Last night's Game of Thrones was the only episode thus far to be almost completely self-contained and free of "meanwhiles." But that didn't mean it was simple. If anything, this episode put several of the show's main characters under a microscope and let us see how they performed in an insane situation.

This could have just been a collection of action set pieces. But once again, Game of Thrones proves that character = action. Spoilers ahead...

For a couple years now, Game of Thrones has been telling us over and over that battle is the crucible in which people are made or broken. In the thick of fighting, you find out who you are. We've heard people swapping war stories over and over, to the point where battle has achieved a mythic significance. And now, for the first time, we're seeing it firsthand.

The plot of "Blackwater" is fairly simple: Stannis Baratheon assaults King's Landing, but is defeated thanks to a combination of Tyrion's cunning and valor, and Tywin's last-minute rescue. (And also by Ser Loras Tyrell, getting revenge on Stannis for killing his lover Renly.)

But so many characters are revealed to us in a new light as these events play out, and so many traps are sprung. Director Neil Marshall does a fantastic job of showing just how close the battle comes to going the other way, as Stannis comes within a breath of victory. Stannis' defeat is the sum of a number of individual choices.

Let's take them one by one...

Davos Seaworth
Davos is leading Stannis' fleet into battle, and he's in line to be the Hand of the King. Those ships he's commanding are only there because he convinced the pirate Salladhor Saan to contribute them in the first place, and Stannis only has the support of all those armies because Davos convinced him to leave his Red Priestess Melisandre behind.

But Davos is a crap commander, because he's trying to think like a Lord instead of like the smuggler he used to be. He sees Tyrion's trap a mile away, and still sails right into it. Why are there no ships in the harbor? It's obviously not because all the sailors have deserted, or because they caught the city by surprise, as Davos' feckless son Matthos believes. Rather, it's because this is a trap.

Davos just doesn't have the confidence to order the fleet to stop and pull back before they get trapped in Tyrion and Bronn's fiery massacre. Maybe he lacks the faith in his own authority, or he's afraid of seeming weak in front of his men. In any case, he leads everyone into an obvious trap, and both he and his son are caught in the flames as a result.

Oh, and here's an excellent piece of concept art, that we found over at WICNet.

Stannis Baratheon
Many people would have beat a retreat after losing almost all of their fleet, and a lot of troops. But Stannis is within sight of the walls of King's Landing, and he's not going to give up now. He leads the assault himself, including being the first up the ladders, and he slaughters men right and left. (Not surprisingly with Marshall helming the episode, there is a lot of really intense slaughter in "Blackwater.") Stannis' ferocity is kind of inspirational, and it almost puts him over the finish line. Almost.


The episode begins with Bronn carousing with some wenches and cackling about how many times his nose was broken, as he prepares for the coming slaughter in the way he knows best. Bronn seems completely laid back about the possibility of being dead or worse in the near future, even when the Hound comes and challenges him. (More on him later.)

George R.R. Martin, who wrote the episode, is clearly enjoying putting two characters together who never got to have a private conversation in his books. The Hound finds Bronn's nonchalance almost unbearable, because Bronn's a killer just like the Hound — only smaller. The Hound is preparing to kill Bronn for no other reason than because Bronn seems to be at home in his own skin, and Bronn is ready to stab the Hound in the back, when the warning bells are sounded.


Later, Bronn seems actually quite surprised when Tyrion says they are friends even though Tyrion is paying for Bronn's services. Bronn has never forgotten what he is: a sellsword, who fights for money. If they'd invented that "Sworn to Fun, Loyal to None" tattoo in Westeros, Bronn would have it. And yet, Bronn plays a key role in Tyrion's plan to burn Stannis' fleet, firing the crucial flaming arrow that lights all the Wildfire. And he keeps fighting after many others are giving up, even saving the Hound's life with an ironic, mocking smile and salute.

The Hound

Meanwhile, the Hound has some kind of final breakdown in the midst of all that fire, which brings back his childhood trauma in a horrible way. He freezes up and can't fight any more, despite all his millions of speeches about loving to kill people. When Tyrion tries to rally the Hound to get back outside the walls and kill some attackers, the Hound delivers what would have been the best speech of any other episode, culminating in "Fuck the King." Then he runs and hides in Sansa's bedroom, where he offers to take her home if she comes with him. The Hound is fleeing, but he doesn't want to do it alone. In spite of all his protestations in earlier episodes, he either likes Sansa or thinks she'll be kind to him. But Sansa turns him down and he's forced to run away on his own, disgraced and traumatized.


Lord Varys
This episode really drives home how much of Tyrion's rise to heroism and leadership has been spearheaded by Varys, the Spider. Varys is the one who gave Tyrion that pep talk about how a small man can cast a big shadow a while back, and now Varys builds Tyrion up even more, saying that he's the only man who can save the city. And then he gives Tyrion the only kind of power he has: secrets. In this case, a map of the city, showing the secret tunnels the Targaryens built, which enable Tyrion to outflank Stannis' troops later.

Varys apparently does believe in Tyrion, but he's also desperate to keep Stannis off the throne, because he really believes in dark magic. And he thinks terrible things will result if Westeros has a king who's in thrall to Melisandre, the Red Priestess, and her unspeakable powers.

Good King Joffrey

There's been a running debate, for a couple episodes now, about just what role Joffrey should take in the defense of King's Landing. Should he be leading in the vanguard, or hunkering down in a secure location? Joffrey begins "Blackwater" pretty determined to lead the fighting, getting Sansa to kiss his fancy new sword, which he means to coat with Stannis' blood. But Sansa openly taunts Joffrey, asking if he'll be as brave as her brother Robb, going where the fighting is thickest. Joffrey almost gets tricked into swearing to lead the vanguard, but instead wusses out and says he can't discuss strategy.

Joffrey has no conception of strategy whatsoever, and he's quickly reduced to barking furiously at Tyrion when he sees there are no ships defending the harbor. Later, when his mother summons him back to the Red Keep, he's torn between pretending to be a brave leader and actually saving his own neck. Tyrion points out, yet again, that they'll surely lose if their men don't see the King fighting with them, but Joffrey is too cowardly. This is probably going to be the defining moment of his reign, the day he ran away when things got tough.


Cersei and Sansa
Sansa is still engaged to marry Joffrey, even though she's now openly muttering that she hates him in the middle of the throne room. (The bit where she tells Tyrion she'll pray for his safe return just as she will Joffrey's is really sad.)

And torturing Sansa is one of the few pleasures Cersei has these days, given that she knows exactly how Sansa feels. Cersei is taking it upon herself to educate Sansa in the role of a noblewoman, including putting up a brave front in the middle of a battle and reassuring the other noble ladies that everything will be okay so they can cluck later about your steadfastness. And yet, Cersei wishes she'd been born a boy, like her brother Jaime. She'd rather be wielding swords than "women's weapons" like tears and seduction.


The dynamic between Cersei and Sansa is sort of the reverse of that between Bronn and the Hound, actually — Cersei is nonchalant and smug about her role as manipulator and faker, just as Bronn is about his chosen profession of murderer for hire. But Cersei can't stand to be around Sansa, who is clearly damaged and is being just as much of a liar and fake as Cersei, only without any guile or aplomb. Sansa gets on Cersei's nerves, because she's so bad at pretending, and so obviously a raw nerve.

Cersei's Plan B? Suicide. She's got Ser Ilyn Payne, the tongueless executioner who killed Ned Stark, ready to kill her and Sansa if Stannis gets inside the city. She also has a bottle of deadly Essence of Nightshade which she procured from Grand Maester Pycelle, in case Ser Ilyn fails. She will not be taken alive. Meanwhile, Sansa's plan is to pray and sing hymns, and finally — at Shae's urging — to run and hide in her room, because Stannis won't hurt her.


In the end, Cersei comes within seconds of poisoning herself and Prince Tommen, while she tells a beautiful story about a lion cub who will grow up to be King of the Beasts — but her father shows up at the absolute last second to announce that he's won. And meanwhile, Sansa turns down the chance to flee with the Hound, because she believes she'll be safer with Stannis. Both women make self-destructive choices based on believing that Stannis has won, but only Sansa is stuck with the results of her choice.

Tyrion Lannister
And finally, there's Tyrion, who rises to the occasion amazingly — and then falls into the one trap he didn't see coming.

Tyrion's journey has been paralleled with Ned Stark's, all season long, as he became Hand of the King and tried to do the right thing for the people. He's said over and over again that he won't suffer the same fate as poor old Ned. And this all culminates in an episode where Tyrion chooses to do the right thing and the brave thing, over and over — and then almost does meet the same fate as Lord Eddard, for the same reasons.


The victory over Stannis is clearly thanks to Tyrion. He comes up with a plan to use the "pigshit," aka Wildfire, in a way that won't burn the city to the ground, with that one decoy ship full of the stuff. That takes care of most of Stannis' fleet, and then Tyrion keeps leading the defense, while Joffrey squawks like a ninny.

After Joffrey and the Hound have both fled the battle, it's left to Tyrion to rally people one last time, giving an amazing speech culminating in "There are brave men knocking at our gates. Let's go kill them." Amazeballs. Any other show would have made this the beginning of a rise to greatness, and the episode would have ended with the triumphant Tyrion being carried on the backs of victorious troops. And Tyrion does get a brief moment of celebration where his followers chant "Half Man! Half Man!" before his inevitable (especially on this show) downfall.


Tyrion leads his men through the tunnels under the city, so they can sneak up behind and fuck Stannis' men in the ass. This strategy actually works out quite well, until a ton more of Stannis' troops come around and attack.

And it's at this point that Tyrion gets bushwhacked by Ser Mandon Moore, Joffrey's right-hand asshole, who slashes him in the face and inflicts injuries whose severity we're not sure of at this point. (Westeros does not seem to do very well with treating head injuries in general.) Tyrion has trusted the wrong people, or at least trusted them not to betray him in the middle of a battle. The only thing that saves Tyrion? He's also trusted the right person: his squire Podrick, who spears Ser Mandon and saves Tyrion's life.

As Tyrion lays on the ground, blacking out from his injuries, he sees his father's troops riding to the rescue. The battle's won, but Tyrion's not in any position to celebrate. Because even though battle is the crucible in which Tyrion has been formed as a true hero, it's also the vise in which he's been cracked. We'll find out how badly next week.

All screencaps, pictures and GIFs via WICNet Tumblr.