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Review: Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 9

Posted by msunyata on Sunday, June 3, 2012

Based off of George R.R. Martin’s 1,000-page opus A Clash of Kings, the second season of HBO’s Game of Thrones takes the first year’s intricate plot lines, character shadings, and thematic undercurrents and simultaneously expands and deepens them to a ridiculously exponential degree.  Or, at least, it’s supposed to – the actual doing just may prove to be a ways off from the source material’s being.

This column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) acts as a companion piece to both series, novel and television, analyzing the continuing story of the War of the Five Kings – and how it fares in the transition from the page to the screen.  What it will not do is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.

Given the twists and turns, betrayals and sacrifices that await in the next two episodes, such illumination will be needed.

It is known.

 

Episode 209: “Blackwater”

After writing out – or around – three battle sequences at the end of season one, showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff decided to go big for their first on-screen, all-out war.  Devoting an entire episode to the Battle of the Blackwater is a risky move, particularly considering the eschewing of all other narrative elements for the full hour (not to mention the quite considerable increase in budgetary resources that HBO had to agree to), but it more than paid off in spades; a new standard has been set for all future productions to live up to, particularly within the HBO camp.  That’s no small success.

Part and parcel of this result is the directing, of course, which was nothing short of spot-on (not too shabby for a first-time entrant to the series), but most of it is squarely the result of the installment’s pacing.  The slow burn of character beats and foreshadowing nuggets, from Queen Regent Cersei Baratheon’s acquiring of poison to the quiet exchange between Ser Davos Seaworth and his son (both of which, incidentally, where newly-created moments), creates a tension that hangs heavy for the first part of the ep and then becomes its backbone for the remainder.  It is, in short, impeccably handled (and has strong echoes of “What You Leave Behind,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s finale, which ends that show’s own war storyline).

The explosion, both literal and figurative, into the battle itself picks up the pace quite noticeably and superbly, ratcheting it up to a white-knuckle intensity that only ends in the sudden, almost abrupt cliffhanger ending, in which Stannis is defeated, Tyrion is maimed, and the Lannisters – along with their newfound allies, the Tyrells – are triumphant.  It is the television equivalent of a rollercoaster ride, what only the best of the best have been able to pull off with any degree of success (last partially seen in Battlestar Galactica and more fully in Babylon 5), and the fact that the fighting scenes themselves, from cinematography to choreography to score to visual effects work, are so ably constructed is only very rich icing on the cake.  Game of Thrones has easily reached its highest degree of craftsmanship yet.

 

The Differences between the Episode and the Novel

Perhaps because it is the first – and, more than likely, the only – episode in the entire series to exclusively focus on (more or less) one specific narrative thread in one specific location, the number of differences from the source material is remarkably small, the first time since the opening season that such a low amount has been on hand (the season finale, undoubtedly, will more than remedy this anomaly).

Given this backdrop, the sole major deviation stands out all the more.  The scene where Sandor Clegane, Joffrey’s Hound, enters with an unnamed squire (Game of Thrones’s equivalent of a Red Shirt?) and has a tense standoff with Bronn, Tyrion’s sellsword, is notable right away for the little peeks into the new lord commander’s backstory it provides; even though they are both tiny and scant, they are far more than George Martin provides across the (comparatively) significant amount of “screen time” Bronn receives in the novels.  Combined with his handling of his whore, his men, and his newfound adversaries, it paints a rather nice and somewhat full picture of the otherwise mostly-blank-slate-of-a-character.

The Hound, on the other hand, is finally and unabashedly depicted with the gruff, near-constant belligerence that is so often and so clearly on display on the printed page.  Indeed, the Kingsguard member – along with Shae the whore and, to a lesser extent, Cersei – has been one of the most significant revisions in the HBO series seen thus far, mostly at the expense of his ever-developing and increasingly-more-ambiguous relationship with Sansa Stark (their only scene to be preserved from the first season was in the finale [“Fire and Blood,” episode 110], when he stops Sansa from killing King Joffrey and displays a tenderness that is, at that point, incredibly shocking).  Giving him an opportunity to clash with the only other not-a-knight-in-a-knight’s-world represents the best way for the showrunners, at this late stage in the game, to display Clegane’s incalcitrant personality – while also setting up over-taxed audiences for his big departure from House Lannister by episode’s end.

It is, all things considered, a rather effective method of exposition, but it does little to fully contextualize the importance of his final scene in Lady Sansa’s bedchamber.  In the television telling, it seems more like the young Stark is Sandor’s only weak spot, the one individual he can display his vulnerabilities to and allow himself to care for, as halting as his efforts may be.  In the novels, it is nowhere near so prepackaged or easy-to-digest; there is a ferocious love/hate relationship between the two characters, a give-and-take that typically leaves Sansa literally terrified in his presence but admiring of his tenacity in his absence (particularly when he manages to save her from the maddening crowd in “The Old Gods and the New” [206]).  All this takes on a new extreme when the Hound enters her chambers to rape her but leaves so touched by her purity (and his heavy drink), he is in tears.

(Why the complexity in the relationship?  It more than likely centers around the almost complete lack of a childhood for Sandor; at a time when he was supposed to be possessed of the innocence that Sansa still carries within her to this day, he was being brutally beaten and hideously disfigured [another watered-down element in the television series, although this may have more to do with budgetary concerns rather than creative considerations] for the remainder of his life.  It is perhaps a more tenuous concept to get across, let alone explore, in the visual medium, but it is certainly still within the realm of execution.)

Given that the showrunners have finally started to dig into his character, and given that book three will have the benefit of two 10-episode seasons as opposed to just one, it will be interesting to see where they continue to compensate for his lack of screen time, on the one hand, and how they continue to unfurl his character, on the other.

Expanding the Story

 

A brief but well-argued – and thoroughly spoilerific – roundtable was recently held over at Tower of the Hand in regards to the father figures that Arya Stark has had throughout the entire five-book run.  Read it and argue along, if you dare.

Much more to the point at hand, the fourth and most recent Anatomy of a Throne details, to an excruciating degree, the changes undertaken by the producers in order to get the Battle of the Blackwater on the small screen, centering specifically around the wildfire sequence.

 

The Lore behind the Iron Throne

Previous It Is Known Installments

 

[Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 18 sites, including IGN, Gamasutra, and Nintendojo, where he co-hosts the Airship Travelogues podcast.  He also likes mittens.]

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