GAME OF THRONES 2.9: “Blackwater”

It’s war! It’s the Battle of Blackwater! Everything and everyone else took a backseat to the bloodshed in the King’s Landing harbor. And so much the better, because we wouldn’t want to miss a moment of this.

As would-be King Stannis Baratheon’s (Stephen Dillane) vastly superior forces approached King’s Landing, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and the Hound (Rory McCann) prepared to defend the city while sniveling King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) postured for the press — but since there were no paparazzi, he preened for Sansa (Sophie Turner), who tried to egg him into taking a forward position in the coming battle. As the warning bells sounded, Sansa took refuge with Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) in the Red Keep while the men went to battle.

Tyrion’s brilliant plan was to let Stannis’ fleet come close to shore, then he ignited a boat laden with wildfire; the ensuing blast of green fire took out much of the invading fleet, but not all. Stannis still landed his infantry and lay siege to the Mud Gate. Meanwhile, Cersei slowly got drunk and teased the high-born ladies with warnings of what Stannis’ men would do to them — especially that pretty “slice of cake,” Sansa. But the drunker she got, the more Cersei started offering Sansa useful advice about being female and surviving at court. Then, worried that the battle was turning against the city, she sent a wounded Lancel (Eugene Simon) to recall Joffrey from the battlements. And, slime that he is, Joffrey too k the opportunity to flee.

Left without a king, the King’s Hand managed to rally the troops for a sneak attack at the enemy’s flank (using long-forgotten tunnels), gaining temporary reprieve before the bulk of Stannis’ forces arrived. Then, just when all seemed lost, Lord Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) arrived with cavalry and swept away Stannis’ infantry. The Lannisters had won the day.

Kudos to the producers and HBO for making the Battle of Blackwater as epic-feeling as possible. Now, let’s not get crazy here; this was no Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This was fantasy war on a TV budget, not an epic on the silver screen. Still, the scale was impressive, even for cable. Shooting the action at night helped mask the number of extras, but there was still an unavoidable feeling of being studio-bound, especially the shots on the battlements. The fortifications felt closed in by the confines of the studio walls and ceiling. I never had the feeling that the wall was outside.

But that’s nick-picking, isn’t it? The special makeup and visual effects were outstanding. The green flames of the wildfire stood out from the conventional yellow of normal fire, and made me think of plasma burning. Wildfire seems like a shout-out to real historical “Greek fire,” which no one has been able to replicate in modern times. The amount of stage blood spilled and prosthetic heads chopped and crushed probably set some sort of record. My two favorite deaths were the fellow next to Stannis whose head was crushed by the rock and the guy who had the top of his noggin sliced cleanly off above the eyebrows.

There was plenty to love in the form of characterization, too, from Tyrion’s brilliant tactical strike with the wildfire to his horror at the death and agony inflicted by the technology. You could tell he regretted that the wildfire was so hideous a weapon. Only the truly shallow viewer would miss the parallels to nuclear missiles.

Of course Tyrion got to deliver the War Speech (what my friend and I refer to generically as a St. Crispin’s Day Speech) — you didn’t think Joffrey cared about inspiring the men he pays to fight, did you? — and, since it was Tyrion, it was far from your typical rousing, blood-boiler. Instead of appealing to the soldiers’ sense of patriotism and duty to the crown, he appealed to their self-interest, pointing out that Stannis was there to lay claim to their homes and their women and children. And his rallying cry was hilariously mundane: “Those are brave men at our gates! Let’s go kill them.” But the coup de grace was when the Imp sneaked up in that enemy soldier and Monty Pythons him right in the leg! (Admit it, you thought of the Black Knight, too!)

Contrast Tyrion’s bravery and sacrifice with Joffrey’s running scared. As he left the battlements, the Goldcloaks stirred restlessly, the fight taken right out of them. It’s completely impossible to have any sympathy — or even tolerance — for the craven fool. What kind of git names his sword “Hearteater,” anyway? And makes his girl kiss it and then promises she’ll get to lick her brother’s blood off it… At he least tried to manufacture an excuse for running — does his mother have “urgent business” with him? — but abandoning his post was still despicable. Maybe he sensed that everyone wanted him at the head of his knights so that he could catch a sword in the chest? What a momma’s boy.

Speaking of the tyrant mommy in the fetching gold breastplate, besides learning that Drunk Cersei is the only “good” Cersei, it was interesting to watch her around Sansa with her guard down. She told the younger girl that tears are only one of a woman’s weapons, and that the most powerful one is between her legs, but it appeared that Cersei suddenly realized that Sansa already had a grip on Joffrey’s decision-making…er, process. Cersei used condescending terms like “should you ever become queen,” but they were actually acknowledgments that Joffrey has made his choice, and he wants Sansa to be his queen.

Not that Sansa wants to be his queen. But I couldn’t understand why she refused to go with the Hound when he offered to return her to Winterfell. She’s so certain that Stannis won’t hurt her; based on what? She clearly knows nothing about war. Stannis absolutely cannot take the chance that she might be pregnant with an heir to the throne. He has to put her to the sword. How creepy was it that Cersei was about two seconds from poisoning her youngest, Tommen, when Tywin arrived. She did want to spare her son being executed, but dead would have been dead.

And how about that Stannis! The king was the first man up a ladder and fought common soldiers, steel to steel, unlike Joffrey, who stood far back from the front line and ran at the first opportunity. It may have been cowardly for Stannis to use black magic to kill his brother, but at least he was willing to get his sword wet to claim a crown. (The Hound had a great line when he warned his troops, “Any man dies with a clean sword, I’ll rape his f—— corpse!”) I was surprised that the Hound quit fighting, even if he did have flashbacks to getting his scar by fire. Perhaps his quitting for cause was meant to contrast with Joffrey quitting out of fear? It still seemed out of character to me. I would have expected Clegane to have more of a sense of duty.

The big question viewers were left with: Is Tyrion okay? He seemed to only suffer a facial wound, but I have to admit that for a second after he was sliced, I thought half of his face was going to slide off onto the ground! And so soon after he admitted that Bronn had become his friend. So we know that Tyrion now cares about two people in the world besides himself (the other being Shae). Don’t die, Tyrion! Plenty more people need their asses kicked!

Oh, yeah? Sez you!

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