I suppose if you were that sort of person that does such things, you could say this was Game of Thrones’ “Helm’s Deep moment” – the long-awaited collision of Kings that the entire series has been building up to for two seasons. There’s a major different of course, in that this isn’t a straight-up good vs. evil scenario, where the audience can rejoice in seeing orcs beheaded all over the battlefield. This is the genius of GoT in some ways, really – who the heck do you root for? There are characters on each side that we probably love and some we hate, and most of them solidly in-between. And in war, they all die the same – in rains of blood and gore and flame, screaming.
This was one of the passages from the book that makes you say “How in the world are they going to film this?” It was an ep quite unlike any other so far – no hopscotching around the globe from thread to thread, and a focus not on foreshadowing but on action (though there’s still plenty of foreshadowing here if you look carefully). In the main, this was an extremely faithful adaptation, from Varys and Tyrion’s conversation in the Hand’s Chambers to Loras Tyrell charging into battle in Renly’s armor. Obviously some details were changed out of necessity – Tyrion’s wildfire gambit was drastically simplified – but on the whole, it was all spiritually just as it was in the book.
I have to give full props to HBO for the execution here. There was the usual needless nudity at the beginning, and more heads being cut in half and general guro than necessary, but the Battle of the Blackwater was staged in fashion as spectacular as you’re likely ever to see in a TV production. It looked fantastic, from the sickly-green wildfire to the rain of flaming arrows to Tyrion’s final charge (“Halfman!”) onto the battlefield. The pacing of the episode was spot-on, breathlessly exciting start to finish, but not so much that you couldn’t follow exactly what was happening. I think Peter Jackson himself would have been quite pleased.
A few things that especially stood out for me:
- We finally got to hear “The Rains of Castermere”, not just once but twice. A non-novel reader can’t grasp why this was such a hugely anticipated moment for us – but it was, and HBO obviously knew it. They gave us Bronn and the City Watch doing it as a drinking song, and then a Cohen-esque dirge version from The National over the closing credits.
- Matthos telling his father “I have faith in my Captain.” Gods, I love Davos Seaforth – if anything, I think the TV did miss some of the nuance here, as the novel’s Davos was much more leery of what was happening, and tried to argue against a headlong rush into Blackwater Bay.
- Varys almost telling Tyrion a very important story about himself. Varys may be the most inscrutable figure in this highly nuanced and morally dubious cast.
- Sansa telling Shae Joffrey would survive, because “The worst always come back.”
- The scenes between Sansa and Cersei generally. Cersei gleefully telling Sansa the women would be “in for a bit of a rape.”
- Cersei saying Tywin “believes in The Gods – he just doesn’t like them.”
- Tyrion’s battle cry of “Those are brave men at the gate. Let’s go kill them.”
One of the themes of this part of the story is definitely the different ways men react to impending doom. Stannis is undeniably courageous to a fault – and he has many faults. Joffrey, of course, takes the coward’s way out when his mother offers it to him, when even a dubious warrior such as Lancel finds his courage – even after being wounded himself - and urges him to fight. Tyrion holds no joy of battle – you can see that from his reaction to the sight of Stannis’ fleet being consumed by wildfire. Yet when the chips are down he stands and fights, even rallies his men to a hopeless cause despite his fear of death. “Oh, fuck me.” indeed – that’s what any sensible man would say, seeing what Tyrion saw at that moment. Yet he didn’t turn and run. Much as Bronn didn’t – even standing fast and saving The Hound more than once, despite the latter’s grudge against him. It’s a shame HBO miscast Podrick Payne so badly, because much of the drama of a small boy doing what he did outside the Mud Gate was lost, but it was still a big moment for the series.
Ah, The Hound. He might just have been the best part of a great episode, because he was so much at the heart of it. The Hound is a character who’s had much less chance to shine in the TV version, but Rory McCann proved he was perfectly cast with a bravura performance this week. His reaction “Oh, my God” to the wildfire might have been the most telling of all. He’s a brutal, ruthless and terrifying man – yet his terror of fire is his constant companion, and the moment when you can see his face change when he decides “Fuck the King, and fuck this” is all I imagined it to be. “No, Little Bird – I won’t hurt you.” He’s been the one quietly looking out for Sansa all along, and while she sometimes act the fool it’s clear she’s noticed, even if she declines to go with him.
If it wasn’t The Hound or Tyrion, it was Cersei who owned the stage this week. All of her many and complex sides were visible as she grew steadily more drunk – her continued cat-and-mouse with Sansa, who she clearly loves to torment yet somehow seems almost to respect in a way. Her cleverness is sniffing out the incongruity with Shae in the midst of all the chaos. Her bitterness and rage that fate has chosen to make her a woman and deny her all the things she sees as rightfully hers. And her fierce and tenacious love of her children, ordering the vile Joffrey off the front lines despite knowing it could lead to the city falling, leading up to the final scene on the Iron Throne where she held poor, sweet Tommen on her lap and told him the story of the lion cub and his mother as she slowly raises the vial towards Tommen’s lips. I would encourage everyone to watch this scene at least twice, both for the artistry of the acting (Callum Wharry finally getting his chance to shine alongside the splendid Lena Headey) and writing, and for the layers of meaning that may not reveal themselves in the heat of first viewing.
What we’re left to wonder, now, is just how HBO plan to top themselves in the season finale. My guess as to where it ends the season is still on the table – I’d still say a pretty safe guess, in fact – but it’ll be interesting to see how we get there.