Heroism, cowardice, betrayal, and one giant explosion. The best TV battle ever?

By James Hibberd
May 28, 2012 at 03:02 AM EDT
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The word from fans is: “Wow.”

Game of Thrones really delivered what’s arguably the best battle sequence ever produced for television tonight. There were a couple amazing episodes of HBO’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific, sure. But capturing a World War II battle is working from a well-documented blueprint. It’s not like there are any historical photos of a wildfire explosion, you know? “Blackwater” took place on land and at sea. There were advanced special effects and good ‘ol fashion sword fighting and hand-to-hand combat. Plus, Blackwater had pivotal moments for so many Thrones characters — from Tyrion to Stannis, from Joffrey to Sansa, from Cersei to The Hound … they were all battle tested tonight.

First: If you haven’t checked out EW.com’s exclusive Q&A with Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss giving the behind-the-scenes story of how they pulled off “Blackwater,” check out that interview here.

So are we ready for the big fight? In one corner we have Joffrey, Tyrion, Cersei, Bronn and the city army — about 7,000 men defending King’s Landing. In the other, there’s the contender for the Iron Throne — Stannis, backed by Davos, Melisandre and about 200 ships and 20,000 men.

Even before the episode starts, here’s what makes this battle unique. Think of all the war movies you’ve seen. You’re almost always clearly rooting for one side to win. Who are we rooting for here? Regardless of his freaky religion, Stannis Baratheon would make a better king than evil Joffrey and Cersei, right? He’s a law-abiding fellow, true to his word, plus he’s also the rightful heir if you want to be all fair about it. But psychopathic King Joffrey is being defended by Tyrion. And aren’t we on Team Tyrion? Plus there’s Sansa to think about. If the city falls, she’s at risk. So which side do we root for?

In other words: No matter how this battle ends, we’re probably going to have some mixed feelings about the outcome.

We quickly get meet all the players: Great shots of the Stannis’ fleet in the darkness. The nervous men inside. Davos and his faithful son on the deck. We see a worried Tyrion, having perhaps one final round of sex with Shae, with his concubine insisting she’ll keep him safe. “You can’t f— your way out of everything,” he notes. Cersei with Maester Pycelle, obtaining some “essence of nightshade” — poison. We don’t know why Cersei wants this, but we know it ain’t good. Bronn drinking and cavorting, then squaring off with The Hound. The Hound vs. Bronn? There’s a Pay Per View fight I’d pay to see.

The bells — Stannis’ fleet has been sighted. It’s Go time.

NEXT: Joffrey tells Sansa to lick his sword

Tyrion stands on a table, getting his armor put on by his squire — Podrick Payne. Varys hints that there are tunnels by which one can escape King’s Landing in a siege. Tyrion says has no plans to flee. “Tonight I believe you are the only man who can stop [Stannis],” Varys says.

What isn’t explicitly stated is that the King’s Landing defenders aren’t considered hugely loyal. I mean, who wants to die for Joffrey? The only way Tyrion can win this battle is if he dominates from start to finish, because the moment he starts to clearly lose the men will flee or “bend the knee.”

Later, Tyrion shakes hands with Bronn, and we’re given our first hint that the sellsword has some key role to play when Stannis’ ships enter the bay. Tyrion reveals that he does indeed consider Bronn a friend. “Just because I pay you for your services doesn’t diminish our friendship,” Tyrion says. Liked this moment between them, but it also drives home the sad fact that Tyrion not only has to pay his lover but also his arguably closest friend.

Throne Room: Sansa has to wish Joffrey good luck in the battle. He’s got a gleaming wicked new sword he’s dubbed Hearteater, which sounds like a song by a 1980s metal band.

“Kiss it,” Joffrey orders, in a perverse play on oral sex. She leans down in front of him and kisses his sword. “You’ll kiss it again when I return and taste my uncle’s blood.”

Sansa uses his brag as an opportunity to bait him: Will Joffrey be outside the gates then? Will he fight in the vanguard? After all, Robb always fights in the heart of the battle, and he’s just a “pretender” to the throne. For the first time this season, Sansa looks confident and a little hopeful.

Joffrey is irritated. He’s dense, but he isn’t so dumb that he can’t tell what she’s playing at.

Battlements: Joffrey wants to know where his ships are. But Tyrion has a Plan and doesn’t want to spoil the surprise (for Joffrey, or for us). At sea, Davos has the same question: Where are the enemy’s ships?

Maegor’s Holdfast: This is a fortress inside the Red Keep where the women and children hide during a battle. It’s sort of like a medieval panic room, but instead of Jodie Foster and her annoying daughter hiding from burglars we have evil Queen Cersei and miserable Sansa hiding from thousands of rape ‘n’ murder enthusiasts.

NEXT: A spectacular BOOM! (and why there’s no chain)

At one point in the planning of season two, this episode was going to mainly take place in this room, with Cersei receiving developments from an off-screen fight. Thankfully, HBO gave producers extra funds to pull off a real bona-fide battle.

Sansa is wondering why the queen wants her close when Cersei hates her. Oh Sansa, she wants you close because she hates you! Cersei loves tormenting Sansa, and if she only has a few hours left to live, why not spending it engaging two of her favorite hobbies: Tormenting Sansa and drinking wine?

Sansa is also distracted, understandably, by the presence of the king’s executioner Ser Ilyn Payne (hey, his last name sounds like “pain”! I just got that…). Cersei reassures that the executioner is there to protect them. But who can feel safe with that Addams Family-looking guy glaring at you?

Later, Cersei mocks Sansa for having the audacity to pray and lectures how a woman’s best weapons are her tears and “what’s between her legs” rather than her faith. She laments that if the city falls, she’ll have little hope of seducing Stannis. She adds that the noblewomen will be “in for a bit of rape,” as if sexual assault is an appetizer at a dinner party, something served before the soup. The Lannisters may be known as lions, but tonight Cersei is acting more like a drunken bitter cougar.

Blackwater Bay: Tyrion and Joffrey see the ships coming out of the darkness. Joffrey just wants to attack-attack-attack. But King’s Landing has only sent one ship of their own to meet the invading fleet.

What happens next is very … very … cool.

Tyrion’s single ship sails into the midst of Stannis’ fleet. There’s nobody aboard. The wheel is tied into position. Behind it, the ship is leaking antifreeze. Wait a minute, boats in Westeros don’t have antifreeze– It’s wildfire! That napalm-like substance brewed up by Tyrion’s pyromancers.

Davos realizes it’s a Trojan Ship. He orders the fleet to move away, and his son to take cover — too late.

Tyrion signals Bronn, who fires a lighted arrow with one awesome arcing shot…. down to the ship’s green trail of wildfire in the sea.

FA-BOOM!

A fantastic explosion takes out a chunk of Stannis’ fleet. Certainly this is the best green explosion you’ve ever seen (in your face, Green Lantern!). Also love the unreal sound effect here. The pyromancer on the King’s Landing battlements looks giddy — he must have been dreaming of seeing something like this all his life. The Hound looks oddly afraid.

The fire spreads. We’re treated to shots of mayhem as ships and men burn. Is Davos alive? We don’t know.

Stannis, though, is so smooth. “The dwarf has played his little trick,” Stannis says, as if Tyrion pulled a quarter out of a kid’s ear rather than just set a few hundred of his men on fire. “He can only play it once.” His attack moves forward.

Now, at this point, all the book readers are saying: “Wait! What about the chain?!”

My thoughts on the chain: In the novels, Tyrion had the blacksmiths forge a massive linked iron chain in the weeks leading up to the battle. As the Wildfire attack began — which included hurling pots of wildfire from the battlements — the chain was raised across mouth of the bay, just a few feet above the waterline. The chain trapped Stannis’ ships, where they piled against the blockage as the wildfire spread from ship to ship. It was an clever and key element to Tyrion’s plan. Here’s my guess why it wasn’t included. The chain itself would have been relatively easy to render, but the chaotic and spectacular result (all the ships piling up against it, soldiers and fire spreading from ship to ship) was likely deemed too expensive. It’s a really cool element, but ultimately not strictly necessary to tell the story of the battle in terms of what happens to our characters. Think of it this way: If you’re a writer and must choose between including the Trojan Boat full of wildfire or the chain, you’d choose the Trojan Boat — because it decimates a portion of Stannis’ fleet with a relatively few quick CGI shots and has serious implications for Davos.

Back in the bay: Rowboats of death coming toward the shore. Stannis is at the head of his boat, looking like a badass hood ornament.

NEXT: Cersei’s suicidal plan; The Hound retreats

On the battlements Joffrey looks like he’s peeing in his shiny armor. “There are too many!”

The boats land. Soldiers swarm the beach. Tyrion orders archers to fire.

The Hound leads the attack out of the gate. His blood is up, he’s in full rabid mad-dog mode. In fact, this might be the goriest episode of Thrones we’ve seen — torsos are split open, skulls are cleaved in half, heads are crushed by falling rocks. You don’t want to be the guy standing right next to the wall when trying to invade a castle it seems.

Wussy Lance Lannister gets lanced by an arrow. You can almost see him think to himself: OK, that’s enough of a wound to justify going back inside now. He retreats.

Maegor’s Holdfast: Cersei is s–faced. She spies Shae and starts drunkenly questioning her background. By taking a moment to correct Shae’s curtsey, the queen unwittingly bows to Tyrion’s prostitute (which, one imagines, would totally amuse him).

Lancel bursts in with an update. When he reveals that Stannis’ men have landed, she orders him to tell Joffrey to return to the relative safety of the Keep. This is, of course, a really bad idea.

Cersei then reveals to Sansa the real reason Ser Ilyn is on hand: To execute them if Stannis wins.

If the Thrones audience might have conflicting feelings about who to root for in this battle, imagine how Sansa must feel. If Stannis wins, she dies — but at least Joffrey and Cersei will meet their doom. If Stannis is defeated, she will be forced to marry Joffrey. Payne is the same man who executed Sansa’s father. I’m not sure if the prospect death at his hands would make the thought of being killed better for her or worse.

As for Cersei, Thrones author George R.R. Martin once said her character is defined by her pride. She might seem looney here, but the prospect of being humiliated and subservient to Stannis — in addition to the high likelihood of death/rape/torture — makes the thought of being captured seem like a fate worse than death.

Mud Gate: Ladders are pushed up against the wall. Stannis is the first one up the ladder? Again, he’s really quite the badass tonight, isn’t he? Just fearless. He’s like: This is MY castle, so get the f–k out!

Meanwhile, the Hound is turning yellow. Remember, half his face was burned off as a child when his psychopath brother held him to a stove, so he’s not a huge fan of fire. He comes back inside the gate with his tail between his legs for a drink and a breather. He’s just spent. He tells his boss King Joffrey to take this job and shove it. We wish The Hound would throw Joffrey over the wall and down into the battle like Darth Vader tossing the Emperor. But it seems some angry words are as treasonous as The Hound is willing to get at this moment.

Outside, Stannis’ troops hammer the Mud Gate with a battering ram.

Tyrion tells Joffrey to lead the men. There’s a moment here where Joffrey seems like he sort of wants to do it, that he might actually do something heroic for the first time in his pathetic life. And hey, he’s got a cool-ass new sword! But Lancel tells him that his mommy wants him back inside the Keep. That gives him all the excuse his cowardice needs. He retreats. The men see Joffrey depart and get ready to bolt too.

Who will take charge?

NEXT: Tyrion steps up; The Hound’s offer

Tyrion looks shocked at his own answer: “I’ll lead the attack.”

He taunts the men (“They say I’m half a man, what does that make you?!”) and then inspires them (“Don’t fight for your king, don’t fight for honor… this is your city… if he gets in, it will be your houses he burns… those are brave men knocking on our door. Let’s go kill them!”).

Maegor’s Holdfast: Lancel stands up to Cersei, tries to convince her to send Joffrey back out, but she strikes his wound and he falls. Sansa stands up and reassures the other women, giving them some hope.

Like with Tyrion taking over for Joffrey, here we have Sansa taking over for Cersei — both of them showing real leadership while some of the Lannisters are just selfish cravens.

Shae shows Sansa a way out of the holdfast. She retreats to her room and finds The Hound waiting for her. He’s leaving King’s Landing and offers to take her along.

“Do you want to go home?” he asks.

What a devastating decision. Of course she wants to go home. But do you take your chances with a drunken crazed killer like The Hound when he’s on the very uncertain path trying to escape from the castle? Or do you bet on Stannis showing her some mercy since she’s basically a hostage and not a Lannister? I’d make a run for it, personally. Sansa opts to stay.

Mud Gate: Tyrion leads a sneak attack. He chops an enemy’s leg off. His men quickly secure the gate, and dump that rowboat that was giving cover to the battering ram.

“Halfman! Halfman!”

Suddenly Tyrion has a stunned expression. All weekend, I’ve been wondering what Tyrion was thinking in the photo that accompanies this recap, where he looks all shocked. Now we know: “Oh f— me.” Swarms of Stannis’ men are coming right at him.

Tyrion fights, but he’s suddenly attacked — by one of his own knights! Tyrion’s face is sliced open. He’s rescued by his squire. Halfman down!

The cavalry rides in, saving the day. We’re not sure who’s leading it. But on the battlements, an agonized Stannis is told they must retreat to the boats.

Throne Room: Cersei has little Tommen on her lap, telling him a metaphorical fairy tale about how he’ll grow up to lead the Seven Kingdoms. She gets out her poison and tells him this will keep him safe. She’s going full Jim Jones. In bursts–

NEXT: So many unanswered questions!

Ser Loras?!

Yes. Tywin Lannister teamed up with the Ser Loras and his troops from House Tyrell. Instead of attacking Robb, the Lannister patriarch must have changed course and come to rescue King’s Landing instead. Tywin declares the battle is over, they have won.

And to knock the ball just a little further out of the coolness park, the Thrones team enlisted The National to sing “The Rains of Castamere” over the credits. The lyrics are from Martin’s novel. It’s a tune praising Tywin Lannister’s victory in one of his previous battles. It’s also expected to be on the upcoming Game of Thrones season two soundtrack.

Whew! So much in this episode, so well done by Martin (who wrote this hour) and the whole team. This is the first Game of Thrones episode we’ve ever seen that took place entirely in one major location. But as a result, there’s a ton of burning questions left over for next week, both from King’s Landing and the rest of the land, and only one more hour in which to (maybe) answer them:

Will Dany get her dragons back? Will Theon hold onto Winterfell? Has Arya escaped the forces of Harrenhal? Did Jaime make it back to King’s Landing? Why did that knight attack Tyrion — and is he okay? Did Stannis and Davos survive? Did The Hound get away? And what’s going on with Jon Snow? And Bran? And Ros — don’t you most want to know what Ros is doing?

Okay maybe not Ros. But we really want to know everything else. Something tells me we’re getting set up for a cliffhanger next week. Or two. Or eight.

Sound off! What did you think of The Battle of the Blackwater? I suspect some of you will end up watching this more than once.

UPDATE: Scoop! Season 3 character list revealed

HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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