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Game of Thrones: Blackwater

“Who are you, that I must bow so low?"

In keeping with the tradition established by last season’s “Baelor,” Season Two’s penultimate episode was a doozy: violent, personal, and—I think—with something for both book readers and newbies. Plus, wildfire and the "Rains of Castemere"!

George R.R. Martin penned the script, and did a great job managing the problem that made him turn to book writing from TV in the first place: how can you portray a massive battle on a TV budget, even if it’s HBO? By keeping to the spirit of the books, in which each chapter is from a particular character’s perspective, Martin solved that problem by limiting the scope of each scene in order to make the battle seem personal rather than massive yet impersonal.

In the Red Keep, Cersei, Sansa, and the other highborn women of King’s Landing played the female version of the game of thrones: verbal violence rather than physical, but designed to wound and dismay just as much. Cersei’s increasingly drunk scheming were wonderfully dark and surprisingly funny, both when she was offering Sansa horrible advice about what will happen “if” she becomes queen, and when Lancel the Idiot ran in spouting nonsense. She has the sly wisdom some people get when they are in their cups, too—she knows Shae is not a lady’s maid, which might mean she suspects Shae is Tyrion’s companion.

Cersei has made her priorities clear, especially in recent conversations with Tyrion: she wants her children to be safe and successful. For Joffrey, given his sadistic tendencies and status as first-born, getting him in the Iron Throne and keeping him there is apparently enough. But the loss of Myrcella (shipped off to Dorne) hit her hard and was an important factor in establishing her increasing distrust of Tyrion. Now, we saw her at Mother Bear Level Ten: she was willing to kill herself and her youngest, Tommen, to prevent their capture by Stannis.

Luckily, Tywin swept in to save the day on a white horse. His arrival should not have been a surprise, whether or not you have read the books: the Lannisters are winners, and Tywin will do anything and everything to make his family strong. “The Rains of Castemere,” which Bronn and the soldiers sang, and which ran over the credits, is a song of Lannister might against a family that they wiped out entirely. It is a victory song, but in certain contexts and with certain arrangements (like the credits version) it is also a threnody about the impossibility of defeating an economic superpower.

That victory for one side is defeat for another is obvious. But Lannister victory because of Tywin means a defeat for Tyrion. Tywin’s last-minute entrance will diminish the impact of Tyrion’s vital actions for the history books and the popular understanding. An untrained former Master of Cisterns and Drains led unwilling, unmotivated, frightened, and weary troops into battle and kicked ass on his own against men who looked almost twice his size. But will anyone other than those other soldiers at the Mud Gate ever understand?

Last season’s “Baelor” contained the death of beloved Ned Stark (sobbing still!), and Tyrion seems to be in a rather precarious life-or-death situation at the end of this episode. However, I refuse to believe that he would die like that, so unnoticed. And with such a cruel last glimpse of the world: his father coming to do the job that Tyrion could not successfully do. Martin is cruel, but he’s also sentimental.

Speaking of the cruel world: the Hound has not gotten quite as much attention as I would like, and I suspect that his journey is rather unfathomable for people who haven’t read the books. But the look on his face when he saw the wildfire, and the utter fear on his face when confronted with a burning man, spoke volumes. Tyrion told the soldiers they weren’t fighting for their king, but for themselves. The Hound has no reason to fight for Joffrey, who is a petulant idiot who treats other people like puppets. But he has a kernel of goodness, even though he would deny it. He does not seek redemption because he feels it is beyond him, but in a moment of fear and doubt, he hoped to protect Sansa. Alas.

All parts of this episode were wonderful: the slow build-up of the first 20 minutes; the contrast between the fighting and the painful silence of the Red Keep; the focus on secondary characters like Bronn, the Hound, and Shae; Tyrion kicking ass; and Podrick Payne being a great squire. But the highlight was the simplest part: the wildfire. Martin changed Tyrion’s tactics from the book, but that made the slow dread even more delightful, since I didn’t know exactly what had happened or was happening.

Grumpkins and Snarks:

• Varys: “I’m not entirely sure what you’re suggesting.”
Tyion: “I’m entirely sure you’re entirely sure what I’m suggesting.”

• Tyrion: “Just because I pay you for your services doesn’t diminish our friendship.”

• Joffrey: “Sansa, kiss my sword. It’s a penis metaphor, and I demand that you kiss it because sex and violence are all mixed up in my stunted little psychopathic adolescent blade. I call it hearteater.” (I may not be remembering that quote precisely.)

• Tyrion: “Men, form up! Men? Men! They say I’m half a man, but what does that make the lot of you? There’s another way out, I’m going to show you. We’ll come out behind them and f*ck them in their asses. Don’t fight for your king, and don’t fight for his kingdom. Don’t fight for honor and don’t fight for glory. Don’t fight for riches because you’re not going to get any. This is your city Stannis means to sack. This is you city Stannis means to sack, your gate he is ramming. When he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, your women he rapes. Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”

• Varys may work for the kingdom rather than any particular ruler, but he does not like the red magic of Asshai.

• If I ever lead troops into a war, I want war drums.

• Menfolk, you may not want to read this bullet point: Only in a book written by a man would so many people refer to the menstrual cycle as one’s “red flower that blooms.” I cannot believe, no matter how much a culture values fertility, that women in a room of women after quite a few drinks would keep up with that stupid euphemism. Sansa should be covering a bowl of salt in melted chocolate and eating it with a spoon right now, if realism is meant to be valued!

• It was a battering ram!

Four out of four Rains of Castemere. Because a Lannister always pays his debts.

(Book vs. Show discussion thread is here.)

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. After looking forward to this episode all week, sadly, the hubby and I accidentally sabotaged our complete enjoyment of it. We've been slowly catching up with Band of Brothers over the last month, and we decided to go all in and push toward the end this weekend. It seemed appropriate for Memorial Day, after all.

    So by the time we got to 'Blackwater' on Sunday, we had watched 4 episodes of Band of Brothers, including some of the series most powerful and haunting episodes. After seeing those true experiences and horrors depicted, and the words of the real men who survived them, the fictional material in GOT just couldn't pack the same wallop. We enjoyed the episode, and thought it was a very good hour of this series (and I'm very pleased it was solely focused on this one event and location), but it didn't wow us or move us the way I had been anticipating. :(

    I do agree with you on the wildfire though. That was a great sequence, and even though I've read the book, I didn't quite realize what was happening until Davos saw that the single ship was empty. I actually gasped, "Oh crap!" when I realized what was about to happen. And the shot of the green-fired river was pretty memorable.

    Nasty, drunken Cersei was rather a delight, too. I like when her characterization more closely matches the way she was portrayed in the book. The softer side of Cersei (boo-hooing to Tyrion about her demon spawn) never works for me. I prefer the scheming lioness and her biting bitterness.

    (P.S. I highly recommend both Band of Brothers and The Pacific to anyone who's interested in that kind of series. Each is only 10 episodes long, at roughly an hour each, so it isn't a huge time commitment.)

  2. What an episode! For the first time in either of the two series, I watched it again as soon as it had ended -- not because I had to (to follow the plot and/or characters), but because I wanted to.

    It was exciting as hell and the shots of the wildfire were magnificent. As I haven't read the books, I knew something was up, but was struck dumb by the beautiful simplicity of Tyrion's plan -- not to mention the sheer beauty of the green fire on my screen.

    I also loved Tyrion's St. Crispin's Day speech. He was proven right about Joffrey, even though so few people were aware of it and to watch him turn these men around in fewer than 100 words was magnificent.

    I am a bit confused about Cersei at the end. Was she going to kill herself as well as Tommen? If so, why was she so keen to get Joffrey (little coward on top of being a "psychopathic adolescent blade" -- great metaphor!) back into the Keep? If she were dead, who would protect him? Did she just not care in the face of defeat?

    As always a great review, Josie. Your three final bullet points all made me laugh.

    PS -- I second Jess' recommendation of Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Both are well worth the time investment.

  3. As someone who loves and adores Jack Gleeson, I thought this episode was marvellous. A lot of people I know who absolutely despise Joffrey were complaining that they were "feeling the feelings" for Joffrey, and I think in large part that's down to Jack.

    Josie, I cackled at your Joffrey quote.

    And how luscious did Finn Jones's hair look at the reveal? I may have wept over being reminded that Renly is gone and Loras is pretty much alone.

  4. Love these recaps, and the quotes. May I posit that the "red flower that blooms" metaphor is perhaps expressing relief that one is not knocked up with another potential Joffrey, or the like?

  5. Fantastic review of a fantastic episode, Josie. The wildfire sequence was just spectacular. If that doesn't win the FX team an Emmy then nothing will. Also deserving of some awards love is series composer Ramin Djawadi. I've been listening to the season two soundtrack all week (thanks to iTunes releasing it early) and it is amazing with 'The Rains of Castemere' being one of the standouts.

  6. I had been coming up here to see if the review had been posted already, and now that it has been it feels it was worth the wait.
    Saying this was a great episode is surely an understatement, in my humble opinion it is the best one of all the series so far, both by its greatness and the subtlety of some of the characters facing the horrors of war.
    Sansa surprised me positively. I would surely have felt scared as hell listening to Cersei's drunk remarks about war and women, and she got a hold of herself and lied to the women to calm them down - no, your king is not a psycho chicken shit, he's a hero. (btw, I think the quote you mentioned, Josie, was quite right, lol). Cersei was frightening even in that lovely scene with her cub - she's a maniac that one, but one can't help oving/hating her.
    And Tyrion, wow, what a motivating speech. His lines are always the best and his speech was great, let's kill them!
    I'm looking forward to this Sunday, sad it will be the last one and it'll be another year for us to see them again, except in blu-ray - which also took an eternity to get to us! What only makes me less unhappy is that True Blood is coming next. I guess it'll have to make do.

  7. Ahhhh! Awesome. The visuals of the wildfire were just spectacular. I actually gasped and I don't notice stuff like that a lot. I also loved the war drums! So much better than those stupid bells. If you're going to kill people to a musical instrument, make it one with rhythm.

    Drunk Cersei was amazing. I'm so glad she hit Lancel the Idiot.

    Also loved the Hound abandoning Joffrey with a "fuck you." Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Btw, the scene between the Hound and Sansa was way less creepy than I imagined it being.


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