Let’s start with the good, a phrase that pretty decisively tips my hand as to the overall shape of this review. The direction is largely solid - Sapochnik’s sense of composition is reliably impeccable. The wide shot of Davos after he’s discovered what happened to Shireen is probably the most straightforward of them, but it’s hardly the only one. His shots emphasizing the absolute carnage are things we haven’t seen the show do with violence before. The long take of Jon in combat is exquisite, as is the scene of Jon crawling his way out of the crush.
Many of the small moments are similarly strong. Sansa riding away from the parlay is delicious, a beautiful setup for the final scene, Sophie Turner getting to play imperious badass and absolutely nailing it. Her smile as Ramsay is ripped apart is perfectly poised, at once capping off a long-awaited bit of narrative payoff and letting it go just a little too far. Davos and Tormund’s version of “the men chatting before the battle” is delightful. And pretty much everything in Meereen is fantastic, from Peter Dinklage’s understatement to the basic satisfaction (and intelligence) of opening an episode that had been promoted as if it was another “Blackwater” or “The Watchers on the Wall”-style single location battle with a scene in Meereen, and more to the point with a spectacle-laden battle scene in Meereen. And then of course there’s “I never demand, but I’m up for anything really,” which is straightforwardly the best line of the episode, and probably of the season.
The problems, then. Sapochnik’s direction is mostly excellent, but his taste for visual perversity, so effective in “Hardhome” when he was doing zombie horror battles, is just irritating here. Things like the gratuitous shot of Rickon’s body being riddled with additional arrows, or the decision to play Wun Wun’s death as a punchline with an arrow going through his eye are just crass - the worst instincts of the Red Wedding distilled into singular shots, included for no other reason than the fact that Game of Thrones is a show that is apparently fundamentally obliged to include tawdry spectacle.
Furthermore, while sloppy plotting vulnerable to refrigerator logic is a standard feature of Game of Thrones that I’m usually not bothered by, this episode is particularly egregious. Many of these are small things that can easily be ignored - the degree to which the starving dogs comply with dramatic pacing in exactly when they devour Ramsay, the fact that Sansa wasn’t actually there when Ramsay said he hadn’t fed them, or Ramsay’s mysteriously improving aim as Rickon recedes. Their aggregate is perhaps a particularly bad run of sloppiness, but none of it is outside the realm of what the show’s basic narrative engine depends on the viewer being willing to forgive.
But the Rickon scene also starts to get at some of the larger problems. Ramsay’s supernatural archery skills are highlighted by the fact that the scene is a drawn out spectacle of unpleasant anticipation. We know Rickon’s going to die. Sansa has told us. The basic narrative structure has told us. The closest thing to a surprise is that he isn’t one of the burning and flayed men that have been positioned around the battlefield. But the decision to confine the audience in that set piece and make them squirm with dread also provides the space to slow down and think about the basic ridiculousness of what we’re seeing. There’s a similar misstep with the arrival of Daario and the Dothraki in Meereen - a move that pushes the “Daenerys wins at everything” fervor a little bit too far, such that one is forced to ask why she’s spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time faffing about while her city burns instead of just unleashing the dragons to torch the fleet and sending in her cavalry troops. The slack plotting of Game of Thrones works because there’s typically too much going on to be fussed with it. But if you’re going to pay the iron price for your dramatic beats instead of earning them properly, you can’t linger on them like this.
But let’s go back to the Rickon scene, because it really is an effective microcosm of where this episode goes wrong. Because not only does it linger on a dramatic beat that’s not actually load-bearing, it uses it to push into the episode’s key dramatic reversal, as Jon stupidly throws out the entire plan in favor of picking the exact set of battle tactics that we’ve been emphatically told aren’t going to work for him. This is one of the most important beats of the entire episode - the point where Jon is pushed into an outrageously dumb move, doing the exact thing that Sansa and Davos warned him not to do, with Tormund providing the audience voice of “oh for fuck’s sake Jon just this once don’t be such a fucking Stark about it.” But with Rickon’s death being such an utter nothing, given that he hadn’t previously appeared since Season Three and doesn’t actually have any lines this season, it’s hard to have any reaction to this key beat other than facepalming. Especially if you’re the sort of viewer who reads the opening credits and thus knows that the overall trajectory of the evening is going to be a losing battle where Littlefinger rides in and saves the day, in which case Jon’s colossal idiocy carries no real weight beyond “oh, so I guess it’s not even going to go well before it goes badly.” The result is that, structurally, the whole thing basically has no momentum. Jon is screwed from the start - his situation doesn’t really deteriorate beyond the somewhat effective spear wall moment. The arc of the whole thing is just “Jon screws up, Sansa and Littlefinger bail him out” stretched over some very good visuals.
Which is the other big problem with the Rickon sequence, and with the episode at large. Yes, Winterfell is finally returned to the Starks, but that’s literally the only thing of consequence that happens here. There’s no price paid. The two big “emotional” deaths are Rickon and Wun Wun. Rickon, as mentioned, has had no lines this season. Wun Wun has had exactly two lines ever. (“Tormund” and “Snow.”) Both are played for shock gore. And that’s it for consequences. The death pools had pointed at the possibility of either Davos or Tormund dying, and while Davos’s death clearly wouldn’t have worked narratively (the perspective he offers on things is too valuable, going forward), it’s honestly hard to see the case for Tormund surviving this besides the relatively vague notion that it’s probably best to have a named Free Folk around.
But that, apparently, is Game of Thrones at the end of Season Six - a show that’s content to take its (always exaggerated) reputation for shock deaths and dramatic reversals, kick up its feet, and let things unwind in bland predictability. This may have been the most expensive of the famously big ninth episodes, and the most hyped, but it’s by miles the least substantive. What are on paper the genuinely biggest stakes of the show’s major battles - Jon and Sansa fighting to retake Winterfell - is a milquetoast thing that can’t even sustain a full episode’s focus. It’s unfair to call this a bad episode. But not nearly as unfair as pretending that it’s a great one.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of Meereen: Tyrion Lannister
Direwolves of Winterfell: Jon Snow, Sansa Stark
Dragons of Meereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Ships of Winterfell: Davos Seaworth
Mockingbirds of Winterfell: Petyr Baelish
Burning Hearts of Winterfell: Melisandre
Butterflies of Meereen: Missandei
Paws of Winterfell: Tormund Giantsbane
Flayed Men of Winterfell: Ramsay Bolton
Kraken of Meereen: Theon Greyjoy
Swords of Meereen: Daario Noharis
King’s Landing, Riverrun, the Wall, and Braavos are abandoned.
The episode is in four parts. The first runs nine minutes and is set in Meereen. The opening image is of a flaming cannonball being prepared.
The second runs fifteen minutes and is set at Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Jon Snow.
The third runs four minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by dialogue, with Tyrion talking about how he last saw Theon at Winterfell.
The last runs twenty-eight minutes and is set at Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Jon Snow. The final image is of Sansa smiling as she walks away from the kennels.