Ding-dong, the bastard’s dead! Which bastard? The wicked bastard! Ding-dong, the wicked bastard’s dead!
Sorry, was that too much?
Even if you’re the biggest pacifist since Michael Jackson declared that he was a lover and not a fighter, it was very difficult not to feel some amount of joy while watching Ramsay Bolton finally get what he deserved on this week’s Games of Thrones. “Battle of the Bastards” — an episode title about as subtle as watching a horrible dude get his face chewed off by rabid dogs — pitted Jon Snow against Ramsay Bolton in a war that wasn’t just for Winterfell or about Rickon Stark (R.I.P.), but a test case to determine whether Thrones would ultimately allow good to triumph over evil. The heroes won. Team Stark won, thanks to a much-needed 11th-hour boost from Petyr Baelish and House Arryn. But after looking at that sly, self-satisfied smile that creeps onto Sansa’s face at the very end of the episode, it seems fair to wonder whether evil has been vanquished entirely.
In keeping with Thrones tradition, the penultimate episode of this season goes out of its way to satisfy an appetite for destruction. Focused solely on two megaconflicts — the showdown in Meereen between the masters and Daenerys Targaryen, and the clash of Snow and Bolton — “Battle of the Bastards” is impressively ambitious in terms of its scope and visuals. The long, uncut shot of Jon slicing through various adversaries as all hell breaks loose on the battlefield is a particular standout, as are the moments when director Miguel Sapochnik’s camera zips through the air in both Meereen and Winterfell, allowing viewers the perspective of a flaming arrow hurtling toward its target. Thrones has done huge, Lord of the Rings–esque war scenes in the past. It’s done them well. But this episode sets the bar higher than ever.
Thematically, the episode suggests that the emerging leaders of Westeros are shaking off the legacies of their fathers, striving to find new approaches to defeat their enemies. If one wants to take that idea a step further, one could even say these leaders are working to overcome the established Seven Kingdoms patriarchy. (“We’d like you to murder an uncle or two who thinks women aren’t fit to rule,” Yara tells Daenerys, moments before they solidify an agreement that will enable Yara to take control of the Iron Islands. Yeah, sounds like a coup against the patriarchy to me.)
Who is really responsible for the victories that take place in this episode? Multiple people, technically. Daenerys’s ability to stand her ground and so effectively deploy her dragons — not to mention Grey Worm’s decapitation abilities — completely neutralizes both the masters and the Sons of the Harpy. In Winterfell, Jon Snow’s bravery and sword-and-shield mastery, as well as the fortitude of his men, play a crucial role in beating back the masses of House Bolton. Nevertheless, the secret weapons in both battles are the behind-the-scenes strategists. That would be Tyrion, who dissuades Daenerys from pursuing an aggressive attack that would have killed civilians, and Sansa, who claims to not know anything about battles, yet clearly knows enough to make sure the Arryn soldiers show up when Ramsay Bolton least expects it.
Neither Tyrion nor Sansa is actually out there in the thick of the violence, riding dragons and horses into a vortex of potential death. (Neither is Ramsay, the coward.) But without either of them present to advise their respective commanders, everything might not have gone as hoped. Technically, these two are not husband and wife anymore — if you remember, they never consummated their marriage, which is why Ramsay was able to “marry” Sansa — but they still make a damn good team, even though they don’t know it. Once again, just like the understanding that Brienne and Jaime reached last week, we have a sign that common ground does exist between Starks and Lannisters.
In addition to its stunning staging and its seamless toggling between two narratives, Sapochnik and this episode’s writers, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, do a masterful job of building suspense prior to the quote-unquote Bastard Bowl. When Jon Snow visits with Melisandre, she says out loud what many Thrones viewers have undoubtedly wondered: “Maybe he” — meaning the Lord of Light — “brought you here to die again.” “What kind of god would do something like that?” Jon asks. She responds, “The one we’ve got.”
When Jon tries and fails to get to Rickon before he’s struck down by one of Ramsay’s arrows — yet another sequence within the larger battle that makes the heart stop — the action sets us up to worry that Jon will ultimately be killed as well. Games of Thrones wouldn’t kill Jon Snow so soon after waking up the damn guy a few episodes ago, right? It isn’t until much later, when Jon wails on Ramsay until his face is a bloody pulp with mere remnants of that diabolical sneer, that we can finally exhale. Sure, they still could kill him a second time. But let’s hope we get a full season of Kit Harrington before they endanger Jon’s life again. He certainly deserves it.
Speaking of characters getting what they deserve, let’s dig into the last scene of the episode. Ramsay Bolton — the sadistic usurper, the hostage-taker who cut off the private parts of his captives, the masochistic kinslayer — is fed to his own dogs. It’s a development so grotesque that describing it as poetic justice would sound far too refined.
It’s worth noting an important detail about this grisly turn of events: Up until his very last moments, Ramsay is incredibly confident that his dogs won’t turn on him. “They’re loyal beasts,” he tells Sansa. “They were,” she responds. “Now they’re starving.”
The term “loyal beasts” immediately calls to mind Daenerys and her dragons — all three of which, as demonstrated in this episode, are indeed loyal and beastly. They think of Daenerys as their mother, the one who has nurtured and cared for them. They do what she commands because she is a woman who has shown them respect and care. (Yet another hint that women are much more equipped to effectively take charge.) Ramsay, on the other hand, is the worst kind of man imaginable. He totally lacks Daenerys’s maternal qualities, as well as any ability to see another creature — human or otherwise — as worthy of empathy. As many pet owners know, most dogs won’t bite the hand that feeds them. But Ramsay has stopped feeding his dogs, literally and metaphorically. Therefore, just like their master, they don’t care who they bite.
Ramsay is also convinced that no matter what happens to him, he will not be forgotten. “You can’t kill me,” he says to Sansa. “I’m part of you now.” That second comment is a reminder of something Sansa said to Littlefinger a few episodes ago, in reference to Ramsay: “I can still feel what he did in my body, standing here right now.” In an utterly horrible way, Ramsay did change her. And the change is permanent.
To her credit, Sansa won’t give Ramsay the satisfaction of thinking he’s had a lasting impact on her, or on anything else. “Your words will disappear,” she promises. “Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.”
However, her reaction to his death suggests that isn’t true. Compare the way Sansa responded to Joffrey’s poisoning — with a look of horror and an immediate decision to flee — to the way she responds to Ramsay’s demise. She doesn’t look away as he is devoured. She doesn’t even flinch. After watching this pack of hungry dogs eat a human being alive — even a human as irredeemable as Ramsay — she doesn’t look bothered in the least when she finally walks away. She smiles.
Ramsay Bolton is dead, and Sansa Stark helped kill him. But the bastard was right: At least some part of her is ruthless. And she got that way because of him.