“A Dance of Dragons…” Stannis (Stephen Dillane) asks Shireen (Kerry Ingram), confused about her book’s title. “Why’s that a dance?” “It’s just what they call it,” she replies, citing the name’s poetic quality.
“Doesn’t make much sense…” Stannis sighs.
The exchange says a lot about Stannis’ character. He’s a literal man, oblivious to the subtleties of metaphor and simile; a brilliant military commander who works in strategies and flanks and formations. Only recently, he’s had to adapt to a new, strange tactic, one that operates outside his rational comfort: magic.
And in The Dance of Dragons, the ninth episode in the fifth season of Game of Thrones, this practice reaches its apex. Stannis sacrifices his beloved daughter to the Lord of Light.“I like my daughters well done.”
Looking back on season five, you can’t say it’s a surprise. Princess Shireen had suddenly been getting a fair bit of screen time (a death knell for secondary characters), and Melisandre (Carice van Houten) even pushed for a sacrifice only three episodes prior. But still, foreshadowing aside, setting a child on fire will always be at least a little shocking.
As with most events in the North, you can blame it on Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). He led a group of 20 men into Stannis’ encampment to burn their supplies, horses and armaments. The Boltons know they don’t need to kill Stannis’ army to defeat him. Winter will be here soon to do it for them.
Stannis’ best option, Melisandre advises, is to sacrifice someone of royal blood – Princess Shireen of House Baratheon.
That ‘You Are My Daughter‘ scene between Stannis and Shireen from episode four reverberates through the father/daughter exchange. Gone is Stannis’ protectiveness, replaced with an increasingly unkempt beard. It’s a significant growth – for a man so disciplined to let his whiskers get so long. That’s what being the Lord of Light’s chosen saviour will do to you.
And that is what makes for the central question at the root of Shireen’s sacrifice: do the needs of the few outweigh those of the many?
Argue all you like about Stannis’ sanity, you can’t deny he believes his destiny is to save Westeros. He’s already agreed with Jon Snow that the White Walkers approach. He’s seen a woman give birth to a shadow assassin. He’s had the future told to him in flames; who knows what horrors that revealed? Fantasy is now real, and his only way to stop the Long Night is to become King.
Most depressingly, though, is that this isn’t even a destiny he wants.
When talking with Shireen shortly before her sacrifice, he brokenly mumbles:
“Sometimes a person has to choose. Sometimes 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.”
Many are going to argue that Stannis killing his daughter is because of his own burning ambition. Pun intended. The more outraged members of Twitter already have. But that would be to let one’s overly-charged emotions obscure the real conflict at Stannis’ heart.
Murdering his daughter is not an act of ego, of delusions of grandeur of his place on the Iron Throne. He does not burn his daughter at the stake because he wants to become King. He sacrifices her because he knows if he doesn’t, she dies anyway when the White Walkers come. Shireen is a lost cause, a lose/lose piece on the board.
So the needs of the many, Stannis has calculated to deep regret, outweigh those of the few.
Stannis is a man of duty, of rules. His frequent corrections of people’s grammar (“fewer“), his cutting off of Davos’ fingers, his insistence of marching on Winterfell – he does so because this is the way things must be, whether it be the demands of the English language, eye-for-an-eye justice or saving the Seven Kingdoms. If he doesn’t become King, Westeros falls along with everyone in it.
It’s an impossible choice to make, but, as Stannis admitted to Shireen herself, “if a man knows what he is…the choice is no choice at all.”
And that is why Stannis Baratheon is Game of Thrones most remarkable character. A man burdened by his own destiny, but willing to see it through to save the realm.
Oliver Davis is one of Flickering Myth’s co-editors, curator of its Super Newsletter and Lead Producer of Flickering Myth TV. You can follow him on Twitter @OliDavis. Check back here every Monday for his episode-by-episode reviews of Game of Thrones Season 5.