Unlike the previous episode, which was filled with anticlimactic resolutions, “Battle of the Bastards” was a wild, thrilling ride that brought us to an immensely satisfying conclusion. It gave us, in many ways, exactly what we hoped, feared, and expected from Game of Thrones. Beneath the exciting bloodbath of it all was a fascinating examination of loyalty and authority. The main idea was that loyalty, more often than not, requires both parties–the followers and the leaders/authority figures–to bring something of benefit to the table. It depends on a reciprocal, two-way relationship.
The following post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 9, “Battle of the Bastards.”
The reciprocal nature of loyalty is best encapsulated when Grey Worm asks the soldiers of the Masters to make a choice: “Fight and die for Masters who would never fight and die for you, or go home to your families.” The men instantly drop their weapons and leave. Loyalty, then, functions only when both leaders and followers receive something from the other. Why should these soldiers follow masters who have never done anything for them? By pointing out that their power is not based on a reciprocal arrangement, Grey Worm is able to quickly and easily undermine the authority of the Masters.
This is the same way in which Jon Snow attempts to undermine Ramsay’s authority: he challenges him to a one-on-one duel, which Ramsay of course refuses. Then, Jon asks essentially the same question which Grey Worm had asked earlier: “Will your men want to fight for you, when they hear you wouldn’t fight for them?” He tries to point out, basically, that Ramsay is not worthy of loyalty because he offers nothing in return to his men.
As a leader, Jon has had first-hand experience with the reciprocal nature of loyalty. He literally gave his life because he decided to help the Wildlings escape across the Wall, and in return, he receives unwavering support from Tormund. But he probably also remembers that Ser Aliser Thorne and the other members of the Night’s Watch became disloyal in the first place because he did not, in their eyes, “fight for them.”
Jon’s understanding of authority and loyalty extends from an idea of mutual respect between leaders and followers–an honorable concept that links him back to his father, Lord Stark. Quite fitting, for a Father’s Day episode.
On the other side is Ramsay, who represents a different model of authority. Inherited from his father, Roose, is a thirst for power, mixed with a cold pragmatism. To that, he adds his own unique brand of sadism, cruel violence, and psychological manipulation, which he brilliantly displays when he takes advantage of Jon’s loyalty to family by using Rickon to lure Jon and his army out of position. Loyalty, in this case, becomes an easy weakness to manipulate, not a strength.
The two models of authority come out most clearly in the middle of the battle, after the two cavalry forces have engaged one another. Ser Davos prepares to launch arrows, only to hold back from firing on his own troops. Ramsay, of course, pays no heed to the safety of his men, and tells his forces to loose their arrows. Pragmatically, Davos’ side has fewer forces and can’t afford to lose any men, whereas Ramsay’s superior numbers mean that he can sacrifice these men. In terms of loyalty, however, what is clear is that one leader sees his men as expendable, while the other respects his men and refuses to throw away their lives.
Once Jon’s forces are out of position, Ramsay sends in Smalljon Umber’s soldiers to surround and crush them with their massive shields. Remember what Lord Umber did when he decided to support Ramsay back in “Oathbreaker”? He refused to kneel or swear an oath of fealty, but he turned over Rickon and Osha because he knew that the power dynamics in the North were changing and it was time to side with the Boltons. Lord Umber’s contribution in this battle is essential to Ramsay’s strategy, yet his support is dependent not on respect or loyalty but on the pragmatic gains in power he can make by helping the Boltons crush the Starks.
We had thought, perhaps, that Ramsay’s lack of loyalty to his own men would be his downfall as Jon had suggested, but for all their deficiencies, Ramsay’s cruel pragmatism and sadistic violence prove extremely effective in battle, and he almost achieves a crushing blow against Jon, whose loyalty to Rickon becomes a glaring disadvantage. As expected, Game of Thrones tells us that, when it comes to authority, there is no room for any idealistic belief in loyalty or respect. There is only authority based on violence, manipulation, and power for power’s sake.
Ramsay does, in the end, lose. Sansa calls upon a favor from Littlefinger, who brings in the Knights of the Vale at the last second to deliver a finishing blow against the Bolton forces. But loyalty is a two-way street. This favor from Littlefinger is not free. What will Sansa have to do or give up in order to maintain the support of this master manipulator? This idea of loyalty as a reciprocal relationship takes on a dark edge, when we realize that Sansa will be indebted to this man who inevitably cannot be trusted.
It would have been fitting to mirror the soldiers’ abandonment of the masters with a scene of Ramsay’s soldiers refusing to fight for him because they realize he is not worthy of their loyalty. Instead, we receive a moment of greater thematic significance for Ramsay when his dogs turn against him. His dogs have long been the symbol of his main source of power, which was his use of fear, sadistic violence, and cruelty as weapons of control and intimidation.
In this episode, Ramsay purposely starves them, presumably to make them more vicious, thereby increasing his own ability to intimidate his enemies. This is a one-sided, unilateral relationship that gives no regard to the well-being of the dogs and expects them to simply play their parts and remain “loyal beasts,” as Ramsay calls them. But how can they be loyal to him, when he has no loyalty to them and decides to starve them?
Because he does not understand that loyalty should be a two-way relationship, Ramsay’s actions come back to bite him (quite literally), and it is absolutely fitting that his death turns out to be his own fault–not only are his dogs paying him back for his disregard of them, but it is Sansa who unleashes them upon him in vengeance for what he has done to her. His own cruelty returns to destroy him in an extremely satisfying way.
Let’s return now to Meereen. The Masters command no loyalty from their soldiers because they’ve never done anything for them; that is, they themselves have no loyalty to their followers. But they also lack loyalty in another key area–towards each other. When Missandei says that one of them needs to die for breaking their agreement, they do not present a united front, but are quick to turn on one another out of self-interest.
Yet it is this tendency toward treachery that gets them killed, for Grey Worm instantly kills the two Masters who are the quickest to betray their ally. Daenerys and her government are able to eliminate the Masters who have demonstrated a lack of loyalty and predilection for betrayal–those who are more difficult to work with because of their untrustworthiness.
Meanwhile, the Master who remains is not only the least likely out of the three to be a traitor (for he did not turn on his friends right away), but he is also indebted to Daenerys and her followers for their mercy–a “favor” that can be held over his head in return for his “loyalty.” It doesn’t hurt, also, that the threat of dragons has been seared into his mind.
Political power depends on some sense of “loyalty,” in terms of the reciprocal exchange of favors, deals, and promises. Those who cannot be trusted to uphold their agreements do not make it very far because no one will ever make any deals with them, or will prefer to wipe them out rather than take any chances. (Littlefinger, however, has managed to survive this long, probably because he has made so many deals with so many people that he always has an escape route available to him.)
A failure to understand the importance of loyalty gets both Ramsay and the Masters killed. However, we have to understand that Game of Thrones does not offer a naive view of loyalty. It does not always win out and is not always a good thing, for Jon’s strong sense of family loyalty to Rickon is easily manipulated and nearly results in his complete defeat. Game of Thrones portrays loyalty as a double-sided sword: too much of it can destroy you, while a total lack of it can also do the same, not because it is morally wrong or dishonorable, but because, in a practical sense, it means no one will ever trust you to uphold your side of an agreement.
One last note about a different kind of loyalty–religious faith in a higher being. When Jon Snow visits Melisandre before the battle, we see that her belief in the Lord of Light is a one-sided arrangement. When asked why her god would help to bring Jon back, she says, “Maybe he brought you here to die again,” to which Jon answers, “What kind of god would do something like that?” Melisandre responds, “The one we’ve got.”
This indicates that while she is completely committed to following her god and continues to follow his orders, she no longer has any expectation that his plan for the world must be a grand, wondrous thing, as she once did, back when she believed Stannis was the Prince who was Promised. His plan for Jon might simply go as far as bringing him back for the purpose of killing him again. The Lord’s plan might involve further death and suffering, and despite that, Melisandre still has faith, because the Lord of Light is the god “we’ve got.”
This is the same contradictory struggle many people of faith go through when something terrible happens: they continue to offer loyalty and obedience to God, even though the horrible events that have occurred must be, somehow, a “part of his plan.” This sort of faith in the divine is a one-sided and absolute loyalty that is very different from the reciprocal, two-way loyalty expected in the realm of mortals.
That’s it for now! Stay tuned for a post next week about the final episode of Season 6, “The Winds of Winter.”