We know what we’re getting when we watch a Game Of Thrones episode, right? We’re getting some beautifully shot scenes, certainly; this has been one of the best-looking shows on television since its premiere. We know that the actors will be good, if not great. We know that we’ll see a wide variety of different, possibly intersecting plots, divided by geography. And we know that while there might be some action, it’ll be parceled out for more drama, more cliffhangers, but probably not catharsis. It’s a decent structure. It’s served the show well, as well as working for other HBO shows like The Wire, Treme, and Boardwalk Empire.
Except that’s not what happened in “Blackwater.”
It takes confidence to alter the formal structure of a television show, but it’s also often the best thing a show can do. Shows like The Sopranos and Buffy The Vampire Slayer changed television dramatically while relying on a series of formal experiments: “College” and “Pine Barrens” from The Sopranos, or “Band Candy” and “The Body” from Buffy. The way you think the show should work, the way television normally works? That’s not what happens. If done competently, these experiments can be fun episodes. If done well? They’re among the best television can do.
“Blackwater” was an experiment done well.
I was partially wrong about last week’s episode. I assumed that everything was leading up to a climactic ninth episode of the season. We’d see Theon defending Winterfell; we’d see Dany chasing her dragons; we’d see a culmination of Robb’s romance; we’d see Jon trying to survive his capture by the wildlings; we’d see Arya, having escaped into the wilderness; we’d see the battle of Blackwater, with Stannis’ forces attacking Tyrion and the Lannisters at King’s Landing.
What we got was only the last of those. The climactic battle of the season turned out to be the entirety of the episode. Stannis attacks King’s Landing, and Tyrion defends it. Nothing else happens this episode. It is, unlike any other of the 18 episodes preceding it, entirely focused on a single story, focused only on the characters in one specific locale.
And that’s just what Game Of Thrones needed.
There are still issues. My complaints about Arya and Cat losing agency last week are still valid. There’s still a great deal of ground to cover next week. I don’t know that there’s going to be enough time left to tie it all together. The season has had issues of thematic coherence roughly equivalent to the difficulties with coherence in the novel A Clash Of Kings. Yet, while those things can be argued about the season as a whole, they don’t take away from the achievement of “Blackwater.”
“Blackwater” derives its power from its relative simplicity. It removes the extra plots, focusing on the overarching climax of the Clash Of Kings that gave the story its name in book form. Stannis, with the former Targaryen lands plus the Baratheon vassals, attacks King Joffrey in King’s Landing, with the power of the capital and the Lannisters behind him. As presented, these are the two most powerful forces in the southlands (with Robb Stark leading an equally powerful army from the north).
Yet while that simplicity increases the drama of the episode for the characters we care about—Tyrion primarily—it also demonstrates one of the biggest problems of the season: in the Stannis versus Joffrey confrontation, we have many reasons to cheer against Joff, but no particular reason to cheer for Stannis. That makes it necessary for “Blackwater” to build that drama via the few characters who will be affected. This means Davos and his son, preparing for the battle. This means the Hound and Bronn, whose stress makes them competitors, while battle makes them friends. This means Tyrion with Varys, with Sansa, with Joffrey, and with Shae. This means Sansa Stark, who finally gets the chance to shine, first by sarcastically undermining Joffrey, then by cleaning up the mess left by a drunken Cersei Lannister.
The action in “Blackwater” is very good. It’s fantastic, given the constraints of television. I, along with many other online commenters, compared it to the attack on Helm’s Deep from Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. Some of the individual pieces of action aren’t quite film-level, but in terms of building then releasing tension, the episode is great.
First, Stannis has an overwhelming advantage in numbers, which Tyrion lessens with his wildfire attack. This is a loaded sequence for a variety of reasons. First, there’s the simple technology of it: this is what HBO has been saving their CGI for, and it’s worth it. The green fire and the explosion look great. Beyond that, the number of extras involved in the action sequences give an epic feeling beyond the computer technology.
Tyrion’s surprise fire attack also links him to great strategists in literary history as well. His plan, to me, is reminiscent of the Zhou Yu/Zhuge Liang plot in the Three Kingdoms novel, most recently portrayed visually in John Woo’s uneven but fascinating 2008 film Red Cliff. The idea that a lone brilliant man can use surprise and the elements, particularly fire, in order to even out incredibly uneven odds is a common conceit of literature. Tyrion here is Odysseus, creating the Trojan Horse, or Caesar at Pharsalus, surprising Pompey’s cavalry, as well as Zhuge Liang, the near-deified strategist of the Three Kingdoms. Lord Varys even makes this clear early in the episode, saying that Stannis has allied with dark forces, and Tyrion is “the only man who can stop him.” There’s also the straightforward historical precedent of Byzantine “Greek fire,” the secret weapon of that famous fleet.
Yet Tyrion’s (and Peter Dinklage’s) greatest triumph isn’t his strategy, it’s that when the battle hangs in the balance, he builds his courage and makes a speech to save King’s Landing. His speech isn’t an appeal to the ideals of the Seven Kingdoms. Instead, it’s an appeal to the darkness of the series. He specifically tells his men not to fight for honor. He tells them to fight for their own survival, and for the survival of the people they care about. I don’t know that there’s a better encapsulation of the series’ themes than this speech.
Who is the bad guy here? Tyrion is defending Cersei and Joffrey, the biggest villains of the show so far, but we want him to survive. We want his people to survive. We want King’s Landing to avoid being sacked; we want the noble ladies not to be raped. We want Westeros to not go to hell, despite the “honorable” intentions of its leaders. There’s no good resolution here. There’s only survival. Tyrion gets that. And Dinklage nails the speech where he demonstrates that. “Those are brave men knocking on our door. Let’s go kill them!”
Yet all this doesn’t work without the formal changes of the episode. Only a handful of cast members are present, but almost every single one of them has some of their best moments. Sophie Turner gets many of her best moments as the rapidly maturing Sansa Stark, yes, but she’s matched by Sibel Kekilli, as Shae, whose fiery personality has been increasingly prominent recently. Lena Headey is also making a strong claim for “most improved” actress—her increasing desperation, combined with her rigid control over her emotions, makes her scenes some of the best of an already fantastic episode. Finally Sandor Clegane, Joffrey’s Hound, has been a background character for so long that his scenes here are something of a surprise, and a welcome one at that. It’s an odd thing for Joffrey’s right hand to say, straight up, “fuck the king,” but Rory McCann takes this, his most important line, and makes it sting.
Because Game Of Thrones focuses on the climactic event of the season, it can do this. It can make most of the characters at their most interesting. It can slowly build up the battle, and then get the battle right. I worry that this intense focus on the battle of the Blackwater will make the finale too busy. But for now, I think it’s worth basking in the glory that a single change in structure can achieve. There are many great moments to come in Game Of Thrones. An intense focus on them can break up the show’s rhythm in a remarkably positive way.
George R.R. Martin wrote this episode, so even if I wanted to, it would be hard to say that “Blackwater” got anything in particular wrong. The lack of specificity to the Tyrell army's inclusion in the Lannister reinforcements is a bit of an issue—Loras in Tywin’s entourage could be missed easily, in part because it’s a surprise—but I assume this will be cleared up next week. While this season has had many issues of adaptation, “Blackwater” is as ideal as any fan could expect.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.