George R. R. Martin’s novels have long promised us ice and fire, and that’s exactly what the show gave us in the penultimate episode of the season: one long-awaited battle playing out in the frozen north, as Jon Snow and Sansa finally retake their family home, and one long-awaited battle to the east, where Daenerys finally unleashes the full force of dragonfire upon her enemies.

The Fire

The siege on Meereen is violent in the way that so many fantasy battles are: distant, epic and glorious. Although you get a few glimpses of projectiles tearing through the walls of the city, the destruction is viewed primarily from above and from afar. The Battle of Winterfell, on the other hand, leads deep into the hand-to-hand chaos and horror of the melee right alongside Jon. While Daenerys fights floating above the city, Jon winds up buried in a mountain of the dead; it is neither distant nor glorious.

Although she’s no stranger to the realities of violence, Daenerys often seems to forget about exactly how unforgiving war and vengeance can be for the everyday folks in the blast radius—the “little guys” she so often calls her children. Her plan for dealing with the Masters is very simple and very Targaryen: “I will crucify the masters. I will set their fleets afire, kill every last one of their soldiers and return their cities to the dirt.”

As Tyrion points out, this might sound like justice in an Old Testament sort of way, but in reality it would mean burning a lot of innocent people to death. War means collateral damage, and conquering is hardly precise enough a process to divine or divide the innocent from the guilty. Daenerys has always styled herself a conqueror and a liberator, but rarely considered exactly how incompatible those two roles truly are.

Her dragons are her darkest impulses given form, creatures who have one and only one purpose: to take lives en masse. Unleashing them will always have a price. Once, she locked her dragons in the pyramid because the charred bones of a child seemed like too high a cost; as exhilarating as it is to see the Dragon Queen finally taking to the skies, it is definitive evidence that she has reconsidered this stance, and that perhaps a few dead kids are a small sacrifice for a kingdom.

After a rather spectacular display of power from her flying fire-breathers, she wins the battle (reinforcing the fact the mere threat of dragons was what kept the Targaryen dynasty in power for hundreds of years, because who will rise against you when you have your finger on the button of a weapon like that?) Yara arrives and successfully gains Dany’s support for her claim on the Iron Islands in return for access to her fleet. The future of the Seven Kingdoms looks very matriarchal at the moment: the Sand Snakes in Dorne, Yara in the Iron Islands, Sansa in the North and Dany on the Iron Throne.

The Ice

6add39821849853a542af7ddd92f7f518deb60d311a271dbbaf454c3670daa50848fca51983823aefe401a9c2500e4e9.jpegHelen Sloan/HBO

Prior to the battle, women are notably absent from Jon’s war council, which includes Tormund and Davos but neither Melisandre nor Sansa. While the absence of the Red Lady is understandable, given how poorly her military counsel worked out in the past, Jon’s failure to use Sansa’s intimate knowledge of Ramsay as a resource in their battle plan ultimately proves to be his undoing.

“Did it ever once occur to you that I might have some insight?” she asks, once the other men have left. To Jon’s credit, he does try to listen, though he neither understands her advice nor follows it. Tormund and Davos comment before the battle that Jon isn’t a king; he isn’t much of a military commander either. The only thing he’s ever truly been good at is being a hero, and the main thing heroes are good at on this show is dying. Ned, Robb, Jon—the Stark men do the same honorable, heroic, stupid things every time, and that’s why they tend not to live very long; set a mousetrap that uses honor as the bait, and they’ll get their necks broken every time. It may have been her time with Littlefinger or her time with Ramsay that changed her, but Sansa has grown far more pragmatic.

When Jon insists that they can’t give up on Rickon, Sansa informs him rather bluntly that their brother is already as good as dead, though Jon refuses to hear that, too. Despite promising Sansa that he won’t give Ramsay what he wants, when Rickon inevitably gets dangled like a carrot on the battlefield, Jon can’t fall into the trap fast enough. Within moments, his army is following behind him on his foolhardy charge, their carefully-planned strategy abandoned, and it doesn’t take long for them to get cut to pieces.

Fortunately, cooler and more calculating heads prevail when the Knights of the Vale come thundering over the horizon at the last moment, with Sansa and Littlefinger beside them. It’s clear from Jon’s expression that Sansa never told him she wrote to Littlefinger for reinforcements, and it’s understandable why. If the Stark men have established anything, it’s that they will always make the least strategic move at the most crucial time, and lo and behold, that’s exactly what Jon des. It’s not that she didn’t trust Jon, exactly. It’s that she trusts him to be exactly who he is.

GOT2.jpgHelen Sloan/HBO

Jon finally retakes Winterfell with the help of the Wildlings in a rapid siege that ends with Ramsay as a captive—but not before he kills the giant Wun Wun, just in case you needed another reason to loathe him. Ramsay is a character who exists to be hated, who has committed more and more horrible acts of violence to the point of absurdity. Once the shock of his violence wore off—and it did, eventually—there was very little left worth seeing. He doesn’t grow; he doesn’t change; he has no real interior life, just a long string of Evil Things that he does solely because he’s evil. It’s a bit of a waste, really; on a show with so many nuanced anti-heroes, a hammy, one-note villain feels pretty boring in comparison.

And now he’s dead. Ramsay dies horribly, which was the whole point of making him so evil: so that the audience could feel good about enjoying his death. Mission accomplished, though finding pleasure in someone’s horrible death because they are the sort of person who takes pleasure in people’s horrible deaths is a pretty bizarro way to look at either justice or violence. But now Sansa can start to have storylines that no longer revolve around the architect of her torture.

Ramsay’s last words are a desperate attempt to claim some sort of immortality through the lasting impact of the abuse he inflicted on her. “You can’t kill me,” he says weakly. “I’m part of you now.” Sansa responds by promising him that whatever scars he may have left on her, his victory is pyrrhic best, and that what she will take from him in return will be far worse. She will give him not only death, but deletion: “Your words will disappear. Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is the same vengeance the Lannisters took upon the rebellious House Reyne, as immortalized in the song “The Rains of Castemere.” There’s a reason why the only time you ever hear their name is in a song about not screwing with the Lannisters, and it’s because Tywin killed every last one of them and put their castle to the torch. Sansa stares for a moment as the hounds rip him apart, and as she walks away to the sounds of shredding and screaming, a smile creeps to her lips. She might finally be back in Winterfell, but Sansa doesn’t seem much like a Stark here; indeed, if she resembles anyone in this moment, it isn’t Ned, or Littlefinger, or even Daenerys. It’s Cersei.

GOT3.jpgHelen Sloan/HBO

Link to article:  

Game of Thrones Recap: Finally, the Ice and Fire