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“Blackwater” depicts war in all its lack of glory

- May 30th, 2012

This post contains spoilers for the Game of Thrones episode “Blackwater.”

Thanks to cable networks like HBO and Showcase, there is no shortage of epic drama or gruesome violence on television. But never before on the scale of the what we saw in “Blackwater” the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

Normally, a particularly graphic moment of violence on television — like say, a man getting cut in half with a freakin’ broadsword — will give the viewer a moment to take it all in. There will be slow motion and swelling music and shots of characters reacting in horror. It will mark the high point of the episode, possibly even the season. Years after it airs, people will say, “Hey, remember that scene in that show where the guy cuts his enemy in half with a broadsword? That was unreal!”

Not so in Game of Thrones’ depiction of the Battle of Blackwater, a massive setpiece in the books, where would-be king Stannis Baratheon’s forces storm the shores of King’s Landing, taking on Lannister forces and the city’s guard in a bid for throne. One incredible moment of blockbuster violence cuts to another, and another and another. The audience barely has time to be shocked by a sword piercing through a man’s face from the back of his head before another man gets the top of his skull sliced off can-opener style. (Kotaku has rounded up the goriest scenes in GIF form for your perverse viewing pleasure.)

And all of this is after the painfully long scene of soldiers burning alive in wildfire, an alchemical creation that burns “so hot it melts wood, stone, even steel, and of course flesh.” Stannis’ soldiers scream in agony as their limbs melt off, while both sides look on in silence. It’s the kind of scene that would make an impressive climax to any action movie, but only marks the halfway point in “Blackwater.”

Some shows glamourize war, while others make it so pretty it loses all impact, but in “Blackwater,” director Neil Marshall (Centurion, Dog Soldiers) and writer George R.R. Martin (yep, the George R.R. Martin) pull no punches in depicting the horrors of battle. This episode drives home the series’ major theme — with a blood-soaked broadsword — that everyone suffers when the high lords play their game of thrones.

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