Don't read on unless you've seen "Blackwater," Sunday's episode of "Game of Thrones."
The Battle of the Blackwater!
I could give you my theories on why certain moments in Sunday's episode of "Game of Thrones" exemplified what the show is about. I could share with you some of my favorite moments (and a few quibbles about things I thought could have used a little more attention). And I will get to all that, but first, I just want to see how many of you felt the same way I did during the first quarter of the episode.
Was anyone else thinking, "Hey, when am I going to see some dude's guts spill out in the midst of an insane battle?"
Normally, I don't go around hoping to see guts on the ground. In fact, that is a sight I generally try to avoid. But having read the books, having patiently waited for HBO to make a TV series of them, and having waited all season for the Huge Battle They Have Been Talking About Forever, I just wanted to see some quality bloodshed.
Damned if this fine hour didn't supply it. And a whole lot more.
I hope you don't have the impression that I am ashamed of my desire to see some serious clobbering time. What transpired Sunday night wasn't just a slice-and-dice guilty pleasure to be consumed like a stolen ice milk. This was the dramatic catharsis the entire season has been building toward, and expectations for the episode were high even before HBO began promoting "Blackwater" in earnest last week. Adding to the excitement was the knowledge that George R.R. Martin, the author of the novels on which the show is based, wrote "Blackwater" himself, and surely no one had less incentive to screw up the show's big moment than the creator of this world.
"Blackwater" was far from a screwup, that's for sure. It was deeply satisfying, and that's because it did three things well: It fed our pent-up desire for a massive battle (a desire we've been trying to hold in check for two seasons now), it stayed true to the series' goal of not just depicting events but showing how events affect people and their relationships, and finally it gave us more opportunities to ponder "GoT's" deep questions about leadership, authority, loyalty, sacrifice, fear and love. We got to see how a whole range of key characters reacted to enormous pressure and life-or-death moments. We got to see who they really were, instead of the faces they presented to the world. No more time for courtly chatter and brave words; what do these people actually do when the enemy is at the gates?
They were true to their natures, generally speaking.
Cersei attempted to drown her fear in a sea of wine, and did her best to see that Sansa was as terrified as she was. At first, I thought she was merely verbally torturing Sansa again; the king's mother tends to play with Sansa as a cat plays with a mouse that is frozen with fear. But on a second viewing of the episode, a different possible interpretation occurred to me: Perhaps Cersei, in her own weird way, was trying to tell Sansa to get the hell out of Dodge. She certainly supplied Sansa with all the motivation she needed to accept the Hound's offer of (relatively) safe passage to the North. I can't say Cersei filled Sansa's head with those terrible images out of altruism, but she's always seen herself in Sansa, another young woman bargained away in a dynastic marriage. On some level, perhaps Cersei just didn't see the need for one more young woman to have her potential cut short or her life ruined for no reason.
Whatever her motivations regarding Sansa, they were secondary to everything else. Cersei was true to what she's always said: She only cared about Jaime and her children, and with Jaime lost to her, the one thing she could control was the death of her and her youngest. That didn't prove necessary, thanks to the timely appearance of dear old dad, who arrived in the nick of time with his army and presumably whatever forces the Tyrell clan could supply.
The memory of Tywin's forces arriving at the last possible second makes me smile with delight, and to me, it represents why the episode is successful. The cavalry arriving at the last possible moment is one of the oldest tricks in the books, but I was so deeply engaged in the story (and so mercifully free of certain memories from the novels) that the moment came as the best kind of shock. If part of the point of "Blackwater" was to create "Holy shit" moments, that scene certainly qualified. It's not that I wanted the Lannisters to win; I wanted to be so involved in the moment that nothing about the outcome of battle felt certain or predictable. In that sense, "Blackwater" worked wonderfully well.
Another great moment: Tyrion's "Oh, f*ck me" when he spotted Stannis' forces charging down the beach. But I think my favorite Tyrion moment (of many) was the look on his face when he realized he truly had to lead the army into battle. His whole war strategy rested on ingenious tactics and clever feints made from afar, and damn it if his ideas weren't pretty brilliant. But to get down in the muck and have to kill some of the invaders himself? The look on his face was proof he never thought that was truly possible. He looked like he might vomit.
But like his sister, Tyrion was true to himself: His character shone through in the moment of crisis. He rode the wave of terror that overtook him, got over it and did what needed to be done. His grand reward: One of Joffrey's key servants, Ser Mandon Moore, attempted to take his head off in the midst of the battle. But that was just Joffrey being true to himself: The kid is a cowardly little shit who is impossible to care about and easily manipulated (surely the hit on Tyrion wasn't his idea, though I have no doubt he was happy to go along with it, if he knew about it).
Truth, weirdly enough, was what got the soldiers to rally around the Half-Man and ultimately save the city. In my weekly reviews of Season 2, I've written a lot about how everything in Westeros is in flux. The social order, the gods, the authority figures, the bonds that tie a person to his or her family, clan or region -- all of those things are rapidly evolving, and even reality can't be counted on to be what it used to be when there are dragons and white walkers roaming around. Old orders are falling away, at different rates in different places, and choices that weren't previously available are placed in front of characters who are often ill-prepared to take advantage of them. But Tyrion's speech acknowledges that what those soldiers do that night is a choice.
The theme of Tyrion's rough but serviceable speech to the troops was: I won't try to get you to fight for all the things that used to make up the social contract, because you're smart enough to know that most of what people like me say or do is a lie or an expedient half-truth designed to make sure the rich get richer. Fight for yourself, Tyrion said. Fight for the things that belong to you, not for what your lord or your king wants. Fight because you don't want to die, and we'll figure out the rest later.
It worked. Tyrion's forces, in conjunction with Tywin's, saved the city, but you have to wonder how about the consequences of Tyrion's speech -- and Tyrion's attitudes -- in the long run. Tyrion won over the soldiers by treating them essentially as equals and that's been one of the issues embedded in the "GoT" story -- how people balance their personal desires and goals with the many social obligations that often rule their lives. News flash to the rest of the Lannister family (and the Westeros ruling classes): The people want more independence and autonomy, not less. And in that moment, Tyrion acknowledged that. What's more, I think he believes it -- that people shouldn't be asked to do things that their leaders fail to do, and that leadership isn't about taking things and using force and fear to control the populace (as Cersei advises Sansa, and as Tywin no doubt thinks).
But what makes Martin's saga so endlessly intriguing is that he doesn't necessarily advocate one particular leadership style or philosophy. He's not putting forth a defined political theory or set of positions. If anything, his books are meditations what flawed people do with the power they have, or what underlings do when they get (or take) control. And because people are infinitely variable, there's no single answer to the question: What makes a good leader? But damn if Martin doesn't make you love that brave, crazy Imp more and more with every page and/or scene.
Tyrion's assumption of leadership was the culmination of the dramatic tension that was expertly built all hour (dramatic tension that was woven nicely though the memorable battle scenes and and the quieter but no less intense Cersei/Sansa scenes). But there's another moment that I've thought about quite a bit since Sunday night: The Hound walking away from the battle. I have a little bit of a quibble here: I wish we got to know Sandor "The Hound" Clegane better before he abandoned his king. For a man like him to say, "F*ck the king" is a big deal, and though I know he's not the chattiest of characters, I wish there had been more than that slo-mo moment in battle when it came to depicting his change of heart.
Of course, his desire to walk away from Joffrey isn't exactly hard to understand (and that was before Joffrey himself ran away from the battle). He's seen what a horrible tyrant the kid is, and ultimately, if he simply picked Sansa over Joffrey, I can accept that. But I would have loved to see that drink that the Hound and Bronn shared just before battle; I would have loved to see more that gave us an insight into why the Hound's loyalties to the powerful (but high-handed) Lannisters ended in that particular moment. But it's clear that, like the soldiers of King's Landing, he was ultimately fighting for himself, and just didn't see the point of risking his life on that beach if he didn't have to.
The Hound, as a longtime Lannister employee, had looked down on a mere sellsword in the service of Tyrion, but the thing about the Hound is that he appears to think for himself. Tyrion is clearly ten times the man that Joffrey will ever be, and Bronn might be a hired killer, but then what is the Hound? They aren't really different; like the rest of the soldiers on the field, they fight so they won't die, not due to any particular concerns about honor and other sentimental concepts that can get people killed.
Enough with the philosophizing; let's get back to clobbering. In closing, here are a few favorite moments from the Battle of the Blackwater and the rest of the episode:
- Stannis' ships blew up real good. That was quite the spectacle -- the Westeros equivalent of using a Weapon of Mass Destruction. (Did you notice the little mushroom cloud over the wrecked ships?) And though Tyrion was clearly glad the plan worked, you could see that the screams of the dying sailors would stay with him for a long, long time.