Next week’s episode of Game of Thrones is gonna be a big one. We know that because it’s called ‘The Battle of the Bastards’, but we also know that because it’s that time of year again — that special part in the show’s cycle where ‘Episode 9’ is about to be unleashed upon us.
Because of the way the show’s seasons are structured into 10-episode arcs, ‘Episode 9’ is almost always the big set piece, the colossal, dramatic denouement of the season, after which, episode 10 spends its time cleaning up and setting up the pieces for the season to follow. A crude man might describe the first 8 episodes of a Game of Thrones season as the foreplay and passionate lovemaking; episode 9 as the money shot; and the tenth episode as, well, the clean-up. A crude man might do that, but as I am not a crude man I will leave everything unsaid.
Pictured: climax left unsaid
Game of Thrones, as a whole, it could be said, is not a badly funded show. Its scenes are not shot in order, so precise episode breakdowns are not available, but it is known that the show’s floating budget is around $60 million per season, working out at roughly $6 million per episode — although that is a ballpark figure as the amounts do, of course, vary within reason. Unless, that is, the producers decide to splurge on something special.
Pictured: an $8 million splurge
It’s looking very likely now — especially after the relatively tame (and also confusing and mediocre) episode that we just got — that ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ will be pretty splurge-worthy.
With that in mind, here’s a look back at the previous ‘Episode 9’s’ that have had us all clustered around the watercooler at work the next day — or whatever it is you people have at work these days.
Season 1 - ‘Baelor’
The main, pulsating plot pillar of this episode we’ll get to in a bit, but ‘Baelor’ also moved things along in a host of other places, setting up major pieces for a later fall, as well as filling in crucial character gaps. This is the episode, after all, where Robb Stark reluctantly agrees to wed one of Walder ‘the host with the most’ Frey’s daughters in return for letting his army use the bridge at The Twins — we all know what particular land of sunshine and rainbows that promise leads to. It’s also where Tyrion tells the lovely tale of his youth and his former bride, who his father got Jaime to confess was actually a prostitute, and who he was then made to watch have sex with several Lannister men. Fun times for Young Tyrion!
Hijinks elsewhere, too, as the blind and awesome Maester Aemon convinces Jon to stay at the Wall, instead of joining his brother in his war against the Lannisters, by confessing that he is in fact — drum roll please — Aemon Targaryen, and that he understands the internal conflict that Jon is facing, rolling out the quote that lead to a thousand tramp-stamps across Westeros: ‘Love Is The Death Of Duty.’ And, across the Sea, Khal Drogo succumbs to fever, Dany seeks help from a definitely trustworthy witch, and then goes into premature labour.
But, yes, of course, when it all comes down to it, there is really only one reason why we all remember this episode. It was the defining moment of the show’s nascent existence; the few minutes that really imprinted it into our collective cultural history; and it is to many — book readers and non-alike — still the most memorable image in this grand sweeping tale.
Ned Stark’s betrayal and beheading at the order of King Of Little Shits Joffrey and at the hands of Wilko Johnson from Dr. Feelgood was a watershed moment — a point at which Game of Thrones stared us down, unblinking and unflinching, and made its nature known: ‘Yeah, this is the kind of story I’m gonna tell.’
Season 2 - ‘Blackwater’
Quite possibly still the best episode the show has produced, ‘Blackwater’ is remarkable for being a big piece of work composed of small moments. Yes, Stannis’ fleet sails into Blackwater Bay, intent on taking King’s Landing; yes Tyrion conjures up a mad genius plan to dig up the stores of
36mm film wildfire to use against it —
— and, yes, it goes up in a blinding green flash of devastation.
But it’s the more intimate, character-driven stuff that really puts it over the edge. Cersei scolding Sansa, her hostage, for being so innocent, all the while she slowly drinks herself into a stupor and later almost poisons herself and her son rather than risk being taken. The Hound offering to take Sansa North after his defection. Tyrion rallying the troops to defend their city when their King deserts them, only to be repaid by a narrow escape from an ordered death. Bronn singing and measuring himself up to the Hound. There are so many little character beats that allows us deep, nuanced insights into who these characters really are, that it gives the gigantic battle for King’s Landing a much greater weight than if the episode had just focused on flashy explosions and cavalry charges — which are nonetheless pulled off with panache by director Neil Marshall.
Season 3 - ‘The Rains of Castamere’
‘Man, fuck you, George R.R. Martin!’
The book readers knew what was coming. The newbies had no idea. Both groups were left absolutely fucking reeling by the show’s depiction of The Red Wedding. To this day, Game of Thrones has probably three ultimately devastating moments: this, ‘HOLD THE DOOR!’, and Oberyn Martell’s fate (the only scene I personally flat out refuse to rewatch, and which almost made me quit the show with dismay at what even the point was of the story I was watching.)
As it is, it’s masterfully done. Hints are peppered throughout, and audio and visual cues subtly get under your skin, hinting at something being wrong in the lead-up to Catelyn spotting a chainmail-covered Roose and Lothar Frey’s subsequent womb-stabbing. It was brutal, but it was coherent and it was earned. ‘The Rains of Castamere’ was bloody, disgusting, devastating, incredible television — especially when you factor in that it also included Jorah, Grey Worm, and Old Fabio Daario’s stealth mission into Yunkai to open the gates; Osha departing with Rickon for Last Hearth; and the continuing adventures of Arya and the Hound (who witnesses the Red Wedding and who drags her away from any fruitless attempts at vengeance, respectively).
Season 4 - ‘The Watchers on the Wall’
Before anything else, take a moment to remember Grenn, and his stand against the giant. Game of Thrones is filled with ridiculously badass and noble characters doing ridiculously badass and amazing things, but amidst all of that it should never be forgotten that one night, in a dark tunnel in the frozen Northern wastes, a slow-witted farmboy called Grenn took a stand and rallied his brothers with the oath they all had sworn to live by, but were on the verge of forgetting. He did this while being charged by a bloodthirsty giant, and with the knowledge of his certain death. Grenn might not be remembered by those whose lives he saved by holding that tunnel, and the lines of battle might have been redrawn since then, but in that moment he truly was the shield that guards the realms of men.
Pictured: in that moment, the toughest sonofabitch alive (though not for long)
If there was any justice, Grenn’s name and deed would be the stuff of song for generations.
As it is, it is simply the highlight of another Neil Marshall-directed, single-location battle episode. ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ can’t really hold up to ‘Blackwater’, and it is probably the weakest of the ‘Episode 9’s’ thus far, but it is nevertheless a great bit of television, with an incredible sense of place that — more than any other — made us really understand the scale of the Wall and how hard life could be for the Night’s Watch should shit go tits up — and staring 700ft straight down through a blizzard to see an army of Wildlings, giants, and mammoths coming for you pretty much counts as ‘tits up’ as shit can go. The episode faced a steeper climb than the Wildlings, having to follow the duel between the Mountain and the Red Viper that preceded it and which left many viewers — including the author — a hollow husk of their former selves; but it’s to its absolute credit that it managed to draw the audience completely in and make them feel that while it was going on, the battle for the Wall was the only battle that ever mattered.
Season 5 - ‘Hardhome’
‘Hardhome’, man. The other contender for the greatest episode of Game of Thrones is also the freak of the bunch in this list. Or at least it is in as much as it was the eighth episode of its season instead of the ninth. But to be honest, when something as big and momentous as the events at Hardhome unfold, you need an extra episode after just to lick your wounds and to figure out where the hell you are now and what you can do.
‘Hardhome’ is so good, it should become its own trope; like the opposite of jumping the shark. ‘To Hardhome something’: to take something that is losing steam and making you question your commitment to it, and to shovel so much coal on the fire that it takes off into the stratosphere and makes you feel like a fool for ever doubting it.
Sure, we have the character moments — Dany making Tyrion her advisor, while exiling Jorah, again; Sansa and Theon cower under Ramsay’s watchful eye, while Ramsay takes those infamous ‘twenty good men’ of his to wreak havoc on Stannis’ army — but really this is all about Jon, Tormund, and the all-too-brief appearance of Karsi at Hardhome.
Oh, you perfect warrior, you, why’d you have to promise those kids you’d see them again?!
The sequence of scenes that play out at Hardhome is just sheer perfection, and a nail-biting, blood-pounding joy to experience. I’ve watched it a stupid amount of times, and it never loses its punch or goosebump-inducing magic. I never cease to wonder at the way the standoff and the deliberations between Tormund and the Wildlings segues into the desperate closing of the gates against the wight horde; the way that then slowly and painfully becomes a full-blown battle inside the perimeter; add to that the appearance of the Night King; Jon’s heart-stopping Longclaw defence against the attacking Wight Walker and his subsequent shattering; the implacable fury of Wun-Wun as he tosses and squashes wights like they were insects before nopeing out into the sea; and then the final and frenzied evacuation. This is stuff that could be taught in textbooks. The use of sound, in particular, is absolutely insane, as the score buoys the action exactly and the sound mixing becomes almost a character in its own right (listen to everything in the lead-up and climax of Jon’s battle with the White Walker).
Now, if the ‘Battle of the Bastards’ ends up being even a fifth of the quality of ‘Hardhome’, we might be able to consider this strange, meandering-in-quality season somewhat redeemed.