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'Game of Thrones' recap: The Battle of the Blackwater

May 28, 2012 |  6:46 am

"Game of Thrones" ignores Arya, Catelyn, Jaime, Brienne, Jon, Theon, Bran and Daenerys to focus on one story and one story only: the Battle of Blackwater
If you're tuning in to "Game of Thrones" this week for the further adventures of Arya, Catelyn, Jaime, Brienne, Jon, Theon, Bran or Daenerys, then prepare for disappointment, because this episode ignores all of those characters and focuses its attention on one story and one story only: the Battle of the Blackwater.

On the plus side, you get a massive all-or-nothing throwdown between the two most powerful military forces in the War of Five Kings: Stannis Baratheon and the Lannisters. It's hard to know who to root for here, as there are few characters more beloved than Tyrion or hated than Joffrey, but as members of Team Lannister, they will likely live or die together. Who would be the better victor: the sociopathic young sadist who killed Ned Stark on a whim, or the man who murdered his brother with black magic vagina shadows? There's really no choice you can feel good about, which I guess makes it similar to most political elections, so think about it that way as you cast your mental ballot.

The sheer ruthlessness of the show gives the episode an added feeling of tenuousness -- the feeling that anything can happen to anyone, that no one is safe and no outcome is certain. People don't live or die in "Game of Thrones" because they "deserve" to, or because we like them, or because their armor has the shiniest gold. They live or die because they are smarter or stronger -- or not. And as both sides sweat and pace and vomit in preparation for what could be the last day of their lives, you pace with them a little bit, because you don't know either.

Finally, Stannis' fleet appears in Blackwater Bay, a huge naval force we're told outnumbers the Lannister boats 10 to 1. Curiously, only one ship emerges from Kings Landing to answer them, but as it grows closer, Davos realizes that it is empty. Well, empty of people, but full of the incredibly combustible substance called wildfire. A flaming arrow whistles through the sky toward the boat, detonating across the water in spectacular walls of green flame that obliterate everything around them. Even Tyrion looks out at the tableau with a certain trepidation, like someone who has unleashed something simultaneously far more beautiful and terrible than imagined -- a dragon in a bottle.

Cersei gathers the high-born women together to wait out the battle in an interior fortress of the castle, and immediately starts hitting the wine pretty hard. She's kind of an angry drunk, as it turns out, and over the course of several cups she shares some patented Cersei wisdom with her future daughter-in-law, Sansa. This includes but is not limited to: the importance of killing commoners to make them fear you; that the gods have no mercy, which is why they are gods (a related theme); and finally, that Ser Ilyn isn't there to protect the noble women, but to kill them all before Stannis arrives if the city falls.

About halfway into the bottle, we get to the heart of Cersei's constant, simmering anger when she talks about her confusion, as a child, about being treated so differently than her twin, Jaime -- why she was given dresses instead of swords, taught to please instead of conquer, and sold off in marriage "like a horse to be ridden" whenever her husband pleased. (When Sansa protests that Cersei was Robert's queen, Cersei gets the best line of the episode: "And you will be Joffrey's. Enjoy.") "I should have been born a man," says Cersei, and it's not hard to guess what she thinks that would have looked like. She's the alternate universe version of Jaime that was stripped of confidence and autonomy and twisted into humiliation and powerlessness. As Jaime said in a recent episode, "It's a good thing I am who I am. I would have been useless at anything else." Cersei, sadly, is the "anything else."

His fleet in flaming tatters, Stannis leads the remainder of his forces onto the shore, knowing full well that it will mean thousands of deaths. It's some ugly "invasion of Normandy" business as his men rush from the water toward the castle, getting cut down en masse by arrows and hurled rocks. As the Lannister troops rush to hold them back, we learn the Hound appears to be afraid of fire -- probably because of that little incident in which his older brother crushed his face against a brazier as a child -- which is unfortunate considering that pretty much everything is burning or exploding at the moment.

The Hound finally has some sort of medieval "Office Space" moment, tells the Kingsguard and Joffrey exactly what they can do with themselves and their stupid white cloaks, and decides to just peace out on the battle to go hang out in Sansa's bedroom and be creepy to her before he leaves. He actually makes a rather generous offer to take her back to Winterfell, although its appeal is probably mitigated by their last conversation about how murdering people is one of his likes on Facebook, or maybe because Theon just captured Winterfell and ostensibly killed two of her brothers. In any event, she rejects his suggestion in favor of locking the door and clutching a doll.

As Stannis' men batter the gates with a ram and defeat seems imminent, Cersei pulls Joffrey back from the battle and hides him in his room, a ridiculous mommy move that pretty much destroys the morale of the men. Tyrion is once again our hero as he steps up to command the forces himself, leading them through secret underground tunnels that allow them to attack the enemy from behind, a tactic he describes with a colorful sexual metaphor! He fights quite valiantly, hacking off limbs and facing down men three times his size while the soldiers cheer "HALF-MAN!"

The rare moment of affirmation doesn't last long, however, as a fresh wave of troops appears and a Tyrion takes a nasty sword blow to the face -- and even more shockingly, from a white-cloaked figure who doesn't look much like a member of the opposing army. As his consciousness slips away, he sees a man who looks a lot like the dearly departed King Renly appear on the battlefield, and the tide seems to change ...

Thinking all is lost, Cersei decides to have some very special, ghoulish mother-son story time with Tommen on the Iron Throne, where she tells him a tale about a young lion cub and his mother and being brave or something, which is basically just a prelude to her feeding him a bottle of poison. But before she can administer the lethal dose, a band of knights bursts into the room lead by the avenging Ser Loras (dressed in the armor of Renly) and her father, Lord Tywin, whose forces arrived at the last minute to drive back Stannis.

"The battle is over," says Tywin. "We have won!" Which is great! Except for all of the ways that it is still terrible. Were you pleased by the victory, disappointed, or conflicted? Add your thoughts in the comments.

Sex and violence tally:

Violence: Thousands of soldiers die in the battle from wildfire, drowning, arrows, stones and all manner of hacking and slashing.

Nudity: A woman strips naked in front of Bronn to entertain him before the battle begins.

Extra-credit book report:

In the book, there was no direct threat of Cersei poisoning Tommen, nor any standoff between Bronn and the Hound. Varys shared the full story of his castration to Tyrion, rather than just hinting at it, and Shae was the maid to another high-born lady during the battle, not Sansa, and had no interaction with Cersei. Also, news of Winterfell's capture had already reached Kings Landing before the Battle of Blackwater, so the Hound never offered to bring Sansa home -- only to take her with him and keep her safe.

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-- Laura Hudson

Photo: Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) dons his armor in "Game of Thrones." Credit: HBO

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