Clashing Kings: Blackwater

Best Game of Thrones ever.

I’d say the greatest weakness the series has had so far comes from the nature of the books. When each episode has to advance something like five or six plotlines that frequently have very little to do with each other, it means that while the overall product can be great (and it is), individual episodes lack a certain narrative coherence.

It’s like each scene is a chapter in a book, and every week we see a few more of those chapters. The whole story is advanced, but there’s rarely much of a reason to viewers (who don’t know all the events that need to be covered) exactly why the writers are deciding to show which storylines and how much of those storylines every week.

So while nearly every scene is well-structured, most of the time they don’t connect to the scenes immediately before and after (albeit thematically, i.e. “The dragons are all dead,” says someone is Westeros. CUT TO: First Dany scene of the week).

This was the only episode so far where that wasn’t true. We got the Battle of the Blackwater, from build-up to conclusion, and that’s it. So while, over the next few years, there are going to be some amazing moments, and fans will have varying opinions as to their favorite individual events, I’m pretty sure that for the vast majority of viewers, Blackwater will stand tall as the best single installment of the series until we’ve arrived at the point where the show is adapting big, climactic things that George RR Martin (who penned this episode, by the way) hasn’t even written yet.

And that’s well-deserved praise, because “Blackwater” was a landmark piece of work. I have never seen a TV show go for something so massive in scope and actually pull it off convincingly. The first few scenes were wonderful, with Tyrion vulnerable in bed with Shae, Cersei dismissing Pycelle, and Bronn leading the soldiers in a rousing rendition of “The Rains of Castamere,” to the delight of readers of the books. Then the Hound showed up and it was immediately obvious he’d be playing a huge role in the battle.

Bells sound, and the Tyrion/Varys/Podrick scene was really damn good. I just love the level of respect Varys has for Tyrion, and the hints that, though the spy master keeps his true allegiances hidden, there are specific forces in the world that he works against for truly personal reasons.

Great exchange with Bronn and Tyrion afterwards (friends forever!) and then Sansa beautifully seeing off her king.

I liked all the stuff with Davos and his son (who he actually talks to in the show) and the impressively realized fleet.

Great banter on the battlements (“Lancel, tell the Hound to tell the King…”) and the wildfire explosion was masterfully done. I reread that chapter in the book, and honestly, they barely lost anything by cutting out the whole naval battle that happened beforehand.

The action was great. I mean it was a way lower budget version of the same kind of siege battle we’ve seen in a thousand other movies, but peppered with five or six moments of gratuitously brutal violence that made it feel uniquely Game of Thrones. Not to mention we cared more about the characters.

A little ridiculous that Stannis would so recklessly put himself on the frontlines, but then again it fit with the show’s take on him. The Hound was amazing (“Any man dies without blood on his sword and I’ll rape his fucking corpse!”) and I loved that we actually got to see him break, whereas in the book he just shows up really battered and Tyrion realizes he’s gone.

Then all the stuff in Maegor’s Holdfast was perfect. More and more this season I’ve become convinced that Lena Headey’s performance is neck and neck with Peter Dinklage as the show’s best. I didn’t even realize this, but until watching her act out Cersei’s dialogue and actions I never really “got” the character.

The Sandor/Sansa scene delivered. I loved his monologue about killers, and he was definitely less rape-y in the show. I got the sense that, if Sansa hadn’t at that moment assumed Stannis would win, she would have gone with him.

Tyrion’s rousing speech was everything I could have hoped for, and no surprise there because it pretty much condensed all the great stuff he said across two chapters of the book into a minute. Ser Mandon cutting his face actually kind of shocked me. I was so sure he’d keep his nose (loses it for good in the book) that I hadn’t considered that, obviously, he’d still be wounded somehow.

And then yeah, Tywin saves the day along with Loras (in Renly’s armor, great touch) and stops Cersei from killing herself and Tommen.

I watched with five other people, and we all just sat in silence as “Castamere” played over the end credits. Then we freaked out for a while.

It’s all the more impressive a piece of storytelling after reading about how they actually made it all happen. The episode almost showed none of the battle. As in: no wildfire, no siege, no fighting, with our only knowledge of what was happening outside related secondhand to Cersei and Sansa in Maegor’s Holdfast. Mind-boggling, and major kudos to the showrunners for fighting for their vision, HBO for trusting them, and Neil Marshall for bringing it to life.

I look forward to rewatching it many, many more times. Game of Thrones has cemented its position as the most ambitious show on television.

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