Game of Thrones, Ep. 2.09: “Blackwater” mostly lives up to the hype

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Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 9: “Blackwater”
Written by George R. R. Martin
Directed by Neil Marshall
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on HBO

The Battle of the Blackwater. From book proponents to HBO itself, there’s been a steady stream of hype coming in about the event, and it’s “Blackwater”‘s job to work as a stunning lynchpin to hold the back half of the season together. (You’ll remember that “Baelor,” the penultimate episode of the first season, featured Ned Stark’s execution.) And so George R. R. Martin himself pens the episode, Neil Marsall (Centurion, The Descent) directs; big guns for a big battle. The whole season has been designed around this event. So the question is: does “Blackwater” do the trick? Mostly, yes, it does.

“Blackwater” sticks exclusively to King’s Landing and its surrounding waters over the course of a couple of fateful hours, eschewing the “grand tour” mode the show’s been operating in for quite some time, and it’s all the stronger for it; it’s an approach that more closely resembles the way the books are laid out, wirh one character’s perspective per chapter. The hour mostly oscillates between two types of scenes: key moments from the battle itself, and quiet scenes of dialogue that help to flesh out the suffocating atmosphere in the city as everyone waits for their fates to be decided.

While taking in a steady stream of wine, Cersei drops all pretenses with Sansa this week, describing in detail just what sort of awful things will befall them should the city fall – and what awful things she can continue to expect in her shared life with Joffrey if it does not. Lena Headey’s hardly the show’s subtlest performer, but she’s well-suited to drunken tears. As for Sansa, she pairs up with the hour’s most unexpectedly important figure, the Hound, who quite possibly spirits her out from the city. (Maybe. The shot of her dropping the doll makes it seem like she’s made the choice to trust him and take off, but let’s save definitive answers for next week.)

The episode also offers some amusingly divergent glimpses at wartime leadership. Joffrey, of course, is hilarious throughout, particularly when he graces his fine sword with a ludicrous name, only to eventually flee at the first possible opportunity. (His fearful cry of “there’s too many!” is a thing of beauty.) In contrast, of course, there’s Tyrion, who not only plans seemingly every aspect of the defense of King’s Landing, but also leads a charge himself with one hell of a speech, and Stannis, who proves himself to be as much of a badass as he is a hardass.

Of course, there’s also the small matter of the money on the screen. Benioff and Weiss managed to wring out some significant dough to do this battle justice, and it pays off, even if the night-and-fog circumstances help obscure some of the combatants on both land and sea (and keep the extras budget down). One aspect they aboslutely nailed, without question, is the Wildfire explosion engineered by Tyrion. It’s a genuinely awe-inspiring moment, bolstered by some killer sound design (the constant din of terrified screams that follows the attack is a thing of wretched beauty).

Other aspects of the battle were a little less convincing. The Hound’s conversion from bloodthirsty boaster to PTSD’d deserter was more than a little sudden, even if it was meant to be inspired by his (understandable) fear of fire. It’s also frequently difficult to tell just who’s fighting for who in a few sequences; that robs the moment wherein Tyrion gets a nasty slash across the face by someone from Joffrey’s Kingsguard (!) of some of its impact. Marshall does a fine job of setting the desperate mood of the fight, but his actual battle scenes sometimes lack clarity. The end of the episode, with Tywin riding in to save the day, couldn’t help but feel a little…anti-climactic, as well, especially given the total lack of casualties we actually care about. (Davos might be a goner, maybe, though that seems like an awfully ignoble end, even for Game of Thrones.) Take a couple of characters out of the equation, and Tywin’s intervention might have had a more palpable sense of relief.

That’s mostly nitpicking, though. “Blackwater” does what it’s meant to do: it’s a big, expensive and effective climax to a season that’s sometimes beenn lacking for direction. Though it’s not nearly as emotionally devastating as its season-one equivalent, “Baelor” (which probably remains the series’ highwater mark), it’s still a hell of an achievement. Next week brings the other much-ballyhooed aspect of season 2’s endgame, the House of the Undying; here’s hoping it delivers the goods on its own terms, rather than just feeling like prelude for the show’s next season.

Simon Howell

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