Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them!
Written by: George R.R. Martin
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Through the first two seasons of Game of Thrones, certain episodes teased us by having the bloody, large-scale battles take place off-screen, giving us the impression that this show didn't care one bit for its massive clashing of men and horses, which could have easily been dismissed as "budget constraints", because y'know, you can't just put a bunch of men in medieval costumes out in a field somewhere, film a fight between them, and claim it to be something that can rival the battles in Braveheart or The Battle of Helm's Deep. Initially, "Blackwater" was going to continue the trend of off-screen, large war battles, having viewers see the battle through the eyes of Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and anyone else who is in hiding. But D&D knew that Game of Thrones still had one thing left to do on its check-list, one last thing that would truly take this show over the top, because "Baelor" wasn't enough.
They would show the battle, in all of its bloody glory, on-screen.
D&D pull no punches here. The massive confrontation between Stannis Baratheon and the Lannisters that this entire season has been building up to is right here, and it is as thrilling as any medieval battle you've ever on film or television. No jumping back and forth between story lines here. "Blackwater" is entirely dedicated to the battle and everyone who is currently in King's Landing to witness it. Since we're only in one place for the episode's entire 55 minute run time, I'm not sure how much longer or shorter this review will be. Let's just dig into the goodies and see where they take us.
I can pinpoint the exact moment where "Blackwater" soars into masterpiece territory: the wildfire explosion. Everything that comes before this moment is mostly watching the likes of Tyrion, Bronn, and Joffrey gear up for battle and talk about what may happen should the city fall. It's all good stuff, though it's nothing I need to discuss in length. So anyway, Stannis' fleet emerges in Blackwater Bay, and his men, including Ser Davos Seaworth, are surprised when they notice a single, un-manned ship coming in their direction. Davos spots that the ship is spilling wildfire into the bay, but by then it's too late; Bronn fires a flaming arrow into the bay, setting off the wildfire and destroying several of Stannis' ships. It is a lovely, bright emerald green explosion that puts the special effects in Michael Bay movies to shame. With this one fiery green blast, "Blackwater" assured us that it was going to be something special.
The fighting has only just begun. Wildfire isn't going to stop Stannis the Mannis from pressing onwards. Stannis and his surviving men rowboat their way to shore and charge the city's vulnerable Mud Gate. The Hound leads a counterstrike, but the Lannister soldiers get slaughtered left and right. The Hound also has a sudden change of heart when he watches a soldier get burned alive, succumbing to his childhood fear of fire.
Here's the other thing that makes "Blackwater" not just the best episode of season two, but one of the best episodes in all of Game of Thrones: it couples its large-scale fight scenes with equally effective character moments. "Blackwater" is the breakout episode for The Hound, who up until now, has done little other than be the king's top bodyguard. But throughout the episode, we get little tidbits of the kind of character The Hound is as a whole: a savage killer, a man with a lifelong fear, and the one character who constantly challenges Tyrion for greatest character quotes. Unable to contain his fear, the Hound deserts the Lannister army altogether, making his exit with one of my favorite quotes of the entire series:
1.) Fuck the Kingsguard
2.) Fuck the city
Words to live by.
"Blackwater" does cut away from the fighting every now and then to show us an ongoing conversation between Cersei and Sansa, who are hiding in a holdfast with a large group of women and children. Lena Headey puts together one of her best performances of the series, as a cynical Cersei gets drunk on wine and tells Sansa about how the gods have no mercy, and that should the city fall, the women will be raped and Sansa won't be spared. Headey is so masterful with how to effectively say her lines, always emphasizing the right words and knowing how to wring out every little bit of drama she can. If D&D never got a larger budget for this episode, we would get more moments like these between Cersei and Sansa. Considering how effective of a conversation it is, I think a lot of people would be a little forgiving of there being a lack of on-screen fighting. Cersei grows increasingly desperate when it starts to look like Stannis will breach the city gates. She demands for someone to get Joffrey off the battlefield, while then taking Tommen with her to go and hide in the throne room. It's kind of unsettling to watch Cersei as she goes on telling Tommen a story about a mother lion and her cubs, knowing that, in a matter of moments, it could be the end of the line for her. It's very easy to hate Cersei, but one thing you can't deny is how much she loves her children, and this story is one of the best examples of that.
As for the actual on-screen fighting, it is very focused with a clear purpose, more than just a bunch of bodies cluttered on a beach, swinging swords at one another. Some of the soldier deaths are quite nasty, but that's the way we like it. I've seen "Blackwater" three separate times, and each time, I watch it still in disbelief that a battle this good-looking is for an episode of television and not some big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. There is only one downside to this battle, however: Charles Dance's name appearing in the opening credits. Why is this an issue? Because it assures us that Tywin Lannister is going to appear at some point, and that's exactly what happens at the end, as Tywin comes charging in with his men, forcing Stannis' remaining army to flee, thus, winning the battle for the Lannisters.
A minor spoiler in the opening credits, however, should not spoil the thrill rush that "Blackwater" provides. Finding the perfect balance between intense, large-scale combat and poetic character drama, this is one of the most perfectly constructed episodes in all of Game of Thrones, taking the series to new heights and delivering 100 percent on all of that build-up we had in the previous eight episodes. An episode like "Blackwater" is something you just don't find in any television series, even going above and beyond some battles you might find in an average high fantasy movie. I hope George R.R. Martin is proud of what he's let D&D create. They have proved that Lord of the Rings doesn't hold all the cards for masterful works of high fantasy.
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