Game of Thrones: “Blackwater” Review

It almost goes without saying: George R.R. Martin should write every Game of Thrones episode. It’s his series, after all, right? If they could get him for all of ’em, why not? It feels a little Captain Obvious to mention that yes, he may indeed be the most qualified person to handle the scripting duties for the show that adapts his novels.

Yet this isn’t always the case with authors-turned-screenwriters, not even most of the time. There are usually “novelists” and “TV people” and (shockingly) often the skill set doesn’t translate over from one form to the next. Even when adapting their own work—something that seems at first glance to be an easy task—these well-meaning authors stumble, forgetting simple screenwriting necessities like pace and transition in favor of canon-kissing literal translation.

Which is why every Game of Thrones fan with half a brain should be thanking the Seven that Martin turned in what may be his best script to date with “Blackwater.”

The ASoIaF fan and the GoT fan in me married tonight (and the sex was great!), so thrilled was I that Martin got it, that he was able to walk the proverbial tightrope that people have sometimes accused this more-than-often brilliantly made show of falling off. At the very least it should rein back the hardcore purists who decry every change made in the adaptation… though I think they, at times, tend to forget that Martin is himself executive producer of this show, which essentially means he signs off on most every change made. Certainly the ones of larger scope, as the so-called “butterfly effect” would ruin major plot points.

Either way it’s good to see Martin hasn’t lost any of his old touch and seems to have, in fact, aged rather well in the screenwriting department.

And this isn’t to take anything from the show-runners. Indeed, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had one hell of a challenge on their hands, making this bad boy work. It’s one thing to write “HUGE EXPLOSION OF GREEN FIRE”—it’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax to make it look as bloody impressive as the Death Star going nova. Major props also go to director Neil Marshal, who swooped in at the Nth hour to direct this frenetic, visual masterpiece.

I don’t say “masterpiece” lightly. I think this ranks up there with some of the best television ever. And I watch a lot of television.

“Blackwater” was epic from the word go. We felt the tension going in, and it kept ramping up, up, up. The dips in momentum were strategically placed (the outstanding Sansa and Cersei scenes come to mind), and only lasted long enough for us to gather our collective breaths once more before plunging us (and our dear friends) back into the breech.

We opened on the ship commanded by Davos (Liam Cunningham), with his son Matthos (Kerr Logan) as they sailed under dark of night towards King’s Landing. Ironically this is the only scene that does not take place in King’s Landing, and the episode was scripted with no breaks in setting; no Jon Snow, no Dany, no crazy Theon. (We’ll be getting all of that in the next, season-ending episode!)

The little pre-conflict scenes were spot-on, and they highlighted the slow build toward battle through different eyes; Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) abed with his funny whore Shae (Sebil Kekilli); Cersei (Lena Headey) preparing for her own personal endgame scenario with (formerly grand) Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover)…

Martin gave us a nice hitherto unseen confrontation between Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn), after Sandor and his Random Lannister Companion (we’ve decided to dub him Brad—all hail Brad Lannister) strolled into the brothel Bronn and the boys had claimed. (Aside: of course Jerome Flynn can sing. He’s one half of Robson and Jerome!)

They were about to throw down. One of them had to die. I could imagine Martin cackling, rubbing his hands together. “Who would win in a fight between the Hound and Bronn?” has been a subject heatedly debated over many an internet forum.

And then—saved by the bell! (Sure, I would have loved to have seen that fight. But I sure as shit didn’t want to lose either of those characters!)

“I have always hated the bells,” Varys (Conleth Hill) murmured. “They ring for horror, a dead king, a city under siege…”

“A wedding.”

“Exactly.”

I liked the disturbed tone Varys’s voice took on when he started talking about magic.

Davos answered the bells with drums, and that just ramped shit to 11. I think I went from edge-of-my-seat to standing. And that beat kept thrumming and thrumming, all up until that point where Bronn released that one arrow…

…and everything went silent…

BOOM!

Props to the CGI people (and the budget gods at HBO) for that mind-blowing shot of that ship exploding in green wildfire—or as I like to call it, my future desktop image.

And everything just sort of went to joyous hell from there, didn’t it? This was the Epic Battle we’ve been thirsting for ever since Tyrion got accidentally bludgeoned into unconsciousness by his own people back in season 1, causing him (and us) to miss the fight completely. It was constant and nasty, a visceral pummeling that pulled no punches and spared little gore.

And as good as that was… it was the little details that made “Blackwater” what it was.

As I mentioned before, the little breaks with Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Queen Cersei were just oustanding. Turner has been excellent this year with limited screen time, and she showed some fantastic subtlety in essentially goading King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) into putting his life in danger; that rare results through passive-aggressiveness… though in true P.A. fashion, it didn’t actually accomplish what it was meant to, i.e. Joffers’ demise. A pity.

The attention Martin paid to Sandor and Sansa’s subtext-ridden relationship was nice. Sandor seemed—for the first time in this series—a real living, breathing person, and Rory McCann was finally let out of his cage and allowed to do his thing. That final scene in Sansa’s chamber was delightfully scripted, acted, and shot, and I loved the slow confidence in Sansa’s eyes when she stared up at him and said, “You won’t hurt me.”

For me that was more powerful than him forcing a song from her lips. Both these characters grew substantially this episode, and I loved watching it.

HBO put forth both Lena Headey and Sophie Turner for Emmy consideration, and ironically they probably share more than a few scenes together in their highlight reels—and both primarily from this episode, I would wager. Headey was at her biting best, showing every flaw in Cersei’s fractured character and allowing us to witness her slow, inevitable transition from merely drunk to utter and complete shitfaced oblivion.

Her final scene was brilliant—possibly my favorite of the episode, and that’s saying a lot. Cersei sitting on the Iron Throne in that massive hall darkened by smoke from those gigantic braziers, their fire—like Cersei’s spirit—extinguished. Tommen in her lap and a vial of poison in her hand. Just the fact that she had seated herself on the throne with her child was enough to give me chills. But Headey’s performance overall was just insanely good. If she is overlooked this season when the awards come around, it’s a bloody crime.

“But this is Stannis Baratheon. I’d have a better chance seducing his horse.”

Stannis! That dude is hard. Book Stannis was content to lead from a distant shore—Martin had this Stannis (Stephen Dillane) going over the bloody walls first. (And without a helmet! Didn’t he see that dude next to him get his skull crushed by that rock?)

(Sure, that guy was wearing a helmet, and it didn’t protect him at all. Maybe that’s the lesson!)

And Dinklage as Tyrion was his usual level of insanely fantastic. Tyrion is the hero Ned Stark had too much honor to be, essentially doing whatever it takes to win. Sure he regrets the many deaths he causes (Dinklage played that up perfectly), but he’ll keep doing what needs doing.

I liked that we got much more of Tyrion’s squire Podrick (Daniel Portman), though I still lament the lack of an actual proper introduction scene.

And finally when Lord Tywin (Charles Dance) came striding into the throne room, flush with bloody victory, I couldn’t help but give a silent fist-pump—even though I’m rooting against Tywin and his Lannisters!

That’s the simple power of Dance, people. And again, the writing, because it shows just how fully-formed and three-dimensional many of George R.R. Martin’s characters are. We’re allowed to like Tywin—to even root for him—because he’s not a caricature villain. He’s a powerful man who cares deeply for the well-being of his house. Hell, that makes him a hero in many respects.

Finally, props again to the music. “The Rains of Castamere” was never so fully formed in my head as it is now. Martin’s lyrics plus Ramin Djawadi’s musicality plus The National’s execution equals the perfect way to end an episode.

“Blackwater” just encapsulated most of what I love about the books and the television series. It’s the perfect storm, and it’s hitting at just the right moment. We’re ready for stuff like this… and the wizards behind the curtains finally have the skill to give it to us.

Bravo.

If you forgot your helmet, follow me on Twitter! That’s @Axechucker!

  • Pete

    I love you. This show rocks

  • Very good review. I do recall GRRM answering the question about what being an executive producer means in this case. He said it’s because he writes one episode each season. I thought it would be more than that though, but that’s what he said.

    • Axechucker

      The fact that they do consult him at all is a big step up from most adaptations; studios have, in the past, taken a rather strong “It’s mine now, I paid for it and I’ll do with it what I please!” approach. The fact that we have someone who can point and say, “Well, no, you can’t just kill Lancel, I have plans for him” gives this show a gigantic leg up.

      • Udi

        I agree with you on that and the funny thing is: It’s perhaps the one reason we should actually be glad that ASOIAF is not wrapped up. If we had the entire book series finished at this stage we might have not gotten GRRM as a screenwriter on GoT. D&D NEED him on board! We gain.

  • Erik the Viking

    For me the episode’s only weakness was Tyrion’s sortie against the battering ram (although I LOVE the convertible boat/ram idea). It seemed way too easy; what, were there like 30 guys defending it? This is where the assault is supposed to be hottest.
    It seemed out of place with the overall excellence of the episode.
    Oh, to get a chance to comb through the leavings on the cutting room floor…

    Related thought:
    I wonder if they’ll ever take the time to give us an “Extended Edition”, unbound by the 55 minute ep limit.
    As a case in point, the LotR movies benefitted greatly (story-wise) from the extension.

    • Axechucker

      Last season they said they left almost nothing on the cutting room floor, so yeah, it would be interesting to see what they’ve left us this year.

  • Vianney

    Gary Weaver ‏@GaryWeaver
    I have to wait 8 hours until I can apply the final coat to our cabinets. So rewatch #Blackwater 8 more times? OK. #gameofthrones

    • Vianney

      (for your twitfest consideration)

      • Axechucker

        I’m so using that.

        • Vianney

          boo!

  • Allison Wheaton

    Your review is excellent, just like this episode.  I too was on the edge of my seat, mainly from the ratcheting tension in the episode although the rain and wind from tropical storm Beryl did its part too.  I have no idea what goes into Emmy judging but GOT should definitely be in contention because this was the best episode of television this year.

    • Axechucker

      Well I don’t have an Emmy vote, but I’m gonna be hitting up more than a few of my voting contacts and pestering them incessantly. 

    • Dustfan

      Is there an Emmy for Best Episode?  If so Blackwater wins in a landslide.  As a book reader I still felt the tension.  I can’t even imagine what it was like for the non-book readers.  

      • Allison Wheaton

        I think they just have emmys for best drama, comedy, etc.  But they make the decision based on an individual episode (I think).

  • Brynn

    I loved. LOVED. The MASSIVE EXPLOSION OF GREEN FIRE.  It was truly an “oh shit!” moment.

    I also loved the fact that this episode did not detract to any other locations.  It was JUST about the Battle of Blackwater.  It made the story much more linear, and the building of the tension that much more effective.

    I know next week we will return to the multi-storytelling format again, since DUH we have to for all the characters, but I will miss THIS. In a season filled with multiple disappointing scenes of Dany stomping her foot and demanding things that people really don’t need to give her (but in that, it was faithful to the book) and Jon coming off like a major liability than asset, I will miss this one solid hour (er… 55 minutes) of seriously good story telling with graphic battle, fantastic acting and unrelenting build.

    • Axechucker

      Yeah, they have a lot to tie up in only one episode. Luckily it’s supposed to be 70 minutes long!

  • Andrew

    This was an amazing episode. Really not much else I can say. Neil Marshall was a great choice to direct, without a doubt. I’ve also seen a lot of people a bit dissapointed that the battle didn’t seem a bit epicer, which I think is actually kind of a compliment. You know a TV series is great when people can’t help but hold it to the standards of Hollywood movies.

    I am a bit sad this episode was penned by GRRM; not because he didn’t do well, of course. He’s undeniably a great writer, but I’m almost sure that if this exact same script had Bryan Cogman, or D&D, or Vanessa Taylors name attached, a lot more people would be complaining about little things and changes. Since it’s George, though, they immediately play down the complaints and say they understand the budget constraints/still blame changes on D&D.

    • Axechucker

      I was sort of hoping there WOULD be a few massive deviations (the chain doesn’t really count), so we could call the hardcore purists to the carpet.  Unfortunately (or very fortunately, depending on how you look at it) there were hardly any. It’s really where we see GRRM’s experience as a screenwriter pay off.

  • Jesco1975

    I hate that the season is only 10 episodes, I have to wait a whole year to see season 3 . They should make the first and the last episodes of the season 2 hours long. That would be awesome!

  • purplejilly

    Yes, when Tywin walked in at the end, I said Hooray!  I didn’t jump up and cheer, having recently injured my back while pushing my mother up a hill in a wheelchair (long story), but I sedately cheered from my flexeril fog!  And I thought, here’s the second time Tywin has walked in and saved people for me.  I didn’t like Book Tywin, I find I am LOVING HBO Tywin.

    That wildfire scene. OMG. the wildfire! I hate to say it, but I let my 8 year old daughter watch the second half of the show because she wandered out of her bedroom and I was too tired to take her back.  Or too into the show to pause it and take her back, either way.  So she hates Joffrey, and is totally team Stannis.  I had to make her close her eyes for all the battle scenes, but she got mad at me for cheering for the wildfire.  The things she’ll be discussing with her therapist 20 years from now.. sigh..

    And when I was watching the reactions of the people on the tower to the wildfire, the screams, the burning soldiers, I felt like this was a nice callback to the conversation Tyrion has with Theon at Winterfell, back in S.1 about seeing soldiers burned alive on their ships, and hearing their screams. B Cogman foreshadowed it then, and then GRRM brought the game home tonight!

    There was plenty of San/San – and honestly if she doesn’t leave with Sandor tonight, I will be really puzzled as to why not.  They have to give us a good explanation of why she didn’t go to make me happy – because with everything that has been going on and everything Cersei told her tonight, that girl should have jumped on his back and rode him like Hodor, off to Winterfell!

    And I totally love HBO Shae.  When she first appeared I didnt think she was the right cast.  The look, the sound, the attitude, the lines they gave her, just seemed miles away from Book Shae,  But they’ve taken HBO Shae in a different direction, and I LIKE the direction they have taken her, and I like that she is becoming Sansa’s mentor in a way.

    AT first I didn’t know who had ridden in to save them, then when they came in and the helmet came off and it was Loras, it all made sense – I was so excited I had forgotten what happens in the book! LOL!

    I only have one little nitpick, one scene that stood out as ‘awkward’ for me.  That was once Bronn got the girl on his knee naked, he let her sit there far too long.  I think in reality, if someone (the Hound, in this case) starts talking shit to you, that’s going to break the mood, and you would scooch the girl off your leg sooner, and have her wrap back up.  So it made the scene with him and the hound a little weird for me, because I felt it wasn’t natural.  I mean, even the girl should have been feeling the tension and should had slid off Bronn’s knee herself and cowered in the back of the room a little. 

    But’s that’s my only nit, and that;s pretty good cause I am the Queen of the Nitpickers 🙂

    Great review as always FaB.  And I giggle every time I hear Simone call you “Toby” in TDR!  LOL.

    • Hjanne87

       YES, I too was confused about the girl sitting there naked the whole time :O And the missing chain AND the missing King’s ships in the bay.

      The other thing that bothered me was Sandor not kissing Sansa x/ because I had waited for it since I read the book, what, 3 months ago? (feels like an eternity) But the looks between them were just perfect and they got the tension right there so it made up a bit 🙂 “No, I won’t hurt you little bird” <3

      All in all I felt like this was the best episode of this series (or any series?) even though I had no idea this was written by Martin himself. Drunken Cersei? The best! 😀 And the ending scene followed by Rains of Castamere got me really emotional… wow, that was SOMETHING!

  • Hsears25

    I got chills watching and chills re-reading. The scene with Cersei and Tommen was straight up eerie and was amazingly done. I did a literal fist pump for TYWINNNNN and there were goosebumps on my goosebumps when the Raind of Castamere came on at the end

  • More like Braed Lannister… amirite?

  • More like Braed Lannister… amirite?