SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 9 YET.
“We’ve got brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”
Finally, after weeks of moving pawns from place to place, the endgame of Game of Thrones’ second season is here – in the form of the Battle of Blackwater Bay, one of the most fondly remembered set pieces from the book. After the vast majority of battles in Westeros’ civil war taking place offscreen (and cheaply), this was clearly the one the showrunners had been saving up the budget for. A sumptuously mounted, exciting and massively gory conflict, it took up the entirety of the episode, a necessary focus largely absent in recent weeks of jumping from plot to plot. And yet even in the midst of all the carnage, there was room for plenty of the character depth the show is justly renowned for.
Even with the obviously large amount of money spent on staging the battle, book purists may be a trifle dismayed to see some fairly substantial changes in the meticulously described military tactics of Blackwater as described in the original novel. Firstly, and most significantly, the whole battle takes place at night, while it was clearly described as a daylight battle in the book. Night battles were very unusual (though not unheard of) in medieval warfare. Yet it fits in with the general visual style of the show this year. I must say though, the show’s insistence on having so many scenes take place in (authentically dimly lit) darkness has meant that I’ve found myself squinting at the screen to make out what was going on on more than one occasion!
Tyrion’s defensive tactics were also much simplified, perhaps because the lengthy, complex description of the battle in prose would have taken far longer than the one hour of screen time it was allotted here to show. The ruse of allowing Stannis’ fleet entry to the bay virtually unopposed, then cutting off their exit by raising a giant chain across the bay’s mouth, and raining fire on them was completely absent. And while the tactic of destroying the fleet with fireships full of wildfire was present and correct, it was only one fireship that accomplished this, rather than the flotilla of the book. Yet that one ship was more than enough to blow a huge amount of ships out of the water in a superbly realised green inferno; gods know how much wildfire Tyrion stuffed into it, but it went off like a jade mini-nuke.
That, if anything, showed the visual logic of having the battle take place in darkness. The terrifying green explosion, and its subsequent orange fires as the ships began to burn, stood out starkly against the darkness of night in a way it never would have in daylight. It’s indicative that the changes made in the script recognised that this is a different storytelling medium with different requirements both visually and in the structure of the drama. And if book purists have a problem with those differences, they could try taking it up with the screenwriter – one George RR Martin. Internet flame wars aside, I think it’s safe to say that the author of the books knows what he’s doing.
The clever structure of this episode made it clear that Martin is no slouch when it comes to writing for television. We were shown the buildup to the battle (from both sides), then as the fighting got into full swing it was neatly intercut with scenes of the pessimistic Cersei holed up with Sansa and the other palace ladies holed up in the holdfast and fretfully anticipating the outcome. Meanwhile, outside, Tyrion, Bronn, the Hound and even Lancel got to show their true mettle as the carnage progressed.
That said, I did wonder about a bit of intrusive Author Voice in the exchange between Davos Seaworth and his son Matthos as Stannis’ fleet approached the city. Matthos confidently asserted that “the people of King’s Landing did not choose the false king Joffrey Baratheon. They will be glad to see his head on a spike”, to which the older and wiser Davos contended, “the people won’t see us as liberators. All they’ll see is that we’re trying to burn their city.”
While true enough, this felt like a somewhat hamfisted attempt to parallel Stannis’ imminent attack with recent ’wars of liberation’ which have found the US welcomed less sympathetically than they expected. As an allusion, it works well enough; but I’ve already had enough of real historical wars being paralleled with US adventures in the Middle East, in the recent BBC Robin Hood and the movie Kingdom of Heaven among others.
Still, that’s just a personal view; it wasn’t out of character for either Seaworth to express those views. And the rest of the characters were written as well as you would expect from the man who created them. Bronn and the Hound in particular were well-served this week, as the setup of their initial antagonism (nearly leading to a barfight to the death) led to a hair-raising moment mid-battle as the pyrophobic Hound was charged by a knight who was literally on fire, only to be saved at the last minute by an arrow from Bronn.
Rory McCann as the Hound was superb here, his usual embittered cynicism pushed sharply to the fore by his disillusionment with the King he serves and also by his understandable terror of fire, so plentiful in the battle raging for King’s Landing. This was neatly foreshadowed by his flinching every time a flaming torch came near, leading to the payoff of him fleeing the battlefield with the bitter declaration of, “fuck the king”.
He’s finally, properly deserted now, off to the North perhaps. But before he left, he got another of those tantalising scenes with Sansa, highlighting their weird little relationship. Popping up in her bedroom, he invited her to come with him, promising to take her ‘home’ to Winterfell. Of course, with Winterfell currently held by Theon Greyjoy, and her brothers ostensibly dead, Sansa chose to stay. But the wounded look as the Hound stalked out was almost heartbreaking, like a man who’s just had his last little bit of honour cruelly refused.
Sophie Turner as Sansa got some of the episode’s most thoughtful scenes, mostly paired (as she has been many times in the past) with Lena Headey’s brittle and increasing fragile Cersei. Cersei’s plainly finding power not as rewarding as she expected, as she’s more or less admitted in recent weeks. Now she finds herself cowering, increasingly drunk, in a holdfast as she depends on men to sort out the problem outside. And she’s not optimistic either; those scenes were hovered over by the baleful presence of grim-looking, mute King’s Executioner Ser Ilyn Payne, on hand to spare the women rape by killing them should Stannis prevail.
Cersei did seem to have an increasing despair, as shown by Headey’s bitter smile and sharp tongue. Yet despite her apparent fragility here, we were shown that she’s still very much a force to be reckoned with. Noticing Sansa’s surprisingly lowborn handmaiden Shae, the Queen recognised her as oddly out of place an began to question her with a suspicious and determined look in here eye. Given that we know Cersei’s been torturing Ros in the mistaken belief that she is Tyrion’s whore, there was a lot of suspense here with the possibility that she might discover her mistake.
Fortunately, Shae found herself saved by the bell; or rather, by the arrival of the ever-wet Lancel Lannister, bringing news of the apparently losing battle outside. True to form, Lancel was fairly rubbish throughout. He fled from the battlefield after an arrow hit that seemed less than incapacitating, then cravenly agreed (after a halfhearted objection) to the Queen’s proposal to remove Joffrey from the battle. Yet even Lancel got to display a bit of courage as he eventually tried to tell the Queen that this might well destroy the Lannister chances, only be met by a punch in the chops from the aggrieved Cersei. Safe to say he won’t be returning to her bed any time soon, having made the mistake of underestimating her venom under pressure.
In the thick of the battle itself, Tyrion once again got to show that he can hold his own not just as a politician and tactician, but also as a soldier. With the jittery looking Joffrey having fled to the dubious safety of his mum, it was up to Tyrion to make the inspirational speech that would give the men the heart to follow him into battle. This was nicely done, very much in the style of the classic example, Shakespeare’s Henry V. Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion may tend more to the scatological than Shakespeare’s Henry, but the intended effect was the same. Having finally won the attention of the demoralised troops, he goaded them into action with self-deprecation as he strapped on his armour: “I’m only half a man. What does that make those who refuse to fight?”
Stannis too was in the thick of the fray. Unlike Joffrey, he’s clearly not afraid to lead from the front, and was in the thick of the action as his troops stormed the walls of the city. Said action was increasingly and massively drenched in gore; heads were chopped off, throats were slit, viscera were spilled, and at one point the Hound actually cut someone in half diagonally. Stannis experienced the gore as his mouthy lieutenant, next to him at the wall, had his head pulped by a falling stone from the battlements. It didn’t put him off though, and he was among the first up the siege ladders.
The blood-drenched spectacle of the battle was truly impressive. Apparently showrunners Benioff and Weiss had to convince HBO to up the budget to actually show it, with the original intention to have more of a bottle episode told from the POV of Cersei and Sansa cowering in the holdfast. I’m thankful that HBO agreed; much as the show is great character drama, the absence of onscreen battles in a show centred on a civil war was becoming increasingly conspicuous. That the battle as seen was so exciting should give huge kudos to director Neil Marshall, who started his career with low-budget werewolf horror Dog Soldiers. As that film showed, Marshall is clearly adept at producing the maximum spectacle for the minimum of money.
The battle ended suitably abruptly (as such battles often do) with the surprise arrival of reinforcements led by Tywin Lannister and Loras Tyrell. The tension and atmosphere of doom for the Lannisters had, up till then, been ratcheted to breaking point; Cersei was just about to poison her son Tommen (and herself) as Tywin burst into the room to declare the battle over. Good thing for Tyrion, who’s been dealt a nasty blow, only to be saved by callow squire Podrick. I must say, the slash across his forehead and cheek looked considerably less severe than the injury described in the book, which left him with only half a nose; but then Dinklage has always been a better looking man than the Tyrion the books described.
All told, a massively exciting episode with a nearly faultless script from the author of the books and tight, spectacular direction from Neil Marshall. It was great to hear Lannister anthem of power ‘The Rains of Castermere’ finally, at first raucously sung in a bar, then in a beautifully mournful tone over the end credits. Like Lord of the Rings, the books are full of songs (though they’re less twee than Tolkien’s), and they’ve wisely been kept to a minimum in the show. But this song’s notable for its frequent occurrence, and if composer Ramin Djawadi was to set any of them to music, I’m glad it was this.
With the whole episode forming a set piece of the battle, next week’s ‘epilogue’ is going to have a heavy workload catching up the rest of the plot before season’s end. We’re still awaiting resolution for Dany in Qarth, Robb in the Riverlands and Jon beyond the Wall, to name but a few. It’ll probably be a crowded episode, without the tight focus of this one. But that’s not really a problem; if the season has a climax, it’s the Battle of Blackwater, and thankfully this was no letdown.