Season 2, Episode 9 (“Blackwater”) was yet another pivotal episode in the overall arch of the series – so pivotal, in fact, that we spent the entire duration within a single setting for the first time since the show began. The pace and structure of this episode, though still moving quickly between different character perspectives, made it feel like a different show. In its own way, it was refreshing. Very often, like with Episode 8 (“The Prince of Winterfell”), the game pieces are moved in very slow and almost imperceptible ways. In “Blackwater,” the consequences are more clear, and more clearly far-reaching.
“Blackwater” is, like its title, focused solely on the actions occurring in and around King’s Landing. Stannis Baratheon, after a season of buildup and preparation, is finally attacking the well-fortified King’s Landing with an army that vastly outnumbers the Lannister troops and fleets within. It has been made clear that Stannis is a man of conviction, and he believes that it is his right to take the throne from the “false” King Joffrey. Meanwhile, inside the walls, everyone within the Lannister camp faces the impending battle in very different ways. Within the hour, the balance of power shifts from the Baratheons to the Lannisters and around again several times. Given the fractures within the Lannister leadership, it is a wonder how their side comes out on top, even with the advantage of chemical warfare. In the end, it is only a surprise (and perfectly-timed) visit from Tywin and his new allies from Highgarden that ends up ultimately tipping the scales in the lion’s favor. War is the second season’s climax, the point of no return, and in the end it is the Lannisters who reign victorious.
Though violent on the whole, Game of Thrones has been more about politics than war. We’ve heard of battles and skirmishes, but have seen very few of them. Jaime’s capture was a coup and Theon all but waltzed into Winterfell, but primarily, the game of thrones has been waged through small, localized campaigns and an intricate web of alliances and betrayals. The Blackwater is the first major, cataclysmic event in the fight between the kings, and the first with such high mortality. As the consequences of these five (now four) men’s bid for power are mounting, which of them would you have as your king, and is the cost of war for their own personal power worth it?
Robb seems to be the obvious choice, given the viewer’s clear and easy affinity for the Stark family. They’re noble and loyal, and there aren’t nearly as many examples of rapists and murderers in their camp (nor, certainly, among their principal family). However, is even Robb’s personal (and prideful) quest for power in the North worth all of the lives and suffering of the men and women who will bear the burden of that quest?
Within the episode, Tyrion hits on an important point about leadership during times of war. It is clear that the men at King’s Landing are demoralized by their king’s early departure from the battlefield (Joffrey sulks away with just the right amount of childish cowardice, showing his true youth for the first time in what feels like ages). So, to rally them, Tyrion implores them to defend their homes, their families, their women, their city – not, necessarily, their king. It is a rare moment in the series where we see the effects this war has been taking on the common people (as was the scene in the start with the Baratheon soldier vomiting before the battle). While we have been so focused on the leadership and the political machinations of the more aristocratic players, it has been all too easy to forget what Cersei calls the “small folk.” This episode made real the broader world of Westeros, and the broad consequences of war.
War is rarely waged after popular appeal; nations, no matter their political affiliations, are more often steered into war by their leaders. The willingness of the citizens to wage war after they have begun is one thing, but the impetus for war is often wielded by a very few men. “Naturally, the common people don’t want war,” Hermann Göring said during his Nuremberg trial in 1946. “[The] people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy.” Göring, famous for founding the German Gestapo, was an influential leader in the Nazi party during the Second World War, a war in which many atrocities were committed by regular people, all of which are still hard to understand today. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote for his undelivered Jefferson Day Address (he died the night before), “…we have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great responsibility.” There is no one who understands this more than Tyrion Lannister.
Many great leaders within the world of Game of Thrones (and history, after all) have wielded their power rather lightly. Stannis hardly blinks as he witnesses the carnage wrought on his men by Tyrion’s wildfire attack. Instead, he uses it as motivation to rally his troops around him and continue to lay siege on King’s Landing, no matter the death toll.
An even more notoriously cold-blooded leader, Tywin Lannister has long been the example of someone who acts harshly without much moral conscience. The song that Bronn and the other men sing in the brothel is a famous tune celebrating Tywin’s utter destruction of the House Reyne, once a vassal family to the Lannisters who rose up in rebellion. Tywin has also always seemed content to keep bad company within his ranks, housing the likes of The Mountain (Ser Gregor Clegane), a man notorious for his penchant for rape and murder. In one famous incident during Robert’s Rebellion (before the events of the show, though alluded to several times already), Gregor and Ser Amory Lorch climbed into Maegor’s Holdfast (the same place where Sansa, Cersei and the other women and children were holed up in this episode) and smashed the head of a baby in Daenerys Targaryen’s brother Rhaegar’s chambers. Then, with the blood of his gruesome deed still on his hands, he found, raped and murdered the baby’s mother, Princess Elia of Dorne.
Princess Elia’s horrible fate is something Cersei is obviously remembering throughout the duration of the attack. In the start, she procures the means to cause a speedy death should she or her children fall into the wrong hands. Then, she proceeds to get raucously intoxicated and makes a sport out of nagging Sansa. Though entertaining for the audience, it is clear that Cersei’s style of leadership is hardly an inspiring one. She keeps Ser Illyn Payne with them in Maegor’s Holdfast to not only protect them from the potential for mutinous sellsword guards, but also to intimidate and punish anyone who steps out of line. Given her history with the man (he did, after all, cut off her father’s head), Sansa even believes him to be a threat to her own safety, which ultimately makes her leave for her own chambers.
Cersei and Sansa’s scenes are important because they show so clearly two very contrasting styles of leadership. Cersei, for one, leads through fear and intimidation. She orders the execution of a couple of looters who capitalize on the chaos of the war, and complains openly about having to stay hidden away with all of the women (“I should have been born a man.”), though she clearly is well aware of the unique dangers that women face in a siege.
For the last two seasons, Cersei has taken a perverse pleasure in instructing Sansa on the ways of ruling as a woman. Before, it was, “The more people you love, the weaker you are.” Now, she teaches the Stark girl about the harsh realities of being a woman in war (“If the city falls, these fine women should be in for a bit of a rape.”), the feminine powers of sex and tears, and ruling through fear. While in some ways Cersei seems to do this to bully the poor girl, there is also an interesting element of genuine desire to instruct her on being queen. Clearly, it is a position she relishes, and by instructing the next in line, she may be hoping in some way to validate her own experiences.
Sansa, meanwhile, seems both scared and unsure, obviously unwilling or unable to trust in Cersei’s advice. Though we don’t see much of it, this scene is our first glimpse at the potential leadership style of Sansa Stark as she leads women through prayers and hymns, and generally tries to bolster their morale, even as Cersei storms off. She is a child still, to be sure, but maturing slowly despite the negative influences around her. At a couple different points, when the queen is trying to instruct Sansa on the “only way to keep the small folk loyal” through fear, it is clear she disagrees. Sansa was raised to believe it is the queen’s responsibility to protect those in her charge, just like her father and her brother. Sophie Turner does a good job of making Sansa’s discomfort obvious, but in the book, where we get to see more of the inner thoughts of the characters, this scene is more obviously a pivotal one in her development:
“The only way to keep your people loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy.”
“I will remember, Your Grace,” said Sansa, though she had always heard that love was a surer route to the people’s loyalty than fear. If I am ever a queen, I’ll make them love me.
Another important scene occurs when Sansa leaves the Holdfast on Shae’s insistence, fleeing the threat of Illyn Payne. As I’ve said before, one of my favorite aspects of George R.R. Martin’s series is his character development. Even a couple characters that are originally weak, naive, or unsavory in some way grow and change in unique ways. Perhaps two of the best examples of this are Sansa and The Hound, both of whom are complicated characters that have been, to many people, difficult to like. Gradually, over the course of the last season, both have been developed in subtle ways, and much of it has led up to this scene. (However, both character arcs have not been given the same treatment they were in the books, and therefore may be harder to interpret in this way without that background knowledge.)
Once in her room, Sansa picks up a doll and looks at it with a bit of longing. It took me a little while to remember, but this was the same doll that her father gave her back in Season 1. At that time, she turned up her nose at him; she was trying very hard to seem like a full-grown lady ready for the king and a kingdom. “I haven’t played with dolls since I was eight,” she said. Still, despite this posturing, Sansa was at this time in the show still very much a child: naive, prone to temper, selfish, and more than a bit unsympathetic towards others. It is ironic, then, that she picks up the doll now when she is more adult than she has ever been. She is far more sympathetic towards Shae than she ever was to poor Septa Mordane. She has suffered abuse without breaking, seen Joffrey for what he is, and repeatedly called him out for it (something only Tyrion seemed capable of doing).
She has also developed a real sympathy for The Hound, and he for her, which is why he shows up in her room after his emotional departure from the battlefield. All of the fire and the carnage caused a real psychological break in Sandor and, finally, dislodged the loyalty of the dog to his master – a loyalty that made less and less sense the more he tried to protect Sansa from Joffrey’s cruelty. This scene from the books is, admittedly, one of my favorites, and I think it is handled mostly well in its translation to the screen (though the book’s has a far more Gothic-romance quality to it, like the obvious parallels to the Beast of “Beauty and the Beast”, or even Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff). Sansa sympathizes with The Hound for his wounds and all he has suffered, and recognizes his heart despite his outwardly rough demeanor (he is drunk and bloody when he gets to her, after all). The Hound sees in Sansa someone who has been bullied in the same cruel and physical ways that he was as a child, and has a real desire to protect her.
Though she has matured, there is still a tendency for Sansa to wish for Sandor to be her knight, and he gives her an opportunity here. He offers to take her back to Winterfell (“I’ll keep you safe. Do you want to go home?”), to save her like something out of one of her beloved songs. She’s still clutching to the doll when this happens, so when she wisely turns him down, it is surprising. Her maturity to know that she would be safer in King’s Landing, especially given the price that will be on The Hound’s head the moment he flees, is unexpected given her past: a naivety symbolized in the doll in her hands. As this juxtaposition attempts to make clear, she has grown since then.
She rejects the knight’s offer, for which he seems upset. She claims that she’ll be safe even with Stannis, but The Hound believes that, like him, the king is a killer and would have the capacity to hurt her. Sansa, looking at him honestly and completely in the face, says, “You won’t hurt me.” It’s not a question, but a statement. The Hound replies: “No, Little Bird, I won’t hurt you.” Perhaps he realizes that the target on his back is too big for even him to shake, that he would most certainly endanger her life by taking her with him. Because of that, and because he does not want to hurt her, he has to leave her behind.
While Sansa shows some unexpected maturity in her own small moments of leadership, there is no one who more aptly represents the qualities of good leadership like Tyrion. He, more than perhaps any other character on the show, recognizes that with great power comes great responsibility. Though he has clearly taken to the role of Hand and its increased political power with a relish, he has not made his decisions lightly. Unlike so many others, he seems to grasp the moral complexities of leadership. As he looks out over the wildfire burning through ships and men, his expression is both stirred and horrified: stirred because he is proud to have executed such an effective plan (one which no one – especially not his family – expected of him), and horrified because of the death he has dealt to so many men. Peter Dinklage, as always, plays this wordless scene perfectly, and so accurately captures the essence of Tyrion’s character.
The price he ultimately pays for this good leadership is a slice across the face from one of his nephew’s own Kingsguard, Ser Mandon Moore. While it is unclear how this was orchestrated or by whom, it is safe to assume that someone very close to him was in on the plan, given Moore’s sworn loyalty to the crown.
With only one episode left, the resolution of Season 2 will leave us in a very different place than we were a year ago. The Lannisters have just defeated the Baratheons with a very critical alliance to the resource- and manpower-rich Tyrells of Highgarden. Arya seems hardly closer to Winterfell than she was the day of her escape from King’s Landing, which doesn’t matter much anyway, since Theon Greyjoy still has control of it. Jon Snow is a captive above The Wall, and Jaime is once again on the loose. Then, there’s Tywin Lannister who is now in town, throwing into question Tyrion’s role (and overall safety) as the Hand. And, oh yeah, Dany’s dragons are still missing…