“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?)
But "Blackwater" excels at more than the goings-on of the battlefield. Though "Blackwater" is about Stannis attempting to win the iron throne, and Joffrey trying to keep it, neither man actually sits on it. In "Blackwater," that dubious honor belongs to Cersei Lannister and her youngest son Tommen—who is nearly euthanized by his mother in the face of a Lannister defeat. Cersei has always been Game of Thrones' most interesting villain, and she gets several of the best moments in "Blackwater," as she drunkenly alternates between advising and tormenting Sansa Stark. Cersei offers the darkest vision of Westerosi womanhood: She sees both her tears and her sexuality as "weapons," to be used for survival the way Jaime Lannister uses a sword.
But "Blackwater," somewhat hopefully, also offers another possibility for the women of Westeros. Just as Tyrion seizes the battle to become something better than he expects, Sansa steps into place as a kinder and more capable leader than her queenly tutor. When the women hiding in the holdfast begin to panic, Sansa turns not to cynicism or suicide, but to faith, and the hymn she suggests is enough to keep the holdfast in a state of relative calm. Few characters on Game of Thrones have changed more than Sansa, who was once a spoiled, petulant child, and is now a woman who manages to safely maintain her dignity and honor in the most undignified, dishonorable situation imaginable. There's a different kind of battle going on inside the holdfast, and Sansa emerges the victor.
The end of the Battle of Blackwater comes suddenly—perhaps too suddenly—as Tywin Lannister arrives with the dead King Renly's staunchest ally (and former lover) Loras Tyrell. Early in "Blackwater," Bronn and his men prepare themselves for battle by singing a raucous version of "The Rains of Castamere"—a song written to commemorate one of Tywin Lannister's earlier wartime victories. But the episode's credits play alongside a far more fitting version of "The Rains of Castamere" (performed by The National): slow, mournful, almost elegiac. Joffrey, who accomplished nothing, will be commemorated as a glorious leader, and the names of the men who died for their unfit king will be forgotten. The Battle of Blackwater was a victory for the Lannisters, but it was a hard-won victory, with no shortage of casualties. But as Robert Baratheon once remarked, they don't put that part in the songs.
Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.