Note: this post is written from the perspective of a non-book reader. I haven’t read the books and don’t have any plans to.
While he may not have the innate charisma of an Arya Stark or a Tyrion Lannister, or the youthful idealism of a Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow, for me, the choice is clear: Stannis Baratheon is the best character on “Game of Thrones.”
Usually when I say this, people think I’m joking, but I’m really not (although I have been known to say that my favorite "Mad Men" character is Pete Campbell, so take that for what it’s worth). But this season, I sense that people are starting to see what I’m seeing — the glowering middle-son of House Baratheon is secretly pretty badass. Ever since Stannis showed up at the Wall at the end of last season, the tide seems to be turning in the character’s favor. As Vox's Kelsey McKinney wrote following the premiere, when Stannis finally shows his political savvy in negotiations with — and ultimately, execution of — Mance Rayder, ”no one is more surprised than me that my new favorite character is none other than Stannis Baratheon.”
But it doesn’t surprise me; I’ve found the Lord of Dragonstone undeniably magnetic from the beginning. It’s one of those fondnesses I find difficult to pinpoint, but here’s a start: In a world full of over-the-top, self-important drama queens — Cersei in her flowing brocade gowns, Tyrion with his boozing and his zingers, Dany with her dragons and her proclamations — Stannis is hilariously, lovably square. Stannis, with his dour gray attire and somber smirk, has the look and disposition of, like, a middle-manager at an office supply company, or a chartered accountant. Everything about him is out of place amid the pomp and pageantry of Westeros. While I’m told the character is wittier and more sarcastic in the books, on the show, I kind of love how dry and prickly he is. It’s a breath of fresh air.
The contrast of his unflappable sternness with the bizarro gang around him makes his whole story line more interesting. Stannis has a pretty ragtag band over there on Dragonstone — a well-read daughter with grayscale, an insane fundamentalist wife, a wise smuggler, and a red witch prone to birthing out murderous shadow-babies branded with his face (to be fair, he doesn't have a great PR team). It could be a weird buddy comedy if there wasn’t so much fratricide and fundamentalism baked into the whole thing. Tucked away on Dragonstone, Stannis and his gang have been a bit isolated from the action thus far — but the interior dynamic, with the poor guy pulled between Davos and Melisandre — not to mention pulled between Melisandre and his wife — is a thrilling little character drama itself. The whole creepy atmosphere of the place, along with actor Stephen Dillane's' nuanced characterization, leaves viewers guessing what’s going on in Stannis' head, and what his ultimate motivations are. That’s why it was so thrilling when he surprised everyone at the Wall. What is the guy's deal, you know?!
Of course, Stannis is also an underdog — both in terms of getting bumped unfairly out of the line of succession when it was his turn, and also in a narrative sense. He rarely gets the screen time or the scenery-chewing monologues of his fellow Iron Throne claimants. He’s just, well, competent, with what appears to be the most legitimate claim to the throne (not to get into it, but plenty of book readers have), a decent head for military strategy (he has a giant map!) and the ability to act rationally when needed (minus the Melisandre stuff, but nobody’s perfect).
Frankly, it’s refreshing to have someone in Westeros who actually seems like they are good at their job — who actually pays attention to the White Walker threat, for example, instead of quibbling among themselves over power and revenge. While other characters indulge their selfish whims or their shifting allegiances or are consumed by greed or vengeance, Stannis’ values are refreshingly old-fashioned: He wants to rule, and rule justly -- even though no one will give him a chance.
As Thomas Fichtenmayer writes at Esquire:
"And that's the quiet tragedy of Stannis Baratheon. Nobody picked him, nobody loves him. He could literally save the world, and it still wouldn't gain him the throne, in the end. But the thing that makes him a true king is that he's going to do it anyway."
Much of Stannis' appeal lies in the skill of British actor Stephen Dillane. Like "Game of Thrones" costars Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont), Charles Dance (Tywin, RIP) and Ciaran Hinds (Mance Rayder, RIP), Dillane brings a certain amount of gravitas and British acting heft to the role, which some of the show’s many newbies don’t have — Dillane has an impressive résumé; he has starred in acclaimed films like "Welcome to Sarajevo," "Fugitive Pieces" and "The Hours," won a Tony for "The Real Thing," a BAFTA for "The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall" and an Emmy nomination for playing Thomas Jefferson in the "John Adams" miniseries. Dillane skillfully handles the character's nuances, of which there are many -- yet another reason the character appeals. He's broody and devious (murdering his brother) and yet also strangely kind and noble (like in his loyalty to Davos, or when he prevents his wife from slapping his daughter).
And as we saw up at the Battle of Blackwater, or up at the Wall in these last two episodes, Stannis has a certain untapped charisma and badass strength to him. Per Christopher Orr at the Atlantic, “If anyone can offer the show a little Tywin-like gravitas this season, it will likely be him.”
I also love the fact that Stephen Dillane sort of is Stannis. He doesn’t give many interviews or do much publicity from the show, and when he does he sounds exactly as you might imagine. This is an excerpt from the Guardian Q&A:
What makes you unhappy?
What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
A sense of purpose.
How often do you have sex?
Between and including never and often.
And here, in the Huffington Post, on why he doesn’t like the nudity on the show:
“I’m a bit old for it. It doesn’t particularly appeal to me, reminds me of German porn from the 1970s. But I presume it serves a purpose, and the merits of the show far outweigh my concerns on that score.”
So what does he like about the show?
“I think it’s an accurate and truthful reflection of how power operates, in different societies, and the relatively small part love and affection play in things."
Yes. Classic Stan man.
If you’re a book reader, you might be annoyed with me at this point in the essay because — as I discovered while researching — a lot of book readers actually love Stannis. On tumblrs with names like theonetruekingstannis.tumblr.com and fuckyeahkingstannis.tumblr.com you can scroll through GIFs with funny quotes on them and impressionistic drawings of him, and read paeans to the one true king. I like him even more knowing this bizarre level of devotion exists:
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As I discovered when I plunged down the Stannis the Mannis rabbit hole, many fans feel that Benioff and Weiss gave short shrift to the character on the show and have underplayed his sense of humor and deadpan delivery, as well as the sense of duty and strong leadership he embodies. Here are some book readers in their own words, responding to variations of the oft-asked question, “Why does anyone like Stannis?"
"He is absolutely relentless, even in the face of overwhelming odds. He is an underdog and I think that appeals to people. He has no dragons, few men, not much money and not many people like him. But he has so far outlasted foes like Joffrey who had far more power and foes like Renly and Robb who were more likable. He is a teeth-grinding Little Engine That Could. There is also something refreshing about his interpretation of the law; he can be a dick about it, but he is essentially just seeing the letter of the law through. He has also managed to win the loyalty and respect of someone like Davos." --Quora user Kelsey L. Hayes
Dany wants the throne because she believes it is her birthright and whatever else Viserys drilled into her mind. Robb wants to be independent because his bannermen want to. Joffrey doesn't give two shits about Westeros. Renly wanted to be king because he thought he'd be a good one. Finally, Balon wanted to be a King to return to the old way. Notice a trend? They all don't take their title Protector of the Realm seriously. Stannis is one of the only people to realize that he needs to save the Kingdom before he can rule it, and he follows this principle. --Reddit user TheAvenger1234
“in my opinion Stannis is the epitome of justice. His moral compass is what is stated in the laws and customs of the Seven Kingdoms. He may have felt slighted by Robert after the rebellion, but does he bitch about it and start another war? No. Stannis only goes after the throne after Ned sends word he is next in line. A king protects the realm, Stannis did that at the wall as soon as he heard what was happening. Stannis offers Jon Winterfell and legitimacy because he knows Starks are what the North follows. Does he bitch about Jon saying no? A little but he is not going to let that stop his quest for what is rightfully his. Stannis is the Mannis.” -- Reddit user Profesdur
And my favorite:
“He's an absolute badass. He's the Clint Eastwood of Westeros.” -- IGN forum user DigInTheCrates
There you have it!
I don't know what's next for Stannis, but judging by what book fans are saying, things are about to heat up for our man at the Wall. Perhaps Stannis will redeem himself in this story line with Jon Snow, and will finally find the love among TV fans that he found during the book. Maybe viewers will realize the legitimacy of his claim and bend the knee in fealty to the one true King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, etc., etc. Maybe I just have bad taste. (Like I said: Pete Campbell!) Or maybe he’s about to prove himself, and you’ll all join me in being Stannis stans too. Winter is coming, after all.