This second season of Game Of Thrones has been building up to something special, slowly but surely, and in this week’s episode, Blackwater, it delivered one of the best hours of television there could ever have been. Getting film director Neil Marshall on board was a masterstroke, as was having George R.R. Martin write only his second episode of the series based on his books.
Perhaps the best decision was to leave aside the multiple plot points, characters and locations of this second season and to focus entirely on the siege of King’s Landing. It’s certainly a big enough event to warrant its own episode and I never found myself wondering what Daenerys was up to (probably stomping around complaining about her lack of dragons) or what scrape Jon Snow was getting into North Of The Wall. And there was plenty going on away from the battlefield at King’s Landing too…
The first half of Blackwater was given up to the preparations, and there were some immense scenes, whether it was loathsome Joffrey’s big talk in front of Sensa, or the horrible sense of foreboding from Varys in his discussions with Tyrion, or Davos and his son on their way to battle. There was almost an epic battle between The Hound and Bronn, but the two were interrupted in their war of words by an actual outbreak of war. It would have been interesting to see the two best scrappers in the kingdom go head to head, but better things were to come.
It can’t be understated what a challenge this battle was for the producers of a television show. I’ve never read any of Martin’s books, but an obvious visual comparison would seem to be the Helm’s Deep battle in Lord Of The Rings, one of the most acclaimed battle scenes in movie history. But it probably took as long to film as the entire second season of Game Of Thrones and cost ten times more money. Delivering something similar on a TV budget would be impossible, so the makers were apparently going to tell the story through the eyes of Cersei and Sansa, with the fighting mostly off-screen.
Happily, they managed to bump up the budget, and while Marshall was a last-time replacement director, there’s no doubt that his skills at achieving a lot with a little (the effects in Dog Soldiers, for example) must have been crucial. The Battle Of Blackwater never looked cheap, it seemed to involve many more people than any other battle scene in TV history, other than the bigger budget ones in mini-series like Band Of Brothers or The Pacific. And, perhaps because of the limited budget, the identifiable characters never got lost in the mix.
Of course, the most spectacular scene was Tyrion’s masterplan of sending a boat rigged with wildfire out to meet Stannis’ fleet, and the moment that Bronn fired his flaming arrow to set off the explosion is right up there with the execution of Ned Stark and the revelation of the dragons in the season one finale. Again, the effects looked real, which is something when you compare it to the special effects in a lesser show like Once Upon A Time. After that, the battle raged on with the remnants of Stannis’ army trying to storm the Mud Gate and Tyrion and his men fighting back until Tywin and Loras (good work from Littlefinger there?) riding in together to save the day.
There were so many great moments that it’s hard to recall them all, but Tyrion’s rallying cry of ‘There’s a lot of brave men out there, let’s go kill them’ was pretty much perfect in its unromantic honesty, making it better than a thousand similar lines from films. Obviously, Joffrey’s cowardice came to the fore and it will be interesting to see him next week when he was surely be trying to claim victory from his betrayal of his own troops. At least soppy Lancel proved himself on the battlefield, despite having silly girly hair.
Still, some of the most interesting scenes were those away from the battle, with the complex relationship between an increasingly drunk Cersei and the permanently confused-looking Sansa playing out in a room of ‘frightened hens’. But when it came to the crunch, it was Sansa who comforted the women in their hour or need while Cersei went off to potentially poison her youngest son if Stannis won the battle. Whether or not Sansa took the offer of escape with the disillusioned Hound we will have to wait and see, but there will be an interesting power dynamic if the Lannisters have managed to lose both of the Stark girls.
So what next? You can’t help but wonder whether Melisandre and her shadow demon will make an appearance next week to try and save Stannis, given that neither were involved this week and he seemed to remain alive at the end of this episode. We can probably assume that Tyrion’s surface wound isn’t serious, but what will his heroic courage and tactical genius (twice) do for him under the rule of his idiot nephew? Safe to say, the finale of the season will have to do something special to match up to this, because this was about as good as television gets.