Game of Thrones – “Blackwater”

“Blackwater”

May 27th, 2012

“The worst ones always live.”

The discourse around this week’s episode of Game of Thrones has been fascinating to watch. For fans of the series, particularly those with familiarity with George R. R. Martin’s novels, “Blackwater” was always going to be the season’s high point: scripted by Martin himself, and focusing on a large-scale battle central to A Clash of Kings (and A Song of Ice and Fire as a whole), no fan of the series needed to be convinced to tune into this particular hour.

And yet HBO has very much promoted the episode as though people needed convincing. Press were alerted to an extended promo in advance of last week’s episode, an interview with producers Benioff and Weiss hit Entertainment Weekly as soon as “The Prince of Winterfell” concluded, and the Game of Thrones twitter account has been pushing the “#Blackwater” hashtag throughout the week, retweeting responses from those anticipating the episode.

I’ve found all of this fascinating because this feels strange when promoting the ninth episode of the second season of a television show. While this promotion serves the show’s fanbase, building further anticipation and increasing engagement and attachment to the series among those fans (as the Twitter account aims to do every week), it seems hard to imagine that the expanded discourse around this episode would convince anyone who hasn’t seen the previous eighteen episodes to tune into this one. HBO’s promotions have positioned “Blackwater” as “Event Television”—or perhaps “Event NOT Television” if we want to get take their slogan at its word—rather than simply an eventful episode of Game of Thrones, placing further expectation on an episode that was already burdened with both fan anticipation and the narrative pressure of serving as the season’s penultimate hour.

“Blackwater” answers these expectations by steering away from most of them. Isolating Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing and the storylines found within the city, the series tells a contained story about a war and the people who fight it. It would be a dangerous move if the episode had disappointed on that front, abandoning the other half-dozen narrative threads left hanging at the end of last week’s hour, but “Blackwater” is a tense, thrilling hour of television that lives up to its event billing and delays—rather than interrupting—the narrative climaxes which will now carry into next week’s finale.

The decision to focus on characters within the context of a battle isn’t exactly surprising – Two Towers‘ Helm’s Deep, perhaps the most logical comparison in terms of cinematic battles, was equally focused on watching “our heroes” traveling through the battle and playing an intricate role amidst the throngs of unknown soldiers. It’s the most efficient way of encoding sequences like these to give them purpose: seeing Tyrion get brought down—by one of Joffrey’s Kingsguard, even—means more than if it were some random soldier, whose deaths become moments of gruesome punctuation rather than emotional resonance.

What I found quite unique, though, was the fact that calling any of these people heroes would be a stretch. The character-driven focus was almost exclusively found on the King’s Landing side of the Mud Gate, as Stannis’ forces were mostly nameless faces. Ser Davos was flung into the water after the initial Wildfire attack, while his son (the only other one of Stannis’ soldiers with any characterization) was at the epicenter of the initial explosion. The result is an army of Stannis and a collection of random soldiers, compared with a King’s Landing force with Tyrion, Bronn, Joffrey, Lancel, and Sandor on the walls, and Cersei, Sansa and Shae within them. However, one would be hardpressed to consider any of these characters other than Sansa a “hero,” and those out fighting the battle are heroes only insofar as they’re fighting on the side we know the best.

It foregrounds a question I’ve asked a few times now, which is whether we consider Tyrion a hero or not. “Blackwater,” more than any other episode, wants us to see the story from his perspective: he is the one who steps forward when his nephew backs down, who leads his forces in protecting the walls long enough for Tywin’s forces (joined by Loras Tyrell) to overtake Stannis’ men, and yet are his actions still heroic when they are done in the name of a family positioned as villains within this tale? What precisely makes an act heroic: is it the principle of the act, or the cause for which the act is undertaken? And was Tyrion fighting for his family in that moment, or was he fighting for “the people,” for “the city,” as he claimed in his pragmatic battle cry? Is he a hero simply because we as viewers root for his safe return?

As for the rest of them, Bronn and the Hound in particular, “Blackwater” is considerably more vague. Martin’s script smartly places the two characters front and center, as they represent our glimpse onto the battle field. For Bronn, we see the glossy side of glory, of women and ale and the feeling that killing is something he truly enjoys. In the Hound, meanwhile, we see the limits of that persona when you live in fear of something bigger than war. I loved the little moment on the battlement where Sandor instinctively leans away from the torch, a nice foreshadow for the terror that the flames bring to Clegane as he tries to fight his King’s war. War forces us to consider our allegiances, and in that battle the Hound realizes that his King is not worth protecting with the flames nipping at his heels. That he feels differently about Sansa says something about the character, something the show has been subtly laying the groundwork for all season, but it doesn’t change the fact that he leaves the same kind of traitor as the people trying to run away with gold that Cersei has killed as an example early in the hour.

The hour’s pacing is dramatically changed by the lack of other locations to travel to, with only the larger battle and the women confined to Maegor’s Keep to work with. The latter, while far slower than the battle outside the gates, works brilliantly as a two-handed for Sophie Turner and Lena Headey, drawing out the maturity and poise of Sansa while revealing the dark pragmatism of the latter. The more wine Cersei drinks, the more honest she becomes about her willingness to kill everyone in that room, or even herself, should it come to that. Cersei frames it as a lesson to Sansa, words she would need to live by were she to become Queen, but we also get a reminder that Cersei is terrible at that role. She’s there because she’s expected to be, not because she wants to be: she wants to be on the battlefield, which makes her uniquely ill-suited to soothing the highborn ladies gathered in the room. Sansa’s ability to stay calm under pressure, to pray and sing hymns to distract the ladies from the battle outside, is the better strategy in the short term, but Cersei’s cunning may in fact be the better course should Stannis’ fleet have won the day. It’s a strong moment for both actresses and both characters, with the haunting image of Cersei sitting on the throne about to kill her own son—and likely herself—while waiting for the doors particularly effective in emphasizing the importance of the female perspective of this conflict.

As for the battle itself, it’s one of those moments where big moments will buy you a lot of goodwill. The scale of the battle fell apart somewhat in the final moments, the camera always unwilling to zoom back lest the CGI budget become too exorbitant, but that initial explosion of Wildfire was incredibly effective, and the individual beheadings/head crushings/other miscellaneous kills were visceral bits of the aforementioned punctuation. There were enough of those moments to gloss over the narrowing scale, making an impression that would linger until the moment the episode would head back into the Red Keep in order to bring the two sides of the battle together as Lord Tywin walks towards the Iron Throne as his family’s savior.

In other words, “Blackwater” was effective both as a large-scale television event and as a climax of sorts for at least a couple of the narrative threads operating within Game of Thrones’ second season. While the limited focus does raise questions about how the show picks back up with Dany, Jon, Arya, Robb, Bran, Theon, and Jaime on their respective journeys, the episode is too jam-packed with thrilling and/or compelling material to give you a chance to think about it. While there may be a point early in the episode where one wonders when we’re going to switch to another storyline (provided you missed that half of the usual names were missing from the opening credits), I doubt anyone was thinking that once that wildfire exploded in Blackwater Bay. “Blackwater” may leave plenty of loose ends, but it also makes a dramatic statement for the show’s ability to deliver on tying up at least one of them, inspiring some considerable confidence that next week’s finale can tie up the rest with comparable, if less bombastic, success.

Cultural Observations

  • We’ll see how committed the show is to some developments from the battle as told in the book next week, but interesting to note that here Stannis has every ability to turn around but chose not to. In the books, Tyrion erected a chain to trap the fleet in the Bay and force them into the Wildfire, but here Stannis has a bit more agency in his decision. Stephen Dillane’s multi-episode absence ultimately kept the character from really leaping off the screen, but his insistence on attacking despite the losses should be a good building block for the show to work with in the future.
  • A smart introduction of “The Rains of Castamere” at this stage in the story, and a haunting rendition from personal favorites The National in the closing credits (which is also on the season’s soundtrack).
  • My personal favorite kill during the battle: the dude’s head getting crushed by a rock right in front of Stannis.
  • The show is still tiptoeing around Ned’s memory, but I liked the subtlety of Sansa immediately being drawn to the doll Ned gave to her (which she initially rejected) when she’s faced with the city’s impending collapse.
  • The show wasn’t exactly subtle in its strategy for getting the audience to recognize Podrick, as Martin effectively has Varys put a spotlight on the kid so we later recognize him when he saves Tyrion from certain death at the hands of Ser Mandon.
  • While I quite liked the impact of the sequence with Sandor and Bronn butting heads right before the bells begin to ring, emphasizing those characters and their role in the conflict, Bronn’s “Broken Nose” monologue was veering into sexposition territory.
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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Game of Thrones – “Blackwater”

  1. Great take on the episode. The Cersei/Sansa scenes were a highlight for me – Headley has always been great as a hissable villain, but she does so much more than simply make you hate her. Turner has really stepped up her game (much like her TV sister Maisie Williams when she acts against Charles Dance).

    The decision to stick with the battle, and allow these quieter character-beat moments really helped the pacing and explored the battle so it was more than just a special effects laden action film.

    Our take: http://wp.me/p1VQBq-Yx

  2. Is Tyrion a hero?
    Absolutely.

    I once wrote a research paper in support of the idea that in “Paradise Lost”, in his efforts to paint Lucifer as the great villain forever doomed to fight in vain against God, who will always triumph, instead he creates the opposite effect. One can’t help but feel sympathy for the devil (which was also the title of that paper, as well as the Stones tune.) The main points examined the definition of the antagonist/protagonist in a literary work, and what we end up realizing is that although the character may indeed be the evil villain, we cannot help but admire someone who is so dedicated in the face of adversity. No matter which side he fights on, he has a heroic soul that doesn’t let him quit despite repeatedly being discouraged at every turn.

    Tyrion is even more heroic, as he seems to even be less evil than even his family would like. He is clearly not beaten by insecurity despite his physical stature and doesn’t feel or act “less than,” even though it is clearly such a handicap in the eyes of others that they mock him without repercussions despite his social stature. And he is not stupid or foolish, he has no illusions or delusions like so many others in this tale, even our traditional heroes the Starks. He even has the sense to recognize that he would be considered even less than half a man -perhaps no man at all- were he not his father’s son. It is something that even makes him a more sympathetic character that he appears to have the same poor opinion of his relatives that the audience does. His heart appears to be one of better metal than theirs, if not actual gold.

    We have seen him think and talk his way out of situations even unflappable in the face of death, defend the innocent and smack Joffrey. (Some of us have watched him do that for 10 full minutes with undeniable glee.) The fact that he both sees fit AND dares to do it is the reason we love him. He is not liked by his own family, certainly not respected by them, anyway, but if that makes him feel as worthless as they think he is, its not reflected in his demeanor. He carries himself as is if he were twice the man instead of half.

    Of course he is a hero. He isn’t particularly evil himself, just guilty by association and having the Lannister name. He does all the things heroes do. They take care of business. Even when the odds and everyone around is against them, they carry on with dignity, no whining. He finds cruelty and mayhem distasteful, doesn’t like to see people hurt, he shows kindness and generosity, and from his own experience knows not to judge a book by its cover. He knows the difference between right and wrong and appears to prefer the former. He is the master swordsman like Inigo Montoya, but his weapon is his mind and his keen powers of observation and understanding of people and how things work.

    Plus he’s a fun guy to boot! He’s not all touchy about what his physical lot in life is, and not only can take a joke about it but makes them himself . The fact this probably developed as a defense mechanism makes him even more endearing when we realize how much he has probably suffered. And still he isn’t bitter about it. He is not only busy beating people at their own game, but drinking wine and making witty remarks (and love to women) while doing it.

    That’s just HOT.

    Tyrion for the win! My favorite character, hands down. By a mile and then some. And as much as I like the others like Arya and whoever happens to be in a scene with her, I am always waiting to see what Tyrion is doing..His scenes are the highlights of every episode!

    • Udi

      Great read! Agree with your observations wholeheartedly and Tyrion is by far my favorite character as well. Feels good to know he is GRRMs fav.

    • Jason

      I agree, although i’d like to point out Tyrion is both liked (greatly) and respected by Jamie, they get on like a house on fire to be exact

      • voxleo

        Oh good!I was mostly referring to the Lannister family as the evil banner villian as a whole, which Tryion seems to fit less than his relations. Though the books may be in the future for me, I’ve only known the HBO version of the story, and with each of them being a Stark prisoner in turn I haven’t gotten to see Tyrion and Jaime together but for the first episode, Without much else to go on I wasn’t entirely sure how much of their banter was of the good-natured loving variety as opposed to the vicious jabs that Cersei makes at him. Clearly she has some contempt for him, and his father has underestimated him by a large margin.

        But I will say that even though I haven’t gotten to see much deeper than Jaime’s surface yet, I did get the sense that he might show a redeeming quality or two besides his profile before the end of things to come. Though he is terrible selfish thing to have pushed Bran out the bloody window and not feel like a heel, we almost forget that he did that with everything else that’s happened since. He seems to have more depth than he lets on, but I won’t know until the show proves that surface impression right or wrong. Looking forward to finding out though!

        Going to be a long wait…

  3. callmecaitlin

    While the wildfire sequence was really impressive, I felt like the battle as a whole suffered from the absolute lack of wide shots. But it’s one of my pet peeves when it comes to battles- I want to get a sense of where everyone stands, and what space they’re working with. Even a close look at Varys’ map would have helped. And as a reader of the books who has so far enjoyed the plot tightening and changes, I really missed seeing the chain.

    That said, every week I adore the hot mess that is Cersei more and more.

  4. Pingback: Recap round-up: “Blackwater” - WinterIsComing.net

  5. I was always sceptical of the Blackwater sequences.
    After reading GRRM’s novel I was pretty sure we would be disappointed if we thought HBO would try matching it.It would need a Hollywood budget to come close to GRRM’s vision.
    Still I think they did a great job and the episode overall was awesome.

  6. Pingback: The Game of Thrones Blog » Recap round-up: “Blackwater”

  7. The wildfire meant only one thing to me. It was a visual for a real writer coming in among a flok of hbo hacks.

    Some minor twangs can be found, most ludicrous being Stannis running first with his bare forehead up front and without any shield.
    That scene with a head being smashed right next to him really brings the point of how ridiculous such a “tactic” would be.

    Tyrion a hero or not? Nay, it is a Halfman as BIG AS A GIANT, my man.

    The very core of Songs of Ice and Fire is that there are no overarching clear cut villains and heroes. Except rare individuals.
    And all that really matters is how big cohones you have when the tough goes to whooomp.

    And was i right for Sophie Turner from the get go or was i right?
    (that section being entirely superb through and through)

    The grandad Lannister entrance was weak, but i didnt really care at that point, finally for good reasons.

    You all just saw the first ever episode of Songs of Ice and Fire.

  8. Spoilery: QUESTION: How are they going to wrap up every other story line in one episode?? Virtually every character in the series (save Jamie, Brienne and Sam) yet have stories to be told this season (or book).

    That said, I’ve divided the characters into 3 categories: 1) Those that DEFINITELY demand closure, 2) Those that should be getting SOME screen time but can probably get away with holding out until next season. 3) Those that are PROBABLY done with this season:

    1) Dany: um… house of the undying anyone? 1) Jon: he still needs to work out a few issues between him, Qhorin and his wildling captors. 1) Theon/Bran: logic tells me there is still some very relevant shit to go down with these two (particularly Theon), but logic also tells me there is no Ramsey as of yet… so do these guys actually belong in the second category?? I hope not. 2) Arya: ok, I know this SHOULD be at “1”, but her last episode had a sort of closurey feeling to it (gods, I hope Im wrong). 2) Lannisters: although they got the whole of “Blackwater”, fellow readers know that there are a few details left from ACoK… that said, it can understandably wait till next season (although here there is a potential Tyrion related season cliffhanger). 2) Robb and Cat: the weakest case of the “2s”… I think their story can easily be discarded until next season if time constraint for this episode was an issue. 3) Davos and Stannis: Stannis is almost definitely out and Davos, although he could make some sort of an appearance, will probably hold out until next season as well. 3) Jamie and Brienne: Probably done for this season… these characters have actuallly already surpassed events in ACoK. 3) The Hound: Out 3) Sam: Although he plays no relevant part until next season… am I the only one relishing a season cliffhanger involving three horn blows???

    The only ones I have no real doubts about are the first two (ok, and there got to be more Theon)… apart from them I think they can only realistically add a max of two more characters.

    So what stories do you guys think will be told??

    • Nagga's Kin

      HBO’s official plot summary of the second season finale of Thrones, Valar Morghulis:
      As Theon (Alfie Allen) stirs his men to action, Luwin (Donald Sumpter) offers some final advice. Brienne (Gwendolyn Christie) silences Jaime; Arya (Maisie Williams) receives a gift from Jaqen(Tom Wlaschiha); Dany (Emilia Clarke) goes to a strange place; and Jon (Kit Harington) proves himself to Qhorin (Simon Armstrong).

  9. kieran

    Brilliant review of the episode mate. There are a lot of good points which i never considered until you brought them up. Particular the stance on the hound. As you mentioned, he is now a traitor. If my assertion on the lannisters is right, i’m sure they’ll make it their top priority to destroy him. But also it places him on the opposite side of his brother? The other clegane.

    On tyrion, can you acknowledge a heroic act if it done in with evil consequences? would you say all of the nazi soldiers were brave and heroic? no, no you wouldn’t.

    i’m looking forward to the final episode, and then reading all the books. That episode was singularly the best piece of media i’ve ever seen. I couldn’t look away. I hope the final episode is just as good.

  10. Pingback: Today’s Links – May 29, 2012 | RyanGallagher.org

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