Blimey, what an episode. After eight weeks of build-up and suspense towards a ‘clash of kings’, war finally erupts between the denizens of King’s Landing and the incoming force of Stannis Baratheon’s patchwork army, culminating in a bloody and brutal confrontation for both sides and an unbelievable experience for those of us watching from the side-lines. War is brutal yet incredibly satisfying at the same time.
Stannis’ fleet of ships and troops slowly approaches King’s Landing and its looming stone walls. Davos Seaworth’s son, Matthos, is convinced that their God will protect them and that when the battle is done, his father will sit next to Stannis as Hand of the King. Oh boy, if only you knew…
Preparations are well underway for the incoming battle: Tyrion spends a final night with Shae, his beloved and secret lover; Cersei is given a vial of Nightshade from Maester Pycelle, last seen being thrown into a cell for treachery earlier in the season. Her intended use of the deadly poison isn’t made clear until later on, but it can obviously not be anything good; Bronn, now commander of the city watch, spends his potentially final evening alive drinking ale and undressing scantily-clad women, before being interrupted by the towering force known as The Hound, who mocks Bronn’s weakened demeanor. They almost come into a clash of their own before the sound of bell tolls breaks them apart, signalling the start of the battle; Varys and Tyrion are back in the same room as one another, discussing the miles of tunnels underneath King’s Landing. Varys believes that Stannis’ alliance with Melisandre, the red priestess from Asshai, means that their enemy will be using dark arts to influence the battle, and that Tyrion is the only man who can stop him.
As the ships outside come to give them all a greeting, Joffrey is preparing for his role in the incoming fight, namely by continuing to torture Sansa with his mere presence. He has a long sword in his possession, which has been named ‘Hearteater’ and he orders Sansa to kiss it, before promising her that she can lick his uncle’s blood off of it when he returns, and eventually her brother’s blood too. Sansa’s continued time at King’s Landing has clearly done something for the girl’s ability to fend for herself as she traps her beloved into a conversation that makes him look cowardly. “The worst ones always live”, she tells Shae as he heads off for battle. If ever there was a truer statement…
Tyrion and Joffrey are atop the castle walls, watching as Stannis’ ships come into full view for the first time. There are hundreds scattered in every direction – an unstoppable force of destruction slowly heading to their shores to destroy them. Joffrey sees that his own ships have been removed from battle and threatens to cut Tyrion in half if he doesn’t explain himself. All in good time, your grace.
One lonely ship heads out from King’s Landing to greet the flotilla approaching them. Everyone is confused from both sides of the water; Davos is understandably cautious about what’s unfolding in front of them but by the time he spots the green liquid leaking from its rear end, it’s too late. Bronn, off far away, launches a flaming arrow across an incredible distance (who knew his archery skills were so advanced)and into the single ship and there is a catastrophic explosion of green melting flames. It’s Wildfire, and it’s more than deadly and certainly not pig shit. It tears Stannis’ fleet apart like ripping a piece of fabric in two. Men and ships alike burn in horror as the wildfire substance engulfs their every direction. The battle has begun, and it’s visibly gorgeous.
Stannis, upon observing the obliteration of his ships and men, doesn’t relent and orders his men to sail ashore. He’s warned that hundreds will die but he corrects them by saying that thousands will die. Clearly not much troubles our would-be King and certainly not the total decimation of his entire fighting force.
As the battle rages around them, Cersei, Sansa and other noble ladies take shelter in a bunker designed specifically to house them in safety until the fight concludes. Sansa is praying with the other girls for the safety of the men fighting whilst Cersei guzzles wine like it’s in free supply. She mocks Sansa for praying and tells her that she hates being cooped up and should have been born a man. Should Stannis take control of the city, she’ll be forced to try and seduce him in order to survive, although as she points out, she would have more chance of seducing a plank of wood. A woman’s best weapon is between her legs, she tells Sansa, and should the city fall, all of the girls in the room should be in for “a bit of rape”. What a motivational force to have in times of war, huh?
As they realise that Stannis doesn’t intend to let a bit of wildfire quell his rebellion, Tyrion sends the Hound out to greet him in all of his pleasurable demeanor. Joffrey is panicked and generally as much use as a cardboard cut-out. Flaming arrows, rocks and heavy debris are rained down on Stannis and his troops from above, although some of them reach the walls and begin their infiltration, before preparing a battering ram to smash down the mud gate and penetrate the city’s defenses.
During the battle, The Hound is ripping men apart like sport until he spots a man running towards him ablaze. Old, horrible memories of his terrible childhood ordeal return to him and he freezes, before ordering his men to return to the city and take cover inside. Whilst there, Tyrion chastises him for his sudden need for wine and Joffrey orders him to return to the field. However, the once obedient dog kindly tells them all to f*** off and, if you like, resigns on the spot.
Meanwhile, as the battle is being rapidly lost to Stannis, Cersei is busy continuing to get increasingly inebriated in the presence of the other ladies. She spots Shae and, having never seen her before, questions her on how she got to where she is in so short of a time without even knowing how to curtsy properly. She is saved by the bell that comes in the form of a severely injured Lancel Lannister, who tells her that they’re losing the fight. Cersei wants her son back in his quarters, which doesn’t go down well but still gets done.
Sansa’s puzzlement at why Ser Ilyn Payne, the royal executioner and her father’s killer, is in their presence does not go unnoticed by the Queen Regent. Cersei previously told her that it was to protect them. That was a lie. Should the city fall and Stannis take control, she does not intend for them to be taken alive and that includes all of them.
Back at the Mud Gate, Lancel arrives to tell Joffrey that his mother wants him escorted to safety. He isn’t happy, nor is Tyrion, and he tries to get out of the order but eventually, he caves in and flees the battle. His cowardice demoralizes the men below and they’re in danger of scattering to the wind and sacrificing the city when Tyrion stands up and rallies them into fighting not for the King or for the promise of gold that they’ll never get, but for their city, their homes and their women which Stannis wishes to take from them. It works and the troops below are more ready for battle than they ever were before.
Back in the Queen’s bunker, Lancel arrives once again to tell her that the battle is lost and that Joffrey should be out there to fight. He promptly receives a punch in his wound as a reward for his insubordination. When Cersei leaves the room, Sansa comforts the rest of the inhabitants who are fearful of what comes next. They sing a hymn before Shae drags her away and demands that she leave and barricade herself in her quarters so that she cannot be executed. Sansa worries for her but Shae carries a dagger strapped to her leg. “Nobody is raping me”, she says before pushing Sansa out to safety. Shae is rapidly becoming a character I love for so many reasons.
Back in her quarters, Sansa is surprised to see The Hound waiting for her. He tells her that he’s leaving for a place that isn’t burning and that he can take her with him and deliver her safely to Winterfell. He clearly doesn’t know of Theon Greyjoy’s unwelcome presence there. Sansa is hesitant until he rightly informs her that just as he is a killer, her father and her brother are killers, as will her future sons be. She realizes he won’t hurt her, but the offer has been declined nevertheless.
Back at the field of battle, Tyrion rallies his troops to attack Stannis’ forces at the gate. They come in from behind them and successfully quash their attack temporarily. However, he’s promptly greeted by a less than friendly Lannister troop who slashes him across the face before receiving a spear to the throat courtesy of Tyrion’s faithful squire, Podrick Payne. Obviously either Cersei or the King did not intend for Tyrion to come out of the battle alive.
The battle looks hopelessly lost until a third attacking force comes at them from behind. It decimates Stannis’ ground troops and consequently makes the remainder of his forces flee into the night. Stannis is furious at his loss but there is nothing to be done. The battle is won. Joffrey remains the King.
Cersei and her young son, Tommen, sit upon the iron throne as they believe the battle to be lost. Cersei tearfully uncaps the vial of Nightshade and is moments away from feeding it to her son before soldiers burst in and confront them. However, they don’t belong to Stannis – they belong to her father, Tywin Lannister, who has arrived with a freshly made pact with the Tyrells, who inevitably consider Stannis a bigger enemy than Joffrey after Renly’s brutal murder. Their arrival has won them the Battle of Blackwater, he proclaims, as the deadly vial of Nightshade drops to the ground and shatters into pieces.
Anybody who’s read ‘A Clash of Kings’ will/should be fully aware of the events surrounding the Battle of Blackwater bay. The entire book, and by extension the show, builds up and slowly progresses towards the event and it would’ve been easy to have been worried that HBO wouldn’t have given it enough justice. They could simply have had a couple of guards shouting that the ships were outside of their gates and then moved forward in time, skipping the entire fight due to budget or location-based constraints. After all, there are enough explosions and skirmishes to make the battle extremely expensive for them to film, but it paid off with magnificent strength.
There are so many words that I could use to describe this week’s episode that I could write a book. It was, to put it as simply as possible, absolutely brilliant. The writing was fantastic, which is probably due to George R.R. Martin being the writer behind the episode (as well as the books it’s all based on), the set-pieces were incredible and the action was plentiful. I had an extremely strong image of how the Battle of Blackwater Bay would look like from reading the book. Surpassing that would’ve been a very rare and considerable achievement, yet it succeeded nevertheless. This battle is everything I hoped it would be and more on top.
One way in which this episode just worked was that it was solely focused on exploring the battle and the effects on those involved in it. We saw how Cersei reacted and Sansa as well. We saw the profound effects it had on The Hound, who usually allows nothing to get in his way. We saw how Tyrion took it upon himself to rally the troops like the King should have done. What we didn’t see were deviations to other parts of the story, such as Qarth or the ongoing problems at Winterfell, which would have undermined the momentum gathered by the Blackwater scenes and ruined the flow of tension. We were promised a battle and a battle we received, with no interruptions to that promised story.
Peter Dinklage and Lena Heady were simply fantastic this week, as usual. Their continued presence on screen makes for an electric experience and it certainly didn’t disappoint on a week as crucial as this. I’ve seen some dislike for Heady’s performance as Cersei in recent weeks, mainly that she’s ‘wooden’, which I totally disagree with. I’ve loved her portrayal of the character from the first season to the present and I struggle to see the issues some people have with her acting. Cersei needs an actress that can garner viewer sympathy for the character even when she’s acting like a total bitch to those around her and Lena Heady can do that with remarkable ease. I felt a little sorry for Cersei this week, despite her plan to slaughter dozens of women and her own children in order to escape inevitable trauma at the hands of Stannis and that is how one should perceive Cersei and her actions.
Overall, ‘Blackwater’ was nothing less than a thrilling hour of television from beginning to end. HBO put their every effort into making this critical episode as big a success as it could possibly have been. The action scenes surely threatened to put a gaping hole in the show’s budget but for the viewers watching, it was just fantastic. With one episode remaining before we say goodbye to Westeros for the next year, it’s hard to see how it can top the tremendous hour of TV that proceeded it. Just exceptional work from everybody involved.