Fiiiiiiiiiiight! The super-duper anticipated "Blackwater" episode of Game of Thrones rained fire down on us all, living up to the pre-season promise of "War is Coming." Well, war came, and it was awesome.
In the most unique episode of Game of Thrones to date, the hour was spent around a single event instead of the trademark Westeros Tourism Board postcards we're accustomed to. The Battle of Blackwater Bay, the scuffle that Season 2 has been preparing for all season long, unfolded uninterrupted and showed war for the brutal act it has always been.
The first arrow may not have been fired until halfway through "Blackwater," but the moments before war weren't exactly good vibes and chillaxing. In fact, the war was used not just to satisfy our insatiable thirst for bloodlust, dismembering, and heads crushed by rocks (and there was a delightful amount of all that), but also as a way to put these characters through the grinder and show us who they really were. The best and worst come out of us in times of stress, and nothing brings in stress like seeing 300 ships full of angry men looking to invite themselves over.
War can make you stronger, it can make you a head shorter, it can make you braver, it can make you scared of fire and wish for a flagon of wine instead. The Battle of Blackwater did all these things to our heroes of Westeros, combining physical damage with psychological tolls in an episode that accurately captured the essence of war to the point where we all tasted blood. And when Bronn's arrow hit the wildfire and sent Stannis' fleet up in an explosion of neon-green? Holy crikeys! There isn't a whole lot to really discuss here other than gawking over the superb action sequences, but this was awesome, and gave me a great excuse to turn off the lights, blast the surround sound, and scare my neighbors.
This Memorial Day, let us also remember the guy who got his leg cut off by a dwarf.
"Are you afraid, my lion?"
Before war can actually begin, we needed to spend a bit of time in that most uncomfortable of times. Those restless, sleepless hours just before you know you'll be rushing into battle armed with nothing but a piece of metal and an upside-bucket you wear on your head. "Blackwater" was directed by Neil Marshall, a late addition to the process but a perfect fit as he's an action director that knows how to stretch a budget (he brought us Dog Soldiers and The Descent). And Marshall doesn't even turn on an actor's microphone (except one that's hurling his guts out below deck of a barge that's about to become a pile of splinters) for a full minute-and-a-half. Sweet lord, that's so awesome.
Instead all we have to listen to is the rolling seas and angry thunder off in the distance preparing us for what's in store, all we have to see are these huge war ships barely visible under a sliver of moonlight. It's the perfect accompaniment for this war full of men heading into battle against their will. The use of darkness and silence not only made special effects easier, it jumpstarted our imagination and heightened our senses until we fell off the edge of our seat.
Davos stood on the bow of one of those ships heading straight into the Lions' den. He did not share his son's enthusiasm for the events that were about to transpire. But duty put him on the boat. Tyrion faced the fact that he probably wouldn't make it out of the battle alive, which was a bummer since he finally found a woman who loved him and not his coin purse. But honor made him put on armor. Bronn the sellsword had been through this before and spent his time pre-war doing what he loved to do: drinking and fondling. A lust for life put Bronn on the wall. And Cersei was preparing for death rather than war, taking a vial of essence of nightshade from Maester Pycelle in case Stannis opened her doors. Acceptance of her life as either a symbol of royalty or oppression made her eerily calm in the face of two possible outcomes, one of which involved killing herself and her children. War has different effects on people, and we got to see the whole gamut. And that was all before the first drop of blood spilled.
"I've never known bells to mean surrender."
And then the bells rang!
In the moment, "Blackwater" masterfully used audio to build tension. King's Landing sounded the bells to let the city know it was about to get pillaged from all angles and armor clanged as men found their positions.
And then the drums drummed!
Stannis' fleet countered with rhythmic drums, and at this point my insides were screaming to jump out of my skin. All these sounds building in the background brought everything to a frenzy. Building, building, building...
And just when I was about to rip my own head off in anticipation, Tyrion's Blackwater Bay strategy began to unfold. Davos was sharp enough to know something was up when his armada was met by a single ship, but of course Joffrey was oblivious. And that was probably the best way to witness Tyrion's genius, because if we knew what was coming, it wouldn't have had the same impact. Words don't do it justice, so let's let the pictures do the talking.
Well, there went Stannis' advantage. But Stannis was not all boats and drums, he still had a massive army to bring to shore, a throne to sit upon, and the head of a jerk king to cut off. This started phase three of "Blackwater," and I don't even know where to begin. Well, let's take a breath and see how the ladies were doing.
While the men did their burning and screaming and stabbing, Cersei was holed up with the other noble ladies in a safe place with plenty of wine. These scenes with Cersei were, in some ways, even more uncomfortable to watch than the brutality going on outside. It just some "hens" waiting around to either be saved or raped, and it wasn't going to be until those doors opened and helmets were removed that the ladies would know which fate arrived.
Cersei used the opportunity to get drunk and impart her regal wisdom on queen-in-training Sansa, and it was harsh reality after harsh reality. I love drunk, frank Cersei. Use sex to your advantage! We might all get raped! Ilyn Payne is here to cut off our heads if the city falls! She may be the B---- in the Red Keep, but no one can say that she's a sugar-coater.
"Any man dies with a clean sword, I'll rape his fucking corpse."
And how about that Stannis? The man with the personality of a lobster also had the balls of a grizzly bear, balls which he took right to the front line. He was the first up the ladder, and at one point took on half the Lannister army all by himself. I might just take a marker to my "Robb 2012" poster and scribble in Stannis' name in there instead.
There's little I can really say about the battle itself other than "holy awesome balls!" so I'll just leave it at that. It was the chaos of war as the two forces clashed, Stannis' men pushing, Joffrey's men holding, in a sequence that should be saved for blockbuster movies. Legs were cut off, torsos were divided, heads were smashed by the aforementioned rocks. It was everything we hoped it would be plus more.
But war did not sit well with everyone. The Hound made the most surprising turn, at once yelling the quote above and later telling Joffrey to fuck off. It seemed that the sight of flesh burning was a bit too much for him to handle, and he broke, preferring wine and a nice place to sit to painting his sword red. God I love The Hound, and for him to retreat to Sansa's quarters and offer her a way out was both creepy and sweet.
Tyrion chose to take on this war upright rather than on his back like he did in Season 1, got a few jabs in at the cowardly Joffrey, and cut a dude's leg off! Not a bad day of work. But he was not without his own battle scar, a nasty gash across his face that cut so clean, it's a wonder his nose was still attached to his face. And a lot more would have come unattached if it wasn't for his squire Podrick Payne, who came in with a timely skewering.
And just as King's Landing looked as though it was going to fall, the cavalry arrived with Tywin and his new allies the Tyrells (Ser Loras and Margaery's family) to squash what was left of Stannis' troops. And even though he wasn't even featured in the episode and was miles away, it was Littlefinger who proposed the idea that the Lannisters and Tyrells should merge, who had the biggest influence on the war and the realm. Oh that Littlefinger!
"Blackwater" set a new benchmark for Game of Thrones, the fantasy genre, and television war sequences. It was more than just an hour to show off a big budget, it used the subject of war to show its effect on characters and proved that in this series, it's all about how you play the game.
Game of Thrones Season 2 Power Rankings
I'll be ranking the ten episodes of Game of Thrones' second season from first to worst in terms of quality. But remember, these rankings are just, like, my opinion, man.
This Week: "Blackwater" was like hardcore LARPing and big-budget movie entertainment mixed in one! The amount of production that went into this thing is staggering, and the results were well worth the wait. Straight to the number one spot!
1. "Blackwater" (Episode 9)
War! Giant green explosions! Multiple people getting sliced in half! The epic battle of Blackwater Bay unfolds.
2. "Garden of Bones" (Episode 4)
Joffrey entertains a few ladies by having them beat each other; Melisandre gives birth to the Smoke Monster from Lost; Dany meets a bunch of salesmen from Qarth.
3. "The Ghost of Harrenhal" (Episode 5)
Shadow Baby gives Renly a big hug, wildfire wildfire wildfire!, Theon sets out for the North, and Arya's new friend does her bidding.
4. "The North Remembers" (Episode 1)
Annnnd we're back! Joffrey orders death for Robert's bastards; Melisandre, Davos, and Stannis make their grand entrance; Robb sends an
all tomato ultimatum to the Lannisters.
5. "The Old Gods and The New" (Episode 6)
Jon Snow meets a hot redhead in the snow, the people of King's Landing rebel, and Winterfell falls to Theon.
6. "A Man Without Honor" (Episode 7)
Theon takes drastic measures to hold Winterfell, revolution in Qarth means tough times for Dany, and Jaime Lannister returns to make fun of Brienne.
7. "The Night Lands" (Episode 2)
The Goldcloaks set out to find Gendry (and Arya); Theon gropes his sister and disappoints his dad; Jon sees something strange in the forest.
8. "What Is Dead May Never Die" (Episode 3)
Theon suits up for Team Greyjoy; Tyrion gives Pycelle the boot; Cat arrives to see Renly assembling a circus; Arya and Gendry get captured.
9. "The Prince of Winterfell" (Episode 8)
Talisa and Robb finally let their loins do the talking, Jon and Qhorin Halfhand are in the clutches of Wildlings, and Tyrion fears for Shae's safety.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom