It’s a funny thing, those who begrudge others the modern privilege of simultaneous participation. Fans of Game of Thrones waited for the epic Battle of the Blackwater for weeks – it’s one of the few occasions in the books when a decisive battle involving major characters is shown directly in realtime, instead of as historical hearsay. Yet there are still show-watchers who complain about "spoilers!" when fellow followers discuss the much-anticipated proceedings.
Ladies and gentlemen, here’s your recap of the incredible Game of Thrones Season 2, Episode 9 – if you haven’t seen it yet and you want a pure experience, don’t read this. And, probably, edit your Twitter attention accordingly, because this is seriously fun to talk about.
The Game of Thrones series is, on the macro level, about a multi-theater war for the Iron Throne at King’s Landing. As you’ve surely gathered, though, it derives the drama in its storytelling through its portrayal of the side effects of war: Families in crisis, individuals crashing hard into the constraints of gender and class politics, the threat of the destabilizing forces of starvation and the other ways populations go neglected when their leadership turns all its resources to the struggle for power.
This episode’s military confrontation has been long in coming: To protect their family unit – spiritually fraught, but beyond wealthy in gold and pride – the Lannisters have bungled their governance spectacularly. They’ve put a dangerously cruel and impulsive child of incest on the throne after murdering and beheading almost all their potential allies, and have frittered away literal and political capital until they can barely defend their city against the advances of Stannis Baratheon, an uptight stick-in-the-mud with a creepy religion whose own brother (before Stannis’ sorceress murdered him) pointedly let him know that no one wants him for their king.
But this show is all about mysterious advantages. While the Lannisters are the ones to root against – the New York Yankees of Westeros, if you will – everyone’s favorite character is the “half-man” Tyrion, who seems to want nothing more than to mitigate his sister Cersei’s short-sighted, vicious ruling tactics and to please his dad, who crushed all three kids with a moral table that prized fear above all other emotions.
If not for Tyrion, who bravely stands at the vanguard of the Blackwater siege even as young King Joffrey flees for safer ground at his mother’s call, we might sorely be hoping for the Lannisters to lose the city: Poor Sansa could go free, then, and the stink of injustice, of rich and childish jerks cheating their way into leadership, might leave the city.
The Rains of Castamere is a song-story about Lannister pride that gets frequent reference in the books: When in fictional history a lesser lord defied the house, claiming not even a lion had the right to make other creatures bow low, the Lannisters crushed him. The lyrics serve as a reminder that standing up to these nobles generally means becoming naught but a footnote – the first time we hear it here, though, it’s being sung by Bronn, the lowborn sellsword who’s become Tyrion’s unlikely right-hand man.
As the city prepares for war, we get a clear illustration about this world’s stark (no pun intended) gender binaries: the men drink, mope and whore, while Cersei shuttles the women into a private bunker to await the outcome. She then proceeds to get absolutely smashed, lecturing Sansa on the likelihood that the city will fall – and the equal likelihood that all the women will be victims of rape at the hands of lusty soldiers. As a failsafe, she’s brought the royal headsman, Sir Ilyn Payne, to stand by. Cersei needs to play the role of sympathetic mother hen here to keep the women calm, but all the while she plans to have all of them killed should the Lannisters lose the war. Some mercy.
Although this episode is mainly about how brave Tyrion is, it’s Cersei who’s the immutable star here. You can’t tell what she feels most strongly: Resentment for the glass ceiling, worry about her sons, hatred of those who are younger and prettier than her, or her fierce wish for control. The beginning of the episode sees her procuring some deadly poison from the obsequious Maester Pycelle, and not until the end do you know for whom she intended it.
All you know is that even if all of her power is taken away, she is desperate to have even the end happen on her terms. Peter Dinklage gets much-deserved praise for his incredible, organic and nuanced portrayal of Tyrion, but Lena Heady’s Cersei is absolutely perfect, having mastered that bitter, silken grin, that chilling, self-aware and shameless fakery.
It’s the city’s store of wildfire, an infernal alchemical concoction made by magical pyromancers, that sets the stage for the battle itself – a blazing bomb of sorts ferried in on a deserted ship and lit by flaming arrows to catch Stannis’ fleet off guard. Quite well done on the staging front for the show to slowly build tension ahead of the epic magical blaze by a strategic palette of background candleflames. Seriously, watch this episode twice. Of particular note, early on when Sandor “The Hound” Clegane shows up to crash Bronn’s party, the side of his face that was burnt by his brutal brother Gregor when they were kids is framed by two little candle lights.
This is foreshadowing, of course, as fire-phobic Clegane will get spooked during the battle, get drunk and ditch out. We have spent almost two seasons hating smug, evil inbred brat Joffrey (and watching this on repeat for catharsis!). But when his face genuinely falls at the prospect of his Dog abandoning him, you realize he’s just Mama’s scared kid, automatic inheritor of Grampa Tywin’s ruthless morals. Even Joff seems helpless and a little sympathetic in the face of this truly scary battle on the home front, and we are denied the satisfaction of seeing him put at meaningful risk.
It’s this ambiguity that makes this show an edge-of-your-seat experience. In theory we want the Lannisters to lose, but not so much when we see Tyrion’s ballsy stand end in an axe to the face. We don’t want them to lose if it means he dies.
When all seems lost, we find Cersei sitting on the Iron Throne itself – this war’s ultimate prize, a seat she as a woman could never occupy in earnest – with her littlest boy, Tommen, on her lap. The soft-voiced fairy tale she tells him about the Lion’s right to rule seems sad, hollow. No matter what the outcome of this complex siege, people will die. It will be miserable.
In a dreamy montage, a stag-helmed specter suddenly enters the field. Probably only those who have read the books would grok that it’s the recently-dead Renly Baratheon’s set of armor, worn by his lover Loras’ brother Garlan Tyrell, to put a superstitious scare into Stannis’ army. In a last-minute deus ex machina, it seems Renly’s forces have joined forces with Tywin Lannister’s to defeat the invaders and save King’s Landing.
Tywin Lannister has cursed his poor, emotionally-arrested offspring with delusions about love, power and proving themselves. All three of his kids have complicated, painful relationships with their heritage. But just as Cersei is about to poison innocent little Tommen to spare him from the certain sack of King’s Landing, it’s Loras, not Stannis, that bursts into the throne room – with Tywin right behind.
“Father,” chokes Cersei poignantly, immediately spilling out the last-ditch poison onto the floor of the throne room. For a minute, she’s just a little girl whose Daddy has come to save her. The bad guys kept their throne, and yet somehow we’re glad.
Especially when the end credits are a cover of The Rains of Castamere by the National. The Pitchfork-favorite, just a little to the mass market side of indie, released its version just a little earlier this week, and singer Matt Berninger’s solemn baritone lends the tune the precise touch of sinister-but-inevitable a Lannister victory needs. Sidenote: the band also contributed Exile, Vilify to the Portal 2 game soundtrack, so it’s probably safe to say they’re making a savvy pitch for nerd cred.
Fascinating how a show about marginalized people makes it genuinely hard to peg anyone as hero or villain. It’s entirely new levels of ambiguity for the fantasy genre in mainstream television, thanks to brilliant actor portrayals. And while the show continues to diverge from the books just a little bit when it comes to visible detail (in the show Clegane did not drunkenly kiss Sansa, shippers beware; Tyrion, though grievously wounded, still appears to have a whole nose), fans should be quite grateful for the loving details applied to the book’s crucial subtext.