The Battle of Blackwater: Journey to the Throne, S2E9-10

This is the ninth post in a series I’m staring on this blog called Journey to the Throne, reviewing previous episodes of the show Game of Thrones before its eighth and final season. To view the previous post, click here: Before Blackwater: Journey to the Throne, S2E7-8

Since the goal of Journey to the Throne is to consider the show as a whole leading up to its end, please be advised that this post will contain SPOILERS up to the end of Season 7.


Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 9; “Blackwater”

Synopsis: Stannis’ fleet inches closer and closer to King’s Landing. Davos and his son Matthos discuss the pending battle and the faith in the Lord of Light. Bronn and the Hound almost get into a fight in a tavern, but the bells ring signaling the arrival of Stannis’ fleet and they remember they’re on the same side. Varys gives Tyrion a map of secret routes through the city. As the fleet gets even closer, King’s Landing begins to stir. Sansa and Shae are kept with Cersei and the other women, while (most of) our male characters head to the battlements. Stannis’ fleet comes into view, and Joffrey frets because the royal fleet only has one ship coming from the fog. The Pyromancer appears on the battlements, and Tyrion gives a signal to Bronn who is on the shore. As the only royal ship sails past Stannis’ fleet, Davos notices no one is on board and Wildfire leaking from the ship. Bronn then shoots a flaming arrow onto the water, lighting a trail of wildfire which goes towards the lone Lannister ship. That ship explodes, absolutely obliterating a huge chunk of Stannis’ fleet in a giant green explosion. This leaves Davos and Matthos apparently dead. However, Stannis survives and forms a landing party. In the keep, Cersei lectures Sansa about various topics, such as the gods and their lack of mercy, what should happen if the city should fall to Stannis’ army, and Sansa’s handmaiden, of whom she is suspicious. Before she can find out just who Shae is, Lancel interrupts to inform her that Joffrey is still at the battle and Stannis has landed; she commands Lancel to bring him back, despite how much this would hurt the troops’ morale. The Hound is sent out to fight Stannis’ welcoming party, but men are on fire and that scares him (remember – he’s afraid of fire). When he comes back inside the city walls, he tells Tyrion that he doesn’t want to fight anymore – “Fuck the King.” Lancel arrives at the battlements and takes Joffrey away. When the troops are entirely unsure of who will lead them, Tyrion gives the most rousing battle speech ever, and finds one of the alternate routes from Varys’ map. They defeat Stannis’ welcoming party, another large group of Stannis’ soldiers show up and the battle is far from one. Inside the keep, Cersei leaves with her youngest son, leaving everyone in a panic. Sansa calms everyone down, but Shae tells her to leave as well. In her room, she finds the Hound, who offers to take her home. She declines. On the shores, a member of the Kingsguard attacks Tyrion, nearly killing him – Tyrion’s squire Podrick kills the Kingsguard. The Lannisters seem to have lost the battle until Tywin Lannister and the House Tyrell troops arrive to attack Stannis from the other side. Stannis’ loyal soldiers drag him away from the battle as he screams at his army to stand and fight. Cersei had been on the verge of poisoning her son to save him when Tywin enters the throne room to proclaim the battle won.

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I actually have surprisingly little to say about this episode. Probably because much of what has been said about it has already been said. The action is thrilling, the pace is flawless and each character is in absolute rare form.

One thing I thought about while watching the next episode was the fact that Tywin gets all the credit for the success of the battle, which is frustrating because Tyrion gets none of the credit, and really neither of them would have succeeded without the help of the other. Without Tyrion’s ingenuity, Stannis’ uninjured army would have landed and taken the city easily. Without Tywin’s Army, Stannis’ unopposed army would have landed and taken the city easily. It says multitudes about Tywin that he doesn’t let his son’s susccess survive in his shadow.

And an element that definitely goes underappreciated in this episode is all of the Sansa scenes. The way the tone for her presence is perfectly set is when she tells Tyrion “I will pray for your safe return,” and then adds wryly, “Just as I pray for Joffrey’s.” But the way she deftly navigates the conversations with Cersei really reinforces both how smart she is and how naive she is. One nice beat that shows just how natural of a leader she is comes when Cersei leaves and all of the women in the room and Sansa leads them in song to calm them down. Sansa’s scenes provide an interesting contrast against the violent battle scenes while not being dull.

And one last small detail I love; during the huge explosion that the episode is remembered for, they show various characters watching it. Stannis flinches; Tyrion and Joffrey shut their eyes and look away, visibly overwhelmed by the explosion; the Hound squints fearfully but doesn’t look away, the Pyromancer’s eyes are wide with wonder. It’s very cinematic.

Favorite Line: This episode has some great lines. Cersei’s got some cold-hearted quips, the Hound has some of his best lines (his “Fuck the King” speech is a barn-burner) but this has to go to Tyrion’s battle speech. *Tyrion rolls a d20 for charisma. He gets a 20.*

“Don’t fight for your king, and don’t fight for his kingdoms. Don’t fight for honor, don’t fight for glory. Don’t fight for riches, because you won’t get any. This is your city Stannis means to sack. That’s you’re gate he’s ramming — and if he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steels, your women he will rape. Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”

Favorite Scene: The thumbnail says it all. “Wildfire!” It had definitely been the best use of special effects and the biggest action set piece up to that point, and for that reason it definitely stands out as being absolutely stellar.

Season 2, Episode 10; “Valar Moghulis”

Synopsis: In King’s Landing, Tyrion awakes from his injuries, only to find that he has been demoted and a lot of his work as Hand of the King has been undone. Pycelle is out of prison, Bronn no longer commands the city guard, and that his contribution to the Battle of Blackwater are forgotten. Shae says they should go across the sea, but Tyrion says he must stay in King’s Landing. Tywin is made Hand of the King, and Margery Tyrell is pledged to marry Joffrey. Sansa is happy that she won’t have to marry Joffrey, but Littlefinger informs her that this won’t stop him from being cruel. On Dragonstone, Stannis takes a second to evaluate his failures (and the fact that he murdered his brother). He’s nearly over believing in Melisandre’s prophecies but as he looks into the fire, his faith is renewed. In the Riverlands, Robb marries Talisa against his mother’s wishes, likely losing their alliance to Walder Frey. Arya, Hot Pie, and Gendry are still on the run, and they run into Jaqen H’gar. Jaqen tells Arya to comes to Braavos, but she declines because she needs to find her family. At Winterfell, Theon prepares the Iron Islanders for battle, but they knock him out and turn him over to the opposition before setting fire to the castle. A dying Maester Luwin tells Bran and company to go North.  In Qarth, Daenerys arrives at the House of the Undying, where she sees several visions – the Iron Throne, an icy tundra, and her dead husband and unborn son. She finds her dragons and sets them free; the dragons kill the Warlocks who took them hostage. She and her Khalassar find Xaro, who betrayed her, and lock him in a vault to die. They plunder his house for enough gold to buy a ship. North of the Wall, Qhorin continues to create a false feud with Jon until the two are forced to fight. They duel, and Jon kills Qhorin, thereby earning the trust of his Wildling captors. They arrive at the Wildling army’s camp. Not far away, Sam, Grenn, and Dolorous Edd are walking when they hear three horn blasts – signaling the approach of White Walkers. The season ends with Sam seeing the small (but growing) Army of the Dead.

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Let’s start by mentioning one quick note about the difference between the show and the books; Robb and Talisa get married here. In the books, when Catelyn discovers Robb’s wife, he’s already married (at the beginning of A Storm of Swords). She’s taken aback and surprised by Robb’s marriage. But in this episode, Catelyn lets him know one last time before he marries Talisa just what a foolish thing he is doing – but then he does it anyway. It makes the marriage less spontaneous and more premeditated – making Robb seem more foolish and reckless than foolish and honorable. This doesn’t greatly change the story, but it does make some minor changes about how we think of these characters.

Acting highlight: Theon at the end of his rope while he is beseiged.

(There’s a line about Theon potentially heading to the Night’s Watch – for more about the connection between Theon and Jon Snow, read this post by Patrick Sponaugle: The White Wolf and the Crippled Kraken.)

Continuing my segment from a few posts ago – about how I don’t like the Qarth storyline – it ends up having its best episode here. In the House of the Undying, Daenerys is shown a few visions – one of the past and one of the future. She is shown the Iron Throne covered in snow (many possible meanings to that, obviously) and she is shown what life with Khal Drogo and her son would have been like. But she needs to put both of these things aside and just focus on the present – finding her dragons. One thing that I didn’t care for is that getting past both of these visions and actually getting to the dragons is the hard part. The Warlock Pyat Pree is there to try to take her hostage, but the dragons end up killing him immediately, so he doesn’t provide any substantial obstacle.

They then throw Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Doreah (Dany’s maid who betrayed her) into the vault which he had claimed held all the city’s wealth but actually held nothing. When you consider it, that’s a pretty brutal execution. The endpoint of Dany’s arc in Qarth is really quite simple – she becomes less trusting and more ruthless. This will pave her way for the rest of the series, so at least the Qarth had some impact on the story going forward.

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A few posts ago, I mentioned how Season 2 is the Season of Tyrion because of his role as Hand of the King, and how he develops into a true player of the titular “Game” during the course of the season. The Season of Tyrion is something of Hero’s Journey story, in which the end of the story find the character back at the beginning, but fundamentally changed. At the beginning of the story, Tyrion is new to King’s Landing and unsure of how he will lead, essentially lacking in power. He doesn’t particularly want to be Hand of the King, but does it anyway. By the end of the season, he has proved himself not only to be a political leader and an apt Hand, but also a leader in battle. Then, after the battle, he finds that Pycelle was released from Prison, Bronn is no longer commander of the City Guard, his father is now Hand, and Tyrion gets no credit for his genius maneuver in battle. Tyrion starts at the bottom, works his way to the top, and finds himself back at the bottom. Where’s the fundamental change? When Shae tells him they should leave, Tyrion bitterly realizes: “I can’t, I do belong here. These bad people are what I’m good at. Talking them out, thinking them [out], it’s what I am. And I like it. I like it more than anything I’ve ever done.” Tyrion finds himself back at the beginning, with no real political power, but he understands that he has to stay in King’s Landing because he must be part of the Game.

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One thing that Season 2 manages to do better than the book it is based on is the planting and payoff of the Night’s Watch storyline beyond the wall. When the Watch first arrives at the Fist of the First Men, they hear a horn blow. Dolorous Edd points out that two horn blasts signals a wildling attack, and one is for Rangers returning. Sam points out that he had read that thousands of years ago, three blasts signaled the approach of White Walkers. When these characters are on top of the Fist initially, they only hear one blast – friends returning. Then, part way through the season, we see a battle with the wildlings. And last, in the final scene in season 2, we hear three horn blasts, and White Walkers attack. And these three incidents feel like a perfect incremental build-up; as Event A is happening, we are told that Event B could happen, and we are also told that Event C couldn’t possibly happen. It’s a great Chekov’s gun set-up, giving just enough of a sly hint to tell the audience what’s going to happen.

The moment where they hear the third blast and Edd screams “Run!” is such an amazing moment because you’re brought back to the first episode. And, one doesn’t always notice the score on Game of Thrones, but here the music sets the atmosphere with an eerie and minor-key variation on the main theme. The season ends with a cold close as Sam watches the Army of the Dead work their way to the fist of the first men.

Favorite Line: Theon’s speech before battle:

You hear that? That’s the mating call of the Northmen. They want to fuck us! Well, I haven’t had a good fuck in weeks, I’m ready for one! They say every Ironborn man is worth a dozen from the mainland. You think they’re right?!
We die today, brothers. We die bleeding from a hundred wounds, with arrows in our necks and spears in our guts…but our war cries will echo through eternity! They will sing about the Battle of Winterfell until the Iron Islands have slipped beneath the waves! Every man, woman and child will know who we were and how long we stood! Aggar and Gelmar, Wex and Urzen, Stygg and Black Lorren! Ironborn warriors will cry out our names as they leap onto the shores of Seagard and Faircastle. Mothers will name their sons for us! Girls will think of us with us with their lovers inside them! And whoever kills that fucking horn blower will stand in bronze above the shores of Pyke!

What is dead may never die!

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*Theon rolls a d20 for charisma. He gets a 1.* This speech is many things; it’s inspiring and empowering out of context, but in context, is a bit sad and a bit humorous, considering the fact that his men knock him out and turn him over to the enemy afterwards.

Favorite Scene: There are a lot of great moments in this episode; Theon’s speech, Brienne and Jaime on the road, Jon’s fight with Qhorin, Tyrion and Shae… But as I said, it must be the cold close. What better way to end the second season?

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