Given that, while it's on the expensive side as far as TV goes, "Game of Thrones" is still operating on a television budget, and as such, it's become a running joke the extent to which the show doesn't show its battles. We get a few brawls, well-choreographed and shot, and full of gore, but while there have been big battles on the show, we usually get the build up, or the aftermath, or sometimes both. It's understandable, of course, but given that the second season has revolved around a giant multi-front war, it can be a little frustrating.
Which is one of the things that made the penultimate episode of Season Two, "Blackwater," so terribly satisfying. Penned by George R. R. Martin and directed by movie helmer Neil Marshall ("The Descent," "Doomsday," "Centurion"), it made the bold and hugely successful choice of eschewing most of the show's characters and focusing entirely on the long-brewing battle between the seafaring forces of Stannis Baratheon, and the inhabitants of capital King's Landing, with Tyrion Lannister leading the fight for his nasty little prick of a nephew, King Joffrey. Rumored to be the most expensive episode of television, it managed to combine some truly impressive action with the character beats the show has become known for, it turned out as a high watermark both for season two and the series in general.
Martin and Marshall (a smart choice, given that his budgets have rarely exceeded what he must have had to play with here) don't drop you in the action at first: there's a nice calm-before-the-storm feel to the opening scenes, as Stannis' right hand man Davos Seaforth sails the fleet, Tyrion bids farewell to his lover Shae, and Queen Cersei obtains a deadly poison for purposes that aren't initially clear. But things kick off as Tyrion plays his gambit, loading a ship up with the deadly napalm-like wildfire brought up earlier in the season, and blowing it up (thanks to trusty Bronn), devastating Stannis' fleet, in perhaps the most impressive money shot we've ever seen on television.
But still they come, Stannis leading his troops on shore (it was nice to see the contrast between the leaders: Stephen Dillane's character getting stuck in and being something of a badass, as Joffrey cowers in the battlements), unleashing a battle that, while relatively small-scale, was thrilling, coherent and splattered with gore (Stannis' companion having his head crushed by a rock, and The Hound cutting a man in half were among the highlights, although we cheered most when little Tyrion took a man's leg off).
In the meantime, Cersei has sealed herself up in a tower with Sansa and the women of the town, drinking her way into oblivion and tormenting her young captive/protege with what may happen if the city is taken, or perhaps worse, if Joffrey wins and Sansa has to become his queen. The relationship between the two has been one of the strongest aspects of season two, none more so than here, and it provided a useful respite for the carnage (although it did seem a little too quiet in the sanctuary — one would have thought that some distant sounds of fighting might have kept the stakes higher. But by episode's end, Cersei is in a deep trough, about to kill her youngest son with the poison, while Sansa may be on her way out of the city, accompanied by The Hound (Rory McCann getting his best showcase yet: the face-off between him and Bronn was great. To wit: You're just like me, only smaller").
There were a couple of issues, mostly towards the end: the arrival of Tywin Lannister, storming to the rescue with a huge force, was a little botched, dramatically (was that Lancel Lannister or Loras Tyrell who marched into the hall?), as was the man who tried to kill Tyrion across the face — was that one of Stannis' men, or an assassination plot from Joffrey? And some of the injuries suffered by some of the high profile characters were a little unclear: we're pretty sure Tyrion's not dying (although you can never be certain with that show), but if Davos and his son were killed, as they appeared to have been, that was a pretty low-key exit (and given how little he's been used, rather a waste of Liam Cunningham).
But overall, this was about as good as it gets on this show, and the more focused approach has to be part of that reason. The choppiness of this season has been a little damaging in places, and we hope that this kind of structure is something they use more going in to season three (Martin's script deserves a special tip of the hat, both for that and for a whole bunch of memorable lines). We'll presumably catch up with the rest — Jon Snow, Robb Stark, Jamie Lannister, Arya et al. — but it's a sign of how good this can be that many of the best characters can be ignored and the show can still hit these kind of heights. [A]
Bits & Pieces
– That is indeed The National closing out the episode, with a version of "The Rains of Castermere," the song that Bronn and co. sing before the battle. It's included on the upcoming soundtrack release containing Ramin Djawani's score (and bravo for that man, incidentally; he's been killing it this season), and you can have a listen below.
– Marshall's films have never been known for their performances, so it was nice to see that things didn't slip on that front. Hopefully he'll get a cast and script of this caliber on the big screen again. Good to see him reunited with Liam Cunningham as well; the Irish actor starred in both "Dog Soldiers" and "Doomsday."
– Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa, was a little flat last season, but she's really grown into the character this time around. The idea of her and The Hound on the road together for season three is a promising one.
– We imagine that things are going to change in King's Landing now that Twyin (who only deputized Tyrion as the Hand of the King in his stead) is back. We can't see him letting Joffrey and Cersei get away with quite so much of their shit. We imagine we'll check in with them briefly next episode, but we expect the finale to focus on more of the other story threads.
– We almost felt a twinge of sympathy for Joffrey as he tried to decide whether to go into battle or flee. That evaporated as soon as he ran off, obviously. Speaking of…
– Fantasy Joffrey Death Of The Week: He's strapped to another boat full of Wildfire and turned into a firework display.