Previous Game of Thrones Season 2 episode recaps:
Ep. 11: "The North Remembers."
Ep. 12: "The Night Lands."
Ep. 13: "What Is Dead May Never Die."
Ep. 14: "Garden of Bones."
Ep. 15: "The Ghost of Harrenhal."
Ep. 16: "The Old Gods and the New."
Ep. 17: "A Man Without Honor."
Ep. 18: "The Prince of Winterfell."
Episode 19: "Blackwater"
Original Air Date: May 27, 2012.
Directed by: Neil Marshall.
Written by: George R. R. Martin.
Tonight we get a real treat, folks. We get an epic film director in Neil Marshall, a super fan of the show who came in at the last minute to save HBO's bacon when the originally planned director bowed out. And lucky for us, too, since he would end up directing what book readers all knew was going to be an amazing battle-TASTIC hour of television! But best of all we get the author of the books himself, George R. R. Martin, adapting his own work in writing the teleplay. George wrote last season's episode 8: "The Pointy End," but could he do the impossible and write an episode to surpass that one?
Two words: HELLS YES!!!
Because the Battle of the Blackwater was such a huge chunk of the second book, and a very pivotal moment for many characters to boot, quite a few book readers wondered if for the first time in this show's history we might get an episode entirely focused on just one location, King's Landing. Would all the other locations and their stories take a back seat until next week? I myself thought there was a good chance of this happening, and it turns out I was right! So I'm going to revert to the old format for recaps and break this week's review down by scene rather than location.
And so, without further ado . . .
We open to Stannis' fleet approaching Blackwater Bay in the dark of night, lead by his newly anointed Hand, Davos Seaworth. Aboard his flagship, Davos examines the rest of his ships from the deck and has words with his son, Matthos. Matthos, a devout adherent to the Red God, R'hllor, believes in Melisandre's prophecy that they will be victorious this night, and that Stannis will sit on the Iron Throne by sunrise. Davos believes in being pragmatic, and is more judicious with their odds of winning. Although they outnumber the forces of King's Landing and the Lannisters considerably, he prefers to approach the city with caution.
In the Tower of the Hand, Tyrion has a restless night thinking about the battle to come. Shae stirs by his side and comforts her man, repeating to him the promise he made her swear back on the battlefield in his father's camp so many months before.
Shae: "Do you remember what you said when you met me in your tent? That I should make love to you like it was your last day on this earth."
And she proceeds to do exactly that. What a lucky fellow, that Halfman!
Over in the Queen's chambers, Maester Pycelle tries to offer words of comfort to Cersei. But when she grows tired of his feeble-minded side-tracking, he gets to the point and hands her a vial. It's called Essence of Nightshade, an elixir used to sooth anxiety and provide a restful sleep. But take more than the standard dose, and . . .
Does the doddering old scholar know something no one else does? Or is this a way out for Cersei in case the unthinkable should happen and King's Landing falls?
Down in the barracks Bronn, Lord Commander of the City Watch, leads a rousing chorus among the Lannister guardsmen of that most famous of Westerosi songs, The Rains of Castamere. The song chronicles the crushing defeat of House Reyne of Castamere at the hands of a teenage Tywin Lannister during the bannerman's rebellion against his father, and the resulting eradication of all the members of that highborn family forever.
The soldiers are all in a fine cheer, with ale and whores aplenty to make any grizzled vet forget the terror that's creeping towards them in the night. All save for the King's Hound himself, Sandor Clegane, who glowers menacingly at the sellsword turned Commander and tries to school him in the art of being a badass. But just as Bronn's hand closes around the hilt of the curved dagger strapped to the small of his back, the city bells begin to toll and all the guards rush out to man their posts. Saved by the bell, someone was!
Up in the Tower of the Hand, Lord Varys the Spider laments the ominous sounding of those same bells. Tyrion tries to make light of it all as his squire, Podrick Payne, straps the dwarf into his specially made armor. Varys produces a map the Hand requested, revealing a detailed tracing of all the twisting subterranean passages under King's Landing.
Tyrion: "There must be twenty miles of tunnels beneath the city."
Varys: "Closer to fifty. The Targaryens built this city to withstand a siege, and to provide escape if necessary."
Tyrion: "I'm not escaping. Strange as it sounds, I'm the captain of this ship. And if the ship goes down, I go with her."
Varys: "That is good to hear, though I'm sure many captains say the same while their ship is afloat."
The two continue to banter back and forth in a play of words, as per usual, but at some point the Master of Whisperers gets serious and attempts to tell the story behind his castration, before stopping at the last moment and begging off for another day. Instead, he wishes the Hand of the King all the best in the coming battle, stating that he truly believes defeating Stannis is for the greater good of the city.
Hmmm, now what was that all about?
As the bells continue to toll even out to sea, Davos orders the drums of his ships to provide their own music and marshal his onboard marines to call.
Over in the Red Keep Tyrion runs into Bronn in the throne room and the two exchange pleasantries, with the latter pointing to the ax in the dwarf's hands:
Bronn: "Do you know how to use that?"
Tyrion: "I chopped wood once . . . no, I watched my brother chopping wood."
Bronn: "I saw you kill a man with a shield. You'll be unstoppable with an ax. Don't get killed!"
Tyrion: "Nor you, my friend."
Bronn: "Oh, are we friends now?"
Tyrion: "Of course we are. Just because I pay you for your services doesn't diminish our friendship."
Bronn: "Enhances it, really."
Tyrion: "Oh, enhances? Fancy word for a sellsword."
Bronn: "Been spending time with fancy folks!"
Tyrion spies Lady Sansa and her new handmaid, Shae, and rushes over to wish Ned Stark's daughter good tidings. He judiciously pretends not to remember Shae's name, and she corrects him coldly. Then Joffrey enters and spoils the mood entirely, ordering Sansa to kiss his newly forged sword before he heads out to battle. He's christened the blade "Hearteater," and promises her that she'll have turn to lick her own brother's blood off the steel after he's done putting down his uncle's rebellion. As Tyrion stated a few minutes earlier, that Joffrey is such the romantic!
The King is whisked aloft to the ramparts where he and Tyrion can command a choice view of the Blackwater. Joffrey is alarmed to see that none of his ships are in the bay to meet Stannis' fleet, but the Halfman has something tricky up his short sleeves.
Meanwhile out at sea, Davos is wondering the same thing as King Joffrey. Where is the opposition?
Back at the Red Keep, Queen Cersei and all the highborn ladies at court are sequestered in the stronghold known as Maegor's Holdfast. The royal executioner and King's Justice, Ser Ilyn Payne, is also present and Cersei explains to Sansa that he is there to protect them in case Stannis' men overtake the castle. Sansa doesn't entirely buy this explanation, but she is as yet too young and inexperienced with war to connect the dots properly.
Atop the battlements along the castle's walls, a King's Landing ship finally makes an appearance through the fog rolling off the bay. Joffrey gets excited, but throws a fit when he sees that there is only one ship. Where are the rest of them? Tyrion calls the archers to their marks and cautions them to hold fast until his signal. He glares at Joffrey to hold his tongue.
Meanwhile, Davos is none too pleased to see the lone ship heading straight for his fleet. Worse yet, the ship is entirely unmanned, it's pilot wheel tied to the rigging. He orders his men to train their arrows on the strange derelict, sure that something foul is afoot.
On the ramparts again, the Lord Pyromancer himself, Wisdom Hallyne, is present to place a burning torch into the Hand of the King's, well, hand. Is it just me, or is the Pyromancer a little too gleeful?
Davos stares intently as the unmanned ship passes him by . . . until he notices a peculiar green liquid leaking from the stern. Wildfire! But just as the Onion Knight is barking orders to his men and their ships to steer clear of the area, Tyrion drops the burning torch over the castle's walls. On a cliff far outside the city, Bronn sees the Hand's signal and dips his longbow to a flame. Alight, he notches the arrow back, aims at the sky over the bay, and lets fly. The flaming missile arcs beautifully over the sails of Davos' ships, landing smack in the center of a pool of wildfire, which ignites instantly and spreads directly towards the derelict ship filled with pig shit and many, many clay pots of the Pyromancer's special brew.
The explosion is MASSIVE! It destroys nearly the entire fleet, claiming many of Davos' ships and the men aboard them, including his son Matthos. The Onion Knight himself is tossed overboard into the murky depths of the Blackwater. We hope he can swim! Some of the sailors not killed outright in the explosion are set afire where they come in contact with the oily, almost supernatural wildfire--a substance that does not douse even under water. They die horrible, screaming deaths.
From the battlements, the royal party stares transfixed at what the Halfman's careful planning has wrought. Wisdom Hallyne all but rubs his hands together as he cackles with delight at his masterpiece, and The Hound whispers a silent oath in sight of all that green fire engulfing the bay.
But if Tyrion and his King allow themselves some small measure of relief at having delivered a crippling blow to the armies of Stannis Baratheon, it is short lived. The Stag King's ship survived the mayhem, along with a few others. Although his men are cowed by the bewitching wildfire, Stannis shrugs it off as just a mere trick of the dwarf's, a hand which he can only play once. He marshals his men with a rousing speech, then disembarks in one of many longboats for the distant shore. His men are in a fine uproar as their oars dip with machine-like rhythm into the turbid waters, propelling a sizable force towards the walls of King's Landing.
Back at Maegor's Holdfast, Queen Cersei is well into her cups as Ser Dontos the Fool is keeping the courtiers entertained with his juggling skills. If viewers recall, Ser Dontos Hollard was the portly, disheveled knight who made the mistake of being late and drunk to Joffrey's Name Day tourney at the start of the season. Ordered to be put to death, he was saved by Lady Sansa who suggested he be made a Court Fool instead. Cersei is not amused by her Fool's antics, however, and she decides to make sport at Sansa's expense with lots of sordid and depressing details a grown woman should probably not be telling a teenage girl. She frightens the young lady with tales of what will really happen to the court's ladies if Stannis' men should overtake the city.
Cersei: "When a man's blood is up, anything with tits looks good. A precious thing like you will look very, very good . . . a slice of cake just waiting to be eaten."
Someone remind me never to go out drinking with Cersei. What a total Debbie Downer!
As Stannis and his men prepare to make landing, Joffrey begins to lose his shit over the sheer size of the opposition's forces. Despite the wildfire debacle, there are still too many of them! Luckily Tyrion is made of sterner stuff, ordering the archers to be ready to rain down fire and sending Sandor Clegane down to greet any troops which make landfall. But as he gathers men to join his cause, The Hound has some important words with the commander of the archer brigade:
The Hound: "Any of these flaming fucking arrows come near me, I'll strangle you with your own guts!"
Damn, dude! Guess when your older brother nearly burns half your face off as a child, you might have healthy cause to fear the flames, too.
Stannis' boat is one of the first to make shore, and he's off and in the thick of things like a BOSS! Even as fire arrows rain down on them and decimate his ranks, Stannis pushes on. This is a King men can rally to! When he and his surviving forces make it to the city walls, he calls in a new strategy: to head for the Mud Gate! Which is, unfortunately, just as Tyrion had predicted in the previous episode.
The Hound bursts out of the gate and meets Stannis' men head on, tearing a path of pure homicidal mayhem toward the water's edge. But when a wall of flame greets him there, the fearsome Hound suddenly loses his nerve. He freezes to the spot as a man rushes toward him, afire, with sword raised. But the soldier is suddenly felled by an arrow to the brain courtesy of one plucky sellsword by the name of Bronn. Clegane barely acknowledges the assist and stumbles back toward the castle, utterly defeated in spirit. Overwhelmed, his men follow him back through the gate and the doors are barred and shut behind him.
On the field of battle, Stannis orders the ladders be brought out. He's the first one up the wall, and the first to meet the defenders of King's Landing head-on along the battlements. He slices, he dices, he lops off limbs. This is a King not afraid to get his hands bloody. Hells, I would want him as my King!
By contrast, we see Joffrey running away from the sounds of combat heading his way like the cowardly little snit he is. But when he and Tyrion discover The Hound skulking back through the courtyard like a dog with his tail between his legs, the Halfman grows incensed and ridicules the King's sworn protector.
Tyrion: "Can I get you some iced milk? And a nice bowl of raspberries, too?"
Hound: "Eat shit, dwarf."
Tyrion: "You're on the wrong side of the wall."
Hound: "I lost half of my men. The Blackwater's on fire."
Joffrey: "Dog, I command you to go back out there and fight!"
Tyrion: "You're Kingsguard, Clegane. You must beat them back or they're going to take this city.Your King's city."
Hound: "Fuck the Kingsguard. Fuck the city. Fuck the King!"
Sandor Clegane wanders off, leaving Joffrey behind almost in tears.
Outside the walls, Stannis' forces gain the upper hand. They storm the city in overwhelming numbers, leading a covered battering ram straight up to the Mud Gate. Lancel Lannister arrives with word for the King that his mother wants him back at the Red Keep where he will be safe. Tyrion advises against this. A King needs to be seen defending his city. But of course Joffrey is just a punk kid. He retreats to the castle, leaving Ser Boros Blount and Ser Mandon Moore behind to aid his uncle and represent the King on the field of battle.
Down in the courtyard below, Joffrey's men are disheartened by the lack of his presence. Tyrion tries to rally them by announcing that he will lead the attack himself, but the men are not about to heed the orders of the King's "demon monkey" of an imp uncle. So naturally Tyrion taunts them, even as the sound of the battering ram striking down the gate behind them thunders throughout the yard..
Tyrion: "They say I'm half a man, but what does that make the lot of you?"
Soldier: "The only way out is through the gate. And they're at the gate."
Tyrion: "There's another way out. I'm going to show you. Come out behind them and fuck them in their arses!"
The Hand of the King then delivers a most rousing speech, winning the men over to his side with every heartfelt word, culminating in the greatest rallying cry ever:
Tyrion: "Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them!"
The Halfman leads the men around back and out a secret exit.
Back at Maegor's Holdfast, Lancel delivers news to the Queen that the battle is lost and that Stannis' men are knocking down the gates. But all Cersei cares about is the location of her oldest son, Joffrey. When Lancel tries to advise her into letting him lead the King out to meet his foe, Cersei knocks him down and storms off with her youngest, Prince Tommen, in tow. She abandons her ladies in waiting and the Keep's children, and Shae uses this opportunity to tell Sansa to run for her own chambers and lock herself there. If Stannis does overtake the city, he will not harm a daughter of his ally and friend, Ned Stark. But if she remains in the royal apartments, Ser Ilyn Payne will.
Sansa quickly does as she's told. Unfortunately, someone else is already occupying her chambers when she arrives there. As she cradles the doll her father gifted to her upon their arrival at King's Landing so long ago--the same one she threw back in his face so petulantly--the Hound rises up behind her. He announces that he's leaving the city, for someplace that's not burning. Perhaps North, in fact. He offers to take her with him, back to Winterfell is she would like. Cradling the doll before her as if clutching a shield, Sansa declines. She believes she'll be safer in the castle. She, too, believes that Stannis won't hurt her. The Hound tries to frighten her, but at long last Sansa finds her courage and stares him straight in the eyes. "You won't hurt me," she proclaims with confidence. And Sandor agrees with her. He leaves her be and exits the room.
Outside the city walls, Tyrion leads his strike force in a stunning coup to retake the Mud Gate. But just as he saves the gate and stands victorious over the corpse of the ruined battering ram--the men screaming "Halfman!" over and over again in a joyous chorus--a veritable wall of Baratheon reinforcements arrive from the direction of the Main Gate. Lion and Stag standards clash violently, the vicious melee instantly becoming a free for all as men fight and die in the most brutal manner imaginable. Tyrion is barely saved from an enemy's war hammer when he spies one of Joffrey's Kingsguard, Ser Mandon Moore, and smiles at the knight. But suddenly the man advances menacingly on the dwarf and swings at his face. Tyrion leans back at the last moment and barely avoids having his head sliced in half, although he does still suffer a grievous wound to his face and topples over. But just as Ser Mandon is about to deliver the finishing blow, Podrick comes to his lord's rescue and runs a spear straight through the Kingsguard's throat. The squire then rushes to his master's side and cradles his head in his arms.
Inside the Red Keep Queen Cersei sits on the Iron Throne with Prince Tommen in her lap, waiting for the end to come. She tells the boy a calming story about a lioness and her cub living in the Kingswood, even as she grips the vial of Nightshade Maester Pycelle gave to her earlier. She tells of the little cub one day becoming King of all the animals, when the wolves and the bears in the north, the foxes of the south, all the birds in the sky and the beasts in the sea will place a crown upon his head and bow before their rightful liege.
Outside, Tyrion groggily stares in wonderment at the blurry visage before him. He sees the ghost of Renly Baratheon come fighting his way through the dwindling forces of Stannis' men astride a white horse. The Halfman collapses into unconsciousness, not sure of what it is he's seeing.
In the throne room, the great doors are battered open. Renly's Ghost strolls in and removes his helmet. No, it is not Renly, for Renly is dead. It is Ser Loras Tyrell instead--the Knight of Flowers--wearing the armor of his slain companion. And behind him . . . behind him strolls in the Lord of Casterly Rock himself, Lord Tywin Lannister! House Tyrell is allied with the Lannisters now, thanks to a deal brokered by Littlefinger. Cersei cries out and drops the vial in her hands, smashing it upon the stone steps of the Iron Throne.
Tywin: "The battle is over. We have won."
The rightful Hand of the King has returned in the city's darkest hour to rescue King's Landing from her foes. Order has been restored.
Rating: 5 out of 5 crowns.
That was one hell of a roller coaster ride of an episode--and then some! Basically one very long kickass battle sequence, punctuated with just enough moments of dialogue and pauses for reflection to give it that perfect balance writers and directors strive so arduously to achieve, but seldom do. Oh, and the VFX team went above and beyond the call of duty. Did you see that explosion? WHAT?!! I don't think I shall ever forget that shot, not for as long as I live.
Of course, Martin and Marshall are the dynamic duo here, giving us the finest hour of television not just on this show, not just on premium cable, but in all of tv land, period! So far the feedback from viewers across the board has been tremendous. HBO execs spent a lot of money to get this one episode just right, banking on the idea that it would be the shining capstone of the entire second season. And you know what? They were right! It seemed like such a gamble before this Sunday, I must say. But damn if everyone involved didn't pull off a tremendous hit here. Bravo, everyone. Brav-fucking-oh!
I need a drink right now. Okay, where was I? Ah yes, my thoughts on what I just saw.
I want to shower accolades on Lena Headey in particular, who I think was just absolutely phenomenal. Don't you agree? I mean, she blew me away with her brilliant performance, and I'm going to be highly pissed if she doesn't get nominated for and win an Emmy. So with that in mind, I'm going to focus primarily on the Cersei and Sansa scenes first, since here is where I think the episodes' major themes are all hammered home.
It's true that only in our darkest hour does humanity's best attributes come to the fore. But just as well, it is also the time for our worst elements to be put on display. For outside the walls where men are doing their best to kill each other in the most gruesome of ways possible, inside the castle a different kind of battle is being waged. That between good and evil, if you want to be trite. But to dig a little deeper than that: the war is between dignity and nobility--those human traits which elevate us above mere animals--versus self-serving greed and lust for power. Cersei, perhaps sensing that her pursuit of the latter is being taken out of her more than capable hands simply by default of her sex, lashes out at any sign of all that we as noble human beings seek to glorify in times of war: the virtue and honor represented by the innocent Sansa Stark.
Because she is just as true a child of the righteous Ned Stark as Arya, Robb, or Jon Snow, Sansa embodies everything a jaded power-mad cougar like Queen Cersei has grown to hate over the years. The young girl's honor is a frustration. Her innocence in the face of certain doom is a sign of weakness. And worse yet, womanly weakness, which only serves to enrage the lioness further as, more than anything, she despises the fact that she was born a woman in such an age when men make and enforce all the rules. While Sansa's youth perhaps allows her a more optimistic hope that the war will end with good triumphing over evil, Cersei has been around too long to believe anything other than the fact that her world will most likely come to an end before morning. And where the younger lady is content to conduct prayers and lead songs in the face of so much uncertainty, the older woman finds succor in her cups. After all, what else can she do? She's a daughter of a lion, a truer seed of the powerful and lordly Tywin Lannister than even her twin brother, Jaime. In a different world or a different time, Cersei might herself strap on a sword and wade out into the thick of things beyond the castle walls to protect what is hers. But sitting around waiting to be told the outcome? Why, that's for weaklings and invalids!
Still, you never really learn a person's true worth until their backs are against the wall. When Lancel arrives to announce that the battle is lost, Cersei's carefully constructed facade of strength and experience crumbles like a house of cards. She flees the room like a petulant child, contemplating what has always been considered a coward's way out: death by suicide. Meanwhile, in the face of that same danger, the innocent and naive Sansa Stark chooses to stay her ground, providing the backbone the other ladies and children in the room so desperately need in this darkest of hours. Who is the real Queen here, and who the captive?
Playing on this same theme of mistaken identity, we travel to the battle itself being waged outside the red walls of the castle. Here we have a king outfitted and armed in the best armor and weapons gold can buy, but who is no true warrior. While Joffrey might have the noble visage and bearing of a storybook liege, it is his stunted and grotesque uncle who shows the true heart of a leader on this day. And what a glorious game the dwarf plays, no? Tyrion is the very embodiment of never judging a book by its cover. For when the cards are down and all the chips are in, he alone is the only thing holding the defense of King's Landing together. Mocked as the runty cub his entire life, on this day when noble men are revealed as cravens and mere squire boys are elevated to the heights of giants on the battlefield, Tyrion Lannister reveals himself the true lion of his House's sigil.
Of course, a man's courage and wits cannot be truly tested lest he confronts an opponent of equal standing. And Tyrion more than meets his match in Stannis Baratheon. While the former makes up for a lack of brawn in savvy and book smarts, it is the elder statesman and seasoned war vet who embodies the best qualities of the warrior king. Stannis is bold, decisive, brash, and nervy where the dwarf is cautious and unsure of his initial moves. But what the two share is: purpose. That burning drive to see their respective endgames through. It is because of this intensity and zeal, this honesty in the fear of losing, that we as the audience cannot help but root for both sides of the conflict here. Seriously, what makes this episode so brilliant is the unnerving realization that we want both Tyrion and Stannis to succeed!
But, of course, how can such a thing be possible?
The sad fact of the matter is, it cannot. At the end of the day, someone has to lose. Because the world George R. R. Martin created here is no fairy tale, the good guys don't always win. And while we do consider Tyrion to be a "good guy" if ever this show could be charged guilty of having one, we all know the evil Queen and her bratty boy will live to see and rule another day. As Sansa tells Shae before the conflict begins: "the worst ones always come back." So for those of you upset at the outcome of the big battle, you'll just have to live with it. This is the way the books are, and this is how the show will always be. Things never go the way you might have been conditioned for them to go, particularly in epic fantasies.
But you know what? I like that! It is the brutal uncertainty of this world which keeps me coming back. And luckily for us, we do still have one more episode to come back to before Season 2 draws to a close. I expect next week's episode will be jam packed with awesomeness as some threads are closed entirely, others tidied up for the time being, and even more new ones are created to throw you off for the long haul until spring of 2013. It's going to be a long wait . . . and the cold winds of Winter are blowing.
So if you will, please join me next week when I review the season finale, Episode 20: "Valar Morghulis."
Best line of the episode: "Any man dies with a clean sword, I'll rape his fucking corpse!"
P.S. -- If you liked the song playing over the end credits this episode, it is a more somber version of the song Bronn and the guardsmen were singing earlier, "The Rains of Castamere." It's performed as a sort of dirge by the Brooklyn, NY-based indie group, The National, and is currently available on the Game of Thrones: Season 2 soundtrack just released today on iTunes only, and on June 19th everywhere else.
Click on the Youtube vid below to hear it again. I've provided the lyrics of the song as it appears in George R. R. Martin's book to follow:
The Rains of Castamere
"And who are you, the proud lord said,
"that I must bow so low?
"Only a cat of a different coat,
"that's all the truth I know.
"In a coat of gold or a coat of red,
"a lion still has claws,
"And mine are long and sharp, my lord,
"as long and sharp as yours.
"And so he spoke, and so he spoke,
"that lord of Castamere,
"But now the rains weep o'er his hall,
"with no one there to hear.
"Yes now the rains weep o'er his hall,
"and not a soul to hear."