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Tyrion and the Lannisters fight for their lives as Stannis’ fleet assaults King’s Landing.
“Blackwater” met and exceeded my expectations, without a doubt. Some doubtless will be disappointed by the lack of a chain—something which I knew about, and which I wish the producers had been willing to note more widely because it does change the character of the battle somewhat in a way that would leave some a little crestfallen—or by various other niggling details… but on the whole, this episode really has no low points. Perhaps the biggest concern will come from those who dislike how alterations to a character may have seriously constrained what Martin could do with them, and we’ll get into that later.
The brilliant thing about any episode written by Martin is that they inspire ways to highlight the secondary characters, the ones who have perhaps been scanted this season. It’s hard to say that Bronn has been scanted, exactly, but the episode’s portrayal gives Jerome Flynn a meaty series of scenes, showing off both the voice that made Robson and Jerome famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) and the unflappable manner of everyone’s favorite disreputable sellsword. And that action sequence? Slicing and dicing a pair of Baratheon men in a handful of seconds was deliberately contrasted to the Hound’s massive, two-handed sword blows that cut more than one man in half(!), much as Bronn himself pointed out the size versus speed in the brothel scene. Also, curiously, this episode gives us Aremca’s very first speaking lines although they seem to contradict the first episode claim that she plays mute to seem mysterious and foreign; not quite sure what to make of it, either a continuity slip, a sign that Ros exaggerated, or perhaps Aremca’s decided that the brink of a siege is a good time to start talking with people.
Shae, too—played with real feeling by Sibel Kikilli—really gets attention in this episode, and I wouldn’t be surprised if her screen time has doubled just from the scenes with her here. Martin is very much working within the framework of the character that David Benioff and Dan Weiss essentially created for the show, radically altering Shae from the character as seen in the novel by making her older, foreign, fiercer in her devotions and her mistrusts, and yet he finds ways to make her spark and crackle as we have only occasionally seen. Her urging Sansa to run, and her certainty that no man will be raping her so long as she’s armed, worked very well. So, too, did the opening scene with Tyrion and Shae in bed, as the two discuss Tyrion’s nerves. It’s an intimate scene that well and truly feels intimate between the two—something that’s really only happened since the previous episode when Tyrion ran in following Cersei’s threats—and it’s a good direction to go. Is it a fundamentally different relationship than in the novels? Surely. But it doesn’t change Tyrion’s character, and begins to provide us the sense of his own devotion and his deep desire to have someone to love that starts to come through A Clash of Kings.
Dinklage may well be the star of this episode, with his interactions with so many of the central characters featured in this episode. He has an effortless way about playing the character, making him come alive on screen. John Hodgman named Tyrion the greatest character of the last decade in his profile of Martin for the TIME 100, and this episode really helps you see why. The character is not a hero, not made of the stuff of heroes, but he has a certain courage. It’s what led him to save Catelyn Stark despite her having abducted and imprisoned him—a moment that Bronn cheerfully calls back to, with its brutal application of shield to face—and it’s what leads him to take up the attack against Stannis’s forces. He doesn’t do it for glory and honor, he doesn’t do it because he’s fearless—he’s terrified, imagining his head on a spike, and the heads of many others on spikes like his nephew Tommen (I doubt he’d shed a tear if Joffrey’s head was removed) and Sansa and Shae and every other innocent in the city. And so he fights. It’s a fine moment, the scale of it and details of it changed, but it gives him a chance to be courageous in his desperation.
And though the battle outside roars, what happens within the walls is just as much of a focus. Once again, Lena Headey playing an increasingly drunken, erratic Cersei starts to come closer to the character of the novel, whose moods are as unpredictable as a cat’s and as potentially dangerous as the lioness she sees herself as, in some ways. Does she match the full vitriol and spite and scorn of the character? The full fire of her? No, there’s always something a little too held back and restrained, but it feels right. Perhaps it’s because so much of the dialog is straight from the novel, and because we can see from scene to scene Cersei’s increasing lack of self-control, her increasing sense of doom and disaster. In her heart of hearts, she has given up and surrendered, even as her hated, dwarf brother fights to save them all. Her interactions with Sansa—played by Sophie Turner with increasing and admirable confidence and grace, blossoming right along with Sansa as she comes into her own—are well-played, breaking the mask that Headey so often wears. My favorite role of hers in anything that she’s done remains her lead role in Aberdeen, in which she plays a woman with a troubled relationship with her father and with alcohol, and the fury and rage and sadness she could convey in that role is something that I’d been hoping in seeing for a long time in Cersei. At last, it really starts to appear.
It takes an army to make an episode of this size and scale, and there are many names to thank. Not only all the actors—I’ve barely scratched the surface; Jack Gleeson and Eugene Simon provide very fine turns as well, Conleth Hill’s Varys always shines, Stephen Dillane’s tenacious Stannis seems to exist on another plane than most men, Liam Cunningham’s Davos and Kerr Logan’s Matthos provide a family dynamic that heightens the horror of what’s to come—but in the extras who slogged away for weeks in Magheramorne during the many night shoots, the crew who were right there with them evening in and out, and more. The executive producers are owed a great deal, too, for having the vision and making the argument to devote so many resources to this episode that HBO gave them an additional stipend. And perhaps, more than any of them, perhaps more even than Martin and his beautifully focused and constructed script, Neil Marshall is owed a special debt. When I interviewed Liam Cunningham, he noted that Marshall—who he had worked with twice before, on Dog Soldiers and Centurion—really knew “how to stretch a dollar”, and you can see that skill on screen.
The centerpiece of the whole thing may have been the renvisioned wildfire conflagration—the scale brought down for budgetary reasons, particularly when the producers had to cut the chain that plays such an important role despite making efforts to keep it—and much of the credit rightly belongs to Pixomondo, who went above and beyond in bringing that fiery, hellish moment to the screen in quality that was absolutely cinamtic and like nothing ever seen before in a regular hour-long drama. But all the fighting otherwise, the scenes of landing boats, of the battering ram, of men’s heads pulped by stones, men cut in half by the Hound, the wild and chaotic violence of it, that’s all on Marshall. It was a tremendous, bravura directing performance. In the way he filmed the violence, the show reminded me most of Daniel Minahan’s episode last season, “A Golden Crown,” with its abrupt, gritty, grimy violence, and I continue to believe that it’s a style that suits the show particularly well. That’s not to say action sequences shot by the other directors are problematic, but you can see a cleanness to their approaches, emphasized with fewer cuts and the camera a bit further out to show the action more clearly, that works nicely but doesn’t it the way Martin has written fights, or the way the characters themselves experience them. Hopefully the near-universal acclaim for the episode may convince the producers to suggest future directors borrow a page from Marshall (and Minahan).
Are there nits to pick? Of course. Even Martin doesn’t write an absolutely perfect script. This episode is so focused, so well-crafted through the vast majority of it, that it’s hard to find them… but they’re there. Structurally, the abruptness of the end of the battle is perhaps too hurried and unclear. It’s true that this fits the novel, where Tyrion’s point of view comes to an abrupt close as he passes out from loss of blood with only a vague hint that anything has changed on the field. But after that, a jubilant Dontos Hollard comes to Sansa and informs her that the battle is done and won. He describes in detail the banners, the knights, the famous deeds of Renly’s Ghost with rising excitement—salvation had come, and it’s described in all its glory. Here, a few swift glimpses of “Renly’s ghost”—a detail no non-reader will ever understand at this point, will hardly have registered, but at least he and the other men were on horseback (this may be the first and last time we see a cavalry charge on a battlefield in the series)—and suddenly we are in on Cersei, and Ser Loras is silent while Tywin merely states it’s done. As it is, the denoument leaves you on a caught breath and then ... stops; The National singing “The Rains of Castemere” is not, really, a substitute for a fuller denoument. That said, how else could it have been done? I couldn’t even guess, save perhaps spending more time providing some hint of a third force entering the field, rumors of chaos in some other part of the field, half-heard claims that someone glimpsed Renly from the walls, and so on. That could have worked.
A somewhat larger problem is the fact that the pressures of television apparently require actors to be in the thick of fighting, as Stannis is. I cannot say I particularly cared for Stannis as the macho, lead-from-the-front soldier. Once he lands, he issues exactly one significant command: sending men to the Mud Gate. Other than that, he’s charging up the ladder and spends the rest of his time fighting Lannister men-at-arms, fighting to hold his toe-hold on the walls and not being the commander he is in the novels. I understand the urge to Hollywoodize, to some degree: action can speak louder than words, and the doggedness of Stannis certainly comes through. But the character in the novel, more faithfully rendered, might have served better. If he was the first to set foot on the shore, that could work—he could hold his ground and create a toe-hold, raise his banner and organize his forces around it, calm and unphased as arrows fall around him and men fall, and then we can watch him start to expertly command troops, directing them in an unstoppable assault. And then as the battle turns and Tyrion rallies the troops, that charge of men suddenly rushing at him? That could well be Stannis sending his carefully readied reserve for just this moment. When the Tyrell and Lannister forces charge in, then he might well have fought personally, refusing to fall back, ready to fight to the last bitter breath as his men break and flee, and some of his loyal men grab him and drag him away as he curses and sees it all fall apart. Thinking about it, this approach would also have given more sense of the scope of the battle, of the tactics and strategy behind it, and also would have given us more time to grasp what was happening so that the denoument flowed more easily while also giving us a contrast between Stannis and the reputed Robb Stark, as well as a contrast to Joffrey who’s too young and frightened to risk his own life while Stannis is perfectly willing to do so but also knows his value as the commander and general.
But perhaps the thing that will get the greatest complaints? The scene between Sansa and Sandor. The Hound and the “little bird” have a particularly devoted following, and the show has not exactly lived up to their hopes, paring down and de-emphasizing whatever strange connection there is between the two. The reasons for it may simply be due to the respective ages of the actors and the feeling that what works on the page is not workable on the screen, but whatever the cause, it leaves that scene somewhat short-changed. It’s written and acted very well—and Martin does a fine job with the moment when Sansa takes up her father’s doll, looking for comfort in a memento of him that the producers introduced last season—but the Hound is more restrained and less frightening; Sansa’s refusal to go with him seems to lack the motivation that Martin gives her when she’s terrified by the Hound, covered in stale vomit and blood and wine, stinking drunk and utterly out of control of himself. Instead, he’s drunk, but not roaring drunk; he’s unpleasant, but not truly terrifying. It’s hard to get in her head in that scene, and having more time for it, and having more of the darkness of the Hound that exists in the novels, the barely pent-up rage and terror, might have contributed a great deal. And he should have left his own memento, in retrospect: his torn and bloodied cloak of the Kingsguard, something that Sansa keeps with her through the rest of the series, a connection to him that we realize she doesn’t want to give up.
That’s it, really. The reality of television means a smaller scope, one that doubtless will make those who adore tactics sit up and find things to nitpick. CG and practical effects can go a long way, but what Martin described was literally beyond the budget of what may well be the most expensive hour of television from a regular series this season, and there’s nothing more that can be said. Its scope and ambition were still huge, and it’s well-defined, laser-like focus on King’s Landing and those souls trapped in this decisive movement was as well-written as anyone could hope. If the denoument was rushed, nothing else was, and perhaps this merely shows that even in the best case scenario the episode could have used another four or five minutes. In the end, this is the show’s finest hour in two seasons, and it’s fitting it’s the hour written by George R.R. Martin. That the producers gave him the episode rather than taking executive privilege and claiming it for themselves is something we thank them for.
Now on to the finale of season 2, ominously titled, “Valar Morghulis”.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Clash of Kings: Tyrion X, Sansa V, Davos III, Sansa VI, Tyrion XIII, Sansa VII, and Tyrion XIV.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
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