“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.