When GRRM was putting chapters together for A Dance with Dragons he was faced with the choice of either having 2 large battles in that book, or pushing them into the next book, The Winds of Winter. He chose to push them into Book 6. Game of Thrones was therefore somewhat reluctant to have those 2 large battles until the lack of sixth published book forced their hand.
(I assume any audience reading about Game of Thrones has read a lot about A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones and I will not be responsible for any information you may gain as a consequence of reading this. As particular plot lines for the season finale have been leaked, I will write this in a way that will not talk about those).
In the book chronology within seemingly weeks of Daenerys’s departure from Meereen, the ongoing internal strife in Meereen is complicated by an enemy fleet outside the city and mercenary groups on land sieging the city, catapulting corpses of dysentery victims over the walls of Meereen to sow disease within the city. And some well-meaning guy from House Martell releases Rhaegal and Viserion, who just go around and do dragon things. It also doesn’t help that Daenerys’s husband Hizdahr zo Loraq, the King of Meereen officially, is working with at least some of the groups trying to overthrow the Targaryen hold on the city.
The Battle of Fire is still unresolved in the books but things are brewing to resolve it. Before the end of A Dance with Dragons Hizdahr zo Loraq is taken into custody by Barristan Selmy, so the government of Meereen is no longer directly supporting its own insurrection. Tyrion and Jorah are in one of the mercenary camps. Daenerys and Drogon encounter a large number of Dothraki. And there’s a large Greyjoy fleet headed to Meereen. So in The Winds of Winter there will be a Greyjoy v. Essos fleet battle, the mercenaries outside of the city will fight one another, Dothraki will show up and help with that, and Daenerys and Drogon will do something involving fire. And after all that battling something unpleasant will probably happen to Hizdahr for his betrayal of House Targaryen.
The show has chosen its own chronology of events and this chronology alternatingly simplifies matters and complicates them. Issues of “the government of Meereen” are much more simple: Hizdahr died a season ago and apparently he was not at all involved in the insurrection against Daenerys. Barristan Selmy died even earlier, a choice made by the showrunners to cut off all of Daenerys’s Westerosi advisory support so that she would “need” Tyrion all the more. Similarly there is no mercenary-on-mercenary violence or sieging of Meereen because there are no mercenaries outside of Meereen; there’s just Daario’s Second Sons inside Meereen and apparently they’re 100% loyal to Team Daenerys (even though their leader left Meereen. They’re very very loyal sellswords…). But I don’t know for sure because I don’t recall them even being mentioned this season. So when the Dothraki horde shows up (with Daario!) the horselords don’t have to selectively pick targets among different mercenary armies, they just have to kill the Sons of the Harpy who are … apparently killing any civilians trying to flee the besieged Meereen.
The main complicating factor is … everything about the appearance of the Fleet of the Masters. What made the Masters wait months? (more than half a season) after the disappearance of Daenerys to show up? They seem aware that Daenerys still has her dragons (“The dragons beneath the great pyramid will be slaughtered”) but they seem shocked and awed when Drogon appears. This says that they attacked Meereen under the (very false) impression that Daenerys could no longer control the monsters she used to attack their cities earlier. The show establishes, plainly, that the Sons of the Harpy and the Masters were in some kind of communication, so the show is asking us to assume that the Sons told the Masters to attack because Daenerys and Drogon were gone and that the other two dragons weren’t worth thinking about. But then the Masters waited months to act on that power vacuum.
So therefore the attack of the Masters just falls apart when Daenerys and Drogon show up. Because it’s overly simple it seems poorly planned. It’s the Masters losing because they took too long to get in their ships and sail. Maybe it’s a metaphor for how the show can’t do the same? That it must also pick up the pace or it will lose its battle against time constraints? I’m just going to pretend it’s meta and stop whining.
So Daenerys boards Drogon Airlines and flies around and this inspires Viserion and Rhaegal to burst out of their cage (they could have earlier but they didn’t want to until their mom telepathically told them to). Everything here looks great, I’m getting goosebumps watching it again because this dragon CGI looks friggin amazing. And it’s important that this looks good because the Battle of Fire is already over. There’s dozens of ships with artillery units on them and none of them are firing at the dragons who are stationary targets. I know that dragons produce a frightful presence as a free action so this makes perfect sense. When you’re near a dragon and you fail your Will save you don’t even try to fight it. Makes sense.
Ramsay and his allies and Jon and his allies have to meet to talk so that Ramsay can offer his demands which everyone knows he won’t take seriously. If Jon and his allies surrender they’re dead. Sansa gets to predict Ramsay’s imminent death before she leaves because she’s already bored of this parlay. Ramsay gets bored shortly thereafter so he also leaves. No one in Team Sansa takes a potshot at Ramsay as he rides away.
Later at Team Sansa headquarters Tormund, Davos, Jon, and some guy I don’t recognize look at the battle map and come up with some kind of reasonable plan of “have the Boltons attack us in a defensible area.” And after everyone else leaves Sansa points out to Jon that … no one talked to her about Ramsay’s mentality. Sansa suggests that Ramsay is planning to trap Jon and that Rickon is going to die. This is where Sansa doesn’t tell Jon about how she’s sent for help from House Arryn. Possibly because she doesn’t expect that that help will show up, and she doesn’t want to give Jon any more false hope.
Jon and Melisandre even have a brief chat about how if Jon dies (again) he doesn’t want to be brought back (again) and Melisandre kind of tells him that’s not up to him. It’s a conversation that really sounds a lot like the conversation Sandor and Thoros/Deric had last episode and the lack of novelty takes away much of its possible strength. “The Lord of Light works in mysterious ways” okay cool we already covered that thank you.
Later that night / early that morning Davos finds a pile of burned wood. With a certain gift-he-gave-to-Shireen in the pile of ashes. This entire season one of the not-talked-about sources of animosity between Melisandre and Davos is that she was around Camp Stannis for longer then Davos. She knows more about what went wrong there than he does, but she hasn’t said much. This episode threatens to finally push somewhere on that thread and see what happens.
Wait I gotta have a geography conference with myself here.
Once upon a time (Season 3, Episode 10) Yara tells her father at Pyke she’s going to free Theon. A few months later (Season 4, Episode 6) she gets to the Dreadfort. On a map that looks like this.
It’s a trip around most of Westeros, it takes five episodes worth of time to make the trip. Sounds legit. This season she and Theon leave Pyke (Episode 5), sail to Volantis for a brief supply-and-shag stop (Episode 7), and arrive in Meereen a few months? later (Episode 9). They travel this far.
It’s a bit further of a trip but she makes it in one less episode than it took to sail to the Dreadfort because that’s how currents work or something.
More importantly, this trip to Meereen is not a complete waste of character time because something actually happens; Yara and Theon come to Daenerys with the offer of some kind of “Queen recognize Queen” alliance, Daenerys says it’s a deal if you tell your pirates to stop being so-piratey, Yara says …. okay sure and they have a deal. House Targaryen and (part of) House Greyjoy are allied and Daenerys has more ships for her fleet. But … there’s still a hypothetical Euron fleet on its way to Meereen so there might have to be a Greyjoy v Greyjoy fight next episode or early in Season 7. No one’s seen or heard from Euron in 4 episodes so no one knows for sure what he’s up to.
Stannis Baratheon has assembled an army of Baratheon loyalists, mercenaries, two Greyjoy prisoners, and several smaller Houses of the North into one unified fighting force marching to Winterfell but it’s not doing so great because (surprise!) the North is cold. The Boltons have their own army, along with those of several Houses of the North, that are marching to meet the Baratheon army, but they’re also keeping forces inside Winterfell because they know it can stand a siege. Jon is so pissed off about the Pink Letter that he chooses to leave Castle Black, breaking his oath to the Night’s Watch, to join the Baratheon army with as many wildlings as he can. But then he gets stabbed a lot, which puts a wrinkle into his plans. Melisandre’s at Castle Black with Stannis’s wife and daughter. Davos is off looking for Rickon.
In The Winds of Winter it’s implied that these two large military forces north of Winterfell will meet and that some level of Great Northern Conspiracy will start unveiling; that at least one of the Houses that are “loyal” to the Boltons will turncoat during the battle and help the Baratheon army win. Then that whoever survives that battle will go to Winterfell and siege it until (something happens this part is unclear to everyone but GRRM).
This is about 23 minutes of battle on screen and I think this is something that everyone working on it can gladly put on their resume. It looks great, it feels like a distinct kind of medieval-style battle compared to what other recently televised/filmed battles look like. It’s rare for the show to get into the same headspace that A Feast for Crows is in about war, because that book just keeps reiterating that war is awful. This battle is similarly hopeless, brutal, and suffocating.
Rickon’s dead. Rickon’s been doomed since he was found by the Umbers and taken to Bolton-held Winterfell. But Ramsay uses his slaying as successfully as possible to completely unsettle Jon and it succeeds (hey Sansa was right!) and Davos and Tormund’s commanded troops have to leave their defensible positions because Jon unwisely starts charging at the Bolton lines.
This battle is predictable in the sense that show watchers wanted some kind of Great Northern Conspiracy to exist, but the show has none. Everyone on Team Bolton is firmly on Team Bolton. Dead Shaggydog is not fake, Shaggydog is literally dead. The Umbers weren’t giving Rickon to House Bolton as a feint, they literally do not care if Rickon dies.
And when an unsurprising surprise third faction shows up it’s exactly who Sansa wrote to earlier.
Both sides of the battle make tactical errors. Team Sansa definitely charges in and leaves their defensible position and gets surrounded by hoplites. Team Ramsay sends in his cavalry and then fires barrages of arrows into those cavalry. Both sides overcommit to the offensive and leave themselves unprotected and the only reason that anyone on Team Sansa leaves this battle alive is because Team Sansa made secret arrangements with House Arryn.
Also notice how the hoplites stab at Wun Wun. Giants, being a size class smaller than Dragons, do not produce a frightful presence so Wun Wun’s enemies have no impairment against trying to damage a larger monster, unlike what happened to the Fleet of the Masters when they could not fight dragons.
So Ramsay has thrown away his entire army and him and 2 guys ride their horses back to Winterfell, pursued by Jon, Tormund, and Wun Wun. Wun Wun breaks down the gates of Winterfell. Team Sansa swarms into Winterfell clearing out the last of the Bolton troops and it’s over! Oh wait it’s not! Ramsay has to kill Wun Wun (…) and try to kill Jon but then Jon punches him out. Later, Sansa somehow arranges Ramsay to be put into his own kennel (with the dog cages all opened up) and then the kennel gate closed so that Ramsay is eaten by his dogs. She walks away grinning and the audience I guess has gotten so much fan service it goes on Twitter to tell everyone it loves Game of Thrones again.
The episode ends a looming threat to Stark safety and two large battles are concluded but there’s still lots of things unresolved. Which is standard operating procedure in Game of Thrones, people have to make deals in order to get their goals met, and there’s always a price to those deals. Everyone’s always waiting to collect on the debts they are owed.
What will be the price that Team Sansa has to pay for being saved by House Arryn? With Rickon dead, Bran unaccounted for, and Jon not legitimate, Sansa is the Heir of Winterfell. But she only got there by making a deal with Petyr Baelish. So what price will he ask for?
What will be the price that Davos demands of Melisandre for her betrayal of Shireen? It very strongly seems like the only reason Davos hasn’t thrown Melisandre off a wall is because he didn’t know that she aided in the death of Shireen. Now that he suspects, what price will he place on justice?
What happens with, well, everybody in the North now? The Wildlings have helped Team Sansa free Winterfell but the North generally fears them, so where do they go? Multiple houses all aided the Boltons and betrayed the Starks, does Team Sansa now go House to House collecting heads?
Daenerys has a fleet. Does this mean she now sails to Westeros? And when/if she captures the Iron Throne, will she agree to Queen Yara’s request for Independence for the Iron Islands?
If Daenerys leaves Meereen… who stays? It seems right now that the only thing keeping Meereen from being recaptured by the Masters is the threat of Daenerys and dragons, so if she leaves Meereen does she abandon it to be recaptured?
When King’s Landing hears news of the events in Winterfell, what do they do (PS this partially depends on what happens next week in re: Baelish)?
When the Freys hear that their allies the Boltons have been erased from the map, do they attempt a counter-attack, or do they just hope that Team Sansa doesn’t hold any grudges?
Tune in next week for the answers to some of these questions ..?