Blood was the key to Game of Thrones 6×09 as the Starks and Boltons finally came together in a fateful clash that sealed many a terrible fate.
“Battle of the Bastards” concentrates on two particular veins of Game of Thrones‘ story, each plot decorated with its own particular brand of gore. Both in the North and in Meereen, it is blood that makes the strongest impression — blood spilled, blood saved, and blood hungering.
The carnage of war is brighter in Meereen, but the same subject still haunts the story. As the Masters bombard her city, Dany details her plans to decimate the rest of Slaver’s Bay. Destruction is in her blood, and Tyrion councils her against conceding to the deadly urges that consumed King Aerys.
But though Tyrion’s counsel may have spared Yunkai and Astapor, the fire in Dany’s blood still has its due. Apparently, the Great Masters have forgotten the “dragons” part of “Mother of Dragons,” because they are entirely shocked when Dany sails off on Drogon to destroy just enough of their fleet to reassert her dominion. Working on theme, the Masters try to sacrifice the lowest-born member of their trifecta to Tyrion’s justice; instead, their own highborn blood waters the golden sands of Meereen.
As Viseryon, Rhaegal, and the Dothraki join in assaulting Dany’s opposition, it seems that Dany’s bloody birthright is finally coalescing into a viable reality. Theon and Yara Greyjoy provide another crucial plot point — more ships, with further promised when Euron arrives — as well as valuable thematic ballast.
Blood is a sensitive subject during Dany’s meeting with the Greyjoys. In spite of his rightful claim to the throne of the Iron Islands, Theon reiterates that he is not fit to be king. Dany is impressed with Yara, but reminds her of the truth lurking in the other woman’s salty blood.
“Your father was a terrible king,” Dany tells Yara.
“You and I have that in common,” would-be Ironborn queen replies.
But the two women are determined not to repeat the cruel mistakes of their heritage. “We’re going to leave the world better than we found it,” Daenerys vows, making Yara swear to leave the Ironborn’s brutal ways behind. When Yara agrees, the partnered queens clasp arms in the way of men — suggesting that whatever darkness lurks in their blood may still be subject to change.
In the North, though, it is blood that rules and blood that makes demands, long before the gore-soaked Battle of the Bastards begins in earnest. Ramsay, still obsessed with notions of birthright, repeatedly addresses Jon as “bastard,” and their parlay teeters on the subject of blood not yet shed. Unfortunately, like his dogs, Ramsay appreciates the smell of blood in the air, and is not inclined to duel Jon for the sake of his men’s lives.
Sansa and Jon’s brittle argument over tactics plays in a similar vein, though Sansa has a finer nose for blood than her brother does. Sansa reminds Jon of the reality that Rickon is most likely lost to them; as a legitimate son of Eddard Stark, Rickon’s blood renders him far more dangerous to Ramsay than a bastard or a daughter. Sansa also beseeches Jon to trust her painfully intimate understanding of Ramsay’s brutal nature — the tease and hunt that pounds in his blood — but this is a warning Jon ultimately does not heed.
It doesn’t seem, however, that Sansa particularly expects him to. Sansa’s trust in the protection of her kin has evaporated; she has turned instead toward a distant hope. Sansa’s silence on the subject of Littlefinger’s aid is deeply perplexing, and leaves her partially responsible for the slaughtered Stark forces. But perhaps her reticence can be understood in the context of having lost faith in her familial bonds.
“You can’t protect me,” Sansa tells Jon. “No one can protect anyone.” After so long on her own, Sansa trusts what she knows — and binds her cause to something simultaneously more powerful and much stranger than ties of blood.
This is devastatingly appropriate, as the great “Battle of the Bastards” begins with the anticipated spilling of some of Sansa’s last living family. Mere heartbeats from safety in Jon’s arms, Ramsay’s sadistic skill steals another Stark from the world, and unbounds the knots of Jon’s control. Sansa, aware of her erstwhile husband’s horrific capacities, is prepared for this calamity. Jon is not, and his grief precipitates the veritable tide of blood that spills from the Stark forces in Game of Thrones 6×09.
For pure, visceral, intensity, the “Battle of the Bastards” is unparalleled. The fight is utterly without sense, spinning between Jon’s desperate rage and Ramsay’s cold-blooded flights of arrows; fittingly Jon grows filthy with blood and dirt while Ramsay sits clean and distant on his horse.
The price paid in blood is lividly evident. Jon turns to fight with a Stark man, only to find the man’s head immediately skewered by an arrow, Jon’s face splattered with blood. As the battle devolves, hills of corpses surround the fight. Not all of the men are dead — many scream for help as their guts spill out across the screen. The Stark forces are slowly trapped against Bolton shields, their numbers brutally pruned as the traitorous Umbers tighten the murderous circle. Jon is trapped beneath a stampede of living men, fighting to the top in time to watch Tormund bite the Umber’s throat out, delighting in the fresh wash of blood.
(Hey, at least someone’s having a good time.)
Salvation, such as it is, arrives as expected — in the cold blue banners of House Arryn, encircling the Bolton’s carnage. Littlefinger observes with Sansa, wearing a silvery smile. Ramsay, still unbloodied, flees back to Winterfell with Jon, Tormund, and Wun-Wun in pursuit, and the Stark castle’s ancient gate proves unequal to the attentions of the giant.
RIP, gate. RIP, Wun-Wun.
But though Ramsay tries to hold Jon off with his arrows, Jon gets close enough to paint the ground with the Bastard of Bolton’s blood. His hand stays only when he sees Sansa, keenly watching the battle’s gruesomely quiet conclusion.
The Starks officially reclaim Winterfell, replacing the Bolton’s bloody banners with the icy Direwolf of Stark. The price was paid in blood — one brother, several friends, and thousands of allies. The future is pale and uncertain, but the gods have probably not slaked their lust just yet.
Euron approaches Meereen with murder in his heart. And in the North, Melisandre’s fate balances particularly precariously, as Davos has finally completed the puzzle of the Red Woman’s crime — all the more ironic, as Melisandre sacrificed Shireen on the strength of the “king’s blood” running through her veins.
But first, there is one more matter to attend to. Sansa attends to Ramsay Bolton, chained in a dark Winterfell cell. Ramsay insists that his bond with Sansa is unshakable — “I am part of you now,” he says, but Sansa is unfazed. She promises Ramsay that he will be forgotten; his face is painted with blood and a sneer until the bastard realizes that Sansa has let his dogs into his cell.
“They’re loyal beasts,” he insists, cringing from the enormous creature.
“They were,” Sansa agrees. “Now, they’re starving.”
His enormous hound pads closer, snuffing at the gore on its once-master’s face, ignoring his commands. The beast bites, and Sansa smiles as Ramsay Bolton screams — undone at last by his own evil blood.