After each episode in Game of Thrones Season 5, we’ll be discussing a crucial question: Who is currently the Worst Person in Westeros? This week, Slate assistant editor Miriam Krule is joined by Slate staff writer Jamelle Bouie.
Miriam Krule: Jamelle! Thanks so much for joining me to discuss “The Dance of Dragons,” or the episode that is forcing me to apologize for most of the mean things I have written about Daenerys. Episode 9 concluded with the Sons of the Harpy storming the fighting pits and attempting to kill her. Ser Jorah sees this before anyone else and is finally redeemed, but Dany, while trapped in the middle of the fighting, summons Drogon the dragon to brandish his fire and carry her off into the sunset, which was basically the most badass thing that has ever happened on this show and reason enough for her to sit on the Iron Throne—I totally accept her as my queen. Of course this scene, which began with Dario and Hizdahr zo Loraq (RIP) jokingly discussing who would die in the first fight, immediately followed one of the most painful scenes we’ve had to watch in Game of Thrones history. It wasn’t a surprise death, it was a slow and painful death. The juxtaposition of joking about death—I laughed when the smaller guy’s head got chopped off and Dario had to look away in shame—and the pain of Shireen screaming is confusing and also so totally Game of Thrones. But the only question I have for you is—who do we blame more for killing Shireen: Melisandre for her insistence on this human sacrifice or Stannis for going along with it?
Jamelle Bouie: So, my entire thought while watching that scene in the fighting pits with the Sons of the Harpy was “I wish dragons existed during Reconstruction,” since—in the context of Game of Thrones—the Sons of Harpy are basically the Ku Klux Klan, and a world where Union soldiers soared through the Louisiana bayou burning Klansmen is a good world. To answer your question though, I blame Stannis. It is his choice to march against Winterfell; his choice to do so in spite of all odds; and his choice to align himself with Melisandre. With that said, I wasn’t surprised that Stannis would sacrifice his daughter. He’s already killed his brother—what difference is another family member when you’re (allegedly) the Azor Ahai reborn?
Krule: I can’t wait for Quentin Tarantino to direct that alternate-history movie—I even hope Dany makes a not entirely logical cameo in America. But I’m going to have to disagree with you slightly about Stannis. I’ve always been anti-Stannis—despite his grammar skills—but then he redeemed himself with that heartfelt speech a few episodes ago, talking about his love for Shireen and how important she was to him. (She even quotes it back to him! “I’m Princess Shireen of House Baratheon and I’m your daughter.”) What happened this week felt so completely impossible to me because I couldn’t imagine him doing this of his own free will. Yes he seemed somewhat tortured about the decision, at least compared to Melisandre, but this about-face was more abrupt than I expected. This column has often critiqued the parenting skills of the Westerosi, and Cersei has always taken the cake, lately for manipulating her children and not having their best interests in mind. But she’s always, in her own way, tried to save them, even if it was for selfish motives. I, honestly, can’t imagine Cersei killing one of her children for her gain—and she has two (left). This was Stannis’ only child! And she was so wonderful! His brother was competing with him for the throne, but all Shireen had for him was love.
Bouie: Your Cersei comparison makes sense! The difference, I think, is that Cersei is motivated by the concrete. She wants to protect Lannister power—its grip on the Iron Throne—and she wants to protect her family. And insofar as she manipulates her family members, it’s for their (or what she perceives as their) best interest. But if given a choice between losing power and losing a family member, she would choose the former, and bide her time until a new opportunity came. She’s patient, resilient, and strategic. Stannis may love his daughter, but she—like everything else in his life—is subordinate to his mission, which is reuniting the Seven Kingdoms under the rightful king. What’s more, he lives his life through abstractions and rigid rules—Davos, remember, doesn’t have his fingers, because of Stannis’ sense of “justice.” When given a choice between the humane thing and the thing that furthers his mission, he will always take the latter. Always. And so he killed his brother. And he killed his daughter.
Krule: This is a fair point. Before I knew he was going to kill his own daughter, I was impressed earlier in this episode when, after they were attacked by a mere 20 of Ramsay Bolton’s men, Stannis was clear-headed and succinct with his orders. Where Jon Snow or Dany would be emotional and contemplative, Stannis simply proclaimed: “Have the dead horses butchered for meat.” This is a strength and a weakness. Family has always proven to be a weakness on Game of Thrones—yes everyone is at war for the Iron Throne, but they’re also at war because everyone has killed everyone else’s father or brother or daughter—but it’s also the lineage that keeps these dynasties going. It sort of feels like Stannis has chopped off his nose to spite his face. I realize that’s not a perfect analogy: he’s killing his daughter so he can be king, but to what end? If he has no children, the legacy will end with him. I’ve also written before about how all the characters on this show serve as a kind of foil for Jon Snow’s leadership skills—and the Stannis defeat scene is in direct juxtaposition to Jon Snow’s homecoming where he’s told “You have a good heart Jon Snow. It will get us all killed.” We’ve already been taught not to hope for anything good to happen, but the thought that having heart will kill us all and killing your own daughter will save you is probably the most depressing lesson in Game of Thrones. Should we continue hating on Melisandre or move on to Arya’s hilarious creeping with a cart full of clams (and brief sexual harassment—“how much for your clams,” really Game of Thrones? You’re better than that!)? And my initial nominee for Worst Person in Westeros: “too old” guy.
Bouie: Hah. Yes, that dude is the worst. I think it’s worth turning to Jon Snow for a bit, if only because he’s stuck in this interesting struggle to convince the Night’s Watch to put aside its hatred for the sake of the common good—its basic mission—and there’s no indication he’s managed to convince anyone other than his allies, even as zombie hordes and ice demons move south to the realms of men. Also, I have a feeling bad things are going to happen with the kid at Castle Black, Ollie, who is very unhappy with Jon’s decision to work with the wildlings. Not that something bad is going to happen to Ollie, necessarily, but that the show is clearly building to some kind of confrontation between him and Jon. And thematically, it would fit. We’ve seen a handful of genuinely good leaders in Westeros: Tyrion Lannister during his brief spell as Hand of the King, Daenerys Targaryan, and Jon Snow. In their fight to do what’s best for the common good, they’ve been met with tremendous resistance from incumbent power brokers who refuse to relinquish what was, even if it will bring them to ruin. And what have we also seen? That the reforming impulse fails. Tyrion was run out of power; Dany is fighting a rebellion; and Jon has an increasingly hostile Night’s Watch. Things don’t look good for him.
Krule: Lesson learned: Fighting for the common good is not as effective as human sacrifices.