’s blind heroism counterweighted by Sansa’s cool cunning. Then, when the Vale Knights arrive, it means something to our characters.

And that, that was the problem with the Vale Knights. Those other charges I mentioned? Those cavalry saves? They mean something! Gandalf’s return is long-awaited, and – like Wun Wun smashing the gate – is the divine reward for the horrors our heroes endure. The Ride of the Rohirrim is a desperate, last-minute act of suicidal heroism, amplified by the fact that the faces on the front line are all familiar. And Aragorn’s last-minute save is the realization of his own personal arc; it is the Return of the King.

Now, I will say this – there’s another big cavalry charge to save the day in ASOIAF – the Battle of the Blackwater. And the twist there is that Tywin’s charge undercuts all the hard work Tyrion did in defending the city – the glory and honor goes to Tywin, to Garlan Tyrell, to Loras Tyrell. But I don’t think that’s where this plot is going. We’ll see. Next episode is going to be make-or-break for this plot.

In the end, I loved watching this episode. I just didn’t like thinking about this episode. Oh, and HBO Now can go to hell. We couldn’t start watching this episode until 10:15, which means that I am grumpy as heck this morning. Maybe that’s why I’m harping on this.

All said and done, I would still watch this episode again in a heartbeat. They still haven’t recaptured the glory of Blackwater, but the spectacle was definitely there. This episode was like 75% awesome. Lot of good character work, lot of spectacular scenes, but a few weird plot holes/gaps and some serious character flaws.

Next episode promises to be a blast, though. Get it? A blast? Because they keep mentioning wildfire, showing us clips of Aerys the Mad King and his pyromancers, Cersei’s rumors with Qyburn, Tyrion literally says there’s wildfire beneath the Sept of Baelor…the Incineration of King’s Landing is coming, baby.

As for where we go with the end of this story – Melisandre is in trouble, obviously. There’s a party at the Twins, which I bet will be crashed. Cersei’s trial is going to go up in smoke (haha more jokes). We better get a scene with Sam Tarly; maybe Euron will attack Oldtown or something. And I bet anything that with a title like “The Winds of Winter” the Wall will come tumbling down.

We’re in the home stretch, babies. Thank goodness. I’m starting to get Game of Thrones Burnout.

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