Events in "The Dance of Dragons" are going to take us back into a fundamental disagreement that I've noticed tends to come up frequently in discussions of Game of Thrones. Being tempted by dichotomies is always dangerous when we talk about this show, but, for the sake of simplicity, we can frame this disagreement as a debate between Idealists and Pragmatists.
There have been any number of scenes, scenarios and individual character choices that have provided fresh fodder for this argument over all five seasons. But, to get at the heart of the matter, we may as well go all the way back to the beginning, to Season One. Because the quickest litmus test to determine whether you tend towards Idealism or Pragmatism is to ask you a simple question: How do you feel about Ned Stark?
I think we all liked Ned, so that's not the issue. The issue is how you feel about the decisions he made. To the Pragmatists—and there seem to be more of them now then there were when Ned was still alive on our screens—Ned Stark was a well-intentioned fool who made one disastrous mistake after another. He went about things the wrong way; he trusted the wrong people; he was open about things he should have kept secret, and he was silent about others when he should have spoken up. Mostly, the criticism seems to be that Ned was too soft, too merciful, too good for his own goddamned good. "What madness led you to tell the queen you'd learned the truth about Joffrey's birth?" Varys asked him in "The Pointy End," about what was arguably his biggest mistake. "The madness of mercy," Ned said. Thus, to many, Ned stands as a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much decency.
It's hard, I suppose, to argue with the Pragmatists: within their own parameters, they definitely have a point. (It would be difficult to look at the chain of events that led to Ned's death—to say nothing of the years of war and destruction that followed that catalytic event—and say, "Well, that went well.")
But, as the name I've assigned them suggests, Pragmatists are primarily concerned with results. To the Idealists—and you've probably guessed by now that I consider myself one of them—the relative rightness of a decision is not necessarily determined by its outcome. One of the central tenets of Game of Thrones is that life is not fair: as we have seen time and time again, it is entirely possible to do the right thing and still lose, and it is very common for people to do the wrong thing and win. No matter how many religious powers wax and wane on this show—and there are more of them than there used to be—there is still no cosmic judge rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. It just doesn't work that way on Game of Thrones, any more than it does in life.
In the absence of such an authority, then—divine or narrative—we are left to determine right and wrong for ourselves, regardless of the uncertainty of the consequences. If we want moral guidance, we have to look to intentions, not outcomes. From this (admittedly idealistic) perspective, Ned Stark is still our best moral compass on Game of Thrones. Whatever strategic errors he made from a practical standpoint, I would argue he did everything right. Yes, he might have not only survived but thrived if he had allowed Cersei, Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen to be slaughtered in their sleep, as several people suggested. But would we really have wanted him to do that? Would we really have said that was the right thing to do, even if it averted war? (Tywin Lannister, Walder Frey, and Roose Bolton ended a war—and probably saved countless lives—by slaughtering a defenseless family at a wedding. Do we think that was the right thing to do?) Ned always did the right thing, even when—in the end—it meant sacrificing one ideal (honor) for another, more important one (the love of his children). And I honestly believe that, if he had it all to do over, he would probably make the same decisions all over again.
And I want to be clear: while I think Game of Thrones fully understands, and gives full weight to, both sides of the argument between Idealists and Pragmatists, it ultimately sides with the Idealists. Ned Stark is not intended to be a cautionary tale: Ned Stark is the Christ figure of this story, the guy whose example we are meant to follow even though doing the right thing led him to persecution, torture, and execution. Ned failed, and Ned died, and Ned left chaos in his wake, but Ned was not wrong. Jon Snow was not wrong when he refused to execute that old man in "The Rains of Castamere," even though refusing to do so blew his cover with the Wildlings and got his ass shot full of arrows. Dany is not wrong to stick to her ideals of freedom and equality, and she is wrong when she gets talked into compromising those ideals—as she has done recently—for practical reasons.
Game of Thrones recognizes—more than almost any fiction I can think of—that doing the right thing will not always work out well. But I believe we are disastrously misreading this story if our take-away is that, sometimes, you have to do the wrong thing in order to succeed.
Obviously, I'm talking about all of this now because "The Dance of Dragons" is all about choices, and how we judge the choices people make here says a lot about how we read Game of Thrones as a whole. Call me an idealist if you must, but for me—and, I'd argue, for the characters who are our actual heroes—the worth of a decision is not determined by its outcome. This "game" was never about winning.
"You have a good heart, Jon Snow. And it will get us all killed." — Alliser Thorne
Let's begin, briefly, with the goings-on at The Wall. Last week I argued that Jon's alliance with the Wildlings is more than an interesting plot development: it is a decision that speaks to the very ethical core of the show, reinforcing the beliefs that all men are brothers, that all life matters, and that the only long-term hope for the survival of the species is to put petty prejudices and rivalries behind us.
Now Lord Commander Snow has led his people—for they are his people, now—to The Wall, to bring them inside the kingdom of men. And it might be the dumbest thing he's ever done. Alliser Throne does open the gates and let them in, but he hesitates long enough to make clear he's doing so under protest. "You have a good heart, Jon Show," Thorne tells him later. "And it will get us all killed." It's too simple to say Jon is motivated entirely by compassion—he did have sound, strategic reasons for saving the Wildlings from the Walkers, after all—but Thorne isn't completely wrong, from a practical standpoint. This is a highly risky decision Jon has made, one that could blow up in his face in several different ways. The outcome is uncertain, and we suspect Jon is doing it less because it's strategic and more because it's the right thing to do. It may be madness, but it's the madness of mercy: Jon is nothing if not his father's son.
And he may suffer his father's fate. We've already seen one Lord Commander murdered by his own men, and the surly stares that now meet Lord Mormont's successor suggest that another mutiny could happen very easily. This is a minor variation on the larger theme: how do you rule when your own judgement says one thing, and the will of the people you rule over says another? Nowhere in Westeros is there a true democracy, but that doesn't mean disgruntled people won't find ways to express their displeasure: we've seen it in King's Landing, we've seen it in Meereen, we've seen it in Dorne, we're seeing it at The Wall, and—if the disgusted looks on the faces of his men this week are any indication—Stannis may be seeing it soon in his own army. Do you pursue the course you believe to be right, even if you lose the support you need to get there? What's the point of being an idealistic ruler if idealism costs you your rule?
This is what I mean when I say that the show plays fairly with the two sides of the issue: it is complicated. (If hard choices were easy, we wouldn't have to call them that.) But I also said I think the show ultimately sides with the idealists, and this scene provides a good example of what I mean. Game of Thrones has no moral authority more reliable than Samwell Tarly: he is smart, he is wise, and he doesn't have a mean or petty bone in his body. Jon is a hero—he may be the hero of Game of Thrones, to the extent that it has one—but Sam is his conscience, and Sam is the one who puts this all in perspective now. "It was a failure," Jon says of his trip to Hardhome. "I went to save them, and I failed." But Sam points to the line of Wildlings walking through the camp on their way to safety. "You didn't fail him, or him, or her," he says. "Every one of them is alive because of you."
Game of Thrones values nothing more than the individual, I believe, for it is failing to see individuals that leads to inhumanity. Men like Tywin Lannister see human beings as huge, mathematical blocks to be pushed around the board. ("Explain to me why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner?" he asked Tyrion, rhetorically, when defending the Red Wedding.) As we see elsewhere in this episode, thinking of people in that abstract, objective way may be more practical, but it's also how evil acts are justified: we can compromise our ideals, in order to achieve a greater good; we can sacrifice one, in order to save many. But the ones matter. In the end, they are all that matter.
It took me a while to figure out what that image of Jon Snow leading the Wildlings to the Wall reminded me of, but it finally came to me: it looks like the shot from the end of Schindler's List, when the 1,200 people Oskar Schindler has saved are walking abreast towards the camera, and towards their new lives. Schindler was haunted by the fact that he couldn't save everyone as well, but he saved some. Schindler ultimately failed in nearly everything he attempted, but he is remembered as a hero. Jon may not have saved everyone, and he may not even be able to save himself, but what Sam says here—and what I think the show believes—is summed up in that line from the Talmud that Itzhak Stern—who is Schindler's conscience—quotes to him in the film: "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire."
"I'm talking about the necessary conditions for greatness." — Hizdahr zo Loraq
If we have any doubt about which side Game of Thrones is on, we only have to look to the characters who are chosen to be the mouthpieces for each viewpoint. Samwell Tarly—possibly the kindest heart in Westeros—speaks for the side of compassion and idealism; meanwhile, it's Hizdahr zo Loraq who makes the counterargument in "The Dance of Dragons," and I'm not sure a more dislikable person exists east of the Narrow Sea.
The Great Games are underway in Meereen, and—among our named characters—Hizdahr seems to be the only person really enjoying them. "There's always been more than enough death in the world for my taste," Tyrion says. "I can do without it in my leisure time." But Hizdahr argues—as he argued when he convinced Dany to reopen the fighting pits in the first place—that the games are an important part of Meereenese culture, and absolutely essential to securing her power. "It's an unpleasant question," he says, "but what great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?" His is the long-view, the mathematical view, the view of history in which there is no room for ideals, tenderness, or sentimentality: sacrifices must be made for the glory and posterity of empires, and every grand civilization is built upon the bodies of the dead. "I'm talking about the necessary conditions for greatness," he says.
"My father would have liked you," Tyrion says slyly, and there is no greater insult or condemnation he could offer. As we've discussed many times before, Tywin was the Anti-Ned: he was entirely practical, and was all about refusing to recognize the importance of individuals. That, he maintained, was why he won, and he was probably right. If we're judging actions solely by their success rates, Tywin Lannister is the hero and Patron Saint of Game of Thrones.
But who among us wants to see Daenerys Stormborn become the sort of ruler—the sort of person—that Tywin Lannister was? Dany, like Jon, has a good heart, and this entire enterprise is a compromise of her beliefs and ideals. She has been convinced it is necessary for the greater good—for how can she rule at all if she doesn't have the support of the people?—but that decision is not sitting well with her. The Great Games disgust her, and they disgust her all the more because men are slaughtering each other, for no good reason, in her name. "I fight and die for your glory, oh glorious queen," each fighter says before entering the arena. Glory, greatness, honor: these are just words used to justify cruelty and violence, and Dany—to her credit—has no stomach for them.
Dany does not do the right thing here: she does the practical thing. "You can end this," Tyrion implores her, when Jorah is fighting in the arena, but she doesn't. Jorah has always represented her best self: he was her conscience, for a long time, and the greatest believer in her essential goodness and decency. Despite her justifiable anger at his betrayal, her willingness here to let him die in the arena is a dangerous, troubling moment in her evolution as a ruler: it represents her willingness to sacrifice her ideals in the name of power and "greatness." The death of Jorah here, in this horrific betrayal of her ideals, might have signified the death of her soul.
Fortunately, Jorah doesn't die: in fact, Jorah saves her, when the proof comes crashing down that doing the wrong thing doesn't guarantee success any more than doing the right thing. All of this—re-opening the pits, marrying Hizdahr, etc.—was to stop the senseless killings of the Sons of the Harpy, and it didn't work. The Sons turn out in force now, and begin slaughtering everyone, freed slaves and former masters alike. Dany did the wrong thing for the greater good, and it just made everything worse. When she takes Jorah's hand, it is a reclamation of her best self from the chaos and cruelty of the pits.
And the only thing that saves them all is that Jorah isn't the only representation of Dany's soul who turns up for the Great Games: so does Drogon. Dany's dragons have always represented the dual nature of her persona, the two sides fighting for control of Dany's soul, and we see both sides here. Drogon is horrible in his anger, and threatens to destroy everyone and everything Dany has worked to protect. (He does burn the Sons of the Harpy who threaten his mother, but he burns just about everybody, without much in the way of discrimination.) But Drogon is also her child, the source of her unique magic and strength, and the embodiment of her capacity for love. She has been struggling to come to terms with her own power, and how she has dealt with her dragons symbolizes the conflict. On the one hand, she has locked parts of herself (like Viserion and Rhaegal) up, compromising her own instincts and ideals and tempering the best of herself for the greater good. On the other hand, she has failed, at times, to control her power and fury, letting it (like Drogon) roam free and uncontrolled to occasionally rain destruction down. She is a very young woman with a great deal of power that she does not completely know how to use.
So what she does now may be the most exciting and encouraging step in her evolution as a leader: she takes the reins herself, taking ownership of her power and responsibility for its use. No longer seeing it as something separate from herself, to either be feared or unleashed, she instead climbs on its back and effectively becomes one with it. She has to learn to control the best and worst of herself, to tame and train her power, before she can truly be a leader. She has to do it herself, leaving all her people, and all her mistakes, and all her well-intentioned advisers, behind. "You are the only person in Meereen who is not free," Daario told her a few weeks ago, and there is truth in that. (We have never—in the entire history of the series—seen Dany really alone.) The final step in her development as a ruler may be to claim her freedom, and to spread her wings, and to let herself truly take flight.
"Sometimes a person has to choose." — Stannis Baratheon
In regard to what happens between Stannis and his daughter this week, the Pragmatists may wish to channel Tywin Lannister, and ask me to explain why it is more noble to let thousands of people die of cold and hunger than it is to burn one little girl at the stake.
To which I'll say, if you don't know that it is, I really don't know how to help you. I choose to borrow a phrase instead from one of Ned Stark's trusted friends, the late Rodrik Cassel:
Gods help you, Stannis Baratheon. Now you are truly lost.
He who saves one life saves the world entire. He who terrorizes and tortures and murders one sweet, innocent child destroys the world entire. There is no coming back from this. There is no math in the world that justifies it. There is no outcome this abominable act could ensure that would make it forgivable. This is not pragmatism, and this is not a sacrifice for the greater good: this is what evil looks like.
That may sound like an emotional response, not a logical, realistic one, but I believe I'm reading this episode exactly as Game of Thrones has taught us to read it for five seasons. I argued last week that the subject of this show may be wars and politics and fighting for the crown, but the stakes of the show are more personal: they are about sympathy, and empathy, and compassion. "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die," Cersei told us, long ago, but that is the villain's perspective, the perspective of Tywin and Walder Frey and Roose Bolton. There are worse things than losing the game, and there are worse things than dying: one of them is winning like this. (This seems to be my week for religious quotations—odd for an atheist, I admit—so I'll throw in another that I think applies: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?)
I said last week that Game of Thrones was not so much about building a better world as it was about building better people, but in fact I think the real message of this show is that there is no division between the two. As Dany is discovering, you cannot build a more just society by being unjust; you cannot make people kinder through cruelty; you cannot fight for good by doing evil. The belief that you can is perhaps the determining factor in making someone a villain.
This is why I have always hated Melisandre. I've had arguments with people about whether her goals are good or evil, but it doesn't matter. (Very few people think they are evil for the sake of being evil: Ramsay Bolton might, but Roose and Tywin and Walder Frey almost certainly felt everything they did was for the greater good.) But Melisandre's absolute certainty about her cause makes her think that everything she does is good simply because she is the one doing it: the end justifies any means. That, to me, is practically the definition of evil. (It's only in fictions—lesser fictions than Game of Thrones—that villains are motivated by a desire to end the world. In human history, true evil has been far more likely to emerge from a desire to "save" the world, or to build a "better" one.)
So Melisandre has always been evil in my book, and her influence on Stannis has pushed him in that direction. Together they have killed a lot of people, including Stannis's little brother Renly, and other members of Stannis's family that they burned alive for refusing to worship Melisandre's god. But Stannis himself has always stayed just this side of true evil, mostly due to two other influences on him: Davos Seaworth, and the Princess Shireen.
I've talked several times already in this post about the people who serve as consciences for kings and rulers, and Davos is one of them. "Loyal service means telling hard truths," Davos told his king once, when he cautioned him against Melisandre's evil. "Nothing is worth what this will cost you: not even the Iron Throne." It was Davos who tried to tell him that the demon Melisandre birthed to kill Renly was evil. It was Davos who told him not to take her to the Battle of the Blackwater. It was Davos who stopped him from letting Melisandre kill Stannis's nephew, Gendry, when she proposed doing the same thing to him that she proposes for Shireen. "What is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?" Stannis asked. "Everything," Davos replied. One innocent life is the world entire.
Game of Thrones is full of character-parallels, and one of the strongest and most obvious is the mirroring of Davos Seaworth and Eddard Stark. The two men have a lot in common: they both fought for the Baratheons against the Targaryens; they both served as loyal Hands to Baratheon kings, and routinely counseled them against rash and unjustifiable actions. (Remember Ned arguing with Robert about having Daenerys murdered?) They both ended up in prison cells. They both were fathers, gentle and wise and loving. (I've always thought that Liam Cunningham would have made a fantastic Ned Stark, if Sean Bean had somehow been unavailable.)
My point is, Davos is another of those characters who provides a moral and ethical guidepost in Game of Thrones, one who believes in doing the right thing even when the consequences are going to be disastrous. ("Why are you doing this?" Gendry asked him, when Davos set him free against Stannis's orders. "Because it's right," Davos said. "And because I'm a slow learner.")
So of course the first thing Stannis has to do this episode is send Davos away. The last time this happened—with Gendry— Stannis actually sought Davos out, going out of his way to seek out his conscience in the prison cell where he had locked it up. ("I think you came to me now, before this boy is put to the knife, because you knew I'd counsel restraint," Davos said. "You're not a man who slaughters innocents for gain or glory.") That time, Davos saved him from his own worst impulses, and the fact that Stannis forgave him makes me think he was grateful.
But it's several years later now, and Stannis has grown more desperate. Just like Dany, he has become convinced that he has to do something evil—something that is a "necessary condition for greatness"—and he knows Davos would never allow it. One could just barely argue that, when Stannis sends Davos away here, part of him is hoping Davos will take the hint and save him again, stealing Shireen away before Stannis has a chance to kill her. (Certainly, that's what I was screaming at Davos to do.)
But I don't think it ever occurred to Davos that Stannis was really capable of doing this. Davos is a good man, and he could not conceive that the man he serves so loyally could be capable of such evil.
If Davos was Stannis's conscience, Shireen was his heart. It wasn't much of a heart—a colder and more loveless man it's hard to imagine—but she brought out the only tenderness we've ever seen him show. (In retrospect, the sweet scene between them a few weeks ago existed only to make it clear just what an evil act this sacrifice really is. If Stannis were truly heartless—if he didn't actually love her, if he wasn't actually capable of love—his decision here to betray everything good within himself would not be quite so damning.)
And if Stannis had ever really listened to his daughter, she might have taught him a thing or two, and saved him from turning into the monster he has now become. Like many of Game of Thrones' best characters, she was one of the "cripples, bastards, and broken things," set apart from other people by her disfigurement and made kinder from enduring the cruelty and ostracism of others. Shireen knew what was important. In "The Lion and the Rose," she witnessed Stannis and Melisandre burning her uncle and several other people alive, and got a lecture from Melisandre about why it was necessary. "There is only one Hell," Melisandre said. "The one we live in now."
Forgive me for quoting myself, but since it's exactly what I want to say here, it's easier to paste this entire paragraph from my review of that episode than to say the same thing in different wording:
And sweet little Shireen Baratheon isn't buying Melisandre's program any more than Davos does. It is to Shireen that Melisandre delivers her speech about Hell and darkness, but Shireen is wise enough to see that the real darkness is coming from Melisandre's direction. "He was always kind to me," Shireen says of her uncle, for kindness is what ultimately matters. And, conversely, cruelty is what matters: the causing of suffering is the mark of evil. "They're in a better place now, Princess," Melisandre says. "But they screamed," Shireen replies. It's a child's logic, but it's probably as accurate an assessment of the morality of Game of Thrones as we could get: no one kind can be truly evil, and no one who intentionally causes others to scream can possibly be good.
Shireen showed us in that episode an easy way to tell goodness from badness, and this week almost the last thing she does is explain another of the key tenets of Game of Thrones to Stannis. The book she is reading is entitled The Dance of Dragons: A True Telling, and it concerns a civil war that rocked the Targaryen empire, pitting brother against sister. "Both of them thought they belonged on the throne," she explains to Stannis. "When people started declaring for one of them or the other, their fight divided the kingdoms in two. Brothers fought brothers, dragons fought dragons. By the time it was over, thousands were dead." Stannis asks her which of them she would have put on the throne, but she says she wouldn't have chosen. "It's all the choosing of sides that made everything so horrible," she says.
Everything you need to know about Game of Thrones you can learn from Shireen Baratheon. Kindness is what matters, and the choosing of sides—as we discussed at length last week—is what makes everything horrible. That is a "true telling." No better world is possible unless it is built on these beliefs, and any ruler who disregards these truths has lost his right to rule. The scene in which Stannis watches Shireen burn—while his wife begs him to intervene—parallels the scene in Meereen where Dany fails to stop Jorah's fight, but it is much, much worse. In her quest for "practical" solutions, Dany hesitated to do the right thing, and was only saved by luck. But Stannis makes a conscious, considered decision to chase power by destroying the only goodness in his life, and so he is damned. It is an unspeakable, unforgivable betrayal of everything this show stands for.
"There is only one Hell: the one we live in now." Stannis has joined the ranks of those who make the world Hell, and—even if we believe Melisandre's predictions about the war to come—nothing Stannis can do for the Seven Kingdoms could ever pardon this sin. What's the life of one little girl against an entire kingdom? It's everything.
If Stannis Baratheon is the only hope for humanity, I'll take my chances with the Walkers.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- The show has skimped a bit on fully developing the situation in Dorne, but it is clearly meant to parallel a lot of things that are happening elsewhere in this world. Doran seems to be a good man, who recognizes that divisions between people are the cause of all human suffering. Like Dany, his own ideals are at odds with the bloodthirsty will of his people. "Many in Dorne want war," he says. "But I have seen war. I've seen the bodies piled on the battlefields. I've seen the orphans starving in the city. I don't want to lead my people into that hell." Does that mean breaking bread with the Lannisters, he is asked? "That's precisely what we are doing," he says, and this is important. "Breaking bread" is more than just an expression, it is a symbol of guest-rights, a granting of hospitality to those within your walls. It is, in short, to recognize that we are all one family, as Jon is doing with the Wildlings: it is where peace begins. (To violate this belief—as Walder Frey did at the Red Wedding—is the greatest of sins.)
- We also see the question of choice play out in Dorne, as Doran leaves Bronn's fate in Trystane's hands. "Prince Trystane must learn judgement if he is to rule one day," Doran says. "I'll let him decide." Trystane says—as Ned Starks sons have said—that he has learned the value of mercy from his father. (He settles for having Bronn punched in the face: being an idealist doesn't mean you have to be a push-over.)
- Arya's storyline is less directly connected to this episode's themes, at least on the surface. But the question of choice emerges here as well. We see Meryn Trant choosing a woman in a brothel, and he greets each option brought before him with a single, chilling phrase: "Too old." Trant is evil, and his choice—like Stannis's—leads to the victimization of an innocent child. (The girl he is finally given is clearly not a prostitute, but an adolescent girl who has probably been plucked from the kitchens.) Meanwhile, Arya, too, is making a choice: she abandons her assigned mission from Jaqen H'ghar to pursue her own course of personal revenge. (Remember that it is was Meryn Trant who killed Syrio Forel: he made Arya's list very early.) We sympathize with Arya's impulse here, but at the same time I suspect that pursuing her vendetta will not turn out to be the right thing to do: the Faceless Men seem to be about justice and mercy, and personal revenge is another one of those divisive, bloodthirsty impulses that make the world a Hell.
- Among Stannis's many failings—and one that I think contributes to all the others—is that he has no capacity for poetry. ("Why is it a 'dance?'" he asks his daughter, about the title of her book. "Doesn't make any sense.")
- The scenes in Meereen were far better in intention than execution, I have to say. Director David Nutter has helmed some of this show's best episodes, but he's saddled here with some ill-conceived constraints that make the entire situation unbelievable. (The Sons of the Harpy surround Dany and her retinue in overwhelming numbers, and seem like they could easily kill them—but they don't, choosing to come at them one at a time in order to prolong the fight until Drogon could get there. We know they're not going to kill Dany or Tyrion, of course—not like this—but this is a rare instance of something Game of Thrones is usually careful to avoid: surrounding its essential characters with an invisible sphere of narrative protection where nothing bad can happen to them.
- And while we're on this subject: I haven't seen much evidence to support the reputation of the Unsullied as the greatest warriors in the world: they seem to get their asses kicked pretty easily by a bunch of random dudes in masks. I think Dany was sold a bill of goods.
- Next week, the season finale is upon us. See you there.