Game of Thrones: Ranking all of the penultimate episodes

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#2 Blackwater

The show’s first true battle, “Blackwater” is a masterclass in character-driven, large-scale storytelling.

Of course, the scale is nothing compared to what we’ve seen at this point, but in 2012 Blackwater was groundbreaking stuff. This was one of the most expensive episodes of television ever made at the time of its airing, and it established Game of Thrones as the greatest purveyor of spectacle in the history of the medium.

But what makes Blackwater so special isn’t the actual combat, though it is impressive stuff. Rather, it’s how firmly grounded in character the episode is from start to finish.

Cersei, Sansa and the highborn ladies hiding out in Maegor’s Holdfast, Joffrey struggling with fear and self-doubt on the battlements, Tyrion struggling against his men’s opinion of him; these little character moments are far more important and essential than any well-choreographed bit of sword combat. They color the whole episode and make the action so much more effective.

And to further complicate things, it’s hard to know who to root for. We love Tyrion, but Cersei is the worst and her hold on the throne is based on a lie. Stannis is the true heir, but if he wins the city will be sacked and many characters we love killed or worse. We want Tyrion’s wildfire plan to work, but that means killing poor old Davos’ only son. It’s complicated and messy in the best possible way.

Season 2 is undeniably Tyrion’s best season, and this is maybe his best episode. He proved himself as a true military force in Westeros and a man to beware of.

Thrones would end up going away from this sort of character-driven, combat-heavy episode and the show has suffered for it. It’s telling that the show’s best battle is also its smallest.