After all the talk and all the preparation, war comes to King's Landing before winter does, and Game of Thrones calls upon author and executive producer George R.R. Martin, and director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Centurion) to properly depict the battle for the Iron Throne in 'Blackwater.'
The episode also reunites the director with Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth), who has found himself in a Neil Marshall picture on more than one occasion, so it's fitting that the ever-humble Davos would open the episode in conversation with son Matthos (Kerr Logan) – an ardent supporter of the claim Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) has to the throne. Matthos' belief in Stannis' greater numbers and supposed allegiance to the "one true god" will be tested beyond what he'd imagined since the fleet Davos commands is on a collision course with an enormous gamble made by Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), in an effort to cull the enemy's fleet before they can make land.
And while the impending battle is likely the pressing concern for the viewer, Martin and Marshall take their time by setting up the preparation for war; paying considerable attention to the sense of impending doom and helplessness, as nearly everyone in King's Landing seems to reconcile themselves with the likelihood that this will be their last night on earth. There is even a Saving Private Ryan moment, where a soldier in Stannis' army does the old Technicolor Yawn in anticipation for the carnage about to be unleashed.
Tyrion and Shae (Sibel Kekilli) spend the time with a quiet moment together, while Cersei (Lena Headey) brusquely dismisses Pycelle (Julian Glover) after he delivers to her a vial of nightshade (poison) – just in case things get to that point. Meanwhile, brazen in the face of impending battle, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) stops to introduce Sansa (Sophie Turner) to his new sword, Hearteater – which seems destined to remain as pristine as the day it was forged.
Some, like Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and Sandor "The Hound" Clegane (Rory McCann), who both revel in taking lives, spend their last fleeting moments of calm by drinking and, in Bronn's case, displaying a lovely singing voice. Given their respective loyalties and aptitude for violence, the pair nearly face off in that typical ultimate killing machine sort of way, but the sounding of the city's bells halts any chance of bloodshed.
As pointed out by Varys (Conleth Hill), the bells only signal horror: war, death or weddings, but they also ring out loud enough that Davos orders his drum players to strike up a terrifying beat in response. As Stannis' fleet emerges through the blackness, though, they are met not with an armada waiting to engage in battle, but instead by a single, empty vessel spilling Wildfire as it slowly approaches the enemy ships. While Joffrey cries for the archers to attack, Tyrion holds his signal to Bronn until it is too late for Davos and many of the other ships to turn back. The order is given and Bronn, with a single flaming arrow, ignites the Wildfire - which then lays waste to a great number of ships, including Davos', in a spectacular explosion that's as visually stunning as it is deadly.
The Wildfire does little to deter Stannis, however, and soon he and his remaining forces are landing on the beach to meet the Hound and his men in combat.
While the battle rages on, Cersei, Sansa and a group of other women are gathered in a room that has come equipped with loyal servant Ilyn Payne (Wilko Johnson), who is ordered to kill them all should King's Landing fall to Stannis and his men enter the room in search of the spoils of war. Cersei approaches this prospect with a less-than-delicate touch, while also expounding on the wonder of being queen, as she becomes more and more inebriated. Over the last few episodes, Cersei seems almost ready to apologize to Sansa for her misfortune of drawing the Joffrey card – having been through the unpleasant ordeal of being betrothed to Robert Baratheon. Here, however, as she gathers snippets of the battle, and how it is seemingly lost, Cersei's tone becomes wistful in a bitter sort of way that’s surprisingly amusing, considering the circumstances. Convinced all is lost, she requests that Joffrey stop standing idly by in battle, and come stand idly by in the confines of the castle.
Outside, the Hound goes all Martian Manhunter when presented with the still-burning Wildfire, and pulls his men back so that he may wisely get drunk and tell Joffrey where he can stick it. With the Hound absent and Joffrey out of the picture, it becomes clear that Tyrion is going to have to lead what remains of King's Landing's defense in a last ditch effort to keep the army from breaching its walls. The quick-witted Lannister appeals to the men not with a promise of glory or riches, but by telling them that fighting in this war doesn't have to be about any ruler's ideologies or some greater notion of justice; it's simply about them standing some chance of keeping their homes and loved ones safe by following him into battle.
Using Varys' map of the tunnels underneath King's Landing, Tyrion and his group effectively prevent Stannis' men from breaking past the gate and entering the city. Despite briefly turning the tide, Tyrion falls to a nasty slash by Ser Mandon Moore, who himself is felled by the spear Tyrion's squire Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) impales him with. Before he falls, though, Tyrion is witness to another large force heading toward the gate. Ahead of recognizing who it is, however, he loses consciousness and the audience is briefly left to assume the worst.
Given the anger of Stannis, though, we can presume the incoming force hasn't arrived to bolster his own. And so 'Blackwater' ends with Cersei's intended mercy killing of Tommen (Callum Wharry) being interrupted by the arrival of her father Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), who is accompanied by his new ally, Sir Loras Tyrell (clad in his dead lover Renly Baratheon's armor). Thanks to Tyrell / Lannister alliance arranged by Littlefinger, Tywin is able to ride into the throne room as he proudly proclaims the battle has been won - and that, for now, his family will keep the throne.
Despite a lack of the ongoing stories elsewhere in Westeros, Game of Thrones successfully focused on a single event and group of characters, by bringing to life the all-pervading subject of warfare that has resonated throughout this season.
Game of Thrones season finale, 'Valar Morghulis' will air next Sunday @9pm on HBO. Take a peek at the episode below: