It doesn't get much better than that.
There was little doubt that "Blackwater," the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones' sophomore season, would be an exciting hour of television: in fact, expectations were probably too high. Those of us who had read A Clash of Kings knew that this entire season was building up to the Battle of Blackwater, of course, but even viewers who were experiencing this story for the first time must have suspected that Stannis Baratheon's attack on King's Landing would be the thrilling climax of the season. Add to that the presence of a proven film director (Neil Marshall, The Descent), the anticipation of a teleplay by George R. R. Martin himself, and the promise of seeing where HBO had spent the majority of this season's battle-budget, and the hype around "Blackwater" practically guaranteed it would disappoint in one way or another.
I'll admit, going into this episode I was just hoping for spectacle, and was prepared to excuse "Blackwater" for dropping the ball on characterization and theme. I mean, we've had entire episodes lately where characters just sat around and bared their souls, so I assumed this would be the opposite: a full-on, balls-to-the-walls war movie, long on blood and guts but short on brains and heart. If that had turned out to be the case, I would have been perfectly content, but Martin and Marshall, admirably, set their sights much higher. They were obviously determined to make sure "Blackwater" brought both the commotion and the emotion: to do some really fine character work amid all the carnage, and to further develop the same rich themes we've been discussing all season by exploring them against a background of mortal stakes. To even attempt this was admirable, and if they had failed I still would have applauded the effort.
But they didn't fail. If you'll forgive the inevitable pun, this episode didn't just meet expectations: it blew them out of the water.
"God, Father. There is only one, and He watches over us." — Matthos
"But not over them?" —Davos
One of the things "Blackwater" does so brilliantly is to build up the tension to nearly unbearable levels before all Hell breaks loose. The episode is about 56 minutes long, from opening to closing credits, but the battle doesn't really start until around the 26-minute mark. Until then, we just have the waiting, on both sides. We begin with Stannis's fleet sliding, nearly silently, through the fog and the night on its way to King's Landing. Stannis (Stephen Dillane) is pacing his decks, as are Davos (Liam Cunningham) and Matthos (Kerr Logan), but most of the men are below decks, looking as terrified (and nauseated) as the men on the landing craft in Saving Private Ryan.
Matthos is a young man, sure of the rightness of their cause and the certainty of their success: he has a recent convert's fanatical faith in his god, and a novice tactician's misguided faith in overpowering numbers. (As Baelish said recently, "If war were arithmetic, the mathematicians would rule the world.")
Matthos sees absolutes, but Davos knows that, in war and in life, there are no such things. This is the Royal Fleet, Matthos tells his father, but Davos reminds him that there are several royal fleets at the moment. There is only one god, he tells his father, but Davos knows better. ("Everywhere I go people tell me about the ‘true god,’ Davos's friend Salladhor Saan told Matthos once. "They all think they found the right one.") Matthos is an innocent, caught up in the romance of righteousness. He spins a narrative about how the people will welcome them as liberators, and he is naive enough to think the bells he hears as they approach King's Landing mean the people are celebrating the return of their rightful king.
Davos, on the other hand, is a practical man: he is loyal to Stannis, but not to gods or causes, which are open to interpretation depending what side you're on. (This point is underlined a little later in the episode by Varys [Conleth Hill], who sees an antichrist where Matthos sees a messiah. "The Dark Arts have provided Lord Stannis with his armies, and paved his path to our door," the Spider says. "For a man in service to such powers to sit on the Iron Throne: I can think of nothing worse.") Davos also knows what this season has proven time and time again: grandiose ideas of religion, honor, and justice tend to become irrelevant under pressure. "The men guarding the walls, when they see you, they don't see a liberator," Davos warns his son. "They see a stranger come to set their city on fire."
"I have faith in the Lord of Light," says Matthos. "I have faith in our cause, and I have faith in our Captain." But faith, as we discover, is almost worthless: Davos knows that, when the shit hits the fan, the only god is Death, and all anyone will care about is saying Not today.
"Don't fight for your king, and don't fight for his kingdom. Don't fight for honor, don't fight for glory, don't fight for riches because you won't get any." — Tyrion Lannister
Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is another wholly practical man, and, like Davos, he's smart enough to be scared. ("Are you afraid, my lion?" Shae [Sibel Kekilli] asks him, on the night before the siege. "If the city falls, Stannis will burn every Lannister he can find," Tyrion says. "Of course I'm afraid.")
Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), on the other hand, is too stupid and arrogant to be scared—before the battle begins, at least. Like Matthos, he has no experience, and no wisdom, and he's living out an adolescent fantasy in his own head. He's prancing around with his new sword, which he's named "Hearteater," and he's bragging about how he's going to personally kill his uncle. ("So you'll be outside the gates, fighting in the vanguard?" Sansa [Sophie Turner] asks him, hoping to goad him into getting himself killed.) With the possible exception of his mother, no one seems to want King Joffrey to survive the battle, least of all Tyrion, who warns Joffrey that he's tempted to let Stannis put his "pinched little head" on a spike. "It might be quite amusing," Tyrion says. "Except that my head would be up there too. I never much liked my head, but I don't wish to see it removed just yet."
Tyrion isn't fighting for Joffrey's reign, or for the family name, or for honor: he's fighting for survival—for himself, and for the few people he cares about. And when Joffrey flees the battle—running to hide behind his mother's skirts—it is Tyrion who must rally the troops, and he does so by appealing not to their honor, but to their selfish interests:
"Don't fight for your king, and don't fight for his kingdom. Don't fight for honor, don't fight for glory, don't fight for riches because you won't get any. This is your city Stannis means to sack. That is your gate he's ramming. If he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, your women he will rape."
It's no Saint Crispin's Day speech, but that's the point: "Blackwater" is a glorious depiction of war that not does, for a single moment, glorify the cause of war. This isn't about glory, and it isn't about honor, and it isn't about dying bravely for the cause: Stannis is a bore, and Joffrey is a twerp, and there is not much in either of them to inspire men to die for them. They are the reason this battle is happening, but—like the kings on a chessboard—they almost seem like the least important figures in it, and they don't care a thing about the knights and bishops and pawns who are forced to fight their war. (Stannis—unlike Joffrey—does fight, but he is single-minded in his quest to get to the Iron Throne. He may be a commander, but he's not much of a leader, and he doesn't care who needs to die to get him to his goal. "Hundreds will die," he is warned, after he commands his men to storm the beach. "Thousands," Stannis corrects, without a hint of concern.)
Likewise, the men don't know—or care—much about these kings. (It's a point that's been made several times this season. "Do you think he's friends with King Joffrey?" Talisa asked Robb about a wounded Lannister soldier.) Tyrion is smart enough to not even attempt to inspire the troops with Joffrey's name: he knows that the only thing that will inspire them is the desperate hope of their own survival, and the survival of the people they love. Screw the cause: it's kill or be killed. Screw honor: let's sneak up behind them and cut 'em off at the knees. (Literally, in Tyrion's case.) Screw bravery: "Those are brave men knocking at our door," Tyrion says. "Let's go kill them."
"Fuck the Kingsguard. Fuck the city. Fuck the King." — The Hound
I bet Rory McCann hasn't had more than 20 lines of dialogue in as many episodes, but he has made Sandor Clegane a great character over the past two seasons through incredible screen presence and very subtle acting. Here it pays off, as The Hound suddenly seems like one of our major players, and gets perhaps the richest emotional material in this episode.
The Hound has never even pretended to be interested in honor or glory or justice: he is, after all, the lone member of the Kingsguard who is not—and refuses to become—a knight. (People occasionally call him "Ser," but he usually corrects them.) The only thing he loves is killing, and he assumes every other man is the same way. ("You like fucking and drinking and singing," he says to Bronn [Jerome Flynn]. "But killing, killing's the thing you love.") This battle, then, should be his happiest moment, but a love of battle is not enough to overcome his fear of fire. The expression on his face when the bay explodes into a holocaust of green flame is like a man staring into his vision of Hell, and a burning soldier who charges him must seem like his own personal demon coming to claim him. He decides he's had enough, and delivers one of the greatest resignation speeches in history: "Fuck the Kingsguard. Fuck the city. Fuck the King."
As I've said, virtually no one really cares about honor or duty or justice: they care about survival of themselves and those they love. The Hound has no affection for his king—his disgust with Joffrey has grown more and more obvious this season—but there is one person he cares about: Sansa. Their relationship—one of almost total opposites—has become one of the best on the series, and here he offers to take her away to "someplace that isn't burning." The Hound has a view of the world in which there is no honor or glory or rightness of cause: there is only the fact that men like to kill. "Stannis is a killer," he says to Sansa. "The Lannisters are killers. Your father was a killer. Your brother is a killer. Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers." But Sansa doesn't see the world that way, and so she—alone in the world—isn't afraid of him; perhaps that's why she's the only person in the world he seems to care about. He won't fight for king or country or honor, but one suspects he might just walk through fire for Sansa.
"The gods have no mercy. That's why they're gods." — Cersei
Cersei (Lena Headey) spends this episode drinking, and seemingly resigned to her fate: she doesn't seem frightened, but neither does she seem optimistic that her hated little brother can pull out a victory. She gathers the noblewomen together to ride out the war with her in the safest tower, but it's only out of obligation. "If my wretched brother should somehow prevail, these hens will return to their cocks and crow about how my courage inspired them," she explains to Sansa. She has no real hope of survival—Ser Ilyn (Wilko Johnson) is on hand to put them all out of their misery if necessary, and Cersei has also set aside a vial of poison for herself and her child.
It's a tour de force for Lena Headey, who gets her best material of the season so far, and triumphs with it: Cersei, as it turns out, is a darkly funny drunk. ("If the city falls," she says cheerily, "these fine women should be in for a bit of a rape.") Like The Hound, however, she seems to have some actual affection for Sansa—perhaps because she relates to her, as a child sold into marriage, and perhaps because (like the Hound) she is attracted and amused by Sansa's innocent, optimistic worldview. ("Maybe she hates you less than she hates everyone else," Shae suggests to Sansa.)
Brienne commented a few episodes ago that Catelyn Stark had not "battle courage" but "woman's courage." Here we see a contrast of what it means to have "women's courage." Cersei does not have courage, exactly: she's just bitter and expects nothing good out of life. The only thing she cares about is her children, and she has known for some time that she fucked them up, and now they're probably going to die anyway. (She is still protective enough of them that she orders Joffrey removed from the battlefield, even if it costs the battle.) Apart from this concern, however, she has no beliefs, and no cause, and no faith. "You're perfect, aren't you?" she mocks Sansa. "Praying. What are you praying for?…The gods have no mercy. That's why they're gods."
But Sansa does have "women's courage," as she proves here: just as Tyrion had to rally the troops when Joffrey fled, Sansa steps in to comfort the women when Cersei abandons them. She tells them lies—that they are safe, that Cersei cares, that Joffrey is fighting bravely—and she leads them in the singing of a hymn to the gods. "Gentle mother, fount of mercy, save our sons from war we pray."
In this environment, her faith and capacity for love and mercy may be the best possible example of bravery. Sansa has never lost her faith, or her essential goodness, even in captivity: she still believes in mercy, even though the last time she asked for it—for her father—the gods proved uncaring. The reminder of that, too, is here, in the unbearably touching form of a doll. This was the last gift Sansa's father ever gave her, and she rejected it then, hurting his feelings: she was, at the time, in the thrall of Cersei, and excited about becoming a King's Landing lady and Joffrey's bride. Now she clings to it, and the gentler, kinder, more innocent view of the world it represents. She is not stupid, and she is no longer naive, but she will not become Cersei: she has too much of her father in her.
"Oh, fuck me." —Tyrion
Because this episode was so unexpectedly rich in character stuff, I approach the end of this review and discover that I've said little about the battle itself. So let me just say this: it fucking rocked.
From the wonderfully long, silent shot of Bronn's flaming arrow arcing through the air to light the fuse, until the final, unexpectedly triumphant shot of Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) and Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) coming to the rescue, the Battle of Blackwater was a masterpiece of carnage. "You want battle scenes?" HBO seemed to say. "Here areyour fucking battle scenes." There was considerable gore (several people whose bodies—or heads—were chopped completely in half); there were well-choreographed sequences (Stannis's progress up the walls were particularly good); and there were some nice, nasty surprises (such as the sudden but inevitable betrayal by Ser Mandon Moore [James Doran], who nearly de-faces Tyrion). The build-up of tension throughout was excellent—the cuts between Tyrion's speech and the battering ram pounding at the gate, for example, or Cersei and Tommen waiting to see who would burst open the doors to the throne room—and the special effects, music, visuals, and (particularly) sound design were all fantastic.
However, as I've already said, the real triumph of this episode was the balance between the spectacle and the people. To show an exciting and believable battle is one thing; to do so while also bringing the same depth of character work we've come to expect from Game of Thrones makes "Blackwater" the best of all possible worlds, and the finest achievement of this series so far.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- It's a minor complaint, but where the hell was Salladhor Saan (Lucien Msamati) anyway? What was the point of introducing him (in "The Night Lands") if he wasn't going to be in "Blackwater"?
- From the Department of Thwarting Expectations, I love the fact that the first half of the episode implies that we'll see the battle through Davos Seaworth's point of view—and then, the moment the battle starts, he gets blown to hell and isn't seen again. (Whether he is alive or dead is not yet clear—and, honestly, I don't remember from the books.) But it also meant that we didn't have a point of view on the opposing side: our viewpoint (and therefore our sympathy) was entirely with the King's Landing crowd.
- There were lots of nice moments between characters. I liked the brief scene between Bronn and Tyrion ("Oh, are we friends now?"), as well as the one between Bronn and the Hound. (Bronn and anybody would make for a good buddy-cop movie, I'm realizing.) Varys and Tyrion are also becoming one of my favorite pairings. "I'm entirely sure you're entirely sure what I'm suggesting."
- We are teased with several missing narratives this episode, I noticed. Varys teases Tyrion with the story of how he was castrated, but doesn't tell it. And Shae begins to tell the story of her background to Cersei, but gets interrupted.
- I thought it was a very nice touch that Cersei—expecting to die—chooses at the end to sit on the Iron Throne, the place of power from which she is precluded by gender. "I should have been born a man," she says to Sansa, as she has said before.
- For a man who seldom speaks, The Hound spouts a sort of poetry with every line. "Any man dies with a clean sword, I'll rape his fucking corpse." And, "Any of those flaming fucking arrows come anywhere near me, I'll strangle you with your own guts."
- If I can make a brief comment on the difference between the books and the show, the beauty of the relationship between Sansa and the Hound makes me deeply regret that the show mishandled the scene last season where she learned what happened to his face. In the show, Baelish (Aidan Gillen) tells her, as a bit of salacious gossip. In the book, the Hound tells her this story himself—a story that no one else knows—and that scene is really the beginning of their strange friendship. It mystifies me that they changed it.
- Season finale next week. Already?