For Game of Thrones fans who have been clamoring for an epic battle to finally play out on screen, this week’s “Blackwater” did not disappoint. The season’s penultimate episode was easily the most carefully paced, tightly focused hour of the series so far, zeroing in solely on the events in Kings Landing, both within the castle walls and on the front lines, on the evening of the battle.
Due to budgetary restrictions, large battle scenes (such as Robb Stark’s first season victory at the Battle of the Whispering Wood) have up to this point occurred off camera and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss reportedly had to beg HBO for the extra funds required to bring Blackwater from the page to the screen. Even so, it was still necessary to change some details (here, the action is set at night), but despite the scaling down, the battle still felt epic, particularly the awesome spectacle of the eerie, green explosion against a stark, black sea. Tyrion’s ingenious to plan to greet Stannis’ fleet with just one ship loaded with wildfire serves a spectacular blow to the Baratheon army, destroying numerous ships, knocking out of play would-be Hand and loyal captain, Davos, and sending thousands of men to an awful, fiery death. Even though they’re currently on the winning side, the horrors of the reality of war seem to touch Tyrion, the Hound, and Bronn alike, who all look on in horrified awe at the ensuing carnage, while Joffrey smiles like a sadistic child.
Despite suffering countless casualties, Stannis is undeterred in his pursuit of the throne, joining his remaining men in rowboats bound for the shoreline, no matter what the cost. As the combat shifts from sea to land, the battle loses a bit of its grandeur as, when compared with the terrible, striking beauty of that sea explosion, the night setting obscures a bit of the action on the shore and the fighting is a chaotic, muddled, and bloody mess. There are still some awesomely gory shots, however, like when the Hound cuts a man completely in half and another is decapitated by a rock hurled over the castle walls.
As the fighting progresses, the Lannisters begin to lose the upper hand, as Stannis’ forces are more numerous and better motivated than Joffrey’s subjects. The Hound’s one weakness is revealed as the fires burning around him force him to relive his childhood trauma and the usually unshakeable killing machine walks away, quitting both the battle and the Kingsguard and signing off with the sentiment, “Fuck the king.” Soon after, Joffrey, whose fear becomes more and more apparent as Stannis’ approaches the gates, flees for the safety of his chambers, creating a morale disaster for the Lannister army that forces Tyrion to step up and lead. In yet another great moment for Peter Dinklage, Tyrion gives the troops a rousing speech appealing not to loyalty to their cowardly king or a desire for glory, but to their own self-preservation, to protect their homes and families from being ravaged by a victorious Stannis’ army. “These are brave men knocking on your door,” he shouts. “Let’s go kill them!” It’s a fantastic rallying cry and when he leads his newly motivated men through a secret tunnel to attack Stannis’ army from behind, it seems the tide has turned once again. Tyrion initially displays some impressive battle prowess, at one point cutting a man off at the knees, until he receives a vicious and deep slash to the face and is nearly killed until his squire Podrick plants a spear through his attacker’s head.
Stannis, meanwhile, has climbed the walls and is engaging in hand-to-hand combat with Lannister men and mostly kicking ass, half-decapitating one with a swing of his sword. Just when it seems his victory is assured, however, Tywin Lannister and his army, along with Renly’s former lover, Ser Loras, ride in and secure a Lannister win and a defeated Stannis is unwillingly pulled to retreat by his men.
While the episode’s primary focus was on the battle just outside the city walls, some of the best scenes took place within, as Cercei, Sansa, and the rest of the city’s noblewomen wait out the battle inside Maegor’s Holdfast. Cercei deals with her fears about the potential deadly ramifications of a Stannis victory by planning a suicidal escape plan for herself and Tommen and by getting increasingly drunker as the night continues. Cercei also seems to take pleasure in haranguing Sansa like a bitchy, sorority sister initiating a pledge, forcing the girl to drink with her and alternately belittling her and offering advice on how the world really works. Cercei clearly enjoys shattering Sansa’s illusions and mocking her innocence, smirking as she tells her, “Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. The best one is between your legs. Learn how to use it.”
Last season, Sophie Turner’s Sansa was often unlikable, portrayed as little more than a naïve, whiny brat. Turner’s done some great work with the character recently as Sansa struggles with maintaining her inherent goodness in the face of the more cynical realities of the new world around her. I loved the way she subtly called out Joffrey for his cowardice through feigned ignorance when asking whether or not he’d fight in the vanguard. Even better was the scene between Sansa and the battle-shook Hound, who comes to her chambers and offers to bring her home as he leaves Kings Landing. When Sansa fearfully balks at his offer, the Hound admits he’s a killer, but reminds her that so are all the world’s powerful men, including her father and her future sons. When he promises not to hurt her, Sansa reads the sincerity on his horrible, burned face and that one moment seems to have a more profound effect on her than any that’s come before during her time as a Lannister captive. Whereas Cercei portrays the world as a cold and calculating place in which Sansa’s decency is a fatal weakness, the Hound’s actions here portray the world instead as necessarily vicious, but one where occasional sparks of genuine kindness can still be found. Since this season has deviated so much from the source material, I’m not sure how this storyline will play out, but either way, I’m hoping to see more of both Sansa and the Hound next season.
With the focus solely on Kings Landing, many characters were left out of the action and there was no word on Theon, Daenerys, Jon, or Arya in this episode. The choice to ignore those plot threads this week was a good one, as the battle of Blackwater wouldn’t have felt like such a grave and momentous event had it been splintered and interrupted by the goings-on in Winterfell or Qarth. However, that leaves us with a ton of ground to cover in next week’s finale while I’m afraid that might result in some storylines getting short shrift or at least ending on cliffhangers, I can’t wait until next Sunday to see how this very strong sophomore season wraps up.