**Here There Be Spoilers!!!! (For Season Five: Episode 9 of HBO’s Game of Thrones)***
One of the less remarked on things following last Sunday’s immolation-rific episode of Game of Thrones was the skillful way the show-makers painted parallels between the episode’s parental figures.
On first watch, of course, I was too horrified to give this credence. Did we seriously just watch a child burn to death as part of Sunday-night entertainment? As the ever-brilliant Tyrion Lannister says in this very episode: “There’s always been more than enough death in the world for my taste. I can do without it in my leisure time.”
Once the flames subsided, however–both in the show and my heart–I watched the showrunners explain their decisions and decided that, though I still feel Stannis’s decision was more bait-and-switch than actual character development (as Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson of Westeros.org point out in their video discussion of the episode: the stakes in Stannis’s doomed camp don’t feel nearly desperate enough for him to pull an Agamemnon on Shireen), his decision is more than of a piece with the themes of the show.
Both versions of the story are obsessed with lineage and the power that comes of having the “right” blood. Lineage, on Game of Thrones, is itself a dark magic that can both protect and threaten children–often at the same time. There are few Ward and June Cleavers among Westeros’s elite. Game of Thrones‘ parents are the descendants of Greek myth.
Stannis is a case in point. His burning of Shireen is taken straight from The Illiad. In that tale, King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, so the flagging wind will revive and blow his war fleet to Troy. Like Stannis, he bears his daughter no ill will, but believes himself in service to a greater cause. Belief-and its connotation of faith–are key here, though, like so many characters in Westeros, you can’t blame Stannis’s actions on religion. He has one–but it’s not, as he thinks, the Lord of Light. It’s him. The belief in his own, inherent power. It’s a tragic flaw he shares with Westeros’s other bad fathers: with Tywin Lannister, who dictates his children’s lives in the name of dynasty; with Samwell Tarly’s father, who threatens him with death for ‘disgracing’ the family name. This tragic impetus drives the whole GOT universe: the belief that there is one–very stern, very masculine–way to rule.
What a relief, then, to know Daenerys Targaryen is in the world. She too is a terrible parent–but in a different sense. She and her children are literally terrible: fire-breathing dragons (Dany herself is fire-retardant), whom she loves very much. If Stannis is Agamemnon, then Danaerys is Echidna–the mother of monsters who birthed the Gorgons. (Three Gorgons, to be exact. Check out some Echidna research and blow your mind!) Yet, where Stannis can’t find it in him to spare his kind and gentle daughter, Dany protects her scaly offspring against Harpies and spears.
Sunday’s Dance of Dragons expertly paints this contrast–purposely cutting from horrible Stannis to terrible Daenerys. Watch Stannis stand back from his chilling execution, then watch Daenerys pull spears from Drogon and struggle not to cry. Though her motivation isn’t always sparkling clear in this scene, part of her flight is to remove Drogon, her monstrous child, from danger.
I wondered, for a time, why these scenes were placed together–the abject horror of the first killing the eucatastophic feeling of the second. That seemed a cheat–not letting the audience off the hook after a season more brutal (yet, in terms of its violence, I think, more skillfully handled) than before. In the end, though, the contrast is perfect. How can victory be sweet when the blood of innocents is the cost? That’s what we get at here in these two, mind-bogglingly well acted scenes: even Dany, our most obvious hero, can’t be easy in her crown. She too watches someone she loves (Jorah Mormont) in dire peril–the difference being that, unlike Stannis, she has no faith, no rigid belief, that her actions are right. Indeed, when she flies off at the end of the episode, more than one commentator wondered if she’d abandoned the whole Game. In Daenerys’s case, her doubt and uncertainty are her strong points, why she feels human to us while Stannis feels monstrous. We hope that Stannis, like his mythological counterpart, is doomed. And we know who the superior parent is. Daenerys isn’t perfect, but she loves her children (and tries hard not to let them eat everyone else’s). In the ugly contest for the Iron Throne, let the Mother of Dragons triumph over any King of Men.
**A couple notes: The Daenerys scene was better handled in the books. Slowly isolated and defeated over the course of A Dance With Dragons, Daenerys does indeed bail on a sinking ship in this scene. Her motivations on the show are much murkier. Why did she leave her friends just standing there? Where’s she going when she has so many reasons (Tyrion! Missandei! Jorah!) to stay? More importantly: couldn’t she have burned a few thousand more assassins to make sure her friends don’t end up impaled on spears?
**This was an exceptionally well acted episode. Stephen Dillane’s Stannis, Kerry Ingram’s Shireen and Tara Fitzgerald’s Selyse acted the stuffing out of their scenes. Selyse has always been an uneven character (remember the random fetuses in the jar?) but Fitzgerald finally makes her real here. In Meereen, Peter Dinklage continues to build his wondrously good Tyrion, imbuing each line with both world-weariness and snark. Emilia Clarke as Dany and Iain Glenn as Ser Jorah convey worlds of emotion with just a few yearning glances. Clarke has sometimes overdone it as Dany–but it’s been a pleasure watching her grow into the role. She’s learning her craft and developing chops. Now, if we could just get Kit Harrington to have more than one facial expression…
**On the subject of juxtaposition: it was a stroke of genius to place this episode right after Episode 8: Hardhome. Not only is there the obvious ice vs. fire imagery (I sense the show-runners setting up Jon and Dany for the final conflict) but the horrors of Hardhome throw the more domestic horrors of Dragons into stark (sorry) relief. The final indignity is, even as these blood sacrifices are made, its abundantly clear everyone is fighting the wrong war.
**Finally, while I’ve come round to feeling charitable about the show again, there is a bit of “I get it! You’re evil!” going on. You do have to give your audience a “win” now and then to keep everything from being a misery parade. I keep watching because the acting is great and the thing looks gorgeous and the dragons are bad-ass but I do feel we could use more acts of levity to balance out the child-immolation, now and then. One of the reasons I think book readers (like me) have strong negative reactions to the show is that, while in the books, the story has many ugly parts, the overall effect is thought provoking, not simply–and unrelentingly– devastating. For every Red Wedding we get thrilling set pieces like The House of the Undying where, in the book, Dany sees intriguing prophecies and scenes from the past. The effect is that we know more than the characters do, and so the book is an exiting puzzle we’re constantly rooting for our favorite characters to figure out. This piece–the eerie wonders, the prophecies and puzzles–are largely missing from the show and so, while the most brutal events are preserved, they have no coinciding wonder with which to temper them.