The following article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Game of Thrones.
On Sunday, Game of Thrones delivered an extraordinarily satisfying hour of television when “Battle of the Bastards” lived up to expectations. The episode ended when Jon Snow channeled the collective will of the Internet and pummeled Ramsay Bolton’s punchable face into sweet oblivion before Sansa fed an incapacitated Ramsay to his own starving hounds.
The canine feast capped an uncommonly triumphant episode in an uncommonly triumphant season of Game of Thrones, an hour that opened in Meereen where Daenerys pulled a Sisqo and unleashed her dragons. There have been some ups and downs along the way (RIP Hodor), but the sixth season has generally made for feel-good television, with beloved characters like Jon and the Hound returning from the dead to exact righteous vengeance and villainous characters like Cersei and the Waif tripping over their own ineffectual schemes.
If you’re thinking that description doesn’t sound much like Game of Thrones, rest assured that you’re not alone. The show that gained notoriety for its willingness to do bad things to good characters is slowly morphing into something almost sunny, a shift so, um, stark that some critiques have suggested that the show is no longer recognizable as Game of Thrones, as if heroic moments are somehow antithetical to the spirit of George R.R. Martin.
The reality is that “Battle of the Bastards” is the surest sign yet that Game of Thrones has turned a corner. Far from undercutting Martin’s vision, the hopeful tone is a harbinger of the new normal as plot devices that Martin planted decades ago finally come to fruition.
Despite its reputation, Game of Thrones is not a nihilistic show. With a few exceptions (many of which are admittedly more pronounced on television), George R.R. Martin has never trafficked in cruelty for the sake of cruelty, nor has he avoided crowd-pleasing moments in the past. From the Purple Wedding to Dracarys to Viserys’s Golden Crown, there have been plenty of scenes in which villains receive a deserved and surprisingly poetic comeuppance.
With that in mind, Martin’s sadism has always served a greater narrative purpose. It’s a way to defer heroic duties to the younger generation, pushing a general arc in which a group of classic heroes learns to play a dirty game while maintaining a strong sense of nobility. Martin simply hides his traditional structure better than most, using misdirection and red herrings to prevent the audience from knowing which characters are expendable and which are destined to complete the hero’s journey.
The point is that Game of Thrones is a fantasy tale much like any other, and the clues have been there since the beginning. Sending the Stark children to the farthest corners of the world wouldn’t make any narrative sense unless their eventual return was going to matter. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Starks have to take the Iron Throne, but it does mean that they have to do something to upset the status quo. To spend so many hours and so many words detailing their progression only to return and change nothing – to have the tide break against a dam of Westerosi futility – would be a colossal waste of time.
George R.R. Martin has given no indication that he’s so careless with the meaning of his words. If anything, he’s a rigid formalist, a man who doesn’t leave plot threads dangling and who reliably pays off every bit of foreshadowing. Stark retribution is the most likely outcome given the current balance of power. The existing rulers of Westeros are factions we want to root against. If change is going to happen, it’s more or less inevitable that the heroes are going to reclaim what was taken.
That’s not to say there won’t be more suffering along the way. Many beloved characters can (and probably will) die, especially the remaining members of the older generation like Tyrion and Davos. It’s also worth noting that the Starks have not escaped danger. Though the highs of “Battle of the Bastards” were incredible, they couldn’t completely overshadow the fact that Ramsay Bolton butchered Rickon Stark on his way out the door. Westeros is a harsh place and the heroes still have harsh lessons to learn.
But the books have never been nihilistic, and as the number of players in the game diminishes, Martin’s more pragmatic optimism is finally emerging. Game of Thrones doesn’t punish characters because they’re good. It punishes them because they’re naïve, and if it seemed cruel it was only because the most intelligent characters tended to be the most nakedly selfish (see: Lannister, Tywin). Now the old guard has thinned due to a combination of age and hubris, and a new generation of competent leaders is bringing a different set of values to the fore.
If the latest episode has a false note, it’s the serendipitous nature of the final encounter. Jon’s reckless charge plays directly into his enemy’s hands, a decision that usually results in death rather than catharsis. Sansa’s decision not to tell Jon about her raven to Littlefinger is similarly baffling, since it leads directly to the deaths of thousands of Stark bannermen when Jon leads the army into a trap. The battle seems like it was staged to be dramatic on TV, in which case the narrative logic was a secondary concern.
However, that’s a relatively minor gripe, and it’s probably a failing of execution rather than intention. The books will always have more room to explore the more mundane details of planning and negotiation and I doubt the Battle of the Bastards will feel quite so haphazard when The Winds of Winter makes it to print.
Either way, the recent string of heroic victories is not an aberration or a betrayal of Martin’s core values, but rather the inevitable conclusion of narrative logic that traces back to Martin’s original novel. Game of Thrones was designed to give audiences a grand catharsis. As with demise of Ramsay Bolton, that catharsis will be that much sweeter thanks to all the misery that came before it.