Game of Thrones Review – Ep 9: ‘Baelor’

War. Huh! What is it good for? Reviewer Kieran Mathers finds out, and wonders whether the show will deliver on all its promises. Be warned that there are mild spoilers ahead. And, for those of you not yet up to speed, check out our Game Of Thrones primer.

How to talk about this episode without ruining it? Not mention the end, I suppose. Fans of the book, you know what’s coming and they don’t change it one bit. Those of you who have not read ahead … well, you’ve got such a treat coming. It’s the one moment in this show that I wish I hadn’t known about in advance. It’s brilliant, and one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen from a major TV show. I don’t know if the popularity of this show will continue, but if it fails after the properly commissioned second series; well, at least they have their integrity. Bravo, everyone involved, bravo.

However, I have to say that the rest of this episode was a bit of a let-down. It features at least two battles but, just as Peter Jackson’s version of The Return of the King removes Aragorn raising the levies and simply shows him leading the army of the dead to the Pelennor Fields, the episode takes liberties and simplifies the strategy. In both, Robb makes a calculated sacrifice of part of his army. In the books, the cost is higher but the central conceit is the same – having part of his force killed as a diversion allows him to pursue his aims elsewhere. So it’s true to the spirit rather than the letter, which I don’t have a problem with.

My disappointment comes from having both battles happen off-screen. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), sent to die by his strangely vindictive father, tries to observe the first; Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) the other. But apart from a great field of corpses, nothing of these battles is seen and, for me, that represents not a failure in budget, as perhaps it might have been, but a failure in imagination and creativity.

I’ve been thinking about comparisons for Game of Thrones, and apart from The Lord of the Rings, a recent Starz original show called The Pillars of the Earth, adapted from a doorstopper novel by Ken Follett, isn’t a bad match. Filmed in eastern Europe, where production costs are cheaper, they actually managed to show battles, thanks to a clever combination of re-used footage, CGI and an endless supply of eastern European medieval recreationists. The footage is astonishing and eye watering in equal measure.

They weren’t battle sequences, with tactics and strategy lasting many minutes, but they were enough to demonstrate that war was taking place. In Game of Thrones, we’ve only had skirmishes and duels, never full on battles. Since, if they stick to the books, the whole of the next series is going to be one big war, it’s going to be quite difficult to pull off if they can’t show anything other than one-on-one combat.

The reason this annoys me is because it represents sloppy creative thinking. The battle involving Robb Stark is referred to as ‘The Whispering Wood’, and is fought in the chaotic confines of a forest. Even taking into account the expense of loads of extras, costumes and a few stunt men, it would not have been too expensive to portray this battle as a chaotic confusion of men and horses, fighting briefly in distant clearings before moving away to fight unseen elsewhere. G.R.R. Martin wrote a brilliant sequence to describe the battle which reads exactly like that; moments of clarity amidst a sea of noisy confusion. Showing the battle from Catelyn Stark’s perspective could have portrayed this confusion rather well. Then the scene of Robb riding back would have been that much more poignant because we would understand the risks he had taken. To not show anything comes as such a disappointment in a show that’s at its best when not taking the easier option.

But while it lacked in battles this episode still took the risk to add new characters just one episode from the end of the series. Shae (Sibel Kekilli), the prostitute hired by Tyrion, is a really different proposition to the mental image I inherited from the book. I never imagined her as older, but she has a worldly, alien beauty and experience that make her intriguing and, in the experience of the show, I think this makes sense. Tyrion can buy as many women as he likes, but it takes something special for one of them to captivate him – a mystery to solve. We also learn about Tyrion’s background, the story that makes him what he is. It wasn’t hugely affecting, certainly not as affecting as the book, but I think this is just my cynicism talking. For those who did not expect it, I hope it was quite powerful.

It also introduced crusty old patriarch Lord Walder Frey (David Bradley, of Harry Potter fame) and family, who will become extremely important later on. The Freys command a pair of castles called the Twins, guarding a bridge across the river Trident but, once again, seem to live in no splendour at all. The castle interior resembles a really cold looking greeting hall – cracked, worn and unrealistic. It makes me wonder, because some of the sets, including Kings Landing and the Red Keep, have been fantastic. I hate to say it, but I think a lack of budget might be the cause. The scenes with the Freys are actually quite amusing, although the family’s bitchy interplay could have been worked further for laughs. But it’s still a light moment in what can be quite a dour and serious series at times.

Across the sea, Dany (Emilia Clark) takes a fateful decision to maintain her power amongst the Dothraki. This sequence, especially the really powerful use of sound effects, is very well done. There is a sun-baked simplicity to the horror, and doing it all by implication (not in a separate scene, just not visible) is a fantastic way to make it all the more terrifying. A sun bleached tent, some incredibly unexpected effects and some great acting make for a really effective little scene. We also get to see Jorah Mormont duel, proving that, while he may be disgraced, he is still very much a knight, and why it is so useful to wear armour. It’s a good response to the earlier episodes where he was mocked for wearing the ‘steel skirts’.

It’s also good to see the show moving towards more ‘High Fantasy’ material, reminding the viewer that this is not just alternative history. The show will have to be careful with the use of magic because, while the books never fall into the trap of over-using it, I would like the show to keep with the idea that it is extremely dangerous stuff. This is never going to be Harry Potter, but the unpleasant and threatening magic, especially with the introduction of new characters in the next season, is going to be difficult to get right. Doing it by implication, creating an individual horror in each viewer’s mind would be about right.

Roll on the next episode. I’m not sure how they are going to top this one, but I can’t wait to find out!