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Review #3531: Game of Thrones 2.9: “Blackwater”

Posted on the 29 May 2012 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: Gregg Wright

“The episode has dramatically exceeded our expectations,” said series showrunner David Benioff in an interview with Entertainment Weekly recently. Instead of going with their original plan to frame the entire Battle of the Blackwater from the perspective of Cersei and Sansa, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss made the case to HBO that they just HAD to show that battle, and they’d need more money to do it. Surprisingly, HBO agreed to raise the budget significantly. I knew all of this before the episode had aired, and I’d been unable to keep myself from watching the promo, but none of this prepared me for what I was about to experience. This was TV history in the making.

Review #3531: Game of Thrones 2.9: “Blackwater”

Benioff and Weiss were pretty sure that they could do a respectable episode on the usual budget, but their instincts were right–just like Spielberg was right when he knew that people would want to see that shark get blown to smithereens at the end of “Jaws”. The showrunners knew that this was the dramatic payoff that this story needed (and they also felt that they needed to make up for not showing the last battle that Tyrion was involved in). George R. R. Martin himself penned this episode, and in a brilliant, last minute move, Benioff and Weiss picked English film director Neil Marshall to helm it. Marshall’s “Centurion” is a great example of how much the man can do on a lower budget (and “The Descent” is one of the best horror movies of the post-2000 era).

What the production crew has accomplished here is simply incredible. I’m sure that the budget for the episode was abnormally high for a television episode, but that said, it likely doesn’t compare to that of the average theatrical film. So it’s pretty amazing that they managed to work around whatever limitations were in place and create something that feels like a real, full-scale battle (with the fog and darkness playing a very helpful role). The producers wisely chose to avoid large-scale shots of troops in combat, instead going with a more intimate, ground-level perspective. It’s a highly appropriate stylistic choice, given the show’s usual emphasis on characters over spectacle.

But even still, I was shocked by just how big-budget the episode was in terms of the sights and sounds on display. Most of it is comprised of gloriously brutal ground-level combat between infantrymen, but the Wildfire explosion was one of the most visually spectacular things that I’ve ever seen in a television show. This is what I’ve been begging more Hollywood filmmakers to do, anyway: rely less on the CG and more on practical effects and stunt-work, and when you do use CG, make it count. I could scarcely believe that I was watching a TV show when Bronn fired that arrow and all hell broke loose. I didn’t expect such an enormous, green, frighteningly destructive explosion. In spite of the episode’s general reliance on ground-level combat over grand special effects shots, it should be noted that this episode has been said to have far more visual effects than any other.

And the CG actually looks GOOD, and this is coming from someone who tends to think that most Hollywood CG looks pathetically fake anymore. There’s no question that CG is a wonderful tool, but so often, modern special effects artists seem to have forgotten this basic truth: that the best effect is the one that the audience doesn’t notice. In the end, special effects are simply a tool for bringing the story to life. The most important part of any film or TV show is the writing and acting. Everything else is just there to enhance the reality of the story. “Game of Thrones” is a perfect example of why I almost never go to the theater for genre movies anymore (except to see the unusual gem). Television is where most of the best writing and acting is, and the production values seem to get better all the time.

That jaw-dropping Wildfire moment would not have been the same without the fantastic build-up to it. I loved that this whole episode dealt with only one location, and spent the perfect amount of time building up to the actual battle. It’s a completely unusual format for a “Game of Thrones” episode, and it’s all the better for it. It allows for more time spent with each character. I know that the producers came to HBO saying “just this once”, but it would be a terrible shame if this didn’t become something of a yearly tradition. I suspect that there’s at least one large battle in each of Martin’s books, so I would suggest that HBO give them enough money to do one each year (or some equivalent event), maybe even letting Martin write and Marshall direct each time. That’s what I’d do, anyway.

Not only did this episode drastically exceed my expectations, it subverted some of them as well. Sure, I expected Wildfire to play a significant role in how the battle progressed. I expected the burning stuff to be flung at Stannis’s ships. And I expected Stannis to win in the end, anyway. I did not expect an explosion of damn near nuclear proportions, practically eviscerating, in one fell swoop, nearly half of Stannis’s fleet. (And I didn’t expect it to be green! Yes, I saw what the liquid looked like before.) At that moment, I began to think that the outcome wasn’t so clear cut, which made the whole thing way more exciting. The Wildfire explosion is easily my favorite moment of the entire show, thus far, but it’s only the beginning of a truly magnificent battle.

I felt a tinge of glee when, upon hearing the complaint from one his men that hundreds of men would die in the assault, Stannis coldly corrects him with a single word: “Thousands.” Stannis is a man who really, really wants to sit on that throne. This would be one of many similar moments throughout the episode where something astoundingly awesome would happen, causing me to shudder with delight–like when the alchemist giggles to himself after the explosion, or whenever Sandor Clegane cleaves some poor bastard in half, or when Bronn, having almost gotten into a duel with Sandor earlier, shows up at just the right moment to save Sandor’s life with a well-aimed arrow.

There’s too many of these moments to list, but suffice to say, the episode is pure, bloody carnage of the very best sort. And unlike many Hollywood films, you won’t have that frantic camerawork and choppy editing constantly ruining the experience. Yes, there is a bit of a handheld feel to some of the shots. But it’s nowhere near the excessive levels found in most modern action and war films. It’s generally pretty easy to see what’s going on. The battle is still extremely chaotic, but the handheld camerawork isn’t wielded like a blunt tool in the hands of a child, which seems to be the case for so many directors (for both film and television, I should add) these days. It’s used tastefully, like it used to be back when cinematographers first discovered that handheld shots could create a sense of chaos, horror, and disorientation.

The battle continued to not go as I expected right up to the end. At first, I was completely dumbstruck by The Hound’s sudden loss of interest in the battle. Who would have thought that Sandor Clegane would be the one to give up first? Of course, after a moment, I remembered how his face achieved its current appearance (which, upon re-watching the Wildfire scene, also explained his stunned reaction to the explosion). Sandor’s reaction to Joffrey’s order to continue fighting was one of the funniest things that I’ve seen on the show (possibly even funnier than that amusing relayed conversation between Tyrion and Joffrey before the battle). I love that Sandor is finally being humanized and getting the development that he deserves. Hopefully, he’ll end up on the run with Sansa, and eventually get into a fight to the death with his older brother.

After Sandor gives up, the task of rallying the troops is left up to Tyrion. His St. Crispin’s Day speech and plan of attack are both pure Tyrion. Fans are going to love him more than ever after this, if that’s even possible. No person was more instrumental in defending King’s Landing than he. One thing that did bother me a bit about the last fight was the confusion over the attack on Tyrion. After first viewing the scene, it didn’t even fully register that Tyrion was attacked by one of the Kingsguard. It was only when talking to my brother, later, that I was reminded of this. “Yeah, that was one of the Kingsguard guys that attacked him. Oh, wait, um… that’s weird.” Maybe I should have been paying more attention. I suppose I was so distracted by the thought that the top of Tyrion’s head might slide off at any moment. Tyrion seemed a little too dazed for just having his face cut, but maybe the cut was deeper than it looked.

As I said, the battle kept the surprises coming, and there was one final surprise in store for me. Tywin rides in at the last minute to save the day, with Loras Tyrell fighting by his side. This is the second time this season that I’ve been glad to see Tywin arrive somewhere. It’s not what I expected, but an alliance between the Lannisters and the Tyrells makes sense. It would make perfect sense if Loras actually learned that Stannis was essentially responsible for the murder of Renly. (This makes my prediction that Margaery Tyrell will marry Joffrey seem more likely.) I had to learn online that Loras was wearing Renly’s armor during the fight (apparently fulfilling one of the Red Queen’s prophecies), which would seem to add to the idea that this is somehow Loras’s payback for Renly’s murder.

Most of all, I was surprised that Stannis actually lost, and was forced to retreat with only a tiny fraction of the men he started out with. Didn’t he have the Lord of Light behind him? Perhaps not bringing along Melisandre was enough to either lose favor with her god. Or maybe Melisandre needed to be there in order for the Lord of Light to help. Actually, I have a third theory that I like even better. I think that the Lord of Light actually wanted the battle to go the way that it did. Why? I have no idea. Maybe he just likes to watch the world burn. And maybe Stannis isn’t this prophesied one after all. Melisadnre could be wrong, or hiding something, or maybe she’s just being used, herself.

I’m glad that Stannis survived to fight another day, and I’m glad that Davos survived. He’s been my favorite new character of the season. Did you notice that his son, Matthos, died just as I expected him to? That one probably isn’t all that impressive a prediction. I mean, what else is one to expect when they’re told that “death by fire is the purest death”? Davos is going to remember this prophecy at some point, and as suspicious of Melisandre (and her god) as he is already, he’s only going to get more suspicious. But will he remain loyal to Stannis? I suspect that Davos will get picked up by Stannis and his men as they flee in their boats, so there’s probably going to be a lot of interesting stuff going on back at home with Davos, Stannis, and Melisandre.

It’s hard to imagine that “Game of Thrones” could ever match the quality of this episode a second time, but I hope that they try. “Blackwater” may have just set a new benchmark for cinematic production values on the small screen. The more I think about it, the more amazed I am by the whole thing. “Blackwater” isn’t just the best, most exhilarating episode of “Game of Thrones” ever made. It’s probably one of the best hours of television ever made, period. Spectacle will never be more important than a well-crafted story and characters. And those elements are just as strong here as they’ve ever been. But sometimes, you just need a good battle sequence.

Rating: 10/10

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