Heavy spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 5 follow. Like, seriously. Heavy.
Trigger Warning: this blog post includes a discussion of extreme violence and rape that occurred on this television program.
Stannis Baratheon is a straight-up monster and we should all hate him.
But for a while there in season five, we forgot that. We started to like him. We may have even started to root for him. His rescue of Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch, his weary correction of an errant grammar mistake, his touching story of saving his daughter’s life, and his position as the chief opponent of the Boltons all made Stannis seem like a great guy.
Yes, season five made us root for a guy who was introduced burning his in-laws alive and who later went on to assassinate his own brother.
That’s the genius of season 5 – it made us forget what we were watching. It made us cheer for a monster. It made us react with shock when Stannis burnt his own daughter alive, even though we all should have seen it coming.
When people saw that scene, they reacted with horror, disgust, and outrage. That’s all justified, obviously. Having a father burn his child goes beyond anything Game of Thrones has yet done. Even though we don’t see Shireen, her screams pierce us more deeply than Oberyn’s or Talisa’s ever could have. This is the nightmare.
And people understandably refused to accept it. Countless commentators and reviewers argued that it was out-of-character for Stannis to do this. That it contradicted his heartwarming scene with Shireen just a few episodes before. That Stannis loved his daughter and would never hurt her.
Stannis did love his daughter. If you doubt that, just compare the scene where he tells the story of her greyscale with the scene where he burns her. In the former, Stannis is clean, strong, and disciplined. He has iron composure. He shows flashes of anger, but he remains rigidly controlled. Even his hair is sharp and neat.
When he burns Shireen, Stannis looks like a skeleton that someone awkwardly stretched too-little skin across. His hair is a mess and he looks like he’s aged a decade since that touching moment episodes ago. He’s already dead here.
So if he did love Shireen, how was this decision possibly in character? Because Stannis Baratheon prioritizes law and duty above everything else. Full stop. There’s no competition. Duty wins every time.
A man smuggles food in to save my dying army? Great, I’ll give him a knighthood – after I chop off his fingers.
The Targeryan heirs are two small children running like hell from the rebel armies? Cool, I’ll chase after them and execute them if I can catch them (as Dany’s existence demonstrates, he did not catch them).
My younger brother wants to steal my crown and become King? Okay, I’ll assassinate him by cheating on my wife to create a shadow-baby assassin – not because I want the throne, but because it is my duty to take it.
In Stannis’s mind, he was the only one who could save Westeros. By this point he’s not just thinking about the War of Five Kings – he’s dealing with the White Walkers. It’s his duty to unite the realm and rally them to fight this real, true enemy. He is the true King. No one else can do the job. If he falls to the Boltons, Westeros is done for.
When his duty to the country comes with such high stakes, he can’t afford to let personal feelings sway him. He loves his daughter… but he will do his duty.
So yes, Shireen’s was horrifying. But it was also completely predictable.
(For the record, pre-death, I absolutely, 100% refused to accept that it would happen. Season five tricked me good too.)
That being said, I’ve got a few other problems with this scene. First off, I know Ramsay’s good, but seriously, setting the whole camp on fire at once without ever being noticed? That’s a stretch and just a little too convenient for my taste.
There’s also the ever-present (especially this season) issue of gender. Shireen is one of three young, royal girls to suffer a terrible fate this season. I’m not going to get into the lunacy of Sansa’s storyline, but suffice to say, Game of Thrones has pretty much burnt up any benefit-of-the-doubt it might have had on this issue. Its track record on mistreating women is pretty atrocious. I still like the scene on its own, but it was another part of an increasingly disturbing pattern.
(Sidenote – what the hell, Dorne? Why was literally every aspect of your plotline horrible? The Sand Snakes were weak and disgustingly over-sexualized and poor Myrcella did not deserve that. Even worse, her death was all about Jamie’s feelings. Seriously, what the hell happened there?)
There’s also just the general horror of burning a child alive. That being said, this is a show that ended its first episode with the rape of a seventeen-year-old princess before pivoting to show a knight pushing a ten year old out of a window.
Like I said – season five did a great job of making us forget how cruel and horrific Game of Thrones really is.
So was this a perfect decision? Of course not. I loved Shireen. She was absolutely delightful and I always enjoyed her presence. I would much rather have seen her live on.
But Stannis’s decision to kill her makes sense, both in the context of the show and in the context of the character. His duty to the realm trumps all else.