Game of Thrones – Blackwater
Over the past few weeks I have made a big deal out of the admittedly ambiguous – to the point that some would say they’re meaningless – titles given to the episodes of Game of Thrones second season; discussing their potency as phrases, the way at they cast certain characters and the hint at the hidden themes inside that which they are used to name. I’ve discussed them even though none of those titles, hell not all of those titles combined are as big and as powerful and as utterly empty as this one, Blackwater. All season this has been the episode to look forward to, and not just because it was written by Game’s original author George R. R. Martin and directed by feature talent Neil Marshall but because the tale those two would be telling was to be a series defining one.
When the show was first picked up we all heard via osmosis – I did then and still do avoid all series spoilers, but that doesn’t stop information from flowing through – that there were two big moments in the first two books that would either sell you on the series or soil it for you; the death of Ned was one and Blackwater the other. The first of these came to me as a complete shock and succeeded most strongly in solidifying a show that I was already enjoying as something truly special; Blackwater comes at a time when I am questioning that belief and the quality of the show as a whole. For everyone watching this was a massively hyped moment, but for me it was also make or break: did the episode live up to those expectations? Did it redeem all of the wistful wheel spinning of the season to date? Could it ever?
Before I answer those questions I just asked I will address one that may be on your mind: what is Blackwater? Well, in the simplest sense it is the name given to a battle at King’s Landing, a conflict that casts Stannis Baratheon as the assaulter and the Lannister’s as those besieged; I imagine that if the show were to leap forward one hundred years there would be characters giving us history lessons about it as they did all those other unseen battles in the beginning of the show. This battle is the end result of the show’s slow season-long shuffle of match to fuse, but it’s also more than that right? I mean it has to be more than just a battle to be worthy of all these whispered words and wonderings.
Well it is and it isn’t. Though there have been many other massive battles over the course of the shows on-air history all of them have taken place of screen – sometimes the perspective character gets knocked out before the expensive stuff starts, other times the show simply skips ahead with excuse – and so this one, Blackwater, is the best by default. Though that isn’t all criticism, this is the first real battle scene that we’ve seen in the series and it was…well enough executed, I guess. By TV standards it was as gaudy as Matthew Weiner’s extravagant Beatles expense in Mad Men a few weeks back, but when you compare it to the likes of Two Towers or Kingdom of Heaven it just can’t compete, looking cheap in comparison. Though the battle scenes never really exceeded expectations of a cliche castle siege, besides those featuring some of the freakier kills, they did serve their purpose.
The real problem with this episode to my mind though -and yes I did feel that it was problematic and thus not a perfect hail mary save- was in its purpose, or rather the lack of. When you look at the season’s plot in the context of this climax you see just how pointless it has all been, that the battle is really just another way for the writers to spin their wheels and not, as expected, the moment when they would finally hit the road. The season started by introducing us briskly to these other two Baratheons, it then proceeded to kill one off almost instantly leaving us to assume that the other would then be the threat. Only now he too has been defeated and after all that effort the board remains the same, the pieces placed exactly as they were. Apparently Deer’s aren’t dangerous, who knew? To my mind those final minutes were among the weakest that the show has ever offered, in both a macro and micro sense. Even new music from Matt Berninger couldn’t save something so nefarious.
The worst part though is that I don’t hate the show, in fact I am sitting here in a Game of Thrones T-Shirt as I write this very review but this only makes the disappointment all the harder to bear. So out of respect for my fandom I want to end on what the episode did right. Firstly starting us of with those quiet moments before the battle was a good move, the ominousness pervading these scenes was some of the strongest mood material the show has yet shown. And although this fight proved to be narratively fruitless it still provided some particularly interesting thematic points. The way that the stories’ structure separated the men and the women into two distinct locations was telling of the way that these people, and of course ourselves, operate.
The males of Westeros are made to take life, they are all killers, while the work of women is to give it, whether they like it or not; but ultimately though, despite these differences, both die when battle comes. Everyone dies. Tyrion tells his troops that those on the other side of the gate are brave men and he means it sincerely, without any of his usual sarcasm; the soldiers on each side of the battle are more similar to each other than they are those they fight for or those that they left back at home (I would like to think that the two sides were so hard to differentiate during the episode in order to further this point, but I doubt it was that intentional) and yet they still kill one another en masse.
Such is the tragedy of war: this death is pointless and without reason, it is a waste. Such too is the tragedy of Blackwater. May we never forget its failings.