In Blackwater, the women are the strong ones.
Amongst the fighting, the fire and the explosions and the horrors of war, we catch glimpses of the apparent calm and safety of the keep, as the women huddle together and wait to learn their fate. They do not fight. They do not see a drop of blood or hear the screams of men as they burn on the Blackwater. But they hear the wardrums and the panicking bells. They can see the flickering of the fires in the distance. And it’s in this silence, in this agony of waiting, that we see the forgotten strength involved in war. The women wait, knowing that they are seen as little more than objects, knowing that the soldiers will happily rape and kill them, all in the name of a war they are forbidden from fighting. They must find strength in their powerlessness, because what other choices do they have?
One of the more genius elements of George RR Martin’s work is that, as we progress through the series, we end up with sympathetic characters on all sides. Like Sansa, we might hate Joffrey and wish that someone else would be king. We might hope that another army will sack the city and free her from Lannister control. But we do not think that young Tommen deserves to die, or that the women in the keep deserve to be raped, just as we don’t believe that Stannis’s men deserve to be burnt to death by wildfire. When Stannis Baratheon attacks King’s Landing, we have sympathetic characters on all sides, and the show did not flinch away from showing the consequences of war in graphic detail. We see suffering in the city and out of it. We see it in the keep with the women. On the battlements with the defenders. In the ships with Stannis and his men and their faith in their god. We see it, and we cannot cheer for any particular side, because we experience the brutality and the horror that rains down on all of them.
And among all this horror and blood and fear, this episode focused, in a way that many war stories avoid, on sexual violence. We hear the language of rape used by the soldiers, contrasted with the very real fear of rape for the women in the keep. The soldiers use this attitude without thinking, as a way to get their bloodlust up, as a rallying cry to say that they will completely destroy their enemies, while the women are forced to wait quietly, dwelling on their potential fate and knowing that they can do nothing to protect themselves except rely on those very soldiers to protect them.
Cersei lays out this dichotomy as she speaks to Sansa in the keep, comparing her monthly bleeding to the blood that will be spilled on the battlefield. The men fight on the battlements, and everything they suffer, every brave act they perform, is obvious to all. It will be remembered. But Sansa is pale, and she is weak, because she is bleeding too, from a woman’s greatest weapon and her greatest point of weakness if the walls are breached. And so Cersei, always dignified, always refusing to be cowed by others, wishes she were a man, so she could take up a sword and fight for herself. She wants the chance to commit the violence, instead of waiting to be a victim. To be remembered for something other than her inspiring calmness and dignity and smile. To be a person, a hero, rather than a thing. And she chooses to reveal these thoughts to Sansa, a sweeter version of her young self, a girl who is naive and full of hope, due to be married to a young king who will hate her and abuse her, but forced to smile all the while.
When Sansa finally flees the tower and returns to her rooms, she picks up the doll that her father bought her in the first season, the doll that she rejected with a somewhat spoilt roll of her eyes. She’s no longer the girl she was then, playing at being grown up, shoving away anything that she thinks is childish and immature. She has become the queenly girl she used to play at being, and she holds the doll, because she is afraid, and because it reminds her of times when she was safe, and naive, and never imagined the horrors that are now her life. And then, at the end of the scene, after she rejects the Hound’s offer to take her to Winterfell, she drops the doll to her side, because now she truly is too mature for childish things and childish dreams. She has set aside her desire to trust others, to attempt to flee to the past with a brave knight who is willing to save her. Even though the Hound says he will not hurt her, she cannot trust him to protect him. She cannot trust anyone to save her except herself.
But occasionally, miracles do happen. Dead princes come back to life and ride into battle. Beautiful knights pull of their helmets in the moment of victory. Fathers turn up at the last second and save the day. So Cersei learns, as she sits on the Iron Throne with her son Tommen, ensconced in the thing she has fought for, the power she wanted for herself and her children, the power that is about to be her downfall. She will not give it up. She will not flee. She will sit in it, like Jaime once sat when the old king fell and her father raided the city, and she will comfort her son with a tale of lions, proud and powerful, who have no need to be afraid. Because Cersei may be brutal and ruthless, she may wish for the power and influence automatically given to her father and twin brother, but first and foremost, she is a mother. And she will do anything for her children. Even kill them to save them. But at the last moment, the cavalry arrives. No one else will have to die after all.
But war is still hell. Cersei and Sansa are still viewed as things, as pawns, with only courtesy for protection. The women can only smile, and weep, and seduce, and choose to die. Their sacrifices and struggles will not be remembered. And this miraculous reprieve will not last for long. But amongst it all, they keep their strength as women and as queens.