Game of Thrones Revisited: 2.09 Blackwater
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Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And in 2019, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros and the rest of the world; this time, we reach the siege of King's Landing as our Game of Thrones look backs reach the biggest episode to date.
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
If season one's Baelor set the precedent for the big 'ninth episode' of each Game of Thrones season, then Blackwater sends that premise into the stratosphere with a huge episode that absolutely delivers on its promise. After a season of meandering plots, twists and delightful character moments, Blackwater focuses the attention solely on the siege of King's Landing that has been promised all season. Written by George RR Martin and helmed by cult film director Neil Marshall, this is the biggest episode to date. In fact, the episode close to matching it in scale - at least until season seven - is season four's The Watchers on the Wall, which Marshall returned to direct two years later.
By choosing the focus solely on the events at King's landing, this episode doesn't fall into the trap of sporadic storytelling that the rest of season two has suffered with at times. It's packed full of atmosphere and dread from the very start, as Davos's ship leads the armada in the thick of night, the compacted timeframe of the episode adding to the tension and sense of claustrophobia. That dread continues in the King's Landing scenes; Tyrion and Shae spend a last few hours of passion, while Joffrey prostrates himself before Sansa in the throne room, forcing her to kiss his sword before he 'marches to battle'.
It's a terrific scene for a number of reasons; Tyrion and Bronn talking friendships as they say goodbye is bittersweet as is Tyrion's attempt to tell Shae to stay safe without ever giving away that he knows her. And Sansa playing the fool, telling Joffrey he couldn't possibly lead the vanguard is brilliantly scripted by Martin and delivered with gusto by Sophie Turner, revelling in Sansa's hatred of Joffrey while playing on his utter narcissism.
The scene in the brothel is interesting too; the naked whore on Bronn's lap is gratuitous; is this Game of Thrones' way of telling the audience that it is as liberated when it comes to sex as it is with violence? -(And this episode has a lot of bloody violence). It feels unnecessary, but it does set up the rivalry between the Hound and Bronn that will pay off later in the episode.
And then things get really interesting. The wildfire attack on the fleet is stunning and brutal, the wild green fire rippling over the exploding ships, crew diving screaming into the water. It's pure cinematic action, Marshall capturing the full horror of war in all its brutal, bloody glory and this continues throughout the rest of the episode. It's spectacularly set up too; Tyrion calm and composed as Joffrey waits eagerly in anticipation, trying to hide his own terror. Bronn firing the arrow that lights the wildfire is a awe-inspiring moment
From the siege at the Mud gate, Stannis rallying the troops, fighting on the ladders and ramparts and epic combat on the beach, it's a scale not seen in Game of Thrones to date. So far we've seen only glimpses of conflict or the aftermath of battle, but this is something altogether different. Heads are smashed, limbs are hacked and the audience if drawn into the full, visceral carnage of it all.
The tension isn't just felt outside the walls but within the keep as Cersei holds court over the noble ladies of King's Landing. Her drunken state reveals an even crueller state than we've seen before, the fear of death causing her to talk openly about how everyone is going to be raped and killed and how Sansa is the perfect little thing. There is still a great deal of innocence to the Stark girl, leading others in prayer and even when offered the chance to escape by the Hound, still refuses to go.
The Hound really goes through the ringer this episode; the fires raging across the bloody battlefield betray his usual violent self and it's only Bronn that is able to save him from a particularly nasty blow by an enemy solider. There was something hugely satisfying about his 'Fuck the King'; even Joffrey is speechless when finding his own bodyguard fleeing the battle. Not that Joffrey sticks around much longer.
Because it's Tyrion who is the real hero of the battle, though no one will remember it afterwards. His decision to rally the guard and lead a pincer movement against enemy forces, even when he has never used a weapon, is a hugely heroic and selfless moment. Which makes the sudden attack by Ser Mandon all the more shocking, his face slashed as the Kingsguard prepares to kill him, presumably at Joffrey or Cersei's orders. The irony of course is that it was only Tyrion's actions that stopped Stannis from taking the city. At least Podrick Payne is able to kill Maddon, saving Tyrion long enough for his father to arrive.
The charge of the Lannister knights is oddly heroic, knowing that the man that leads them - Tywin Lannister - is perhaps the biggest enemy of them all. And it is Tywin who takes the glory, striding into the throne room and announcing to Cersei (and stopping her from mercy killing Tommen at the last moment) that they have won.
Blackwater is an immensely ambitious episode that absolutely succeeds, delivering the horrors of war in all its mangled glory. At this stage in the show's history, it is the greatest episode so far and continues to remain one of the greatest and most pivotal installment in the entirety of Game of Thrones.