For one long, gruesome minute Sunday night, we stood a few paces behind Jon Snow on the battlefield, as he cut down a swarm of Ramsay Bolton’s forces with his sword, dodging flurries of arrows and an endless stream of charging horsemen:
The scene, in the most recent episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, was presented as a single continuous take (though, thanks to the wizardry of editing, it was actually multiple shots spliced together). It was a stunning, exhilarating moment, a scene that could easily have been in a big-budget film like 300 or Gladiator. It’s not the level of production that’s supposed to be on television.
In fact, the entire episode (called “Battle of the Bastards”) was as close TV has ever come to replicating the cinematic grandeur of a large-scale war movie.
The titular battle at the heart of the episode (spoilers ahead) pitted Jon Snow, his half-sister Sansa Stark, and their ragtag army of Wildlings and various Northern forces against Ramsay Bolton’s larger, more organized army. It had an air of inevitability about it—the show had been setting it up all season, and Ramsay, a cartoonish villain, had to go. But while none of the particular story beats were surprising, the sheer scale of the battle and director Miguel Sapochnik’s stylistic choices made it a thrilling hour of television.
Sapochnik orchestrated a similarly ambitious sequence in last year’s episode “Hardhome,” but this one was longer and much more elaborate. The shoot took 25 days to complete and involved 600 crew members, 500 extras, 70 horses, and 65 stuntmen, according to an interview with Sapochnik in Entertainment Weekly.
“The amount of supporting artists, the size of the crew, how many cameras they’ve got going, the magnitude of all the sets and everything—it’s unbelievable,” said Iwan Rheon, the actor who plays Ramsay, in an HBO featurette (video).
What really distinguished the episode was Sapochnik’s directing (which is why it might fit other definitions of the word “cinematic”): slow-motion arrows, vast overhead shots, long, eerie moments of uninterrupted silence, and, of course, the sequence above. Throughout, Sapochnik played with thoughtful lighting and angles, perhaps best exemplified by this scene of Jon Snow facing a wall of cavalry charging toward him:
And yet, for all of the episode’s cinematic beauty, the descent into the chaos of battle left many Game of Thrones fans missing the complexity and character development that they come to the show for, season after season.
“Tonight’s episode was indisputably cinematic, but I felt as though nearly every beat advertised itself thuddingly ahead of time,” wrote The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr. “This felt like a second-rate Hollywood movie (300, anyone?), rather than first-rate television.”
Alan Sepinwall at HitFix agreed that “no show in TV history has ever done spectacle on this level.” “But the show at its best finds a way for the characterization to be as powerful as the visuals,” he wrote, “and ‘Battle of the Bastards’ ultimately didn’t manage to surround all those stunning battle images with enough emotional meat to make it all worth it.”
Myles McNutt at AV Club called the battle “a surprisingly hollow spectacle.”
It’s worth remembering that “cinematic” isn’t always a quality to aspire to—especially in an era when television (in all its formats) more consistently turns out high-quality drama than Hollywood does. And indeed, “hollow spectacle” is exactly how one might describe 300 or any number of other movies in which men spend two hours artfully bludgeoning each other. Game of Thrones has sustained itself over dozens of hours by being anything but hollow—in fact, it’s sometimes criticized for being too dense.
“Battle of the Bastards” was a gift for the fans, and an episode that was wholly necessary (a battle of such magnitude shouldn’t happen off screen). But the writers and producers would be wise to remember one thing: it’s much better to make a great TV show than a mediocre movie.