Features and Columns · TV

Game of Thrones Explained: The Good, The Bad and The Stannis

By  · Published on June 8th, 2015


There’s a long-standing tradition for the ninth episode of every season of Game of Thrones. Viewers have come to expect that the ninth frame will, above all else, deliver something horrible. In season one, it was the end for Ned Stark. In season two, it was the loss of thousands of Baratheon soldiers on the Blackwater. In season three, it was a large portion of the remaining Starks (even an unborn one). In season four, it was a massive battle at The Wall in which many beloved characters from both The Night’s Watch and the Wildlings were lost.

But up to this point, there’s been another formula to episode 9s of seasons past: they all deal with the consequences around love and duty. As Maester Aemon explains in season one, “Love is the death of duty.” This holds true as a baseline for the major moments of all episode 9s. In season one, Ned ultimately chooses to take Varys’ deal for his daughter Sansa. It backfires and the rest is history. In season three, things get even more literal, with Robb Stark and his family paying the price for his choice of love over marrying one of Walder Frey’s daughters, as was previously agreed. It also works the other way. In season two, Tyrion chooses to stand tall and fight instead of leaning on the survivalist instincts we’d seen previously. In choosing duty over his love of self and life, Tyrion ultimately wins and then is tragically cut down. In season four, Jon Snow’s price for his duty to the Night’s Watch is that he ends up watching the love of his life die in his arms.

If episode 9s are here to teach us anything, it’s that there are heavy consequences in this Game of Thrones.

Season 5’s entry into the episode 9 tradition exists in slightly murkier waters. It doesn’t deal so much in the consequences around love and duty as it does the choices, particularly for Stannis. He makes the ultimate choice between love and what he believes to be his duty, as he believes that it is his duty to fulfill his destiny. The consequences for his actions are yet to come. For Arya, the situation is similar. Her duty is to the Many Faced God and the task of killing the thin man. But her love is the list, and upon that list is Meryn Trant, now within reach. Her decision is to lie to Jaqen about her day and perhaps plot a way to cross a name off of her list in the near future. And while I hope she does – as the show did a stomach-turningly good job of reminding us how distasteful Meryn Trant is – I wonder about the consequences of Arya’s decision.

“The Dance of Dragons,” the fifth in a long line of episode 9s, is a breaker of trends. Instead of dealing with the consequences, it’s still interested in the decisions. Does that make it any less interesting or spectacular? Certainly not. But it does illustrate that the rhythm of Game of Thrones has changed. As we’ve been discussing all season, we’re in uncharted waters. The dead are rising and the show is entering its two season home stretch. Our expectations will be subverted, our comfort zones will be obliterated and every once in a while, a dragon will take flight.

Now onto some big questions for the week as I attempt to find answers for some curious little details in “The Dance of Dragons.” As per usual, this column won’t get into any book spoilers (trust me, there aren’t many left), but we will use some book knowledge to fill in some gaps.

1. Does Dany now have greyscale?


One of the questions I’ve fielded the most since last night’s episode is around the lingering shots of Ser Jorah offering Dany his hand in their escape from the Queen’s box during the attack by the Sons of the Harpy. Director David Nutter then chose later to hold a shot of Dany grasping the hand of Missandei. Does this mean that greyscale could have been passed from Jorah to Dany to Missandei?

The rules of greyscale aren’t entirely clear in the books. It’s not a pathogen, as Tyrion falls into a river teaming with stone men and doesn’t contract it. There must be direct contact. But does that contact need to be with any part of the inflicted or the specific area where greyscale has materialized? This is the part that is not known, though in the books Tyrion remarks about some things he’s read about the disease. Particularly about the fact that hacking off afflicted parts of the body has in some cases stopped the spread of the disease. This would indicate that greyscale remains localized as it spreads. I’m no doctor (nor is George R.R. Martin, so who knows), but the assumption there is that contracting greyscale requires direct contact with an afflicted area. Which is what makes Stone Men so dangerous, as they are walking afflicted areas.

This means that all the hand-holding between Dany and Jorah and Missendei is about trust and finding strength in those closest to you. Dany takes Jorah’s hand because she’s finally allowing herself to trust him again. She grabs Missandei’s hand for comfort in a moment when she believes all is lost. Of course that’s when Drogon shows up and everything is more than alright, it’s awesome.

2. Is the show setting up some horrible fate for Arya?


Here’s a better question because I don’t even want to go down the road of considering that another Stark child will be assaulted this season:

Does Jaqen know that Arya is lying?

It’s likely that he knows something is up, as Arya is still a Padawan in the order of the Faceless Men and he’s the Sexy Yoda. Will he allow Arya to forsake her duty and make an attempt on Meryn Trant’s life? As much as I would love to see Arya take out Trant for his long list of atrocities in service of Cersei, part of me feels as if the true test is whether or not Arya can give up her old life and let it go. Maybe we’ll get a bonus of Jaqen taking out Trant because he’s secretly just a good friend. Either way, I dread the thought of what horrors could be inflicted upon Arya should she reenter that brothel. Then again, perhaps that’s what the show wants me to think. Maybe it’s setting me up to expect the worst only to deliver a heroic, awesome Arya moment.

No, no. That’s not the case. Expect the worst.

3. Are we done with Dorne?


There was an unsettling finality to the events in Dorne this week. As I’ve explained at length in a previous article, the show has mishandled the interesting Dorne story from George R.R. Martin’s books. It was one of the most unique and interesting little stories happening in all of the Seven Kingdoms and in the show’s world it has been turned into a strange, uneventful detour to warmer climates.

I’ll reserve full judgment on whether or not we’ll ever be in Dorne again until I see what happens next week. What I can say at this point is that I’m not excited to see Jaime return to King’s Landing with Trystane and Myrcella. Surely there is something more interesting for them to do. And surely the Sand Snakes aren’t going to go out like this? They were supposed to be the badass daughters of Oberyn. Instead they are poorly realized walking action figures.

The greater question for Dorne: What was the point of this diversion? Did all of this happen so that Bronn could be punched in the face for a little bit of comic relief right before the show burned a child at the stake? Is there anything to Prince Doran beyond a guy who catches an intruder, then gives him exactly what he wants (plus the bonus of a Dornish Prince for use as a hostage later)?

Nothing about Dorne adds up to anything of substance. My only hope is that we’re not done with Westeros’ sexiest kingdom. But I fear that our time here is coming to a close.

4. What in the seven hells, Stannis?


Stannis Baratheon’s title should be immediately changed from “One True King” to “One True Believer,” which is perhaps the most shocking revelation in this week’s most distressing storyline. For the entirety of the books and the show, I’ve always known that Stannis is a man who lives and dies by his own certainty. And there’s one thing of which he’s certain above all else: that the Iron Throne is his by right. For Stannis, the ends have always justified the means. This includes killing his own brother, allowing thousands of his men to die in the Battle of Blackwater and now, most horrifying of all, the sacrifice of his only living heir (and adorable Reading Rainbow of Westeros host), Shireen.

There’s a difference between something being “out of character” and something being an extreme version of someone’s character. If Jon Snow decides to burn a kid in the next episode, that’s out of character. The seeds for Stannis burning his daughter have been planted a long time ago. He trusts the Red Woman’s magic, above all he’s interested in getting the result he believes is just and he has been increasingly willing to go to extremes to get what he wants. Burning Shireen is an act of extreme zealotry. One that we hoped Stannis didn’t have in him. But now we know that he did. In a time of great desperation, with his army freezing and starving, he made his most desperate move. How it affects those around him and whether or not it works will be what makes this interesting.

This is why those of us who have read the books, even though this isn’t in the books, could see something like this coming. It’s not a comfortable result in any way, but it’s not outside the realm of what is possible for Stannis. Now it raises huge questions for the Baratheon cause:

I’m fascinated by the consequences that will be incurred by this decision. Watching Shireen’s death was a horrifying experience and as a member of the audience, I want there to be swift and harsh consequences. But as we know from watching almost five full seasons of this show, we don’t always get what is fair and just. In this instance, I’m hoping that the show bucks yet another trend of letting horrible deeds go unpunished.

And hopefully we don’t have to wait until episode 9 of season 6 to get some justice for Shireen.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)