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The Death of Rickon Stark

The night before Jon Snow marches into battle, Sansa warns him about Ramsay Bolton. He will not play by any traditional rules, and he will never do what you expect them to do, and he will find a way to hurt them. In true Stark fashion, Jon is too stubborn to listen before the fight and in true Stark fashion, he plays right into Ramsay’s hands once the battle begins. Jon’s blunders on the field of battle are Ned Stark-level idiotic. He almost gets his entire army killed, starting his own self.

Sansa was right – Ramsay does have a plan and that plan involves letting the captive Rickon Stark loose and giving him the opportunity to flee toward the relative safety of his half-brother’s army. This is Ramsay Bolton though, a sadist and a psychopath, so this little game also involves firing arrows at the youngest Stark as he flees. When young Rickon is struck down, erasing the Stark with the best claim to Winterfell from the list of the living, Jon does exactly what Ramsay wanted him to do. He abandons all pretense of strategy in a flurry of rage. All of the previous night’s plans go right out the window and all of Team Stark suffers for it.

Of all the important characters on Game of Thrones, Rickon was arguably the least interesting. He was too young to be complicated or layered when we first met him and he’s barely had any screen time since he has returned. His death hurts because it hurts Jon and Sansa and the Stark cause, not because we actually cared about the little git. The fallout from his death will be more interesting than he ever was in life.

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Claustrophobia and Terror

Although the titular “Battle of the Bastards” is technically the biggest battle on Game of Thrones to date, it’s a genuinely claustrophobic affair that emphasizes the confusion and terror of battle rather than a grand scope. It lacks the slow-burning tension of “Blackwater,” the splattery joys of “Watchers on the Wall,” and the fantastical scale of “Hardome,” but it finds its own voice. No large conflict on this show has ever felt similar to another and that is something to celebrate.

Director Miguel Sapochnik takes his camera right into the chaos of the fight, watching as arrows rain down upon friend and foe alike and bodies pile high in the mud and allies trample each other to death in desperate retreats. His pre-battle shots, full of wide vistas and painterly compositions that are often unnervingly beautiful, contrast with the actual battle itself: close-ups of terrified and bloody faces, the frame filled with shields and spears, lingering close-ups of the living and the dead alike littering the battlefield. Soon enough, Jon’s army is overwhelmed and completely surrounded on all sides. When Sapochnik does take his camera wide, it is only to sell just how compact things have gotten, how Jon’s dwindling army literally has no room to breathe and no room to escape. These wide shots of the battle don’t showcase anything exciting or epic – they showcase something grim and horrible, a brawl where Jon Snow can fall to the ground and almost perish from the feet of his own men and the bodies of those who have already fallen. Jon wears more plot armor than anyone else on this show, but watching him struggle to breathe as his army retreats over him is terrifying.

The most important thing about this fight, the aspect that may be lost in the wake of a sudden reversal in fortune, is that Jon Snow essentially lost the fight. He played right into Ramsay’s trap and his men followed him into a slaughter. Jon may be our hero and one of the few truly noble people in Westeros, but he lost and he lost miserably. There was only one real hero in this fight and his name is Petyr Baelish. We’ll get to him in a moment.

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Battle of the Beards

Before the episode began, I would have put good money on Tormund Giantsbane not surviving the events of this episode. After all, he’s a beloved character who could be removed from the plot without too much collateral damage. He felt like a goner. And while he does walk away from the battle, he tempts fate more than a few times, being one of the few wildlings bold enough to breach the line of Bolton shields (and getting beaten to hell for his efforts) before going head-to-head with Smalljon Umber, the Bolton bannerman who personally delivered Rickon to Ramsay in the first place.

Their fight is typical Game of Thrones: it’s mean and nasty and brutal and Tormund only emerges victorious because he takes a page from the Book of Bronn and fights dirty, ripping out his opponent’s throat with his teeth before repeatedly stabbing him in the face. The fact that Tormund was allowed to survive feels like it means one of two things. Either he has an important role to play in the events ahead or the showrunners have grown as fond of this burly warrior and his magnificent beard as we have.

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Littlefinger, the Vale, and Future Promises

When all seems lost, the world’s most predictable deus ex machina rides into the fray. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish and the Knights of the Vale break the Bolton lines, decimate the infantry, and allow Jon and the remaining wildling forces to storm the gates of Winterfell. Without Littlefinger, who was quietly invited to the fight a few episodes ago by Sansa, Ramsay Bolton would still be Warden of the North and House Stark would have officially and fully fallen. As usual, the sneakiest man in Westeros managed to find himself on the winning end of a battle. That’s his great talent, after all. He gambles on which team is going to come out ahead and aligns himself accordingly…and he’s the best gambler in the Seven Kingdoms.

The fallout will be enormous, of course. Jon will have words with Sansa about why she didn’t inform him of this potential ally, which is surely going to tear open a few wounds. More importantly, Littlefinger is essentially in position to ask for whatever he wants and we all know what he wants. He wants Sansa. Who is now Lady of Winterfell. Which makes her the Warden of the North. Littlefinger has never hidden his ambitions, and controlling the North as well as the Vale feels like the next big step for the schemer who would happily rule the ashes of the kingdom he helped burn down.

Jon Snow and the rest of Team Stark don’t know Littlefinger like Sansa knows him. He is their strongest ally, the man who literally saved their lives. They will surely do anything to maintain this new alliance. We’ll probably discover their proper definition of “anything” in the season finale.

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