You always knew that the penultimate episode of this stellar series of Game of Thrones, 'Blackwater' was going to be something quite special.
Written by the books' author, George R. R. Martin, and directed by Neil Marshall (Centurion, Dog Soldiers), the entire show's budget was increased by 15 percent in order to accommodate the gargantuan battle this series has been building up to. Was it money well spent? The answer is emphatically yes. 'Blackwater' is an episode where the scale of the show escapes the boundaries of normal television drama to capture the absolute Armageddon that is war.
King's Landing prepares for the mother of all sieges as Stannis's fleet, which outnumbers Joffrey's by ten to one, prepares to storm the city. Against these insurmountable odds Tyrion plays the most dangerous trick up his sleeve; wildfire. As Davos marshals the fleet towards the city, they are surprised to find none of Joffrey's ships in the Blackwater Bay. When one unmanned solitary ship gently glides towards them, The Onion Knight immediately recognises that something is awry. Alas, it is too late, as one arrow fired from Bronn ignites a hellish green pyroclasm that consumes everything in sight. Davos, his son, and most of the crew are blown away as the ships are embroiled in the inferno.
Despite such a setback, Stannis, mirthlessly continues marching with the brutal coldness of The Terminator as he seeks only to reclaim the Iron Throne. When the King is needed most to rally the troops, he goes running behind his mother's skirts after she in panic recalls him to his chambers. Despite his despicable actions towards pretty much everyone, it is remarkable that Joffrey attracts sympathy as the horrors of war peel away the snarling and sadistic tyrant and leaves behind only a naïve and frightened boy. With Stannis at the gates, and Joffrey fled, it falls to the King's Hand to save the people of the city. In a rousing speech that Henry V would be proud of, Tyrion proclaims:
"Don't fight for your King, and don't fight for his Kingdoms. Don't fight for honour, don't fight for glory, for riches because you won't get any. This is your city Stannis means to sack. That's your gate he's ramming. If he gets in it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, your women he'll rape. Those are brave men knocking at your door. Let's go kill them!"
Tyrion has plotted and schemed himself into a position of power in King's Landing, but whilst other players of the game such as Varys and Littlefinger lurk in the shadows, Tyrion instead is forced into the limelight in order to save the city from the impending onslaught. Leading the troops into battle, he is surprisingly successful until in the midst of the carnage, Ser Mandon Moore deliberately slashes his face and is apparently only saved from death by his squire Podrick. The question now remains as to who attempted to engineer the Hand's downfall?
Whilst the scope of the battle scenes are breathtaking, what is even more impressive is how confidently Marshall handles the intimate moments inside the castle with all the women, as they sit and pray, dependent on the men to bring them salvation, or at least mercy. As the battle rages on outside, an increasingly inebriated Cersei confides to Sansa what it means to be a Queen, and more importantly a woman. "Fitting isn't it, the men will bleed out there and you will bleed in here." Cersei finds herself handicapped from birth because she's not a man. When she compares herself to her identical twin brother Jaime she notes, "He was heir to Casterly Rock and I was sold to some stranger to be ridden like a horse whenever he pleased." But she has learnt how to survive in this world, and she removes the last veil of innocence from Sansa as she reveals the only power a woman can wield. "Tears aren't a woman's only weapon, the best one's between your legs."
The equation is made clear. Men thrive on violence, be it through killing another man, or through f**king women, the need to claim and possess is there. Regardless of which men win the war outside their doors, Cersei lets Sansa know that either will violate them as they choose. In war, regardless of the victors, women will always lose. No wonder Cersei tells Sansa it is more terrifying to be raped than murdered when she proclaims that the bloodthirsty men will see Sansa as, "A slice of cake just waiting to be eaten."
Another person tired of the bloodshed is Sandor Clegane. The few moments with The Hound this year, such as when he excessively eviscerated Sansa's attackers in the riots, have given evidence to a tortured soul lurking inside the member of the Kingsguard. Relishing the slaughter, it is only the wildfire that truly frightens him, rekindling memories of the savage burns his older brother, Gregor, inflicted upon him as a child. Fleeing the battle, he seeks out the one person in the city he has been trying to communicate with the whole time, Sansa. Like Cersei, he informs her that the battle that rages is only part of the war a woman fights their whole life time. "The world is built by killers, so you better get used to looking at them."
Pushed to the most desperate measures, in a haunting wide shot the Queen sits alone with her son Tommen on the Iron Throne. As she fumbles with the poison in her hand to be taken should the city fall, the scene highlights how desperately Cersei will cling to both her children and her limited power, as she plans for Stannis to take it only from her cold dead fingers.
But she does not have to take that giant leap into the abyss, as much to her shock her father Tywin arrives to confidently proclaim, "The battle is over. We have won."
So Stannis is defeated, and the Lannnisters have prevailed, but who truly gets to fight another day? Davos spent his life rising through the ranks from smuggler to Knight to Hand of the King, and yet he seemingly joins his troops the same way in a watery grave. Tyrion might have heroically saved the city, but Mandon's attack means he's left fighting for his life unsure of who to trust. Sansa wasn't raped and murdered, but now faces the prospect of a marriage to Joffrey, and a lifetime of unhappiness as his Queen. And the current Queen Cersei might still be sitting in the Iron Throne when the credits roll, but that doesn't mean she has any power, especially when her father is now back to take command. This astonishing hour of television showed that there are no victories in war, only those that perish and those that must soldier on to fight another day.