Welcome to the penultimate Season 2 chapter of The Wars to Come, our Game of Thrones rewatch project that for once, is going to be glowing and effervescent about HBO’s flagship program by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D). Last week we rolled our eyes through a thoroughly modern romance and were confused at the lack of build-up to the big big battle. This week, George R.R. Martin takes up the pen for said battle “Blackwater,” and Kylie, Julia, Jana, and Griffin dig in.
War is upon us! All of King’s Landing is in a tizzy as Stannis’s fleet sets sail for Blackwater Bay. In that fleet is none other than Davos Seaworth and his son Matthos. Davos knows the smallfolk of King’s Landing will hardly be glad to see them and dreads the coming battle, but Matthos is undeterred as a true believer in the Lord of Light and his ‘chosen champion’, Stannis.
Would that the people of King’s Landing have the same courage. Tyrion lies awake worrying about what seems like his certain doom, as Shae tries to comfort him. Pycelle, meanwhile, provides Cersei with poison for herself (or children) should the city fall. Bronn, on the other hand, tries to live it up in a brothel, though his mood is soon spoiled by Sandor Clegane, who points out that he’s a killer first and foremost.
The bells begin ringing as Stannis’s fleet is spotted. Varys is introduced to Pod, Tyrion’s squire, preparing the Hand in his armor. Varys shows Tyrion a map with tunnels leading out of the city should he want to flee, though Tyrion remains steadfast. Varys then reveals his loathing for magic, and thus Stannis’s devotion to the Lord of Light.
As Stannis’s fleet draws nearer, the Baratheon king orders his drummers to begin their cadence. Tyrion finds Bronn in the Great Hall and reminds him to wait until the ships are far enough in, before saying his goodbye. He also says his goodbye to Sansa, and then Shae, both of whom are in the Hall as Sansa was summoned to see Joffrey off. She does so, slightly goading him that he should be in the vanguard, before heading off to the Keep where Cersei has summoned her.
In the Keep, the highborn ladies pray, though Cersei immediately makes it clear that she hates playing host, and potentially hates everyone there. She continues to drink wine and say inappropriate things to a horrified Sansa, including how everyone is likely to get raped, how Cersei should have been born a man, how the best way to rule is with fear, and how the best weapon a woman has is seducing men. Sansa also sees that Cersei summoned the King’s Justice, Illyn Payne, to “protect everyone.” When he is ordered out for a moment to kill fleeing smallfolk, Sansa questions his role. Cersei later reveals that she intends to have Illyn Payne kill all the ladies in her protection should the battle go poorly to save them from a “worse fate.”
Meanwhile, outside, Tyrion sends just one ship to meet Stannis’s fleet. Joffrey and others are confused, though it soon becomes apparent that the ship was packed full of wildfire. Bronn waits for Stannis’s ships to get closer before shooting a flaming arrow at the ship—igniting everything around it, including the water. Hundreds of Stannis’s ships sink and men die, including Matthos Seaworth. Stannis remains undeterred, however, stating that it was a trick that could only be done once. He prepares to land, understanding the death toll in storming King’s Landing could be thousands.
Stannis targets Mud Gate, and Tyrion orders the Hound to form a “welcoming party” to fend them off. However the Hound, triggered by the fire all around him, runs off after fighting through the first wave, declaring “f-ck the King” on his way out. Lancel brings news of Stannis’s fleet having landed to Cersei, who orders him to pull Joffrey back inside. When Lancel reports this to Joffrey, he agrees to go, despite Tyrion’s protests that it will demoralize everyone else. Left with no other choice but to lead, Tyrion makes his best attempt at a battle speech before leading men through the tunnels to attack Stannis’s men at the Mud Gate by surprise.
Back inside, Lancel tells Cersei that the fighting took a turn for the worst, and Cersei storms out. Sansa calms the room, but when Shae points out that Stannis won’t hurt her whereas Illyn Payne surely will, Sansa slips out to hide in her own room. She finds Sandor there, who offers to take her home to Winterfell and keep her safe. Even though she declares that he won’t hurt her, she refuses this offer and remains in her room.
Outside, Tyrion’s surprise attack to those holding the battering ram at Mud Gate went well, earning a cheer of “Halfman” from the King’s Landing soldiers. However it is short-lived when many more soldiers of Stannis’s come racing around the bend. In the heat of battle, the kingsguard Ser Mandon Moore takes an unexpected swing at Tyrion, splitting open his face, until Pod kills the knight from behind. As Tyrion begins to lose consciousness, he sees calvary forces arrive.
Inside on the Iron Throne, Cersei tells a story to Tommen to calm him as she tries to give him poison. But luckily before he drinks any, the doors bang open. It’s Ser Loras and Tywin—the cavalry that had arrived had been a combined force of Lannisters and Tyrells. Tywin declares they won, and Stannis gets dragged away in protest by his own men.
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: This episode is so good it makes me angry at what this show should have been. Everything I’d been saying about lack of build up to this moment…it didn’t matter. Stakes felt real here, and it was just fully engaging.
Jana: I know, right? This episode might just be the best thing the show has ever done, and it’s so frustrating!
Griffin: This episode was actually both competent and enjoyable! It was extremely surprising, and kind of what I assumed y’all meant when you said that this show “used to be good.” Y’know, like, the past 1.9 seasons were supposed to be but inexplicably weren’t, at least for me.
Jana: Honestly, I think this episode might be single-handedly to blame for many of us being fans of the show for as long as we were. It is so good. It feels like it comes from a better season than it was, too. As you said, Kylie, the lack of build up suddenly didn’t matter anymore because somehow, the episode managed to feel like it had been set-up for the entire season.
Julia: I was thinking as I was watching, this is the only episode we’ve watched so far in this rewatch that I can see myself putting on at some point in the future, just to enjoy the experience of watching it. Everything else, even very good stuff like the pilot, is too tainted by what the show’s become for me to earnestly enjoy it, even if I see it’s good qualities. This episode’s goodness stands on its own.
Kylie: My highlight was Cersei bein’ Cersei this episode. I just love her as a character, and god knows we never get A Feast For Crows Cersei in her finest form. This is the closest we’ll ever have, and Headey can really kill it with actual substance in her writing. Then having Sophie Turner play off of her…it was just so enjoyable all around.
There’s not many lowlights to choose from if I’m being honest—the easiest target I have is Bronn’s plucky pluckyness, but I’m thinking I’m just sick of his archetype within this show. Still, I didn’t need a solid few minutes in the brothel prior to Sandor showing up.
Jana: Same here. The scene with Bronn and Sandor was completely irrelevant to anything, and didn’t tell us anything new about the characters, except for maybe that Bronn has a nice singing voice. At least the song choice was appropriate here—and foreshadowing, kinda—unlike, say, singing The Dornishman’s Wife in the middle of Dorne. Ugh.
I also have to agree with you on the highlight. We’re missing central beats of Sansa’s characterization, sure, but goddamn those scenes were great. Though why was Shae even there if not to have Sansa vocalize her more important thoughts? Disparaging Joffrey in public is a-okay with Shae, but quietly contradicting the queen in a corner isn’t? Ah well.
Griffin: Agreed, thrice over. Cersei being shit-faced through the entire episode was both hysterical and just genuinely evocative. She’s terrifying everyone around her, throwing down life lessons about the bullshit system she and every other woman must exist in, and seems to be arguing with herself internally if she even cares or not for anything other than her own children. So great.
Lowlight had to be…wow, I’m having trouble thinking of one. That’s weird. I guess…that bit with the hound and Sansa? Because we didn’t really have the character beats from the book to actually have that make sense? I guess I was also wondering as to why anyone would be stupid enough to go fight outside the gates before they are breached. The stone walls create a natural funnel for enemies that would make maneuvering basically impossible if you killed enough of them at the door to cause a literal clog of corpses—look, this is basic warfare that applies to basically every era of ground combat. It looks cool to have sword fights on the beach, but when you pair that with the rest of Tyrion’s logical tactics and tricks it really stands out as stupid.
Julia: I think I agree that the Hound is my lowlight. Just, like, more or less everything he does with the exception of his “fuck the king” moment. That was good. The “so you think you’re a tough guy, Bronn?” thing was odd. My only comfort is that I’m quite sure I heard that the scene was put in late to satisfy the “boob quotient.” I’m gonna go with that. His little encounter with Sansa was okay…but it was no “little bird” scene from the books.
Highlight? Wow. I mean, obviously Cersei is everyone’s highlight, but I need to point out how awesome all the stunt work and practical gore effects were. I know that Kylie had her eyes closed whenever there was blood, but trust me, they were exceptional.
The whole battle had a wonderful tone that, like, didn’t glorify violence but was also not as simple as, “this is terrible! Why can’t we all just get along.” I think they call it: nuanced.
Also a highlight: that sick beat Stannis’s drummer was laying down.
Griffin: Believe it or not, Kylie did not actually shield herself from all of the gore. And yeah, some of that was gnarly.
Kylie: It’s complicated. I knew I watched this episode before without being dizzy, so that means it’s gore I can handle. I might have anxiety or something.
Quality of writing
Julia: We never can trust ourselves with a GRRM episode, can we?
Jana: The real question is, would we still be praising this episode so much if the writing of the previous episode hadn’t been so…troubled?
Kylie: I mean juxtaposed to what we’ve gotten, it’s certainly a stark contrast. And Vanessa Taylor is just lucky we weren’t immediately coming off 2×04.
However, I honestly think it holds up by itself, mostly because it is so self-contained and character driven. It’s like we were saying: stakes to this point felt rushed and not particularly in any focus. Yet the sense of doom and what this meant for everyone was clear in what? The first ten minutes? Not to mention Sansa appears again after however many weeks of her not being around, or barely being around, and the spotlight on her still works quite well.
Yes, it’s clear it was making up for some slack. But the fact that it did so successfully actually demonstrates how much stronger it is for that, since it still has its own plot, pacing, themes (not to jump the gun), and so on.
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Julia: War is hell! Leadership is important and can come from unlikely places!
Kylie: Even the smallest person can change the course of the future! Those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it!
Griffin: I posit, “War: What is it good for?” With the answer being…blood and trauma. War never changes, and it’s bad. Quoting other things aside, that is it. It’s mainly the story of Davos, Tyrion, and Sansa (duh…POV characters) and the roles they play in just this horrible, horrible circumstance. Sansa and Tyrion especially parallel each other rather beautifully here.
Jana: Too bad Sansa’s part of the “unlikely leadership” theme was immediately cut short. That was a bit awkwardly paced. Other than that, yeah, all those things. The episode was pretty clear on that, and actually took some time to go into detail about how much war actually sucks for everyone, rather than just focus on the battle like the later ones do.
Cracks in the plaster (the bullshit to come)
Jana: Today on, “What even is a timeline”: Sansa has been menstruating for four episodes and through several troop movements! She should probably get that looked at. Though maybe not by Pycelle. Ew.
Kylie: Jana, she clearly stopped menstruating, got it again next cycle, and told Cersei about it off-screen. Smh at people needing their hand held for every little thing…
Griffin: All of the heavy lifting Martin had to do with the Hound and Sansa and Cersei was a little distracting, since it was an entire season’s worth of characterization, if not more, in one episode. That, and how the Battle of the Blackwater itself basically wasn’t built up like at all outside of the previous episode. Kinda feel like this looming fleet should just be gathering the entire season and it getting more and more tense, because nobody has any idea how the hell they’re going to repel that many ships?
Julia: Yeah, and there’s only so much heavy lifting he can do. There’s no way he could have had Tyrion’s chain appear from nowhere, or magic Sandor and Sansa’s relationship into existence. In fact, the restraint he showed in not having the chain pop up from nowhere as a shock, as it clearly would in season 6, say, is like someone coming to smear some plaster over the crack.
The Lannister/Tyrell alliance did totally pop from nowhere, though, didn’t it? They had Tywin leaving Harrenhal and they had LF talking to Tyrells… I guess it popped up in the books too.
Kylie: Obviously we have GRRM himself writing this episode, but it’s still an adaptation nonetheless. I know the biggest change that garners attention in the fandom is the lack of Tyrion’s chain. To be honest, I’m skeptical how well that could have translated to a visual medium.
However, one thing I did notice was how hard Martin worked to sort of inject the same general takeaways or character beats even when the context had been written around up until this point. The best example I have is the Sansa/Sandor scene. It was like taking their all of their book interactions and distilling them into one scene, while removing any sexual overtones (which I’d call a good choice giving the actors cast). Another example would be Varys and Tyrion’s relationship (with hints to a more interesting and scrapped Varys backstory).
Jana: This is pretty much the only Sansa/Sandor scene that worked sort of like it did in the books. However, without Dontos and his plan in the picture, Sansa not going with Sandor seems like a really, really stupid choice here. Especially considering that Sandor on the show is a lot more…restrained than his book counterpart.
Griffin: I’m with Kylie on the giant chain. That would have looked extremely silly. Even if it was this massive chain-link net or something that they waved around along the edge of the walls to smash ships, I just don’t think that would have looked good. It’s the same reason Stannis isn’t wearing a helmet, yet Tyrion does: he’s easily recognizable. Stannis meanwhile isn’t exceptionally tall like Brienne, or the Hound, or the Mountain, so if he had a helmet he’d just blend in to the crowd. Well, unless they established him wearing fancy red armor for the Lord of Light or something like that. We could pick that out.
Jana: Completely unrelated, but since you brought up the helmet issue—there is a comment track by GRRM where he spends basically half the episode lecturing people on why actors, under all circumstances, should always wear helmets during battle scenes, and actually yells at Tyrion for taking his off in the end. It’s delightful. Almost as delightful as Michelle Fairley suffering through the Robb x Talisa sex scene after casually discussing kilts with Nicolaj Coster-Waldau.
Julia: Like I was blabbing about earlier, I think the issue with the chain was less that it would look silly (though, sure, maybe it would) but more that it would be silly without it being built up and planned for the whole season, like the chain in aCoK was. At least there was some build up with the wildfire, though not nearly enough in my opinion.
I think his bravest desperate back-tracking was Sansa in Maegor’s and trying to get back to how she has an arc where she sheds idealization about being a wife and a queen in this feudal patriarchy. Other than that one scene where she gets her period (like, 2 days ago, I guess) there was very little of that this season.
Also, when did Cersei ever call Sansa stupid even once before this? I can’t remember any examples. Except maybe once Joff said Cersei said she was stupid?
Kylie: It was off-screen when Sansa told Cersei about her second period.
Martin did his best to give Sandor his aCoK arc in about 2.5 scenes too. The results were more mixed there, but at least it was nice to see him written as something other than the gruff and surly chicken meme that’s to come.
Griffin: …surly chicken? What.
Julia: Oh, sweet summer child.
Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?
Kylie: This is the most Cersei Cersei that ever Cersei’d. And like…big shock. Martin wrote it. He mostly sticks to that until 4×02, when he shrugs and tries his hand at writing a sitcom, because why not.
Jana: I felt that maybe the fairy tale scene with Tommen had some Carol vibes to it. Whether Carol would poison precious little Tommen how did anyone ever buy the age-up three seasons from now to spare him from all the ugliness that would follow Stannis’s victory is debatable, I think.
Julia: I guess you can argue that Cersei sees her children as extensions of herself, so if she’s gonna die, it’s only right they do too?
I enjoyed drunk Cersei very much. She was just such a terrible person in every way. She has internalized misogyny! Other women are dumb and she should have been a man! Let’s tell this twelve-year-old about my seduction strategies and my odd execution fixations! MORE WINE!
Kylie: I’m just trying to envision Carol in this episode, now. Probably the women she invited to stay in the room with her would be cattily excluding her while she looked sad.
Hey, is this where Sansa is supposedly “learning a lot” from Cersei and admiring her?
Julia: I mean, it is sad. Cersei literally has no friends. Here she is thinking she’s going to be dead by morning and the only person she has to talk to is this twelve-year-old she thinks is a total dumb-dumb.
Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?
Jana: I felt like Davos’s son went on a bit too long summarizing what should have been established about Stannis’s forces all-throughout the season, but I guess word vomit from a young, inexperienced guy on the eve of battle can be excused. Other than that, uh, what else would count as exposition, really? The singing was basically the opposite of that, a nice song that is associated with the Lannisters that sets up the chilling end credits, but won’t be explained until Cersei and Margaery start their… thing. I suppose everything Cersei said this episode could count as exposition, but it felt pretty natural. Almost like someone competent wrote the episode or something.
Julia: Oh poor Matthos. His naivete was a little adorable. He was like Billy Bones as Dickon Tarly several years too soon.
I guess Cersei explaining why she invited all these dumb hens to her party counted as exposition. Although, I don’t think they’ll go back to their cocks talking about how inspiring Cersei’s drunken antics were.
How was the pacing?
Julia: Great? The episode felt half as long as I knew it was.
Kylie: I was never bored or restless. That’s a success. The only scene that had an edge of “get on with it” was the aforementioned Bronn one, but even that builds the tension of what’s coming.
Griffin: I have wondered aloud, for every single episode up until this one, how anything could be so boring and long. And yet also confusing. I didn’t feel that at all this time. I doubt I ever will again.
Jana: Nothing that wasn’t the Bronn scene felt superfluous or like it dragged everything to a halt. Focusing only on the King’s Landing theater helped a lot with that; imagine what this episode would have been like with the occasional cuts to Jon or Dany. But nothing of the sort happened, so the pacing for once felt tight as a drum and kept you on the edge of your seat. Technically. Unless you’re watching this in bed like I am, I guess.
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Kylie: Let’s see…Shae trying to bang Tyrion since he was worried about dying, and Bronn stripping the sex worker we’ve seen a few times before. I don’t begrudge either of those scenes, even if yeah, nudity was not exactly needed for the message to get across. It was the calm before the storm, with this feeling of doom hanging over everything. It felt kind of real, if I’m being honest.
Jana: I feel like they dragged the scene in the… tavern? Brothel? Wherever it is that Bronn can have a naked woman on his lap and Sandor would casually stroll into to get a drink before battle. That scene. That was the only part of the episode that had me asking myself “Why is this happening? What am I even watching?” which makes it the definitive low point of the episode, but also like, the only moment like that, which is one hell of a good quota.
Ah, well, and regarding Shae…I kind of feel like her calling Tyrion “my lion” doesn’t work as well once you’re supposed to take it at face-value rather than knowing she’s doing it because she’s paid for buttering him up. That just made that scene with them additionally cringey to me. They’re so happy and in love!
Julia: She not only calls him “my lion,” she tells him she’s going to physically protect him or something? And she’s packing. Yeah, Shae definitely has “strong female characters must be fighters” syndrome.
Cersei speaking with relish about how everyone’s going to be raped counts as sexual content, I suppose.
Kylie: That’s just Cersei bein’ Cersei. Like…actually, in this case. But I guess there’s the element of framing rape as “fate worse than death” (since she has Illyn poised to murder everyone instead) that may later lead to the sensationalized, exploitive garbage we get involving sexual violence later?
In memoriam…all those soldiers, Matthos Seaworth, Mandon Moore
Kylie: War is hell, guys. I have to be honest, it was very hard to feel much towards Matthos, since he was given two scenes and seemed kind of like a jerk. Then with Mandon Moore, I found myself wondering if Unsullied followed that. We’ve seen the Kingsguard of course, but they’ve been so heavily deemphasized to this point that I could also see a first-time viewer just thinking it was a Stannis supporter. I’m probably over-thinking it.
Julia: Yeah, I think the Kingsguard thing was one of the things GRRM was trying to quickly fix, but he can only do so much. It was kind of there in season 1 when Barry the Scary did his strip-tease, but I don’t feel like much of the mythos of the Kingsguard has come across.
That being said, they’re definitely not yet the Generic Guards™ they’ll become by season 5, when poor Arys Oakheart was swallowed by the sea and then replaced offscreen.
Poor Matthos was kind of a tool, wasn’t he?
This is GRRM writing Stannis so maybe the answer isn’t obvious, so what are we to make of the “Hundred will die!” “Thousands” thing?
Jana: …Stannis is good with estimates? I don’t know, that seemed weird to me, too. Wouldn’t Stannis be the one concerned about preserving resources aka lives?
Following who was on what side during the all-out battle scenes wasn’t easy, to be sure. Though at least sometimes there were Lannister men with red coats around, or at least I hope they were Lannisters. Given how much less they start caring about colors later on, it’s probably a good thing that most big battle scenes involve conveniently dressed wildlings and/or ice zombies. Just imagine the confusion!
Kylie: I took that line as just showing how committed Stannis is to his cause. It is damn hard to cheer for him, though.
This is where we have to cut it for this week…it really flies when there’s nice things to say. Are we overhyping it? Were there better lowlight contenders? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and we’ll close out Season 2 next week in The Wars to Come.