'Game of Thrones' Recap: Set Fire to the Reign

Redefining TV combat and spectacle, ‘Blackwater’ is the show’s best episode yet

game of thrones
Jerome Flynn
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When was the last time a television show – or anything on film, really – showed you something you'd never seen before?

Oh, it happens. It may be harder to remember this month than most, what with the movie starring characters from other movies based on comics published fifty years ago duking it out with the movie based on a board game and the movie that's a sequel to a ten-year-old movie that's a sequel to a fifteen-year-old movie, or the guy who created the strangest comedy on network television getting booted off his own show for his troubles. But sometimes you get to sit down in front of a screen (of whatever size) and watch something happen that has never before happened in your sight. If you're lucky, the spectacle speaks to something in the story at hand, makes a point dialogue alone can't. If you're really lucky, the dialogue's there too, and the performances, and the sound and score and editing and everything else that makes you care about sitting down and watching something make-believe in the first place.

When Bronn shot that fire arrow and detonated Tyrion's wildfire last night, he did more than blow Stannis Baratheon's fleet to kingdom come. He, and "Blackwater" director Neil Marshall, showed me something I'd never seen before. Something even the pictures in my mind's eye while reading about the Battle of the Blackwater in the book A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin (who wrote the episode as well) never came close to adequately capturing. That's right: A TV show went toe-to-toe with my goddamn imagination and won. Hail Game of Thrones.

Let's look at the spectacle as spectacle, first of all. After the tension and foreshadowing of the Baratheon fleet's approach, with everyone from King Joffrey and Tyrion to Davos Seaworth and his son Matthos constantly commenting on the lack of Lannister ships, the big bang we all knew was coming had to be, well, really big. And it was even bigger. The initial blast of green fury as Matthos and Davos are blown off their ship into the bay, only for the ship itself to disintegrate like someone was taking it apart plank by plank, wasn't just a stunning action beat. It was one of the most beautiful images of the series so far. When we're finally able to cut away to the Lannister commanders watching from the city walls, the explosion itself is just as grimly beautiful . . . and it just keeps getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, huge clouds of green flame billowing ever higher into the night sky, flaming shrapnel streaking upward like fireworks, as the skeletons of ships sink into the water beneath.

But look at what else we learn from the conflagration. Listen to the screams of the dying soldiers and sailors – not the usual guttural roars of fantasy battles, but high-pitched screams of agony. This spectacle hurts. Just ask the Hound as he mutters silently to himself while watching the river burn, instantaneously reduced from the most effective killer in Westeros to the same terrified little boy whose older brother once lit his face on fire. Compare him to Joffrey, his sneering weasel face lit up by the sights and sounds of suffering and the prospect of an easy victory; or to Tyrion, horrified at what he's unleashed but gratified that it worked; or to Stannis, so sure of his right to the Iron Throne that the deaths of thousands of his men stop him only as long as it takes him to stand up again after the shockwave.

That shockwave shattered more than just ships, of course. Queen Cersei reacts to the attack on the city walls by letting her own walls collapse. Her increasingly inappropriate and inebriated conversation with Sansa Stark gave actress Lena Headey her finest hour on the show so far – speaking of things we've never seen before, Cersei wears her gallows-humor side well. She also offered us a shockingly direct indictment of this society's treatment of even its richest, most powerful women: forced to learn how to curtsey rather than how to kill, traded like livestock by their fathers, their bodies plundered by enemies like gold. Sansa responds by finding courage where Cersei could only find fatalism and self-pity, rallying the terrified noblewomen after the Queen flees. It's the first time Sansa's been allowed by circumstance to be a productive member of society, even if it's ultimately to help her enemies. And it's just a warm-up for her second confrontation with a broken person of the night: the Hound, shellshocked and drunk, his scarred, blood-soaked face a map of the society of killers Sansa was born into. "Your sons will be killers someday," he tells her, the bleakest and most harrowing line of the night.

Sansa tells the Hound he won't hurt her, and in doing so makes it true. That's a common thread throughout the episode, as characters faced with a catastrophe they're powerless to stop simply reassure themselves and those they love, knowing on some level that words have weight. "I won't let them hurt you," Tyrion's kept woman Shae tells him on the eve of battle; while I don't doubt she'd take a few of Stannis's men down, her words are primarily a security blanket, obviously childish but no less comforting for that. Cersei tells her son Tommen a fable about the little lion all the animals will one day bow to; at that point she's about to kill him, so this made-up story is a place she has created where she and her baby boy can be safe. And when her brother Tyrion decides to lead the attack, he says so twice: The second time he's informing the men, but the first time, he's informing himself. Even he can hardly believe it.

Tyrion knows better than anyone that words have great power in Westeros. The stories that people tell each other cement alliances and allegiances and keep the entire stratified society in place. So I couldn't help but notice how many stories were interrupted in this episode. Shae's secret history is cut off by the arrival of Lancel Lannister (who finds his courage to stand up to the Queen much like Sansa does, and suffers for it). Varys stops short of revealing how he became a eunuch, perhaps hoping that if he saves the story for another time, there will be another time. The poisonous punchline of Cersei's fable is cut off when Lord Tywin Lannister and Ser Loras Tyrell save the day – and their magnificent, Lord of the Rings-like entry into the battle is the last thing Tyrion sees before he succumbs to the horrendous wound inflicted on him by a rogue Kingsguard. (There's Game of Thrones' take on "the glory of war," by the way: something you witness while bleeding out in the dirt.) We thought this was a story in which Tyrion – genius, outcast, Imp – got to be the hero. Like the Blackwater itself, that story just went up in flames.