This season of "Game of Thrones" has delivered some of the most fan-servicing scenes since wicked King Joffrey dropped his wine goblet and clutched desperately at his throat: The season opener featured a merciful ending to the Dornish debacle with a few quick stabs in the chest; and one episode later, of course, Jon Snow, in his glorious nakedness, awoke from the dead. There was a Stark reunion; the ax-swinging, profanity-spewing return of Sandor “the Hound” Clegane; and Daenerys assuming command of a Dothraki horde after righteously incinerating their boorish khals. Though fan service can seem, on its surface, a derogatory term—connoting a kind of light, pandering entertainment—when delivered successfully, it can fulfill the hopes and expectations that we the viewers have for the stories and characters in which we have so richly invested. At its best, fan service lets the weakest, most terrified character—a young girl we’ve watched be maligned, abused, and raped—harden into the kind of stoical bad-ass who can stare her vilest torturer right in the eye and tell him that he is going to die.
The parallel storylines in “Battle of the Bastards” are, in many ways, about the different ways that the show has toyed with fan desires. The first storyline—Daenerys reclaiming Meereen by literally raining dragon-fire upon the marauding masters—rewards the part of us that may have thought, at first, that an honorable man like Ned Stark surely had to be the hero of the series; it is, on its surface, a clear victory of the good guys, the breakers of chains, against the forces of slavery and tyranny. I’ve written before about the hollowness of Dany’s arc this season, and how it is, in essence, a lot of “YAS QUEEN” moments strung together and signifying nothing. Case in point: Daenerys tells Yara Greyjoy, who has arrived to offer her services and seek support (and, in flirting wildly, fulfill many a fan-fic writer’s hottest dreams), and Tyrion Lannister that each of their fathers were evil men who left the world a worse place, “but we’re not going to be that way.” It’s a great line, truly. And yet, just a few brief scenes earlier, she was declaring her intention to crucify the masters and raze the city in flame if she had to—another great line. Still, it prompts Tyrion to gently (almost fearfully) remind her that her father, the Mad King, one of those evil men, planned to do the same to his own subjects back in Westeros. Of course, the masters are also evil men, and they want to kill our beloved dragons and re-enslave Grey Worm and Missandei—so we root for their slaughter (I might have been guilty of screaming “DRACARYS” loud enough to wake my dog when Drogon and his brothers swooped above the masters’ ships).
Watching the Daenerys portion of the episode is an exercise in pleasure (or at least “f-yeah!”) overload, not unlike being an animal in an experiment, slapping our paws against a button, again and again, so we can gobble up the tasty morsels that come shooting through the secret tunnels into our pens. The second storyline—the titular battle—offers its own kind of tasty morsels; but that satisfaction is more nuanced, and it leaves a bittersweet taste in our mouths. Ramsay Bolton’s fate couldn’t have been more fitting—especially when we consider that, as vindicating as Joffrey’s death was, it wasn’t an act of revenge for all of the carnage he’d wrought; it was orchestrated by Lady Olenna, who wanted to protect her granddaughter, and Littlefinger, who wanted to push the realm up a few more rungs of that ladder of chaos. Lord Bolton’s demise is related to his own sadism and hubris: He is bound to a chair, his face battered and pulped; and Sansa Stark, the wolf-fierce wardenness of the north (in spirit, at least), the woman he could not break, tells him that his house and his name (the only two things that have mattered to him) will disappear, before she releases his man-eating hounds. It’s arguably the only death that would have satisfied fans (and, yes, I may have fist-pumped and cried out; my own poor dog gets no rest during "Game of Thrones").
And yet, until the Knights of the Vale arrive, there are no “hell yeahs!” to be found in this battle; it is a spectacle of claustrophobic intensity that rivals "Saving Private Ryan"’s siege of Normandy: a crush of bloodied, muddied bodies and flailing horse legs; men clawing their way up through limbless corpses to fight and jab and bite at each other; and the sounds of whinnies and screams piercing the drum-heavy grunts of the Bolton soldiers as they surround our heroes like a noose of shields and spears. Director Miguel Sapochnik uses color and camerawork to sustain a pervasive sense of dread. Soldiers become writhing smears of brown and grey, indistinguishable by the houses and homelands that their commanders hold so dear.
The battle opens with an off-kilter shot of Ramsay’s back and shoulder from a raised view, and the oddness of this angle is just enough to set us ill-at-ease until we realize that it is a first-person perspective, and that this perspective belongs to the poor, doomed Rickon Stark. Rickon’s death feels more like a narrative means to an end than the actual passing of a character—indeed, Ramsay uses him as a tool of torture and manipulation (just like Sansa cautioned Jon); his murder sends Jon into a rage that obliterates all of his careful tactical planning. Over the course of six seasons, Kit Harington has matured vastly as an actor: The look on Jon’s face as he stands alone, unsheathing Longclaw in front of a Bolton advance, is equally sorrowful and stoic; it recognizes that his sister was right, and that he has lost—all he can do now is fight until he falls. In the end, the good guys win the day—but only because Sansa Stark calls upon Littlefinger, the man who pimped her out to the Boltons in the first place, for his help. And even then, if Littlefinger had arrived a few moments later, we’d have another Red Wedding-sized heartbreak on our hands. This victory is a fragile one, which makes it all the more precious.
The actual Battle of the Bastards is a perfect example of the show giving its fans what they ask for—the good guys winning for once—with a heartrending complexity. It feels good to watch Jon Snow punch Ramsay Bolton into oblivion. And it feels really goddamn good to watch Sansa Stark stand on the other side of the cage as Ramsay’s hound takes that first bite out of his face (and it would feel even better to watch Sophie Turner collect her first Emmy for her work this season; she has made Sansa’s transformation from fair maiden to maiden of death wholly convincing). My screen got a little blurry when the banner for House Stark unfurls over the gate of Winterfell (I’m sure I’m not alone there). The joy, though, is tempered by the loss: We are confronted with Rickon’s pierced corpse on a stretcher, and Jon’s solemn command to bury him with their father. Still, with the Starks back in command in the north, well-positioned to take on the threat of the White Walkers, there’s a sense that the series is moving more deftly and confidentially into its final stretch of episodes, and that it is capable of making its fans happy without sacrificing the pathos that has distinguished it. As the Stark wolf knocks down the banner of Bolton, that avatar of evil, "Game of Thrones" does show us that hope, however hard-won, is still hope.