Last week, I wrote about how I craved a little narrative variety in Game of Thrones — a little break from all the multiple story lines and endless gear-turning that the show has to go through in order to keep everyone moving across the chessboard. In last night’s heavily anticipated, thrilling episode, I finally got it. Dispensing with the show’s usual map-spanning, multi-plot format, “Blackwater” — the second episode written by George R. R. Martin himself — featured an almost classical unity of time and place, covering just a single night in a single location. We always knew we were going to get a big, ass-kicking battle in this episode, and director Neil Marshall did not disappoint: it was a grand, stunning, cinematic hour. But what I didn’t anticipate was how small the episode would feel — and I mean that in the best way possible.
Time seemed to slow as Stannis’s ships made their way into Blackwater Bay, allowing us to zoom in and really savor not just the crazy-good visual effects (those wildfire fireworks!), but also to focus on the emotional effects this eerie, nerve-jangling night had on a small crop of characters. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss told EW how, for budgetary reasons, they almost set the entire episode in Maegor’s Holdfast (the fortress inside the Red Keep). Cersei, Sansa, and the women of the castle would receive occasional reports from the battlefield — essentially choreographing the episode like a classical stage play. While I’m pretty sure we’re all glad that HBO coughed up the extra money for the battle shoot (the production details of which you can find in that EW interview, which is well worth reading), it was the small, private scenes embedded in the chaos that really made “Blackwater” feel like such a satisfying, complete package.
Against the backdrop of war, each character was pushed to his or her limits. Some met the challenge more gloriously than others, but the battle seemed to strip everyone down to some essential core, as character arcs that have been developing all season came to fruition.
Early in the episode, as Stannis’s fleet is bearing down on King’s Landing, Tyrion tells Shae that he doesn’t have a choice in fighting this battle; he’s a Lannister, so he has to. But the episode made clear that it’s more than an arbitrary genealogical connection: Tyrion has inherited his family’s famed toughness and military prowess. (And, thankfully, not lost his way with a zinger, even in the face of mass slaughter: My favorite of the hour’s many options was his send-off to Bronn — “Just because I pay you for your services doesn’t diminish our friendship.”) Tyrion has also maintained his essential humanity, which Peter Dinklage and the writers have been layering all season. Unlike the gleeful Joffrey, or the beaming old alchemist, Tyrion has the decency to look momentarily horrified as green wildfire engulfs the invading ships, along with the men they carry.
One thing Tyrion understands that his royal nephew, for all his cocky posturing, does not is the importance of giving the people a proper show. Tyrion’s speech to the besieged troops has the same galvanizing effect as Henry V’s famous St. Crispin’s Day address, though it’s admittedly freer with its anal-rape metaphors. While Shakespeare’s king promises that the upcoming battle will elevate and “gentle” even the lowborn, Tyrion cannily uses the simmering anti-royal resentment to his advantage, telling the men not to fight for their king or for gold or for glory, but for themselves — their homes, their wives, their city. Later, as the men yell “Halfman!” in his honor, turning an insult into an encomium, Tyrion’s journey from despised runt to military hero is complete. (Though how long do you think Tywin and Ser Loras Tyrell will let that last?)
Deep in the castle, Sansa is going through something similar. She may be Cersei’s little dove and the Hound’s little bird, but Sansa’s evolution from a spoiled, prissy brat to a steely young woman has been one of season two’s greatest delights. The battle in the air seems to have emboldened her; her jabs at Joffrey have never been so blatant or her disdain for him so clear. She even shows a spark of leadership ability, offering a fortifying speech to the scared ladies that parallels Tyrion’s on the battlements.
Back in her room, where she plans to barricade herself to avoid Ser Ilyn (the tongueless executioner who killed her father and is prepared to kill the noblewomen, rather than allow them to be captured), Sansa picks up and then smiles at a doll. The full symbolism of the toy would have been lost on me, but thanks to HBO GO’s handy interactive features, I’m reminded that Ned gave her that doll when they first arrived in King’s Landing — and that old Sansa received the gift very rudely, telling her father that she hadn’t played with dolls since she was eight. But Sansa no longer needs to scorn childish things, because she actually is an adult now. Her ability to stand, unflinchingly, before the Hound, who’s been hiding in her room and offers to take her North to Winterfell, is testament to her new maturity.
On the other side of the equation we’ve got Sansa’s beloved Joffrey, who comes out of the Battle of Blackwater seeming to have regressed even further into childhood. He begins the episode with a moment that showcases his trademark blend of vicious perviness and noxious pettiness, telling Sansa to kiss his new sword and not-too-subtle phallic stand-in, Hearteater, for good luck. Those few seconds where I waited to see if Joffrey would flick the sword in Sansa’s face were some of the tensest moments in an already incredibly tense episode, even though we already know that Joffrey likes to protect Sansa’s pretty face when he’s beating her (or, more accurately, having her beaten).
Jack Gleeson gave a few line readings that I felt pushed the whole Joffrey-is-a-whiny-baby notion a bit too far ("Wheeeeere are the shiiips Uncle Tyrion? I thought there would be shiiiips"), but I thought he nailed the scene where Lancel comes to the battlements to collect him on Cersei’s orders. Terrified and sheepish, barely able to muster enough courage to keep up the public pretense of his duties — making a halfhearted show of telling two knights to stay and “represent the king on the field of battle” — Gleeson crafted a very human moment for a character who often comes across as flat and one-dimensional. I loved his delivery of the line, “What did my mother say exactly, did she have urgent business with me?” You could tell that Joffrey just desperately wanted an excuse — any excuse, no matter how thin — to run to his mother.
Last night’s episode, however, really belonged to Cersei. Cooped up with a bunch of “frightened hens,” clad in her Lannister breastplate and slowly getting sozzled, like a Boudica on a forced holiday, Lena Headey was at her funniest and fiercest. The script heaped riches on her, from withering cut-downs (“I didn’t offer you water”) to menacing moments where she made perfect use of that Cersei lip curl — not quite a smile, not quite a baring of fangs. I feared for Shae, about to get her cover blown, and for Sansa and for Lancel and all the rest unfortunate enough to be trapped with the queen. But “Blackwater” also gave Cersei her poignancy, as it has all season. The gold lion breastplate seemed ironic and sad after Cersei’s story about how she and Jaime looked so much alike as children that even her father couldn’t tell them apart — though while Jaime was taught to fight and lead, she was taught to “smile” and then sold to a man “like a horse.” (“But you were Robert’s queen,” Sansa protests, still believing, despite all the evidence to the contrary, in chivalry. “And you will be Joffrey’s. Enjoy,” retorts the queen with an exquisitely sarcastic raised glass.) The armor offers protection of a sort — showy, envy-inducing — but it also represents the gilded cage Cersei has been cooped up in all her life.
The final scene, in which Cersei sits on the Iron Throne with Tommen on her lap, ten drops of nightshade in her hand, was not only beautifully shot (there were so many gorgeously composed images in this episode, as if the events were already in the process of being recorded for posterity), it was also the culmination of an idea that’s been brewing all season. Cersei’s love for her children is the only force that continues to have any sway over her. As she sat on the throne — symbol of masculine ambition and her family’s might — telling her son the eerie fable of a mother lion who loved her cub beyond all measure, it seemed the perfect set-up for a Medea-like ending to both mother and son. Tywin’s entrance at that exact moment (as if summoned by the little cub’s question, “Will I be strong and fierce like my father?”) ends the episode on a perfectly ambiguous note. Obviously, we’re relieved that Tommen will get to live — for a little while, anyway. (This is Westeros, after all.) But at the same time, does anyone really want to see Joffrey, Tywin, and Cersei remain in power?
A few final thoughts:
- The Bronn-Hound enmity seemed to come out of left field, though it was an efficient way to weave these two great supporting characters into the emotional fabric of the episode. I wish they’d had more scenes together leading up to this. And who knew Bronn had such a way with the ladies?
Did casual watchers pick up on why the Hound reacts so badly to the fire? (If not: it’s because his elder brother, the even more intimidating Clegane they call the Mountain, burned him as a child for playing with one of his toys.) When I wrote a few episodes back that Tyrion was the only person in King’s Landing who gave a damn about Sansa, several readers pointed out that the Hound has shown glimmers of compassion as well. As much fun as it would be to see Sansa and the Hound traipse across Westeros together, I could do with one less traipsing subplot, so here’s hoping she stays put.
- Does anyone know why Ser Mandon tried to slash Tyrion near the end there? Ser Mandon was one of the two members of the Kingsguard that Joffrey left on the battlefield with Tyrion. (I would have not have known who it was without you, HBO GO. Please never leave me.) I mean, without referring to the books — were there clues I’ve missed along the way?
- Loved the National doing “The Rains of Castamere.” Such a potentially cheesy move, but Matt Berninger’s gravelly deadpan is a perfect fit for the grim, bloody ballad.
- Podrick Payne! How does it feel to be the Neville Longbottom of Game of Thrones?
See you back here next week, for the final installment in this season. You bring the wine; I’ll bring the iced milk and a nice bowl of raspberries.