No matter how it turned out, “Blackwater” was always going to be a significant episode not just for Game of Thrones, but for TV history. It marks what is possibly the first time that an ongoing, multi-season series has attempted a major cinematic battle sequence, and even though creators David Benioff and D.B Weiss were allotted a larger budget and extended production schedule for the episode, the challenge of staging such a momentous clash for television is still unimaginably steep. So steep, in fact, that I believe the episode’s results, whether one thinks they pulled it off or not, will always be looked to as a defining moment in the medium’s development.
For the most part, I think “Blackwater” was a rather spectacular success. It did exactly what it set out to do in creating a film-worthy combat piece for television, one where the scope and intensity of the clash matched eight straight episodes of build-up. More importantly, they pulled it off without forgetting their characters, the core reason audiences watch this show.
Battles are never exciting unless we’re invested in the people doing the fighting, and from start to finish, “Blackwater” gave us reasons to care deeply about those on and off the battlefield, bringing several character arcs full circle in the process. It is not a perfect hour of television by any means, but considering the difficulty inherent in this story, my expectations were exceeded by a wide margin.
To bring the Battle of Blackwater to life on TV, director Neil Marshall and company used several of the oldest tricks in the book, starting with a measured, confident sense of pacing. No action sequence can be thrilling if the stakes aren’t clearly established and tension isn’t built going in, and this is what “Blackwater” did best. Instead of starting with flaming arrows, we begin at Stannis’ fleet, in a moment of calm, learning what this battle means to Davos; we then move to Tyrion, in bed, frightened but resolved to action; Cersei making preparations for the worst-case scenario; Bron and his men spending what could be their final night on earth drinking and debauching, etc.
One by one, we see how the characters we’re so familiar with act when faced with the prospect of war; because we have empathy for them, their dread becomes our dread, and as we jump from character to character, the tension becomes increasingly taut until we, like the characters can barely take it.
But once Stannis’ fleet arrives, Marshall breaks the combat epic template we’re accustomed to; he doesn’t break the tension right away, but holds it even further, pushing our expectations to the brink as Tyrion stays the archers and one lone boat sails out from King’s Landing. It’s a brilliant piece of pacing, defying what many viewers will be accustomed to, and it makes it so much more satisfying when Tyrion finally tosses the torch into the water and the mayhem begins.
The moment also works because the show has kept Tyrion’s master plan secret from us; we know he commandeered the wildfire, but other than that, there have been few clues to his strategy, making it immensely invigorating when it all comes together in that brilliantly edited sequence. The boat sails towards Stannis; Tyrion is handed the torch; liquid starts pouring out of the ship; Bron is ready on the rock with flaming arrows. The way the plan comes together is truly awe-inspiring, making for the single most riveting action beat in the show’s history as Stannis’ fleet is engulfed in flame. It’s a big effect, and I’m glad they chose to go all out for this moment; the CGI work did not look cheap on any level, and the numerous shots of soldiers falling into the sea as boats explode and split apart were positively harrowing. Peter Dinklage played the moment beautifully, initially expressing a sense of relief that the plan came together, only to find himself feeling horror at the thought of all the men his actions put to death.
From there, none of the battle felt quite as big or involving, and there were certainly a few spots – primarily as Stannis and his men land on the shore – where you could feel the TV budget being stretched to its limit. But Marshall’s direction and choreography remained clear and coherent throughout, maintaining a strong sense of danger from beginning to end. We must understand and accept the threat for a battle like this to work, and I never doubted the ferocity of Stannis’ forces. So even if nothing quite matched the sight of a green mushroom cloud at sea – though what could, to be honest? – I never felt a diminished sense of scope. This was the battle our characters were afraid of, and the episode didn’t rely on verbal exposition to make this clear; you saw the horrors the battle held, and there was a strong, visceral impact throughout.
The only place where the hour truly faltered came at the end, when Tywin Lannister’s forces arrive to save the day. It’s an abrupt, deus-ex-machina close to a battle that previously felt gritty and difficult; with several characters – most notably Tyrion and Cersei – preparing for death, a quick salvation from Tywin felt like the easy way out. It’s a problem, though, that could have been addressed in execution; if the episode had lasted another ten minutes, just to really demonstrate what Tywin and his forces do when they arrive, Tywin’s declaration of victory would feel earned, rather than automatic. I don’t view this as a show with good guys and bad guys, so I had no expectations for whether or not King’s Landing would fall; as it stands, however, Tyrion and company being saved at the very last minute is far too predictable for a show that succeeds by constantly feeling fresh and inventive.
But if the culmination of the battle was a letdown, the character work done throughout the hour more than made up for it. From the Hound finally finding something to fight for by protecting Sansa to Tyrion’s squire proving his courage by saving his master, many character arcs came full circle in satisfying fashion.
In fact, if “Blackwater” accomplished one thing flawlessly, it was illustrating how far Tyrion, the season’s de facto lead, has come this season. He came to King’s Landing eager to finally have some power in life, but over the last eight episodes, he’s come to realize what exercising that power truly entails, and “Blackwater” was a hugely satisfying culmination of his transformative arc. When the chips fell down, with Stannis banging at the gate and Joffrey fleeing for his mother, Tyrion accepted that he had the power to lead these troops. Not with brawn, which is all men like the Hound could offer, but with wit and insight. Tyrion needed to give these men a reason to fight, and he’s smart enough to realize it doesn’t lie in any of the traditional platitudes; they must fight for something palpable, and he gives them exactly the motivation they need by describing the simple pleasures they would lose if Stannis won.
It’s not just a huge moment for Tyrion, who truly becomes a hero, but for the series itself. Finding one’s reason to fight is a theme at the core of every Game of Thrones story, especially this season, be it Robb Stark trying to hold true to his father’s teachings, Jon Snow discovering what it means to be a member of the Night’s Watch, Daenerys experiencing the pain of being a leader, Arya struggling to survive in an increasingly dark world, or Theon desperately searching for a cause worth being loyal to. These characters must have a reason to fight, or they’ll fall in more ways then one.
That’s where Cersei comes in; I found all of her material in “Blackwater” endlessly fascinating. Pushed to her limit by the stress of war, loosened up by a glass of wine, she starts laying each of her neurosis on the line, re-examining all the various regrets and hang-ups of her life. As monstrous as Cersei can be, I find she becomes more sympathetic the more we learn about her, and “Blackwater” was no exception. Her multitudes of advice for Sansa – all of it cynical and nihilistic – varied from sincere to menacing, while her musings on how preordained gender roles left her with a terrible life felt genuinely emotional. One gets the sense, by the end of “Blackwater,” that Cersei is the way she is for reasons far outside her own control. Lena Headey has been fantastic all season, but this is a new high point in her career, and should she get the Emmy nomination she so clearly deserves, this is obviously her submission episode.
That being said, one of the problems with the episode’s ending is how clearly the hour sets us up for Cersei’s death. If you’ve watched any amount of dramatic television – or just Game of Thrones, for that matter – it stands to reason that when a character spends an entire hour contemplating their regrets, they aren’t long for this world. With Cersei literally getting ready to poison herself and her child, it felt like a moment where her death wouldn’t just feel earned, but necessary to give the hour a proper emotional climax.
Instead, she and the rest of the characters are saved at the last minute, and neither she nor any other notable character perished during the battle. That certainly feels like a cop-out. It’s not that I feel bloodlust watching this show, but when the entire episode revolves around a major battle and nobody dies, the battle doesn’t feel dramatically worthwhile the way it should. Tyrion has a slashed face, yes, but I feel somebody had to go for the episode to really hit home.
But as I said, even if the hour didn’t entirely connect, it’s still a mighty impressive feat for television. From a season-arcing standpoint, I do wonder how they’ll handle the finale; we still have to handle the “Blackwater” aftermath, in addition to wrapping up stories for Jon Snow, Daenyres, Theon, Robb, Arya, Stannis, Brienne and Jaime, and whoever else I forgot to mention.
It was a wise move to restrict the entire “Blackwater” episode to King’s Landing just to give the battle the proper weight and attention, but that leaves Benioff and Weiss with a lot of ground to cover next week. I doubt, at this point, that it can all be wrapped up (or, at least, come to a satisfying stopping place) in one hour, but I’ve been given no major reason to distrust Game of Thrones so far, and after “Blackwater,” I don’t intend on starting.