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How Stannis Baratheon became one of Game of Thrones' best characters in just one episode

Okay, Mance (Ciarán Hinds) might disagree with us on Stannis's awesomeness.
Okay, Mance (Ciarán Hinds) might disagree with us on Stannis's awesomeness.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by culture writer Kelsey McKinney and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for more entries.

Kelsey McKinney: One thing in this premiere's favor: it managed to shift feelings I have held for certain characters since the show began. Game of Thrones often uses its season openers to set up the plots that will carry the season. And in this premiere, the show leaned into some of its weaker, less developed plotlines. Somehow, it worked.

I, too, was sad not to see Arya, and spent probably the first 30 minutes of the episode audibly whining about her not being on screen. But her absence indicates what the show is doing — it's forcing us to care about characters we might not have before, showing us that they, too, are at major turning points.

Since the very beginning of the show, there have been two types of characters the show has focused on extensively: those who have risen dramatically in prominence, and those who have died. But at this point, the latter group is so large that the show almost has to pull in characters who up until now have stood at the edge of the spotlight. Everybody gets a moment of glory!

Thus, "The Wars to Come" succeeded because it forced me to question some of the opinions I have held so very long. Before this season began, I wrote about little I like Jon Snow, mostly because he ends up just doing what others tell him to. Then immediately in this first episode, he acts of his own accord! And it was captivating! Who was this new Jon Snow?

And look at Sansa, too! Formerly insufferable, she's finally turned the corner. Sophie Turner is increasingly playing up the harshness in the character, complete with an edge that didn't exist before Littlefinger killed her aunt (and Sansa lied to cover it up). She's still far too trusting of her mentor, but at least she's doing something.

But no one is more surprised than me that my new favorite character is none other than Stannis Baratheon. Yeah, Stannis's claim to the Iron Throne was obvious, but prior to this, I mostly enjoyed spending time with him because he hung out with the weirdly compelling Melisandre. Stannis, by contrast, glowered on the sidelines (similar to Jon, come to think of it).

But the premiere continued the rehabilitation of Stannis that began in last season's finale, when he galloped to the rescue of the Night's Watch. And in this season premiere, he becomes a character who might be enjoyable to spend time with.

As you mentioned, Andrew, Stannis is the true politician in this episode. He demands that Mance Rayder, king of the wildlings, kneel to him as king or be burned at the stake. When Mance refuses, Stannis doesn't back down. As Mance burns, the camera flashes to Stannis's wife and daughter, who watch the man's painful death, not turning and cowering like so many others. The implication is clear — Stannis and his crew have the tenacity to see things through, no matter how unpleasant.

What's more, Stannis even forces Jon to act, like a magical character rehabilitation force. By the time Jon shoots Mance through the heart to end his misery, Stannis has fully taken the stage. For the first time in years, I'm interested in what he'll do next.

Andrew, as a book reader, what are some elements you hope the show incorporates this season?

Read the recap.

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Next: Andrew on the show's adaptation choices — good and bad.