Tuned In

Game of Thrones Watch: Smoke on the Water, Fire in the Sky

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, gather your closest friends for some wine and nightshade, raise the drawbridge and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.

“Some of those boys will never come back.” “Joffrey will. The worst ones always live.”

They call the series Game of Thrones, but with so many events happening in so many places, the Iron Throne that everyone is actually fighting over often seems to be a distant abstraction. “Blackwater,” the best hour of the season and possibly of the series altogether, bore down concentratedly on King’s Landing and those trying to defend and take it, and it was astonishing.

First, let’s look at the obvious, in-your-face ways. As I’ve said here, I read the source books for this series, so I’ve long been excited and concerned as to how the producers would pull off this story for TV, even on HBO. (Those of you who have also read the books are welcome to discuss the adaptation and alterations–such as to the mechanics of Tyrion’s defense scheme–in a non-spoilery way in the comments.) This wasn’t a case where you could simply cut away to a smoldering battlefield the next morning. I assumed the battle would be cut down to size, the larger fight implied in small melees and dialogue.

Sure, there were inevitable scalings-back here and there. But even as someone who knew what was coming–I read A Clash of Kings about three years ago, enough to remember the broad outlines–I was awestruck by the flaming green hell that erupted on the Blackwater, as well as the chaotic, bloody storming of the gates. The production balanced a few key wide-sweep visuals with scenes of close combat that conveyed the sheer feel and physicality of medieval battle: the heaviness of the siege engines, the weight of armor and weapons, the heft of stones thrown from the battlements.

“Blackwater” was, in other words, epic as promised. But epic can be empty, especially on TV, unless you have the sense of the presence of characters, of what it means to have a group of people in different circumstances waiting for the imminent end of life. If the visuals made this episode awesome, it was the collection of dialogues among characters on both sides of the wall–scripted by the novels’ author George R. R. Martin–that made it great.

Even in its most flashy episode, what Game of Thrones really excels at are moments of two people, talking. In one instance after another, Martin’s script showed us familiar characters being who they were but more so, their nature and motivations heightened by the literal presence of death: whether in the form of Stannis’ fleet, the icy “protector”/executor Ser Ilyn or a tiny bottle of poison.

Arguably, the best “battle” scenes in Blackwater–or at least, those that allowed the actual fighting to have an effect beyond spectacle–came off the field or before the fighting even started. Cersei, seeming both intensely lucid on an the verge of mania, laying out her chilly worldview for Sansa: “The gods have no mercy. That’s why they’re gods.” Or Davos, talking to his zealous son, his smuggler’s common sense refusing to believe that the battle will be easy or glorious: “Gods be good.” “God. Father, there is only one, and he watches over us.” “But not over them?”

If there are no atheists in foxholes, Game of Thrones’ battlefield is full of those who believe that gods are very much real–but distant, uncaring or actively hostile. The series has always been in the tradition of great antiwar war stories, delivering action in a way that emphasizes that it is in no way noble: it is knights puking into barrels in the dank holds of ships, and men having their skulls made into jelly by falling rocks.

And war in this society, as Cersei knows well, begins mass and impersonal on the battlefield and ends up personal and specific within the walls of castles. We’ve heard the stories of the fall of the Mad King when Robert won the throne—people burned alive, infants killed and Aerys stabbed in the back by Jaime. Cersei is horrible in this episode—verbally torturing Sansa, terrorizing the “smallfolk” and caring for Joffrey’s safety over the welfare of his entire capital. But it comes, we see, from her knowing well the choices she’s likely to face in the next few hours (when the noblewomen will face “a bit of a rape” and her family, most likely regicide).

Among the other players, battle distills them down to their essence, but not without some surprises. Joffrey is a despicable craven, but one who—in his wavering over whether to flee to safety—at least knows at some level that he should be better, and can’t. The Hound finds the limits of his loyalty—confronted with his worst terror, fire, unleashed by the Lannisters—and a hidden decency. Sansa, in extremis, finds that she is not just passive and beaten, giving the women and children inside the Red Keep the kind of queenly comfort that Cersei can only show to a blood relative.

And Tyrion, left with no other choice, shows himself not just a cunning tactician—no surprise there—but an actual leader, stepping, with no great enthusiasm into the vacuum Joffrey leaves: “Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them.”

I was on the verge of calling Tyrion’s behavior “heroic,” but that’s not really the term. Notably, we see that this is not Tyrion rising to his true calling or discovering that it is a far, far greater thing her does, &c., &c. It’s a practical decision, in that if the defenders of the city are not inspired, he will die. He plays the part (and Peter Dinklage does) masterfully, but he rouses his men with a purely practical argument too: “Don’t fight for your king, and don’t fight for his kingdoms. Don’t fight for honor, don’t fight for for glory. Don’t fight for riches, because you won’t get any.”

It is, in a way, deeply satisfying to see the underappreciated Tyrion pull off his audacious wildfire plan (and again, fine reaction of horror by Dinklage at seeing the inferno actually unfold)–though it seems his glory is undercut by the arrival of Tywin, literally leading the cavalry, to rout Stannis’ army from behind and “save” King’s Landing.

We identify with Tyrion—I do, anyway—but do we truly want to cheer for him? His victory, after all, means that his monstrous nephew remains in power, his cruelty vindicated. It can’t bode well for Robb that the Lannisters have one less threat to worry about. Sansa’s brief window of escape may have shut.

The truly Thronesian thing about “Blackwater,” the moral note that informs Martin’s creation, is to be wary of cheering too wholeheartedly for any side in a brutal battle like this. Tyrion has left a monster on the throne. (And, though The Wall is offstage in this episode, protected a regime that is doing nothing to defend the realm from the bigger threat to the north.)

But, as the predictably absorbing conversation between Tyrion and Varys asks, should we be eager to welcome a King Stannis? Forget the simple fact that his character is stone right down to the core (see the grim, who-gives-a-shit smirk he offers when warned that “hundreds” will die in the assault and he answers, “thousands”). There’s also the matter that he would owe his throne essentially to black magic—and who knows how he would employ that power to keep the throne? For that matter, should Robb win now—with no designs on the throne himself—who or what takes Joffrey’s place beyond anarchy?

This kind of perspective, beyond the technically impressive visuals, is what made “Blackwater” possibly the best hour of TV I have watched so far this year. Yes, the Lannisters contrived a spectacular way to win a battle. What makes this series interesting is its consciousness of the many ways there are, even in victory, to lose one.

Now a quick hail of flaming arrows:

* The flip side of this being an unusually, and effectively concentrated story for the sprawling Game of Thrones: it leaves a hell of a lot to address in the season finale.

* In fact, I wonder if there will be any King’s Landing in the finale—or if, in practice, this will amount to a two-part season-ender.

* I would pay money for a Clegane coat of arms engraved with: “Fuck the Kingsguard. Fuck the city. Fuck the king.”

* There are a lot of reasons it made sense to have this be the episode of the season that Martin scripted, but not least among them is inoculating the series against the charge of compromising the centerpiece battle scene with changes to fit TV’s scale and budget. Martin is protective of his vision, but he’s also an experienced TV writer who knows about the medium’s constraints, and I think this episode not only made the right alterations in the battle, but streamlined it in a way that viewers could follow in a TV narrative as opposed to prose. (I’m thinking of some of those tactical changes to the battle, which again I won’t spoil here for non-readers.)

* If this writeup seems more rushed and incomplete than usual, it is: combination of a holiday weekend and no advance screener to work from. You’re welcome to take it from here in the comments. Finally…

(Here’s my usual request for those who have read the books: you’re welcome to compare what’s happened already on the series, but no referencing plot points or upcoming events–nothing possibly spoilery for the book virgins out there. Thanks.)