Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, executive editor Matt Yglesias, climate change writer David Roberts, politics writer Andrew Prokop, and deputy culture editor Jen Trolio. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Andrew Prokop: Todd, what I'm curious about regarding Shireen's burning is whether it has any deeper thematic import for the show — or whether it is just an empty moment intended to shock and appall. Savvy viewers know that when looking for themes in prestige television, it's typically useful to examine what's being said in the seemingly ordinary conversations around the big marquee event of the week. So, what are our characters talking about before and after the bonfire?
Well, immediately prior, Shireen spends several minutes commenting on the futility of war by describing the Dance of Dragons, a brutal, decades-old civil war between two Targaryen relatives who both thought they belonged on the Iron Throne. "When people started declaring for one of them or the other, their fight divided the kingdoms in two," Shireen tells Stannis. "Brothers fought brothers. Dragons fought dragons. By the time it was over, thousands were dead. And it was a disaster for the Targaryens as well. They never truly recovered."
This history lesson doubles as a useful recap of what’s happened on Game of Thrones so far. The brutal war that began back in season one — which is all about who is the "rightful king" — has devastated the continent, divided its people, killed thousands, and left Westeros dangerously unprepared for the invasion of the White Walkers (which, as we were reminded last week, is imminent).
And the man Shireen is talking to is a central player in that tragedy. Stannis wanted to depose Joffrey because he didn’t have the right father, and ended up killing his well-liked brother Renly because he was born too late. His obsession with bloodright and succession has caused so much death already. Yet he won’t turn back, pressing on to fight the Boltons for control of the North rather than, say, staying to fortify the Wall against the White Walkers.
So it’s no accident that Stannis quickly changes the subject from the costs of war, and instead asks Shireen to choose which of those two long-dead Targaryens she'd support. Shireen delivers the idealistic response: "I wouldn’t have chosen either. It’s all the choosing sides that made everything so horrible." But Stannis has his own rebuttal. "Sometimes a person has to choose," he says. "Sometimes the world forces his hand."
What I’m wondering here is, does Game of Thrones agree with Stannis that he had to burn Shireen? Or did David Benioff and D. B. Weiss actually set up a false choice for him, in preparation for pulling the rug out from under him in the season finale?
Now let's take a look at what happens right after Shireen's death. As the camera is trained on Stannis, we hear applause growing louder — and then, suddenly, the scene cuts to Meereen's fighting pits, where we get to witness yet another violent spectacle.
A few episodes back, Dany sought a middle path between defeat and brutally forcing the city to submit. She harshly judged her own subordinate, a former slave, for defying her orders and killing a prisoner, and executed him. She planned to marry a Meereenese noble and reopen the fighting pits in hopes of uniting the city.
This episode rather blatantly makes clear that Dany's approach didn’t work. The apparent result of peace was just a cover for the nameless, faceless Sons of the Harpy to launch a massive attack. This is a big change from the books, where there is no such attack and Dany’s hand isn’t similarly forced. But Game of Thrones has given Dany permission to finally unleash her dragons on the city, to torch her enemies. "Sometimes the world forces your hand," the show seems to be saying, agreeing with Stannis.
Yet just before the Harpys' ambush, Tyrion and Hizdahr complicate this simple interpretation. They debate whether bloodshed is necessary to achieve greatness, and often seem to be obliquely commenting on what we've just witness with Shireen.
Referring to the gladiatorial combat in the pit, Hizdahr argues that no great thing "has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty." Tyrion then looks at the brutal spectacle, and says, "That is greatness?" Hizdahr tries to respond by waxing eloquent about the long history and great destiny of the city of Meereen. But Tyrion cuts him down by comparing Hizdahr to his own father, who could justify dreadful violence for the supposed glory of House Lannister. Dany joins in too, suggesting that the city will one day "return to the dirt."
Unsurprisingly, the sympathies of the showrunners seem to rest with Dany and Tyrion. As men die bloodily in the fighting pit, the camera repeatedly lingers on the wild bloodlust of the screaming, cheering crowd, to signify the base motives that are satisfied by Hizdahr's airy rationalizations.
All this makes me suspect that Game of Thrones will make the sophisticated justifications for Stannis’s violent act all for naught. Melisandre has demonstrated some magical powers, but she's also partly a con artist who doesn't know as much as she pretends to know about what she's doing. Before viewing her as a unique authority on the Lord of Light, it's useful to remember another Red Priest we've met — Thoros of Myr. When Arya (and Melisandre) encountered him in season three, he could repeatedly raise the leader of the Brotherhood without Banners, Beric Dondarrion, from the dead, without having to burn a single innocent person.
That's why I'll predict that despite Stannis's sacrifice of his daughter, he'll be killed in the finale while besieging Winterfell — by Brienne, who, as we were reminded in episode three, has sworn to get revenge on Stannis for his murder of Renly. It would surely be sad to have Bolton rule in the North continue (though, remember, Littlefinger is planning to swoop in at some point with his Vale armies, if that's any comfort). But it would be fitting for Stannis, a man who puts too much trust in black magic and too little in basic human decency, to be brought down by Brienne, one of the most decent characters in the entire story.
Read the recap. Come back for more discussion throughout the week.