Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Game of Thrones 2.09: Blackwater

Welcome back yet again to the Chris & Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog, in which we ... oh, seven hells, you know. I have no time for preamble this week! Blackwater! Wildfire! Things blowed up real good and green!

What an expensive-looking explosion ...

Christopher: OK, so I am dying to hear what you thought of last night’s episode—mainly because my own mind is in a total whirl about it. I’m not sure where to begin, because it was utterly unlike everything we’ve come to expect from GoT narratively: the episode focused on a single place and sequence of action, ignoring for the moment the stories of Daenerys, Theon, Bran and Rickon, Jon Snow, Robb and Catelyn, and Arya. Often episodes will leave out one narrative thread or another, which usually means we can expect something big to happen next episode. But usually we’re always aware of just how many balls the series has in the air at one time, and are (usually) impressed by how deftly it’s done.

But this episode? This was different. It makes sense narratively and thematically, as much of this season’s action has been building to the inevitable war. There have been battles along the way, of course, but we usually haven’t seen more than their aftermaths. And last season, we didn’t see the big battle because Tyrion got knocked on the head. The large-scale battle á là The Lord of the Rings or Gladiator still seems something of a bridge too far for television—which is unsurprising, considering the cost involved. When you’re spending one hundred million dollars on a two or three hour feature film, it’s all well and good … not so much when you have an entire season (with more to come) to worry about. So as much as we would love to see a proper Kurosawa-esque clash of massive armies, it’s simply not feasible.

All of which makes “Blackwater” all the more impressive. It should be noted that George R. R. Martin wrote the episode, which as he had observed is sort of an ironic return for him as a TV writer. In his many interviews, he has talked of how he sat down to start writing A Song of Ice and Fire after almost fifteen years in Hollywood, most notably as a producer and writer on Beauty and the Beast (he and Ron Perlman remain good friends). One of his frustrations with television, he has said many times, was how limited you are by budgets. His inclination was to expansive and epic storylines; many times he had pilots and proposals for new series rejected because he simply wanted to do too much. So he returned to his first love, prose fiction, in which he would never have to worry about someone else’s priorities when it came to depicting, say, a massive and complicated battle. Never once, he says, did he imagine Ice and Fire might be adapted to film or television … he’d simply made it too big and complicated.

So it was a bit of historical irony that landed him writing the climatic episode about the battle of the Blackwater … and having Benioff and Weiss keep sending back his drafts with notes that essentially said, “Uh, no … smaller, please.”

But however much they cramped his style, I have to tip my hat to GRRM for doing a very deft job of depicting battle on a massive scale while at the same time making it feel very focused and indeed almost claustrophobic at times. Changing the battle from day to night was a brilliant move in this respect—Stannis’ enormous fleet becomes a bunch of ominous and threatening shadows on the horizon, and we don’t need to see them (or be subjected to the sort crap-ass CGI we saw at the Battle of Philippi in Rome) to know they’re there. At the same time, everything becomes focused down on a small space and small group of soldiers—as I’m sure it must do in a real battle, when everything else disappears for the individuals fighting. And I would also argue it was very suggestive, in the same respect, of the fog of war …

And on top of all that, SO MUCH was going on in this episode. What do you want to talk about first, Nik?

Nikki: Let’s compare the St. Crispin’s Day motivational speeches of the week, shall we?

Cersei: Do you have any notion of what happens when a city is sacked? No, you wouldn’t. If the city falls, these fine women… shall be in for a bit of a rape. Half of them will have bastards in their bellies come morning; you’ll be glad of your red flower then.

Joffrey: Waaaaaah… sniffle, snort… soooobbb!! They’re coming ASHORE!!!

The Hound: Any man dies with a clean sword, I’ll rape his fucking corpse!

Joffrey: Are they gone yet? Ooh, I can’t look, I can’t look! I WANT MY MUMMY!!!

The Hound: Fuck the King’s Guard. Fuck the city. Fuck the king.

Joffrey: Sniffle, whimper… Stay with my uncle, and represent the king on the field of battle. [runs for cover, muppet arms flailing]

Tyrion: I’ll lead the attack! They said I’m half a man. But what does that make the lot of you? There’s another way out. I’m going to show you. Come up behind them and fuck them in their asses! Don’t fight for your king, and don’t fight for his kingdom. Don’t fight for honour, don’t fight for glory, don’t fight for riches because you won’t get any. This is your city Stannis means to sack, that is your gate he’s ravaging. If he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, your women he will rape. Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!

"Coooooooooooooooool ..."

I know who I’d be following.

What an episode. As you say, they kept to one particular story, and I even found that when it skipped over to Cersei, I just wanted them to get back to the action. So they definitely knew better than to switch over to Daenerys (whose story has been lagging this season to begin with) or anyone else when the real action is here.

Tyrion is certainly the star of this piece, with Joffrey the simpering fool, Cersei the drunken lout, and Sansa the true queen. While she was falling back on hymns and prayers, things that in the end can’t actually do anything in this situation, at least she was trying to put these women’s fears to rest, which is more than what Cersei was doing. But while Cersei comes off as one cold bitch, the ones she is absolutely loyal to, and cares about more than herself, is her children. The scene near the end of her trying to feed the lethal nightshade to her son was devastating, and you could tell it was breaking her heart. Let’s just say her daddy has some impeccable timing.

But back to the battle. It reminded me of the battle of Helm’s Deep on screen in the second LOTR movie (I half expected to see an elf come sliding down the wall shooting arrows as he went) but the highlight of the battle is certainly the wildfire exploding. The way Davos stares at it as the ship slowly sails out to land amidst the enemy ships, and the horror on Davos’s face when he realizes what’s on it. It’s so quiet and ominous, and therefore terrifying. Tyrion makes his signal to Bronn, who makes the perfect shot out to the boat… and then if there were ever the perfect poster moment for the phrase “all hell broke loose,” this would be it. What is wonderful about this scene is the look of horror on Tyrion’s face. He needed to win the battle, but he can hear the screams of agony from these men, he can watch them catch on fire and their skin bubbling and trying to jump into the water just to stop the pain, only to land in more wildfire and be tortured even further. Contrast that with the look of absolute glee on Joffrey’s face. His only regret is that he can’t record this so he can watch it over and over and over again while eating popcorn.

What were your favourite moments in the episode?

"Oh, the year was seventeen seventy-eight ..."

Christopher: Oh gods, where to start? One great moment of geek love, certainly, was hearing Bronn leading a rousing rendition of “The Rains of Castamere,” a song that appears several times in the novels. It’s sort of the unofficial Lannister national anthem, about an upstart lesser house—the Reynes—who challenge Lannister power and find themselves eradicated root and branch and their lands razed (really, it surprises anyone that this is what the Lannisters sing about to each other?). As I said, we “hear” snatches of it throughout the novels; but for the series it was put to music by the band The National. Theirs was the version playing over the credits, and the way they do it gives it a definitely funereal tone … but I think I liked it as Bronn’s drinking song better.

I also loved Varys in this episode … his little speech about hating bells was lovely, as was his revelation that he loathes sorcery.

Cersei, too. As I’ve said before, I’ve been tepid on Lena Headey as Cersei, but here she was brilliant—raging against the chromosomal lottery that put Jaime in armour and her in skirts, and getting slowly and magnificently drunk.

And of course, seeing Joffrey’s bravado from last episode melting into panic while Tyrion holds the wall and rallies the men. (I laughed at your St. Crispin’s Day reference above—in my notes under where Joffrey orders the Kingsguard to “represent the King,” I’ve written “not exactly the St. Crispin’s speech.” Ah, we few, we happy few, we band of buggered). Though I do have to say that the episode’s one false note was when all of the soldiers kind of muttered and shrugged and started to wander off after Joffrey left. “Oh, the king left? Huh. Well, then, I guess I don’t really feel like fighting these people outside the walls WHO WANT TO KILL ME.” Perhaps the fight goes out of them, and perhaps they won’t leave the safety of the walls to face the enemy, but they’re not about to sit on their hands.

Really, there’s too many great moments to geek out over—the wildfire explosion, Stannis kicking ass on top of the wall, Sansa telling Tyrion “I will pray for your safe return, my lord—just as I pray for the king’s” (ouch!), Davos answering the city’s bells with his drums …

But my favourite part of this episode? The Hound. He’s always been a disturbing, glowering, enigmatic character. But here we see what Rory McCann can do. The slow build of his panic in the face of fire throughout the battle was lovely, but his final fuck-you to Joffrey and his appearance in Sansa’s room were both beautiful moments. He’s singing the tune he sang before—“the world is built by killers”—but this time that fact has none of the harsh realism he was offering Sansa before and instead sounds elegiac. The world is built by killers and he is a consummate killer, and in this moment he has failed. When he cuts and runs, he becomes a poignant depiction of post-traumatic stress as we realize that the pain and fear he suffered at his brother’s hands has never gone away. And McCann conveys that with brutal elegance.

How about you, Nikki?

"What do you mean, I'm overcompensating?"

Nikki: You do realize you just gained major points on this blog by quoting Spike on Buffy, right? Of course you do. ;)

And you beat me to the National link. A couple of days ago Josh Winstead, who does the Walking Dead posts with me, sent me a link to the Rains of Castamere song. Problem was, I saw it at work, and decided to listen to it at home. And since I have a Leonard Shelby memory (you should see the tattoos on my arms…) I completely forgot. So when I heard it at the end of the episode, I said to my husband, “Is that… the National??” You can’t mistake that voice. Of course, I didn’t realize they were singing the Lannister song. Brilliant version of it. And considering the sadness of the end, the funereal way they sing it seemed perfect where it was placed.

Let us talk of the end. Now I’ve been trained that no one is too important to be killed off (see Stark, Ned), but at the same time, his death, in retrospect, was necessary to spark the rest of the events thus far. The way Bran and Rickon were displayed by Theon tipped me off that it wasn’t actually the boys; we would have seen him kill them, they still seem like they could play an important role (I mean, if you kill off all the Starks, you lose a lot of tension…), and the fact they were burned beyond recognition made me think Theon was just saving face.

But Tyrion? I don’t think he could be dead. He’s important, he’s KEY, and Tywin just showed up. Tyrion and Tywin could be a serious force to be reckoned with. Jaime’s been rotting in a cage, Cersei’s been moping about, she was just about to kill her own son rather than face the hordes (and perhaps herself, too), Joffrey runs crying from the battlefield, and Tyrion — the ironically nicknamed “Half Man” — has just proven himself to be the only worthy Lannister. Tywin should be pretty impressed, and I doubt they’d kill him off the show just when he’s finally about to prove himself once and for all to his father. Tyrion has always been the brains; Jaime’s the brawn. In this battle, Tyrion finally proved himself to be both. (I understand the response to my comment may be spoilery, so you can just jump to the next topic if you’d like.)

"I hate having to shop for armour at Gap Kids."

Christopher: I’ll avoid being spoilery by asking if it was clear to you who it was cut Tyrion. I know who it was, it being an important plot point in the novel, but wasn’t sure it came across in the scene. Did you catch who his assailant was?

The awkward moment when you realize your bodyguard
is handing you his letter of resignation. With his sword.

Nikki: You know when you think you see something but then something else happens so quickly afterward that your brain just moves on to the next thing? And then when someone like, oh, I don’t know, YOU mentions something that your brain had tweaked to, it instantly comes flooding back?

When Tyrion turned around on the field, he sort of smiles at a guy wearing a full facial helmet with three ridges on it. It’s the same helmet of the guy that Joffrey turned to (did he call him Ser Boris? I couldn’t hear the name he was using) and he said, “Stay with my uncle and represent the king.” Now your question had made it clear to me that it must have been the same guy. So… does that mean Joffrey’s demand had a double-meaning? In other words, don’t let my uncle out of my sight, and should the men begin to follow him, represent the king and get rid of him on my behalf as a traitor?

Oh, Joffrey. I hate you so much more now.


Christopher: Heh. Not to be spoilery, but don’t assume it was Joffrey. And for the record yes: he called him Ser Boris. Ser Boris Blount, to be precise.

So to return to your original question: yes, one of the things GRRM does is remove all of our confidence in who lives and dies. Bran and Rickon? Alive, yes. Tyrion? Well, obviously I’m not saying. And as sound as your reasoning is for why they couldn’t kill him off, I’ll say: (1) Ned died in the penultimate episode last season; (2) wouldn’t it just be just SO painful if Tyrion died just as he was about to finally be recognized by his father as worthwhile?

And don’t forget our other beloved MIA: Davos was blown overboard by the wildfire explosion. Alive, or dead?

If I can bring us back from the ending, I’m curious to know what you thought of the near-fight between the Hound and Bronn. It is a scene, incidentally, that does not occur in the novels … I’d have to check, but I’m pretty sure those two never speak to each other. And in any other episode, I’d just chalk it up to the writers being inventive, but this was a GRRM-penned ep … meaning that this was a confrontation that came from his mind.

I thought it was such an interesting scene. The Hound, again, was singing his favourite tune re: the love of killing, to which Bronn cheerfully copped. (Extended aside: I have quite grown to love Bronn in this series. Some characters have not lived up to the novels; but some have exceeded them, and Bronn is Exhibit A. Jerome Flynn has played him with such dark humour that he’s really quite difficult not to like, a far cry from the hard-bitten version in the novels). The Hound is obviously spoiling for a fight, and Bronn is not one to back down, and has his hand on his knife when the bells toll (in my notes I’ve written “saved by the bell!” heh).

The point, obviously I think, is to provide a contrast between two incarnations of the Hound’s world-view—two born killers, one dour and dedicated, the other hale and well-met (the naked whore in his lap was somewhat overdone, we got the point), both of whom find themselves in the service of a possibly doomed master. Thoughts?

"Wait, are you SURE there isn't some EXTREMELY IMPORTANT
business underneath my bed I have to attend to?"

Nikki: Yes, I wonder if there are some people watching who were staring at the girl in his lap and afterwards said, “What? There was a discussion between Bronn and the Hound? I… didn’t notice.”

I liked that scene a lot. The Hound has always been a character I’ve liked. I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but last season when Baelish told Sansa the Hound’s backstory, and how his brother had pushed his face into the fire and seared it, the Hound instantly had my sympathies. Especially when Baelish made him out to be a monster, telling Sansa never to reveal this information to him or he’d kill her on the spot. The way the Hound glances in her direction in that moment made me think he could hear Baelish telling her, but it was unclear.

From that moment there’s been a link between the Hound and Sansa. On the one hand, he calls her the little bird and seems sympathetic to her. He knows how insipid Joffrey is (his distaste of the little shit every time Joffrey calls him “Dog” is written all over his disfigured face), and how awful the Lannisters are, and he sees Sansa as someone who is about to get wrapped up in this family because her father made a bad decision.

Bronn is an interesting character; I don’t like him as much as you do, because in a fight between him and the Hound I’d be rooting for the latter, but he’s the one person who seems to outwit Tyrion on a regular basis, and their “final” words to one another suggest he’s far more educated than he lets on. I’m very intrigued by him, and I hope we find out more in the upcoming seasons.

But the Hound is fantastic. The final scene was extraordinary. Sansa enters the room, and goes right for her doll. Until now she’s tried to keep it together, she mutters only to Shae her hatred for Joffrey (Shae’s constantly shushing her), she says exactly what she’s supposed to say, she watches Cersei’s drunken rantings with a wide-eyed fear, people tell her what to do and she rarely talks back, and after her outbursts in season 1 many of us had very little time for her. But you can’t forget she’s still a little girl. The actress playing her is much older than Sansa is supposed to be. She’s just getting her period for the first time, so that puts her at early high school age. She stands there and holds her dolly, reverting back to the little girl she was just a few short months ago, before her red rose was blooming (as Cersei put it), before her future husband was threatening her life on a regular basis, before she had a future husband, before her father was beheaded, before she was separated from her entire family, before she’d had to leave Winterfell.

And then the Hound speaks, and unnerves her. She does what she’s done all season: stares wide-eyed at him, doesn’t say a word, speaks only when spoken to, and then he tells her that everyone around her is a killer and she’d better get used to it. And watch how her eyes change. That wide-eyed little bird look disappears, she narrows her eyes and stares at him as if she’s trying to suss out the situation. And then she says, “You won’t hurt me.” She doesn’t ask it, she states it, as if knowing it’s true. He assures her he won’t, and heads for the door. She makes her own decision for the first time in her life, drops the doll, and leaves the room… finally a woman.

"I have a better idea for what you can do with your sword."

Christopher: What a great reading of that scene. Poor Sophie Turner … playing Sansa must be a mostly thankless role—for most of last season she was a whiny princess, and for most of this season she’s essentially cowered under the capricious threat of Joffrey’s violence. But then she gets these moments of extraordinary strength and grace, as she did last season when Joffrey makes her look at her father’s head, and pretty much all throughout this episode. She has spent all this time being terrified of the Hound, but in the final estimation she gets his measure. Having her pick up the doll as she comes into her room was incredibly poignant. That she has kept the doll as a keepsake of her father is unsurprising, but still powerful. It reminds us of Ned’s hamfisted attempt to cheer her up last season, only to be told that she wasn’t a little girl any more. Well, now she knows that she was … and as you point out, is no longer.

If growing up is in part about losing your illusions—putting aside childish things, as it were—Sansa has had to grow up pretty damn fast in King’s Landing. She’s something of a surrogate for that part of us that still wants to believe fairy tales and traditional stories of knights and kings, or for that matter that understanding of the fantasy genre coloured by the moral absolutism of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien. Kings can be venal and buffoonish like Robert, or cruel and sadistic like Joffrey; queens can be power-hungry and conniving like Cersei; knights can be cold killing machines like the Hound or Jaime Lannister; and men with unshakeable honour like her father don’t last long in their company, because they don’t understand how the game of thrones is played.

But Sansa is learning. All in the game, yo.

So … we have one more episode to go, which makes me very, very sad … any final thoughts on the penultimate episode?

"Varys, you know I'd love to hear how you lost your johnson, but
I've got a city to defend, my whore to hide, my nephew to humilate,
and a fleet to blow up. I'm swamped."

Nikki: These seasons are far too short. But there was a lot in this episode that hinted at larger things, and created some tension and drama that will continue into season 3:

  • Varys talks about when he was cut, as if there’s some major meaning behind it. I don’t think anyone chooses to be a eunuch, but in his case, I’m thinking there was a particularly sinister reason for why he is one.
  • As mentioned earlier, the men showed their loyalty to Tyrion on the field, which may have led to him being sliced. I particularly loved Joffrey threatening Tyrion, and Tyrion’s blasé response: “Then I’ll be the quarter man. Doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
  • Joffrey arrogantly calls his sword “Hearteater”; I do hope that’s prescient, but that it will be turned on him. Then again, he doesn’t have a heart to remove, so…
  • Sansa brilliantly goads Joffrey into joining the vanguard on the field by telling him how brave her brother Robb is in battle. He’ll be looking to make her pay for that.
  • I was shocked when Davos blew off the boat in the wildfire attack. He’s a brilliant character, played wonderfully by Liam Cunningham. I feel like there’s a lot more backstory there to be explored, but how could he have survived that attack? If he does, he’s likely horribly mangled.
  • Shae. I wasn’t sure what I thought of her at first, but I REALLY like her now. She has an oldness about her, like she’s wise beyond her years, and I loved it when she lifted her skirt to reveal the knife and told Sansa in no uncertain terms that no one will be raping her.
  • In her drunkenness, Cersei reveals that her father told her there were no gods when she was only four years old and praying to them for her mother. No wonder she became so cold.
  • Stannis looks like he’s done for, but I’m thinking Melisandre is going to enter the story again to deal with this situation.
  • Y’all know what I think about shipping, but if I did that sort of thing, I’d be shipping the Hound and Sansa right now. I’m rooting for a beauty and the beast sort of thing to happen there.

Can’t wait for next week!


Joan Crawford said...

Love the captions you've added to these pics. Really enjoying reading your recaps with Nikki over on her site.

Chris in NF said...

Thanks, Joan! I'm going to be so sad when this season is over.

Zach Z said...

It is going to be sad times when the season is over, 10 episodes fly by too quick. Can't believe the finale is tomorrow. Though casting news has already got me excited for next season with the Reeds and the Blackfish being cast...

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