Monday, 4 June 2012

Hate And War

I'm gonna stay in the city 
Even when the house fall down
War is Hell, I have been led to believe, and the Battle of the Blackwater isn't liable to change my mind on the subject.  But in amongst all the salt and stone and blood and fire, is there anything else we can dig out?

(Spoilers beyond the Mud Gate, men!)

The answer might seem to merely be "maybe".  There's clearly the making literal the theme we've spent much of this season (particularly the last three episodes) upon; the nature of captivity.  We've not been entirely without entirely non-metaphorical examples of imprisonment over the weeks, but this is at another level.  Every inhabitant of King's Landing is trapped within its walls, awaiting Stannis' fleet.  And those within that fleet are just as trapped; encased in steel and encased in wooden hulls, their only alternative to a vicious, grinding bloodbath is a short flight and an unceremonious drowning.

We're not just dealing with imprisonment here, of course; we're dealing with caged animals, who know that freedom is close at hand, but only if they can chew their way through enough flesh and hair and steel first.  The first half of "Blackwater" concerns itself with how the characters we've known for months at least (and over a year in most cases) respond to that knowledge.  I'm not sure one can call this a "theme" in an episode that is so centered a single plot development, but the occasional bout of tight focus (and surely in only a show as sprawling as this one could an episode covering every angle of seven thousand troops besieged by forty thousand be considered tightly focussed) is all to the good.

There are many pairings in the build-up to the battle: Davos and his son, Cersei and Pycelle, Bronn and the Hound, Sansa and Joffrey, Tyrion and Shae, then Varys, then Bronn.  Within these brief dances, there is fear, defiance, bravery and bravado, wise counsel and foolish posing.  Little here is surprising, but, unsurprisingly given George R R Martin wrote the script himself - it's all solid character work, and, if it doesn't make us particularly concerned about whether a given person is going to make it out with his entrails still on the inside (which, to be fair, probably isn't Martin's aim anyway, or at least not across the board).  Most interesting are the responses of Bronn and Sandor Clegane - two old soldiers preparing for the latest in and endless line of pointless meat-grinders - and Cersei, busy acquiring poison to ensure Stannis can't take alive anyone Cersei doesn't want taking alive, most especially herself.

Once the arrows start whistling and the (brilliantly realised) wildfire starts burning its way across the Blackwater, the episode twists itself into two single-sex strands (we mentioned this last time around): the battle itself, and the Court of Boozy Cersei.  The former, there doesn't seem a great deal to say about, except to heap praise upon Martin's script, Neil Marshall's direction (definitely his best contribution to the art of moving pictures since The Descent), the various special effects heightening the carnage, and the seemingly endless mass of extras willing to run in full armour through the freezing rain of Ireland so they can pretend to get hit in the face with medieval weaponry.  It's all thrillingly done, a worthy pay-off to weeks of build-up, which makes it all the more impressive that the scenes within the Red Keep don't remotely feel like they're interrupting the good stuff.

Drunken Cersei provides much of the humour this episode, though in keeping with events outside and the show as a whole, it's painted pretty black.  Lena Headey, who's never entirely sold me on her interpretation of Tywin Lannister's only daughter, absolutely nails it here, as all of the Queen Regent's bitterness and frustrations and wounded pride start to bleed out across Sansa, the girl she both despises and is clearly projecting onto for the same reason: Sansa will soon enough have Cersei's job.  Nothing infuriates Cersei more than knowing she's only as powerful as she is because of the boorish thug she married, and now she'll be losing that power because some other woman is marrying some other boorish thug (whatever else this season has proved, it's that if Cersei hasn't completely abandoned her illusions regarding her eldest, she's certainly packed them in a trunk and left them by the front door, just in case).  It's both painful and pathetic watching her choose to spend what she realises might be her last hours alive on mocking a teenage girl without the ability to defend herself, but then that's Cersei.  So long as she has someone to exert power over...

In the end, though, the only people she has to exert power over are herself, and her second son Tommen, as she sits atop the Iron Throne with a dose of poison for each of them. Does she get credit for being willing to kill her child or not? Are we supposed to believe Stannis will kill him?  And even if Stannis does plan to execute Tommen (which, in fairness, he probably does, given his comments about abominations), should that make her attempt to finish him off personally (as oppose to, say, giving him to Varys to smuggle out of the city) seem noble, or just monstrously self-absorbed (see Goebbels, childrens' fate of)?  I'm going to bow out of this one, lacking children myself, but I think if nothing else Cersei gets some credit for having moved on from her position over Myrcella's trip to Dorne, which basically boiled down to "My children should never have to suffer, because theoretically everything might be fine for ever".  That said, maybe realising that attitude won't wash in the face of tens of thousands of axe-happy soldiers knocking on her door isn't really a revelation worthy of much in the way of praise.

We'll end this (comparatively) quick appraisal here, as the episode itself ends, with the Big Reveal that the Tyrells and Lannisters have now joined forces (it's been almost ten years since I read the book, but I seem to remember being pretty surprised too), which encapsulates this whole episode: too awesome in its text to really need to bother with subtext at all.

A quarter of an hour from now, British viewers such as myself will get the opportunity to see how it all ends, for this season at least.  There seems to be an awful lot to tie up, which is born out by "Valar Morghulis" coming with a noticeably extended run-time.  What delights await us within those seventy minutes? Time will tell, to quote the Seventh Doctor.  It always does.

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