Strategy vs. Spectacle: The Real Victims of Game of Thrones’ Battlefields

Archers line up in two rows in front of a row of cavalry, followed by infantry

Game of Thrones has fielded many on screen battles since first airing in 2011. Whether by land, water, and now by air, every battle has been epic in their own unique ways. But since leaving behind George R. R. Martin’s books and introducing dragons and White Walkers to the battlefield, the show has increasingly failed at some of the simplest concepts of battle strategy. Several military strategists have weighed in on the myriad of questionable decisions in season eight’s Battle of Winterfell. For me, what should have been a tense battle, slowly devolved into a plethora of “WTF?s” because so many strategic choices made little sense.

Rosie Knight places the blame for the Pyrrhic victory on Jon Snow’s shoulders, pointing out various areas where simple consultation could have helped Jon structure the battle more effectively, but I argue that this isn’t on Jon at all. As the leader who has had the most experience with the White Walkers, it seems to be assumed that Jon Snow was the one who concocted the strategy that—in spite of its glaring problems—resulted in success thanks to Arya slipping through the cracks, but laying the blame entirely at Jon’s feet doesn’t take an important factor into consideration. This being the fact that Jon Snow knows he knows nothing and will subsequently defer to brighter minds when any are available. While he might contribute useful ideas and information, such as in season four’s Battle for the Wall when Stannis Baratheon stepped in, Jon recognizes when it’s time to step back. I’d even argue that he relishes the opportunity, trying hard to relinquish the mantles of leadership that keep being foisted upon him.

The one time Jon notably refuted strategic advice from someone who knew better was when he turned Sansa away from the war table in season six’s Battle of the Bastards. Arguably, he didn’t know exactly what advantages Sansa had in her pocket, but rather than discuss that, he assumed that Sansa was still the little girl who only cared about dainty things. Thankfully, Sansa returned with the literal cavalry to save Jon from his certain doom.

Jon Snow stands alone against a charge of cavalry
“Oh. Well. shit,” said Jon Snow in the “Battle of the Bastards” (season 6, episode 9)

Jon is, essentially, a blunt weapon with a good, honourable heart. Point him in the right direction and he’ll try his darndest. Good paladins like Jon are needed on the battlefield, but they are not necessarily the ones who should be organizing the charge. Especially not when there are far superior strategists in play.

So no, I don’t blame Jon Snow for the utterly asinine failures of the winter battle. I blame the Lannister brothers—renowned military strategists, second only to their father—for not raising their hands to point out that putting your army in front of the defensive barrier and forcing thousands of warriors to retreat through a tiny opening made no sense. I also blame Dany, who has proven herself good at thinking outside the box, but didn’t advocate for her own army until they’d already been slaughtered. I blame Grey Worm for not pointing out that the Dothraki cannot handle a straight charge against an unbroken line, such as when the Three Thousand of Qohor repelled 50,000 mounted Dothraki. I blame Jorah for leading the suicide charge that obliterated any advantage that cavalry could have given them.

I love me a good shield wall. Watching The Last Kingdom’s Uhtred of Bebbanburg and reading lots of Bernard Cornwell’s books have made me something of an excellent couch battle strategists. At the very least, I know enough to be screaming about poorly used cavalry ever since Theoden Custer’d the Rohirrim to their deaths in the Return of the King’s Battle of the Pelennor Fields instead of flanking and harassing the much larger and less maneuverable unbroken line of oliphaunts. But I don’t have to be an actual military officer to understand the utter misuse of cavalry in the Battle of Winterfell, as well as artillery and siege weapons, and everything else, including dragons.

Game of Thrones has boasted some excellent battles over the years. Though the initial budget did not allow for epic ones in the first season, Robb Stark’s tactical victory over the military might of Jaime Lannister remains one of the best battles of the show thanks to its focus on the brilliant strategies and human elements that brought about the defeat of the Kingslayer. The popularity of the show made room for a few more special effects, resulting in the spectacular Battle of the Blackwater, but it was Lannisters’ cleverness in the spotlight, thwarting the Baratheon attack at literally every turn at the end of seasons two.

The Blackwater bay explodes with green wildfyre
The Baratheon navy burns in “Blackwater” (season 2, episode 9)

Since then, the battles have grown more and more visually spectacular as the show’s budget has increased. Up until recently, they have been a delight to watch, with our heroes storming into triumph or suffering tense losses. But as the spectacle has increased, the logic has severely decreased, wherein questionable battle strategy has become an increasingly frustrating issue, especially within the last two seasons of the show. After the Battle of the Bastards, Game of Thrones has focused on making every battle bigger and better. When Daenerys first brought her dragons to the battlefield against the Lannister army in season seven’s Battle of the Gold Road, it was undeniably incredible to watch. I still side-eyed Dany’s choice to torch all the supplies that could have fed her army, but hey, the dragons were finally getting to play after Dany’s advisers had continuously advised her not to freak out her future people by unleashing the dragons’ full fury on the field. The episode earned a Guinness World Record for “most people performing full body burns.”

There was the Battle of Hardhome in season five, which revealed the immensity of the Night King’s forces and his powers. And yet, in season seven, a handful of dudes strolled off beyond the Wall to capture a White Walker, only to be surrounded by a million of them, and Dany lost Viserion to the Night King’s Olympic-level javelin skills. Visually, a stunning moment. Logistically? We didn’t just use the dragons for recon because? Ah right. Drama.

There have been several major battles or skirmishes in between that have brought us to where we are now, where simple battle logic ought to have been deployed but was utterly thrown out the window and replaced by dramatic scenes of darkly lit chaos. This was intended to reflect the chaos the combatants were feeling, but the Battle of Winterfell seems to be where the focus on spectacle finally bit the creative team in the ass, and the ridiculously poor battle strategy becomes so glaringly obvious.

Jon and Dany look out over the battlefield
“Maybe we should wait until sunrise?” (season 8, episode 3)

The simplest and most effective strategy for the Battle of Winterfell should have been to secure everyone in the castle, surrounded by walls and flaming trenches, with dragons guarding and flying recon, torturing a couple hundred wights with each pass until the Night King got bored and finally showed up to do whatever it was he was going to do with Bran. But there’s no drama to drag out for 82 minutes with that approach.

The reality is that Game of Thrones has two really big narrative problems to work with:

1. Three dragons.
2. Thousands of White Walkers.

Both are significant plot elements introduced by George R. R. Martin that, currently in his books, have been locked away, or are conspicuously absent, as if Martin himself doesn’t quite know what to do with two overpowered plot devices. The show has inevitably brought them into play, but doesn’t really know how to play with them. Rather than craft logical strategies that would achieve the same ends, the focus has instead been on visual distraction, or in the case of the poorly lit Battle of Winterfell, visual disorientation.

The creative team has no idea what to do with the dragons or a massive onslaught of White Walkers. Both creatures are an overpowered force that should, logistically speaking, be able to easily turn any battle to their favour with little effort. To be fair, each group has been given some weaknesses and has suffered losses and, of course, the Night “MacGuffin” King now has been completely obliterated, making the buildup to his demise seem very much a waste of time.

And maybe that was the point. There is only so much time left to tell the story of who will finally sit on the throne, but the show has had to clean up a lot of detritus from Martin’s sweeping saga that has, perhaps, swept beyond the author’s ability to rein it all back in coherently without sawing off massive chunks of unwieldy plot devices. The Battle of Winterfell clearly was intended to cripple Dany’s army, forcing her to rethink her approach to dealing with Cersei, who has a fresh—but sadly, elephant-free—army patiently awaiting the North’s attention. That’s a reasonable narrative development, but the thing is, it is hard not to overlook the fact that the greatest victims of this battle are all of the people of colour that were unceremoniously sent to their deaths for their saviour.

Bad military strategy is a thing that can happen, but when it so obviously lines up all of the brown people in the front—after showing us just how unwelcome they were in the first place and reminding us that diversity is “unrealistic” in a fantasy show with walking dead and dragons—I can’t help but wonder how much of the writers’ battle strategy was actually just pulled from the South Park Movie’s “Operation: Human Shield.”

Presumably, Dany will lament their loss for a moment or two in the next episode, but having shown no concern for the people she left behind, or even been shown walking among those she brought with her since her arrival in Westeros, it just emphasizes the fact that people of colour have just been convenient plot devices all along, too, to be used and discarded on the battlefield as required.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.