Ladies and Gentlemen, today marks the most epic hour of TV this year. If you complained about not seeing enough CG direwolves or baby dragons, look to this episode (you get to know why). If you were almost at wit’s end hoping when things would finally be shocking and twisting like in the first season, look to this episode. If you wanted an actual bloody, medieval, Lord of the Rings-style battle sequence, look to this episode. If there’s anything you should watch this week at all in TV Land, it’s THIS EPISODE.
I’ll stop now. Are you ready to be blown away?
The ninth episode is probably the greatest in a 10-season run for a show like Game of Thrones. It has to be the most climatic because the final episode is about picking up the pieces, and being the perfect segue to the third season. About a year ago, episode 9 saw Ned beheaded at the Great Sept of Baelor, triggering the War of the Five Kings. It shocked everyone to their bones, even if Sean Bean was merely adding another death notch to his resume belt as usual. And Blackwater is something like Baelor, but not quite so tragic, yet it still gets the heart pumping just as hard.
For an episode of this magnitude, all our attention is drawn towards the events in King’s Landing, where we’ve so far only seen, in bits and pieces, all the preparations being made for Stannis’ assault on the city. The rest can sod off. The war is here!
Since the scattering of all characters in the wake of Joff’s crowning, our attention has been split several ways in Westeros, a most jarring and taxing hand delivered to the viewers. One can already barely grasp the sheer scale of the ensemble and richness and diversity of culture with every location, much lest keep tabs on the political ongoings of the seven kingdoms. So thank God we have one episode where we can put all our focus on, because our brains must be kind of tired – and it proves how much the show can benefit from it.
After the titles, we find ourselves on deck with Davos, now High Captain of Stannis’ fleet. Stannis is on another ship, analyzing the waters while men are below deck throwing up into an already-to-the-brim barrel full of throw up.
Matthos, his son, speaks fondly of his father’s position in the Royal Fleet, trying to give him confidence. He corrects dad when he refers to the divine in plural, but Davos will love his son for it anyway, even if Matthos ends up traipsing along the starboard with a flower in his hair. Dad just wants to be practical and cautious about things like a good smuggler, even when his son points out that they have the greater strength in numbers: 10:1 Baratheon to Lannister ships, 5:1 soldiers. Everything’s sorted right? Oh yeah, no one’s heard of the Battle of Thermopylae in Game of Thrones.
Still, we get a very nice and somewhat rare father-son bonding moment in the show to pep up all the depressing events that have occurred thus far. The last time we had something like this, Jon was being sent off to the wall, and then we got Ned and Mordane Septa’s head on a spike. I guess that’s foreshadowing for you.
Tyrion and Shae engage in some pre-battle pillow talk. I’ve never really seen Tyrion be more dutiful than scheming, so this is an interesting breather. Shae thinks she can protect Tyrion, and I believe her, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t like the fact that she reminds him of her whoring past either. It’s clear by the way his face drops at the mention, but that’s what it is – Tyrion is in love with an ex-prostitute who was brought to his tent just once, and there’s no looking back now.
Grand Maester Pycelle, now reinstated his position, rambles on and on about the importance of his role to an irritated Cersei, who has presumably requested something from him.
Essence of nightshade, where “a single drop in a cup of wine, suffices to soothe ragged nerves; three drops will bring on a deep and dreamless sleep” and ten drops, put you in the ground. Cersei doesn’t even give him a chance to be a busybody and sends him away with as much sugar she can add to her venom for the old man, and he helplessly obliges. Better not make another Lannister mad because he’s only got that much beard to remove.
At a nameless tavern with a hanged man, Bronn and his goldcloaks are singing The Rains of Castemere, which seems like the rather sorrowful state anthem for Lannisters on Casterly Rock, made joyful through jest. It’s also so in character for Bronn to be warmly reminiscing his childhood while stripping a whore down, so great job, writers.
Enter Sandor Cleagane as the lone dog looking for a last drink, which immediately puts a stop to the mood. Bronn isn’t bothered, though. In fact, he just wants to buy the Hound a round and be his happy-go-lucky self, even when Serious Sandy erroneously compares himself to the sellsword, which is pretty funny, because their love of bloodshed is just about like the only thing a worm has in common with a toenail (both carbon-based). I’ve never thought of a Bronn/Clegane smackdown before, and I was hoping that Bronn would’ve unsheathed his sneaky dirk for the most Dishonourable Brawl of the Century. Unfortunately, a bell rings, which I suppose is the equivalent of the Silent Hill siren call, where everyone has to get out and run to somewhere important. They decide to have that final drink instead, before gearing up for battle to be the murderers they are.
Varys hates it when the bells ring because of what it stands for – a king’s death, a city under siege, a wedding. Gross! We hate weddings! They make his powdered face sweat alabaster stalactites.
Tyrion calls out the eunuch for not remembering his squire’s name, Podrick, who’s helping him get dressed for fighting. Pshh, you don’t know his name? You know all the little boys’ names in the city, Tyrion suggests, which if not a jape, is pretty disturbing. Varys passes him a map of the underground workings of King’s Landing with 20 different exits, supposedly built in Aerys Targaryen’s time of ruling for him to get the eff out of there when sh8t hits the fan. Always the wet blanket, he tries to dent the little Lannister’s confidence not only pointing out his obvious uneasiness with fighting but also with the fact that Stannis might have the upper hand of some seriously dark magic with our favourite shadow-birthing priestess from Asshai. He’s got a huge fleet and an army of dark soldiers, but I still believe in you, little one! Varys also mentions of how his balls got removed, but that’s a story for another day.
Podrick, whom Tyrion trusts more than himself, hands him a handaxe fitting of his stature. He takes a moment ponder the gravity of the situation. We’re almost at the dawn of war now.
The sonorous sound of King’s Landing’s bells reach the ears of Davos, who takes it personally and orders the fleet to start beating on their ships’ drums. Yeah, beatbox the place up! A few seconds of this is enough to get me super psyched for what’s to come. The sailors are on deck and manning the starboard, visibly enthused about raiding the castle. Stannis, for once, lets a crack of a smirk play at the corner of his mouth. Time to pick some lotto numbers.
Tyrion and Bronn have another classic buddy moment. If a dwarf can kill someone with a shield, a hatchet should be fine, even if he only ever did watch Jamie do the lumbering. This is nearly the best dynamic on the show, if not for Tywin and Arya completely killing it in Harrenhal. Here we’re reminded that Tyrion is still paying Bronn for his services as a sellsword, and it’s most likely that if anyone paid more coin, Bronn would still jump the fence. The only thing that would be different would be that he’d look back at the Imp and say, “Sorry, don’t be mad that I’m going to stick you with my knife like a pig”, instead of simply beheading him. And Tyrion would be all, “I understand, but are you sure I can’t pay you even more?” Yeah, they have that kind of relationship. The best best friend dialogue ever.
Shae and Sansa have arrived at the scene, where Tyrion pretends not to know her handmaid. Sheila. Pshh! Apparently, Cersei’s ordered all the women and children to hide at Maegor’s Holdfast to wait out the fighting. Sansa shows that she recognizes Tyrion’s kindness to her all this while by saying that she’d pray for him. He accepts it skeptically, if not gratefully. The girl is learning well. As Sansa walks off to see Joffrey, he wishes Shae a last blessing of safety.
Joff, always the weirdo, insists that Sansa kiss his sword Hearteater. By now you should know that it’s not a euphemism, guys. This one’s asexual as a cardboard box. I kind of expected him to turn it dangerous side up as her lips descended on the blade, but he actually, really just wants a kissy kiss. And he’s gonna make her kiss it when he’s back and it’s all bloody with Stannis’ intestinal tract. Of course he will.
Sansa’s does a really great job here whittling his ego down by asking the right questions. Is he going to slay Stannis himself? Erm. Are you going to be with your vanguard then? Erm. Oh, I’m so stupid, of course you are, you’ll never be a cowardly little weaselboy. My bro, he’s a real fighter, and he’s a traitor. He looks trouble up the arse! Joff scowls and threatens Robb’s life for the hundredth time before leaving.
She then imparts a little nugget of info she learnt being a hostage to Shae. “Joffrey will [come back]. The worst ones always live.” Pity the amount of truth that’s in it. As far as survivalists go, honourable men haven’t had such a good track record so far.
On the battlements, the thumping of Stannis’ fleet warns all guards of their arrival. Alarmingly, their own fleet is still arriving, and not even ready to welcome Uncle Baratheon with a fight. Both Joff and Lancel look absolutely despaired, while Tyrion remains calculated and calm. A moment of broadcast telephone ensues, followed by a well-timed joke about Tyrion being renamed the Quarterman should the Hound cleave him in half at Joff’s behest. Here we see the first sign of uneasiness from Sandor when he flinches at a torch being passed on. As much as we’d love to see Joff’s head cut off, the dwarf is going to give the signal, so don’t behead him, because he likes his head. It’s much better on his shoulders than on a castle wall spike.
Davos gets suspicious about not seeing any enemy sails, and it couldn’t be that their sailors have mutinied. No, it’s much worse than that. The sea visuals are so exciting, especially with the simple background score of drums. The build up is driving me nuts. Blackwater, the mouth to King’s Landing, hungry for death and destruction.
At Maegor’s Holdfast, Cersei is being an evil drunk. She talks about Sansa’s period, and tells her that Ser Illyn Payne, Ned’s executioner, is here to protect them. As a goldcloak enters and informs her about some fleeing citizens, she orders their demise as an “example”. Cruelty must be hereditary because it’s vicious like Tywin and reckless like Joffrey.
The first of Cersei’s lessons in queenship:
1) Make your townsmen fear you more than the enemy to keep them loyal
Also, does anyone notice her hilarious choice of metal bustier? It’s both funky and ridiculous – you’re better off with a rape guard than wearing that, sweetie.
Back on the battlements, Tyrion is rocking his Hand’s pin and leadership role. Joff is panicking because his fleet consists of just a single boat, but Uncle Tyrion has something up his sleeve. On the other side of the wall, Davos tells his men to nock their arrows, now getting increasingly suspicious about the lone ship as it drifts slowly toward them. Drifting, drifting… Until Davos realises that there’s no one aboard.
The anticipation is suffocating, seriously. SO EXCITED.
Here, Hallyne the pyromancer steps up to the battlement and watches. Uh oh. You know what they’re doing, don’t you? He excitedly hands Tyrion a lit torch.
As Matthos goes to investigate the enemy vessel, we see the most familiar bright green stream of wildfire emptying from her sides. Davos panics. Tyrion signals Bronn. Bronn makes a shot so perfect that Nighthawk would weep. He should go to the Westerolympics! The single fire-kissed arrow sets the water ablaze.
This is the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen, kudos to the visuals team. Beautiful, and sad. Resembling a cross between a nuclear blast and a fourth of July fireworks display, it’s truly terrifying how it consumes and vaporizes all of the warships and galleys caught in the middle so quickly and mercilessly. It even has that dipping bass sound effect, which I think is a nice touch because wildfire is magic, not just simply an explosion set off by gunpowder. Davos is blown right off the deck into the water, and it’s safe to say that his son is pretty much a melted, floating chunk of flesh in the Blackwater Bay by now.
If you’re wondering where all the budget went, that’s probably your answer.
Only Hallyne and Sandor manage to keep their eyes open for the absolute annihilation of the Baratheon fleet. Even Bronn is stunned. So much for pigshit! From here I assume that no one has ever seen what wildfire is capable of and now they are bearing witness to what might possibly happen if a broken jar is accidentally set alight in the deep, dark recesses of King’s Landing that Tyrion and Bronn visited. The blend of horror and wonderment on everyone’s faces alone mirrors that of mine as the carnage continually builds and the fire keeps climbing into the sky, each blast of random debris caught in wildfire claiming victims in record time. A truly glorious display.
Men are drowning in the sea of destruction, and Stannis is still hell bent on landing and sacking the place, whether it’s hundreds or thousands he’s sacrificing. “Come with me and take this city!” And all his men, who are supposed to be demoralized at having seen a majority of the Royal Fleet go kaboom, cheer on anyway.
Drunk Cersei mocks Sansa for praying, but it’s mainly because of her childhood issues. She forces the little dove to sit down and drink with her as she takes it upon herself to insult everyone in the room. If the city falls, the Queen Regent says, she’ll personally yield to Stannis, since he’s immune to charming (not his horse, though), whereas everyone in the room shall be raped and tortured as all sieges go.
Here we have queenship lesson number 2:
2) Tears aren’t the only woman’s weapon – the best one’s between your legs, so learn how to use it
Stannis’ remaining men paddle to the shores of Blackwater. Tyrion orders the Hound to kick ass below, and his squire to bring more men from the King’s Gate. But the hound really hates fire, so this is going to be more challenging as usual.
The next ten minutes or so feature the messy atrocity of medieval warfare. People get cleaved in half, their limbs severed, heads smashed in by tossed boulders. This is interlaced with Cersei’s laments about the blatant sexism of her family and her sudden fascination with Shae and her origins. The interrogation makes everyone uncomfortable. Luckily for Shae, Lancel, who’s taken an arrow to the chest with a hilarious shriek, stumbles in and delivers news to the Queen of what has happened on the field. She commands him to have Joff escorted to his chambers at once, of which Lancel and everyone else in the world thinks is awfully peabrained. But of course, Cersei could give two shits about soldiers’ morale. Preservation is much more important than duty or dignity (but not until that he’s to hide with her in the Holdfast). When he takes his leave, Cersei reveals to Sansa the intricacies of Lannister logic. No one’s going to take them. If anyone even remembers the Sack and what they did to the Targaryens, this wouldn’t be much different.
That’s why they have Ser Illyn. He’ll be here to kill them all to spare them the trauma of experiencing war’s monstrosities on the surviving women and children of the Red Keep.
Despite being saved by Bronn, Sandor wigs out at a man on fire running at him. It’s way too much for him to handle, so he retreats back into the castle for a swig of wine. Performance anxiety. It’s ok, Sandor, it happens. He is being called out by Tyrion for being on the wrong side of the wall with biting sarcasm, to which he responds charmingly, “Eat shit, dwarf.”
It turns out it’s not just a momentary downer our Hound is nursing. He’s not even going to fight anymore. The desperate reasoning Tyrion throws at him don’t work, because he ain’t an honourable man. Never was, never will be; he knows it, they know it.
“Fuck the King’s Guard,” he puts bluntly, “Fuck the city.”
“Fuck the king.”
Fuck yeah! Well, kind of. It’s the ultimate, perfect slap. Joff’s forlorn face is priceless.
Meanwhile, Stannis continues hacking people down by himself, being quite a badass at it, and being the ultimate example of how a king should be fighting when he’s trying to conquer a city. Love the way he’s being so gung ho about it. His sternface while doing it makes me laugh. His men may be dropping like flies, but enough of them are making their way to the gates with an overturned boat and a battering ram.
Lancel has made his way back to the battlements to deliver Cersei’s orders. Poor Tyrion. At the most critical moment, Joff is no longer a king but a boy, simply afraid of the oncoming fate looking to befall him. The little chicken gathers up his skirts and gets the hell out, soldiers be damned, leaving the Imp, once again, to clear up the shit that’s left behind. And thank God that Tywin saw him fit to take over, because all this would be over fairly quickly otherwise. I bet he knew that this was going to happen, and Tyrion was probably the most dutiful, smartest, and most cunning of all his children. Too bad that the grudge for “killing” his mother during childbirth would forever stand in the way of things.
And how to clean up this instance of tragic diarrhoea? He appeals to them with truth, not patriotism, because that’s the only thing that will keep men going when they feel abandoned. Taking a leaf from Sandor, he practically tells them the same thing – screw the king and the kingdom, because it’s not him you’re fighting for, it’s your families, who will not survive when Stannis’ men come pouring in through the gates. A half man can do this, so you can too.
If you didn’t love Tyrion before, you’d love him now, because he’s leading the attack for the last wave. A last-ditch pep talk is always a clichéd yet necessary prologue to the final act, but the truth bombs (as Jun always says) about tossing away of all duty and glory and expectations of all things rewarding to be won from this is a lot more realistic in this scenario. It’s always easier to convince fighting men to stand firm by telling them what they stand to lose more than what they are to gain – pin riches and knighthood against preventing the defiling and demise of your loved ones, and it’s a no brainer. I practically applauded when he was done. Any hint of cheese it could possibly have, I overlooked, because that was one kickass speech.
Lancel is back with Cersei, spelling out that things are dire. The worst is here, and the best thing to do is to at least have the king present when men are dying for his cause, but Cersei doesn’t listen to anyone, especially not her weakling cousin. Instead, she jabs him in his wound and exits with Tommen.
Before everyone else can break into a frenzy, Sansa steps forward and reassures everyone that this place is the safest part of the Red Keep, though her face is not as convincing as her voice. I’d like to commend Sophie Turner for really turning up her performance with her character. I feel so sorry for Sansa’s situation, which keeps punching her in the face every time she has a conversation with a Lannister. None of them are quite so educational as Cersei’s lectures. Her stepping up to be the voice of hope at the Holdfast is probably the only thing that gives her a sense of purpose, albeit temporarily, so as she leads everyone in a hymn of prayer to the Mother, we see a little glimpse of Catelyn, ever the sensible and reasonable one (until she let Jamie go).
Shae takes the opportunity to tell Sansa to run back to her chambers to protect herself from Ser Ilyn. Shae won’t let anyone rape her. She shows her the blade strapped to her calf as proof. She’s a real badass here, and so much more than some prostitute from Myr or a flimsy love interest for Tyrion, which is a pinch of precious development for the character. Another thing that’s a great comfort to see – a genuine protector of Sansa’s wellbeing. Sansa isn’t exactly completely weak, but shit has been happening to her non-stop since Ned’s death. It feels good to know that there are still people who will stand up for her in her hour of need, whether it’s Shae, Tyrion, or the Hound. Game of Thrones may be unapologetically cruel to its characters, but I can’t take the continual mistreatment of Sansa in this way, so having people come to her defence is the calamine lotion.
I feel a pang of sorrow in my heart when she picks up the doll Ned gave her last season, and if you rewatch or remember, she responded that she was too old for dolls at the time. Now that he’s gone, that’s the only thing she’s left of him. A very bittersweet moment, interrupted by the Hound, who’s been waiting in her room. He wants to take her to Winterfell and be away from the fiery shambles of King’s Landing.
I’m not a shipper in this show. Usually I would jump in with an OTP, but I can’t. It’s not that I think Sansa/Clegane is gross or wrong, but the show has somehow successfully made me look beyond the superficiality of what a typical TV romance brings and forces me to face the deeper complexity of the relationships characters have with one another. In a way, I find it touching that so far, Sansa has been the last ticket for Sandor to do good things before he is completely lost to his own darkness. I won’t be surprised if the reason for his fondness is partly sexual, but most of the time, Sansa has been the device to show us that Sandor isn’t only a bloodthirsty brute. I really love the fact that he tries hard not to soil the innocence of this one good beacon of light in his life, not because he loves her (I may be wrong, but it doesn’t only seem that way) but because she’s the redemption wildcard. He may give her the ugly truth, but he is much softer to her than anyone else. That’s an extra dimension to him that I’m grateful to see.
Unfortunately, Sansa barely considers it for a moment before politely declining. My first reaction is to think that she’s stupid, but then again, I can sort of understand, and appreciate her conscious step towards being grown up. Not the best timing, but still, the rejection of running away is progress enough to make me feel proud. That, and I wouldn’t tag along with a drunken, self-proclaimed murder-loving fella either without worrying about my own safety.
Sandor doesn’t take it too well. He tries to spell out more ugliness of the world with her once again, trying to be scary, but this time, Sansa can see through it all. “You won’t hurt me,” she says defiantly. And she’s right. He isn’t going to. I held my breath because I thought he was going to lean in for a kiss, but thankfully, they took the other route. Guess that man has some honour left in him after all. By scene’s end we realise that Sansa is still holds strong to the memory of Ned via the doll, and that’s all she needs really, to get her through crappy days. Sweet.
Outside, men chant “Halfman!” when they think the last threat is over, signified by the flaming of the row boat. Tyrion hacks a man’s leg off at the knee after another flood of Baratheon soldiers emerge from the shoreline. Yes! Finally! The Imp is in a fight. He’s pretty competent at it too. At the brink of being overwhelmed, he is saved by Ser Mandon Moore… or is he? Tyrion gives a silent kudos of gratitude until he realises that wait, Ser Mandon is actually aiming for him. Before he can duck away, the knight of the Kingsguard’s blade has slit across Tyrion’s face from temple to jawline, much to the collective gasp of viewers everywhere. Podrick stabs Ser Mandon in the face with a spearhead, which should have elicited a victorious response, but it’s lost on what just happened – our brave dwarf has fallen. Tyrion slowly slips into unconsciousness as his squire cradles him in his arms.
Cersei has found her way to the Iron Throne, a place where she’s dreamt of claiming as her own since forever. She tells a particularly chilling fable to Tommen about an oppressed lion cub who’s the rightful ruler to the Kingswood, which obviously to us viewers, is a thinly veiled reference to the show’s current political struggles. I’ve always wondered why she’d taken Tommen with her, instead of asking Joffrey along as well. I’m willing to speculate that she’s realised how much of a monster he is and because he’s so beyond her control, his death could do more good than bad, whereas Tommen is all the good and pureness that is left of her and Jamie, which she can’t let Stannis have.
Here we have alternating cuts of Cersei’s story and Tyrion shakily watching the chaos around him, with a sense of how all is lost. A thick rush of troops on horseback suddenly arrive and clear out the assailants, and one particularly stands out, the one on a white horse with the tiny stag antler helm. He is later revealed to be Ser Loras Tyrell of Highgarden, pushing back the forces of Storm’s End and the Stormlands into submission. Stannis’ own men force him to retreat, much to his flailing, kicking, screaming dismay.
Confused? Well, Stannis had Renly’s bannermen when he died, but not the Tyrells. And the sheer number of Tyrells populating Highgarden is something to be reckoned with. But what the hell are they doing here?
Back on the Iron Throne, Cersei promises Tommen that she’ll keep him safe, lifting the vial of nightshade essence to his lips. I seriously hate child killers, which is why I’m so relieved when Loras busts in on them and Tywin Lannister brisk walks in to announce their victory in defending King’s Landing.
A few things can be deduced here: the Tyrells are in leagues with the Lannisters, most likely set into motion by Littlefinger. It makes sense. He was there at Renly’s camp when he spoke to Margaery and Renly himself. He was there at Harrenhal with Tywin to discuss strategies. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Loras was the one who orchestrated abandoning Stannis’ cause. The young knight was there when Stannis looked down on his boyfriend, and he owes nothing to House Baratheon.
With a final shot of Cersei regaining hope and happiness without the nightshade and hugging Tommen to her, daddy’s come to save them all and the Lannisters are saved. This woman better be freaking grateful next season.
We close with a haunting, original version of “The Rains of Castamere”, signalling the Lannisters prevailing again, and triggering all sad feelings about everything that’s been lost in this intense, needless war of sacrificed innocents. Why do the assholes always get to live?