Everything has led to this: for the show’s universe and, frankly, the show itself. Last season’s penultimate episode, “Baelor,” brought the show to the upper echelon of dramatic achievement, and for those who hadn’t read the novel (like myself) it shocked us to discover the ruthlessness that this world possessed. “Blackwater” was this season’s pinnacle, the defining moment that would cast either a golden aura over the eight episodes before it, or shadow them in doubt. It is also promised a prolific scale battle due to a rumored record for most expensive episode of TV ever. Needless to say, if this disappointed, then the already-approved third season would flounder and viewership would jump ship. But like Stannis Baratheon and his first mate Ser Davos, I believe the fanbase will stand proudly on the bow as this episode packed a wallop with sword-clanging sizzle, and crushing despair.
Another monumental strength of this episode is in direct opposition to GoT’s usual scope. Whereas most weeks I break up into sections corresponding to geographic location, we spend all our time in King’s Landing this week. The ability of Benioff and Weiss (the show’s creators) to poke our heads in at select moments across the realms is an incredible advantage. It would hinder the storytelling if we had to sacrifice the sense of interconnectedness along with the linear timeline just to service each storyline cohesively. But these writers manage to offer mostly equal time and importance to each plot as they weave in and out, creating this fantastical tapestry.
However, this week’s razor-sharp focus was necessary. Could you imagine how much the tension would have deflated if after Tywin Lannister and Loras Tyrell burst through the doors declaring victory if we spent two minutes with Daenerys whining about her dragons? Not that it would have diminished my appreciation for Tyrion’s rousing speech or Cersei’s drunken crudeness about womanhood, but it would have felt like a needy child pulling on our pantlegs as we’re having the grown-up discussion. Clearly we care for our children such as Daenerys deeply, but this time is for the adults to dabble in adult matters without the worries of fragile ears picking up on any of the filthy talk.
I will break up my recapping a bit for the sake of clarity. After all, Cersei and the ladies are sequestered so well that the sounds of battle don’t seep in to Maegar’s Holdfast, so I’ll splice up discussion of “red flowers blooming” —icky girl stuff—and the horrors of the battlefield for those uninterested in Cersei traumatizing Sansa and looking for solace at the bottom of a wine glass.
The Battle of Blackwater
The integration of naval warfare and Helm’s Deep-esque (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers FTW) penetration of Mudgate was awesome. Who would have suspected that Tyrion’s inclusion of Wildfire in his strategy would be so fantastic and horrifyingly elegant. The decoy ship, empty but oozing Wildfire into the ocean, and Bronn launching an fiery arrow into that flammable muck was as graceful an image as you’ll ever feast your eyes on, well as far as the explosion of nearly an entire fleet goes. But while I could pontificate on the gorgeous sequences or even the clever leadership of Tyrion for several hundred words more (and just might) let’s go blow-by-blow.
The stage is set with Ser Davos leading the charge and his son dissuades him from worry saying their cause is just and the Lord of the Light is on their side. While Davos doesn’t seem sold on conversion, I bet he’s glad shadow baby plays for his team. Tyrion lays back in bed, justifiably nervous that they are definitely outmanned, and maybe outgunned. He’s no general. He’s a “half-man” leading tall brutes into a fight most of them won’t believe in. After all, would a boy king with a penchant for humiliating honorable men and innocent women be someone you’d lay down your life for? Maester Pycelle (newly-freed and beard growing back) provides Cersei with a little insurance: a vial of Nightshade. This is a concoction that can calm nerves and induce sleep in small doses, but at ten drops it can help commit suicide. Once again, this wicked witch is brought down to our level of fright and panic and it humbles her. Although later, she’ll ruin this goodwill with her own brand of cowardice.
Bronn sings with the Lannister army at the brothel, preparing for battle with ale and tail. The Hound scoffs at Bronn’s exploits saying that while he likes sex and drinking, what he truly loves is killing, because they aren’t so different really. My impression is that The Hound is so self-loathing of his own primitive desire that he hopes to bring Bronn down to his level of unadulterated slaughter. We’re introduced to Tyrion’s squire, Podrick Payne—distant relative of Ned Stark’s executioner Ilyn Payne. Tyrion assures that he trusts the boy when Varys shows weariness. This is a brilliant and subtle setup for when Podrick basically saves Tyrion from certain death. Varys’s concern for a Stannis-ruled kingdom is high since his spies have told him of his allegiance to “dark arts.” He says he can think of nothing worse than a king in service to this magic. Of course this just excited me further that my theory of magical chaos reigning over these armored men was coming to fruition.
Joffrey’s cockiness before battle is boiling over as he demands Sansa to kiss his newly crafted sword, Hearteater. Sansa sticks in a quick taunt that her brother Robb is braver than he, since he leads the ground assault. Then Sansa states the tragic inevitability of war to Shae; she’s sure Joffrey will survive. “The worst ones always live.” Tyrion shows a little bit more reserve and proper dread as the ships slip through the fog. He isn’t embracing his role as captain yet, ultimately looking out for himself, when he states, “I quite like my head. I don’t want to see it removed just yet.”
I’ve already mentioned how tremendous the kickoff for this battle was. The employment of Wildfire was ingenious. When it was first discussed it sounded as if they would just throw pots of it at ships, but this was efficient and swift. Basically, from that point I was, “In Tyrion We Trust.” The stunning visual of the green embers spraying onto the backs of the men and burning the masts down into kindling was exactly the kind of return I expected on this investment. Not your run-of-the-mill fantasy brawl. This was calculated and diabolical. Even Tyrion marveled in terror as his plan was executed, the green raging in the reflections of his tears.
Stannis, while disadvantaged by the decimation of his fleet still has more than enough men to storm the castle, risking his men against a downpour of flaming arrows as they waded in the water surrounding the wall of vibrant, deadly green. As the ladders are hoisted and Stannis’ foot soldiers advance, Joffrey’s deathly fear is showing. The boy king true colors are pale. And even with their barrage of arrows falling from the sky, not all are burned and pierced. When the men take shelter against the wall, the men atop drop rocks upon their unsuspecting heads. Never shying from blood, the spray is sloshy and crimson. And as non-confrontational as I am, something basic in me was giddy.
With a roar of “Any man dies with a clean sword, I’ll rape his f*cking corpse!” The Hound rushes his legion of troops at the now climbing battalion. After several decapitations and fountains of blood, and sword fighting that made me recall LOTR with fondness, we get a striking scene where the hulking Hound freezes mid-battle as an on-fire enemy soldier races toward him. Paying off their contentious bonding scene before, Bronn’s steady arrow takes down the assailant, but at that moment it’s clear, The Hound wants no part of this. It could possibly have been more explicit why The Hound is so afraid of fire. His disfigurement is obvious, but I didn’t put two and two together that fire was its cause. Though again, I see that it’s a burn. While it might have been cheesy to do a flashback he could put his hand to his face, maybe. Or in the “Previously On” it could have been mentioned. I don’t know. It just felt abrupt for him, of all people, to run away. Though I like that his cowardice is shielded when he defiantly retreats behind the gate and he tells Tyrion, with Joffrey standing beside him, “F*ck the king.” It’s telling as well that the temperamental runt only starred terrified that one of his greatest assets abandoned him.
As Stannis’ men turn over their boats to act as shields and bring out the battering ram (I really wish I had my Two Towers DVD right now, I would be Helm’s Deep-ing it hard core right now), Tyrion realizes it’s all on him as Joffrey takes up Lancel’s offer to be brought back to his mommy. Big surprise, Joffrey doesn’t want to stick around when his neck is on the line. And our half-man doesn’t try to channel Coach Taylor (Friday Night Lights, get familiar) or Braveheart, he sticks to what he knows: self-preservation. “Don’t fight for the king, or honor or glory or riches, because you won’t get any. This is your city he means to sack, your gold he means to steal, and your women he’ll rape….” And then he unleashes the rallying cry that might as well replace ‘An Army of One,” because it’s more in line with our generation’s sentiments: “Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them.” Man knows how to get the blood boiling. That’s mine, you can’t have it. I’m a kill ya. I could use Peter Dinklage pep talks like that daily.
Tyrion’s last minute cram sessions with books then come to good use when he uses a tunnel to attack them from behind (as Tyrion accustomed to, you know f*cking someone from the back…OH!). But then as they take down the ram-battering crew easily, the other half storms them from the other side of the island. Our beloved imp’s face is sliced by a man disguised in Lannister colors, and Podrick quickly slides his hands underneath or his neck may have snapped. But as Tyrion’s view as begin to blur, and hope seems to be lost, Tywin Lannister and his new alliance with House Tyrell ride valiantly through and rescue Tyrion’s waining unit.
They won. It’s a triumphant moment, but upon reflection it’s solemn. Nothing is solved. There’s no way Loras Tyrell’s cool with Joffrey on the throne still (I sure as hell am not) and Stannis is at large, and only the death of Davos’ son is confirmed. Ser Davos himself might be clinging to life! Not to mention, The Hound might have whisked Sansa out of the castle, heading for refuge in the North. The scene where he tells him that “the world is built by killers like him,” so that she’ll not be afraid of him is heartbreaking on many levels. One, he hates the man he is, that painfully clear. And two, to hear that your father is a killer is not the way daddy’s little girl wanted to remember him. The dropping of the doll her father bestowed upon her seems like insisting symbolism that her innocence is gone, but is that indicative of leaving with The Hound, or witnessing the turmoil of war?
Speaking of ruining Sansa’s girlish worldview, Cersei did a damn good job of her own. For our breaks in the action, Cersei’s treated us to some down-home drunken cynicism, spitting up wine and reality for her “little dove.” The tipsy queen mocks her daughter-in-law to be when she prays for mercy, saying that her father told her gods have no mercy. That’s why they’re gods. Epic quote, earth-shattering words for the girl though. Even more traumatic is when Cersei was told this. At age four, when her mom died. As the naive daughter tried to bring her mother back, her father assured her it wouldn’t help. “He believes in them, he just doesn’t like them very much.” Cersei gets particularly nasty, admitting she’d rather face swords than be locked up with frightened hens. Sansa seems appalled since the queen invited these guests, but she confesses she did so because it was expected of her. She insults the maidens further by saying these hens will go back to their cocks (double entendre alert!) praising her courage anyway.
The laundry list of reasons why Sansa needs therapy continues when Cersei advises the girl that her tears are not her greatest weapon, that’s between her legs. What a role model. More wretched truths include: “When the city is sacked, you’ll all be in for a bit of a rape.” That’s the spirit! And there’s this gem, “When a man’s blood is up, anything with tits looks good.” Such a sweetheart. The icing on the cake though is, well, a cake metaphor. She ensures Sansa that a precious girl like her is a “slice of cake just waiting to be eaten.” Yum-my? Nope, gross. Awful. Get it out.
Sansa shows Cersei how to keep cool though and comforts the women as it gets hairy (the battle, not…you get it) and Shae suggests she hides in her chamber to avoid that inevitable fate of deflowering, or worse, execution by Ilyn Payne. Oh yes, Cersei also revealed the harsh truth that Ilyn wasn’t there for traitors. He was there to kill the women since it’s more dignified than being raped by the enemy. Yeah, this is not a family program. Shae lifts her dress to show her concealed knife, revealing just how much of a badass she is (she’s also a “ride or die bitch” as they say, telling Tyrion she “won’t let them have him” the night before). Of course this is when she encounters The Hound, and a sweet deal to escape her miserable fate with Joffrey The Abuser.
There’s no denying that as a dude I adored the fight scenes most, but the moments of absolute fear where splendid as well. Cersei telling her younger son, Tommen, the story of the lion cub who would be king—which immediately had me singing “Just Can’t Wait to be King,” because a Lion King/Game of Thrones hybrid would be AMAZING—and she slowly hoists the vial of Nightshade to his lips. It’s a hell of a twist to know she’d rather spare her kid than herself. But also the motivation is unclear. Does she believe the world is too cruel and will turn Tommen into another Joffrey? Is she truly fearful Stannis will harm him? Is she really planning to seduce Stannis away from Melisandre the fire priestess? This is one instance where the discussion incited by ambiguity totally justifies it. But all those questions are erased, and her daddy storms in as the savior, with Loras Tyrell avenging his lover Renly alongside.
There really isn’t much to nitpick about here. Some might have actually not preferred this focus since all the other characters are rendered insignificant (arguably not true at all), or they may have felt like the promise of EPICNESS wasn’t lived up to in terms of production value. HBO is rich, but not rolling in, like, Diddy money. But these are small potatoes. Tyrion led a freaking army, Cersei almost poisoned her own son, Bronn kicked ass with a bow and arrow, Stannis sliced off a seriously impressive amount of heads. I’m satisfied as you can be by systematic murder.
All was right with this episode while everything was so wrong in Westeros. And the show artfully indulged in such spectacular warfare while condemning its validity through Cersei’s unsettling realism about raping and pillaging, and all the reticence felt by the troops to defend a ruler they’d love to defy. It’s clear in George R.R Martin’s grave script (the scribe of the novels that inspired the show) and Neil Marshall’s ominous direction, that warfare is not a fool’s game. If you aren’t smart and courageous, it will be the end of all you love and hold dear. That is not a trivial pursuit. While we can enjoy the fury of flailing iron and steel with psychic distance, and the physical distance inherent in fiction, war is a reality we too often feel isn’t our problem until its at our doorstep. For constructing an atmosphere of dread, and simultaneously rewarding us with the huge scale destruction we’d anticipated in the eight episodes preceding, I’m not reluctant to follow these captains of fantasy television into a dismal finale. The battle was won, but not the war. That still rages on.
Remember, don’t discuss elements of the books that haven’t aired yet. Don’t spoil it for everyone else in the comments section!