By Bob Clark
When Blackwater Worldwide changed their organization’s name to Xe Services, in 2009, and eventually Academi, in 2011, their intention was to remove themselves from the public spotlight for all of the negative attention they’d garnered in the past decade as the first name in private military companies. With mercenary soldiers serving as contractors in conflicts on the behalf of governments and corporations stretched around the world, they secured themselves a reputation for being an efficient and professional group of exacting army servicemen, with jobs ranging from bodyguarding and other protective duties to full assault missions in the burgeoning, horizonless scope of the modern War on Terror. With better pay than their state-run equivalents (one might say competitors), it wasn’t unheard of for army regulars from different nations leaving their units behind to join as professional soldiers in the private sector, especially since they’d likely be serving in exactly the same conflicts once they were deployed. But while Blackwater managed to project an attractive image of themselves as a valuable part of the evolving shape of warfare, they weren’t able to escape the newfound scrutiny that roughed-up glamorous image attracted, and once their record for causing and covering up suspicious deaths (including those of their own contractors) and all manner of criminal activity on the fields of war, they began assigning themselves as many nommes de guerre as it would take to regain some measure of anonymity.
Still, while the public at large may not know the difference between “Xe” and a long forgotten item from the periodic table poster hanging in their high school teacher’s classroom (to say nothing of what they’d think of “Academi”– some kind of charter school, perhaps), the name “Blackwater” has since managed to go down in the annals of cultural memory as one of the buzzwords for the confluence of private industry and the war on terror in modern days, a carry-all catch phrase that summarizes the corporatization of warfare and the running for profit of human lives lost and fought for on third-world stages across the globe. In films, television and video-games for the past decade and more we’ve seen the PMC become one of the prime sources for easy-to-hate villains, and though they may come with different names like Jericho‘s “Ravenwood” or Metal Gear Solid‘s “Outer Heaven”, they’re all closely modeled shadows of the original Blackwater pattern. That name still evokes the threatening, yet not necessarily hostile image that the corporate founders of the company no doubt chose it for, that poetic combination of positive and negative aspects that would make it sound attractive to governments and private firms seeking their security services, while backing it up with just the right amount of dread to imply that they could get the job done. One imagines they’re the same reasons that George R.R. Martin had when titling the body of water that serves as location and gives name to one of the major episodes of his Song of Ice and Fire books, and as adapted for the HBO program Game of Thrones becomes one of the stand-out moments of the show– the Battle of Blackwater Bay.
Is it going too far to imagine that Martin might’ve known about the implications in the name of “Blackwater” when he chose it, and the connections made between his story of an alternate-reality medievalist fantasy depicting seven kingdoms at war with one another for absolute power, and the modern-day tyranny and conquest made in the realm of mercenary warfare? There’s certainly no end of mercenaries fighting for thrones in Martin’s stories, and to a certain degree they’re portrayed as being somewhat more free than the common peasantry of smallfolk that various high-born nobles talk down upon throughout– in a world of feudal conquest and absolute plutocratic rule, sellswords and knights-for-hire are the ones at least entertaining enough measure of self-worth to fight for their own interests rather than those of a thieving king or queen who’d be just as happy to send them to their deaths. Many of the lordly houses and families of Westeros come across as little more than corporate inheritors, treating campaigns for kingdoms and seiges upon strongholds with the same dispassionate dispositions as CEO’s in board rooms. In some cases, we’re even able to see a clear eyed look at the economics of warfare and vice-versa in ways that those with a myopic view of history might not imagine existed any further back than the 1980′s– in the bloodthirsty, penny-pinching halls of the Lannisters, we see a picture of banking power turned to military conquest that feels right at home in the age of PMC’s and off-shore finance and wouldn’t appear out of place in the days of Machiavelli or the Medicis. Whether they’re corporate or feudal, overlords tend to behave the same.
As such, it’s tempting to look at the episode “Blackwater” and look on it through this kind of lens, and especially to consider Martin’s books and the HBO series developed by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss as an elaborate meditation on the similarities in the kinds of power struggles we see today in the white collar world with the medievalist sword-and-shield power struggles of the battlefield. That would be going too far, at least somewhat. But all of the modern resonances both built into the series by design and elaborated upon through execution help its core themes resonate in ways that lend an immediacy to all the long-ago backdrop in ways that we haven’t seen in fantasy cinema, appropriate for a work that manages to strike an essential response to the dominant cultural strains in that genre. Though it may not be delving very deep into modern territory, the Game of Thrones series succeeds in putting a genuinely human face onto the kinds of feudal struggles and conflicts present from the Lord of the Rings, Narnia and even at times the Harry Potter series in ways that none of those literary or cinematic franchises quite allow themselves to be self-aware of. While those books and films, especially Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien, take for granted the notions of feudalism and monarchism as principles of divine right, casting their kingly heroes against huge swaths of inhuman barbarism and Manichean conceptions of absolute evil in retellings of crusade mythology that would provide a good case for plagiarism by the holders of the Song of Roland copyright (if there were any), Martin’s books and the television series that spawned it have done as excellent a job as any of bursting open all those instruments of mythological chivalry and examining the human cost of it all.
In a sense, it’s one of the better juxtapositions of Arthurian myth and medieval reality since Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and rendered with nearly as much of an ear for humor and at least as much an eye for the kind of epic lyricism that Terry Gilliam could make there and on Jabberwocky with a strained budget. Money issues are of prime concern throughout much of Game of Thrones as a production, and it’s easy to see everywhere how Benioff & Weiss do their best to make the most of their television-sized budgets, especially as they spread them to portray several lands and countries at once while combining studio and location shooting. So far, they’ve done a marvelous job of rendering their fantasy world in ways that are grounded in just enough realism to read on-screen, but with plenty of visual aplomb and beauty throughout. From the incorporation of real locations around the world as diverse as Malta, Belfast and Norway to the design and dressing of sets and cinematography, the series stands as one of the best showcases of cinematic layering and world-building this side of a Ridley Scott feature. Where the production has shown its limitations, however, has been on the side of the kind of action it puts on screen. Though this is an epic medieval fantasy series with an emphasis on power struggles for the throne of an entire world’s worth of kingdoms, there hasn’t been a great deal of warfare put before cameras. To be fair, for the most part Weiss & Benioff have been wise so far to emphasize the behind-the-scenes struggle for power rather than go for the easy spectacle of largescale combat. Under their hand and a talented team of supporting writers, directors and certainly the able cast, they’ve managed to balance that high-wire act of first-rate drama that’s often hard to manage in the histrionic high-speech realm of fantasy storytelling, allowing the political gambits to be fleshed out for all they’re worth in ways that make the relative lack of big action scenes not such a problem.
And certainly, we’ve seen a fair deal of one-on-one fighting throughout, and even some rather inventive set-pieces, like Season One’s duel between a pair of representative fighters in the so-called civilized court of the Vale, with a whole audience of noble men and women watching knights fight in a trial by combat, with the very real possibility of death ever present in the form of the floor’s “Moondoor”, a stage worthy of video-game playability. But for a show that talks so much about the approach of war and kingdom-wide conquest, there’s been precious few scenes in which we even see enough extras onscreen to even count as an army, without them doing any fighting. For the most part the show has done a fair job of making up for the lack of largescale spectacle battles thanks to both the attention paid to the slow build in the rising action of these early parts of the story, and for playing up the graphic qualities of what action we see, putting a premium on the bloodletting of the violence. Whether it’s an unexpectedly and horrifically gory scene at a seemingly placid jousting tournament, or the sight of beheadings performed in the name of a lord or by that lord themselves as a canny metaphor-in-action of the way that some leaders accept responsibility while others keep passing the buck, the show often finds key ways of allowing the spectacle of violence to release the tension of all its endless rising action and avoid putting the expensive spectacle of warfare onscreen. It’s also done this, at times, with an equal eye for graphic sex throughout the series, to the point that it’s become something of a running joke for fans and critics alike. There’s something of the usual HBO studio house-style of it, as well– just like Deadwood, Rome and True Blood before it, Game of Thrones sometimes risks turning into an expertly made piece of trash with all its blood and nudity making it feel less like a mature program and more what an adolescent’s fever-pitched imagination wants to think is mature.
To be sure, there’s moments where it works, more or less– especially in scenes like the naked reveal of the “Mother of Dragons” or a fire-worshiping priestess’ act of skyclad black magic– and even this episode finds a spare moment to spend on a bit of “sexpository” cavorting before the shouting and the tumult begins. But once it does, we’re treated to a series of sequences that both make good on the better part of two season’s worth of rising action in the form of endless parades of dialogue and finger-pointing map reading, and puts as many characters’ politicking into steel-trap conflict at the climax of their game-playing. We are also, at long last, given a truly epic battle sequence staged at a significantly wider and higher scale and scope than anything we’ve seen on the show up to now, and frankly bigger than much of anything produced for live-action television. The seismic shift in the scope of the episode is made clear from the credits alone– written by author Martins himself and directed by feature-filmmaker Neil Marshall, the hour represents the show at both its tightest and most economic in terms of sharp scripting and its most dynamic in terms of on-screen action. Portraying the full-scale invasion by rival throne-seeker Stannis Baratheon and his fleet upon the Lannister-held citadel of King’s Landing, we’re witness first to a naval assault that quickly turns into something else entirely, thanks to the shrewd planning of Tyrion Lannister. As portrayed by Peter Dinklage (who won an Emmy for the role as a supporting actor last year, and may well be up for one as a headlining actor this year), Tyrion has become something of the definitive Game of Thrones character, one who manages to navigate the dense web of political gamesmanship and moral quagmires better than anyone else while still maintaining integrity and insight.
While we’ve had plenty of other characters to sympathize and identify with as figures of moral clarity, mostly on the side of the Stark family, Tyrion represents something of an ideal blend of both morality and practicality, forever keeping his cards close to the chest but revealing the depth of his character by the extents to which he’s willing to put himself on the line to protect not only his friends and family, but also the whole city’s worth of smallfolk and common people that most of his fellow nobles would just as soon leave to die. It helps put him head and shoulders above Sean Bean’s beloved Ned Stark, who last season proved himself a brave leader and good, kind man, but woefully naive and unlearned in the politics of King’s Landing. His death in the penultimate episode last year cemented him as something of an Arthur-as-martyr figure in the world of the show– the one good, honest man in a sea of liars and vipers. Tyrion certainly isn’t an honest man, but he’s slowly revealed himself to be a good one, especially in comparison to his fellow Lannisters, most of whom come about as close to the morally ambiguous show gets to portraying pure, unmitigated greed and evil. It’s primarily in the way that Tyrion’s combination of shrewd dishonesty and hidden goodness that he wins as much of a following as he does from fans and critics, and especially in this way that he proves himself as a tactician.
It helps the sequence build off of all of the table-setting he’s had throughout the rest of the season– warning his blithely sadistic and egotistical sister and nephew of coming wars from rival kings and the likelihood of an insurrection by their own downtrodden subjects; investigating the various betrayals and plots in King’s Landing and discovering a treasure’s trove of “wildfire”, a weaponized substance powerful enough to melt stone; even slowly but surely building a network of friends and allies amongst the unlikeliest figures imaginable, from the eunuch-spymaster Varys to the common troubadour sellsword Bronn, who may come the closest anyone gets to on this show to being a true friend. Throughout the past weeks Benioff & Weiss have delicately weaved their different strands together behind the various A-plots while biding their time for nearly all of them to come together in this hour, and the manner in which Martins & Marshall pay off all the slow wheelspinning prior helps make this not only one of the showiest and most viscerally entertaining hours of the show so far, but easily one of the smartest, igniting the action in a very literal sense with the debut of Wildfire against the Baratheon fleet.
It’s a grand visual spectacle from the first shot, a grand explosion of mint-green plumage spreading throughout all of Blackwater Bay, destroying most of the boats in its wake and sending their crew to die horrible, flaming deaths. Yet it’s also an illustration of great military acumen that capitalizes on the weeks’ worth of investigation on the weaknesses of King’s Landing and the great danger of Wildfire as a defense weapon– Tyrion had previously discovered his sister’s plans to simply have soldiers rain it down on the invaders from the wall, and very likely wind up destroying the city itself in the process. Instead, he mounts a trick that combines the mythological brilliance of Odysseus’ fabled invention of the Trojan Horse with the Dam Busters tactical elegance of the rebel assaults from the various Star Wars features and their ilk– sailing an unmanned ship full of Wildfire into the coming Baratheon fleet, and then setting it ablaze with a well-timed fire arrow. It stands in stark contrast to the sheer force with which conflicts are won in typical fantasy genre efforts, where even battles between small, outnumbered bands are won by sheer physical determination, rather than any kind of guile or trickery. It’s one of several aspects that helps turn Blackwater Bay into the anti-Helm’s Deep, to reference the climactic battle from Lord of the Rings which the episode most closely resembles. The first line of defense is not the military force itself, but the ways in which they are put to use by our heroes (or in this case, perhaps just the singular), making it a matter of brawn vs. brain from the outset. As the strategy comes from the dwarf Tyrion, the least physically capable character of the show in terms of traditional male heroic paradigms, it turns the tables on the usual examples that medievalist fantasy adheres to. It’s not a case of might makes right– or as most divine proclamations to rule would have people believe, “right makes might”.
Still, Martins & Marshall are wise enough to acknowledge that simple cleverness and tricks can’t solve everything, and as such the Wildfire marks the beginning of the fighting, not the end, as opposed to Star Wars and the various recyclings of its Death Star motif– the Baratheon fleet can be weakened by Tyrion’s trick, and victory made possible by its audacity, but thinking alone isn’t enough to turn the tide of war. Yet even when relying upon the old tropes of seige-combat and portraying all the classic knightly fighting on the shores before the city’s walls, the writer and director manage to portray the limits to which sheer force and the feudal systems it supports can endure in the face of unrelenting hostility. We see how seemingly invincible warriors like “The Hound” can be frightened away from battle by the sight of a man lit on fire, and how even previously unyielding monarchist loyalty isn’t enough to motivate him back into the thick of fighting. We see how the young Lannister king’s taste for cruelty and sadism amongst his most vulnerable subjects doesn’t spare him from cowardice, running inside to the safety of the keep at the first excuse. In both cases, we see a character who has previously held almost uncontested displays of physical or political force being frightened off, and thus deflating the positions of power they represented. By contrast it’s Tyrion, the least likely fighter and military leader of them all, who risks his own life by volunteering to lead a desperate last charge as battering rams shake the walls, and even uniting the disparate, dispassioned civilian defenders of the city to rally and fight off the invaders with an inspiringly clear-eyed class-conscious revision of the typical Crispin’s Day Speech motif–
“Don’t fight for your king, don’t fight for his kingdoms, don’t fight for honor, don’t fight for glory, don’t fight for riches because you won’t get any! This is your city Stannis means to sack, your gate he’s ramming. If he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, your women he will rape. Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”
What’s really astonishing about this sequence, and how it illustrates the lengths to which the fantasy genre has come since the staunchly monarchist sentiments of Tolkien and the writers following in his wake, is how Tyrion appeals not to the usual sentiments of God, King and country, but to the safety and well-being of the subjects themselves. Many fans and commentators have praised this moment while calling it an appeal from Tyrion to the commoners’ self interest, but within the context of the story, what we have is something far deeper. It stands as one of the biggest subversions of the feudal power structure that the series portrays, a moment where the smallfolk are both braver and more deserving of being defended by any of the high-born cowards who go running to the keep. It helps especially that Tyrion has yet one last trick up his sleeve to upend the expectations of brawn winning out over brains, and that throughout the whole episode his efforts are intercut with the wicked Sersei Lannister sulking drunkenly with her ladies in waiting, laughing about how they’ll all be raped once the city’s sacked and contemplating the death of her youngest son, to spare him from the horrors she fatalistically expects at the battle’s end, while a teenage Stark girl seeks to placate the masses with appeals to religion.
As such, it seems almost unfair that in the end Tyrion’s heroic assault is beaten back by overwhelming numbers, not too mention treachery in his own ranks and family. It seems especially unfair that the old order comes riding in with the cavalry to administer the coup de grace on the Baratheon forces and no doubt take credit for the victory overall, especially given the fact that the Tryion’s hateful father Tywin marches in as the victor. But given all that we’ve seen and the delicacy with which it has been presented, it’s unlikely that anyone watching the show will take seriously the notion of anyone other than Tyrion and the commoners of King’s Landing as the true heroes of the day. Tywin and his bannermen may have swooped in once all the hard work and heavy fighting was done, but nobody can count them as rescuers in the same vein of Gandalf returning at the end of the Helm’s Deep battle. And yet, like everything in the sequence, the similarities help make it feel like an expert answer and dissection to everything Tolkien attempted to prop up, and all the various connections with further pop-mythological institutions broadens the cultural discourse the episode represents. Thanks to Martin’s layered script and Marshall’s expert shooting and staging of set-pieces both large and small throughout the attack– summing up a whole city under seige with a burning boat, a ladder on a wall and the fights over them– Game of Thrones has never been quite this epic or meaningful.
It may be hard to pick a favorite moment from the series, once it’s all done, but right up there as a contender will be that of Tyrion’s face as he watches the Wildfire explosion, his face bathed in its green light as he listens to the screams– relieved no doubt that his city is well defended, but horrified by the cries of his dying enemies, a moment of double-bladed humanity. It recalls nothing less than all those trickster heroes in ancient mythology and space-opera alike, and to all the real world minds who cast their minds towards war, with equal amounts determination to preserve their way of life and regret that it has to end so many others’. It also may provide an ideal summation for the series as a whole, from the words of Kenneth Bainbridge after witnessing the Trinity nuclear tests alongside J.R. Oppenheimer– “Now we are all sons of bitches”.