The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister
Ships of King’s Landing: Davos Seaworth
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
Burning Hearts of King’s Landing: Stannis Baratheon
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Harrenhal, Pyke, Winterfell, the Wall, and Qarth are all empty.
The episode is in one part running fifty-one minutes and set in King’s Landing; it is in seventeen sections. The first section runs three minutes; the opening image is of black water and a ship moving across it. The second runs two minutes; the transition is by dialogue, from Davos’s son speaking of his captain to Tyrion, his counterpart in King’s Landing. The third runs two minutes; the transition is by family, from Tyrion to Cersei Lannister. The fourth runs four minutes; the transition is by music, from Cersei to men singing “The Rains of Castamere.” The fifth runs three minutes; the transition is by sound, the bells warning of Stannis’s arrival tolling over both scenes. The sixth runs one minute; the transition is by equivalency, from Tyrion to Davos. The seventh runs three minutes; the transition is by dialogue, from Stannis’s fleet to Bronn talking about ships. The eighth runs two minutes; the transition is by image, from a fire within the Red Keep to fires burning outside. The ninth runs two minutes; the transition is by family, from Tyrion and Joffrey to Cersei. The tenth runs five minutes; the transition is by family, from Cersei to Tyrion and Joffrey. The eleventh runs four minutes; the transition is by family, from Tyrion and Joffrey to Cersei. The twelfth runs three minutes; the transition is by family, from Cersei to Tyrion and Joffrey. The thirteenth runs three minutes; the transition is by family, from Lancel to Cersei. The fourteenth runs seven minutes; the transition is by hard cut, from Cersei to the combat outside. The fifteenth runs four minutes; the transition is by family, from Tyrion to Cersei. The sixteenth runs two minutes; the transition is by image, from the Hound walking out Sansa’s door to Tyrion’s men opening the passage out of the city. The seventeenth runs three minutes; the transition is by family, from Tyrion to Cersei. It features the death of countless people. The final image is of Cersei hugging Tommen as Tywin announces that he has solved a riddle whose answer is chess.
As with the first season, the ninth episode proves to be the point of the entire exercise. Once again, it is a masterpiece. And yet the two episodes could not be more different. Baelor may have had one trick that outdid them all, but worked because it was a succession of climaxes that careened towards Ned’s death. This, on the other hand, is an ostentatious set piece. “Baelor” is designed to seal the deal - it shows off all the show’s strengths one by one, then tops them all. “Blackwater” assumes an audience that’s been sold and will trust the show while it does something unusual.
The lynchpin of that trust, as within King’s Landing, is Tyrion. The entire season has been about Tyrion’s sudden ascension to a position of overt power on the board instead of the inadvertent power he wielded in the first season, and about how Stannis presents a growing threat to that power. That was the message of “The North Remembers.” Here is the inevitable payoff. This is inseparable from the paratext; Peter Dinklage’s surprise but largely deserving Emmy win made him the central attraction of the show following the departure of Sean Bean. Their bodies occupy the same structural position, dealt grave and shocking injury.
Again, the differences are the important part. The beheading of Ned Stark is a demonstration of something that everyone involved in making Game of Thrones would probably call “realism.” Instead of a shocking reversal of fortune when the character is brought to his lowest moment, there is only it going even worse. The injury to Tyrion complicates that in two ways. First, of course, it is injury and not death. Tyrion being cut down on the battlefield would have been an outright travesty. It is simply not possible within the domain of things that Game of Thrones could do. Second, where Ned’s death is a non-reversal of fortune, Tyrion’s injury is a misfortune at what ought be the moment of his greatest triumph: he has successfully orchestrated the defense of King’s Landing. Yes, he requires a bailout from Tywin in the last moment, but the more pertinent accomplishment is, as Varys will subsequently point out, that King’s Landing was still around for Tywin to save.
There is an inevitable and grim joke underlying this - that Tyrion Lannister’s victory is a Lannister victory. This is, in its own way, as inevitable as Ned’s death. If this is not the sort of game in which Ned is saved, it’s also not the sort of game where just because Tyrion saves King’s Landing he finds his situation improved. He is still the Imp, the hated dwarf son of Tywin Lannister, the hated uncle of the psychotic moron that is the King, et cetera. This never could end well for him. That it ends not just with his subsequent disempowerment but with his physical injury is a clever exclamation point.
Nevertheless, it exposes the shaggy dog at “Blackwater”’s heart. In an episode where the main tactic is “here’s what you’ve been waiting for,” the climax is the exact opposite. It works, and so it’s a good idea, but it’s going to prove to be one of those tricks that works until it doesn’t. In this case, it’s got the specific advantage of Tyrion having a moment of emphatic triumph in the form of the wildfire destroying Stannis’s fleet earlier in the episode. But there’s a larger issue here that’s easy to miss: this isn’t actually a great Tyrion episode. He’s got a very good Varys scene early on, and his “those are brave men knocking at our door; let’s go kill them” speech is marvelous, but in terms of concentrated Tyrion pleasures, this has nothing on “What is Dead May Never Die.” Not, of course, that anyone notices, because the wildfire is so spectacular.
This, of course, is the real secret sauce of “Blackwater.” It’s terribly expensive. In that regard it’s not a shaggy dog at all. The wildfire is the starting gun for an orgy of violence and spectacle unlike anything Game of Thrones or indeed television has seen before. HBO splashed out the cash to do this right. Equally importantly, however, the people orchestrating this actually do it right. Putting Martin on the script defuses the obvious tension with the fan audience by making it so that all the necessary compromises of scale are managed by him. And he obligingly gives a DVD commentary track consisting of almost nothing but wistfully explaining them all. But he’s a good-natured realist about it, which is of course the entire reason the adaptation is happening in the first place, and he’s gracious in identifying the bits added by Benioff and Weiss (notably Cersei’s monologue as she prepares to commit suicide and the Hound/Bronn scene).
Neil Marshall, on the other hand, is one of the greatest happy accidents in the history of television; famously parachuted in a week before production started after the original director had to drop out for a personal emergency, he does an extraordinary job. It is almost impossible to imagine “Blackwater” without him; the directorial choices and composition of this episode are exquisite. But by Marshall’s admission, much of his success came because of how good the standing production team is. As Marshall points out, he didn’t have to build sets or costumes for “Blackwater,” and he was working with a cast that knew what they were doing. Which meant that Marshall could focus on blowing things up and building artificial heads to drop rocks on. (Although he ended up making some significant changes as well, most notably in having Stannis scale the wall and join the melee in order to contrast him with Joffrey, a decision in contrast to Martin, who had Stannis as a more Napoleonesque commander).
But equally, the secret that lets Marshall succeed is that he only needs a couple shots of charging cavalry and exploding ships; fully half of the wildfire explosion consists of nothing more than giving actors reaction shots to the carnage while flashing a green light in their face. And the episode’s best moments are generally its quietest, especially the subplot of Cersei and Sansa in Maegor’s Holdfast, a sequence where it finally becomes evident that Cersei is not merely ruthless but is completely barking mad. This, it should be noted, is in material fact the point of the battle; of the six chapters that make it up in A Clash of Kings, half are Sansa chapters: Tyrion’s POV does not enter the story until immediately after the wildfire explosion, which is told from Davos’s perspective. And prior to getting HBO to spring for the money to do the battle in full, indeed, the plan was to have the Maegor’s Holdfast scenes be the whole of proceedings. (One suspects this would not have been a single-location episode in that telling, nor written by Martin.)
The result is genuinely impressive television; something that weaves the soap opera tradition that Game of Thrones in practice hails from with the fantasy tradition A Song of Ice and Fire does, having them operate in parallel in a way that is genuinely unprecedented for the medium. It’s a triumph of a scale that just about justifies all the oddities and aberrations that have marked the second stretch of play up to this point - a coup de grace that makes sense of all the tactics that came before. It is the rare piece of television that not only deserves a cliched sobriquet, but that seems to require one: game-changer.