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Game of Thrones – Season 2, Episode 9: “Blackwater” – review
In two seasons, Game of Thrones has given its viewers a lot of things both expected and unusual in fantasy stories. The usual stuff is here – sex, swordplay, fantastical creatures, good and evil – but Game of Thrones being what it is, most of that has been gleefully twisted, dosed in shades of grey, and perverted our tastes for it.
The one thing Game of Thrones hasn’t produced was a proper battle. It wasn’t for a lack of material –Martin had delivered them dutifully through the first two books – but for the show’s lack of budget. Season 1 survived their loss, but it became a little cringeworthy to see characters riding into battle before an awkward edit, followed by a lot of dialogue about what a bloody mess it had been. There are only so many times you can get away with that before viewers begin checking out. Even non-readers would have realized they were being cheated.
According to Entertainment Weekly, we were actually on course to have another season of bait-and-switch, as HBO really didn’t want to grant the show the budget to do Blackwater. I find that rather astonishing. The show is a certified hit at this point. Why would you green light a series chock full of battles and blood, but then ask if they could do Blackwater as a bottle episode? Crazy.
Thankfully, we didn’t get a cheesy “Cersei, it’s crazy out there!” take. Instead, we got Neil Marshall, and a solid adaptation of one of the series’ most memorable throw downs. Sure, it wasn’t as insane as the book (now I know why we didn’t get any references to Tyrion’s chain), but it was satisfying. At last, we had heads and limbs being hacked open! We had fire! Explosions! The clash of sword and shield! They finally had a reason to wear all that incredible armor! And didn’t I tell you we’d get at least one guy melting from a dose of wildfire? Called that one.
If there was one flaw, it’s that Game Thrones hasn’t done a great job establishing any geography for King’s Landing, which undermined “Blackwater” considerably. This is completely due to budget constraints and shifting locations, but I think they could have done a bit of model work, a’la Gondor or Helm’s Deep, and given the city some heft. Heck, even a few more minutes with Tyrion and his maps over the course of a few episodes would have helped. It’s hard to feel any tension when Stannis lands at Gate X, because we don’t exactly understand where Gate X is in relation to…well, anywhere. Where is the palace, exactly? Where is Maegor’s Holdfast within that? How far away is the battle from the Holdfast if Lancel can get there in a matter of minutes? Sadly, King’s Landing still feels like what it is – a wall here, a set there, a street somewhere else, and no reality. For your average episode, it’s fine, but for an episode like “Blackwater” it definitely poses major difficulties for the structure and heft of the drama.
But that’s only one gripe (actually, one of two, but we’ll get there), because in between all the exhausted and desperate screams were some solid character moments. (It’s worth noting that Marshall was unfamiliar with Game of Thrones and its characters prior to directing this episode, which makes all the beats even more satisfying. They came off so fannish! Color me surprised.) While this season hasn’t been as breathless as last, it made me wish we could get more episodes devoted to one location, and one set of combatants more often. It made every moment and every arc play out so much smoother. The nature of Martin’s story doesn’t lend itself to that approach very often, but here’s hoping the writers get even braver next season, and simply follow Arya or Daenerys for the course of an hour instead of bouncing off to show us what Littlefinger is doing in his brothel or Robb in his tent. They have built up their world and their characters. Why not give yourself the luxury of following one story thread?
If there’s one thing to take away from this episode, it’s that the majority of Lannisters don’t work well under pressure. Cersei takes to the bottle, and gives more thought to suicide than she ever did her battle strategy. Joffrey cries. Lancel (a Lannister too) completely loses it. Tyrion alone kept his head (but was pretty wobbly, even at speech making), and perhaps because he wasn’t particularly confident from the get go, he was able to roll with the punches and keep up the defense. He was also quick to grasp the truth (the one that underpins all of Game of Thrones), and that’s how little men care for kings, thrones, and claims. No one wants to fight for Joffrey. No one cares if Stannis becomes king. They do care if he ruins their corner of King’s Landing, though.
For some sick reason, I became rather endeared to drunk and bitter Cersei, who resents everything and everyone that made her who she is. This is the Cersei we’ve been glimpsing all season – the one who would rather have been Jaime than herself – and she came out, full force, after downing a few bottles of red. For her love of power, she doesn’t particularly enjoy being in charge. I’m not even sure she would be happy on the battlements unless it was as a sellsword like Bronn, which would allow her to drink, sleep around, and spend money as she liked. The woman who doesn’t even want to be a brave example to her ladies certainly wouldn’t want to be the captain of a battle, which would require her to be noble and responsible.
Luckily, Tywin can take on that role. And here he is, come to save the day. I’m not sure Cersei and Joffrey will like what he does with the place, though.
Cersei’s debauchery was contrasted beautifully with Sansa’s naiveté, which would normally be maddening, but worked well within those stuffy, scary walls. She also revealed a bit of bite while seeing the Lannister boys off to war, which makes me reconsider my stance on Sophie Turner’s performance. I can never decide if the blandness is due to Turner, or if the writers have difficulty conveying a character who isn’t a tomboy or villainess. Sansa is selfish, slow, and innocent. But this can work well against such a wicked cast of characters, as evidenced by many of the Sansa and Cersei scenes this season, and certainly did in “Blackwater.” Sansa is someone who figures out one thing, only to be blindsided by more ugliness, and the show would do well to wring a little more pity for her at times.
They will have a harder time post-Hound, though. She should have gone with him!
The Hound brings me to my final criticism of “Blackwater,” which, like my gripes about the city, is less about the episode than the show itself. The show has inexplicably put the Hound (a favorite of Martin’s readers and yes, I’m in that Hound fanclub) in the background, giving him little to do but glower, and handing all of his character work to exposition fiends like Littlefinger. From early on, the Hound seems to be thrown in with Sansa more than either would like, and he is both a protector and a harasser to her. He often delights in upsetting her. It becomes increasingly clear he’s taken with her – he, not Littlefinger, tells Sansa the story of what happened to his face, a tale he’s never shared with anyone – and you alternatively pity his feelings, and recoil from them. When he shows up in Sansa’s room, it’s the culmination of many encounters, and you understand why he’s there. You – like Sansa – also understand why he panicked at the sight of so much fire. While I’m sure sharp viewers caught his fear, it wasn’t as explicit and tragic as it could have been had the Hound not been reduced to a background prop for two seasons. How many even remembered the tale of his face? Who remembered he and Sansa had ever spoken more than once? Still, it’s a credit to the actors and Marshall that it worked. I’d credit the writers…but this episode was penned by Martin himself, who gave the Hound his moments despite how much thumb-twiddling he’s done in episodes previous. And oh, how satisfying it was to hear him tell Joffrey and Tyrion where to go. You can call his retreat cowardice, but given what little stakes he’s got in all this, I call it smart.
Sadly, there’s only one episode left … but if “Blackwater” is any indication, we should be going out on a bang. I mean, we can’t exactly spend the finale wandering the wastes with Jon Snow after that, can we? Can we? Oh man, I hope not.
Check out the Game of Thrones Season 2 Finale “Valar Morghulis” Tease