With a script from George R.R. Martin (with, doubtless, input from the executive producers, the director, and limitations based on shooting schedules, budget, and total run time) and direction from film director Neil Marshall, the episode starts with a slow, quiet sense of dread as we meet different characters who will be affected by what’s to come. With a terrific sense of focus — all the other storylines, from beyond the Wall to Qarth, are on hold for “Blackwater” — the episode not only touches on all the key characters and powers involved in what’s to come, but it also finds time for secondary characters such as Bronn and (finally) the Hound. It was a pleasant surprise to see the two men meeting and… well, not bonding. But interacting in a scene that, from Martin’s pen, feels as close as the show can ever get to providing insights that are not spelled out in the novels. Bronn and the Clegane never interact on the page, but now they have, and we have a real sense of how that might go in the novel.
What can one say about “Blackwater” that hasn’t already been said? Hailed by viewers and critics alike as what may well be the best episode of the series to date, the episode delivered the goods: the brutality of violence, the courage of defenders protecting their homes, and the mutli-faceted perspective on what a battle means from the very highest to the lowest on the field, and especially for those who aren’t in the field, who are merely waiting to learn the result and can do no more than pray or hope that their side will carry the day. The Battle of the Blackwater Rush is the key moment that A Clash of Kings builds to with so many of its storylines, as you can see that the inevitability of King’s Landing being attacked (though not, necessarily, by whom) is practically foretold.
And it was, of course, a perfect Ice and Fire touch to have “The Rains of Castamere” feature so prominently in this episode, both sung by the Lannister soldiery and Bronn as well as by the indie band The National over the end credits. On a first listen, it probably just sounds like something of a sad song… but when you pick up the lyrics, you start to realize it’s about the destruction of one family by another; not just a tragedy, but something passed down in song form so that everyone remembers it. Of course, it’s the Lannisters who dealt destruction to House Reyne… and now, with King’s Landing everyone’s target, it’s the Lannisters who might be seeing their Rains of Castamere coming at last. It’s almost paradoxical, having that sung there. There’s a boast in it, of Lannister prowess and a ruthless will to victory… but there’s also a lesson about what will happen if they’re on the losing side.
Once the story has carefully established all the characters, their fears and concerns, it shifts into an exceptionally choreographed series of images of approaching battle. The naval portion of the attack — severely scaled-down from the novels, for budgetary reasons, with Martin himself apparently providing suggestions for how to swing it — builds with increasing tension as the speed of sail is deliberately indicated as being relatively slow and ponderous. The moment when the lone ship of the royal fleet comes out to meet Stannis’s ships seems to stretch forever, cutting back and forth to the walls where Tyrion and Joffrey watch and to Davos as he tries to make sense of what’s happening. And then the realization all too late, a torch flung off the walls as a signal, and Bronn sends a single arrow arcing through the night sky (another change from the novel; the attack begins is in the afternoon in the books, but one that works visually — all the fire effects look at the more terrific — and practically, as the darkness helps reduce visibility and so allows them to suggest more with less).
The result is a truly cinematic explosion of livid green flame. It’s an amazing effect thanks to Pixomondo, who supply the VFX services this season, and its aftermath sets the tone for the rest of the battle: Davos Seaworth may be dead, the fleet may have lost half its number in seconds, but Stannis Baratheon is relentless and unyielding, and orders the attack with simple, unadorned words: “Help me take this city!” Despite the terror they may have felt thanks to the wildfire and the horrible destruction it wrought, they believe in Stannis’s ability to win against all odds. After all, some of these men served in that garrison at Storm’s End that held out or a year in Storm’s Deep on horse and cat and dog and rat, others served with Stannis when he played a leading role in putting down Balon Greyjoy’s first rebellion, and they all know how implacable he is. If any man can take the weakly-held King’s Landing, and despite its walls never having been breached before according to Davos (as far as we know, that would be because the city has never been besieged beore).
And so he leads, without a look back, without even a glimpse of fear… nor of concern for Davos, which is an interesting thing. Stephen Dillane has brought a wonderful focus to Stannis, an intensity and single-mindedness that really fits the character of the novel. It’s that iron will, that certainty, that makes men follow him in the end, and make them believe he can do the impossible. Of course, it led many hundreds — thousands, even — to their deaths, but the belief that they would be one of the ones to see Stannis on the Iron Throne must have been powerful.
And then, you know, they got chopped in half, or sliced and diced, or set aflame, or have a rock crush their head. Neil Marshall’s direction was exceptional. Liam Cunningham, in an interview I had with him, said that Marshall (whom he’s worked with before) could really “stretch a dollar”, and that was very clear. Was it action on a triple-A blockbuster level? No (other than that wildfire explosion — stunning!). But it was good enough for the small screen, more than good enough really, with a great deal of scope and variety. The tactics might have been very simplified, but it felt like something real was happening on the screen, something where the fate of a whole kingdom would be decided.
All of that action was stitched together by the character moments. Peter Dinklage shone, of course; that goes without saying. But of particular note was the way that Martin’s script would move back into the depths of the Red Keep, where the sound of battle was faint and far away, and we saw Cersei Lannister falling apart before our eyes. I have been on record, many times, that I have not greatly cared for Lena Headey in the role — I find her interpretation, and the way the writers have fitted the role to her, far too cool and staid, defined by minor facial ticks (e.g., far-away look, furrowed brow) more than a sense of the ferocious lioness that the character really is — but I’ve always felt that Lena Headey is a fine actress. And so, when she played Cersei as increasingly drunk, sneering and mocking for once, letting some of that emotional energy project out… it was pretty good. Still restrained, still not quite as I think I imagined it ought to be, but better. I shouldn’t have been surprised, however, since my favorite of her roles — in the film Aberdeen — features her as a young woman struggling with self-destructive drinking and the father who set her on that path, and she was quite extraordinary there when her character let loose invictive and bile and range under the influence of drink.
And Sophie Turner? She makes those scenes what they are, as much as Headey, and perhaps more so. The actress has blossomed, has demonstrably improved in the last year, and there’s little more to say for it. Some will, of course, complain that the fateful Hound and Sansa scene has been severely reduced, its emphasis and focus changed. It’s curious to think about that in light of the fact that Martin wrote the script. I’ve always said that the show’s version of the Hound was very dour, was not quite the same creature as in the novel, and I think some of that may be because of a decision somewhere up the line that the Hound’s interests in Sansa have to be muted. And so the threat of rape, the threat of stealing a kiss, the demand for a song — all of these things fall by the wayside, regardless of who’s writing the script.
In fact, some of the “low” points — and I use that word very mildly — seem to tie into the way the producers wanted things done differently from the novel. Looking aside from the budgetary restrictions, which everyone understands, some of the decisions are awkward. Stannis, Action Hero, was a change from the character from the novel who is much more interesting because while he is physically brave and capable, he knows that the commander’s place is at a good vantage point, organizing and deploying his men. From a recent interview with Empire Magazine, Neil Marshall revealed that the script (at the time) only had Stannis going as far as the foot of the walls and commanding his men there, and he was the one who suggested he needed to be the first up the ladder. But then, Stannis isn’t being much of a commander, hacking away at random Lannister soldiers on the Wall — any other man could have done that. Some might object that having him hang back would seem cowardly… but how many Civil War films haven’t you seen where the ridiculously dignified, courageous general rides up and down his lines, exhorting his men even as musket balls are being aimed at him? Do the same with arrows!
Stannis could have been organizing a proper, well-conceived attack under a hail of arrows, ignoring his personal safety. He could have been the first on the bank initially, fighting a sortie Tyrion sends to try and stop them from establishing a toe hold. He could have been the man who commanded that sudden charge of soldiers that nearly led to the undoing of all of Tyrion’s efforts — might even have led that particular charge itself, to break the Lannisters once and for all. He certainly could have been fighting desperately toward the end, trying to recover things as everything fell apart. I think it would have been truer to the character in the novel, and on the screen, and it would have been more interesting for it.
Otherwise, a problem that may well lie more with the script than with the filming is simply the denouement. For whatever reason, it does feel rushed and sudden, and not in a way that necessarily works well. Perhaps with a Stannis more established as a commander than a soldier, this could have been avoided — having him hear of reports of horsemen attacking a flank, reports of unfamiliar banners, the general building of confusion, it would certainly have helped establish that another party was entering the fray. As it is, there’s a sudden glimpse of horsemen out of nowhere (this is almost certainly the last time we’re ever going to see a massed cavalry charge on the show!) and while the confusion that that does cause is all well and good, it doesn’t provide enough set up for that final moment.
And still, despite the abrupt close of the episode and the (very) few other niggles, “Blackwater” is — without a doubt — the greatest episode the series has put on the air. Helped massively by the fact that for once the story is simply all in one place and focusing on one significant event (even if seen from different perspectives), it breathes and flows in a way that no other episode has done before. Now, on to “Valar Morghulis”.