This is, I think, the only self-contained episode since the very first one, and it’s written by George R. R. Martin himself. All the action is at King’s Landing, inside as well as outside – and there’s plenty of action to go around..
Trigger warning for mentions of rape and sexual violence.
This siege has been flagged for a while now, and it builds the tension from the day before the battle right up to its conclusion. Stannis’s forces definitely have more resources at their disposal: they outnumber the Lannister navy 5:1 and their army 10:1 (as Davos’s son Matthos helpfully exposits early on). So it seems that Stannis is more likely to win: but who do we want to win? Davos is great, though his son is a pain, and Stannis is the rightful heir, but he’s a tool who’s in the thrall of an Ã¼ber-religious nuthead. Joffrey is, if possible, even more of a tool than Stannis, but if he loses, then Sansa, Shae, Tyrion, and Varys are all at risk too.
“Of course, you’ll be in the vanguard.”
Before the battle, Shae and Tyrion do what they do best: have sex. Shae’s affection for Tyrion seems more and more genuine to me in this episode, but I wonder how far it will go.
Cersei obtains a vial of nightshade from Maester Pycelle, and also apparently a Xena-esque decorative breastplate from somewhere. Joffrey forces Sansa to kiss his sword (urgh); I loved that she almost gets him to fight in the vanguard by comparing him to Robb. Sansa is showing more spirit all the time, like when she tells Tyrion that she’ll pray for himâ€¦ as she prays for Joffrey: Tyrion’s attempts to find an ally in her have failed.
Varys, pushed to extremes, even takes a side – something we haven’t seen him do before. He makes obscure references to who Tyrion trusts, to Assha’i and the time when he became a eunuchâ€¦ and gives Tyrion the maps of the tunnels under the city – the tunnels that Arya used to escape, and the ones that Tyrion will find useful later.
Bronn and the Hound square off in some pub – my money was on Bronn, by the way – before the bells ring to signal Stannis’s invasion, and Bronn gives Tyrion some much-needed confidence:
I’ve seen you kill a man with a shield. You’ll be unstoppable with an axe.
before they go their separate ways for the battle. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Tyrion’s closest friends are both people he pays.
“The dwarf has played his little trick. He can only play it once.”
Tyrion hasn’t let anyone else in on his wildfire plan, and bats away the whining and disbelief of both Joffrey and Lancel when Stannis’s fleet sails up the Blackwater unopposed. Disbelief abounds on the leading ship, too, where Davos and Matthos are discussing religion (again – does Matthos have any other interests? Calligraphy, perhaps? Windsurfing?). Davos spots the green liquid spilling out of the sole Lannister ship on the river, but it’s too late to turn the boats, and on Tyrion’s signal, Bronn fires the flaming arrowâ€¦ and Davos’s ship explodes, flinging him, and everyone else on the ship, into the wildfire-slimed water.
A brief digression: do you remember when Melisandre whispered something creepy in Matthos’s ear, back when we first met him? If not, I’ve looked up what she said:
Death by fire is the purest death.
â€¦something that doesn’t make me hopeful for Matthos’ chances of survival. This was one of those moments that I really love the writers; a seemingly throwaway line seven episodes ago was actually a teaser for the death of a minor character, and gives us even more reason to be intimated by Melisandre, who hasn’t been on screen for several episodes now. It also makes me think that whatever reservations I have about how the writers have treated some storylines this season, they are trustworthy, and it may yet come out in the wash.
Joffrey is delighted by the explosion, Lancel shocked, Tyrion sombre, and the Hound – already unnerved by the flaming torches near his face – is getting more unhinged. Stannis, in contrast, is undeterred by the explosive destruction of most of his fleet, and orders his men to land at the gates, knowing major death for his troops will ensue before he can take the city. And major death ensues. My favourite gore moment: Stannis slicing off the top of a man’s head like a guillotined hard-boiled egg. Bonus points for the Baratheon soldiers using their boats as shields.
The Hound takes out his feelings about fire on the Baratheon forces, but the endless torches and fire arrows start to get to him, and he becomes almost paralysed by fear. After their aggro earlier in the night, Bronn takes delight in saving the Hound’s life, before he calls a retreat back into the city.
â€œI’d rather face a thousand swords than be shut up inside with this flock of frightened hens.”
The upper-class gender divide of a patriarchal warrior society has never been more clear: in the war-torn Riverlands, women were outnumbered but present, as advisors (Catelyn), wives (Margaery), fighters (Brienne), medics (Talisa), servants (Arya), captives (most of the population of Harrenhal) and sex workers (possibly ditto). During the Battle of the Blackwater, all the characters who are fighting are men; and all the people taking refuge in Maegor’s Holdfast are women, except one who is too young to fight (Tommen) and one who is under instructions to be there (Ilyn Payne). The men can come and go from the women’s refuge; the women cannot leave.
Cersei further underlines this when she reminisces over the differences in upbringing between her and Jaime, and what that means for her life now:
We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently. Jaime learned to fight with sword and lance and mace, while I was taught to smile and sing and please.
While they wait for rescue or rape, Cersei entertains herself by drinking, interrogating Shae (who is Lorathi, it turns out), and psychologically torturing Sansa: by far her favourite pastime. Her mix of advice:
Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. The best one’s between your legs. Learn how to use it.
derision, and good old-fashioned fear:
If the city falls, these good women will be in for a bit of a rape!â€¦ A precious thing like you will look very very good: a slice of cake, just waiting to be eaten.
nearly does for Sansa, but she is the one who rallies the rest of the women when Cersei flees with Tommen. Shae urges her to flee too: if she is found there, she is at risk, whereas if she is found in her room, she has a better chance of reaching Stannis, whose honour won’t allow her to be harmed. Shae won’t come with her, though: she stays in the hopes of seeing Tyrion, and is confident of defending herself from marauding soldiers with a dagger strapped to her thigh. According to Cersei and Salladhor Saan, women’s genitals are both weapons AND gods – what else could we be hiding in there? Ladies, any suggestions?
Strategically, Cersei’s effect on the battle is in recalling Joffrey when Lancel tells her that the battle is lost: she even punches Lancel in his wounded shoulder when he tries to persuade her against this (the scream! Poor Lancel). This ensures that responsibility for King’s Landing falls on Tyrion alone.
“They say I am half a man; what does that make you?â€
When Joffrey decides to retreat back to the castle on his mother’s orders, the Hound, petrified by the wildfire and the flaming arrows, makes a short, but succint speech:
Fuck the Kingsguard. Fuck the city. Fuck the king.
Joffrey, oddly, looks more hurt than angry at this betrayal.
Tyrion must lead a sortie out of the city; rallying the reluctant men with a speech that displays his characteristic mix of honesty, practicality, expedience, and emotion:
Don’t fight for your king and don’t fight for his kingdoms. Don’t fight for honour. Don’t fight for glory. Don’t fight for riches because you won’t get anyâ€¦ There are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!
And he does, thanks to Varys’s map â€¦ and falls on Stannis’ soldiers at the Mud Gate before their ram breaks through.
“Stannis is a killer, the Lannisters are killers… your sons will be killers. The world is built by killers. So you’d better get used to looking at them.”
Tyrion manages to slice off a man’s leg at the knee before one of Joffrey’s Kingsguard turns on him, and but for his squire Podrick (Payne, a relative of Ilyn’s?), he would have finished the job. Who was behind that, I wonder? Tyrion falls, semi-conscious, and blurrily sees another force approach, that isn’t his and isn’t Stannis’s…
Sansa escapes to her room, where she finds the doll that her father gave her. I loved this little nod to Ned and the poignant contrast between that Sansa – scornful, eager to be rid of “childish things” – and this one: now the grown-up woman she longed to be then, and hating it. But she’s not alone: the Hound is her room, bloody but brazen, and offers to take Sansa with him when he flees the city (which tells us that Theon’s kill-all-the-ravens strategy has worked thus far: Sandor would hardly be offering to take her back to Winterfell if he knew it was currently held by the Ironborn). Can she look at anyone without seeing a killer? Can she leave the city with this one, one she trusts not to hurt her?
Cersei doesn’t flee to Joffrey, nor to her room – instead, she takes Tommen to the Iron Throne, and tells him a story about a brave lion cub and his mother, unafraid of evil stags and wolves. Tommen’s innocence here – stags aren’t evil!, his trust of his mother – is heartbreaking. Cersei prophesies a bright future for the little lion cub:
They will all come to you, little lion. To rest a crown on your head.
but she has another one in mind, and she opens the bottle of nightshade…
It’s a fantastic, beautifully theatrical moment and Lena Headey totally pulls it off; she is goddamn perfect in this episode. From a strategy point of view, though, I’m not sure why she would kill Tommen as well as herself. I doubt that Stannis would have killed him and Tywin certainly would have paid to ransom him, plus, Jaime is still alive. Cersei has always been reckless, but has stopped short of being outright stupid. Does this mean the Hound is not the only one unhinged by the battle?
Tommen is saved by the doors crashing open: first man in is Loras Tyrell (clearly schooled at the Aragorn Academy of Dramatic Entrances); followed by Tywin. What a Deus Ex Machina for a man who’s a misotheist! The last time we saw him, he was heading out of Harrenhal to fight Robb in the west – did he change his mind, thanks to Littlefinger and the Tyrells? Or was he playing Arya all along? Stannis yells at his men to stand and fight, but it’s no use. The Lannisters have defeated him, and he is dragged away by his men.
So. Whew. The Big Bad Battle of the Blackwater. The producers viewed it as â€œessentially a short feature filmâ€: did it feel like that for you? Questions left over: what’s happened to Tyrion – and Podrick, Lancel, and Davos? Will Shae survive; will Ros be released? Where was Salladhor Saan? What has Littlefinger promised the Tyrells to get them to ally with the Lannisters? Next week, the promo tells us, we’ll be back in King’s Landing, and also catching up with Arya, Jon, Dany, and Brienne & Jaime, at least. And we’ll be there for a full, glorious 63 minutes. It’s clearer than ever to me that HBO needs to cough up cash for a season that’s longer than ten episodes next year. Hopefully they agree.
Spoilers note: anything from the first book, first TV series, or this series so far is fair game. Mention of future plot points and/or characters from the rest of the ASoIaF book series is a spoiler: please use these tags, with the *s removed, to talk about them: [*spoiler*] <blah blah> [*/spoiler*].