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07th Oct 2017

How three days of doubt ultimately made Game of Thrones the greatest show in world

Paul Moore

Set record because a magnificent Game of Thrones episode is on TV later.

With preparations for Season 8 already underway, Game of Thrones continues to redefine the scale and boundaries of what TV can be. As fans of the show will know, a superb episode of Thrones is more cinematic that 99% of films that are released in the cinema. On this note, it’s time to set record because one of the finest ever episodes of the show is on Sky Atlantic tonight.

Hardhome, Beyond the Wall, The Winds of Winter, Watchers on the Wall, The Spoils of War and the iconic Battle of the Bastards are just some of the most breathtaking episodes in the show’s history, but they all owe a massive debt to Blackwater and the skill of its director, Neil Marshall. 

Cast you mind back to Season 1 of Game of Thrones.

We saw adrenaline-pumping fights (Ned Stark vs Jaime Lannister), visceral gore (the very first scene shows the White Walkers slaughtering the Night’s Watch rangers) and plenty of conflict, but the show was yet to film a massive battle.

Of course, Thrones is far more than just action and fighting, but after establishing the characters and plot in its first season, the stakes were raised and the tension was building. Not to get too dramatic, but you could say that in a visual sense, The War of the Five Kings would live and die by how it looked on the battlefield. Given the escalating conflcit in Westeros and the sense of what was yet to come, Blackwater had to be perfect. It was.

This being said, much like Stannis’ ill-fated journey through the waters of King’s Landing, the pre-production process for Blackwater wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were desperate to film a battle in Season 1 but they were disappointed at not being able to shoot the large-scale Battle of the Green Fork (remember when Tyrion gets knocked-out and misses the whole thing?) so they had to wait until the penultimate episode of Season 2 to scratch their warfare itch.

With only a week to go before filming started on Blackwater, the original director pulled out.

George R.R. Martin announced on his blog that director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) would step in to film the episode, noting that he was a fan of Marshall’s feature film work, particularly the 2005 horror film, The Descent. In fact, as Marshall said in an interview with Mick Garris, it was another one of his films that actually secured him the gig. It turns out that a lot of the horse masters and stunt people that were working on Centurion went on to work on Game of Thrones. After the original director dropped out, they told HBO to check out this talented director – they did – and Marshall’s team ended up making one of the finest epiosdes in TV history.

Marshall would repeat this feat with the stunning ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ in Season 4.

It’s also worth noting that Marshalll was a massive fan of the first season and that he had previously asked his agent to get him a directing gig on the show. At the time, the director was rebuffed and noted that HBO was a bit of a “closed shop”.

With only days to go before Game of Thrones started filming their most ezpensive and ambitious episode, Marshall was asked on the Friday if he fancied the gig. He showed up on the Monday after binge-watching the entire first season. Thank the gods – both old and new – that he didn’t get cold feet during those three days.

How daunting would it be to know that you’ve only got seven days to plan what’s arguably the most epic episode in television history? SEVEN DAYS! In that time, he would have to memorise the script, visualise his shots and plan for every on-screen moment with the VFX, set design and various other departments. The talented crew that work on Game of Thrones were already working on this episode for months beforehand. An unenviable task,  but like every other memorable film and episode, Marshall was working from an incredible script.

It’s an old cliche in filmmaking but the most important thing is always the script and Blackwater is arguably the tighetest ever Game of Thrones episode. Why? Well, George R.R Martin was the writer of that episode.

As Martin stated himself, “you could spend $100m to capture everything in the books,” but like every great action sequence, not only are you treated to some jaw-dropping spectacle, but you never lose sight of the characters. In that sense, Blackwater is arguably the finest Game of Thrones episode to date. It’s the perfect mix of spectacle and narrative.

For example, we get to see the Hound and Bronn sharing a moment in the tavern where they enjoy “one last drink before the war.” There’s also the juxtaposition of Joffrey’s cowardice – he flees from the fight – when compared to Stannis’ doomed determination – even after his fleet is destroyed, he still sacrifices thousands of men in his bid to take the Iron Thone.

Even before the fighting starts, there are a few lovely details like the soldiers puking below decks, Davos’ ominous chat with his son and Joffrey getting frightened by a horse – foreshadowing the spineless behaviour.

In such a blood-soaked and action-packed episode, there are also some lovely gags thrown in for good measure. “Fuck the water, bring me wine” yells the Hound but that’s just a precursor of what’s to come. “Fuck the King,” will forever be remembered as one of the finest lines in the history of Game of Thrones. It’s one of those scenes that you can’t help but punch the air in sheer delight.

Also, this whole passage between Tyrion and Bronn is fantastic. In just 0:45 seconds, their whole relationship is perfectly defined.

It’s worth stating that the filming schedule on Blackwater was very tough.

It required a full month of straight back-to-back of night shoots, ten-hours in a row. As for that epic speech by Tyrion, it was raining for the full 12 hours that they spent filming that sequence – it took four nights to perfect. Regarding that scene, Marshall said that the remakably talented Peter Dinklage never complained once.

Here’s a fun fact. The hushed tones that Tyrion uses to deliver his opening line “I’ll lead the attack (quietly ). I’ll lead the attack! (shouted)” was actually improvised.

Further proof of just how talented an actor Peter Dinklage is.

Behind the camera, the special-effects department are the real heroes of Blackwater. They actually built catapults that fired petroleum jelly, or as Marshall puts it “napalm,” that was carefully gauged to travel a certain distance. They also had to build ships, create stunning visual effects, and train/equip 250 extras.

The results were absolutely stunning.

Strictly in terms of action, we get to see Stannis’ fleet being destroyed in an epic hail of wildfire, heads being crushed by rocks, decapitations via sword, arrows in eyes, people being sliced in half and faces being cut.

Blackwater defined the brutality, visciousness and horror of what warfare in Game of Thrones is about. More importantly, it set the template for future Game of Thrones episodes.

In terms of character development, we get to see all of the following:

  • Tyrion proving that he’s a lion in the darkest hour of King’s Landing.
  • Stannis’ dreams being crushed and yet, he fights on.
  • Davos losing his son.
  • The toughest man in the realm, the Hound, breaking down after the sight of fire and defying his king.
  • Cersei on the brink of suicide. She’s close to murdering her own son also.
  • Joffrey proving that he’s an absolute coward.
  • Sansa learning a valuable lesson about life from the Hound.  “Look at me! Stannis is a killer. The Lannisters are killers. Your father was a killer. Your brother is a killer. Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers… so you better get used to looking at them.”

Regarding its narrative structure, Blackwater also broke ground by eschewing away from the majority of the show’s characters and focusing entirely on the long-brewing battle between the seafaring forces of Stannis Baratheon, and the inhabitants of capital King’s Landing.

At present, the episode has a 9.7 rating on IMDB – surprisingly, that only places it tenth in terms of the highest-rated Game of Thrones episodes-  and it won 2 Emmy Awards for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Comedy or Drama Series (One-Hour) and Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series.

By the time we hear The National closing out the battle with a haunting version of The Rains of Castermere, we guarantee that you’ll be rewinding the episode to watch it again.

Thank god that Neil Marshall said yes during those few days of doubt.

Spread the word like wildfire, Blackwater airs on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.