So, this was what everyone had been waiting for: the first major battle scene of the show. I think they succeeded, for the most part. The constraints involved didn't seem to be money so much as time: there's only so much tactical detail you can convey in an episode that lasts an hour and which has to cover a lot of other storytelling ground. There were a lot of nice touches throughout (the overflowing puke barrel on Stannis' approach was one of the best) and the characters that shone through were the ones who actually had as much steel in their spines (Bronn, the Hound, Cersei, Sansa) as they were wearing, if not more.
The fact that the episode was written by Martin provided a bunch of little subtexts for anyone that has read the books. Was the confrontation between Bronn and Clegane something he'd been wanting to do in the books and took advantage of here? It didn't add a whole lot to the moment, as we were already aware of both of their attitudes and their disdain for their opposing employers. Of course, that whole scene gave us plenty of texture to begin with ("Don't feel sorry for him. He'll be halfway up your ass before the night's through."), including the obligatory nudity and, finally- FINALLY! -music for the Rains of Castamere! Now we just need music for the bear song and the world is complete.
I'm not entirely sure I like the direction that Varys has taken in the last couple episodes ("I'm entirely sure you're entirely sure what I'm suggesting.") Trying to spare the realm death and destruction is one thing, but being the local Jeremiad is something else. Bringing up the Dark Powers/Old Powers at this stage is kind of an odd placement for that bit of info, especially since we haven't seen Melisandre since she ganked Renly.
Of all the off-battle scenes, though, the best was probably the one that took place in the throne room. Bronn and Tyrion's Marx Brothers routine was brilliant:
"Do you know how to use that?"
"Chopped wood once... No, I saw my brother chopping wood."
"I saw ya kill a man with a shield. You'll be unstoppable with an axe. Don't get killed."
"Nor you, my friend."
"Oh? Are we friends now?"
"Of course we are! Just because I pay you for your services doesn't diminish our friendship!"
"Enhances it, really."
"Oh! Enhances! Fancy word for a sellsword."
"Been spendin' time with fancy folks."
But some of the best moments were Sansa's. It took me a long time to warm up to Sansa as a character. In fact, I don't recall doing anything but sighing at her chapter headings until Feast for Crows. But Sophie Turner has been doing great work in the series and gave one of the best performances of this episode ("I'm sorry, Your Grace. You're right. I'm stupid. Of course you'll be in the vanguard.") I wish they had been able to take a moment to indicate to viewers that Hearteater is Ice reforged. I'm not sure how many would catch that or if there was something obvious to indicate it that I missed.
Speaking of people that were on fire (away from the battle...), once again Lena Headey was just excellent. The schoolgirl-level taunts of Sansa, the stories about sieges to elicit reaction; and the cold acknowledgment that, in a male-dominated world, the most precious resource to her are her children, especially the one currently sitting on the throne, were all moments for her to shine. I loved the repudiation of the old aphorism "There are no atheists in foxholes": "The gods have no mercy. That's why they're gods."; and the frank acknowledgment of the other weapon at her disposal: "If it were anyone else, I might have hoped for a private audience, but this is Stannis Baratheon. I'd have a better chance of seducing his horse." But the best moment was the exchange with Sansa over their place in the world:
"He was heir to Casterly Rock and I was sold like a horse to a stranger to be ridden whenever he desires."
"You were Robert's queen!"
"And you will be Joffrey's. Enjoy!"
These moments more than any other made it clear that it was Martin behind the screenplay, as the theme of women being powerless even while seemingly masters of all they survey has been a constant throughout the story and something almost as prominent as the sorry fate of the smallfolk caught up in the Game. A nice addendum was Shae: "Maybe she hates you less than she hates everyone else."
On to the battle... The wildfire explosion was great. I think it was probably a good idea to forget the chain, since they couldn't really show the battle on the Blackwater Rush, as opposed to the bay (although I hope they figure out what to do with Bronn's coat of arms next season...) Of course, the chain kind of demonstrated Tyrion's overall plan for the battle, rather than just taking advantage of the alchemists, which makes what happens later a little less traumatic (but only a little.) I kind of wondered about the combination of green fire and regular fire in the later moments of the catastrophe, though. Was that an implication that the wildfire (the liquid) had burned out and the ships were still alight or was it a technical issue (i.e. not having enough funds to keep everything green)?
Stephen Dillane's look of calm self-assurance on the advance and near-feral grin at a couple points were great representations of Stannis' conviction that both the battle and the throne would be his ("We're too far from the gates. Their archers... Hundreds will die." "Thousands.") Even though the men on the field were, in fact, dozens or a couple hundred as opposed to thousands, I think they ended up representing the magnitude of the battle sufficiently. The choice of flaming arrows was a good dramatic touch, since the scene was taking place at night and it's tough to see arrows in the dark (even if flaming arrows aren't the best choice in "real world" situations.) I was disappointed that Tyrion's hill tribesmen weren't mentioned or seen at all, since they provided a rather important key to the way the battle turned in the books (allowing the Lannister/Tyrell force to approach without warning because the Baratheon scouts had all been killed by the tribesmen.) Strangely, they decided to replace their existence with their famous cheer of "Halfman!" when Tyrion led the initially successful sortie.
Stannis on the battlements was another of those nice touches, demonstrating his willingness to come to grips (literally) with his crusade. However, I was really questioning the head-slicing scene. The blood display was fine, but did they really want to spend that much money on CGI for that? Wouldn't it have been better to enhance some other aspect of the battle if the money was there? Like, say, showing even more horses in Tywin's charge into the fight (which, admittedly, was still a nice moment)? Given the changed circumstances of the fight and the time constraints, it was probably a good idea to eliminate the whole "Garlan Tyrell in Renly's armor"-thing, though. If they're worried about people confusing Asha and Osha, I can't imagine how they might have been fretting about viewers actually thinking that Renly was back from the dead. We had a brief enough glimpse of Ser Loras to be aware that the Tyrells were involved.
And then we come, of course, to the Hound. As most of my tiny audience probably knows by now, the Hound is my favorite character of the story. His cynical pragmatism (embodied in the title quote of the post) and outright savagery ("Any man dies with a clean sword, I'll rape his fucking corpse!" - line of the night) provide more truth about the world of Westeros than almost any other. I had kind of hoped for a bit more anxiety on the part of Rory McCann, as the outright terror that the character displays in the books is stark. Certainly, anyone is going to weave back with a torch waved in their face and it's not irrational to tell someone: "Any of those flaming fucking arrows come near me, I'll strangle you with your own guts!" But to be reduced to gibbering fear that doesn't allow for calm moments where you tell the king to fuck off is more of what I remember from the scene in Clash of Kings. It's that stark contrast that makes the character, to some degree. However, the lone San/San scene in Sansa's room was well played by both actors.
So, the wrap-up next week. Sad trombone. At least we'll finally see the House of the Undying and figure out if they're going to return to canon in the Daenerys storyline for next season.