“O, full of scorpions is my mind” – Macbeth
‘Baelor’, ‘Blackwater’, ‘The Rains of Castamere’, ‘The Watchers on the Wall’, ‘The Dance of Dragons’. These episodes have forged the path for this series, a path of blood and despair, of hope and madness. Episode 9 has always been Game of Thrones premium instalment – at least until last season, where arguably episode 10 was the truly monumental entry – accumulating season spanning plot lines and character journeys from hero to villain, monster to redeemer, no one to someone.
From way back when the hero of this story was a man named Ned, father to six, husband to one, a man of honour and integrity played by a beloved actor who was always the star of the show and when our very first episode 9 took his head, telling us as clearly as we had ever been told anything that this was a different type of show, that what you want and what you expect had no bearing on proceedings here, that this was Game of Thrones. Then we had that time when the entire fifty minutes back in season two was focused on an epic siege, a battle for the throne in the murky bay of Blackwater, where the most unlikely of heroes was at the centre of one of the greatest spectacles (at the time) ever committed to television. Then a year later when a wedding would change TV culture forever, a single scene of seemingly little importance punched the world in the gut, reminding us in the most depressing possible way that heroes don’t go far in this world, and that nice guys finish last. Then twelve months ago when a battle took place in the last stronghold of the north that made every Hollywood epic (Yes, I’m looking at you HOBBIT franchise) hang their heads in shame, a battle that showed the world how it was done, of what was possible, of what a television show could achieve. All of this led up to this week, to Season 5, and our most recent episode 9.
In an episode that contained such stupendously awesome moments as Drogon flaming an arena full of enemies — while also getting speared through the neck — Jorah winning back his queens favour and Dany at last climbing atop her eldest child and flying off into the sky in what was a huge moment for her and the show, it says a lot that a scene that didn’t even end the episode is the biggest talking point not only of this penultimate episode but of perhaps the entire series. This week Stannis took a step that will be impossible for him to take back and it was unequivocally horrific.
Season five has done a remarkable job of somewhat – and I stress somewhat – redeeming a man that was by all accounts a villain. They made the most stubborn man in Westeros as likeable as they possibly could. We watched as he took a liking to our hero Jon Snow, as he saved the band of Crows to which we had grown so attached and as his objectives in life aligned with the interests of Sansa and our favourite, down on their luck, noble house. We weren’t buying ‘I love Stannis’ t-shirts but we were most certainly coming round to the idea that there may be worse candidates for the much sort after role of King. So when the leader of House Baratheon, and rightful heir to the Iron Throne, realised his campaign to take what he so adamantly believed belonged to him, was about to end right there in the snowy plains outside of Winterfell, half a continent away from the Red Keep, and decided that burning his own daughter alive, to eke out whatever magic his priestess Melisandre and her god R’hllor could siphon from her burning corpse, the world said “No”. The internet agreed “This is too much. He can’t do that, not to his own infant daughter”.
But wait… hold on one moment, I think you all forgot. This is the same man that killed his own brother. This is the same iron willed maniac that has been burning people alive for four years now. This is a man that has been, and is, willing to do whatever it takes to get what he desires. Is this the worst thing he has ever done? Of course. Is this the worst thing any character in Game of Thrones has ever done? Yes, I think so. But is it that out of character for the man? I’m not so sure. I personally didn’t think he would go through with it but the fact that he did really shouldn’t surprise anyone. It did however. We were all left in disbelief.
When Stannis was approached with the idea of sacrificing his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light, he resoundingly rejected the thought, as we all did. “No” we said, and we were all glad that Stannis had finally drawn a line in the sand, that he had shown where his boundaries were, shown what he wasn’t willing to do. So when poor Shireen appeared on screen this week and the seeds of what was to come were being planted once more, I tried to convince myself that this wasn’t where things were heading. It was only when Stannis sent Davos away (boy, is he going to be pissed) and spoke to his daughter about his troubled mind, that it dawned on me what was taking place, of not what was being discussed but of what had already been decided. “No” we all said again. “They wouldn’t… he wouldn’t…” Yes they would, and yes he did. However, even when Shireen was taken from her tent and dragged to the pyre before the entire encampment, screaming so ironically for her father’s help, even then did I not want to believe this was actually going to happen. Surely not? Surely it couldn’t be? Stannis… were you capable of this? Of course he was.
This scene was incredible, perfectly crafted and staged, led by a wonderful performance by Stephen Dillane, portraying a man so broke by what he had decided was necessary. The look on his face as Shireen screamed for his help will haunt my dreams for many nights to come. The most surprising moment of all however was when Mrs Baratheon, at first looking to be the one to convince Stannis that this was the right thing to do, broke down upon hearing her daughter’s pleas, trying desperately to right the wrongs being committed. Not in time of course, the veil of religious extremism being lifted all too late.
Once it came apparent that yes, the show was willing to do this and that no, Stannis nor anyone else was going to stop it, my skin began to crawl, my toes began to tingle and Shireen, poor sweet, innocent Shireen, began to scream. “I want to help you” she told her father earlier that day. “You don’t even know what I’m talking about” he had replied. This moment broke Stannis, it was evident and obvious before the deed was even done. He, as a man, as a father and human being, is now finished, a ghoul, a man dead inside, a soul entrapped by the promises of fate, by the lures of infamy, tricked by a religion promising all the glories life never handed him. I question how long Stannis is bound for his world. I question how long the show will be able to keep him alive. Atrocities such as the one committed… it’s hard to let that go unpunished. All we can say is that it better have been fucking worth it, Stannis. This better be the deed that kills Ramsay and Roose, the deed that liberates the north and saves Sansa, because if it was all for naught, if you fail… well, you have sold your soul for no reason at all.
After episode 8 — this episodes lead in — we witnessed for the first time how dark the night truly is. Melisandre had long warned us, but the Night’s King showed us in person, so perhaps such an act as the one Stannis committed is what is needed in order to keep those dark forces at bay. We know by know that good guys and good deeds get you killed in this world, that honour and nobility don’t win wars. Fighting fire with fire, evil with evil and using R’hllor against The Great Other might be the only option left to us.
The night is dark and full of terrors, but did we need to burn Shireen all away?