(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first two books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the third, fourth, and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.)
“Blackwater” was a pre-emptively great episode of television. I suspect that if it had sucked, there would have been a million people there to insist that, no, it was actually awesome because HBO spent so much money on it and it was directed by the great Neil Marshall and it was based on one of the best parts of A Clash Of Kings and so on and so on. The episode had so much pre-hype floating around out there that it would have been hard for it to immediately disappoint. The gradual sense that it was all a bunch of empty calories—a giant spectacle with nothing at its center, like so many cinematic blockbusters—would have only seeped in gradually, around the edges. The episode was filled with as much spectacle as any episode of TV I’ve ever seen, and I can’t think of another regular series that attempted something at this scale. If it had sucked, it would have been easy to delay that information from reaching our brains for a while, before the inevitable disappointment set in.
Fortunately, however, the episode didn’t suck. It’s rare to legitimately get to say that something lives up to the hype, but this episode more than did. I’m sure some will gripe that it wasn’t an exactly accurate recreation of the battle from the book, and, to be sure, it’s been scaled down from the scope of that considerably. (I won’t go into details of what happened there until the spoilers section, for those of you who want to read the book this summer. Suffice to say, it was huge.) But for those of us willing to make allowances for the fact that this is a TV show that needs to be produced on a TV show budget (even one of the biggest per-episode budgets on TV right now), this was a terrifically scaled-down version of that battle, one that hit all of the emotional highpoints and then some, even as it added in a few things and shifted others from earlier in the book to the battle itself. Put it this way: I knew exactly what was going to happen at just about every moment in this episode (at least in terms of who would win the battle and who would live or die), and my heart was still in my throat.
What makes the episode work is that it isn’t just spectacle. The battle works in the books because you see it from the point-of-view of a handful of characters, and seeing things through their eyes gives you a more acute emotional sense of the horror of battle, even as the stuff George R.R. Martin describes is really cool. The show never loses sight of that fact, and it’s constantly cutting from the front lines to, say, Cersei getting increasingly drunk as she fears the war is over, telling Sansa the secrets of being a queen or Tyrion realizing he’s going to have to lead the forces into battle. It’s all great, brutal stuff, and Martin’s script and Marshall’s direction make sure every single one of these emotional moments land. The scope is impressive, but the emotion guarantees that even if you’re watching this in a tiny browser window on a Slingbox (as I was), the episode is still going to land its punches.
More than anything else, though, the episode works because it’s so focused. I’ve been vastly enjoying this season’s approach to episodic storytelling—something I’ll have more to say about later in the week—but I think this episode could only work if it kept the focus very small-scale and on the characters fighting over King’s Landing. When the opening credits come up, and they seem to take forever since there are so few names to display, we get just a clue of what we’re in for (though those same credits spoil the ultimate end of the battle by listing Chales Dance). By the time the episode starts and we haven’t left either King’s Landing or the deck of one of Stannis’ ships, we have an even better clue. Where this show has best been known for its epic sweep, this episode takes us right down there into the muck with all of the characters. I don’t think there’s been an episode of this show as focused on one thing as this one. Even last season’s tremendous “Baelor” had more going on than just the execution of Ned Stark. Like that episode, this is the emotional highpoint of this season. Unlike that episode, it doesn’t bother checking in on anyone who’s not there for the battle.
In terms of the adaptation, the best thing “Blackwater” has going for it is that it’s able to take stuff Martin could only hint at given the point-of-view structure and directly depict it. When the Hound comes back behind the walls of the city, face pale with terror, we can now directly see just what it was that caused him to shake so. It’s the oldest trick in the book to make a threat seem great by making the strongest man seem terrified, but it’s a trick that almost always works, and it makes Tyrion’s subsequent decision to lead the Lannisters into battle himself that much more powerful. He’s the last person you’d expect to do anything like this, and he’s the last person who probably should be doing it. But somebody needs to, and the only way Tywin can sweep in and save the day at the end, Loras at his side, is if Tyrion leads that last, desperate charge that holds Stannis’ forces off just a bit longer.
I have a few minor problems. The exposition at the start felt a little too much like the show trying desperately to make sure everybody was caught up in time, so the battle could go off without a hitch. Some of this—that opening scene with Davos and his son, reminding us of the religious affiliation of Stannis, among other things—was a little clumsy. Other scenes—like the show reminding us that there was an extremely tertiary supporting character (at least within the universe of the TV series) named Podrick Payne—were surprisingly deft. Still other stuff wasn’t explained at all, like how the wildfire leaks from the seemingly abandoned vessel. (The most exposition we get is Davos yelling, “Wildfire!”) Granted, all of that came up in the previously on, but it felt like the show had dealt that card to the very back of the deck, then played it with gleeful ruthlessness. (Also while we’re complaining: Some of the scoring was a touch overwrought, particularly in the early going. Once Stannis is bearing down on the city, accompanied by the Dragonstone theme, however, everything snapped into place.)
The episode also smartly paced its big moments. There would be a huge battle scene—like the bay going up in green flame—followed by a smaller, more intimate moment—like Cersei’s long talk with Sansa (a scene that played out with a fair amount of mordant humor, a reading I wouldn’t have given to the material on the page and another sign of how much the actors bring to this material). It also kept returning to the season’s major theme: the cost of warfare. Like most fantasy and science fiction, Game Of Thrones smuggles in some serious discussion of real-world issues via its fantastical settings, and the way that Martin (and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, by extension) has so little patience for warfare and the sorts of political systems that perpetuate it strikes me more and more as the most valuable thing to take from the book, even more than the great characters or amazing plot twists.
Agree or disagree with Martin, you have to admit he makes his point very well, and scenes like the Hound advancing on Sansa to tell her that all men she knows—or will know—are killers and that the world is made by killers are at once beautiful, mesmerizing, and horrifying. When Tyrion says the words that rally the men to his side, they’re not words of inspiration; they’re simple words that remind these men what they stand to lose from this struggle, should they fail. Tyrion’s always been sold as the series’ most practical character, and in this moment, he sells the series’ view of warfare: Most of the time, it should be avoided, though men who like how being victorious looks on them will always be forcing their smallfolk forward into battle. At other times, though, it’s necessary to defend your homes or families or way of life. No one wants to be thrust into warfare, but the only things worth fighting for might be the above, not some sort of high-minded creed or ruler. Keep you and yours safe, then maybe worry about everybody else.
That “Blackwater” winds this idea throughout nearly every major storyline is what makes it such a powerful episode of television. There’s the moment where Davos realizes what’s pouring into the bay and has a split second of terror before the world goes green. There’s the moment where Stannis shrieks in anger at how his glorious victory has been snatched from him. There’s Shae lifting up her skirt to show Sansa the blade that she intends to use to stop anyone from raping her. There’s Tyrion getting slashed across the face falling to the ground, his head remaining attached to his shoulders thanks to Podrick. There’s Bronn and the Hound coming across each other in the heat of battle, almost tipping their caps to each other. All of these people have different reasons for fighting, but in the end, the reason comes down to something very simple: They want to survive, and they want to protect what they hold dear.
- Three cheers for Marshall, who gets a tough assignment—take the biggest battle of the book and both downsize it and make it perfectly clear—and mostly pulls it off, even with the handicap of having everything take place at night. The geography of where, say, the Mud Gate is from where Stannis’ men rush up on shore isn’t always clear, but for the most part, the episode keeps things very, very concise and manages to make a battle that, essentially, boils down to a bunch of guys charging at one wall feel suitably epic. He also manages to work in a few moments of gore—like that soldier getting the top of his head sliced off—that fit right in with his horror movie career. I’ve liked the Marshall movies I’ve seen (especially The Descent), and he does a great job here. As mentioned, I watched the thing on a tiny little box of a Slingbox screen (that doesn’t handle darks well), and even though the events had been changed up significantly from the book, I still knew what was going on 95 percent of the time. That’s pretty remarkable.
- Also, three cheers for Martin, who wrote some pretty amazing scenes that weren’t in the book here and also had fun with relationships that have taken on a life of their own on the TV show (like the one between Bronn and Tyrion).
- After the Lord Of The Rings movies, I always expect battering rams to be accompanied by the sounds of people shouting, “GROND! GROND! GROND!”
- The only thing I’m wondering about newbies picking up on is Loras sweeping in beside Tywin, since he removes his helmet and is then offscreen in about five seconds.
- Back-story corner: I’m sort of surprised that the Varys origin story isn’t shoved into this episode. I was excited to have it pop up (since I assumed it had been cut), and then it was shuttled off for a later moment. Suffice to say, newbies, there’s more to it, and it’s one of my favorite small moments from the book.
- I spent most of the week wondering if the show was going to try to work in any of the other stories alongside the battle, and I’m glad it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong: I missed getting to see the other characters once the episode was over, but I don’t know if it would have made sense to cut away from the giant climax of the War of the Five Kings—which has dominated the season—to see how Arya was getting along with Hot Pie and Gendry. (And, okay, I didn’t need to hear “MY DRAGONS!” at all.) It’ll be good to see everybody next week, but I don’t think this episode would have worked with them around.
- Yes, that was The National singing the Lannister song at the end. Even though I knew it was coming, thanks to the listing of the song on the soundtrack CD, it was still sort of baffling to have them pop up.
- Slightly too on-the-nose moment: Sansa gets done having whatever shreds of her innocence remained destroyed (even after helping pep everybody up in the keep), and her doll falls ineffectively to her side. Get it? She’s not a little girl anymore!
- Okay, one last complaint about an otherwise stellar hour of TV: The ending was way, way, way too abrupt. Tywin sweeps in, Cersei lets the bottle drop, and the episode just… ends. I could have done with a final scene or a few final lines or… something to give this all a better sense of finality. I get that the finale’s next week, but c’mon!
- Actual back-story corner: That song, “The Rains Of Castamere,” was written in honor of a great battle in which Tywin Lannister defeated House Reyne, which was once much richer than House Lannister. The Reynes seemed to have the upper hand over the Lannisters, thanks to Tywin’s dad not being the greatest warrior, but Tywin put an end to that. The Reynes were exterminated. Huh. That does kind of sound like a National song.
Here be spoilers!:
- Already from my conversations with some newbie friends, I can tell the survival of Davos Seaworth is going to be a major question heading into season three (and I am hoping the writers let his fate remain a cliffhanger). I’m not surprised. In the book, I never doubted once that Davos would be back; on the show, the sheer gravity of what happens to him is much greater. There, he was swept toward the wildfire, which is terrifying, but survivable (at least in my head). Here, he seemingly explodes. It’s a testament to how great Liam Cunningham is that people are worried about him in a season where he didn’t get a lot to do.
- Okay, so, I can already hear some of you complaining that the chain was cut or that the geography of the battle didn’t involve Stannis’ fleet heading up the river, only to encounter Tyrion’s trap. And to some degree, I can sympathize. (I never thought we were going to get, say, the bridge o’ burning boats, so I’m not surprised that had to go.) But I think the episode does such a good job of finding neat ways to scale all of this down that I also don’t really care all that much. Changes were made, yes, but never in such a way that the basic story suffered, as has happened with some of the other changes to the book this season. (I’m still trying to figure out how all the pieces of the Arya story will fit together.)
- On the other hand, I was surprised in the books to find out that Stannis had not only lived but maintained some degree of control, or enough to attempt to make another run at the throne. The series does a fairly good job of showing how he could get out of the battle alive.
- For a second, I really did think the series was going to have Cersei kill Tommen, and I was very sad we would never get to meet Ser Pounce or see any of the long rule of King Tommen.
- I thought I would have more to say down here, but it is slipping away from me (the perils of no screeners). Please tell me what I missed!