There is a question at the heart of not only this episode of Game of Thrones in particular and the series in general, but at the heart of many aspects of human culture and society themselves, which is, what is the value of a human life? When I say “value,” I don’t exactly mean it in an abstract, esoteric, or philosophical way in terms of potential or theoretical value. I mean it here more in the the practical, tangible, or material sense; what is a human life worth? Furthermore, are some lives worth more than others? Part of what is so fascinating and heart-wrenching about A Song of Ice and Fire is that in this narrative universe and in the logic thereof, the functional answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
Throughout the entire series, the only time Stannis Baratheon has ever shown any semblance of genuine pride or warmth was in the scene featuring himself and his daughter Shireen from earlier this season. He displays none of that same pride in regards to his stated ambitions. Indeed, his quest for the Iron Throne seems to bring him no joy whatsoever. He has no vision for leadership or governance and appears to have no plans at all or any real desire to actually rule; he simply believes he’s entitled to it. By putting his ambition above the life of his only child, he is making the determination that Shireen’s life is worth less than his pursuit of dominance, just as Tywin Lannister determined, time and time again, that Tyrion’s life was worth less than his family name and “legacy.”
It’s not that there’s an utter disregard for human life in the narrative universe of Game of Thrones, rather that there’s a determination made on a continual basis by many of the characters that the lives of certain people are worth less than something else in question. This is one of the major reasons that the violence depicted on the series is so brutal, because at some point and on some level a determination is made by a party with the leverage required to inflict bodily harm on another that the life of that other individual or group is worth less than some other consideration. This is what links Stannis, Dany, and Jon, in this episode; they all grapple with the decisions involved in sacrificing the lives (or life of in Stannis’s case), of those under their protection to further their own political, strategic, or even moral agenda.
To be clear, in no way am I suggesting that allowing men to fight to the death for spectacle as Dany does or risking the lives of those under one’s command in pursuit of what I think is certainly a wise and just objective as Jon did at Hardhome and offering up one’s own daughter for ritual sacrifice are the same action or even remotely morally equivalent. For that matter, I’m also not at all interested in posing a discussion over who’s actions and decisions in this series are more reprehensible than the rest, because that would prove to be an incredibly long and likely meritless discussion that would bare little philosophical fruit, if any.
To slightly contradict that, though, I will, however, offer my own personal assessment that Stannis Baratheon’s sacrifice of Shireen is beyond any shred of a doubt the most heinous and monstrous act committed by any character in A Song of Ice and Fire to this point by a very wide margin and may well be the most horrifying and horrific scene I’ve ever viewed on any media. Everything in the sacrifice sequence and the events leading up to it conspire to make it the absolute moral low point of the series (within the diagesis, of course, not on the part of the makers of the series in their role as exhibitors).
I sincerely hope it goes without saying that making a considered, active decision to offer one’s child for sacrifice in a bizarre and esoteric faith-based calculous in the service and pursuit of a political and strategic objective is a deplorable thing to do. I suspect that there are people out there, some of whom may or may not be willing to admit that they believe that there’s a “religious” argument for the Shireen sacrifice. One can imagine an argument along the lines of a fundamentalist approach to Judeo-Christian belief in which one takes the biblical story known as “The Binding of Isaac” wherein God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a way to literally “test” his faith. Leaving aside how disturbing and dehumanizing I’ve always found that particular incident in scripture, the Stannis and Shireen situation doesn’t even pass that particular comparison because the so-called “lord of light” does not address Stannis directly, as God does Abraham in the Book of Genesis, nor is Stannis seemingly willing to perform the sacrifice himself, as Abraham is portrayed to have been.
Even if Stannis did have a direct line to R’hllor however (assuming that anyone does or that such a deity exits, which I do not), I still wouldn’t ascribe any legitimacy to this because it seems to me that the very point of the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is to demonstrate that “God’s will,” however bizarre or sadistic it may seem, is of greater importance to Abraham than the life of his beloved son and should be so as well to any “person of faith.” This was certainly the message driven home in my own religious education when this story was discussed. Indeed, it was celebrated and used as an example of Abraham’s unwavering faith and devotion to his god in a way that I always found profoundly problematic and unsettling, to say the least. The determination is made by Abraham that the life of his favorite son is worth less than the will of the mysterious, admittedly “jealous,” and manifestly wrathful deity he was devoted to.
Whether or not one harbors as much revulsion towards this biblical account and the way it is used in much theology as I do, I find it difficult if not impossible to suggest that there’s another way to understand Abraham’s actions therein. His “faith” is so “strong” that an unexplainable demand he believes to have come from his God is more important than the life of his offspring. So, on this level, Stannis’ actions are even more depraved, perverse, and cowardly because Stannis, at least in my own analysis, is not actually a “true believer” in R’hllor or anything else as far as religion is concerned. There’s no doubt that Stannis is devoted to the lord of light in a practical sense, given that he views and utilizes R’hllor, or at least the religion built around R’hllor, as a means to further his own political and dynastic ambitions. Even if Stannis believes in some or all of the so-called “magic” Melisandre has performed in R’hllor’s name as he has appeared to at times, I’m not convinced he has any genuine “faith” in R’hllor as a deity, as such.
By sacrificing Shireen, therefore, Stannis is, at least in my estimation, either making a crass and desperate strategic gamble, or allowing either a personal devotion to or those devoted to R’hllor to convince him to commit an unspeakable act he knows to be deplorable. I would contend that if Stannis had genuine faith in this creed, he wouldn’t have sent Davos away as he did preceding the event. Stannis sent Davos away precisely because he knew what he was prepared to do was wrong (on many levels) and that not only would Davos disapprove to say the least, but that he’d perhaps even be able to talk him out of it, if anyone could.
The sacrifice of Shireen was clearly a fear-based decision on Stannis part, which are the only positive actions ever taken by him given his utter stubbornness and complete lack of political or strategic vision. This is why this incident is a perfect example of why Stannis’s “claim” to the Iron Throne is not only weak and illegitimate, but that this is known to Stannis himself. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Stannis knows, at least deep-down, that his claim is weak, he is unfit and unsuited for rule, and there exists no significant popular or political will in Westeros for his ascension, which is why he feels the need to essentially cheat his way to his objective by utilizing or exploiting a foreign religion to inspire fear and devotion, as well as employing “blood magic” to assassinate his younger, more charismatic brother Renly in cold blood and various other craven endeavors. Stannis clearly doesn’t believe he can win without cheating, and he probably can’t. He’s also too weak a person to check his naked, bitter ambition in the face of what he obviously knows to be a foolish and monstrous decision.
It’s also clear that that Stannis can’t see how the sacrifice is also an idiotic political move that completely delegitimizes his already flimsy claim. Even in the starkest Thronesian political logic, it makes no sense whatsoever for a man who proclaims himself to be the rightful king of Westeros to cut off his own bloodline, which we know from everything that’s ever gone on in this legacy and succession obsessed universe is the most effective way to make your enemies smell blood in the water, so to speak. Say nothing of the fact that he’s flouting one of the most basic “laws of nature” by betraying the biological imperative to protect one’s young in order to propagate the species.
Most heinous, though, is the way in which Stannis rhetorically tricked Shireen into thinking that he needed her “help” in his ridiculous campaign in a pathetic attempt to assuage his own guilt and shame through her, his victim at her most altruistic and vulnerable in the scene featuring the two of them in the tent preceding the sacrifice itself. All this made for a beautifully heartbreaking scene in the signature manner of human drama and tragedy, highlighted by some lovely acting by Stephan Dillane and Kerry Ingram and laying the foundation for the haunting and spectacular scene of the sacrifice that followed, which will surely go down as one of the signature moments of the series.
Aesthetically, the sacrifice scene itself was impeccable. The color palette was so stark on the one hand but rich on the other. It was bleak but not in a flat or contrasty way but in a way that gave it an almost soft quality. One could almost feel a thinness in the air of the environment being infected by the horror and gravity of the event. All the lack of vibrancy really made the fire pop visually, even though we never really get a good look at the flames once the fire was raging, which made for a devastating effect in the reverse shot on Stannis when he turned away from the pyre in the only moment where we could really see the flames, quite out of focus. It was a truly stomach-churning scene just on it’s own that was so well staged, shot, acted, and executed. The aforementioned reaction shot of Stephen Dillane, the looks of horror, disbelief, and revulsion on the faces of the soldiers, and the moment of Selyse succumbing to her maternal instincts far too late (several years too late, really) were all extremely effective here. The series in both media is so good at providing material that is at once unsurprising yet undeniably shocking. One could anticipate this happening to Shireen from her introduction in the books yet still to see it actually happen on screen was absolutely devastating.
This was a strong episode overall, but the sheer horror, gravity, and televisual brilliance of the sacrifice sequence in the middle of the episode had the effect of, for myself at least, overshadowing everything else thereafter, which is a bit awkward considering the monumental import of the climactic sequence in Meereen. I will admit that given the way the series is structured and exhibited, I’m not sure how they could have justified not ending this installment with the arena sequence had they even wished to. Having said that, the emotional impact and quality of the filmmaking relative to the sacrifice sequence didn’t measure up.
The arena sequence did however, link-up with the sacrifice as well as Jon’s return to Castle Black in the aftermath of the Hardhome fiasco in some crucial ways. The leadership styles of Dany, Jon, Stannis, and quality thereof were in sharp relief in these three sequences. Jon, in true Stark fashion had an incredibly difficult and unpopular decision that he knew to be the right decision to make and must now face the consequences, regarding his petition to the free folk at Hardhome. The weariness on Kit Harington’s face in the midst of the snow and muck at Castle Black made for such a beautiful and sad moment. The regret over the loss of life suffered under his command at Hardhome he expresses to Sam perfectly encapsulates the value he places on human life, those of his comrades and strangers alike. For a series with so much moral ambiguity amongst the characters set in such a morally and ethically murky universe, the fact that Jon can so consistently exhibit such undeniable, admirable heroism and still be completely multidimensional is remarkable.
Dany has made a great many errors that have resulted in setbacks and lives lost, but what makes her so interesting as a character and a leader is that despite her sense of entitlement and occasional petulance, she’s aware of her fallibility and makes genuine attempts to surround herself with intelligent, savvy, trustworthy council and seeks to learn from her mistakes. For someone with a rather rigid set of values, she’s a fairly nimble leader. Her decision to reopen the fighting pits was one she was never comfortable with (for good reason), but it was a decision she made regardless in pursuit (albeit misguided) of compromise and civic balance, and she, like Jon, was willing to face the consequences of that decision to the very end.
Stannis, on the other hand, has now forever ratified his position as a bitter, cruel, petty, and utterly spineless child of privilege unfit for his position and undeserving of the advancement he feels entitled to. His unwillingness to make adjustments or demonstrate any sort of flexibility finally brought him to a decision he knows to be wrong but goes through with anyway because he either lacks the confidence or inspiration to pursue his objectives without the aid of a ridiculous religious doctrine or is unwilling to do the work required to attempt to actually earn gains he desires.
The Stannis and Dany material also connect in the way they highlight differences in parenthood. While Stannis committed the most obvious and blatant bit of parental malfeasance one can possibly imagine, Dany was ultimately rewarded for her unwavering devotion to the most willful and volatile of her adoptive sons. Dany’s dragons aren’t her “natural” children (obviously), but they’re clearly not mere pets, either, just as the wolves are (or were, in most cases, sadly) are no mere pets for the Starks. Dany has always recognized that she’s the guardian of her dragons, despite their immense power and tremendous danger the present both potential and manifest. The dragons are young and wild, but they recognize Dany’s love, loyalty, and devotion to them; and Drogon, to Dany’s great fortune, has paid that back by laying his life on the line for her safety when she most needed him.