Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 2, Episode 9 of HBO's "Game of Thrones," entitled "Blackwater."
"The gods have no mercy. That's why they're gods." -- Cersei Lannister
Question: How do you cross a sea of burning green flames?
Answer: You don't. You burn, and you die.
There's carnage aplenty in the penultimate episode of "Game of Thrones" Season 2, "Blackwater," but, as always, the deals done in back rooms and the secret schemes are what come to matter when the battle arrives.
Two kings ride to battle, but while one scales the walls with a sword in hand, the other can't bear to see any battle at all. Guess which one wins.
The Power Rankings
Using a complex algorithm that takes into account each player's wealth, military might and dominion over lands, along with a "bonus" factor that adjusts for unquantifiable assets that could influence events, we've surveyed the lay of the land to figure out who's winning the game of thrones at this point of Season 2.
1. Tyrion & Tywin Lannister
"Blackwater" is the Lannisters' episode -- and above all, Tyrion's. Though Tywin ultimately rides in to save the day, it's Tyrion's deft strategizing that wins this battle. Between the Wildfyre ruse and the attack-from-behind Varys' map enables, Stannis is outplanned and ultimately, outmatched.
Tyrion and Joffrey squabble before the fighting starts, with Joffrey threatening to have the Hound cut Tyrion in half; but it's when the blood starts to flow that their mettle is proved. Bronn launches a burning arrow into the ocean, and like napalm, it ignites into electric green, destroying a good portion of Stannis' fleet. Then, while Joffrey quivers and quails, Tyrion takes charge, issuing orders and, when Joffrey flees to hide in his mother's skirts, Tyrion volunteers to lead the army. The men begin to scatter, but the imp delivers a rousing speech ready to rally them.
"They say I'm half a man. But what does that make the lot of you?" he begins. "Don't fight for your king and don't fight for his kingdoms. Don't fight for honor, don't fight for glory and don't fight for riches because you won't get any. This is your city Stannis means to sack ... if he gets in, it'll be your houses he burns, your gold he'll steal, your women he'll rape. These are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them!"
Bravery: 0. Self-interest: 1. But once he gets out into battle, Ser Mandon, one of Joffrey's knights, slashes Tyrion in the face -- before Tyrion's squire, Podrick, kills Mandon -- and Tyrion passes out on the ground as fighting rages around him. It's clear that he thinks he's failed. And he might well have done so -- were it not for the breathtaking entrance of the Lannister and Tyrell cavalry, led by his father.
2. Robb & Catelyn Stark
The Battle of Blackwater Bay has a clear victor (the Lannisters) and a clear loser (Stannis). But its major beneficiary could wind up being the Starks. We ended last episode thinking that Tywin was on his way to ambush the Northern Army. But instead, he rides to his nephew's rescue in King's Landing. And though Robb would have preferred King Stannis to King Joffrey, he wouldn't have been any safer under Baratheon rule than he is now. So his enemies have killed thousands of one another -- all the while leaving his forces unscathed. There's just one problem: We now know whose side the Tyrells are on -- and it's not the Stark's ...
3. Margaery Tyrell
It's the Lannister's. "Blackwater" doesn't spell out all the diplomatic machinations clearly -- "Valar Morghulis," next week's Season 2 finale, will likely take care of that. But the shot of Loras Tyrell, Knight of Flowers, pulling off his Renly's helmet in the Red Keep, right next to Tywin Lannister, gave us all the substantive information we need. Littlefinger told Tywin he would try to win Margaery over. And it looks like he succeeded. But what did the Tyrells ask for in exchange for their support?
4. Cersei & Joffrey Lannister
Cersei's holding court with all the women and children, getting drunk and torturing Sansa as Ser Ilyn Payne sits grimly to the side, ready to "defend" them -- or, as Cersei later reveals, to kill Sansa and Cersei should Stannis prevail. And despite his new Valyrian steel sword, Hearteater, Shithead King Joffrey's no Alexander the Great. Though Sansa tries to trick Joffrey into fighting in the Vanguard, Joffrey can't even hold his post away from battle.
Back in the Red Keep, Cersei muses about her gender troubles. "I should have been born a man," she says. "I'd rather face a thousand swords than be shut up inside with this flock of frightened hens."
Cersei may not be able to fight with a sword, but she has her own weapons: If Stannis wins, she'll yield in person, though she won't do any more -- "I'd have a better chance of seducing his horse," she tells Sansa. "Tears aren't a woman's only weapon. The best one's between your legs. Learn to use it."
Cersei has other powers too. From one look at Shae, she knows immediately she's no noblewoman. But before Cersei can expose her, Lancel bursts in with news of the battle. Cersei demands that Lancel fetch Joffrey back. After his Hound abandons him (with the succinct, "Fuck the Kingsguard. Fuck the city. Fuck the King."), Joffrey chooses not to take his uncle's directive that he ride out and lead the army, leaving his guards to represent him. When Lancel comes back to tell Cersei that Joffrey must go to battle, she jabs him in his open wound and he falls to the ground shrieking.
Cersei has also obtained enough nightshade to kill herself and her children, and at episode's end, as she tells Prince Tommen a bedtime tale about lions and stags and other symbolic animals, she prepares to give him the vial, when Loras Tyrell and Tywin Lannister ride in. The battle's over. They won.
5. Stannis Baratheon
It's hard not to admire Stannis this episode. Unlike Joffrey, he has heart. Though he ultimately loses big time, he's determined to win. When his Hand hears the angry bells that greet Stannis' fleet, he answers with drums. When he sees the vast majority of his fleet go up in the green flames of wildfire, he dismisses it as "the Dwarf playing his trick, which he can only play once." When one of his men says that an amphibious assault from an unfavorable position will lead to hundreds of deaths, he responds, "Thousands." He even leads the siege himself, dodging flaming arrows while climbing a ladder onto the city walls. He even cuts the top third of a guy's head off! Super-scalping. Alas, without a sailboat full of wildfire, a man cannot win a battle by himself. By the end of "Blackwater," Stannis seems to have lost everything. We don't even know if he survives the battle. The moral of his story? If your power was gained with the help of a Red Priestess of Ass'hai, don't leave said priestess at home when you go to the biggest battle of your entire life.
Sansa spends most of this episode frowning while her captors Cersei and Joffrey torture her in various semi-polite ways. But she also shows the ways she's gaining control of her own destiny. She's getting fiercer. In her early exchange with Joffrey, she gets some pleasure by asking Joffrey whether he's going to be in the vanguard of the battle. He says that he doesn't discuss battle plans with stupid girls. To this she responds, "Of course, I'm stupid. My brother always fights in the vanguard at his battles, and he's just a pretender. Of course a real king would fight in the vanguard." Joffrey squirms.
Later, when she's waiting in Maegor's Holdfast, and Cersei, wasted, runs away to find her children, she sensibly leads the other women in a cheerful hymn -- before retreating to her room. She finds Sandor Clegane waiting for her, but he doesn't want to hurt her. He wants to take her back to Winterfell. But she seems to refuse his offer. She's not ready to stop playing the game of thrones quite yet.
Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish
Littlefinger doesn't appear in person this episode, but his presence is felt via the arrival of the Tyrells. He'll be sure to extract a proper reward for services rendered.
Differences from the Book
The showrunners have said that this episode was by far the costliest so far in the series... the scale of the battle -- as written by George R.R. Martin -- led them to ask for a boatload of extra funding from HBO. All that money and skill meant that they could put on a good show. Still, you can't expect them to quite replicate the dazzling battle as it's portrayed in "A Clash of Kings." Here are a few of the differences between HBO's "Blackwater" and the sequence as it appeared in the books:
Follow Joe Satran on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joe_satran