Anatomy of a Throne: “Blackwater”

Wildfire at the Battle of Blackwater

HBO’s Game of Thrones brandishes a consistent and high degree of fidelity to the nearly 5,000-page-long source material of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but there still, of course, are differences. While most of these gaps from the page to the screen are small and detail-oriented, it is nonetheless the case that the most subtle discrepancies often hold the biggest insight into the adaptation process, into the demands of filmmaking, and into the rigors of the literary narrative.

This, then, is the anatomy of a key scene of Thrones – not because of its dramatic importance or visual effects whizbangery, but because of the telling nature of its realization.

Episode: “Blackwater” (209)
Scene: Wildfire ambush

The Battle of the Blackwater may not have been the first big battle scene shown in the books – there is one witnessed firsthand at the end of A Game of Thrones, and two more fought “off-screen” – but it is easily the most involved, sprawling, and dramatic conflict yet encountered in all five published novels, occupying water and land, castle battlements and makeshift bridges comprised of devastated ship hulls. In the book, it takes six chapters to unfold; in the series, it consumes this week’s entire episode (the first time a single story thread is allowed such a luxury).

Given such epic proportions, it’s unsurprising that HBO had to pony up a significant chunk of change above and beyond the normal – and quite formidable – cost of the episode. It’s even less surprising that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, who had to practically beg and plead for the extra allotment of resources, had to make a series of hard choices on what to include (the naval portion of the conflict was a must, no matter the cost, despite some pressures to make it all a land battle) and what to cut (most of King Stannis’s fleet, and all of King Joffrey’s).

Tyrion at the Battle of Blackwater Bay

The single most critical element was, by far, the wildfire trap that Tyrion Lannister unleashes on the elder Baratheon’s warships, even though this itself was transmuted in the adaptation process; in A Clash of Kings, it is Tyrion’s idea all along, struck upon not long after first arriving in King’s Landing to become the acting Hand of the King. (That it became Queen Regent Cersei’s pet project in the show is perhaps something of an effort to simultaneously play up the otherwise [comparatively] sedate monarch’s deviousness, on the one hand, while playing down the Imp’s malicious cunningness, on the other – without the mitigating element of inner monologues, after all, it can be quite hard to contextualize the three-dimensionality of characters, particularly George R.R. Martin’s.)

Although the main delivery method is still wildfire-soaked derelict ships listing in the river – which go unnoticed amongst Joffrey’s Royal Fleet, which itself is needed to draw Stannis and his men into the Blackwater in the first place – there is still extra jars of the substance which come raining down from the scorpions and trebuchets that the Lannisters employ, and there is even an extra dimension of strategy in the form of a giant iron chain that is raised once nearly all of the rebel fleet has entered the river, trapping them in the waters in front of the city and ensuring that they all burn. (On the page, it is Bronn the sellsword who is in charge of raising this makeshift boundary; on the screen, it is Bronn, the Commander of the City Watch, who ignites the wildfire ambush.)

Bronn ignites the wildfire trap

There are a fair number of other deviations, as well. Before the 50-foot explosion of green flames erupts across the Blackwater, destroying all in its path, Ser Davos Seaworth – who is merely the captain of a single ship in the second line, as opposed to the Lord Admiral of the entire fleet – rams ships, engages in swashbuckling raids on enemy decks, and attempts to keep track of his two other sons, who captain their own vessels, as well as his king, who is with his host on the southern shore, waiting to cross the river to lay siege to King’s Landing.

Stripping all this out of the series does surprisingly little to dilute the Battle of the Blackwater’s intent or, more importantly, to undermine its effect. While nearly the entirety of the underlying strategy is absent – a more-or-less constant for the overall season’s King’s Landing narrative, actually – the raw power of the sequence is preserved and, perhaps, even heightened; the screaming of burning and drowning men may be lifted directly from the book, but it is even more heart-wrenching and jaw-dropping when realized in front of one’s eyes rather than described on the page (which is the same for Jack Gleeson’s gleeful response to the carnage in front of his eyes. King Joffrey was never so easy to hate – or to understand on a purely visceral level). And the swirling wildfire, both practical and computer-generated, is literally an awe-inspiring image, even for audiences (particularly on HBO) that are inundated with vivid scenes of carnage.

Indeed, revisions or no, this may very well be the single most effective translation from page to screen thus far. It’s certainly the best episode yet.

Previous installments

“The North Remembers” (201)

“What Is Dead May Never Die” (203)

“A Man without Honor” (207)

“The Wars to Come” (501)

“High Sparrow” (503)

“Sons of the Harpy” (504)

“Kill the Boy” (505)

“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” (506)

“The Gift” (507)

“The Dance of Dragons” (509)

“Mother’s Mercy” (510)

“Mother’s Mercy” (Bonus) (510)

25 responses

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    1. It’s amazing how much they accomplished with a limited budget. Sure, they probably had more money than in season 1, but I doubt they had as much as they had in season 4 or 5. Great work!

      I’m still deciding between this episode and Watchers on the Wall as my favorite.

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    2. Flayed Potatoes,

      I wonder how much more they increased for season 6, really is amazing how much the budget increases every year for this show. I loved the battle of blackwater and watchers on the wall, for me it’s hard to pick between the two episodes.

        Quote  Reply

    3. Matthew The Dragon Knight,

      I marathoned the series with a friend who wanted to watch the show, but was confused by all the backstory and characters (aren’t we all at first lol), and it’s so clear how the budget increased when you watch everything back to back.

      There’s a nice balance of action and character development in both of the episodes as well.

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    4. Flayed Potatoes,

      It is amazing, looking back to season 1 and going forward to season 6, the difference is breathtaking. I’m in the middle of watching the series over again, on season 3 episode 1, so much fun to watch as the show and actors evolve with each season.

        Quote  Reply

    5. Matthew The Dragon Knight,

      Seeing the kids grow up is really nice too. They did a good job casting them. These are not typical child actor roles, so the casting could have easily gone wrong (especially with how many child actors lose some of their acting skills as they transition into more grown up roles). Maisie is particularly good.

      There are also other actors who I felt improved on their roles as the seasons went on and made their character into their own.

        Quote  Reply

    6. Flayed Potatoes:
      Matthew The Dragon Knight,

      Seeing the kids grow up is really nice too. They did a good job casting them. These are not typical child actor roles, so the casting could have easily gone wrong (especially with how many child actors lose some of their acting skills as they transition into more grown up roles). Maisie is particularly good.

      There are also other actors who I felt improved on their roles as the seasons went on and made their character into their own.

      Agreed. They really lucked out with the core child roles. They had to recast Aimee Richardson as she aged.

        Quote  Reply

    7. Jack Bauer 24,

      I never knew why that recast happened exactly, but to me the core child roles were more important. Myrcella was never bound to have a long shelf life on the show anyway. I still find it cute/funny that they recast Tommen with the same actor who played a Lannister cousin (the faceless men jokes write themselves).

        Quote  Reply

    8. Still remember watching this episode and fearing they would not manage to pull it off, one green explosion further, goosebumps proved my fears wrong. An awe inspiring episode and the one cementing GoT’s legacy after Baelor.

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    9. Flayed Potatoes,

      I’ll admit I was never crazy about Jon snow/kit Harington at first, I was more interested in Tyrions, Dany, Ned, and Aryas story lines when I first started watching the show. But every season kit/Jon grew on me more and more, eventually Jon Snow became one of my favorite characters on the show, and every time I re watch the series I look forward to Jon snows story arcs the most. I believe Kit grew as an actor as well, I love the way he portrays Jon snow, in my opinion one of the best improvements over the years.

        Quote  Reply

    10. Matthew The Dragon knight,

      Yes I agree. It was the same for me. He just got better and better and sort of sneaked up on me. I don’t even know when it happened lol. Maybe the memory lane posts will help me figure it out.

      It was similar with Theon as well. I didn’t pay that much attention to him in season 1, but then the Sack of Winterfell arc in season 2 rolled by and I was really invested. Alfie did a good job.

        Quote  Reply

    11. It’s odd how many rank season 2 as the lowest when it had Blackwater, and great episodes everywhere except Qarth and not even all those were bad.
      Developments at KL were good, Harrenhal was exceptionally good, the introduction of Brienne, Dragonstone, the Greyjoys, and the Riverlands story were all good, people don’t seem to remember that.

        Quote  Reply

    12. I’ll never forgive, I mean forget, Neil Marshall cut Sansa singing to the Hound because she sang that song in the previous scene.

        Quote  Reply

    13. The GoT Instagram account has updated every day since #GoT50 started with a countdown post. Any idea why there was no “32 days” post today?

        Quote  Reply

    14. That moment when Tyrion signals Bronn, and Bronn lets fly with his bow and flaming arrow, is pure magic. Claude Rains and Errol Flynn during Warner Brother’s golden age couldn’t have done it any better.

        Quote  Reply

    15. S1 was spooky & dark. S2 was like a sunny family drama.

      Funny what passes for “sunny family drama” on this show. 🙂

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