By now everyone knows the penultimate episode of each season of "Game of Thrones" is where it goes down. A quick rundown of the previous ninth episodes: the beheading of Ned Stark; the battle of Blackwater; the Red Wedding; the Battle of Castle Black. Last year it happened a little earlier ("Hardhome" in the eighth episode) but once we saw this episode's title — "The Battle of the Bastards" — we all knew it would be a doozy.
And it delivered. Directed by Miguel Sapochnik (who also helmed last year's "Hardhome") it was a true spectacle — visually stunning, emotionally draining and culminating with some fulfilling revenge. Ramsay Bolton is dead, done in by Jon, Sansa and eventually his own hounds. And Winterfell is once again under Stark rules. And just in case that wasn't enough: dragons — all three of them! — and a new alliance between Daenerys and Yara.
As always, check out Alyssa Rosenberg's review on Act Four and catch the two of us on Facebook Live at 2 p.m. Monday, when we break down the episode and answer your questions.
A vicious battle and a fitting end for Ramsay Bolton
Before the Battle of the Bastards, there was the Meeting of the Bastards. Jon, Sansa and Co., ride up to have a little pre-battle chat with Ramsay to see if this whole thing can be avoided. "Thank you for returning Lady Bolton," Ramsay says to Jon, sporting that wicked grin we'll soon grow to miss in a weird way. Shockingly, they can't seem to find common ground. Jon refuses to kneel before Ramsay and Ramsay refuses to take up Jon's offer of a one-on-one battle to determine a victor. Why would he when he has twice as many men? Ramsay asks if Jon would let his little brother, Rickon, die because he was too proud to surrender. Sansa wants to know why she should believe that he even has Rickon. A direwolf head is tossed on the ground as proof.
After Sansa rides away, Ramsay throws a little more trash talk at Jon. "She's a fine woman, your sister. I look forward to having her back," he says, before wondering aloud which parts of Jon's body his hungry hounds (seven days without food for them) would chomp down on first.
Back at Stark Army HQ, the men are drawing up battle plans. Tormund is worried about all the horses, Davos says they need to entice the Bolton army into charging. Jon tells Tormund that he knew Ramsay wouldn't agree to a mano-a-mano battle, but that he hoped it would help get under Ramsay's skin and affect his strategy.
Sansa is unimpressed with the preparations. She finds it ridiculous that battle plans have been drawn up without consulting her, the one who knows Ramsay best. "I know how his mind works and how he likes to hurt people," she tells Jon. "Did it ever occur to you that I might have some insight?" Sansa is sure that Ramsay won't fall into Jon's trap, but Jon is offended that she takes him so lightly, noting his great battles at The Wall.
Jon wants to know how to get Rickon. Sansa has resigned herself to the fact that Rickon, since he is Ned's son — and therefore a greater threat to Ramsay than Sansa or Jon — his days are numbered. Sansa continues to want to wait for more men to attack and Jon snaps that this is the army they have and battles have been won against greater odds. "If Ramsay wins, I'm not going back there alive. You understand me?" Sansa asks. Jon promises he will protect her, but Sansa says no one can protect her and no one can protect anyone. Maybe it's just pre-battle jitters, but there was some real discord between these two here.
There's nothing but good feelings between Tormund and Davos as they prepare for the big day. Their communication with each other isn't perfect — Davos has to explain that Stannis's demons weren't, like, actual demons — but they seem to have a connection. Tormund wants to spend what could be his final night alive getting wasted with his new pal and he's got some primo sour goat's milk that can get both of them nice and crunk, but Davos instead opts for his usual routine — walking far away from camp and nervously emptying his bowels.
Jon visits Melisandre, who has become something of an afterthought after doing her resurrection thing early in the season. Her advice for Jon is simple: don't lose. About that — if he does lose, Jon wants to remain dead. Melisandre says that decision isn't up to her; she simply serves the Lord of the Light. "Maybe he brought you here to die again," she says. Okay, downer. She really has seemed out of sorts ever since Stannis lost and she murdered a child. Speaking of, as Davos wanders away from camp he spots the remnants of the pyre on which Shireen was sacrificed. (The details of which he remains in the dark about.) When he spots the wooden stag he gave Shireen as a gift buried in the snow, it raises his suspicions about just what happened to his dear friend Shireen.
On the day of the battle, Jon's army is in formation and ready to go, with Wun Wun the Giant leading the way. The much larger Bolton army waits for them in the distance and the first move is made by Ramsay, who rides to the front of his pack of soldiers with his prisoner, Rickon Stark in tow. (It seems captivity can't halt growth spurts, because Rickon is now as tall as Ramsay.) Ramsay kicks off the battle with a "game" — he frees Rickon from his restraints and tells him to run towards his brother. The "fun" part of the game is that Ramsay shoots arrows at Rickon as he sprints towards Jon. The first three arrows miss their mark (on purpose?) but right as Rickon reaches Jon, Ramsay's next arrow goes right through the youngest Stark's heart. Goodbye, Rickon. We hardly knew ye. (Which was maybe for the best.)
Now the battle is fully on. And so much for luring the Boltons into being the aggressor. Jon leads part of his calvalry right into the heart of the Bolton army, and it's suddenly a sea of arrows and horses and bodies. Jon is caught in the middle with nothing but his sword but somehow manages to escape serious harm while inflicting plenty of damage on his opponents. There's so much carnage that much of the fighting ends up taking place on top of piles of dead bodies.
As Davos leads the rest of the Stark army into battle, Ramsay tells Lord Umber that "it's time." That would be time for the Shield-Spear formation, in which the Umber men surround the Stark army with their shields and spears, forming an impenetrable line that can close in on the soldiers caught in the middle. (Think the trash compactor scene in "Star Wars," but more stabby.) Wun Wun can pluck and smack a few of the soldiers but he's only one giant. Tormund charges but just gets a slash in the arm for his efforts. Knowing they can't penetrate the Shield-Spear, Tormund then leads his men over the giant pile of dead bodies that has amassed, looking for another means of escape. Jon almost gets suffocated at the bottom of the pile but manages to pull himself to safety, and just in time to see Tormund take out Umber.
And more importantly, just in time to see the House
Baelish Arryn banner and the accompanying battalions who turn the battle in favor of the Starks. (Sansa’s request to Littlefinger was fulfilled, as the two look on proudly as the Arryn men plunge themselves into the action.) Ramsay knows his luck has run out and rides back into castle of Winterfell looking for refuge. He thinks he can batten down the hatches and stay secure but he didn’t account for a giant than can smash through any door in front of him, even while getting pelted with arrows. Wun Wun manages to break through, but it’s his final act, as he drops to the ground with dozens of arrows sticking out of him and Ramsay putting one last one through his eye.
At this point, with his army defeated, Ramsay decides to take up Jon on his offer of one-on-one combat. But Ramsay is done for. Jon easily blocks the three arrows Ramsay fires his way before pummeling him to a bloody pulp. He eases up when spotting Sansa and walks away, as the Stark banners replace the Bolton banners in Winterfell. As Rickon's body is brought in, Jon says he will bury his brother in the crypt, next to Ned.
All that's left now is to deal with Ramsay. A sendoff for one of the great/awful villains in recent television history. And it is fitting that Sansa is the one to send him off. "Is this where I'll be staying now?" he asks her. "You can't kill me. I'm part of you now," he adds. But his days of intimidating Sansa are in the past. The days of anyone intimidating Sansa are in the past. "Your words will disappear. Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear," she tells him, with the calm and assuredness that we are used to seeing from Daenerys halfway around the world.
And with that, the hounds are released. Ramsay says his own hounds will never harm him, they are loyal beasts. But Ramsay hasn't fed them for seven days — and it's this final act of sadistic cruelty that will do him in. Sansa watches as the hounds rip a chunk of flesh out of Ramsay's face and begin to devour the rest of him. And she allows herself a smile as she walks away, closing the most painful chapter of her life and beginning a new one as the Lady of Winterfell.
Three dragons are better than one
Of course that wasn't the only action in tonight's episode. In Meereen, the city is under siege by the slavers and old masters, launching a sea attack against the city, which makes Tyrion's explanation to the recently-returned Daenerys that Meereen is actually doing quite well ("commerce is up!") land with a bit of a thud. Daenerys has a plan and it's her usual plan — vanquish her enemies, kill them all, lay waste to everything, etc. At this point Tyrion weighs in with a history lesson, telling Dany of her father's plans for King's Landing, which included a whole lot of wildfire and a whole lot of carnage, which is why Jaime did what he did and killed the Mad King. So Tyrion would like an approach that is a little less scorched Earth than Dany's.
Dany agrees to a meeting with representatives of the old masters, and they think they are the ones setting guidelines. Dany informs them they have, in fact, assembled to discuss their surrender, not hers. The masters get in a few laughs before telling Dany that her reign is over. "My reign is just begun," she says, which is Drogon's cue to fly in and do his thing. Dany rides away on his back as down below Viserion and Rhaegal break out of their underground holding area to form the triple dragon formation. Simultaneously, the Dothraki horde arrives and starts chopping the heads off of every Son of Harpy they come across. And when Dany finally gives the order — "Dracarys!" — the three dragons lay waste to the attacking ships in the bay, ending the siege of Meereen. (Took long enough — I couldn't have been the only one thinking, less flying in circles, more burning things to a crisp, dragons.)
Fresh off victory, Dany has some visitors in the persons of Yara and Theon Greyjoy. Tyrion remembers Theon, and not all that fondly. They last crossed paths at Winterfell, where Theon made some of the same five or six dwarf jokes that Tyrion has been hearing all his life from wannabe-funnymen. When they get down to business, Dany learns that the Greyjoys have brought 100 ships to offer to her and she's intrigued that the offer officially comes from Yara, and not Theon. They also inform her that another offer is coming from the Iron Islands — Euron, who will offer his own ships in addition to a proposal of marriage. But Dany senses something about Yara and is willing to enter an alliance with her, on the condition that they knock off all the roving, raiding and raping. "That's our way of life," pleads Yara. "No more," says Dany. And they have a deal. Two queens in Meereen, one queen in the North.