Updated: 19th April 2018

Game of Thrones: Battle of the Bastards is true cosmic comeuppance

It was the most visceral and immersive battle yet, a nightmarish slurry of blood, mud and freshly-opened guts and perfect catharsis for fans

RIP Ramsay Bolton, enthusiastic sadist, skilled archer and widely resented Warden of the North. The bastard deserved it. To his long list of crimes against humanity including gutting his own father, gelding Theon and subjecting Sansa Stark to a hateful campaign of mental and physical abuse we can add animal cruelty. In anticipation of his showdown with Jon Snow in the frosted fields surrounding Winterfell, Ramsay had neglected to feed his hunting hounds for a whole week. He would have done well to remember that every dog has its day.

Before the wintry Battle of the Bastards, though, there was the sunnier undercard: dragons v boats, both hurling great balls of fire. With Meereen under bombardment from the massed fleet of the Masters, the first instinct of newly-returned Daenerys seemed to echo audience impatience why not just command her dragons to annihilate the armada and raze the Masters home cities, a useful trial run for any future Kings Landing invasion?

Between pyramid-rattling trebuchet impacts, Tyrion managed to convince the Breaker of Chains not to emulate the blitzkrieg tactics of her forebear the Mad King. Instead, she settled for a strategic victory, inducing her scaly WMDs to barbecue one warship so emphatically the rest of the fleet capitulated. That justified a thrilling sequence of unrestrained dragon flamb, while also allowing Daenerys to take possession of some invaluable warships. (Her armada was bolstered even further after some enjoyably flirtatious deal-making with Iron Islands outcast Yara Greyjoy.)

Agonisingly vulnerable Jon Snow on the battlefield. Photograph: HBO

In an episode otherwise light on laughs, there was at least the sly meta-joke that the Battle of the Bastards debuted on Fathers Day. Despite their mirrored status, Jon and Ramsay knew each other only by reputation their first real encounter, at a chilly pre-battle parlay with Winterfell in sight, seemed to be a win for Ramsay, on points. He parried Jons honourable proposal of a one-on-one duel while smirkingly highlighting his superior numbers.

Ramsays real ace in the hole was Rickon Stark, whose legitimate claim to Winterfell was also his death warrant. Rickons last act was to be the stumbling starting gun for the battle proper, skewered by one of Ramsays long-distance arrows but only after luring his half-brother into an agonisingly vulnerable position. There have been massed martial clashes on Game of Thrones before, not least season fives frantic wildling rout at Hardhome, but this was the most visceral and immersive battle yet.

A connoisseur of exquisite cruelty Ramsay Bolton. Photograph: HBO

Amid a chaotic whirlwind of ringing steel and panicked steeds, the camera closely shadowed Jon as he blundered and bodged his way through a nightmarish slurry of blood, mud and freshly-opened guts. Only an eleventh hour cavalry charge by the Knights of the Vale reinforcements mustered by Littlefinger at Sansas request saved Jons ragged forces from being carved up into anonymous sausagemeat inside Ramsays murderous ring of steel.

Horrible, violent, seemingly arbitrary death is perhaps the one constant in Westeros. Characters, beloved or otherwise, get removed from the board with frightening regularity and little fanfare. Case in point: after heroically breaching Winterfell, not-so-gentle giant Wun Wun, mortally porcupined by Bolton spears, had his moving death scene cut abruptly short by an arrow through the eye. The show sometimes feels like it goes about its murderous business with the faintly bored air of a professional assassin.

But for the routed Ramsay, the end came with an unexpected hint of grand guignol that, as a connoisseur of exquisite cruelty, he would probably have admired in slightly different circumstances. At first, it looked like a berserker-raging Jon was going to keep pounding his skull until Ramsays brains were splattered across Winterfells courtyard. Instead, he found himself roped to a chair for a final encounter with Sansa, who coolly vowed to wipe out every trace of his legacy. If there was still the faintest smirk detectable in that bloody ruin of a face, it melted away when his starved hounds padded in for their delayed feast.

For the audience, such a gruesome execution was deeply satisfying after King Joffreys all-too-abrupt choking fit, here was some cosmic comeuppance for a genuinely loathsome villain. But whats cathartic for fans might not end up being as useful for the Starks. If retaking Winterfell is supposed to be the launchpad for their comeback, theyre off to a morally muddled start. Sansa is also oblivious to the true cost of her actions: Ramsays name might eventually be erased from history, but hers will now forever be associated with barking novelty hit Who Let the Dogs Out.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/jun/20/game-of-thrones-battle-of-the-bastards-was-true-cosmic-comeuppance