Let’s not mince words here, “Blackwater” is a masterpiece. Even if, by some truly sorrowful case of ADHD, you didn’t find yourself glued to the screen for the entire hour, you still need to acknowledge what a singular achievement this is for the medium. The Battle of Blackwater Bay is A Clash of King’s tour de force and I’ll admit to some skepticism about any TV production, including this one, being able to pull off this level of spectacle. This is another triumph for HBO, all the more so because it didn’t just let the carnage stand on its own. With so much riding on delivering an epic battle sequence, it would’ve been all too easy to lose sight of the characters in the glare of dragon fire. That wasn’t the case here, as the episode was expertly paced between dread, humour, drama, and violence with Tyrion’s arc tying it all together.
The smartest choice this episode makes is focusing exclusively on one location. I’d accepted the stretch marks as a necessary evil for this series and the willingness to forgo the usually format came as a very pleasant surprise. I generally likes my television serialized (and GoT delivers that in spades), but making this episode an episode (that is, a single, unified story) gives all concerned a lot more room to maneuver. We get the usual introductory survey of “who’s where doing what?” at the top of the episode, but there are a lot fewer characters than usual this time and they’re all preparing for the same thing. The battle remains the singular focus throughout the episode as we continue to shift between the (relatively) limited set of players.
The shifting is what makes this episode work as moments of extreme and graphic violence are broken up by solid character work. Cersei’s a particular highlight here as she does her best to get Robert-level drunk and further terrorize Sansa. It’s an interesting dynamic between the two as the queen shows an odd mixture of contempt and sympathy for her successor. Cersei knows what it’s like to be married to a man you despise and, given her recent acknowledgment of what her son is, she also knows that Sansa’s in for even worse. Her cruelty is one part tough love, one part contempt for the girl she once was. What makes these scenes so effective within the episode is how they escalate along with the action outside the walls; Cersei’s an intimidating presence to begin with, then she gets drunk, then she points out Sir Illyn’s real purpose, then she starts questioning Shae. It gives the audience an awful lot to worry about.
All the verbal sparring inside helps pace the blood and guts kind outside. And there’s certainly plenty of blood and guts. Things kick off with a whole lot of sailors getting incinerated and it only gets more gruesome from there. We get knives, swords, axes; severed limbs, severed torsos, severed heads, and severed half-heads; rams, rocks, and one hell of a lot of fire. That last one gives us one of the many storytelling moments that make this more than just violence; The Hound being unable to handle the flames and offering to take Sansa someplace where the world isn’t on fire. We also get Tyrion’s horror at the carnage he unleashes on the Bay, Stannis being the first one up the ladder in direct contrast to Joffrey’s flight from the wall, Podrick saving his little lord… even small moments like the nod between The Hound and Bronn help keep the focus on the characters in the midst of this chaos.
Good as this episode is at keep all the characters present in the story, it falls almost entirely to Tyrion to actually carry it. Varis sets the stage for this, stating early on that Tyrion’s the only man who can save King’s Landing. It’s a fair assessment, given that he’s the only one that’s seemed to take defense of the city seriously over the season, and it pays off during the episode; it’s Tyrion’s plan that sends Stannis’ ships up in a ball of green flame, his orders that see the troops arranged and, ultimately, his trademark pragmatism that actually gets them to stand and fight. The Imp’s version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech is an unusual one, but not only would any talk of country, duty, and honour be grossly insincere coming from Tyrion, they’d be utterly inappropriate given the horrors that the soliders (and the audience) have witnessed. “It’s them or you” becomes the only motivation that really matters when war reaches your doorstep, and Tyrion’s honesty about that fact is enough to rally the troops for one last sorte.
Tyion’s able to delay Stannis’ troops long enough for Tywin to arrive and finish the job… and his victory becomes his fathers. Dinklage’s expression is pitch-perfect as he watches salvation arrive on a big white horse. His has been a hero’s journey, “Halfman” changing from a sneer to a battle cry, and it’s all snatched away in an instant. It’s Tywin who gets to stride into the throneroom and declare victory, a fact that has to sting almost as much as a slash across the face.
Did I gush enough in that review? Such unmitigated praise runs the risk of damaging my credibility, but this episode is so thoroughly committed to what it’s doing that it leaves no room to worry about what it isn’t. It’s easy to point to more challenging, dramatic, and even thrilling episodes on other shows (and even on this one), but I can think of no better integration of action and narrative. This is the story of a battle, and, in that much at least, I think it’s undeniably perfect.
“The gods have no mercy, that’s why they’re gods.”
Despite ignoring the rest of Westeros, this episode actually goes a long way to unify the rest of the season. Other events seem less like mere moments in time when they’re building to something like this.
“Those are some brave men knocking on our door, let’s go kill them.”
Bronn was particularly entertaining this episode and I really appreciated the contrast between him and Clegane. They’re both confirmed killers, but the Hound seems to think that this precludes him from experiencing any joy, as though he needs to punish himself for what he is.
Mad props to Martin for writing this one himself.
“Fuck the King.” It’s about time someone said it.