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.
- 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.