The Battle of the Bastards
Once again, I’m going to start by getting some stuff out of the way. Jon Snow is incredibly lucky to have survived. He screwed himself when he abandoned his plan and Leeroy Jenkinsed his way towards Rickon and the Bolton army. Any one of Ramsay’s many archers could have hit him at any point and he spends most of the battle just trying to survive while stuck in a daze. Ramsay also screwed himself by opting to turn his own soldiers into a corpse wall just to make a brutal example of Jon’s forces. Both of these mistakes are believable, of course. Jon Snow was fighting to save what was left of his family, and having been recently resurrected he didn’t seem to care whether or not he survived. Ramsay had no way of knowing that Sansa had rallied a second army, and his plan would have succeeded if not for the knights of the Vale.
The way I make sense of the dynamic between Ramsay and Jon in terms of their strategies is a way of thinking and analyzing mind games that I’ve borrowed from Eliezer Yudkowsky. Basically, it boils down to the level of awareness at which each character is operating. In fencing and swordplay, these levels can be compared to the dynamic between launching a direct attack, counterattacking a direct attack, or setting up something called “counter time,” which can be summarized as counterattacking a counterattack. The straight attack would be level one – Jon Snow abandons his plan and charges at the Bolton forces. The counterattack is level two – Ramsay successfully draws out the mad dash of Snow and his forces before playing his ultimate hand: surrounding Jon’s forces with his spearmen. Establishing counter time is level three, but this didn’t happen during BastardBowl. If the knights of the Vale breaking through Ramsay’s spear wall had been a deliberate strategy on Jon’s part, then it would be a reasonable representation of level three.
Basically, to be at a higher level is to read the level of your opponent and have a response or counter ready. According to this logic, Ramsay is operating at one level higher than Jon Snow – had Sansa not saved the day, then Jon, Ser Davos, the Mormonts, and all the free folk would have been killed. Had he been operating at more than one level ahead of Jon, then he may have had a backup plan ready in case something like the Vale’s rescue happened. To get a better idea of how these levels of awareness work, think of the duel between Inigo Montoya and Westley from “The Princess Bride.” Inigo Montoya is starting off at level two by beginning the duel with his left hand. He doesn’t realize, however, that Westley is playing the game at a higher level than he is, so he reveals that he’s right handed only to find that Westley is as well. Westley is playing at level three because he pulled the same trick but waited until it was clear that he had Inigo outmatched as a righty. To be a perfect example, Westley would have had to somehow determine that Montoya was really right handed before the fight began, but it’s a close enough application in my book. General tactics aside, let’s talk about specific moments and techniques used within the battle.
Jon Snow is interesting to watch during the early, chaotic parts of the battle. On one hand, I was pleased to see that he had continued his growth as a swordsman. Jon maneuvers around his opponents better than we’ve ever seen him before, and I was happy to see him throw some punches and otherwise make use of his left hand for a change. It was impressive enough to reevaluate Jon’s ranking, but not enough for him to live up to his new reputation as a legend. Of course, Snow occasionally reverts back to his old mistakes, like when he decides to hit a home run with the Bolton cavalry.
I don’t know how he sent that guy flying. I don’t care who you are, standing there and trying to block the momentum of a horse charging straight at you is suicidal, even with the extra momentum from that spinning move. Best case scenario, you get knocked over and somehow manage to keep your sword from being knocked straight back into your face. Worst case scenario, all the pieces you get cut into get trampled into even more pieces. Seriously, I think this is the first time in fight scene history where the final cut somehow looks even sillier than the behind the scenes stunt footage. This was the most egregious example, but even aside from this one moment there are a number of needlessly large parries from both Jon and Tormund. The size of these blocks are understandable given the context and the two swordsmen never put themselves in too much danger, but they’re still worth noting.
So we have lots of confusion. Extras die all over the place and general chaos ensues. Ser Davos refuses to kill his own men because he can’t spare any and because he’s Ser Davos. Ramsay orders his archers to fire because he has plenty of soldiers and because he’s Ramsay. Then Davos brings in the rest of Jon’s army and the spear wall is formed around them. As far as I’m concerned, discounting The Vale’s intervention, this is where the fight should have been decided, and I’ll explain why as I analyze the logistics of the spear wall and the tactics that the Free Folk used against it.
In short, no one had any business tackling those shields aside from Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun. And even then, most people have pointed out that Wun Wun should have had some sort of weapon so that he didn’t have to use his hands to swat away the many spears pointed at him. I imagine that neither the wildlings nor the Mormonts had the steel and time necessary to make Wun Wun a proper weapon, but even improvising with a log or something like he did at Hardhome would have been preferable. This is speculation, but an armed Wun Wun may have changed the tide of the battle without Sansa’s help by providing a simple means to break the line of spears.
But before I deconstruct the spear wall, I want to talk about the Vale’s intervention. Watching the episode, I was very disappointed to see yet another “here comes [Tywin and Loras/Stannis/Gandalf] with the cavalry to save the day!” moment, especially since we had just seen the Dothraki pull the exact same move earlier in the episode. I thought that it was almost boring to see yet another hopeless situation solved by the sudden arrival of an allied army. But then after further thought I conceded that this rescue was different from the others. The only reason that the Vale arrived was because of the ongoing interplay of trust, deception, and the struggle for power among Jon, Sansa, and Petyr. The Vale’s arrival represents Sansa’s decision to rely on and in turn grant even more concessions to Baelish, a man who she now outwardly despises. I think there’s a very interesting dynamic going on, and this is enough for me to switch from “oh, look, it’s the cavalry again” to “oh, it’s the cavalry but look at all this interesting subtext!”
Now let’s talk about that spear wall. Based on the effective distances of the two weapons, I maintain that a swordsman has very little chance of successfully approaching someone armed with a spear unless he has something like a buckler with which to parry, but once he breaks the distance the swordsman will probably have the advantage. Unfortunately, this means that every wildling, Tormund included, who charged against a Bolton shield to get in between two spears should have died. Why? Let’s take a closer look at the spear wall.
Based on the spacing of the shields, there’s not much room in between each spear. Even if the Bolton soldiers had no room for maneuverability, then it would be risky just to squeeze in between the spears while trying to get past the points. But while the shields are pressed pretty tightly together, it’s reasonable to assume that the spears could pivot, at least a little bit, to aim towards any approaching wildlings and prevent them from getting too close. While pivoting would be detrimental to the overall strategy of “advance advance poke poke, repeat as necessary,” aiming at the occasional wildling who decided to charge the line of shields would be worth the slight delay as they reset. I made the following graphic to show the range of motion in which a spear might be expected to pivot.
Each circle shows the full range of a given spear, assuming that its axis of rotation remained the point at which it was pinched between two shields. Therefore, any overlap among circles would be the regions that could be reached by multiple spears. Of course, the spears aren’t going to be spun in a full circle, so I also outlined a reasonable range of motion within which a spear might be able to pivot. Because these sectors all overlap, then it’s reasonable to conclude that there is no “safe gap” between two spears within which a wildling could safely approach. It would be a straightforward, simple motion to redirect one’s spear into the approaching swordsman before continuing with the forward march.
However, it’s worth noting that the soldiers holding the spears are a solid four to five feet behind those carrying the shields. Given how tightly packed the shields are, it is unlikely that the spearmen could see any of the actual battle unless a shield was knocked out of the way. This would explain why the Bolton soldiers relied on a rhythmic chant as means of coordinating their advances and their thrusts – no one could actually see what they were doing. Take a look at the only view we get from a Bolton’s perspective.
Can you see the wildling army? That means that they can’t either. I will concede that because this screenshot is from when the soldiers were fighting Wun Wun that the shields are not in their original locations. Because the spears are now aimed upwards, the shields can come together and fully overlap to create a more protective shell around the soldiers. But that being said, one can imagine how hard it would be to see in between them even as they were originally spaced. I further suspect that visibility was a problem because the shields have small peepholes drilled in. If it was possible to see around the shields, these holes would be unnecessary.
What does this mean? Well, it was still a horrible idea to tackle the shields. Whichever wildling was the first to do so took a huge risk and happened to survive. But that wildling also served as a guinea pig for the others, including Tormund. Was it smart to try and get past the spears just because one person managed to survive? Well, no. But it’s more justified, especially knowing that the spearmen wouldn’t have been able to see well enough to know when or where to pivot their weapons. So I’ll take points away from Tormund for jumping in, but at least he went about doing so in a smarter way than his comrades; rather than tackling his way through, Tormund pulled a Bolton soldier out of the line, leaving the soldier vulnerable to a quick blow. Why is this smarter? Well, when wildlings tried to push their way through the shields, they quickly learned that the Bolton army had already thought up a plan B.
Of course, even with his slightly better plan, Tormund still managed to get himself stabbed. I maintain that any wildling who tried to approach the shields should have been killed. While I managed to scrape together a defense as to why everyone but the first person to do so may have been justified in getting up close, any wildling who was successful in doing so would still have had to fight his way through several more rows of Boltons, all of whom were equipped to defend a small breach in their lines.