Review: 'Game of Thrones' - 'Blackwater': A drink before the war
A review of Sunday night's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as I'm entirely sure you're entirely sure what I'm suggesting...
"Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them!" -Tyrion
"Blackwater" received a lot of pre-air hype because, after close to two seasons of working around showing us big battles due to time and budget issues, the show was finally devoting an entire hour to the Battle of Blackwater. And while I have for the most part been fine with the show giving us only tiny snippets of combat, the execution of "Blackwater" was outstanding. The creative team — including George R.R. Martin writing his annual script and last-minute director Neil Marshall — gave us a battle with elements of the Normandy Beach scene from "Saving Private Ryan" and the siege at Helm's Deep from "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," and they made it work within the context of this show and within the limits of a budget that, even expanded from the norm, would likely make Spielberg or Peter Jackson laugh. It was a thrilling hour of television, among th show's best installments ever and every bit the worthy successor to last year's penultimate installment, the head-choppin' "Baelor."
But what ultimately made "Blackwater" so impressive for me wasn't the scope, but the focus. Where the show previously took the time it wasn't spending on battles to keep advancing all the other stories, here the only way to do the battle right was to ignore everything happening away from King's Landing. So no Dany yelling about her stolen dragons in Qarth, no Jon Snow being called brave but stupid, no Theon Greyjoy being told how in over his head he is, none of Arya on the run, Robb in love nor Brienne and Jaime doing their best "Midnight Run" impression. For one hour, the only people who mattered were the ones inside the walls of King's Landing, or on the water and shore right outside.
It was, in other words, the opposite of last week's largely frustrating installment, which felt like we were somehow running in place even as we were racing across two continents. Not only did many things happen this week — Stannis being defeated, Tyrion proving himself a brilliant strategist and worthy leader (albeit one who still needed a rescue from his father's decision to take the fight to a different would-be king), Joffrey making a cowardly exit, the Hound (after leaving the battle himself because he decides the Lannisters aren't worth dying for) offering to help Sansa escape her imprisonment, Davos losing his son (and possibly his own life) — but the amount of time spent in this one corner of the story made every moment feel bigger and richer.
It wasn't even that the hour was wall-to-wall action. We spent a good chunk of time just waiting for Stannis' ships to arrive, which allowed the tension to build, and also to deepen our appreciation of several of the key characters. Bronn saving the Hound's life on the beach becomes far more satisfying because of the earlier scene where they're on the verge of a duel to the death simply because the Hound's blood is up. (Similarly, we get to know Tyrion's squire Podrick so that Tyrion's life isn't saved by some random background extra.) Tyrion's big speech to the troops (which I'm guessing will be Peter Dinklage's Emmy submission this year) was allowed to breathe, starting out at a point where even Tyrion doesn't necessarily believe what he's saying any more than the men do, until they arrive at a moment where both he and they have bought into the rhetoric and the so-crazy-it-just-might-work battle plan. We spend so much time in the stronghold where the women and children are hiding out that the tension grows unbearable, and where Sansa might realistically come to a place where she'd be willing to run away even in the company of the terrifying Hound.
It was an hour the show had spent a season building towards, and in terms of the scale, one they can't afford to do on more than a once-per-season basis at the most. But I'd like to think that in addition to realizing they can pull off something this big now and again, Benioff and Weiss also recognize that there's value to shaking up the usual format. The huge cast of characters and the many locations where their stories take place is a strength of "Game of Thrones," but it can also be a weakness. I like a lot of the people we didn't see this week, but I also didn't exactly miss them, and I'd be fine with more episodes in the future that sticks to one locale and set of characters.
"Blackwater" was an instance of more being more, in terms of how big and exciting the battle scenes were, but it was also a case of less being much, much more.
Some other thoughts:
* I've got the usual spoiler warning down below, but I'm mentioning it up top because there are a couple of major character things that are left somewhat ambiguous, and I don't want any book readers talking about either as a done deal. I'm assuming Davos is dead, but the episode goes out of its way to show us his son dying while only giving us the sight of Davos flying through the air after the ship blows up from the wildfire. This could be an instance where he turns up floating in the water, clinging to debris but living to fight another day. Similarly, I'm assuming Sansa does agree to go with the Hound, but the scene deliberately cuts away as she's still holding onto her doll, not after she's dropped it to follow him.
* Though I alluded to it earlier, Tyrion's plan with the wildfire was delightful in how clever and effective it turned out to be.
* A great episode for Cersei, including her lament about how she was raised compared to Jaime (if Ned Stark was her father, she'd have gotten sword-fighting lessons), her nearly getting to the bottom of Shae's identity before Lancel barges in with news of the battle, and then her being on the verge of euthanizing her younger son before her father's forces save the day.
* Speaking of Tywin, I liked the misdirection last week, where we and Arya think he's preparing to mount a sneak attack on Robb's forces, when in fact he's decided he's needed more badly battling Stannis than the King in the North.
* No screener again for the finale, so don't look for it before sometime next Monday.
Finally, we're going to keep the book/spoiler issue as simple as possible. We are here to discuss "Game of Thrones" AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. Therefore, here's the only rule you should remember: if your comment contains the phrase "the books" without it being immediately preceded by "I haven't read," then you should probably delete what you've written and start over. Anything even vaguely questionable will be deleted, and if you see something that I haven't already removed, please feel free to email me. As usual, I've set up a message board discussion thread where you can do as much TV vs. books discussion as you want. In these comments, everything book-related that has yet to come up on the TV show (plot, characters we haven't met, motivation, etc.) is verboten.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com