20 June 2016
“Battle of the Bastards,” the most recent episode in the sixth season of Game of Thrones, has me thinking about fathers. Well, not fathers, specifically (the word “bastard” implies the absence of fathers, usually, although in the case of our particular bastards, it’s mothers who are the mystery), but loved ones, family members, usually parents or role models. It’s a hard thing, being disappointed by the ones you love. That’s why they call them ‘high’ hopes, you see – the greater the aspiration, the greater the letdown. Not everyone gets to have their dreams come true. Some of us have to remain unsatisfied, whether it’s for the greater good or just to maintain the status quo.
But TV sells us the strange myth that every week, every day, every hour and every second, we can achieve the entertainment we seek, the missing enjoyment, the lost bit of fun. Out of your 200+ channel cable package, one station is bound to be marathoning the series you love, or have the movie you want on pay-per-view, or cover the sporting event you’re missing. Missing, that’s the word – the key thing in TV, you’re missing out, don’t miss this television event, we have what you’re missing – it’s the word missing that drives the letdown, the sensation of not having something that leads to disappointment. You crave, you watch, and if it doesn’t satisfy, you write a flagrant social media post to vent the failure of the network to satisfy, the shortfall of TV to provide nourishment to your pleasure centers.
Now, this is all rather grim and Zen-Buddhist-ish, the business of the cycle of desire, the endless chase for happiness in a world incapable of real happiness. But every once in a while, it does happen, the sense of satisfaction, the delivery of true entertainment. There are too many shows on TV for there to not be a handful of ones that do it right, that deliver to their audience that perfect portion. In the “golden age of television,” the leaden sitcom or drama can occasionally be transformed into gold.
“Battle of the Bastards” is not one such example. Again, it’s hard to say that, to accept that one is not satisfied, that one’s needs are not met. For me, Game of Thrones is like a family member always promising an exciting vacation, a tantalizing trip to the zoo, the park, a ski resort or a cruise. There are all these little hints, the fun details, the pictures that are only half truths. And when we arrive at the promised destination, the illusion falls apart. The lions at the zoo are napping, the cruise is filled with old people, no one in your family knows how to ski and the park is filled with trash and loud music.
I’m supposed to buy that this is the first true medieval battle of the series, a pitched skirmish outside the walls of Winterfell. No more sieges, no more ambushes or insurrections – just good-old-fashioned armies smashing into each other like tidal waves of meat, steel and bone. But the problem with pitched battles as entertainment is that they are confusing, they are messy, and when things are confusing and messy on the screen, the audience does not know what is happening. And when the audience doesn’t know what is happening, the show risks losing its audience. So to dumb it down, Game of Thrones make sure we have enough background shots of phalanxes and archers to give the battle scope. The cameramen keep Jon Snow centered (roughly) in the frame, so that things move in and out of his world, to show how confusing a true war can be, rather than show the confusion itself. Some of this is successful, as other articles have pointed out.
But I am not satisfied. The producers, to my mind, already had a pitched battle – Tyrion Lannister’s hill tribes versus the Stark cavalry in season one. They didn’t show it, mind you, but that’s their fault. Furthermore, we saw Yara Greyjoy and her team of Ironborn reavers get their salty rear ends handed to them by a half-dressed Ramsay Snow and handful of Bolton soldiers. He may be a young and savage dog, but he knows how to fight, certainly with more than just a bow and arrow. But he turns down Jon’s proposal to “end this the old way.” Ramsay wants to play where his advantage is strongest, but he doesn’t stay in the castle, force his opponents to come to him, uphill and over walls. All the way to the end, the producers want Ramsay playing games with his enemy, using psychological warfare over martial prowess. Can you call it a pitched battle then, when one commander fights through muck and blood and bodies to get to his enemy, and the other hangs back with burning flayed bodies, horses under him and a castle at his back?
These are the big disappointments. There are a host of smaller ones in the episode: Tyrion’s dialogue getting worse, the Ironborn fleet just happening to show up when the battle for Mereen is over rather than being the reason battle is over (aren’t they unbeatable at sea?), Grey Worm’s costume change (which hasn’t bothered me much until his most recent attempt at preening after cutting the masters’ throats). But this episode was focused the battle in the snows, and thus our disappointments are rooted thusly. Just as a father shows up late to a play his children are in, “Battle of the Bastards” comes too late, after much promising, and delivers a fight where the main villain holds himself back from combat, where the actual fighting is a mix of wide shots and steadycam basics, and ultimately ends too soon, within the castle walls, a dead giant at the door (who, by the way, survives the attack at Hardhome to be thwarted by a hedge of spears). Oh, but the overwhelming odds, people say. The wild look in Jon Snow’s face when climbs over the hill of dead bodies, the little smirk in Sansa’s smile, the wonderful twist of who’s-surrender-is-it-anyways. To that I say, “What about Davos and Tormund’s pointless little dialogue? What about the total loss of Melisandre’s confidence with Jon Snow? What about Brienne’s total absence from the episode?” I am not giving up on the show, but I must admit – I feel a bit let down.