The stunning, episode-long Battle of Blackwater leaves no character untouched.
"Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them!"
Due partially to plot structure and partially to budgetary restraints, Game of Thrones has spent very little time in the battlefield. But HBO made up for missed opportunities with last night's stunning "Blackwater," which narrowed the series' traditionally grand scope for a single hour about the pivotal Battle of Blackwater. As Stannis Baratheon's forces besiege King's Landing in an attempt to take the iron throne, the Lannisters fight back using every trick available to them. But "Blackwater" uses its battle for much more than gory kills and a high body count. By the episode's end, it's clear that each character has been forced, in the heat of battle, to confront who they really are—and that new knowledge will likely change the entire scope of Game of Thrones going forward.
We certainly see the difference between the two kings who face off in the Battle of Blackwater. Game of Thrones hasn't spent as much time developing Stannis as I'd like, but in his best (and most character-building) scene this season, we learned about his mettle on the battlefield—a level of persistence and patience so dogged that he held a castle at his brother's behest for months, until he and his men were at the brink of starvation. If being a king means "paying the iron price," as Balon Greyjoy would have it, there's no one more kingly in Westeros than Stannis Baratheon, who is willing to allow for "thousands" of his most loyal men to die so he can sit on the iron throne. But Stannis is also willing to pay his share of the iron price. After spending most of Game of Thrones' second season plotting and brooding, Stannis spends "Blackwater" as an action hero, dodging arrows, cutting through swaths of soldiers, and rallying his soldiers as they make their desperate (and ultimately unsuccessful) charge.
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His rival king takes a decidedly less hands-on approach. For all Joffrey's boasts about Hearteater and the blood he'll baptize it in, the boy king's chief contribution to the Battle of Blackwater comes in the form of John Madden-level color commentary about the battle at hand. At this point in Game of Thrones, calling Joffrey a spineless little shit is as insightful as calling water wet, but his complete inability to show regard or respect for the men who are dying to protect him is yet another low on a long, long list of them.
Fortunately for the people of King's Landing, the king-sized void that Joffrey leaves is filled by a Hand: his uncle Tyrion, who Varys correctly predicts is the one man who can save King's Landing. Tyrion's brilliant wildfire gambit, which destroys much of Stannis's fleet before the battle has even begun, is a contribution significant enough to make him a hero. But at another of the battle's most decisive moments, Tyrion also manages to deliver the most rousing battle speech this side of Braveheart precisely because he knows how little regard the army has for King Joffrey. Stannis is obsessed with taking the iron throne because he believes it's his birthright. But Tyrion is wise enough to know that the fighting men of King's Landing don't care about Joffrey's crown or chair; they care about protecting their families, their homes, and their own lives from an invading army. If Tyrion began Game of Thrones as a drunken lecher, he leaves the Battle of Blackwater as a leader and a hero (and as for the Kingsguard soldier who betrayed Tyrion at the episode's end—what's that saying about Lannisters and debts?)