"If a man knows what he is, and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all. He must fulfill his destiny and become who he is meant to be, however much he may hate it."
Nobody likes Stannis Baratheon. His older brother bestowed upon him the honor of being warden of a bunch of rocks by the sea; his younger brother mocked his utter lack of friends; the bankers consider him a child hindering the adults from resolving their issues; the wildlings refuse to show him deference, and his own army abandons him the moment he is supposed to fulfill his destiny. Viewers, too, seem to have developed an allergic reaction to Stannis “The Mannis” Baratheon during the character's four seasons on Game of Thrones.
This dislike for the man stemmed from the fact that the showrunners butchered him during the transition from page to screen, while also finding fault in the ambiguity of the Baratheon king and how easily he sled into full-on baddie by season’s end. However, a recent recap of the entire series in anticipation of the Season 7 premiere revealed that Stannis Baratheon is actually one of the show’s finest creations — a character that is neither a hero nor a villain — and that, by constantly battling desire against reason until he is eventually consumed by the flames of his own lust, becomes an extension of the audience’s nature.
The first time we hear him speak, Stannis Baratheon declares truth:
“He was my brother, but I didn’t love him.”
In a realm brimming with hypocrites, his honesty is enthralling. However, Game of Thrones already gave us a sincere soul in honest Ned. So, a few seconds after the comment regarding his brother, Stannis Baratheon says:
“When Eddard Stark learned the truth he told only me. I will not make the same mistake.”
The true harshness of his words will not be fully revealed until later, when his ghost sneaks behind enemy lines to assassinate his younger brother. A few hours before, Stannis had futilely attempted to convince Renly to go over his side, even vowing to name him his heir until he had a son of his own (after a series of stillbirths and daughters, that was unlikely to happen). It is in this scene in which Stannis's tragedy starts forging itself, and when the character truly comes into its own.
In the series finale of Breaking Bad, Walter White confesses to Skyler that the reason he became a drug kingpin was because he was good at it. This moment is heartbreaking for a variety of reasons, one of them being that Walter White would have never known just how good he was at fabricating meth were it not for his terminal illness. He never asked for it, the same reason Stannis Baratheon never asked to be king of Westeros.
A man of honor, Stannis follows through on the letter given to him by Eddard Stark. The episodes that follow this revelation are then tainted by the sadness of knowing just how easily avoidable this could have been: Blackwater Bay, exile at Dragonstone, groveling at Braavos, filicide at Winterfell. To watch Stannis is to watch a man slowly be consumed by the manic thirst for power, holding on to anything he can to further the delusion of his eventual victory.
The victory, of course, never comes. However, there is reward to be had in witnessing the man’s downfall. Most Game of Thrones characters are static, undergoing processes that enact surface-level changes but still leave them pretty much in a state they were already in before. Think Arya, for instance, and her slow transformation into an assassin, or Daenerys and her evolution into queen from shy teenager. Their journeys are admirable to be sure, but when Arya slits the throat of Walder Frey and smiles, not once does the viewer think, “Oh shit, am I rooting for a murderer now?”
As Todd VanDerWerff over at Vox put it, “What changed about Arya’s core character? Nothing really. She just got more proficient at murder.” Stannis Baratheon’s core character, on the other hand, undergoes such a transformation that by the time he orders his daughter be burned alive, you are grieving both for the child and for the father.
As defined by Aristotle, a tragic figure must “evoke a sense of pity and fear in the audience.” In a show notorious for indiscriminately killing off beloved and hateful characters alike, Shireen’s demise ranks as one of the most powerful. Earlier in the series it was revealed how much effort Stannis invested in keeping his only daughter alive; that he would later turn on her should not have earned him the scorn of viewers. It should have stirred pity on them.
Just how Walter White insisted his dealings were for the good of the family in hiding the truth from himself, so does Stannis’s edicts regarding honor and destiny are a front. Nobody likes Stannis Baratheon, and he’s going to raze the Seven Kingdoms to show how wrong they are. The power of the final scene between him and Shireen resides in empathizing with the titanic struggle of a man’s pride against his better judgement. Reason, as it tends to happen in affairs of the soul, loses. The viewer, however, does not.
What are your thoughts on Stannis Baratheon's character arc?