“The world is built by killers” – The Hound
I’ve been thinking all season that Game of Thrones isn’t really a show about war. It’s a show about what war does to people, which believe it or not is actually something different. But the war can’t be ignored. This show has managed to keep me hooked through hours packed with far more intrigue and character-based drama than violence, but sooner or later this war we’ve been hearing about would have to be front and center. That time is now. Welcome to “Blackwater,” an episode that might be the most ambitious hour of television ever committed to film.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
This is normally the part of the review where I break down what’s going on in this episode by setting, but for the first time in this show’s history, there’s only one location. The entire hour is honed in on King’s Landing as the horrors of war shake its walls and wildfire spreads through its waters. Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) has been threatening all season, and now he’s knocking at the gates of Westeros’ capital, determined to take the Iron Throne by morning. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) wait inside with a vastly inferior force, while Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Tyrion’s mistress Shae (Sibel Kekilli) huddle with the other women and children in the Red Keep, praying for the best but fearing the worst.
The structure of “Blackwater” (and this is not a criticism) is somewhat formulaic. We begin with the calm before the battle. Stannis and his right hand Davos (Liam Cunningham) stand on the decks of their ships as they sail for their target by night, waiting for a glimpse of the city walls in the distance. Tyrion lies in bed with Shae by his side, sleepless and afraid. Varys (Conleth Hill), ever the coolest man in the room, is surprisingly shaky as the battle draws nearer. Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) and Tyrion’s sellsword Bronn (Jerome Flynn) await the drawing of swords with the drinking of beer and the brandishing of egos. And Cersei begins to drink herself into oblivion, all the while holding a little bottle that contains a quick way out of the chaos.
Then the battle begins, and it’s clearly a match of Tyrion’s wits vs. Stannis’ raw power. The last Baratheon standing grits his teeth and pushes his men forward with every step, always at the front of the battle, always thirsty for the blood he must drink to get the throne. Dillane, who has spent much of the season as the stern, unmovable monarch, cuts loose and embraces the anarchy of war, roaring into battle. Dinklage plays Tyrion as the intellectual who’s too smart to believe that there’s anything appealing about war, but also smart enough to know that he’s the only one in the city who can lead. He throws himself into leading the desperate men of King’s Landing even as the situation grows more and more dire, even as his nephew the King flees, his thirst for blood wiped clean by actually seeing some. These two leaders carry much of the episode’s emotional weight, but there’s plenty more to go around.
Headey’s had quite a few wonderful moments this season, but “Blackwater” is her masterpiece. She embraces the in vino veritas dynamic of Cersei’s character, throwing herself into the tragedy of the most powerful woman on the continent like never before. All the guilt, all the regret, all the despair that’s bubbled up through Cersei all season comes to bear here. I’ve said before that Turner succeeded in finally making me care about Sansa, and she pushes it even further here. The obvious vulnerabilities of the character come naturally to her, but she pushes it further in this episode to show surprising strength. “Blackwater” will also be remembered as the episode where Sandor “The Hound” Clegane truly becomes a character. Here, McCann reveals that even The Hound is afraid of something, and even he is capable of embracing that there’s something more important to his life than killing.
All of this is the long way of letting you know that there’s more to “Blackwater” than the battle. Don’t get me wrong, the batttle is brilliant. It’s ambitious, it’s jaw-dropping and it’s stunningly well-paced. You’ve never seen anything like it on television before. But this wouldn’t be Game of Thrones if it was all about the bloodshed. Yeah, I know, we all really love to talk about the beheadings and the breasts and the incest and the executions, but that’s not why this show works. This show works because at the heart of all of that fantasy chaos, there are human stories. “Blackwater” almost literally paints the landscape with hellfire, but it still manages to pepper character moments in everywhere, from Cersei and Tyrion to Bronn and Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simons). Those are the things that make this show great, and without them the battle would mean nothing but a higher budget.
But yeah, the thing with the empty boat filled with wildfire was badass.
Next week: The season finale – Valar Morghulis