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After each episode in Game of Thrones Season 6, we’ll be answering a crucial question: Who is currently the worst person in Westeros? This week, technology and culture writer Jacob Brogan is joined by Slate staff writer and Future Tense lead blogger Lily Hay Newman.
Brogan: Hi, Lily! Thanks for joining me to talk about “Battle of the Bastards.” The penultimate episode of each Game of Thrones season is traditionally the most action-packed, and there was plenty of intense stuff in this one, which I’m sure we’ll get to. But the most impressive fireworks in this episode, as far as I’m concerned, exploded out of the chemistry between between Daenerys and Yara. This season has offered plenty of shipping opportunities (most notably for Tormund, who miraculously survived this episode, and Brienne), but those two queens could have launched a whole fleet.
As long as we’re talking Dany, though, I guess we have to look to the slavers from the opening scenes, scenes that offered us our initial promise of the gory warfare to come. As is often the case on Game of Thrones, the show signified their villainy as much through their smugness as through their actual crimes. Well, that and their heavy eyeliner, which made them look like the ambiguously gay antagonists in some forgotten Hitchcock film. I know they were only on for a few minutes, but were they the worst?
Newman: Maybe they will launch a whole fleet at some point! Fleet of dragons, amirite. But anyway. The whole Meereen plot has been very underwhelming to me. I heard that some people found Arya’s storyline to be boring and repetitive this season, but I didn’t feel that way at all, maybe because we had episode after episode of Tyrion displaying the dullest kind of hubris.
I agree that the slavers were given a pretty one-dimensional treatment, but I wouldn’t mind so much except that I thought we could have learned more about the slaves as a group, too. Grey Worm and Missandei were reasonable representatives, but all the conversations about doubts and unrest in the community took place in the Great Pyramid. We didn’t see much else. And to your eyeliner point, it seems to be a fantasy genre trope that unremarkable villains wear eyeliner. Fantasy and pirate stuff, obviously.
Brogan: They certainly had the true curse of fantasy villains: bizarre incompetence. As a friend pointed out, they start the parlay by telling Daenerys that they’re going to kill her dragons—and then they’re surprised when those dragons show up to burn their fleet? It was, I’ll say, satisfying to watch Grey Worm execute two of the three, but satisfying in a way that was just an amuse-bouche for this episode’s true, long-awaited delights.
Before we can get to those scenes, though, I’m curious what you thought about Ser Davos’ plotline in this episode. We see him discover the site of Shireen Baratheon’s pyre—and watch as he finds the carved stag that he gave her in the ashes. It’s a potent reminder of the price that even the most well-intentioned characters pay for their small victories on this show. And I worry that it bodes ill for the triumphant, but still militarily devastated, Jon Snow.
Newman: I know you can say this for anyone in the show, but things are never easy for the Onion Knight. What was so sad to me about the carved stag was that it survived the fire and just hung out there, almost mockingly, for Ser Davos to find. It didn’t go with Shireen; it remained in the world of the living like all the other emotional baggage in Westeros.
Meanwhile, nice of Melisandre to join us again. I guess she did the biggest thing of the season, but why rest on your laurels? She could have helped out with the battle somehow. I guess the Lord of Light wasn’t feeling it.
And yeah, Jon is in a super precarious position right now. Not to be reductive, but I’m just only comfortable watching this show when bad things are happening. As soon as something good happens, you know things are about to get a million times worse.
Brogan: In that case, you must have been super comfortable throughout the middle section of the episode, because things absolutely did not look good for our Northern heroes. Where Daenerys just sort of won her fight (thanks, increasingly large dragons!), things were going terribly for Jon at first. And let’s be honest: It was mostly his fault. “Did it ever occur to you that I might have some insight?” Sansa asks him. She clearly has a point, and he seems to agree, but then he goes and does exactly what she warned him not to do, leading to the death of virtually all of the men under his command. Can we really forgive him that?
Newman: Yeah, Jon has been rocking some really shitty paternalism in the last few episodes that I do not appreciate. More importantly, Sansa is not having it. We know that Jon is a champ fighter and that his motivational tactics mostly worked for the Night’s Watch (kind of), but he’s facing a whole other level of leadership responsibility now, and based on the battle it seems like he’s going to screw things up.
On the other hand, not to make excuses for him being a dick, but I will say that he was under a lot of pressure leading up to the battle. His brother was being held captive, he was back from the dead, etc. It would be a lot for anyone to process.
Brogan: That’s true. Jon acts as a tragic hero might, propelled more by predestined rage than tactical thinking, and that’s part of what made so much of the battle sequence unbearable. We know that he’s making the wrong call as he makes it. His army knows that he’s made the wrong move after he dives in. Even he knows what he’s done. His inability to stop himself from charging toward that grim fate makes Ramsay’s stupid smirk all the worse.
Newman: Kinda great when that stupid smirk got bashed in. I respect but also hate how this show leads people to revel in violence—both characters and viewers. I know, duh. But I ultimately felt gross thinking, Oh, I hope they brutally kill him with the dogs for some cruel irony! That is not the type of person I want to be.
Brogan: The concluding scenes of this show were a palpable reminder of Game of Thrones’ cruelest and most reliable trick: It encourages us to hate a character so much that it makes us long to see their own horrors perpetrated on them. Though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to relishing that scene with the dogs, there’s something almost literally medieval about the show’s notion of justice. As you suggest, it left me feeling icky where I was supposed to come away relieved.
Still, I guess the guy had it coming, and the episode takes every opportunity to remind us of that. “I’ve missed you terribly,” he tells Sansa early on, before taking every available subsequent opportunity to provide fuel for the bonfire of misandry that began burning in the early episodes of this season. He was as terrible here as he’s always been, and though I’m glad he’s gone, I have to ask: He may not have been crowned King in the North, but do we anoint him Worst Person in Westeros one last time?
Newman: Yeah, that dude epically sucks. Did anyone else see him smirking while he was being battered by Jon? He’s almost too maniacal, to the point of being unbelievable. I have to hand it to Ramsay, though: He’s very creative about how he murders people, and Rickon’s truly tragic demise proved it once and for all. I was talking to a friend today who is only in Season 4 of the show, and I told her that I was co-writing Worst Person in Westeros. Even from two seasons back with no knowledge of how this column works or the current plot she said, “Well, of course you’ll choose Ramsay, right??”
Brogan: Your friend has a point, and precisely insofar as she does, I find myself hating the show. It’s all just a little too convenient, just a little too easy. It’s great to see Ramsay go, but the show will just find someone equally terrible to take his place, as it has so many times before. Per the episode’s title, Ramsay is both a literal and figurative bastard—a word even he uses as an insult—but the real bastards here are the showrunners, who keep bringing us to the same highs and lows, over and over again.
Newman: Jon is a bastard in at least one sense of the word, too. Ugh, all of this is making me want to just move on and find out what’s going on with Bran, which is really saying something. At least he’s someone’s trueborn son.