Game of Thrones has become infamous for its unpredictability. Beheading Ned Stark in Season 1 shocked viewers because it defied everything we thought we knew about fantasy stories (namely, that the hero always wins). Over the past season, the plot of Game of Thrones has become increasingly predictable; the show is no longer willing or able to subvert audience expectations (Hodor’s death in “The Door” being a major exception). Instead, how the characters respond to predictable plot developments has become less predictable. This is what makes “Battle of the Bastards” so effective. The plot is about as straightforward as Game of Thrones gets, yet the episode contains moments that subvert what we knew – or thought we knew – about these characters.
To be sure, almost nothing in “Battle of the Bastards” is particularly shocking or unpredictable. Most of the key plot developments were telegraphed far in advance. I don’t even know if I should bother with a spoiler warning, but just to cover my bases here goes:
*** SPOILER WARNING ***
It was clear from the title of this episode that Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton would fight a massive battle for Winterfell. As soon as the Umbars delivered Rickon to Ramsay in “Oathbreaker,” we knew Ramsay would use his hostage to toy with Jon (because that’s what Ramsay does). In “Book of the Stranger,” Littlefinger convinces the knights of the Vale to march North to enter the fray against Ramsay.* Meanwhile, the entire season has gone out of its way to remind us that Ramsay is an irredeemable sadist who needs to die. Keeping him alive would serve no story purpose as Game of Thrones hurtles towards the endgame (HBO says are only 14 episodes left for the show).
* There was even a scene in Season 5 in which Littlefinger tells Cersei that he wants to become Warden of the North (which could well happen next week if he marries Sansa).
Thus, certain plot beats had to happen in this episode. Ramsay had to toy with Rickon to prompt Jon to rush into battle with a poorly conceived plan so he would find himself outmatched and require Littlefinger to ride to the rescue and help the Starks retake Winterfell and kill Ramsay. That all happened. Yet, “Battle of the Bastards” is still satisfying, and not simply because it was most elaborate medieval pitched battle ever depicted on television.
Although the plot is predictable, the characters break out of traditional fantasy tropes in interesting ways. Jon, who comes as close to a typical fantasy “hero” as anyone on the show, fails spectacularly. His battle plan is poorly conceived, he lets his emotions get the better of him, and, blinded by battle rage, even kills his own soldiers in the midst of the battle. Later, when the Bolton army surrounds the Wildlings with pikes, Jon panics. The noble hero of our tale stays near the back and is then nearly crushed to death as the rest of his army flees in terror. There’s a moment when he’s gasping for air and almost seems resigned to his (second) death. Although Jon finally manages to stand up, he doesn’t save the day. He doesn’t even get to kill Small Jon Umber (Tormund takes care of him).
Ramsay Bolton provides an effective contrast to Jon Snow in this episode, despite the fact that they’re both bastards. Where Jon is a fundamentally honorable person, Ramsay is sadistic and manipulative. Yet, Ramsay is Jon Snow’s better in many ways. He comes across as extraordinarily intelligent. Until this episode, he never fell for anybody’s traps and his plans always succeeded (contrast that to Jon Snow walking naively to his death at the hands of the Night’s Watch at the end of Season 5). Although Ramsay’s not diplomatic, he’s a shrewd political manipulator. He uses a mix of fear and rewards to maneuver the houses of the North to his side (again, contrast that to Jon’s hapless appeal to House Glover in “The Broken Man”).
Most importantly, where Jon Snow fails as a military commander, Ramsay succeeds brilliantly. On several occasions, Ramsay Bolton demonstrates superior tactical and strategic skills. He has an uncanny ability to assess his enemy’s weaknesses and turn those against him. Last season, he defeated Stannis’ numerically superior army by raiding his encampments, destroying much of Stannis’ supplies. In this episode, Ramsay realizes that Jon’s noble streak means he will not willingly sacrifice people. Ramsay began the battle by shooting arrows at Rickon, prompting Jon to charge towards him. This effectively removes Jon from command of his army (Ser Davos takes over). By contrast, Ramsay accepts losses on his side in order to win the battle. When the two armies meet in the field, Ramsay orders his archers to keep firing even knowing that some of his soldiers would get caught in the crossfire (by contrast, Ser Davos orders his archers to stop). To top it off, Ramsay carefully surrounds Jon’s army with pikemen in order to create a killing field.
In most fantasy stories, we expect the hero to be good at everything; the noblest, smartest, bravest, kindest, etc. Game of Thrones obliterates that expectation in this episode. Jon has many noble virtues, but like his father Ned he isn’t the best strategist. By contrast, if Ramsay weren’t such a sadist, if he were any other man, we’d probably consider him one of the canniest players in the game. This speaks to author George R.R. Martin’s relationship with real medieval history. We have a tendency to whitewash and sanitize great military leaders. We’re quite comfortable talking about Napoleon Bonaparte or Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar as brilliant strategists without really dwelling on their personal foibles or the massive bloodshed they caused in the name of glory. We remember Augustus as the man who established the Pax Romana, but often overlook the fact that he rose to power as a brutal warlord. According to some of the sources, he even stole his wife from another man. Come to think of it, HBO’s depiction of Ramsay isn’t too far removed from HBO’s depiction of Augustus in Rome.
Only someone who could learn to think like Ramsay Bolton could defeat Ramsay Bolton. It turns out that someone is Sansa Stark. Throughout this season, Sansa has demonstrated an ability to think strategically and “play the game.” But she’s not playing the way Ned Stark or Jon Snow would. Recall that she was the only Stark child to witness Ned’s beheading; she saw how “Stark way” ends. It might go too far to claim that she’s adopted the “Bolton way,” but she certainly learned a lot from and about Ramsay. As Ramsay tells her at the end of the episode, “You can’t kill me; I’m part of you.” Like Ramsay, Sansa concludes the fact that men – even family members – must be sacrificed in order to achieve victory. Unlike Jon, she accepts the inevitability of Rickon’s death.
Sansa’s insight into Ramsay helps explain one of the biggest mysteries about her behavior this season. For the past few episodes, fans have wondered why Sansa did not tell Jon that she expected reinforcements from the knights of the Vale. After watching “Battle of the Bastards,” I’m convinced that she doesn’ tell Jon because she didn’t trust Jon to use the information wisely. Jon would have wanted to try to use those extra forces to save Rickon or reduce casualties. However, Sansa’s plan required taking the Bolton army unawares while it was distracted by Jon’s frontal assault. In other words, she knowingly gambles with Jon’s life to ensure that her revenge against Ramsay succeeds. It’s a dark moment for sweet little Sansa, perhaps even darker than her smiling at the sound of Ramsay’s death. Which brings us to the final lesson Sansa learned from Ramsay: starving dogs are not always loyal.
Dom Nardi is a Contributing Writer at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published academic articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.