WARNING: Spoilers for "Battle of the Bastards" lie ahead. Venture no further until/unless you've seen the episode.
Anyone who follows 'Game of Thrones' regularly has come to expect at least one of three things to occur in the ninth episode of a given season: 1) A pulse-pounding battle sequence, 2) A bloody massacre, or 3) The death of a Stark family member. The very title of "Battle of the Bastards" alone was a dead giveaway that the latest chapter in the 'Thrones' saga would not be an exception to the rule. No doubt it is this unholy trinity of possible violent outcomes which helps to generate the buzz for each year's penultimate episode. I know that I could personally think of little else all of last week leading up to 9:00 (EST) Sunday night. "Battle of the Bastards" was easily one of the most hyped episodes in the show's history. Yet, hype alone does not keep the discussion going, and it's because everything about this episode was executed to near perfection that I still can't stop thinking about it.
Though the episode was heavily promoted as being Winterfell-centric, the undercard in Essos was itself quite impressive. From the moment she marched into Meereen, Daenerys Targaryen has been met with opposition from the Masters. They have always underestimated her ruthlessness, and this time it cost them. The one word you never... never want to hear if you oppose Daenerys is "dracarys." When the Masters hear this, they have no idea just how dead they are. Dany's opening act victory leads into her meeting with the just-arrived Theon and Yara Greyjoy. I look forward to seeing how that alliance will progress in Season 7. Most of all, I am curious to see whether the events of this episode will hasten Dany's long-anticipated move to Westeros.
Of course, the main event in "The Battle of the Bastards" is the big showdown at Winterfell. It's been building to this ever since House Bolton took control of the Starks' former home. The last few weeks saw Jon Snow and Sansa Stark desperately trying to persuade other houses to join their cause. The result netted them a considerably smaller force than that which the delightfully psychotic Ramsay Bolton commands. They would probably have been less hasty if Ramsay hadn't gone and kidnapped their youngest brother, Rickon.
Something which I cannot overstate is how much my opinion of Sansa Stark has changed over time. More so than with any other character on the show. When we first met Sansa, she was a rather annoying, naive little girl who believed she was ready to play dutiful wife to the King of Westeros. The mental and physical pains which Sansa has been forced to endure in the meantime, as well as her exposure to the great schemers of Westeros, has hardened her into a brilliant strategist who is unafraid of tapping into her dark side. I love this Sansa. Just imagine what she could accomplish with her very own dragons.
Of course, since Sansa doesn't have any fire-breathing mythical creatures at her disposal like Dany nor is she a warrior woman like Yara, she can't physically participate in the big battle. But Sansa remains the deciding factor in its outcome. She's been around Ramsay long enough to know how he thinks. As much as she loves her brother, she knows that Jon will play right into the trap that Ramsay has set for him. Sure enough, that's exactly what Jon does when he tries to save Rickon... a dead man walking if ever there was one.
With that, the fighting commences. It's easily the show's greatest, most breathtaking battle sequence to this point, and I'm not sure what they'll have to do to top it. As expected, Ramsay's stronger numbers have the upper hand. What Ramsay didn't count on, but all of us watching at home probably did, was that Sansa would call upon Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale to turn the tide. One wonders what sort of favor will be owed in return. Perhaps the answer to that will come in the season finale, "The Winds of Winter."
Even when it comes to deciding the fate of Ramsay Bolton, it is Sansa, not Jon, who has the final word. Finding Ramsay in the dungeon where Jon has imprisoned him, Sansa explains to her enemy that soon all memory of him will be erased. As Ramsay puts on his best Hannibal Lecter impression, he's failed to notice the door which Sansa has left open for his hungry dogs to come in and devour him. Hardcore, Sansa. Hardcore. The foolish little girl is long gone, and in her place is a beautiful young woman who (though not infallible) can play the Game of Thrones better than most.