“Blackwater,” the ninth of ten episodes in Game of Thrones’s second season, is one of the best hours of television ever produced.
The episode surged with forward momentum, brought together disparate plot threads expertly, and presented a tight focus that the rest of the series has largely lacked. “Blackwater” boiled over with well-filmed action, chest-thumping speeches, and smaller, quieter moments that still felt important.
While it’s unfair to judge an entire series or season based on its finest work, “Blackwater” nevertheless exposed the flaws with the rest of season two based on the gigantic gap in quality between it and the other nine episodes.
With both its first and second season, Game of Thrones used its penultimate episode as its showstopper and climax, leaving the season finale to begin setting up the ensuing season. That worked fine in season one, when the series itself still felt new and fresh, and when they could mesmerize us with baby dragons riding a hot naked chick. In season two, however, more was expected of the finale, especially given the quality of “Blackwater.” But the creative team behind GoT tried to go back to the same bag of tricks, and left us with a season finale that felt empty and repetitive.
The handling of the last two episodes is only one of many similarities between the two seasons, and also one of several times that something that worked in the first season didn’t work in the second.
In both seasons, GoT established a slow burn, using the bulk of early episodes to move pieces around the board, to develop characters, and to build to the events of episode nine (the Blackwater battle and Ned Stark’s execution). But season one had a heavier burden to carry: it needed to introduce viewers to this fantasy world, to introduce and give dimension to every single character on the show, and to train viewers in the series’ rhythms. Theoretically, season two should have been all systems go; we should have been able to sit back and enjoy the fireworks that followed the conflicts and set-ups established in season one.
Instead, the writers retreated and entered the television equivalent of the four corners offense in basketball. They stalled and the characters navel-gazed as one episode bled into the next. That’s not to say this season was bad television. To the contrary, the acting remained largely wonderful, much of the dialogue contained highly quotable bon mots, and the series looks as impressive as anything on television (thanks mostly to the superb location filming in Iceland, Croatia and elsewhere). And the season built at least a little bit of momentum heading into “Blackwater” — there was a palpable sense of dread as Stannis Baratheon’s ships approached, and then the battle itself delivered on the promise of all that foreshadowing.
Game of Thrones, by its nature, must service a great many characters and storylines. As such, it tends to be a very plot-heavy show. This happens, then that happens, then that happens. There’s not a lot of time to develop themes, motifs and tone because we have to rush around Westeros to check in on so many different setpieces. I disagree staunchly with Todd VanDerWerff, who argues that episodic themes were a strength of season two. Rather, I think thematic emptiness is one of the show’s great weaknesses. When episodes are (rarely) tied together by a central idea, the show beats us over the head clumsily by having character after character repeat near-identical dialogue. How many characters in the season finale said something to the effect of, “I never imagined the things I’d have to do to get here”? More often, Game of Thrones abandoned the concept of themes altogether and simply whooshed us around the globe to see Dany, then Jon, then Tyrion, then Theon, then Arya…
Yet for a show that’s so quick to ignore theme, season two was stunningly low on plot. To wit:
- Dany’s entire second season was essentially a long stall, since the show didn’t know what to do with her if she got to Westeros this early. So season one ended with her and her baby dragons, ready to cross the sea and claim the throne. And season two ended with… her and her baby dragons, ready to cross the sea and claim the throne. Yes, we got to see the dragons breathe fire, which was awesome, but is that really enough to justify an entire season worth of story? Dany and her dragons essentially ran in place, and Dany became annoying and shrill in the process. The second season did more damage to her character than any other.
- Jon Snow was never a particularly compelling character to begin with (unless you consider rank stupidity a compelling trait), but his second-season storyline also suffered from lack of movement. It took ten episodes for Snow to walk out into the wilderness, get captured by a girl, and prepare to meet the enemy king. Really? Oh, I forgot, he also got an erection. Big moment.
- Arya’s character went nowhere. Her interplay with Tywin was entertaining, but her path, motivation, and circumstance hardly changed at all.
- Even Tyrion, who had a clearly defined arc this season as he began to exhibit tactical and leadership qualities and understand that he enjoyed being part of the action, ended the season in the same place where he started it: unappreciated by his family and a massive underdog.
Sansa’s still at King’s Landing. Stannis – a horridly developed character if ever there was one — is still alive, free and tied to that annoying redhead. Cersei is still Cersei-ing. How did this little happen in such a seemingly plot-driven show?
Part of the problem seems to lie with George R.R. Martin’s books, which I have not read. But based on commentary, it’s clear that Game of Thrones’s showrunners are showing loyalty to the books’ story to a large degree. Sure, they’re taking shortcuts here and there, and changing some details and characters. But they essentially bound this season to the story of Martin’s second book. And I think they need to take more liberties.
Ultimately, Game of Thrones will be judged on how successful it is as a television series, and not on how faithful it was to the books. Sure, if you start changing major plot points and storylines, the books’ fans will cry foul, but if done right, you’d end up with a better show. This season would have been markedly better, if, for example, the writers had invented a more interesting obstacle for Dany to overcome, or invented a way to get her to Westeros earlier than in the books and get involved with other characters.
The tale of the Baratheon brothers also felt woefully underdeveloped, and might have been better executed if Renly had never existed in the world of the show — the better to devote more time to telling us exactly who Stannis is. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss haven’t treated the books like absolute gospel, but pretty close. And they would better serve the show to use the books as guides rather than law.
Alan Sepinwall has also raised the point that the show might be better off taking a cue from Lost, and using the episodes more as chapters — focusing on one or several characters at a time, rather then spending 3 minutes each on 20 different characters and settings. The creative success of “Blackwater” makes that idea seem like a natural, but it would also mean beloved characters disappearing from the screen for weeks or months at a time. I do think there’s a compromise level where each episode could feature fewer characters and stories than they do currently, but while still moving around enough to advance the plot and keep the audience happy. Benioff and Weiss haven’t found that sweet spot yet, and based on the diminishing returns of season two, I don’t expect them to do so in season three.
Ultimately, “unsatisfying” is the word that springs to mind as we consider the season as a whole. Unsatisfying because:
1) “Blackwater” showed what this series is capable of, making the remaining episodes (and particularly the finale) look naked and shallow in comparison
2) A stalled story that didn’t advance nearly enough over a full season
3) Unfocused stretches that never stayed in one place long enough to build viewer empathy, and centered on conversations between characters that repeated ad nauseum from one episode to the next
4) Unanswered questions, like “If there’s a magic smoke monster that can murder people on command, why doesn’t it murder all the people on command?”
Over time, these lingering ill feeling wills probably fade, and I’ll just remember how great the Battle of Blackwater was, and how much I like seeing dragons, but until then, Game of Thrones has established that it’s not among television’s elite dramas.