Review: Game of Thrones S2E09 “Blackwater”


“And who are you, the proud lord said,
that I must bow so low?
Only a cat of a different coat,
that’s all the truth I know.
In a coat of gold or a coat of red,
a lion still has claws,
And mine are long and sharp, my lord,
as long and sharp as yours.
And so he spoke, and so he spoke,
that lord of Castamere,
But now the rains weep o’er his hall,
with no one there to hear.
Yes now the rains weep o’er his hall,
and not a soul to hear.” — The Rains of Castamere

If there’s been a complaint (actually more of a nitpick) from fans of the show in regards to Game of Thrones’ second season it would be that a majority of the episodes this season looked to be cutting corners in terms of budget. The show’s first season was already the most expensive  TV series ever and this season things just got more expensive. There was one thing that seemed to have forced the producers of the show into scaling things back for many of the episodes (this season was really about shooting many scenes indoors whether it was inside a castle or tent) and that one thing was tonight’s ninth and penultimate episode of season two: “Blackwater”.

Tonight’s episode is the culmination of everything which has come before it during this season. Sure, we had some machinations that involved Daenerys across the Narrow Sea at Qarth and Jon Snow north of the Wall. Outside of those two subplots which has yet to fully play out this season (most likely extending into season 3), every storyline this second season was about moving the necessary pieces and characters that would affect the outcome of the battle that was going to take place on Blackwater Bay outside King’s Landing. This was a battle that’s been eagerly anticipated by fans of the books. It’s a gamechanger in the novels and after tonight’s episode played out it looks like it also changes the ever shifting dynamics of the tv show.

First things first, all the money being saved by cutting back on outdoor filming during this season looked like it went all in with this episode. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss know that they had a great chance of alienating the fans of the books and, most likely, even those of just the show if the most pivotal storyline this season was to be turned into a battle told off-screen and after the fact. No, this battle had to be filmed and done so that it didn’t look cheap. Even writer George R.R. Martin who gave birth to this epic medieval fantasy saga came in to pen tonight’s teleplay in order. The show even decided to go with an outsider to direct tonight’s episode and did they ever hit it out of the park with their choice of veteran genre filmmaker Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, Descent, Doomsday, Centurion).

“Blackwater” did something this series has never done and that’s focus the entirety of it’s running time to telling the story of just the one location and tonight it was to be King’s Landing and Blackwater Bay. Every episode in this series has jumped from location to location that viewers have had to learn how to expertly track each storyline just to make sense of the show’s overall narrative. Yet, tonight Martin, the showrunners and, most likely, Marshall himself, knew that jumping the episode from location to location wouldn’t be the smartest of ideas. Tonight had to be about this battle and how it furthers the character growth of many characters in the show.

I was surprised at how well the episode depicted the Battle of Blackwater Bay. We can definitely see Martin’s hand in the writing of tonight’s episode as things gradually built-up from the very moment the intro sequence ended and we come to see the invasion fleet Stannis has brought to King’s Landing just moment’s away from seeing the walls of the city. Even this late in the stage of the siege preparations we get to see how terrified everyone seems to be about the coming siege and battle. Everyone seem to be dealing with the prospect of battle in their own unique way. Tyrion spends it with Shae in his quarters with the notion that this time with Shae might be the last he’ll ever have adding a sense of poignancy to their scene.

Tyrion’s partner-in-crime and lord of the Goldcloaks spends it with some of his men at one of the local taverns with many tankards of good brown ale and the warm companionship of the city’s many prostitutes. Bronn may be acting cavalier about the coming battle, but his behavior and those of his men in the tavern doesn’t seem farfetched as we’ve learned through first-hand accounts of soldiers on the eve of battle trying to make the most of what could be their final hours on Earth. Bronn’s behavior is a stark contrast to that of Sandor “The Hound” Clegane who shows up in the very tavern but not with thoughts of a final night’s of debauchery and merrymaking but instead spending time drinking brown ale in silence and a mood that’s telling in how The Hound sees the prospect of victory in the coming battle. Bronn may think the battle is hopeless but he knows well enough not to waste what time he has left brooding and acting like a Debbie-downer like the bigger Hound.

Even Cersei and Sansa get a chance to show how the battle brings out the best and worst in people. The former’s caustic tongue and even more bitter personality comes to the forefront as she drops any sense of pretense of being the courtly Queen’s Regent. She knows exactly that the battle will not be about glory and honor. The battle will be about bloodshed, destruction and, if the defenders lose, the raping and killing of all the women behind the wall’s of King’s Landing. Cersei is prepared to do what is necessary to keep herself, her children and the women from being raped and murdered, but in doing so loses what semblance of loyalty her handmaidens and courtly allies may have had for her. Sansa, on the other hand, still tries to put up a brave front. Maybe it’s a genuine reaction or one she knows she must put up if just to keep the ladies in the Red Keep where she and Cersei have stashed themselves from running in panic.

As a student of military tactics and history tonight’s episode wasn’t cringe-inducing once the battle itself began. Martin does a great job in condensing the tactics and maneuvers he had written in detail in the novel, but could be confusing to the uninitiated. The episode wasn’t too simplified to the point it hand-held the audience through every step and move both sides made. We knew that Tyrion had a surprise waiting for Stannis’ invasion fleet and that it involved the use of the alchemical concoction “wildfire” (the show’s version of that near-legendary weapon that the Eastern Roman Empire used to defend Constantinople for centuries called “Greek Fire”), but we still had no idea just how the surprise would turn out. Even when the single boat silently approached the vanguard fleet led by Ser Davos we still didn’t know how the wildfire would be used. To say that the surprise Tyrion had for the invasion fleet was jaw-dropping would be an understatement. It was a scene that brought to life how the historical battles like the Battle of Red Cliffs, Siege of Antwerp, the Gravelines, the Battle of the Downs, the Battle of Solebay and the Battle of La Hougue must’ve looked like.

Even the amphibious landing that Stannis’ infantry made to start the siege of King’s Landings’ walls was both accurate in how such a military maneuver was done, but also shot in a way by Neil Marshall to be exciting and chaotic. This battle was chaotic but not in the shaky-cam variety but in how battles was always about the killing and dying of men on the ground who were just feet from each other. It was a bloody execution of the episode’s order of battle that really earns this show that label of epic that fans like to throw at it. Again I must hand it to Martin as episode’s writer for making things accessible to those who have never read the book, but also keep enough of what made this battle exciting to those who have been fans of the novels.

All of this would still have come for naught if the person directing the episode dropped the ball, so to speak. “Blackwater” needed a director who could handle massive action scenes both from a bird’s eye view and from that of the grunt on the ground. Neil Marshall is a filmmaker who has always been great at maximizing the small budget he works with to create thrilling genre films. As the first outsider hired by the show’s producers Marshall was already behind the eightball in that he’s not knowledgeable of the what the show is about. Yet, one couldn’t tell with tonight’s episode. If HBO ever decided to continue this series for many more seasons I hope that they and Benioff and Weiss just hire Marshall to become the default director when it comes to episodes that require that epic hand at the till. Even with the quieter scenes with Cersei and her youngest Tommen as they sat on the Iron Throne waiting for the bad news that she truly thought would come was handled with a filmmaker’s deft touch that most tv directors are rarely able to pull off.

“Blackwater” may be the second to the last episode of this show’s second season, but just like the first season’s penultimate episode with the execution of Ned Stark, fans and audiences of the show have been treated to what could be accurately called the season’s climax. It’s not a bad way to end a season, but as we found out with last season the final episode will have it’s own surprises but also end the season with new avenues of storytelling that would make waiting for the start of season three to arrive be an exercise in agonized waiting. Season one’s second to the last episode might’ve been more traumatic but tonight’s “Blackwater” may have just been it’s best.

A job well done by Martin and Marshall.

Review: Game of Thrones S2E04 “Garden of Bones”


“A naked man has few secrets. A flayed man has none.” — Lord Roose Bolton of Dreadfort

I will say that tonight’s latest episode of HBO’s medieval fantasy series, Game of Thrones, probably qualifies as a set-up episode. The episode was quite good, but it was also one that moved around the world of the series to help establish some upcoming storylines for characters in the show. What each of these set-ups had in common was how much they dealt with death both the past, present and future. Tonight’s episode lacked any sort of balance to it’s downbeat and doom-laden tone.

“Garden of Bones” was the title of tonight’s episode and it comes from the description the people of Qarth called the area outside their city-state’s walls. It’s an area full of death and the bones left behind by the enemies and unfortunate individuals who were barred from entering the city’s gates. The show has been very good with introducing those fans who have never read the book to the culture of the many peoples in Game of Thrones. While these many disparate cultures have differences that make them unique they also seem to have a common denominator and that’s with how they view the concept of death. This is a world where death has become the norm and almost a currency for those in power. It’s no wonder that death would be described in such interesting and flowery ways.

We see death on the battlefield as Robb Stark’s army opens up the episode with another major victory over forces of Tywin Lannister and his bannermen. While the battle itself wasn’t shown the aftermath is something we do see in very grim and detail. Bodies of the dead from both sides litter the battlefield and we get a mention about how the butcher’s bill for the battle itself was 5 Lannister men dead for every Stark men. It’s a grim reminder that the world Martin has created with his novels is one that doesn’t glorify or sugarcoat the nature of warfare, especially the medieval kind, and how it grinds away men both soldier and civilian alike. We get a sense of how even the very one king out of the five vying for control in this season has no clue as to the consequences of his actions. A nurse who is tending to the wounded and crippled of the battle’s aftermath pretty much calls bullshit on Robb Stark’s assertion that he’s the good guy in this war. A good guy the nurse calls out for not having a proper exit plan if and when Robb defeats Joffrey. Even Robb’s compassion towards his defeated enemies seem to ring hollow considering that it’s his reaction to his father’s death which has brought about all the death we see in this episode’s beginning.

It’s that exit plan that Tyrion seems to be working on whether his family wins the war or not. Once again it’s the one person everyone (well except Bronn) seems to not take seriously due to his appearance and undeserved reputation who sees clearly that if the war continues the only one who would have won would be the dead and that’s because they won’t have to deal with the post-war mess Joffrey and the other claimants to the Iron Throne (or carving out their own kingdoms from the ashes) have made with the execution of Ned Stark in season 1.

The theme of death continues to permeate even when it comes to the younger roles in the show. Across the Narrow Sea we see Daenerys and her khalasar on the brink of starvation and death until news comes from one of her outriders that the city-state of Qarth wants to meet with her. It’s a meeting that doesn’t go well for the young Targaryen queen as those in power in the city (a city of merchants) are not overly impressed by the so-called Mother of Dragons. It’s a misstep in her attempts to negotiate diplomatically that threatens to add her and her khalasar to the ever-growing Garden of Bones which encircles the walls of Qarth.

It’s from the youngest of the Stark daughters that we see the death and brutality of this war come into vivid view as Arya arrives with the rest of the prisoners into the cursed castle of Harrenhal. We see torture in full display as a prisoner is brought into questioning as Harrenhal’s current lord wants information on a band of warriors who call themselves “The Brotherhood” who continue to harry the Lannisters in the region. Arya’s journey from being the rambunctious and wild young daughter of Ned Stark in season 1 to the damaged and old-before-her-time survivor continues as she witnesses the torture of the prisoners and the utter disregard for human life some of the men of Harrenhal have towards the prisoners and villagers living nearby. It’s ironic that the very person who actually shows a semblance of compassion (though probably less compassion and more of a pragmatist who sees waste in killing of prisoners) would be the head of the house which killed her father and took her away from family and home. Yet, it’s her near-ritualistic repeating of the names of everyone who has wronged her from Joffrey and the Lannisters to Ser Amory Loch who killed Yoren in the previous episode.

Tonight’s episode doesn’t treat it’s young characters with kid gloves and with Arya we see how much she’s becoming accustomed to all the death around her and even uses it to keep herself focused on her personal quest of vengeance. For one of the youngest characters in the show she’s turning out to be the one who is learning to understand the power the concept of death has over everyone. It’ll be interesting to see if the show does the brave thing and really follows the novel in terms of Arya’s journey into what I can only call the dark side.

“Garden of Bones” wasn’t as streamlined as the previous two episodes this season, but it does set-up some major plot threads for the rest of the season. While it they all seem to be lines of story that look to not interconnect they all seem to agree on the fact that more death will be forthcoming as the season heads toward what I can only see as a bloody, fiery conclusion. Oh, plus it did have quite a major turning point in the show and another step towards making magic and the supernatural part of the show’s narrative fabric as Melisandre show’s Ser Davos Seaworth the true extent of her powers.

Notes

  • We get two new locations and clockwork cities in the show’s intro sequence: Harrenhal and Qarth.
  • Love the detail of the clockwork Harrenhal being made to look like the dead and cursed castle and land that it is with no clockwork motions given to it in the intro.
  • Another battle that is done off-screen. The Battle of Blackwater Pass better be epic.
  • Great to see Greywind actually being used as part of Robb Stark’s army.
  • We get another new character introduced that fans of the books should know very well: Lord Roose Bolton of Dreadfort
  • Joffrey takes another step into Emperor Nero-level of royal madness.
  • If anyone ever wonder just how crazy the Mad King Targaryen was then Joffrey may be giving glimpses of that very madness when it was still in it’s early stages.
  • Fans of the show may still not be enamored with Sansa Stark, but Tyrion is beginning to understand just how much a survivor she’s becoming in the dangerous world Joffrey has turned Westeros into.
  • Tyrion and Bronn continue to be one of the highlight’s of this new season with Tyrion once again having some of the best dialogue. You’d think the show’s writers were making sure Dinklage wins another Emmy for his work on this show.
  • Natalie Dormer in the role of Margaery Tyrell continues to own the role as she more than holds her own during a verbal joust with Littlefinger in the Renly war camp.
  • We hear the first mention of something called “The Brotherhood”. It will be interesting if the writers decide to make them a major part of the tv series considering it would add another half dozen or so characters to an already large cast for the season.
  • We see how much Daenerys has to go to be a political queen as she deals with the Thirteen of Qarth.
  • Some more great work from young Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in tonight’s episode. She continues to be the star of the cast of young actors on this show.
  • Stannis may be a rigid man in terms of whats right and wrong, but not when it comes to battle or war it seems.
  • Davos’ reaction to what Melisandre has planned all along in the secret mission Stannis has sent him on was classic. It had all sort of WTF written all over his face.
  • One of the most important scenes in Martin’s story was done quite well and disturbingly so.
  • Which ends the episode that was shorter by a few minutes than previous ones.

RANT BEGINS

Some major changes in tonight’s episode in regards to the books and in this season as a whole. I’ve seen many on Twitter complain about this. All I can say to these people: they had to be made and Martin has been involved in making sure they fit into the overall story he’s been telling. Either stop watching the show looking for the next book-to-tv change and bitch and moan about it when it happens or just treat the show as it’s own thing separate from the books they love so much. As a fan of the book series from the very beginning I understand the changes for tv and don’t see it as making the novels worse in the end.

What’s the point of watching something that’s suppose to entertain and bring about discussion when one already going into with a negative bias about the show. Get off the show’s jock and watch something else if you can’t get passed the changes. No point in spoiling things for those who have never read the book and must read and listen to the complaints.

RANT ENDS

Review: Game of Thrones Ep. 07 “You Win Or You Die”


HBO was kind enough to allow people who registered for their HBOGO.COM service to watch this seventh episode of Game of Thrones a full week before it aired. I wasn’t planning on watching it ahead of time, but since I already was signed up I decided to just go ahead and watch it. I must say that this latest episode continues to build on what has been a very strong first season for the tv adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s popular and critically-acclaimed medieval fantasy novel series of “A Song of Ice and Fire”.

The last episode was a major turning point for some of the characters in this series. “A Golden Crown” saw Daenerys Targaryen finally become her own woman in the face of her older siblings buffonery and childish tantrums. Behavior which finally got him the “golden crown” he deserved from Khal Drogo (and one which Daenerys seems to approve of). Tyrion Lannister using his wit and cunning mind to get himself extricated from the craziness that was Lysa Arryn and her court in the Eyrie of the Vale. The episode also brings together all the clues and evidence Ned Stark had been gathering about the death of the previous Hand of the King.

One would think that nothing could top all the pivotal events of episode six’s “A Golden Crown”, but this seventh episode surely tops that one with some building on the revelations of the previous episode. It’s really a major testament to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss at how they’re able to not just stay true to the source material but also condense some of the minor threads of subplots and backstory into an hour episode that’s thrilling, engaging and not pandering to it’s audience.

This episode was aptly titled, “You Win Or You Die” as the fight for the throne of the Seven Kingdoms finally begins. We see the introduction of the Lannister patriarch who has loomed over the series as some unseen Sword of Damocles who holds King Robert’s tenuous hold on his kingdom. It was a treat to see veteran British actor Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister and see him playing the character as a no-nonsense, pragmatic but ruthless leader of his House. His brief time in this episode told us all we needed to know about Tywin. He’s so unlike his three children and this fact has become such a burden to him that he’s willing to take whatever virtue from the one child he sees as his most capable heir in Jamie that he’s willing to forgo all the faults. The scene of him butchering and dressing the stag while talking down (and propping up) Jamie for his foolishness with challenging Ned in episode five was very prophetic.

The episode also sees the return of Jon Snow and his part of the series’ story as he finally gets formally inducted into the Night’s Watch with Sam and the rest of the new recruits. What should’ve been a momentous occasion has been tempered by the sudden news of his uncle Benjen’s disappearance north of the Wall. It also shows Jon at his most petulant. What he saw as punishment from the Night’s Watch trainer and resident asshole in Ser Allister when he gets assigned as the Commander’s squire and steward was seen by his friend Sam as Jon being groomed for future command. For those who have been quite tough on chubby and cowardly Samwell should really have second thoughts about just how useless he is. He is surely becoming the voice of reason and logic to Jon’s more impetuous and “act now, think later” mentality. We also see the return of one of the direwolves as Jon’s (aptly named Ghost) brings him a gruesome gift once he has taken his vows.

The third major event in this episode before we get to it’s climactic finish brings us back to Vaes Dothrak and to Daenerys and Khal Drogo. With Viserys now out of the picture we see Daenerys begin to assert herself on Khal Drogo. While her brother’s dreams of becoming the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms have been dashed with a golden, metallic clang her own ambitions have not. She now sees herself as the true Dragon and still wishes to have the Iron Throne for her unborn son, Rhaego. While Khal Drogo still doesn’t see such things as important for him and his people an event in a marketplace which puts his khaleesi and son in danger finally convinces him of the danger the Seven Kingdoms poses.

This all leads us to the beginning of the “game of thrones”. Ned now fully knows why his predecessor was killed as the secret of Joffrey “Bieber” Baratheon’s lineage becomes quite clear. While more crafty and politically adept individuals would keep the secret from Cersei this is Ned Stark we’re talking about and he confronts his Queen with the news. To say that Cersei wasn’t flustered would be an understatement. This episode showed Lena Headey in full control of the Cersei character as we see her play the role with more iron and spine than what was shown in the novel.

“You Win Or You Die” finally sees an ignominious end to King Robert and his whoring and drinking. What was suppose to be a boar-hunt to help alleviate the stress he has been getting from both the Lannisters and the Starks finally gets him gored by the very boar he’s trying to hunt (though there’s suspicion that his inattentiveness during the hunt may have had some help). Mark Addy does a great job as Robert on his deathbed as he confesses his failings not just as a ruler but as a husband and as a father to the Seven Kingdoms, Cersei and Joffrey respectively. He appoints Ned to become the Regent of the Kingdoms until Joffrey is of age and does so officially with a sealed document.

One would think this final and dying declaration from a dying ruler would be enough to give Ned the power he requires to put the kingdom into order from the coming chaos but that would be selling all the characters with something to gain short. Robert’s not even cold when his younger brother Renly approaches Ned about plans to seize the throne from Cersei, but Ned being the honorable type refuses. Whatever ally he might’ve had to help him leaves the city as he confronts Cersei and Joffrey about the plans of succession. This is where the episode finally explodes into the conflict that’s been building since the very episode.

Some might say that this episode seems quite full of subplots and story threads and might not devote enough time for each. In fact, I was surprised at how much the writers were able to cram into this episode and still make each storyline have the time to make their events important to the series as a whole. While the episode ends with the the “game of thrones” in full swing in King’s Landing, the episode could also mean that things in the Wall and north of it has finally sunk into Jon and his fellow recruits as being truly serious. He and his new brothers must win or die. It’s as simple as that. Even Daenerys’ situation across the Narrow Sea fits the episode title well. With her now the bearer of the Targaryen line and her husband the leader of a powerful army she must also win or die.

Everyone in this episode seems to know the rules of the game their playing except the one person who seemed to be the one who had the most to win or lose. This episode showed Ned at his most intractable and honorable self, but it also showed just how much ill-prepared he is to fight in a battlefield where he doesn’t know who to trust and the very people who he shouldn’t trust might be his only allies. The final scene of the episode really highlight’s this dilemma for Ned and was such a great cliffhanger for the final three episodes to come before the series end’s it’s first season.

For fans of the books this episode shouldn’t disappoint and for new fans it should excite and really pull them in deeper into the world of Martin’s creation. Next week should continue the events we’re left to process as this latest episode ended. Will war finally break out between the two major houses of Lannister and Stark? Will Drogo finally bring his Dothraki horde into the Seven Kingdoms to gift his wife the Iron Throne she covets? What agenda does Littlefinger have and will it be the downfall of one of the houses?

There’s so much to be answered but seeing how this series just seems to get better with each successive episode I don’t doubt that episode eight will drop the ball and disappoint us with the answer (or will more questions arise) to those very questions.