Well, the penultimate episode of the season is here, so let’s take a look. (Apologies for the lateness of the post, but had a nasty case of food poisoning last night…) Thoughts below the cut to avoid spoilers, as per usual:
- Well, turns out that the spoilers posted on r/asoiaf were completely true after all. Yeesh.
- The parlay scene wasn’t bad – I actually kind of liked Jon Snow’s offer to fight in single combat. As for the planning scene, I’ll get into the tactics in a bit but I liked Sansa pushing back at Jon for not listening to her about Ramsay. On the other hand, “don’t do what he wants you to do” sounds like the writers drawing a blank because they couldn’t do the reveal of the knights of the Vale yet. Which brings me to the whole issue with Sansa not revealing it – it seems to me that if you’re having an ongoing argument with your half-brother about why you shouldn’t fight now, why not mention that you’ve got 30,000 men coming, and if you just wait for a day or two, you’re going to outnumber the enemy, thus demonstrating your superior political and military sense?
- Tormund and Davos was nice, if a bit on the nose (come, let us discuss the theme of leadership and loyalty together). Liked Melisandre and Jon too, got closer to ADWD’s version of Melisandre than we’ve had in a while.
- The bit with Davos finding Shireen’s pyre was a bit too obviously heart-string-plucking. As was Rickon’s death, which is really blatantly Kicking the Dog in a situation where we’ve seen him kick the dog over and over again for three entire seasons. Thankfully, we’re done with Evil Genius Ramsay.
- So let’s talk about tactics:
- On the face of it, building trenches to prevent a mostly infantry force from being flanked is a good strategy to use against a cavalry-heavy enemy. And while it’s always better to have equal numbers, smaller armies have used the Cannae strategy Davos proposed to their advantage. So why did this all go to hell when the actual battle started?
- I’ll just note for continuity’s sake, we don’t see any trenches on the flanks of Jon’s army when it came to the armies-drawn-up-in-formation scene.
- Jon charging the front lines by himself is ridiculously dumb even for genre fare. He basically spends the entire battle as a common foot-soldier and never issues a single command. For all that the show claims to be undermining tropes, Idiot Heroes getting saved by Deus Ex Machina is as tropey as you get. Let’s have our heroes earn a victory or two by being smart, for once!
- This becomes even more head-slapping when Jon’s solo ride turns into a general charge from Jon’s cavalry (that supposedly didn’t exist back when Jon was planning the battle), completely throwing the battle plan out the window. Davos charging with a few hundred archers is likewise completely pointless.
- On the other hand, Ramsay does some pretty daft stuff too. If your enemy commander decides to charge you by himself, why bother sending your cavalry out to charge him when you can just pincushion him at your leisure while keeping your cavalry rested? Likewise, shooting into his own men may be a Bolton family tactic, but it’s profoundly stupid even when you have the larger numbers. If the Bolton cavalry was to be the main threat, why is it that the cavalry gets dealt with fairly handily, but it’s the infantry that nearly wipes them out.
- I have a big problem with how Ramsay’s encirclement was shown in practice. Given that we’ve seen two cavalry charges into the middle of the field, the infantry have a long way to go before they actually get into position. But no one on the Northern side reacts to what’s going on or attempts a breakout? And if you’re going to have a giant phalanx encirclement, why do you put the Umbers in the middle except for a preference for friendly fire?
- The giant wall of the dead looks quite cinematic, but it’s not going to happen with an open field battle like that, where people are clashing up and down the line. You only get that phenomenon when you have large bodies of men trying to take or defend a single bottleneck – hence “close up the wall with our English dead.” I did like Jon getting trampled by his own men, that part was quite realistic.
- And has there ever been a Ride of the Rohirrim less surprising than the Knights of the Vale? I will say that the visuals of the cavalry rolling up the infantry flank looked really, really good.
- While Sansa’s ironic revenge-by-way-of-hound is supposed to be a big moment of satisfaction, I kind of feel the same way about it I do about Dany torching the enemy fleet in Meereen – it’s a cool visual, but one that speaks to a muddled grasp of thematics. Are we meant to think Ramsay is right or that he’s wrong about being a part of Sansa? Even the writers don’t seem to know.
- So what would I say overall? Well, the visuals were stunning, but it seems to me that the show has much of the same problem that many writers and directors have with the dramatics of heroics vs. the dramatics of military strategy – thinking that Jon’s solo charge or his arrow vs. shield duel is “cooler” than seeing someone have to think their way through a battle. While it was very cathartic to see the Stark banners flying over Winterfell, I can’t feel like we missed out on an opportunity here.
- And as with Meereen, this struck me as a case of the writers preferring results > themes. Is Ramsay et al. going to get defeated outside of Winterfell? Yes. But Benioff and Weiss are perfectly willing to have Jon and Sansa do it instead of Stannis, or to kill Rickon just for a moment of shock (not actually going to happen, as Rickon is on Skagos when the battle happens).
- As with last episode, I found the visuals of the naval conflict, the emphasis on the technology of warfare, quite impressive. Likewise the dragons were very impressive, you get a sense of what the Battle of the Gullet must have been like.
- More wildfire shoutouts!
- The themes here of war and peace, tyranny and moderation, etc. are very confused: Dany killing all the Masters would be wrong, so instead, killing two out of three is right? Burning cities to the ground is wrong, but burning fleets is right?
- The conclusion of this plot also seems like a case of the show valuing results over themes. The Battle of Fire had to happen, so let’s have it happen even if it means that Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm have to spin their wheels for an entire season. Dany’s going to get the Greyjoy ships after the Battle of Fire, so let’s have that happen too, even if it means that entire plot goes down inside a single scene.
- Dany and
YaraAsha were fun together, especially for the hitherto tiny Dany/Asha ship. Also, while I saw some people saying Dany would never agree to independence, I don’t think that’s what was on offer – after all, she said that Asha would have to respect the “integrity of the Seven Kingdoms.”
- I think they actually made their job more difficult than it needed to be by not having the siege of Meereen start in Season 5 as it would have provided more motivation for Tyrion’s actions this season (he’s trying to keep the regime alive in dire circumstances), and the two-scene war would have evolved out of developed plots as opposed to coming out of nowhere. As it stands, Tyrion’s plotline comes across as a bit of a mandated failure (not that different to Brienne).