War is hell, and “Battle of Blackwater” descended deep into it as soon as Bronn’s flaming arrow touched the wildfire and burned up a good chunk of Stannis Baratheon’s fleet. The Lord of Light was no match for the bright green explosion swallowing ships and their men, including, it would seem, the Onion Knight Davos Seaworth who was last seen getting thrown into the water.
War also has a way of testing what men are made of, and the answers can apparently be surprising. Courage comes naturally to Stannis, a humorless man who sees the world in the starkest of hues. He was the first man on the beach and first up the ladder. When he told his men to follow, he meant it literally. His sword skill was equal to his bravery, even if his personal hand-to-hand victories weren’t going to win him the throne today.
Joffrey, on the other hand, backed up his constant boasting by fleeing at the first excuse that presented itself. But he was only following the example set by his ever-present bodyguard, The Hound, who decided he’d seen enough of fire after his older brother burned his face as a kid. “Any of those flaming fucking arrows come near me,” he told the captain of the archers, “I’ll strangle you with your own guts.” But it was one of the men still burning from those arrows that froze him. An arrow from Bronn saved his life, but he still fled back inside the walls, grabbed a pouch of wine and disowned his king.
It was the Imp Tyrion Lannister who found the courage of the lions on his family’s crest after a season of surprising himself with traits like honor and justice. He led valiantly in battle, getting rewarded with shouts of “Half Man” from his ragged troops after clearing the wall of assailants. But it was his own sworn kingsguard Ser Mandon Moore who slashed him across the face with a two-handed sword before getting speared by his squire Podrick Payne.
For all the bloody fighting—and it got medieval with both bodies and heads getting chopped in half, bashed with rocks, burned by fire—it was a brilliantly paced episode, as the war affected every man, woman and child inside the Red Keep, as well as those in battle. The tension before the siege. The sword of Damocles hanging over Sansa’s head, which in this case is the sword of executioner Ser Ilyn Payne. Queen Cersei sitting on the throne with a bottle of poison for her youngest son, Prince Tommen, before a sudden turning of the tide. The quiet scenes were as intimate and emotional as the fighting was epic. The battles only matter so much because we’ve come to care about those fighting them.
In the end, the king’s grandfather Tywin won the battle with Joffrey unscathed save his reputation for valor. Stannis was rebuffed, his men dragging him away from a lost cause. The Hound and Sansa were in the midst of an escape, as the brooding killer promised to deliver her to Winterfell. And Tyrion was left bleeding out on the battlefield.
In the beginning of the episode, Sansa declared that Joffrey would come back—“the worst ones always do.” Those words almost seem a warning from author George R.R. Martin. Here in Westeros, the good guys usually lose, and their ultimate defeat is often preceded by hardship and despair. The bad guys linger longer before getting their due, but this is only autumn. Winter is coming.