I’ve been something of an advocate for the only remaining Baratheon brother for a while now. Not that he’d make a great ruler, but he did seem like he’d do better than most of the individuals on offer. Of all the contenders for the Iron Throne, Stannis was the only one to take the threat of the White Walkers seriously enough to come reinforce Jon at The Wall. And I figured a man that embittered and hard and easy to loathe could use a few fans — especially this season, when we got a few remarkable glimpses into Stannis’ internal emotional life, most of all that deeply moving, proud and fierce speech to his daughter about his struggle to cure her of greyscale.
“You did not belong halfway around the world with the bloody stone men. You are the Princess Shireen, of House Baratheon. And you are my daughter.”
And then last night Stannis burned his daughter at the stake to appease his god.
They didn’t show it — not even Game of Thrones could get away with being graphic about that — but credit to the sound designers and to actress Kerry Ingram: Shireen’s screams alone made it one of the most brutally wrenching moments I’ve personally experienced in the show. All the more so because Selyse — Shireen’s mother and Stannis’ wife, and as committed and cold-hearted a religious fanatic as any of them — turned out to be the one who cracked in the end, begging her husband to call off the ritual.
After five seasons of this sort of thing, it was a punishing and exhausting storytelling decision. (And according to D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, it was based on as-yet-unpublished George R.R. Martin material.) But it also exemplified the remarkable moral hall-of-mirrors effect Game of Thrones can produce, and the way the show implicates the audience in the actions of its characters. It leaves the sneaking suspicion that, yes, you too might do such a thing in such circumstances.
Ridding Winterfell and the North of the Boltons is something that desperately needs to happen, and Stannis is the only one in any position to do it. And Melisandre’s faith in the Lord of Light has delivered tangible and dramatic results so far. When we Americans were beating the Nazis and the Japanese back — also something that desperately needed to happen — we firebombed a number of cities and incinerated two with nuclear weapons, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in the process. Many of them no doubt had mothers who wept for their deaths the way Selyse wept for Shireen last night. Hell, we met Stannis in season two when he was burning people alive for the Lord of Light. Only now, when it’s a young girl, his daughter, and someone we’ve gotten to know personally as an audience, do we turn against him. Is that the right tipping point for this sort of thing? I honestly don’t know.
The thing about Stannis is he genuinely isn’t driven by ambition or power or lust or sociopathy. He’s driven by the rules, and the rules say he should be king. This is both the thing that makes him capable of being a half-decent ruler — a king has certain duties and obligations to his people — and it’s what makes him capable of killing his own daughter ensure he takes the throne. As a friend of mine observed last night, this is probably also the best argument against Stannis’ claim to the throne: He isn’t so much a person as he is a mathematical function. A certain capacity to know when to bend or break the rules in the name of humanity and compassion will be necessary to keep Westeros together without descending into another round of civil war.
Stannis is now well and truly a lost man — far too deep down the rabbit hole to do anything else but keep descending. That won’t be fun to watch. But I confess it will be interesting.
Which brings us to the other big event last night, and the character who just might be able to ride the line between duty and decency. Season five has been far kinder to Daenerys then the fifth book was. In Martin’s tome, her rule of Mereen was an interminable and often incompetent slog; a pretty obvious allegory for the occupation of Iraq, with Daenerys as Martin’s stand-in for George W. Bush. To no small degree, things probably feel less damning in the show because the pace has been picked up considerably. But between Emilia Clarke’s performance, and the collection of advisors Daenerys has gained (and lost) this season, she really does seem to be coming into her own.
It feels silly to say that what makes Daenerys superior to Stannis is her emotional turmoil; the hotheaded moral outrage that comes along with the increased willingness she’s recently shown to morally compromise and sully herself in order to keep the peace. As if feelie-feels should matter in the face of duty to the realm. But with the kind of centralized rule that is a monarchy, the internal weather of one person — the marginal edges of when they crack and when they don’t, and when their emotions override their sense of duty or rationality — comes with massive potential consequences for those they rule. Suddenly the balance between duty and compassion that is unique to that one person — and at what moments it tips — matters enormously. With Tyrion to help her pick a path, maybe Daenerys can ride the line.
Opening the fighting pits was a brutal moral choice: Again, the fighters who die there are people as much as Shireen was, with others who will mourn them. But allowing the ritual to restart was a move to keep the various factions in Mereen glued together. It was pretty clear Daenerys was willing to respect that custom last night even if it meant letting Jorah die. We were spared that outcome, but what if we hadn’t been spared it? Would we have hated Daenerys as much as we now hate Stannis? Logically, at least, it seems hard to argue any other outcome would be appropriate. Even Tyrion, the master strategist, was trying to convince her to call off the fight. Where is the line?
And what a way for Hizdar to go. In the books, he’s a thoroughly poisonous character who oversees the assassination attempt on Daenerys in the arena. But so far Benioff and Weiss have presented him as a rather foppish and opportunistic but otherwise seemingly well-meaning fellow. He and Tyrion may have disliked one another on sight, but they both agreed on the wisdom of reopening the pits. Hizdar’s death cleans up the narrative a bit, yet I honestly feel for him: Maybe the show will yet reveal him to be a traitor, but for the moment his passing feels a bit tragic.
Oh, yeah, and then a dragon showed up too. I confess I was slightly underwhlemed: With those spears being stuck in him, there seemed to be a few moments where Drogon might be overcome by the soldiers. I guess that was for purposes of drama. But I wanted Drogon to absolutely lay waste to the Sons of the Harpy, to make it abundantly clear why a full-grown dragon is the nuclear weapon of the Game of Thrones world.
Still, we got to finally see Daenerys take a ride. While it may be strange matters of the heart and hard-to-pin-down emotional instincts that ultimately separate her from Stannis, the dragons feel like deliverance — the decisive flag planted by some higher power that Daenerys is the one who can carry Westeros across the finish line. The White Walkers are ice monsters after all.
Like Jorah told Tyrion: hard to be cynical after that. Let’s hope our faith isn’t misplaced.