22nd Sep2016

‘Game of Thrones 6×09: Battle of the Bastards’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“I lived with him.”

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Violence is a form of intimacy. To cut into another person’s body, to reveal the secret machinery of their existence, is an incredible violation, yes, but it’s also about the closest, physically, two people can be. The dead of the Battle of Winterfell form a hill together, a single massive edifice of mingled flesh and blood where dying men crawl legless over their fallen comrades and slick red coils of entrails spill out from between bloody fingers pressed hard against gaping wounds. Thematically and as a matter of record, war and rape are intertwined like monstrous lovers. The violence Sansa suffered in her marriage bed, too, represents a perverse mingling of selves.

“I’m a part of you now,” Ramsay taunts her after his defeat and incarceration in his own kennels. It’s striking that until just before his death, Ramsay is the only person shown to enjoy the proceedings of what might be cinema’s most miserable, claustrophobic, and tragic battle. He’s all smiles even as Jon batters him in the mud, so wed to violence that defeat on the battlefield and subsequent brutalization only serve to get him randy. His sneers and chuckles falter, though, when his own hounds come for him. It’s Sansa’s choice of execution methods, a cruel echo of his own predilections, and director Miguel Sapochnik doesn’t flinch from forcing us to watch the horror-show unfold. The starving dogs emerge from the shadows, drool hanging from their chops, and devour the man who used them to devour and terrorize others. And Sansa smiles to see it, so traumatized by monster after monster that she now has it in her to smirk coolly as a man is ripped apart by animals.

Miguel Sapochnik’s  barren landscapes, Ramin Djwadi’s tense and uneasy score, a dog’s paw raising a puff of dust from the dirt. Battle of the Bastards has arthouse horror in its blood, dwelling like Robert Eggers’ The Witch on blasted heaths, like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal on painterly, almost orgasmically rendered carnage. And the madness digs deeper, tightening its grip as the action swells from a frightened boy running, hopelessly, for his life across a vast expanse of grey to a sucking, suffocating press of bodies in which Jon Snow nearly drowns. The sight of the Bolton army rendered as a thicket of black spears and formless banners by the smoke and fire dancing around the bodies of their crucified victims is indelible, as is the constricting grisliness of Ramsay’s spearmen forming a cordon around Jon’s desperate men and then slowly, systematically butchering them.

Every element of the fight for Winterfell seems just a little sour, if it’s not outright soul-eroding.  The besieged at Helm’s Deep get Gandalf, but Jon and Sansa have to live with being saved by fucking Littlefinger. The death of the single most odious man on television is marred by the knowledge that Sansa has been warped and injured, body and mind, by his brutal abuse. The men who bust through the gate to take the place are covered in mud, blood, and shit, and they have to watch as the sprightly sociopath they’re chasing kills what might well be the last living giant in front of them. No triumphant music when the Bolton banners fall and the Stark direwolf unfurls in their place. No feast for the heroes. Rickon doesn’t even speak a word before he falls, his death bitterly augured by Sansa.

 

The Battle of the Bastards is a nightmare, an hour-long spectacle made of wasted human lives and foul-tasting victories. Jon and Sansa are well on their way to raising a second Winterfell of bodies by the time they have their home back. The scale of it all, the unmitigated hugeness of so much death, literally looms over the episode. That rampart of the dead is going to haunt my dreams.

“It’s always so abstract,” says Tyrion, explaining to the three slavers who betrayed Meereen that one of them must die to appease Daenerys. The stuff of death, divorced from the bodies it penetrates and changes, has an awful power all its own. The power to terrify, to break, to twist and tear the mind. The Battle of Slavers’ Bay may start the episode on a breathlessly victorious note, a high fantasy spectacle unmatched in modern cinema, but it’s Tyrion’s somber response to Dany’s plan to torch the slave cities that’s the segment’s meat. He invokes her father, a raving specter whose love of fire is well-established, and the madman’s plan to burn King’s Landing to the ground.

Dany listens, her imperial rage blunted for the moment. Men still die as her dragons rain fire on the slaver fleet, but it is not the holocaust of flame she planned. To stop, to consider the humanity of those waiting on the far side of the battlefield and to take a risk on their behalf is something rare and tenuous. And to stand in the way of Dany’s fury takes guts, but Tyrion is a man who knows how quickly a desire for justice, or even for revenge, can become nothing but an excuse to slake far darker appetites. To choose violence, to embrace it and fold it into the self so deeply that it emerges even when other paths exist, is an act of supreme self-annihilation.

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