This review contains spoilers.
Now THAT was an episode! All season, HBO and Game of Thrones has been building up to the first of two big battle blow-offs. The one most promising, the raid on King’s Landing by pretender to the throne Stannis Baratheon, was the subject of this week’s episode, and I have to confess that it lived up to all the budget-straining promises we’ve been getting all along.
HBO has a history of, in other programmes, promising big battles but delivering sub-par results. For example, Rome‘s big battle set piece was a bit too CGI to look good, though it was attempted on a grander scale than this. Neil Marshall, who directs this episode from a great George R.R. Martin script, keeps things tight and intense. There are wider shots of what have to be CGI ships in a CGI harbour, but when it comes to showing combat scenes, they’re shot almost claustrophobically. There are bodies and hacking axes and slashing swords and I can’t tell who is who outside of Tyrion, Bronn, Stannis, and a few other recognizable faces. Still, it doesn’t really matter from a viewer standpoint; we’re getting carnage and blood and people being cleaved in twain, and that’s exactly what you’d expect from a war in the Seven Kingdoms.
On a show that likes its violence over-the-top (yet also strangely realistic), Blackwater brings the sort of violence that the show has been building up to all season. As the series has gone on, they’ve ramped up the gore and increased the satisfying sickness of the killing. As the battle of Blackwater progresses, the kills themselves get crazier and crazier, and it seems as though everyone gets involved, from Tyrion and his squire to Lancel Lannister.
The amazing thing about this episode is that, for the first 20-30 minutes, there is no battle. There’s just tension, and that makes the battle even more effective. You know what’s coming, they know what’s coming, and it’s just stomach-churning to watch these characters we’ve grown closer to all season prepare themselves for potential death. There is a very high body count, which is befitting a legitimate war.
Tyrion’s goodbye to Shae is good, but Cersei Lannister’s hen house chat with Sansa Stark is actually some of the best stuff in the episode. Lena Headey has been brilliant in small doses most of this season, but this week she gets a big chunk of the B-story, and she really nails it as the amusingly-drunk queen. She’s like the best worst big sister in the world this week, and if Sansa had any remaining innocence about her role as a noble woman in Westeros, Queen Cersei takes that from her in grand fashion. This is Lena Headey’s episode to hold court, and she kills it in every scene. The plight of the women (and Ser Ilyn Payne), puts a whole new spin on war in the world of George R.R. Martin.
That’s the most fascinating turn the show has taken; every character has their reasons for the viewers to empathize with them, but Game of Thrones goes out of its way to focus on each one and give us a specific reason to feel bad for them. In this case, it’s obvious a lot of folks are in over their heads in their current situations, not least of whom is The Hound. He’s big and mean and he’s Joffrey’s dog, but he’s also got that softer side. Cersei is a victim of her circumstances, but she’s also kind of a tragic figure as well. Tyrion, Robert Baratheon, and even Stannis all have their flaws and their grievances.
All that action, and there’s still more fighting to do next week. After all, this week was ONLY Stannis versus Tyrion for King’s Landing. There’s still the thorny issue of Theon Greyjoy in Winterfell, Robb Stark and the Northmen’s rebellion, and there’s always Danerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons, to contend with. The break from them to focus on battle was welcome (and a wise choice), but there’s a lot of ground to cover between now and next season.
I just hope one more episode is enough to wrap it all up. The more I think about it, the more I believe that Game of Thrones could use a 12, rather than a 10-episode season. If the budget can support it without harming the quality of the episodes, that is. I want more.
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