Saturday, June 2, 2012

Review: Game of Thrones "Blackwater"

Non Spoiler Review:
As the penultimate episode of the season, Blackwater delivers one of the most visually stunning battles on television. Rather than the customary batch of story lines jumping here and there across Westeros, this week focuses entirely on one night in King's Landing as Stannis' fleet arrives at Blackwater Bay. Inside, siege preparations and defences are made and the weight of the city's (and royal family's) survival falls on Tyrion.

Blackwater delivered in many ways. It was both an intimate look at several characters, including the Hound, Cersei, Bronn, and Sansa, while pulling off an epic story with what must have been a very difficult series of sequences on a tight budget. There's little to complain about, except perhaps that it all occurred at night (which undoubtedly helped the effects budget).

The end was not entirely what I expected, and I go into next week wondering how this season will wrap up now. I had anticipated a little more death than what we got actually, though I'm not worried that we won't get our fair share next week to end what has been a fantastic second season.

Spoilers Now!
Stannis' fleet sails under darkness. Davos' son assures him Stannis will sit on the Iron Throne when the sun rises and King's Landing will be glad to see Joffrey's head on a pike. Davos isn't so certain, given the walls have never been breached and despite the claim, they are still conquerors.

Tyrion and Shae lie awake. As a Lannister he has no choice but to fight, but it's not Shae's war. She promises to keep him safe. Master Pycelle brings Cersei nightshade, a poison that she's requested. Bronn is drinking with his men in the tavern as Sandor arrives. He's no fan of Bronn, who explains they all like killing, just like the Hound. Just smaller. The two face off and are about make a move to fight when the warning bells sound. Bronn suggests one more drink before the war.

Varys and Tyrion listen to the bells while Tyrion's squire Podrick outfits him in his armor. Varys lays out the map he asked for. There are fifty miles of tunnels beneath the city, built to withstand a siege and provide escape. But Tyrion isn't escaping.

Varys brings up another matter. He has learned Stannis has taken up with a red priestess versed in the old powers. Tyrion doesn't believe in such powers, but Varys has seen and heard things, and adds that he's never explained how he was cut. One day he will. And he can think of nothing worse than a Stannis in league with dark forces sitting on the Iron Throne. He believes Tyrion is the only one who can stop him.

As they part ways to their respective positions, Bronn tells Tyrion not to get killed. As the palace is readied, Shae and Sansa appear, as Joffrey wanted her to see him off with a kiss—to his new sword. Sansa subtly goads him that he should be in the vanguard in order to meet Stannis (just as her brother does in battle). Sansa is sure Joffrey will come back, given the bad ones always do, but Shae leads her away to a keep called Maegor's Holdfast, where Cersei has assembled all the high born ladies for their protection. Sir Llyn Payne is there to defend them, as if the city falls all their paid guards will flee. 

On top of the battlements Tyrion and Joffrey get into an argument about tactics and his uncle demands he let him do his work. They can hear the drums of Stannis' approaching fleet, and Tyrion is telling his men to wait.

Meanwhile, Davos is worried there are no ships to meet them. Then one sole vessel does appear and he calls his archers to bear on it. No one is on board, and it's pouring out a green liquid into the bay as it passes. He recognizes wildfire.

On the wall, the pyromancer gives Tyrion a signal torch, which he uses to alert Bronn further down the bay. He fires a flaming arrow off to the empty ship.

It's too late for Davos as the arrow ignites the bay and the ship. He warns his son to get down, but their ship is destroyed in a green fireball that rushes out to consume the fleet. Tyrion, Joffrey and the Hound watch the conflagration in amazement.

Stannis' ship has escaped the majority of the fleet's destruction, and he tells them to prepare to land, given the dwarf can only play his trick once. But they'll need to get across the bay under King's Landing's archers, and he's more than prepared to sacrifice his men to get to the walls.

Tyrion orders fire rained on Stannis' men as they try to make their way to the mud gate. Sandor arrives to meet them with his soldiers (including Lancel, who gets wounded and flees). Sandor seems to lose his cool on the battlefield, and Bronn saves him from death as Stannis' forces scale the battlements.

Tyrion finds Sandor drinking wine. He's lost half his men and refuses to return to battle. The fire seems to have traumatized him. Joffrey commands him to go back and fight but Sandor tells him to fuck the kings guard, the city and the king. He walks off.

Meanwhile, Cersei is getting drunk as they wait, amused that Sansa is praying. She encourages her to drink with her. Cersei explains if the city falls all those women will be raped and she'll have a bastard in her belly by morning. Cersei continues to rattle on about how she was married off to Robert and wished she weren't born a girl. Then she recognizes Shae, and tells her she curtsies horribly. She recognizes her accent and sees she can't be high born. She came to Westeros ten years before, without learning how to curtsy, Shae explains, but Cersei wants to know her story. 

Lancel rushes in to report the fleet is destroyed but the troops have landed. She orders Joffrey brought inside from the battlements. She reveals to Sansa Sir Llyn is there for the women. They won't be taken alive if it comes to that.

More soldiers make landfall and batter the mud gate. Lancel arrives to take Joffrey back to the Red Keep. Tyrion tells him he must lead, not flee, or he shouldn't expect his people to fight. Joffrey has his guards stand to represent him on the battlefield, and leaves with Lancel. His men see him go. 

Podrick arrives with reinforcements from the other gates, so Tyrion decides he'll lead the attack. He addresses the discouraged men who begin to disperse when it's apparent he wants to take charge. Given he's half a man, what does that make them? There is another way out through the tunnels to come up behind them, he explains, and tells him to fight for the city Stannis means to sack—their houses and their gold and women. He manages to rally them.

Lancel tells Cersei the battle is lost given the soldiers lost heart when they saw Joffrey leave. Cersei doesn't care what he wants and pushes him away. Sansa attempts to calm down the others and suggests they sing a hymn. Shae presses her to go to her quarters and bar her door. But she herself must say goodbye to someone first. Sansa runs off. 

Sansa gets to her quarters and locks it. She finds the doll her father gave her, but Sandor is there in the shadows. He explains he's going someplace that isn't burning, perhaps north. The king can die just fine on his own. He offers to take her with him to Winterfell and keep her safe. She protests that she'll be safe where she is. Stannis is a killer, the Lannisters are killers, her father is a killer, her brother...the world is built by killers, he explains. She asks if he'll hurt her and he says no. He opens the door to go.

Tyrion and his men attack Stannis' forces from behind and  break off the attack on the mud gate. He then sees a new force rushing to attack them. Tyrion gets slashed on the face by one of Joffrey's guards, but Podrick kills him. Tyrion watches the new army overwhelm the gates as he loses consciousness. 

Stannis realizes reinforcements have arrived. He's dragged away by his men as he tries to stay and fight.

In the palace, Cersei sits on the Iron Throne with Tommen, telling him a story to calm him, about a mother lion and her cub who would one day rule all the animals. As she speaks she takes the nightshade vile and gives it to him. The doors burst open as Tywin arrives—with Sir Loras (!) at his side. He declares they have won.

The Verdict:
It's quite a change to focus entirely on one locale and night, but in this one case it worked quite well to maintain the level of tension. With no idea how it might all turnout, I admit to being surprised that Joffrey survived and the Lannisters appear in full control over everything. However, how Tyrion will handle what appears to be treachery on the part of Joffrey's royal guards remains to be seen.

The wildfire explosion was the big money shot of the episode and they pulled it off quite well, differentiating it from a normal fire with the eerie green flames consuming the ships. Was it odd that Stannis' ship was so far back in the fleet?

Sansa has grown quite a bit this season and I actually care what happens to this character now. It doesn't look like she actually went with Sandor, which is a stark (pun!) contrast to her sister who has just thrown her lot in with Jaqen to get back home.

As for the Hound himself, what course will he chart now that he's leaving King's Landing (and apparently without Sansa). Will he cross paths with Robb or Arya on his way north?

The twist with the alliances came so quick it was easy to miss. Tywin opted not to attack Robb, but team up with Sir Loras to save King's Landing. Thanks due to Baelish, obviously. How will this play out in the greater war? Will Robb attack Casterly Rock? Does Tywin now have the numbers to defeat the northerners? 

There was certainly no big death like I anticipated. Certainly Davos and his son, and a few minor others were weeded out, but I would have expected such an epic night to yield more bodies. One final critique is the absence (and apparent abandoning of side plots) of the pirate Salladhor Saan, who I thought would have been present for the battle given he wanted the queen as his prize. Why no mention of that? And Melisandre appeared to just disappear as Stannis wished for this battle. Hopefully the fallout of the battle and the lingering questions will get addressed next week. 

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