In which holy flip, did they just do that?!?
In last week’s episode, during the long-awaited meeting between Tyrion and Daenerys, the younger Lannister commented that maybe Dany was “the right kind of terrible. The kind that stops her people from being moreso.”.
It’s a version of leadership theory that kinda pre-supposes that a leader must be terrible (in the sense of inspiring awe and fear, rather than the sense of being really bad.”
There’s a balance in all of Game of Thrones’ leaders, but Dany especially, between the drive to be merciful and the drive to be terrible. The woman who frees slaves by the millions and has time to hear petitions from every citizen of her city is the same woman who set dragons on the Masters and burned that medicine-witch from Season 1 alive.
Dany’s soon-to-be (or not to-be) husband Hizdharr sums it up in his own smug psuedo-regretful way when he says “What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?”
And Dany can’t say much, since while her motivation for occupying Mereen maybe have originally been a merciful one, there’s been plenty of killing and cruelty along the way.
I recently watched The Hurt Locker, and that film’s portrayal of the mid-years of the Iraq war really set off some associations in my head with Dany’s position in Mereen: she’s an outside (read: white) invasive force with massive military power (Dragons and the Unsullied army) coming in and taking over a dry desert climate peopled by brown people, in the name of “freedom” (or at least In Dany’s case the more concrete and actionable “freedom for the slaves”).
And then there are the consequences: a pushback movement from the locals that is difficult to root out and identify (the Iraq War’s “Insurgents” and Mereen’s Son’s of the Harpy), fighting a guerrilla war that leaves the larger power’s military might looking and feeling ineffective.
So is Dany’s decision to reopen and endorse the fighting pits an expression of the “terrible” side of her personality, or the “merciful”? Or some kind of muddled attempt to be both at once? Either way, it ends with a Dance of Dragons, Harpies, and a heroically redeemed Jorah.
Dany and Stannis (oh, we’ll get to him in minute) from the backbone of this episode’s story, but there’s also quick check-ins with Dorne and Braavos.
In Dorne, Doran finally gets sick of Elaria’s super-obvious rebellions, and when facing down his quasi-sister-in-law, he comes across as a ruler who’s got the balance between terrible and merciful down: “I believe in second chances. I don’t believe in third chances.”
Meanwhile in Braavos, Arya catches sight of Ser Meryn Trant (the Knight who killed her sword-fighting teacher Syrio all the way back in Season 1) and sees a chance to cross him off her list.
Braavos has no rulers: it’s famously a Free City, so the terrible/merciful role has kind of been dispersed through out the city’s political system: most obviously to the Faceless Men. Like we saw last week when Arya was sent to kill off the crooked insurance dealer: there’s a system of pretty violent checks and balances in Braavos. Though the city is free, the “terrible-ness” is dispersed through a literal faceless bureaucracy.
The balance between mercy and terribleness is all over Stannis’s story this week (maybe you’ve heard). We open after a fiery raid on his camp by Ramsay and his “twenty good men” from last episode.
Stannis clearly wakes up on the “terrible ruler” side of the bed that morning, and we get one last flash of Stannis the Mannis before it all goes sideways, as he growls “Put last night’s guards in chains. Either they fell asleep or they conspired with the enemy. Find out the truth and then hang them.”
Having lost their food stores, horses and siege weapons, the Baratheon army are facing a hard choice: return to the Wall with their tails between their legs, or fight on against the Boltons in Winterfell, despite being starving and supply-less.
The dire straits and starving men of course lead Stannis to the last resort that’s been foreshadowed all season: using Melisandre’s blood magic(it’s worked before!) to change his fortune’s…..by letting the Red Woman burn his daughter Shireen alive.
Parents are basically small-scale rulers of a kingdom with 3 to 5 citizens, and the same balance of mercy (let’s call it love) and terribleness (let’s say discipline) is necessary there. And in parenting (and normal human being) terms, there’s an unwritten rule: “Don’t set your young daughter on fire”.
(Actually I’m full sure that’s just illegal, so I guess it’s more of a written rule…)
When her father visits her tent with the bad (terrible?) news, Shireen is reading a book (The Dance of Dragons) that strongly parallels the civil war between Stannis and his own brother Renly in Season 2: “Both of them thought they belonged on the Iron Throne. When people started declaring for one of them or the other, their fight divided the kingdoms in two. Brothers fought brothers. Dragons fought dragons. By the time it was over, thousands were dead. And it was a disaster for the Targaryans as well. They never truly recovered. “
The scene also has a chance to showcase Literal-Minded, Rules-Lawyer Stannis, which was a part of his original characterisation I really liked , though it’s fallen a little by the wayside in recent seasons. Of the books title, he mumbles -“The dance of dragons. Why is that a dance? Doesn’t make much sense.”
Despite his daughter showing a mind for politics and the good of the country that would probably have made her a better ruler than her father, (“I wouldn’t have chosen either. It was all the choosing sides that made everything so horrible.” – Shireen for the throne 2K16!!!), Stannis only sees things through the lens of the bullshit hero’s journey stuff Melisandre has been feeding him:
“Sometimes a person has to choose. Sometime the world forces his hand. If a man knows what he is, and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all. He must fulfill his destiny. And become who he is meant to be, however much he may hate it.”
And so, in the name of “becoming who he is meant to be”, Stannis burns his own daughter alive. Now he’s a terrible ruler, in every sense of the word.
- Oh fuckin suddenly Selyeese. Your late in the game realization that “Hey, maybe I shouldn’t let the woman sleeping with my husband execute my daughter by setting her on fire.” wins you absolutely no sympathy from me.
- “Too old” – yeeee.
- Jaysus, GOT has shown some messed up things in it’s time, but nothing has shaken me quite as badly as the offscreen screams and pleading when Shireen is left on the fire. Things got a little bit too real there….
- So when Dany takes Jorah’s hand in the pit, doesn’t he infect her with greyscale?
- “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favour.”
- Giant walking past the Night’s Watch = awkward. Ollie not returning Jon’s smile = waaayy more awkward.
- Those miniature wooden versions of Stannis’ heart emblem he has on his battle map are really nice. Who makes those? Davos, when he’s not carving Foreshadowing Deers for Shireen?
- “No wonder you can’t stand. You have no spine!” – Oooohhhh!!!
- “There’s always been more than enough death in the world or my taste. I can do without it in my leisure time.”
About the Author:
A lifelong TV addict since his first episode of Sesame Street, Cian Sheppard works as an English teacher in Germany and thinks you look very nice today.