I have a fairly standard ritual when it comes to reviewing a TV show. First, I watch the show (that one’s kind of a no-brainer, huh). Then, I take a little bit of time off to do something unrelated to TV and let the episode in question percolate in my brain, so all the pertinent themes and character moments and stuff I’d like to discuss in the review separates itself from the chaff. After that comes a re-watch, to solidify anything that wasn’t completely formed in my head, and potentially gleam some cool, out-of-the-way details I wouldn’t have picked up on the first round. At which point I actually write the review.
The first time I watch something, I’m usually not thinking too much about actual analysis/criticism stuff. I’ve got more of an “ooh, pretty colors” mindset going on. It’s only on the second time around that I actually try to flex any analytical muscles, so the anticipation and excitement for a new episode of a show in which I’m particularly interested more or less falls off after the first viewing.
But not with “Blackwater.” This being the giant, climactic episode of Game of Thrones’ second season, I not only was practically drooling at the chance to watch it the first time, but I found myself itching to watch it again for fun about twenty-five seconds into the ending credits.
It’s not surprising, really, considering that “Blackwater” is an extraordinary piece of television, and is easily my favorite Game of Thrones episode to date.
What makes “Blackwater” shine is just how much it differs from an average episode of Game of Thrones. Gone are the constant jumps from setting to setting and the minutiae of all the different stories being told in a single hour of television. We’ve still got separate characters moving in independent stories (Tyrion, Sansa, Cersei, the Hound), but everything’s anchored around one event in one place.
With this change, “Blackwater” is able to reach both colossal heights and intimate moments that just aren’t possible (or at the very least, are incredibly rare) with the show’s standard episode structure. Here, the story actually has room to breathe. The battle ebbs and flows naturally and at its high points even attains that adrenaline soaked, “that was so tense I forgot to breathe” feeling that’s a rarity on shows that aren’t Breaking Bad. Similarly, because this story structure allows us so much more time with each individual character at King’s Landing, the big character arcs that need time to develop and become believable (like the Hound turning deserter or Cersei being prepared to killer her own son) get just that- plenty of time to develop and become believable.
Now let’s dive in on a more detailed level.
I had plenty of complaints about last week’s “The Prince of Winterfell,” but that episode’s biggest flaw was arguably the lack of tension and buildup for this week’s battle. Conveniently, “Blackwater” rights that wrong within the first ten minutes of the episode. A number of minor details provide the episode with plenty of nervous dread and that perfect mix of excitement and terror for the battle to come. There’s lots of moody, shadowed lighting, we physically see these characters preparing for battle and there are clear changes in their personalities and actions (like Tyrion being sure to openly acknowledge his friendship with Bronn) that illustrate just how unnerved these people are when facing what may very well be their last night on Earth. Even Stannis’s ships come with a giant barrel that his nervous soldiers can throw up in. All these smaller ideas combine and really hammer home the tension that was missing last week.
And when the actual battle starts to ramp up, things do not disappoint. One of the biggest overarching themes this week is the contrast between the glorified nature of triumph in battle and the horrifying reality of war, and there’s no better example of this than in the giant wildfire explosion.
On the one hand, this is a major victory for Tyrion. It’s proof that he’s as adept at military strategy as he is on the political side and it cuts down considerably on Stannis’s main advantage- his overwhelming number of troops. And in the episode itself we build and build and build to the moment when the ship explodes. First the reveal of the single ship, then the reveal that the ship’s completely empty, then finally that dawning moment of comprehension when Davos sees the wildfire pouring into the water. The setup is structured perfectly, so that all of us in the audience figure out what’s going on at precisely the same time that everyone onscreen does.
But after the initial shock of the giant green explosion (Game of Thrones tends to have higher quality CGI than your standard television fare, and this was no exception), we spend very little time celebrating a successful plan and a whole lot of time going into the horrific detail of what’s just happened. There’s close-up after close-up of soldiers with horrific burn wounds. And the screams of the soldiers echo all the way to the battlements where Tyrion and everyone else are watching. Tyrion himself seems overwhelmed by the death and destruction that’s happened according to his very own plan.
This same mix of victory and disgust is also a big part of what makes the final moments of the battle so intense. Starting with a pitch-perfect rallying speech from Tyrion (terrific enough to all but ensure a second Emmy for Peter Dinklage) and moving from there to an intense sneak-attack victory, I was completely pumped up to see a Lannister triumph. It didn’t even matter that a whole crowd of Baratheon reinforcements had just stormed onto the battlefield.
But then in quick succession, Stannis lops off the top of some poor soul’s head, Tyrion takes a gruesome wound to the face, and then we cut from the carnage at the Mud Gate to Cersei and Tommen on the Iron Throne. In an instant, all that excitement for a good fight was completely turned on its head. First the stomach-churning violence of the head-chop starts to push the tone of the battle over the edge and starts to sour the adrenaline rush. Then when Tyrion falls, we plummet to a place where all I cared about was making sure my favorite character was still alive and I just wanted the battle to be over. And when we see Cersei and Tommen on the Iron Throne, the throne itself isn’t highlighted in any visual way in the slightest. It’s almost completely obscured by shadow. It creates the impression that the throne isn’t worth a fraction of the losses that are happening in its name just outside the Red Keep. So when the battle’s finally over and Tywin triumphantly strolls in, the win doesn’t feel like a true victory. It just feels like something awful that’s finally come to and end.
It’s really, truly incredible just how well this whole ending works, and the way the show moves you to each new emotional point is nothing short of spectacular. Sadly, though, “Blackwater” isn’t without its share of flaws, as much as I’d like to say it was.
To begin with, there’s Stannis. Now, this isn’t so much a problem specific to “Blackwater,” but more of a problem that has existed all season that has finally come to a head in “Blackwater.” However, the point still stands- we simply haven’t had enough time to develop Stannis as a character. Apart from the story last week about Stannis’s frustration about not being made Lord of Storm’s End, we haven’t really seen anything to make Stannis sympathetic in the slightest. He certainly casts an imposing figure, with his skill in battle and the way he stands and grimaces out at King’s Landing from his ship, but I’d argue that his strengths as a character start to drop off considerably once you move past that imposing figure.
And this is even more apparent with Davos and his son Matthos. I don’t think Matthos has had a single line of dialogue since the second episode of the season (according to the internet he appeared last week, but I can’t recall him saying or doing anything). Any remorse for seeing Matthos caught in that explosion is completely lost because he hasn’t made an impression on me in about two months’ time. Davos I would miss (I assume we’ll have to wait until next week to see if either Seaworth made it out of that fireball alive), but the mourning period would probably last all of eight seconds.
Because of all this, the Battle of Blackwater ends up feeling very one-sided (from a character perspective, at least). Look at the conflict between Robb and his army and the Lannisters and theirs. Everything has so much weight to it because I genuinely don’t know who to root for. I want to see Robb succeed and avenge his father, and I want to see Tyrion succeed and blossom as a leader just as much. No matter who wins, I’m going to lose a character that I’ve grown attached to, which adds a whole new layer of depth to the struggle between these two forces. With Stannis and Tyrion, the conflict is between (arguably) the most unique and likable character in all of Game of Thrones, and someone who mostly stands and scowls and is only occasionally sympathetic. All of the ambiguity and the shades of grey that make Game of Thrones so wonderful disappear because there was never enough to Stannis’s character to make anyone genuinely want to root for him.
So the other problem with “Blackwater?” Clarity. There were two big plot points presented to us towards the end of the hour that I still didn’t understand by the end of my second watching and actually had to look up online to figure out what was going on.
First, I had no idea that Tyrion’s attacker was actually one of Joffrey’s personal guards trying to get some personal vengeance on Tyrion. I thought at first that he was one of Stannis’s men with a different suit of armor, but Tyrion smiles at him before he attacks, so he would have had to be of House Lannister and I had no earthly idea why he would have attack Tyrion.
The difficulty here is that we’re expected to instantly identify this character onscreen when he’s never had a piece of dialogue or an action in any episode that would make him even the slightest bit memorable. This character was present for nearly all of Tyrion’s scenes this week, and was even in the scene where Cersei threatens Tyrion last week. But there’s never been any inkling that the guy has a grudge against Tyrion. All it would have taken was a line (or even just an unpleasant glance) during any of these moments to make this character instantly recognizable on the battlefield.
The same is true with Loras wearing Renly’s armor. Feel free to just chalk this up to an error on my part, but I never really understood that we were supposed to be seeing someone in Renly’s armor fighting on the battlefield. I saw the giant Lannister lion flag, assumed that these were simply Lannister reinforcements, and left it at that. So when Ser Loras shows up at the end, I had no idea where he had come from or why he was there. After revisiting that scene a few more times I’ve now spotted the small set of stag antlers on Ser Loras’s helmet, but there’s nothing in any of those shots to call attention to the antlers. Every single shot with Ser Loras is a medium shot full of lots of chaos and action and sworldplay. Just a single closeup of the antlers would have sufficed.
But, those two issues aside, “Blackwater” is probably the most fun I’ve had watching TV in a very, very long time. Having one single story for an entire hour like this is not only a welcome change from the norm, but also helps to bolster almost every aspect of the episode. While it would be impossible stick with these types of episodes and still cover all the ground that Game of Thrones needs to cover, I’m holding out hope we’ll get at least one “Blackwater” per season.
Maybe even two.
Here’s some closing thoughts before I go:
- While knowing that Cersei was prepared to mercy kill her son (and possibly herself) to avoid being burnt to death by Stannis is horrifying, knowing that she would have done so and left Joffrey alive and in Stannis’s hands is somehow even worse.
- The budgetary restrictions here were sometimes a little too apparent (a lot of the scenes shot on Stannis’s ships or on the battlements looked a little on the cheap side), but I honestly didn’t have a problem in this regard. This is a TV show, after all, and I’ll take what I can get when it comes to big-budget fantasy.
- So what happens to Stannis now that the battle’s over? Is he taken prisoner?
- For that matter, what happens to Joffrey? He abandoned his post in front of the entire army, while Tyrion single-handedly came up with the wildfire trap, lead the charge through the underground tunnel, and even had the army cheering “half man” at one point. Whatever dregs of influence or respect Joffrey still had at this point have got to be donesville.
- While last year’s season finale was mostly focused on the fallout from Ned’s execution, most of our major arcs not set in King’s Landing have yet to see any kind of conclusion. Conveniently, next week’s “Valar Morghulis” will be have an extra ten minutes to help wrap things up.
- Fun fact: the prostitute sitting in Bronn’s lap compliments his lovely singing ability, when in fact the actor portraying Bronn (Jerome Flynn) was one half of the English pop duo Robson and Jerome. Here they are doing “Up on the Roof.”
- While everyone else seemed horrified by the massive wildfire explosion, Hallyne the ancient alchemist sure was excited to see stuff blow up.
And that should about do it for this week. Only one moreGame of Thrones to go for the season. I’m not looking forward’t to a ten-moth wait to see another new episode of this show.