Game of Thrones: 'Blackwater' recap and review
When an entire season of television builds to an epic climax, as season two of Game of Thrones has built to this week’s Battle of the ‘Blackwater,’ it needs to be suitably extravagant in order to meet expectations, especially on a show like Game of Thrones, which is known for it’s exorbitant production values. Once word got out that the showrunners asked for a budget increase just so they could do this episode the way they wanted, expectations only built and built, to the point where disappointment seemed all but inevitable.
‘Blackwater,’ I am glad to report, did not disappoint. In fact, quite the opposite: It was awesome. (And I’m not just saying this because it was a Tyrion-centric episode, I swear. Although, it certainly didn’t hurt.) The battle felt epic (for being on a TV budget) and because there were characters in it that we cared about, important.
What’s interesting about ‘Blackwater’ as both a battle and a piece of television is that it’s never really clear which side the audience is supposed to be rooting for. Of course we want the evil King Joffrey overthrown, but a loss for Joffrey means a loss for Tyrion, and we love Tyrion. Then there’s Stannis, who technically belongs on the throne, but follows a strange red priestess and her strange red God. In this battle, we are not asked to root for armies, but for people, which allows us to be drawn into the midst of the fighting.
One of my favorite things about the episode, in fact, was the contrast between Joffrey and Stannis, and how they approached the battle. Joffrey cowers and whines as Stannis and his army approaches, taking the very first excuse to abandon his men and go hide in the Red Keep. Stannis, on the other hand, is the first one off the boat, the first one up the castle walls, and the first one bashing heads in and slitting throats. He leads by example, which is something that Joff could never bring himself to do. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The true strength of this episode was its focus: Rather than darting all over the world like much of the rest of this season, it fixes its gaze firmly on King’s Landing, putting us alongside Tyrion, Sansa, Cersei, Bronn, the Hound, Shae, and Joffrey as they battle against Davos and Stannis for all that they hold dear. I was so glad that they never felt the need to check in with Jon, or Dany, or even Arya, because it certainly would have weakened the episode. Even with a whole hour to devote to the battle, it still felt as though they had to rush some things in, and I still found myself wanting more.
We start the episode with some nice character moments as Kings Landing readies itself for the assault. Tyrion’s usual glibness has been replaced with concern, and even Bronn and the Hound seem on edge, nearly slitting each other’s throats before the battle even starts.
If Peter Dinklage doesn’t choose this episode to submit for Emmy consideration, I’ll be shocked. It was the Tyrion Hero Hour, and it was wonderful to behold. We first catch up with him in bed with Shae, just to hammer home what exactly he has to lose, and we follow him up to the battlements, where he must contend with Joffrey’s foolishness. But have no worry, because Tyrion has a plan, and that plan involves a ship full of Wildfire, and one of the coolest explosions ever in the history of television. Blackwater Bay lights up with the stuff, as Davos and his son’s ship goes up in flames, potentially killing everyone’s favorite smuggler, crippling Stannis’s fleet.
The day is not yet won, however, as Stannis still has a bigger army than Tyrion does. As his men lay siege to the city, Sansa, Cersei, and the other women of the Red Keep lock themselves in Maegor’s Holdfast with Ser Ilyn Payne, who you may or may not remember from that time he cut off the main character’s head back in season one. You know the guy.
Anyways, as Cersei gets drunker and drunker, she gradually reveals why he’s there: Stannis may take the city, but he’s not taking Sansa and Cersei alive. (Since, as Cersei points out, Stannis is the one guy that she probably has zero chance of seducing.)
Lena Headey was wonderful in this episode, and all of the scenes where she taunted and tortured Sansa were such a joy to watch that I didn’t even mind getting pulled away from the battle to see them. Seriously. Hilarious.
One of the nice things about the sharper focus of the episode is that we got to spend more time with characters like Bronn and the Hound. The Hound got a lot of great moments in this episode, and I mean so great that they even overshadow the TWO separate times that he straight-up cuts a dude in half. He finally told Joffrey to go f*ck himself (‘F*ck the king.’ Beautiful.), before offering to whisk Sansa away to Winterfell. Unfortunately, he still scares the crap out of her. Having read the books, I happen to know where the Hound is going to pop up next, and let me just say that you won’t be disappointed. His awesomeness is only just beginning.
Anyways, as Stannis’s men batter down the gates, Joffrey bails, leaving Tyrion to lead the attack. This is one of the best moments of the entire series so far, as our favorite Imp realizes what he has to do, and gives the best rallying speech I’ve ever heard. He doesn’t need to appeal to their senses of honor or nobility, he just needs to make them believe that a dwarf is someone they can stand behind, and he does that with aplomb. (“There are a lot of brave men knocking at our doors. Let’s go kill them!”) The men are convinced, and the follow him through a tunnel to take Stannis’s force from behind, chanting ‘Half man! Half Man!’ when it seems they’ve won.
But then the reinforcements arrive, and things start to look a bit more dire for Tyrion and his men. Tyrion survives an attack from an enemy soldier, only to be sliced across the face by one of Joffrey’s own King’s Guard. He slides to the floor, seemingly about to be killed, only to be rescued by his awkward (and awesome) squire, Podrick Payne. As he drifts into unconsciousness, he notes an army riding in to save the day, led by a mysterious armored horseman.
Stannis orders his men to stand and fight, but the day is lost, and they drag him away to fight another day. Cersei sits on the throne with Tommen, her youngest child, about to poison him with Nightshade obtained by Pycelle. This scene was wonderfully heartbreaking, as she told her baby a story about lions, beset on all sides by wolves, and stags, and bears. When the door finally burst open, however, it’s no one that she expects: Ser Loras Tyrell, with Tywin Lannister at his side. “We’ve won,” he declares.
“Blackwater” was written by George RR Martin, and his crystal understanding of the characters shined through in every moment. It was directed by Neil Marshall (of ‘The Descent’ and ‘Dog Soldiers’ fame) and he brought his horror movie sensibilities to the battle’s gorier moments, turning in an hour that felt like it truly had high stakes. “Blackwater” may have been my favorite episode of the show yet, because it accomplished something that it should not have been able to.
Here’s hoping that the finale next week can compare.