(This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and email toddvdw at gmail dot com or contact Todd on Twitter at tvoti, and he’ll take care of them as soon as possible. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.)
Expectations are a total bitch sometimes. So when I say that there’s no way that “Blackwater” could have actually lived up to the hype, that’s not saying it ended up being a bad episode of television. But it certainly showed the limits of the medium, even for a network as the Scrooge McDuck-esque coffers of HBO. While there were a few epic moments indeed, a lot of it felt stitched together in ways that allowed the seams to clearly show. Luckily, even if the big picture stuff sometimes got muddled, there were plenty of smaller moments that the episode nailed. Given the choice between the two, I’d always rather follow a few people inside a large-scale battle than watched a flawlessly produced battle sequence any day. But the two sides were at war with each other, even as Stannis’ fleet waged war against King’s Landing.
This season of Game of Thrones has shuffled between various parties in various locations across Westeros. The smartest choice that the George R.R. Martin-penned script did was keeping tonight’s action in and around King’s Landing. That type of focus doesn’t mean the other stories don’t matter, but accentuates just how out-of-place they would have been in this particular hour. There’s plenty of time later on to judge how well this season of the show paced out its storytelling across its vast landscape. But seeing Theon Greyjoy or Jon Snow tonight would have taken away the urgency of the battle at hand in King’s Landing. So while any episode without Arya Stark seems like less of an episode, her absence tonight was probably for the best.
In favor of those characters we get plenty of intimate moments with the Lannisters still inside King’s Landing, along with those they have drawn into their web. We see Tyrion, having avoided a large battle last year but now potentially the only threat to Stannis Baratheon. We learn that fact from Varys, who seems to have intimate knowledge of the dark arts practiced by Melisandre. Varys might loathe Tyrion, but also prefers him around to those previously serving as Hand. Serving as moral support rather than armed warrior is Cersei, sent via long-held custom along with Sansa and the other women of the city to Maegor’s Holdfast. While those two women drink wine and share stories of the roles women are forced to play in this particular game, Sandor Clegane starts to question his loyalty to King Joffrey. Joffrey talked a big game when Stannis’ fleet was thousands of leagues away, but seems more ill-fit for rule than ever as his would-be usurper’s ships come crashing down upon the shores.
If the geography and the tenseness of the battle itself were at times vague, “Blackwater” never had trouble in following the emotional paths of its main constituents throughout. In particular, Cersei’s long night’s journey into drunkenness and potential filicide added even more shading to an already complicated character. Many in Game of Thrones see themselves as the hero of their own particular version of the story. But lately, Cersei has viewed herself as a type of cancer, infecting the story and mutating it from something initially pure into something base. A lot of this has to do with Jaime’s prolonged absence, but also in the way that Joffrey’s innate sickness has grown (if not outright thrived) inside that vacuum. Throughout this installment, I expected her to use Pycelle’s essence of nightshade on a variety of people: Cersei herself, Sansa, and Joffrey were all candidates at one point or another in my notes. But instead, it’s meant for Tommen, the youngest of her children with Jaime. It’s posited as a potential act of sacrifice, but it could also be seen as a way to prevent Joffrey’s cruelty from taking hold in his unformed mind. Even if it’s too late for Joffrey to be “cured,” so to speak, there’s still time for preventative measures to be taken.
Preventative measures are what Tyrion attempts to employ at the outset of the battle, using wildfire in an incredibly creative way. Rather than hurling it down one pot at a time via catapult (ostensibly endangering King’s Landing as much as Stannis’ fleet), he loads up the sum total into a single ship from the harbor straight toward Stannis’ Sailors. When the ship reaches those populated by Davos and his son Matthos, Tyrion signals Bronn to fire a single arrow into the ocean. Then? BOOM goes the (green) dynamite! It’s a glorious, horrible, unexpected spectacle, and instantly one of the show’s most iconic images. As a non-book reader, I had conflicting thoughts. The first? “Son of a bitch, that’s awesome.” The second? “Um, that can’t be IT though, right?” From Tyrion’s point of view, that flame consumed everything from King’s Landing to Qarth. In reality? It only knocked out a fraction of Stannis’ fleet.
And therein lies the problem with most of the actual Battle of Blackwater onscreen tonight: It was terrifically difficult to ascertain what was going on during various key moments of the battle. What I am sure played out in painstaking detail on the page turned at times into a murky mess inside the episode. That’s a little strange, since most of the battle played out over a fifty-yard stretch of sand near the Mudgate. A few factors played into this confusion. Firstly, the nighttime setting, used to cut costs, made for a lot of dark shots that obfuscated the action. Secondly, our primary human-scaled POVs inside the warfare were The Hound and Bronn, two secondary characters who certainly have had some memorable scenes but don’t particularly serve well as anchors around which we can emotionally anchor ourselves. Lastly, the pacing didn’t feel as if it were steadily building towards an epic crescendo so much as intermittently starting then stopping again.
The pacing problem dovetailed directly into the scenes with Maegor’s Holdfast. While they were well-written and performed admirably, they did not for a single second feel like they were taking place in the middle of a warzone. Lancel’s repeated (and repeatedly wrong) in-person updates from the field might as well have been delivered from a battlefield five hundred miles away. Maybe the soundproofing acoustics in the Holdfast are just fucking incredible, but Ser Ilyn Payne’s presence alone couldn’t tie these scenes intimately with the bloody action on King Landing’s doorstep. As tense as the moment was when Cersei nearly identifies Shae’s true identity, the scenes leading up to that moment felt like strong character moments devoid of context. Yes, everything Cersei says and does is related to the battle. But there’s a difference in that battle feeling impossibly beyond one’s grasp and a battle literally outside your door. Most everything in the Holdfast felt like the former, not the latter, and it robbed both halves of the episode of some well-needed urgency.
One moment played with an alarming lack of urgency, yet worked like gangbusters, was Sandor’s decision to stop playing Joffrey’s perverted reindeer games anymore. Sandor saw a man on fire rushing to him in the heat of battle, and subsequently froze in place. Here’s a warrior, who only moments either declared that he would rape the corpse of anyone who didn’t have blood on their sword when they died, absolutely inert on the battlefield. Bronn’s trusty bow and arrow save The Hound’s life, but it certainly seemed like some childhood memory of The Mountain burning his face flashed before his eye. And rather than continue to serve the latest person to treat him cruelly, Sandor defiantly leaves the castle mid-battle. “Fuck the King’s Guard! Fuck the city! Fuck the king!” he coldly stated to an aghast Joffrey and Tyrion. If there were microphones in Westeros, The Hound would have then dropped one at the king’s feet. Instead, he collects his things, collects Sansa, and agrees to take her home to Winterfell unharmed. “The world is built by killers,” he tells her, when it seems as if she’ll stay behind rather than being near his face. “So you better get used to looking at them.” I loathed scenes with Sansa in the first season. Now? I anxiously await them. “Sansa and The Hound” might rival “Jaime and Brienne” for the best buddy road trip movie in the seven kingdoms.
With The Hound gone, and Cersei sending Lancel to collect Joffrey, Tyrion is left to pick up the pieces and inspire the troops with his own version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Instead of appealing to their loyalty to the throne, Tyrion appeals to their baser, more selfish desires. Rather than thinking about Stannis taking the throne, he implores them to think about him taking their homes. That seems to do the trick, and by the end of the speech everyone is eating out of Tyrion’s hand. “Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s kill them!” he shouts, in one of Peter Dinklage’s best line readings to date on the show.
Tyrion’s earlier strategizing with Varys revealed a series of tunnels, more than fifty miles in length, built by the Targaryens during their reign as a means of easy and undetected escape. While Stannis scales the walls of that fifty-yard stretch of weak protection, Tyrion leads the remaining forces around the back to sneak upon those forces from behind. The victory gained is short-lived, and soon the first truly massive land force in the entire hour showed up to kick some late-episode ass. Whose forces these are is by design a secret, but we soon realize (just as Cersei is about to give a lethal dose of nightshade to her youngest son) that Tywin has led the massive force tardy to the Blackwater party. Instead of attacking Robb Stark in the north as he promised last week, he went south to save his family’s place on the throne. Perhaps he finally figured out Arya’s identity in Harrenhal after all, and lied in her presence as payback for Robb’s deceit last season?
While I appreciate how focused tonight’s episode was on those involved in the battle, I do wonder how this retroactively colors the time spent with other storylines this season. Their lack of direct applicability or involvement tonight speaks to the fractured nature of the show at this point. If we can leave out a) Robb Stark’s impending war against Theon’s forces at Winterfell, b) Jon Snow’s capture north of The Wall, and c) Daenerys’ attempts to reclaim her dragons this late in the game, what does that say about their overall importance this season as a whole? It’s a largely rhetorical question, because it would be foolish to assume time spent with them has been meaningless. But while it has seemed for a while as if many disparate forces might finally collide in tonight’s huge battle, instead only a third of the storylines seemed to matter in the series’ grandest episode to date. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that focus. But why set up so many pieces last week only to ignore them this time around? It’s an odd way to organize a season of television, even if it’s customary for Game of Thrones to ignore certain characters and/or storylines for weeks before reintroducing them to the fold.
Even if we couldn’t spend time with Arya and Gendry, why couldn’t we have spent a little time with the Cersei-lusting pirate Salladhor Saan? If there was ever a time to bring that character back, it would have been tonight. Even if he only had a line or two about how anxious he was to fuck Cersei before turning into a giant green fireball, it would have been something. Now? It turns out he wasn’t a character so much as a walking, taking ship procurement system. I assume Tyrion isn’t dead, but what about Davos? It would be stretching the limits of credibility should he and/or his son survive that blast. But I still feel like I don’t know enough about him to care if he’s really dead at this point. Game of Thrones keeps checking in on certain parts of Westeros out of obligation rather than narrative need. While certain combinations provide thematic resonance, it also means that the more time I spent in Qarth, the most anxious I become when those scenes don’t seem to be anything more than table settings for the third season. Either keep me in Qarth and let things play out in more than 5-minute intervals each week or just hold off entirely. This in-between approach is hurting the show the longer it airs. Planning for the future is fine, and necessary. But playing for the here and now is also important, and vastly more vital.
Last season’s ninth episode, “Baelor,” was a statement both for Game of Thrones as a story but also as a television show. Even if everyone involved in the game wasn’t present for Ned Stark’s death, the reverberations from his death echoed into every part of the landscape. Just as the comet in this season’s premiere episode united all players under one sky, Ned’s death united all under one common event. The Battle of Blackwater featured ostensibly thousands of more deaths than Ned’s beheading, but somehow still didn’t feel quite as seismic across the Westeros landscape. This doesn’t reflect poorly on the scale of battle achieved onscreen: while it was sometimes unfortunate, it wasn’t the reason that the episode didn’t truly have the same impact.
Rather, it’s the scope of story involved tonight that is to blame. The impact of this battle affected those north of the wall or east of the narrow sea about as much as it seemingly impacted those inside the Holdfast. (Which is to say, barely at all.) There may be reverberations down the line, to be certain. While the Lannisters still hold the Iron Throne, there will be some changes to come due to Tywin’s return. Maybe Ned’s death is a one-time thing, not unlike Tyrion’s wildfire trick. One deployed, it can never truly have the same affect. But those looking for a repeat of the emotionally epic “Baelor” might have found this hour lacking. That’s not damning “Blackwater” with faint praise. It just means that epic doesn’t denote the number of people on screen. It denotes the amount we invest in those onscreen, no matter how small that number may be.
- Surely, those in Stannis’ army realize the irony of fire, of all things, being used against them in the theater of war?
- Sexposition alert: Bronn tells the tales of his broken nose while a prostitute undressed before him. Luckily, her nudity stops the tale dead in its track. That probably should have happened at some point before this, right?
- Varys hates the sound of King’s Landing’s bells, even (especially?) those sounded for weddings.
- “They wanna play music with us? Let’s play.” Ah, Davos, engaging in the Westeros version of You Got Served.
- So Brienne is now taking Jaime back in order to trade for Sansa and Arya, neither of which are currently in King’s Landing. This should be amazing. Maybe she can retrieve Sana’s doll and call it even?
- Cersei tended to take on the speech patterns of Tyrion the more she drank, no? I especially loved the way she accented the word “expected” in regards to why she took on the traditions that noble ladies have for centuries. Note that Osha and Ygritte have no such restrictions, which makes for a fascinating juxtaposition.
- “These fine women should be in for a rape.” Cersei: the life of any Holdfast party!
- David Sims will be back next week to cover the finale.