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In Defence of Stannis of the House Baratheon, First of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm.
Spoiler Warning: This post contains a couple (very) mild book spoilers for A Dance with Dragons.
I’ve added a strikethrough for anyone who wants to skip over these lines but still read the rest of the piece.
Stannis gets a lot of hate and I think it’s entirely unjustified. So, to quote one overly-popular royal:
“I will answer injustice with justice.”
Here’s why you should re-examine your views towards the One True King of Westeros.
“Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends.” – Donal Noye, A Clash of Kings, Jon I
First and foremost, Stannis is a a fascinating character. Or, at least, the situation he’s facing makes him an interesting one. My friend Andrew on Twitter summed it up best: “It’s the complexity of having righteous indignation when no-one else gives a shit, and maybe compromising your integrity to act upon it.” (Andrew is, ironically, a notorious Stannis-hater, but lately he’s started to come around somewhat.)
Stannis being forced to compromise his integrity and to deal with moral greys in a world he has always perceived as black and white is a fascinating inner-conflict. This is why I’ve always wanted to read more about Stannis during Robert’s Rebellion: torn between his duty to his older brother and his duty to his King.
“…The truth is a bitter draught at times. Aerys? If you only knew . . . that was a hard choosing. My blood or my liege. My brother or my king.” He grimaced. “Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Oft times I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.” Stannis Baratheon, A Storm of Swords, Davos IV
This quote leads me onto a second point: some people doubt his sincerity, but I truly believe Stannis doesn’t want the Iron Throne for his own benefit. Everytime he talks about the throne and of ruling, we sense the same reluctance we see in this quote. He’s driven not by a lust for power but by a sense of law and justice. He has the rightful claim, and so he will press it. Even when all hope seems gone, he will fight until the bitter end. As Cenk Uygur comically puts it: “He’s a relentless motherfucker: ‘Oh, my entire army got wiped out? That’s interesting…anyway, how are we going to win?'”
There’s something inherently admirable in his tenacity.
Though his disadvantaged position at times conceals it, Stannis is undoubtedly the best military commander in the Seven Kingdoms. Better than Tywin Lannister and Robb Stark ever were.
During Robert’s Rebellion he held Storm’s End under siege for an entire year when he was (I believe) only 18. During Balon Greyjoy’s first rebellion he beat the Ironborn at sea with little to no experience in naval combat, smashing the Iron Fleet off of Fair Isle. At the Battle of the Blackwater he came within an arm’s reach of becoming the first person to ever successfully storm King’s Landing (he was only beaten by wildfire magic). He smashed the wildling army despite it being 10x the size of his own force.
He went all Macbeth on the Ironborn at Deepwood Motte, using trees to mask his approach to the castle. Almost every decision he makes, even the non-military ones, have some larger tactical purpose. Maybe none of this sounds particularly impressive if you don’t know the details of the battles but this essay is a complete analysis of Stannis as a military commander: over 10,000 words long, astoundingly well-researched and detailed, it’s a very interesting read and will convince you of Stannis’s military genuis.
Seduced by Dark Magic?
Okay, I think it’s time to address the fiery red priestess in the room.
“Stannis is controlled by the Red Women!”, I hear the naysays cry.
Firstly, Stannis has too much of an iron will to be ‘controlled’ by anyone. Secondly, Melisandre clearly demonstrated that she has magical powers and can see the future – Stannis would have been a fool NOT to use her to his advantage. And using her is exactly what he’s doing. Despite seeing R’hollor’s power for himself Stannis remains stubbornly unimpressed. How many men – how many Kings – would be firmly wrapped around Melisandre’s finger at this point? When someone who can see the future tells you that you are Azor Ahai reborn that kind of thing is likely to go to your head, but Stannis has never succumbed to that kind of egotism. Melisandre certainly represents the devil on his shoulder, but Stannis will never be a religious zealot and though he may be compromising his integrity, he shows no sign of becoming a slave to Melisandre’s will. Melisandre and her Red God are only tools he means to use to win the Iron Throne.
Ignore the Propaganda: Stannis has the makings of a great King
In the past even I have qualified my love for Stannis with the admission I didn’t think he’d make a good King, but recently I’m not so sure about this. In fact, I’ve come to think Stannis may well be the best King or Queen Westeros could hope for.
Varys once said of Stannis:
“There’s no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man.” – Varys, A Game of Thrones, Ned XV
Indeed. But (
leaving Danaerys out of it because at this point I doubt she’ll ever leave for Westeros) the options are not between hard justice and gentle forgiveness. The choice is between Stannis’s justice and Cersei’s outright cruelty, and I certainly know which I’d pick. And on a related note; the small council, the court and by extension the realm itself has been thoroughly corrupted by the likes of Cersei, Varys and Littlefinger, the selfish and the power-hungry. Somehow I don’t see them and their ilk prospering under a Stannis administration.
“There must be justice […] I mean to scour that court clean. As Robert should have done, after the Trident.” Stannis Baratheon, A Storm of Swords, Davos IV
Some may counter that his black-and-white sense of right and wrong means Stannis isn’t diplomatic enough to sit the Iron Throne. But there’s evidence to the contrary.
He was diplomatic enough to win over the mountain clans, who Jon admits are a particularly quarrelsome people. If diplomacy is called for Stannis is smart enough to see it.
Now, onto the main portion of my argument. Renly once told Ned Stark:
“He inspires no love nor loyalty. He is not a King.” Renly Baratheon, Game of Thrones, S1E7
This is one of the main criticisms against Stannis – he is unloved and therefore would be unable to command loyalty and respect from his subjects if he were King. But again it is demonstrably untrue. Quite the opposite: Stannis commands a loyalty and even love from his followers that few other leaders could dream of. During the strenuous, agonising, year-long siege of Storm’s End there was only one person who attempted to open the gates to Mace Tyrell’s army. The betrayal failed, but it would have been easy for Stannis’ men to turn on him en masse and open the gates in exchange for food and riches. Instead they starved for him. Much later his men would march to meet Renly’s army on the battlefield knowing they would hopelessly outnumbered, yet they still trusted in their King. Then they burned for Stannis on the Blackwater. Then, even after that crushing defeat when all hope for his cause seemed lost, they rode North with him, braving the cold and the snow to smash Mance Raydar’s wildling army Beyond-the-Wall. And through each hardship Stannis was always right there with his men. He inspires fierce love and loyalty from his subjects because he sufferes everything he asks them to suffer. And of course, that’s not even to mention the most notable example of love and loyalty Stannis elicits from his subjects. (*Cough*, Davos.)
The Onion Knight
Speaking of our Davos, he is living proof that Stannis is much more progressive when it comes to birth than anyone else. Granted, Varys and Littlefinger have risen high, too, but somehow it feels much less wholesome when they’re used exclusively for spying and sabotage. Stannis raised Davos up because he rewards good deeds and leal service. This is a more just way of doing things and the realm itself would be the better for it. And if I had to choose sides in any confict then I feel more than comfortable following the lead of a man like Davos Seaworth, one of the only genuinely good people in the entire series.
Winter is Coming: Protector of the Realm
The fact that Stannis is the only King to actively defend the realm has been mentioned so many times it’s like to lose its significance, but it’s no small thing. The Game of Thrones is meaningless in the face of what Westeros will be facing very soon, and Stannis is the ONLY candidate who takes the threat seriously and is willing to do anything about it.
This review contains every major major spoiler there is for series 3.
The Empty Hearse (Episode #1)
After a long two years, The Empty Hearse brought us the return of Sherlock Homes, and it provided an abundance of fan service with it’s very meta approach of depicting several fan theories as to how Sherlock survived the fall. Using this as a way of ultimately not providing us with a definitive answer as to how Sherlock survived his fall was a brave move. Moffat said afterwards that it didn’t have to be complicated – all Sherlock needed was something to break his fall – suggesting that the final theory (in which Sherlock simply jumps onto an air bag and has it moved out of the way before John can see) was the real one, but the episode itself left this open to debate. You couldn’t help but admire the cheek of it.
Less impressive, however, was the lack of any real explanation of why he wouldn’t tell John when so many others already knew; the claim that John would blab felt more like an attempt to piss him off than an actual explanation. A friend of mine suggested that perhaps John was still being watched by Moriarty’s men and so it would be too dangerous for Sherlock to contact him – and that explanation would have been fine. But that isn’t the one that was offered.
I understood why the actual mystery of this episode was relegated to the background, but the fact that the show seemed determined to undermine all of the character development we got last series was less forgiveable. Sherlock’s complete insensitivity to what he had put John through the past few years, and his apparent lack of understanding of how John would feel when he found out Sherlock had lied in the most hideous way, flew in the face of their conversation before the fall. Yes, Sherlock knew he wasn’t about to die, but I read his tears as an acknowledgement about what he was about to do to his friend, not outright lying in order to make John believe he what was happening, which, in my opinion, The Empty Hearse seems to imply. Sherlock is supposed to be insensitive and often an unbearable, but here he seemed even worse than when we first met him. I can accept – hell, I like – that that’s a big part of his character, but in The Empty Hearse it came at the expense of his development over the past two series.
The Sign of Three (Episode #2)
For several reasons I thought The Sign of Three was a much stronger episode. The humour, which they seem to be focusing more on this series, was perfectly balanced with the fun intrigue of the Invisible Man mystery. Seeing Sherlock’s Mind Palace as more than simply text on the screen was a pleasant surprise, especially since the cinematography was so impressive. I also greatly appreciated the show establishing that Mycroft is much cleverer than Sherlock, and later on that Mycroft enjoyed such prominence in the Mind Palace, as the authoritative figure telling Sherlock to think harder.
The Sign of Three also went some way as to alleviate my concerns about the erosion of Sherlock’s previous character development. The conclusion of Sherlock and Mycroft’s little back-and-forth analysis of the hat, revealing to us that in Sherlock’s isolation he’s realised that Sherlock now believed just because he’s different from other people it doesn’t mean he have to be alone, was an immensely satisfying pay-off for his character. And this is what made the ending so heartbreaking – Sherlock has come to this realisation at a time in which he no longer has anyone to truly be with, with John now having Mary and a baby focus on. All around, a much better episode than the first, and probably the best of this series.
His Last Vow (Episode #3)
His Last Vow was tasked with introducing a new villain, building him up as a new match for Sherlock, having him do his villain thing, then having Sherlock eventually emerge victorious. Throw in the big reveal with Mary’s past and the episode feels a bit cluttered and rushed.
However, all these issues I could easily forgive if only the episode didn’t feel so tonally inconsistent. Take the ending, for example; Sherlock murders a man (for the first time, as far as we know) with no more hesitation than the time it took him to yell ‘I’m a high-functioning sociopath!’ We saw no trepidation, or dawning realisation, that there was only one thing he could do to protect John and Mary. Actually presenting it as a terrible decision Sherlock is forced to make would have made for an interesting contrast with The Reichenbach Fall. This time, instead of faking his own death, Sherlock would actually have to take the life of another to protect the people he cares about.
John and Sherlock’s goodbye suffered from the same problem; the tone was incompatible with the situation. I didn’t believe either of them thought this would be the last time they saw each other or, if they did, that it truly hurt either of them to be saying goodbye once again. It was too comedic. Sure, ‘Sherlock is a girl’s name’ was a very funny line and I laughed at it, but we also needed to see the pain it would cause both of them to be parting ways yet again, so soon after being reunited.
There was something about Mary…
I have to say, although something was bound to happen, I was disappointed by Mary’s big reveal. For me, the best thing about her was that she was completely unspectacular in the usual way a Sherlock character would be. What made her special was that she was an ordinary person, yet the first we’ve ever encountered who’s been able to handle both John and Sherlock with such ease. She was people-smart rather than Sherlock-smart, and I loved that about her. So finding out she was yet another genius was a bit of a let down.
This leads me onto another point, which is a slight tangent, but why does cleverness manifest itself in the exact same way for everybody in this show? The cab driver from A Study in Pink, Mycroft, the guy from the drug den, Sherlock’s mother, Magnussen, and now Mary (an argument can be made for Moriarty too but even excluding him there are still five others), are all considered ‘geniuses’ and all appear to think in the exact same way Sherlock does. ‘Cleverness’ seems to be one, hegemonic phenomenon.
One last point about the Mary reveal; though the explanation that John is instinctively attracted to unique and potentially dangerous people makes a lot of sense, I still didn’t believe he somehow, unconsciously or instinctively or whatever. That’s he’s attracted to such people is very plausible, but that he was attracted to Mary for this reason wasn’t.
The show has always been funny, witty and clever, but where it excelled in the first two series was always with drama, and it felt like the third series was making an active attempt to avoid it. Perhaps they were, as I recall a friend mentioning the writers wanted this series to be more ‘fun’, but I think the comedy is most effective when sprinkled throughout the episodes, or even when it’s weaved between a particularly intriguing case, as it was in The Sign of Three, but it doesn’t work quite as well when it becomes the main focus.
Reading over this post it appears far more negative than I expected it to be but don’t get me wrong; Sherlock is still undoubtedly one of the best shows on television, and there were many things I loved about it, even if criticisms are easier to write about. Magnussen was at times an especially menacing villain; his flicking John’s face was as awkward and uncomfortable to watch as the writers intended. And though I’d rather humour wasn’t the most prevalent aspect of the show, I laughed hard and often. I did think this series was the weakest of the three,but the previous two did set the bar unrealistically high. I completely expect to look at this series with much more fondly by the time the show is finished.
I joked on Twitter after the episode aired that not even the writer’s know how Moriarty could still be alive – they’re just safe in the knowledge they still have a few years to come up with an explanation.