Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ben & Jordan Watch Game of Thrones: Blackwater

The bonds of brotherhood between Ben Morse and Jordan Geary were forged during their time as students at Connecticut College, where they spent four years losing at intramural sports (except softball in 2004!), forming their own fraternity because the school wouldn’t let them, making student films one professor called “unfortunate” and regularly beating their friend Dan Hartnett in Goldeneye.

Today, they live 20 minutes apart in New Jersey with their respective lovely wives, sharing passions for miniature golf, diner cuisine and the music of Motley Crue. They also both watch HBO’s Game of Thrones and have decided to write a column about it. While Jordan ran out and read all the books on which the show is based after season one, Ben prefers books with pictures and floppy covers.

Bear witness to their wit, wisdom and frequent allusions to Melrose Place as they try to do the tradition of Sean T. Collins and Megan Morse proud!

Jordan: Hooooooooo BOY the greatest Game of Thrones episode of all time and I get to lead it off! How to start, how to start? I know! Lena Headley's bottom teeth looked particularly jagged and out of place in this episode. We also noticed that she appears to only move her bottom lip while talking, like some sort of swamp creature...

Okay, if that doesn't grab you, then I will talk about the battle. This episode was just brilliant, and EVERYTHING in it worked for me. From the opening scene where Davos and his son are on their way to war, to the final scene where Tywin comes in to say the Lannisters were victorious, there was not an old choice from the book or a new choice scripted that I felt needed to be changed. I was not at all surprised to read afterward that this episode was written by none other than George R.R. Martin himself! The guy is a genius.

Ben: I’ve made no secret here that this season of Game of Thrones has been quite up and down for me, and at times I’ve been very frustrated the show. Another thing I’ve done frequently on this blog is compare it unfavorably to Mad Men, simply because that happens to be the other one hour drama I watch on Sunday nights and it happens to be in the midst of what just may be its finest season to date (and it wins the Emmy every year, so, y’know). Because my wife likes to use our DVR to tape a lot of reality shows, of late we’ve been catching the replay of Game of Thrones late Sunday night or even Mondays, meaning Mad Men gets priority and I generally watch that show first, making it even tougher for this one to compete. This past week, Mad Men perhaps had the best episode of its best season with “The Other Woman,” so even though I was psyched for the big war, I was not liking Game of Thrones’ shot of wowing me this particular go around.

Fortunately, Mr. R.R. Martin (read his interview with here!) penned an episode so great I wasn’t just talking Monday about how incredible Mad Men was, I was waxing about how it was simply of the best nights of television I could remember period.

This episode was everything that made me fall in love with Game of Thrones in the first place. First and foremost, the dialogue was top notch, be it powerful, moving, humorous or so on; it captured the full range of emotions. The cast involved was at the top of their game and had me audibly cheering and groaning. The ebb and flow of the tapestry of plot was masterful, jumping from one story within story to the next effortlessly as it did in the show’s earliest episodes. The orchestration of all the moving parts and the infusion of action worked wonderfully. It was indeed the best this show has ever been in my opinion.

Jordan: One thing I really enjoyed was that this episode stayed on the battlefront and never left. Unlike the last episode, where you got a bunch of snippets of scenes from a bajillion different parts of the kingdom, this one focused on the war in the kingdom's capitol. Much like the books, which made the reader feel the magnitude of the war by seeing it from several different characters' perspectives, the viewer was locked in and there was no escape from the clash of kings (nerdy book title reference). An even larger feat was somehow cramming the entire battle into ONE EPISODE! It made me somehow happy and sad at the same time to know that the season would not be going out on this momentous episode.

Ben: Definitely this was the flip side of my complaints that last week’s episode was short attention span theater and didn’t give me time to care about anything or anybody. You still had like a dozen viewpoints big and small to follow here, but keeping them all confined to one space and giving each scene proper time to development works wonders.

I can’t help but ponder whether or not this wouldn’t be a more effective format for the series overall at this point. Early on last year, while the cast was big, it was manageable enough that you could have them all in just about every episode, particularly as the bulk of the action was confined to Winterfell or King’s Landing or wherever, with the cuts to The Wall or the Dothraki kingdom feeling more like novelties than distractions. Now there are so many characters and they’re so spread out that at times like last week when they try to cram the whole world of Game of Thrones into an hour it has disastrous results. Obviously this week was a very special case as it was the payoff to the biggest storyline of the season and demanded the attention it got, but I wonder if the show couldn’t benefit from being structured a little bit more like you say the books are by picking a handful of characters each week and telling their “chapters” then not coming back to them for like a month.

We’ll see next week (and next season, I suppose).

Jordan: Because this episode was not a typical format, when dissecting it I struggled to pick something to talk about first. I kept going back to one thing: That wildfire explosion was one of the coolest things I have ever seen on television. When that arrow went up in the air and that neon green explosion happened, there was not a human being alive watching that didn't think the same thing: "OH SHIT!" It was the moment that changed the stakes of the entire battle and needed to be big and hoo-rah did it deliver. I have this bizarre urge to put an m80 into a glass of Ecto-Cooler just to recreate it.

Ben: The explosion was great as was the whole sequence leading up to it. I’m glad we didn’t get more than the most subtle hint as to Tyrion’s master plan (basically just him saying “pig shit” with a ponderous expression last week), as watching it unfold had me on the edge of my seat. I had an inkling of what was coming when they showed the empty boat, but really until it actually happened I wasn’t entirely sure, so I certainly jumped out of my seat (not really, but almost). It was a spectacular site. They used their FX budget well and something as seemingly small as choosing to have the fire be green resonated with my silly brain as I went “Oh! Dragons! Dragons are green!” like an idiot.

Granted I’m color blind, so maybe I saw something different than everybody else, but your Ecto-Cooler comment reassures me I did not.

Pooling their effects into big spectacles like the explosion also helped me forgive the night-camouflaged battle sequences, as even though I couldn’t quite make them out, I appreciated that they picked their shots and make the right calls in my mind.

Jordan: When reading this battle in the books, my wife and I both were squarely rooting for Stannis' army. He was the rightful king, his army was full of supporters who wanted a better kingdom, he would have saved Sansa, and...let's face it folks...Tyrion was literally the only Lannister that was truly likable in King's Landing. Thus, I was surprised when the director chose to use what can only be described as "ominous villain music" whenever Stannis was onscreen. They also changed a few lines to make Stannis seem like a monster. Varys saying something in the books akin to, "Stannis is a stubborn man, so in the name of his own personal justice he will never rest and the kingdom will be wrought with war" became "Stannis and his men loooooove raping people, and they work in the DARK ARTS!" The only thing I can surmise is that the show's producers must have told George R.R. Martin that the hero of the war was too ambiguous in the books, so the audience NEEDED to root for the Lannisters. Hence all that raping thrown in there. Lord there was lots of raping references.

Ben: I didn’t feel like the good/evil line was as clearly defined as you did. I thought Stannis was portrayed as a hard man, but not really any more so than in the past few weeks. I still saw him as the blue collar guy who had earned his reward and was willing to fight for it. Even his throwaway line about being ok with sacrificing thousands of his own men didn’t bother me because he’s a professional soldier and anybody who signed on with him knew what they were getting into. He was certainly a hundred times more likable than Joffrey, who I would have loved to see trampled beneath his boot.

Yes, at the end of the day we rooted for Tyrion, but that’s not just because he’s so fucking charismatic, it’s also because he was the only one who gave a shit about the common folks fighting for him. Joffrey and Cersei could obviously care less about their subjects and only see them as a means to an end. As noted, Stannis is decisively more of a grey area kind of guy, but I didn’t really feel like we were meant to relate to his army as they were never portrayed as any more than cannon fodder. Tyrion, even if his self-interest came first, seemed genuinely dedicated to motivating the working class populace of King’s Landing, who unless I’ve missed something are meant to be as close to “us” as this show gets (assuming “us” means middle class people who have HBO). Basically, I would have been fine with Stannis killing Joffrey, but I did want Tyrion to, at worst, get away, or, at best, lead the blacksmiths and barkeepers to victory if not some sort of peace with the invaders.

Lot of rape references.

Jordan: One thing I have been waiting two seasons for is an accurate depiction of The Hound. This was FINALLY it. He was every bit the scary, gravelly, monstrous beast described in the books...even making Bronn seem like a wimp by comparison. In my mind's eye George R.R. Martin and I were on the same page watching the soft, eyelash-batting portrayal of The Hound and he was like, "Oh F this. I am SO writing that Blackwater episode and making my character cool again." His scene where he dramatically tells Tyrion and Joffrey off was mesmerizing, and his all-too-brief scene with Sansa was wonderful. The only thing I must nit-pick is that in the books The Hound tries to get Sansa to come with him, but she is SO afraid of him that she would rather take her chances with the outcome of the war. Perhaps because of the weak portrayal of The Hound up to this point they had to go another tack and have Sansa tell him no although it made total sense for her to go with him.

Ben: The Hound was at his best this episode. His scene with Bronn in the bar was also awesome, as you really got a sense of both guys, their commonalities as well as their differences. We only got small doses of Bronn throughout the war, but man did he make them count, from his initial rousing in the bar to his firing the arrow to saving the Hound’s ass. I was SURE Bronn was going to die, actually, because after the bar scene I noted how awesome he was, and generally when I have done that on this show it has been the kiss of death (RIP Arya’s swordplay instructor and the dude trying to get her north; y’know, maybe it’s Arya, not me).

Jordan: I'm not sure why they injected the poison storyline into this episode. It got a bit muddy with Cersei telling Sansa that Ser Ilyn would chop their heads off if they were captured, and the next moment running out to poison her son. In the books, there is no poison, and Cersei, Sansa, and the noble ladies are locked up in a super elegant dining room (which added to the surreal nature of Cersei's cold comments). My guess is they told George R.R. Martin, "Look, budget-wise you can either have an elegant dining room or a wildfire explosion so insanely awesome that it will instantaneously impregnate any woman watching it." He made the right choice in my opinion.

Ben: I can’t really imagine this dining room you speak of, because the setting they were in seemed so perfect; they really were caged birds trying to create luxury in the most awful situation and their shoddy surroundings straining to be elegant sold it for me.

I figured the poison storyline was in place because while Cersei would have had Ilyn shred Sansa and company to bits without hesitation so Stannis didn’t get them as spoils or hostages, she sure as hell wasn’t letting him touch her or her son, that’s just what she told Sansa to mess with her.

Jordan: Speaking of Cersei, along with The Hound it looks like George R.R. Martin finally set things right with the character in this episode. No more of that "I'm a fragile flower" crap Lena Headley has been doing all series and more of the calculating, cocky, vampish Cersei we all loved (and loved to hate) from the books. It's with this quality that the character really comes alive onscreen, as with Cersei's previous scene of threatening to kill Tyrion's whore if he stepped out of line. You could see the relish and excitement in Lena Headley's eyes when she tells Sansa that a woman needs to use the weapon in between her legs. I am not sure if it is perceptible the way the characters are vacillating wildly from episode to episode to someone who hasn't read the books, but for me it's been a bit maddening. I blame the 150,000 directors the series has had.

Ben: Lena Headey was excellent for the third straight week by my reckoning. The more drunken and vulgar she got, the more I enjoyed her. It felt like she was pushing back against years of being forced to act like a lady by openly acting the part of the bitch she’s always been behind the scenes and loving every minute of it. Credit to Sansa as well for taking everything Cersei was giving in their dynamic.

Jordan: No Mormont! No problem!

Ben: I have nothing to add.

Jordan: If there was ever an episode I thought Peter Dinklage should win an Emmy for, it was this one. George R.R. Martin may have penned his best line ever with this part of Tyrion's speech to the troops: "Those are brave men knocking at our door...LET'S GO KILL THEM!" I am forever going to try to find a way to insert this bit of dialogue into everyday life.

Ben: That was a truly wonderful bit of dialogue indeed. I look forward to hearing it at least a dozen times when I see you this weekend.

We don’t say much about Tyrion or Peter Dinklage because he’s at the point where he’s so good you run out of nice things to say (my friend Sean and I used to have this problem all the time when we reviewed comics for the Wizard web site). This episode was the pinnacle of his hero’s journey to date, where once again he waded into battle as he did last season and once again found himself knocked out, but this time because he was an active participant, not because he was trampled. My heart broke for him when Tywin showed up—cool a moment as it was—because, dammit, he EARNED this one.

Jordan: One thing I was surprised at was the active role Stannis played in this battle. He was first out of the water, first storming the wall, and was chopping people's heads off like the Slap-Chop infomercial spokesman. In the books, he is on the back lines of the battle so this was a welcome change.

Ben: And this is why I didn’t find Stannis to be the clear cut villain. He’s out there amongst his troops, facing the same risks as them, giving his all for his cause in contrast to Joffrey, so you have to respect him. He didn’t ask anything he wasn’t also willing to put on the line.

Jordan: In the books, Lancel is seriously, seriously wounded in battle. Watching him gallop around the castle, I was like, "Oh crap, how are they going to change this part?"...then Cersei stabbed him and I was shocked. So damn exciting. I seriously can't say enough about this episode. I need to watch it again. I am hyperventilating.

I feel like I am missing commentary on some stuff, but I can't remember it. And you know what? It doesn't matter. Whenever anyone asks for my top television moment in recent memory, I will scream, "GLORIOUS GREEN EXPLOSION!" That's all that matters. Thank you, Game of Thrones...thank you.

Ben: It feels natural for me to finish with some “well, they can’t possibly top this next week” doomsaying, but I’d prefer to end on a high note after this excellent episode, so I’ll just copy and paste the last thing you said…

Jordan: Thank you, Game of Thrones...thank you.

1 comment:

Keith W. said...


When Cersi got the Nightshade I thought for sure she was going to poison Sansa. I thought this was it for sure. She would slip it in her drink and blame Stannis.

I was also shocked that Tywin showed up. As you guys said Tyrion earned the battle. But this is also good news for the North. I'm pretty sure this gives Robb a pretty big opening all the way to the Throne. And That Whiny Bitch Joffry's Head on a Bloody Spike!

I'm also sad that this season went to fast. Thanks for the reviews you 2. After this we all know whats coming next season......

Winter is finally Coming!!! Finally!