Monday, June 20, 2016

Game of Thrones 6.9: Battle of the Bastards (Spoilers)


It didn't help that HBO Now, the app that runs on ROKU, among other devices, crashed right at the moment that Game of Thrones was supposed to be available for streaming. Judging from the anxiety-ridden and sometimes foul-mouthed tweets with hash tags like #HBO, #GoT, and #HBONow, the problem was widespread, and there was much gnashing of teeth. Systems crash at peak demand, and with the penultimate episode of Season 6 of Game of Thrones, HBO's server probably met with more demand than for all the rest of HBO's content put together.

Add to the technical difficulty with the streaming the stress of this "Battle of the Bastards"—the bastards being of course Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton nĂ© Snow—and I get an emotionally exhausting evening. So, rather like the hero of the evening, Jon Snow, I shall be brief. Had the leader of the Army to take back Winterfell been Robb Stark, perhaps there would have been a Saint Crispin's Day-style speech before battle. Yet Snow is a man of few words, but his Herculean actions make up for the verbal lack.

Sansa's difficult circumstances at the hands of cruel men—first Joffrey then Ramsay Bolton—has provided her with a school of hard knocks. She no longer dreams of being a princess and eventually a queen. More importantly, she has gained wisdom and insight into the working of people. Some of that wisdom, I hate to admit, she may have acquired from Lord Petyr Baelish, who shines through for her in this episode by providing the cavalry that saves the day.

Rickon has the superior claim to Winterfell to anyone else around. He is not a bastard but a legitimate Stark, and he is male, the preference in Medieval lines of descent. Sansa knows Ramsay Bolton well enough to foresee that he won't let Rickon live. The opening of the battle confirms Sansa's prediction. With the most cruel game imaginable, he cuts Rickon loose to run across what will soon be the battlefield. This draws Jon Snow out into the middle of the field as he tries to rescue his brother, but it is futile. Rickon dies after one of Ramsay's arrows skewers him. Yet Snow remains untouched even as the warring factions collide on the field, and it looks as though his survival is protected by divine providence. Indeed, this is what the woman in red, Melisandre, now believes—that Jon Snow has a destiny to be King of the North—but chastened by her failures as supernatural counsel to Stannis Baratheon, she is keeping her mouth shut. Yet Davos has discovered evidence of Melisandre's biggest failure: the sacrifice at the stake of Stannis's young daughter, Shireen. Davos had an avuncular relationship with Shireen because she had taught him to read, so he carved her a wooden toy stag, which he finds among the remains of the fire that destroyed her. I expected him to find her skull, rather like Hamlet finds Yorick's skull, but perhaps after burning her at the stake, Stannis gave her a proper burial. But now Davos is on the way to confront Melisandre with that charred stag in his hand, and this line of action was cut by the end of tonight's episode, so it will likely resume in the season finale next week. There has been a trend to settle old debts this season, and this will be one more.

Though Snow's army comported itself well in battle, it met its match with Bolton's end strategy of surrounding his enemy with the Roman spear-and-shield tactic. Within the circumference of all those shields and pointy spears, the men were being pressed more and more tightly together. At their center Jon Snow is popping up for lack of anywhere else to go. This is when Peter Baelish's cavalry, the Knights of the Vale from the Eyrie, save the day. Baelish never goes anywhere without pulling strings ultimately for his own benefit, and, as nice a gesture as his timely arrival on the field of battle was tonight, we will likely find out whose strings he's pulling next week—if the agenda of the finale has space for such things.

The great battle comes down to the bastards Snow in the courtyard of Winterfell. Ramsay shoots three arrows that Jon deflects with a shield he picks up from the ground, then Ramsay falls to Jon's fists. Jon sits on Ramsay's chest and pummels him and would beat him to death, but Sansa is standing by, and he yields the coup de grace to her who should rightfully have it. Sansa has Ramsay tied in a chair in the kennel with all the pens open. "My dogs will never hurt me," Ramsay says with confidence, but Sansa reminds him they haven't eaten in a week. "You said so yourself." Ramsay threatens to always be in Sansa's mind, but, as if reciting a curse, she says that he and his house will soon be forgotten. She walks away as the dogs begin to attack, and we see a momentary slight smile on her face. Yes, she has changed from an innocent girl to a force with which the world must reckon.

Meanwhile in Mereen, the tide of events rises more or less as I predicted (if I dare say so). Tyrion under bombardment proves fearful and of not much value to his queen. But she has a plan in which she is confident. It doesn't take long for a few fire-breathing dragons to incinerate a fleet of wooden ships in the harbor. The conflagration leaves the leaders of the masters' forces effectively naked and impotent.

Once Daenerys restores order to Mereen, Tyrion redeems himself with a trick right out of classical literature, so pure is its logic. In earth history as well as the history of Westeros and Essos, when there isn't electronic communication, you have to rely upon either a raven or a human messenger, so one leaves someone alive to tell the story so that people back home are not likely to come try the same folly again. The strategy has its origins among Roman soldiers who decimate rebels, which means to kill every tenth man. When a unit was rebellious, the Romans would have a lottery, and one-tenth of the men would be killed, and the other nine tenths would be chastened.

With the three leaders of the failed attack of the masters standing before him, Tyrion likewise needs to send a message that will prevent the masters from every trying to take Mereen again. He says, two of you may live. Select from among you who will die. They reason that one member is not truly upper-class but low-born and should be the one to die, and as that man is on his knees begging for his life, Grey Worm comes along and swings his curved Unsullied blade to lop off the heads of the two men standing. This test works as well as and with the same ingenuity as Solomon's bluff to cut in half a baby over which two mothers are quarreling (the true mother and the false mother quickly make themselves known without the need for such drastic measures—see 1 Kings 3:16-28 for the details).

After vanquishing the masters and winning the unburnt part of their fleet, Daenerys, with Tyrion as counsel, gives an audience to Theon and Yara Greyjoy. Daenerys and Yara reach a verbal agreement. Daenerys will help Yara remove her Uncle Euron from the throne of the Iron Islands in exchange for support, a hundred ships, and crews. The two women find some common ground: both their fathers were evil and bad kings, and both were removed by usurpers. Euron is building ships and preparing to come to Mereen with a proposal of marriage as the bond that will unite their kingdoms—the implication is that, with Euron defeated, Daenerys will have the support of these ships as well without the sticky commodity of an undesirable husband.

"And I imagine your offer is free of any marriage demands," Daenerys says.

"I never demand," Yara says, "but I'm up for anything really." There is a coy smile between them. We've already seen that Yara has a taste for women, and the possibility of an alliance between queens in Westeros is ripe with possibilities.