It is often the most difficult and hard of times that test and make the best out of men and women. I’m quite sure someone said something akin to that – it’s a safe bet it’s either Wilde or Churchill. In any case, it’s true. It’s easy to be king or lead when times are plentiful and no one is suffering. It’s easy to lead others or to listen to what others say when the decisions are far away in the distance and no one is troubled. But it’s in the difficult moments – the moments of life and death – that truly test us and our deeply-held beliefs, our abilities and our desires.
Stannis Baratheon faced a testing moment when his daughter contracted greyscale – the leprosy of their world. Told his infant daughter would either not live long or live just long enough to see the disease eat her alive, he was counseled to send her half a world away to live where those with her conditions could still find peace – amidst the ruins of Valyria. But he dismissed them all away, hired every healer and maester he could and his daughter’s life was saved. That was his daughter and he would not abandon her; not then and not now. Even if his wife is sometimes ashamed of having not borne him a son, he does not consider Shireen lesser because of it. She is his daughter and she is a princess.
While Stannis and his daughter were bonding, Melisandre was trying to get Jon Snow to know something about her. But was she trying to simply give him a reason to come along with Stannis towards Winterfell, the ancestral home in which he grew? That he likely possesses knowledge of like no one Stannis has? Was she perhaps testing his resolve to his oaths and his new position as Lord Commander of the Knight’s Watch? Or could she be seducing Jon for another reason; a much darker reason. Jon Snow may be a bastard, but his blood is still that of a Stark’s and the Starks were the old Kings of Winter. As Melisandre likes to say, there’s power in the blood of kings. Whatever her reason, Jon’s still simmering love for Ygritte kept him from falling for the Red Priestess’ charms. He passed his test.
In Winterfell, his half-sister Sansa was meanwhile tending to the crypts of her ancient family; having no desire to mingle amongst the Boltons who now occupy it. It is here that Petyr Baelish finds her and tells her he must return due to a summons from Cersei Lannister. His duplicitousness requires he leave her alone, surrounded by enemies. But while there, Littlefinger takes the chance to tell Sansa the story of the Tournament at Harrenhal – where the noble Prince Rhaegar Targaryen beat Ser Barristan Selmy at the lists and, rather than crown his own wife the queen of love and beauty, honored the fair Lyanna Stark. It would be Rhaegar’s later kidnapping and rape of Lyanna that would start Robert’s Rebellion and topple the Targaryen dynasty, but it all started with a simple act. Littlefinger would remind Sansa that such simple acts – dismissed as faux pas at the moment – can start great wars if not cautious. So she better be cautious when she’s all alone in Winterfell as Stannis’ march will put her in great danger and great opportunity.
Cautious is how Jaime Lannister and Bronn are having to be in order to infiltrate Dorne so that they can “rescue” Myrcella from the Dornish. Obviously though, Jaime has little knowledge of infiltration and how merchants covet gold. His large bag may have been filled, but the merchant wanted more and so betrayed his confidence to the Sand Snakes, the bastard daughters of Prince Oberyn Martell. Bronn, an old hand at it, knows how merchants and soldiers work and knows how to attack mounted Dornish warriors. Jaime, for his part, finally faces a test of his abilities as a fighter since his hand was taken and passes it – thanks, in part, to his fake hand. Good thing for him, since it’s likely he’s walking into a trap.
For their part, the Sand Snakes and Oberyn’s widow, Ellaria Sand, all seek open war for his death but feel betrayed by Prince Doran’s lackadaisical attitude. Obara even tells of how her father tested her when he came to claim her from her mother. He laid his spear at her feet and pointed at her mother’s tears and asked her to choose her weapon. She took her father’s spear and hasn’t looked back since. That was but one test they face. The larger one is how to force Doran’s hand and make Dorne go to war against the Iron Throne. Their first plan is to murder Myrcella, Doran’s ward and so enrage Cersei Lannister. But if Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer and the King’s uncle, puts himself in their path, they will happily use him to start their war.
No one, however, failed his test like young King Tommen Baratheon. Pinned between his scheming mother and his conniving wife, Tommen tried and failed to free Ser Loras Tyrell from the newly-rechristened Faith Militant. The military arm of the Faith of the Seven had been disbanded centuries prior by the Targaryens out of fear for their power. Cersei, desperate to push back against the machinations of Margaery, allows them to return just so that she could gain even more influence over the High Sparrow. Not surprisingly, the Faith Miltant did as expected and began to militarily enforce their faith on the sinners of King’s Landing, highborn or low. Margaery knew who was behind it all and tried to make Tommen take Loras back, but when faced with a large rabble all calling him out as the result of incest, he backed down. When he tries to make his mother have Loras released, she calmly deflects it as she’s not the one holding him. Unable to hold back her disdain, Margaery leaves the confused boy king behind; unable to hide her contempt for his failure.
Far away, his uncle’s confusion was finally sated when he figured out that it was Jorah Mormont who had kidnapped him and that he was taking him not to his sister, but to Danaerys Targaryen. He laughed at the idiosyncrasies of fate, but also recognized that he was now part of a test for Jorah. He still considers Dany the only Queen he’ll ever serve, but he was dismissed from his service. Tyrion also knows that this was likely due to his betraying of her trust to Varys and the court of King Robert. Jorah Mormont is hoping to convince Dany to take him back in exchange for the life of The Imp. Will it work? Or will it costs them both their lives? Dany was explicit about what would happen to him should he ever dare return to Meereen. Jorah is willing to test her resolve out.
Not that he’s the only one. Dany is continuing to have to hear Hizdar’s pleas to reopen the fighting pits while the Sons of the Harpy murder and destroy throughout the city. In their most brazen attack yet, they kill several in a market and dare a patrol led by Grey Worm to follow them. This results in a battle where the Unsullied, a trained army not meant to be police, and the Sons, traditionally a terrorist hit squad, duked it out on the streets of Meereen. The result is at best a draw as both Unsullied and Sons’ forces end up dead or dying on the ground. Whether this includes Ser Barristan Selmy, who arrived in time to save Grey Worm, is unknown at this point. For the old knight, it was one more time he was tested in battle and had emerged victorious, but wounded. This, however, may have been the one time too far where his vast talents couldn’t save him from his opponents’ strikes.
For many of these characters, their test is still going and they will only come to their end when they’ve accomplished some lofty goal like rescuing a daughter or starting a war or conquering a kingdom. For others, their test may be done and come to a bloody end. In times of chaos, it’s when we can find what each character is made of. Some are made of steel enough to defy their rulers while others are made of cotton and cannot stand up to their mommies.