Saturday, 21 June 2014

Hearts And Minds

Stannis Baratheon. On Dragonstone, they call him king. At the Iron Bank, they call him a risky investment. Jon Snow probably just thinks of him as "the cavalry". And Cersei Lannister/Baratheon, Queen/ex-Queen Regent, refers to him only as "my arsehole former brother-in-law". Presumably.

For me, though, there's no title that better describes his story this year than the Incredible Disappearing King.

(TV spoilers follow. Book spoilers have been set aflame by some punk kid who'd clearly have an ASBO shoved up both nostrils if she lived in Broken Britain).

This has been a difficult season for some characters. It's been hard to disguise Theon's complete absence from the book this season and the previous one have been based on (for that matter, he isn't in book four, either). Dany and Bran have suffered from their book three plotlines concluding in episode five and by last season's finale, respectively.  And the absence of fully half our characters from book four (a direct result of Martin's policy of ignoring his editors a little more unrepentantly with every grotesquely large royalty cheque pushed through his letterbox) certainly hasn't helped.

But no-one has suffered from the reshuffle like Stannis has.  Other storylines have crawled forwards (Dany), seemingly run in place (Arya) or required serious rejigging (Bran [1]). But it's only Stannis who went backwards.

The problem was obvious from his last appearance in season three.  Not only was that scene based on Davos' final chapter in A Storm of Swords (Davos being the only POV character in Stannis' retinue until the latest book), making it hard to see what use this latest season could put him to, but it deliberately removed the (probably quite weak, in fairness) ambiguity of Martin's original. In the book, no updates on Stannis appear at all between Davos finding the letter and the charge against Mance's forces. Stannis' response may or may not have been obvious, but it certainly wasn't explicit.

Already the shape of a dilemma is beginning to rise form the murky waters around Dragonstone.  We know what Stannis intends, but the structure of the season (already fairly clear to book readers even before the news broke about what episode nine would centre on) won't let him actually do it for at least eight hours of screen time. If this had been a book, one might have been able to drop Stannis from the narrative entirely, hoping to distract people from thinking about him (i.e. more or less what Martin did), but Theon's storyline last year has already demonstrated that this isn't necessarily an option.

The result, though, is to front-load the narrative so badly that not only do later developments disappoint on their own terms, they punch backwards to damage what's gone before. Have you ever listened to the first two tracks of a new album by a beloved band and been so blown away you find yourself thinking that this might be their best effort yet, only for the next nine tracks to be suck so hard even going back to the storming kick-off makes you depressed over how badly it's all been pissed away? Well, this is a similar principle.

We ended season three on a rousing call to arms (part of a multi-pronged and entirely sensible attempt by Benioff and Weiss to at least partially redress the balance after the horror show of the Red Wedding).  Look out, White Walkers! Stannis coming for you, and he's even colder than you are! And this wasn't just a comparatively rare moment when someone in this show makes the obviously moral decision and doesn't die five minutes later. It's a reminder of the stakes. The events taking place thousands of leagues north are clearly so disturbing that the rightful heir to the Iron Throne is willing to put his all-consuming quest for recognition on hold so that he can help out.

That means every delaying tactic the show used this year to keep Stannis south of Castle Black reduces the impact. Sure, the White Walkers are important, but apparently they're not as important as Melisandre burning a few people who were unreasonable enough to announce they were perfectly happy with the Gods they had (this happened in book two). They're not as important as sailing across the Narrow Sea for a bank loan (which happened under different circumstances in book five). They're not even so important as ensuring we get another chance to gaze upon Carice van Houten's breasts (which never happens in the books, though none of this should be taken to imply dissatisfaction at the spectacle itself). The White Walkers were already taking damage as a narrative force from two seasons of failing to do anything but steal a baby and get killed by Sam. Stannis apparent willingness to spin his wheels so he can devote more time to being rude to his family and snort at Mark Gatiss just exacerbates the issue.

All of which is a tremendous shame, because it works against the actually rather worthwhile point Stannis' arc this season is trying to get across, namely that he is the only self-proclaimed king we've seen in Westeros who has prioritised protecting the realm over ruling it. Even Robb, our previous go-to guy for considerate rulers, had trouble separating what was good for his subjects versus what was good for him, as Talisa pointed out on the first day they met. Robb worried about whether he could maintain the loyalty of those below him.  Joffrey concerned himself with how to use the loyalty he assumed was his by right.  Renly just flashed smiles at all and sundry and thought no further about the issue.  It is only Stannis who finds his ambition, his resources, and his temperament so at odds with each other that winning hearts and minds has become an essential strategy.

Of course, this formulation rather demonstrates that Stannis is not being selfless here.  Brave, yes; a hundred thousand wildlings are surely less scary than the Lannister-Tyrell alliance, but travelling so far from his last powerbase is still immensely risky even before factoring in the White Walkers. Still, though, it's definitely a clear-eyed decision to risk his last remaining forces (and whatever sellswords the Iron Bank has helped him put on retainer) on the very longest of longshots. Stannis hasn't become a bleeding heart, so much as a gambler (as well as rather more inclined to listen to his priestess/lover). He might be happy to tell others (well, he is in the books anyway) that it is a poor king who prioritises his tributes over his responsibilities, but really, what does that say other than the fact that Stannis has finally mastered Politics 101 and learned the art and value of the half truth?

As I've said, the constant delays in Stannis' storyline and the apparent indolence of the White Walkers act against all this, but let's put that aside. The two key questions to be considered here are how much Stannis' trip beyond the Wall represents personal growth, and how much credit the man deserves for doing it in the first place?

To the first question, I'd say a little, but maybe less than it might seem. After all, Stannis might have embraced the theory of winning people over with more than sulkily lecturing them on how they should be on his side automatically (his fatal weakness during book/season two was never being willing to consider how to win over those people who quite reasonably didn't know whether it was Joffrey or Stannis who was lying to them), but the critical step of not actually being a git in person still lies entirely beyond him, as we see with his interactions with pretty much everyone this season. He's committed himself to the script, but like so many politicians before him, he's clearly just reciting the words. Doubtless this is because he despises the very idea of being a politician, but the only reasonable response to that is: so fucking what? If saving the Seven Kingdoms means shaking hands and kissing babies (ideally before they become White Walkers), then get to bloody work, you whining curmudgeon. Yes, you've done better than your dead brothers and your dead not-actually-nephew. Slow clap, you adulterous man-child. Go do your job.

As to how much we should appreciate Stannis' intervention, we need to ask ourselves: how much credit do we give a politician for doing something dangerous if they see at least a potential personal upside? I'm inclined to still give credit here. Lennier once said "If you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, the work becomes corrupted, impure, and ultimately self-destructive".  Which I'm sure is all fine and good when there's nothing on your to-do list but saving civilisation from an all-conquering army of terrifying creatures, but if your list includes that and becoming king, a certain degree of cupidity should be forgiven, I think. I'm not saying things can't go tits up. One of the most interesting questions raised by Melisandre's admission to Queen Selyse regarding how much of her work is smoke and mirrors is whether she actually believes Stannis to be the Lord of Light at all. It would perhaps be bleakly ironic if Stannis has begun to embrace the art of political misdirection only to be a victim himself, though I think we could all probably do without any more sneaky manipulative women in our fiction for a little while.

No matter what happens in the future, though, the boy done good here. Sometimes you just have to say that the right thing was done, and leave it at that. Stannis finally got to where we wanted him to go.

 It's just a shame it took so bloody long for him to get there.

[1] And while I'm talking about the Lord of Winterfell, I'd like to register my displeasure at Jojen's death. Not just because it was awkwardly and confusingly staged - was he trying to warn Bran? Warg something? What was it that made him so careless as to be stabbed to death in the snow? Who even lets that happen? - but because as of the latest book Jojen is still alive. and now we know he's not going to amount to much. Yes, I guess he could be destined to do something of significance that's now going to be passed to Meera or Bran.  But the option of some uniquely Jojen manoeuvre of any importance is gone now.  Which is to say that this year marks the first time in which the show has started to spoil the books (see also: Craster's sons, so that's what the hell was happening to them).

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