UK TV review: Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 9 (Battle of the Bastards)
Paul Greenwood | On 21, Jun 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers.
Was this it? Was this the moment television finally overtook cinema as the pre-eminent popular art form of our age? Given the mediocrity on display at the summer box office, versus what’s being served up to us at 2am or 9pm every Monday on our goggleboxes, you’d be a brave person to argue otherwise, because we saw things on Game of Thrones this week that very few visual storytellers have ever come close to matching.
For once, it wasn’t necessarily about characters, but sheer spectacle combined with animal bloodlust that made for one of the most chair-bouncing hours in the history of entertainment. Any thoughts that all the action would be saved for the finale of this penultimate episode of Season 6 were proven immediately to be misplaced, banished at the moment of its starting, as firebombs crashed into the pyramids of Meereen.
After a few weeks of watching the pennies in the VFX piggy bank, HBO took a hammer to it and unleashed an actual battle or two. Not that the first was a fair fight, mind you. A brief chat between Tyrion and Dany raised some intriguing questions about the true nature of Daenerys Stormborn, with things finally coming to a head for a queen who has been marauding her way across the eastern lands for years now. Is she arrogant? Is she as mad as her father? Or does she know exactly what she’s doing?
Then, after five years of waiting for some major dragon action, she let her flame-grilling pets off their leashes, with uppances coming all over the place, from the shady slavers to the Sons of the Harpy, and, oh boy, was it worth the wait. It wasn’t all barbecues, though – alliances were being made too, with Yara and Theon. Here, we saw people who believe they can do better than those who came before them, that the mistakes and sins of their parents would not be ones of which they would be guilty. “We’re going to leave the world better than we found it,” says Dany. Good luck with that.
And yet, as brilliant as all this was, it was merely an amuse-bouche before the main event of the evening: a battle of bastards that’s been brewing for an age. Ramsay Bolton kicked it off by making similarly arrogant proclamations to those of the Mother of Dragons, but did he have what it takes to back that up? The wicked games played by Ramsay were almost matched by the show’s makers, teasing and torturing us with an agonising run for Rickon that was always bound to be doomed.
Melisandre has been furniture for almost the entire season, so it was worth taking notice of anything she had to say. Unable to give Jon a reason for why he returned from the dead, all she could muster was that he could well be destined to simply die again. And it was this very real prospect that underpinned what followed, where even our wildest hopes for what we might see during this bastard battle were obliterated.
Finally, after many red herrings and cop-outs, we were given an on-screen melee to make Gladiator look like an episode of 90s rubber-mallet show Gladiators. This was unprecedented television, simultaneously unmissable and yet packed with moments where the fear of who was going to die or the threat of what was going to happen next was enough to make you reach for the pause button to delay the inevitable.
That it was the finest sequence of extended warfare ever created for television is surely beyond all doubt. More than that, though, 99 per cent of movies could only dream of delivering something of this scale and ambition. Against insurmountable odds, Jon Snow and his outnumbered, ragtag group faced off against Ramsay’s forces. We were given a telling glimpse of just what they were up against – old men and vagabonds versus an organised, dangerous-looking army, young and trim and tooled-up.
Several shots took the breath way in their cinematic scope, including a line of horses charging across the battlefield. But Jon standing alone as the whole of Ramsay’s cavalry rushed towards him must rank as the defining image of the season. Every aspect of this episode was a triumph of technical and physical filmmaking that points to the boundless abilities of its creators. (Watch for director Miguel Sapochnik taking on a mediocre franchise movie in the next couple of years as a reward.)
Perhaps it’s one of the few times we’ve had an indisputable good vs evil altercation, given how the show is built on layers of ambiguity and uncertainty. But we needed this showdown, as much as for the insanely satisfying sight of Jon pummelling Ramsay raw as for the action itself. But just as we thought we were going to be rewarded with the sight of his brain coming out his nose, it was only right and fitting that the long-suffering Sansa delivered the mortal blow. Release the hounds, indeed.
Game of Thrones Season 1 to 6 are available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The show is also available on DVD, Blu-ray and pay-per-view VOD. For more, click here.
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