(Note: the “No Spoilers” rule has perhaps never been more critical, people. Do NOT post any, regardless of warning. Thanks.)
This week’s episode has been impatiently anticipated because the show’s creators have done such a masterful job of slowly and artfully constructing the tensions that finally explode in “Blackwater,” the ninth episode of this second season. It was a monster of an episode, unique in many ways not only in terms of the show, but in terms of television in general. Rumor has it that “Blackwater” was one of the most expensive television episodes ever, but even more intriguing, it was directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers, Centurion), a man with an eye for dramatics and tension.
But all of that aside, Blackwater was a reckoning. It was the time where the characters learn all new truths — truths about their allies and friends, about their enemies, and about themselves. And those truths lead to finding out who the strong really are, as well as who the weak are. It’s those dichotomies that serve as the theme, amidst all of the blood and chaos and terror that was the Battle Of Blackwater Bay, a theme that shows us also how the characters can serve as warped reflections of each other.
We began with the Onion Knight, Davos Seaworth, found stalking his silent ship as the fleet creeps towards its fate. Davos is stronger than he may believe, a man who has faith in his king, in his family, and in little else. It makes his clashes with his son all the more ironic, for the truth is that Matthos’ blind zealotry is much the product of being his father’s son, for he is a slave to his new god, but also to duty, family and devotion.
Meanwhile, Tyrion and Shae found a moment of tenderness, even in Shae’s perverse way as Tyrion finds strength in her odd sweetness (and another rock-solid episode for Sibel Kekilli, who is finally coming into her own and giving the character more life than in the earlier episodes). Tyrion’s other wonderful little pre-battle moment had him and Varys in a scene of dry wit and piercing, crackling dialogue (yet another case for “The Tyrion And Varys Show,” which would air after “The Arya And Tywin Show”). As time passes, they begin to understand each other more, they like each other more and… likely distrust each other more, creating a most peculiar, unbalanced, and yet wholly fascinating friendship. Varys has a strange prescience regarding Stannis’ dark dealings that granted him power, and somehow, despite his own fears, Tyrion must believe Varys’ claims that he is the unlikely light that can shine against the invading king.
For Cersei, her terror is masked by a brittle and icy demeanor as she listens to the husk of Grand Maester Pycelle as he gives her grim and desperate counsel. Cersei’s thirst for power is nothing more than a desperate attempt to protect her twisted little family, and the impending invasion has her more on edge than ever before. Unsurprisingly, Pycelle’s gift of suicide yields no softness or gratitude.
Perhaps the most enjoyable scenes of the episode belonged to Bronn, who continues to be terrifically portrayed by Jerome Flynn. As we found him with the City Watch, whoring, drinking and singing away their final hours, we were treated to more of his rough charm and gallows humor, bringing levity to a room of men about to brave the fiercest of battles. Even more intriguing was the confrontation between Bronn and the Hound — two hard, harsh men with more in common than they might like to admit — a confrontation that would’ve ended in carnage if not for the ringing in of the coming chaos.
And as those bells rang out and everyone charged to action, we got to watch another glimpse of Bronn and Tyrion and their odd, awkward friendship. It likely hasn’t escaped Tyrion that his best friends are ones that he pays for, yet sadly one suspects that he’ll take what he can get. Their gruff encounter was strange and funny and clever and everything we’ve come to expect two of the show’s most solid actors.
“Ohh, ‘enhances.’ Fancy word for a sellsword.”
“Been spending time with fancy folk.”
And then, after all of the plans have been made, all the promises have been given and lies have been told, the battle explodes as the ocean becomes an agonizing, green-flamed nightmare. Stannis’ ego prevented the common sense approach, and instead he sneeringly cast aside his own foreboding predictions of slaughter and led the remnants of his forces forth, where they were met by the unholy, berzerker fury of a blood drunk Hound, a walking horror show until the fear of the flames overtook him. The Battle Of Blackwater Bay was an exercise in bedlam, a tornado of blood and gore and fear, with fewer heroes than one would expect, and the ones that there were came from the unlikeliest of places. It was filmed masterfully, given the constraints of the medium. Perhaps it was not as vast and impressive as the readers may have built it up in their minds, but it was riveting nonetheless. It was breathlessly paced, building tension and then letting it burst, and then dialing it back and starting all over again. With the scenes of Cersei and the noblewomen serving as breaks from the death and destruction, we were allowed to catch our breath, yet still watch as the characters and their stories developed.
And develop they did, particularly that of young Sansa. First seen suffering the indignity of Joffrey’s continued vulgar foolishness, Sansa showed new courage by deliberately goading him, preying on his arrogance and cowardice just as he’s preyed on her vulnerability. It’s rather a joy to see Joffrey outwitted at every turn, first by Sansa, then by his uncle Tyrion, then finally cowed and shamed by his overly protective mother. There’s no doubt that Joffrey may well be the weakest, most pathetic person in the Seven Kingdoms.
As for Sansa, her burgeoning friendship with Shae gives her strength in the face of Cersei’s viciousness and unkindness as the Queen imparts a bitter wisdom about how to get what she wants — and Sansa’s greatest fear is that Cersei may well be right. The Sansa/Cersei dynamic is a perfect mirror of that of Brienne and Jaime, two wildly different people who represent similar ideals in staggeringly different ways. In the end, however, the coldest, most horrendous truth of all is that of the terrible duty that Cersei assigned Ser Ilyn Payne, one where that lays bare the gulf between them more than anything else.
It was indeed a reckoning, showing us how the strongest and most powerful abandoned the cause . The Hound and the Queen and the broken boy King fled in the face of their own fears, only to see their stronger, braver reflections in Bronn and Sansa and Tyrion. Tyrion’s gift for wordsmithing takes on a new dimension as he gives a speech that mixes pragmatism with an uncommon wisdom, leading his forces to hold fast. At the same time, as Cersei turns on her people, it is Sansa who finds a tiny bit of bravery, enabling her to soothe the panicking noblity… and stare down a disarmingly terrfied Clegane. Whereas the Hound broke when the flames burned too bright and too close, Bronn cleaves through Stannis’ forces to hold the Mud Gate against the onslaught, followed by the unlikely horde led by the halfman Tyrion, who is more a man than their king could ever be.
“Blackwater” was the culmination of weeks of buildup, an emotional, engaging inferno of an episode. It was easily one of the show’s best, mixing brilliant dialogue with action set pieces that conveyed all of the parts of the battle — the blood, the fear, the sadness and somberness, but also the unbridled joy and fury and glory — and did so in a manner that was totally and completely satisfying. Most importantly, it was a lesson in strength and weakness, where we saw the different sides of each coin and how war made for some truly unlikely heroes.