A few characters face terrible choices in this week’s Game of Thrones. They pretty much all choose expediency over principle. In the midst of all this, one character says these choices should be easy as long as you remain true to yourself. But that’s the most insidious lie of all. Spoilers ahead...
The character who says that, of course, is Stannis Baratheon, in this week’s episode, “The Dance of Dragons.” His lovable daughter, Shireen, has just been telling him about the war between Rhaenyra Targaryen and her half-brother Aegon, known as the Dance of Dragons. (This took place about 130 years after the Targaryen conquest, or about 170 years before the present day.)
Stannis asks Shireen which side she would choose in that civil war — Rhaenyra or Aegon. And she replies neither, because choosing sides led to massive bloodshed and the weakening of the Targaryens forever. (And we’ve already seen what “choosing sides” in a great dynastic battle of succession leads to, and it’s not pretty.)
Stannis responds that sometimes you have to choose sides, but “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.”
But Stannis is actually combining two very different ideas there: being true to yourself, and fulfilling your destiny. He’s chosen to see them as the same thing, when anybody who’s ever read an adventure story will tell you they’re often at odds. What does it even mean for a ruler to be “true to himself”?
Stannis can’t come back from this
In the case of Stannis, his defining trait has always been his obsession with justice — he punishes people according to their crimes, like the way he chopped off Davos’ fingers for smuggling.
But since he fell in with Melisandre, the red priestess, he’s been pushed more and more towards taking lives for his ambition, rather than for any other reason. At first, these were people who defied him and refused to worship Melisandre’s god, R’hllor. But then it was Gendry, Robert’s bastard, and the rebel Mance Rayder, who was a prisoner of war.
Now, Stannis’ army is stuck in the snow, and Melisandre wants to burn his daughter Shireen alive to get enough magic to save the situation. (None of this would have happened if Jon Snow had just put out. This is all Jon Snow’s fault.)
So which version of Stannis will he be true to: the rigid guardian of fairness and law — or Azor Ahai, the legendary hero that Melisandre believes him to be? He chooses to achieve his “destiny” (ruling Westeros, fighting the White Walkers) instead of remaining true to his original principles. (And remaining true to his love for his daughter, which made him move mountains to save her when she had grayscale.)
Stannis is backed into a corner this week, because Ramsay Bolton has sneaked into his camp with 20 men and set fire to his food supplies, siege weapons, and some horses. This leaves Stannis without enough food to march back to Castle Black, even if he were willing, and his army is basically trapped in the snow, left to die.
So Stannis believes he has no choice left but to sacrifice Shireen. To that end, he sends Ser Davos away on a mostly bogus mission, to ask Jon Snow for more supplies and horses, and tells him not to return empty-handed. Before he goes, Davos gives Shireen a figurine of a stag (the Baratheon crest) which he made for her, and thanks her for teaching him to read, and forcing him to “become a grown-up.”
Then there’s the aforementioned scene where Stannis asks for Shireen’s advice, sort of — but doesn’t quite tell her that he’s thinking of burning her alive. Shireen sees her father is facing a tough choice and says she wants to help, however she can. Great! Stannis asks her to forgive him. Then she’s dragged away, screaming, and burnt to death.
This is one of those deaths that’s not in the books (at least, not yet) and which is kind of shocking — the biggest surprise, maybe, is that Shireen’s cold-hearted fanatical mother Selyse is the one who breaks, and tries to prevent the sacrifice. Stannis has already made up his mind, and won’t change it in the face of unpleasant realities.
But even though Stannis hasn’t sacrificed Shireen in the books, this does feel like a logical progression for his character. He’s made plenty of choices that led up to this. And at the same time, there’s no coming back from this — this is sort of a defining choice for Stannis, and one that will probably destroy him in the end.
Arya’s choice of victims
Meanwhile, Arya Stark has a very different sort of choice of how to “be true to herself.” She can be true to Arya, the girl who swore vengeance against Ser Meryn Trant, reciting his name over and over to get herself to sleep. Or she can be true to her new identity as “No-one,” a novice at the House of Black and White, who’s been instructed to murder the thin man, a corrupt insurer of ship captains.
She could probably kill both men if she moves quick, of course — just give a poisoned oyster to the Thin Man and then run over to the brothel where Meryn boinks underaged prostitutes and stab him in the neck. But if she kills Meryn, that’s proof that she hasn’t really left Arya Stark behind and that her devotion to the Many-Faced God is pretty much a sham.
It’s pretty obvious which choice Arya is going to go with — she doesn’t really hesitate that much once she sees that Meryn Trant is in town, and she follows him into the brothel with her oyster cart and scopes the place out pretty carefully. She watches as Meryn keeps rejecting sex workers until he gets one young enough. And then she lies to Jaqen, her mentor, who probably already knows what’s up.
Meryn, incidentally, is in Braavos as the leader of the escort for Lord Mace Tyrell, who’s been sent to renegotiate the Iron Throne’s debts with the Iron Bank of Braavos. (And I’m still betting that Meryn has been ordered to make sure Mace doesn’t make it back to Westeros.)
Mace Tyrell meets up with Tycho Nestoris of the Iron Bank, and the two men discuss the ethics of usury, mostly agreeing that it’s awesome. Mace refers to it as gambling, and Tycho insists they don’t actually gamble at all. (Which seems like a callback to the way Jaqen described the Thin Man, that shipping insurer, as a “gambler” a couple weeks back.)
If the Iron Bank lends money to someone who can’t pay it back, they might lose their investment — so why isn’t it gambling? Because they always make sure they get paid, with interest, one way or the other. If King Tommen can’t pay his debts, then the next King of Westeros will. Which is why the Iron Bank has already given some money to Stannis Baratheon. (But what if neither Tommen nor Stannis is king?)
Which oath will Ser Alliser break?
When Jon Snow shows up at the gate to the Wall with a small army of Wildlings, fleeing last week’s zombie massacre, he’s honestly not sure if Ser Alliser (whom he left in command) will open the gate and let them through. There’s a moment where it seems like Ser Alliser isn’t sure, either — then he gives the order and they come on in.
Later, though, Ser Alliser (who never misses a chance to be foreboding and horrible) goes up to Jon Snow and says that his big heart will get them all killed.
If Alliser really believes that Jon Snow’s soft heart will get the Night’s Watch — all of the few who remain — killed, then maybe his duty is to protect his brothers in black. Does he obey the oath of loyalty he swore to Jon Snow when Jon became Lord Commander? Or does he obey his vow to protect the Night’s Watch at all costs?
It’s another sort of defining choice, and it’s pretty clear that Ser Alliser has already chosen — he just didn’t want to betray Jon publicly, in front of all his men. And judging from the look that Jon’s steward, Olly, gives him when he comes back with a gang of Wildlings, Olly’s probably not on Jon’s side at this point.
Meanwhile, Jon is despondent because he couldn’t save most of the Wildlings — instead of being glad of the ones he was actually able to save, as Samwell Tarly counsels. This is maybe the clearest sign we’ve seen yet that Jon is motivated by compassion for the Wildlings as much as by the simple calculation that he needs more fighters to hold off the wights. Not too long ago, Jon was torn between his vows to the Night’s Watch and his loyalty to Ygritte, and now he’s managed to get himself into a position where his loyalties are clear-cut, without becoming utterly ruthless in the process.
But the look that Ser Alliser gives him does not bode well.
Prince Doran is the least ruthless ruler... or is he?
In an episode that features Stannis burning his own child and Daenerys condoning pointless slaughter, both in the name of political power, Doran Martell seems strangely soft-hearted by comparison.
Doran risks losing political support within Dorne if he doesn’t stand up to the Lannisters after the death of his brother Oberyn. But unlike Stannis, he’s not willing to go to war and fill the streets with blood, just in the name of power. And meanwhile, Oberyn’s lover Ellaria Sand and Oberyn’s daughters have openly defied Doran — and if he lets that stand, he risks looking weak.
Given the choice between being tough on the Lannisters and tough on his own rebellious family members, Doran chooses neither. He lets Jaime go, and doesn’t even discipline Bronn beyond the whack in the face that his son Trystane proposes. He’ll even let Jaime take his “niece” Myrcella home, as long as Trystane comes along too and gets a seat on Tommen’s Small Council.
And meanwhile, Doran doesn’t discipline Ellaria and the Sand Snakes, even after Ellaria insults him to his face. He does make them swear loyalty to him, and he warns that he believes in second chances but not third chances.
But Ellaria is probably not done yet. She goes to see Jaime and taunts him about his love for Cersei, which she says is just proof that sexual mores change, since sibling incest was all the rage among the Targaryens 100 years earlier. (And her love for Oberyn was condemned in King’s Landing, but not here in Dorne.) She offers Jaime a kind of olive branch — that Myrcella had nothing to do with Oberyn’s death, and Jaime “probably” didn’t, either.
I’m honestly still not sure what the point of the Dornish storyline has been thus far, other than to bring Myrcella back into play and give Jaime something to do. But Doran’s mercy and moderation, even at the risk of seeming weak before his people, seem like an interesting contrast to pretty much every other ruler we’ve seen — and yet, you have to assume there’s something more to it, that we’ll see next week. Right?
Nothing great has been accomplished without killing or cruelty
But back to the notion of being “true to yourself.” Daenerys has been slowly becoming less and less true to herself, ever since she came to Meereen. Chaining up two of her three dragons was a pretty big symbolic compromise. But also, she’s been muddying the waters of her anti-slavery position, executing an ex-slave who disobeyed her, getting betrothed to an ex-slaver, and bringing back human combat (which she has to know at this point still involves slaves, to some extent.)
Now Daenerys is there in the big arena, debating the ethics of the thing she’s already agreed to allow. (She still has to sign off on it one last time, by clapping her hands and saying “I believe in slaughter.”) Later on, she has to make a tougher decision, whether to let her banished ex-adviser, Jorah Mormont, face apparently certain death, or call the whole thing off. (Although Jorah asked for this, really.)
Last week, Tyrion told Daenerys she did the right thing bringing back the fighting pits, but now he seems less sure. He gets drawn into a debate with Hizdahr — whom Tyrion insults by saying Tywin Lannister would have liked him — over whether anything great has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty.
Tyrion counters that it’s easy to confuse what is and what should be, particularly when you’ve benefited from the way things are. (Tyrion is actually echoing the argument he pooh-poohed from Varys at the start of the season, when Varys said “Perhaps we’ve grown so used to horror, we assume there’s no other way,” and Tyrion basically said there’s no point in worrying about what should be, because you have to deal with what is. Back then, Varys saw Daenerys as the best hope for things to be different.)
Daenerys says that she doesn’t see any “greatness” in watching men butcher each other for a crowd’s amusement — but Hizdahr says that’s just one of the traditions that upholds the city of Meereen, which has been around long before either of them was born, and will be around long after. In other words, it’s institutions, not people, that are worth committing atrocities to exalt. To which Daenerys responds that she’ll destroy the city of Meereen if she has to. But will the deaths that happen in Daenerys’ quest to root out Meereen’s corrupt institutions, even at the cost of the city’s existence, have more meaning than the deaths in the arena?
We never get to see them finish that debate, because Jorah’s life is suddenly at stake. And it seems like Hizdahr’s arguments are a bit tautological — things are great because they require immense cruelty to sustain, and therefore it’s worth inflicting immense cruelty to sustain them. Or maybe things are worth preserving just because they’re old.
In any case, Daenerys’ decision to reopen the fighting pits was aimed at getting the city on her side, so the insurgent Sons of the Harpy would lack popular support. Which turns out to be a bit of a miscalculation — because the Sons of the Harpy storm the arena in huge numbers, killing random bystanders to get to Daenerys. They’re even willing to kill Hizdahr (who we all thought was their leader). Soon Daenerys and her people are surrounded in the middle of the arena.
(Oh, and meanwhile, Daenerys allows Jorah to touch her hand, which is probably bad news considering his ongoing grayscale problem. And then she goes ahead and holds hands with Missandei, who’s probably also infected now. Oops.)
Daenerys is only saved thanks to a bit of a deus ex machina: her one unchained dragon, Drogon, shows up and burninates a bunch of the Sons of the Harpy. And then, after Drogon takes a few spears for her, Daenerys climbs on his back and flies away. Drogon seemed to be unwilling to hang out with Daenerys earlier in the season, after she chained up his siblings and generally compromised all of her principles — but when the chips are down, he shows up to rescue her.
Does this mean that Daenerys is through making compromises in the name of politics? Is she going to come back and follow through on her threat to tear Meereen down? I guess it depends on just what she’s learned from this experience, and what she ends up deciding the real meaning of “greatness” is. (And whether she and her city survive that bout with grayscale, too.)
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming 2016 from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.