(Article Image Source: Forbes)
“Baelor,” “Blackwater,” “The Rains of Castamere,” “The Watchers on the Wall.” This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on they spin, crushing the episodes before them. We’ve come to expect the ninth installment of each season to have game changing twists and titanic storytelling shifts. So, did “The Dance of Dragons” live up to both its name and broadcast order? Is it this year’s MVP installment?
That title goes to last week’s “Hardhome.” This most recent episode had its share of action-packed fights, heartbreaking deaths, and cardiac-arresting close calls, but the surprise attack at “Hardhome” hit so close to home that the showrunners are going to have to run an extra mile to top it. With the unfair task of following the unexpected bloodbath north of the Wall, this week still managed to deliver exactly what was promised and then some. While carrying the weight of some of this season’s weaker story lines, “The Dance of Dragons” isn’t the best of the season but it’s a worthy penultimate episode that gives us just enough to hold us over until the finale.
Now, let’s get down to business.
This was a spectacular Thrones hour with great moments for everyone except for a continuing muddiness in Dorne. I was expecting them to justify everything by now but the resolution seems a little pointless compared to all the events unfolding EVERYWHERE ELSE! Jaime apologizes, Bronn is forgiven, the Sand Snakes are pardoned, Ellaria Sand kisses a ring, and after some stern looks, they all laugh it off. Also, Myrcella is heading back to King’s Landing at a time when Mommy Dearest needs her most, and Trystane is going up to the High Council. All fine developments.
Look, I get it. We needed to introduce the Sand Snakes and get them into the fold while furthering the other plots. But when children are getting murdered in exchange for good weather, it seems a little trivial that the most those “fiery, hot-tempered” Dornish do to their SWORN ENEMY is elbow his best bud in the face. If these Sand Snakes are going to continue to boast about how awesome they are next season, they better start showing us why.
Also, the exchange between Ellaria and Jaime did feel a tad unearned. Yesterday, she wanted to kill this guy – now she wants to relate about how their socially unacceptable love lives don’t diminish their worth as people, asking the same kind of thematic questions as a medieval version of Lolita. If this moment was intended to be this storyline’s endgame, all of Dorne could have been condensed into a shorter time span. Or they could have pushed Jaime into a tougher position, where he would have to somehow choose between spending his time saving Myrcella or saving Cersei. Or a rogue Dornish trial could judge Jaime for the crimes the Lannisters have committed against their people. That way both Lannister twins would be tried for their crimes and Jaime’s stakes would have been up to par with his brother and sister’s. Fingers are crossed that next week pulls a left turn and either has Doran changing his mind or Sunspear getting hit by that comet from season 2.
Other than Dorne, everything else was an immensely satisfying, tragic, or foreboding setup for things to come. No major developments with Arya, just the promise of a reunion with Ser Meryn – one of the names on her “To Kill” list. In case some of the more casual viewers forgot that this guy is horrible, he goes a-whoring for young girls. Lucky for Arya, this places her within close proximity of the pervert, and we get a “ka-ching” closeup as Arya sees her opportunity for revenge. This really IS turning into a medieval Lolita. Does Jaqen know she’s taken a detour from the House of Black and White’s plans? We’ll have to find out next week.
Jon Snow’s continuing adventures also tease at things to come. When Jon returns to the Wall, there’s a staredown between him and Alliser Thorne but his brothers let him back in. Thorne doesn’t bring out some fighting words, he just reiterates what Jon expects from him, that Snow’s made a big mistake. Something is brewing behind the scenes at Castle Black and it doesn’t look promising. Jon is getting the same angry looks Stannis would be receiving from his own men had their faces not been frozen shut.
Speaking of dark times, if you were ever hoping for a happy ending in Shireen’s sad, short life, tonight was not your night. Things did not look good from the outset. When the one man who has a healthy fatherly love for her, Davos, bids her farewell, they share the type of goodbye reserved for doomed soldiers in old war movies. You know, when that one guy before a battle starts to get soft, talking about how he’s going to marry his high school sweetheart when he gets home, finally tell his kids he loves them, etc. Davos actually skillfully whittled her a stag figurine as a parting gift, though. It’s nice, but if he really wanted to be helpful, he should’ve just knitted her a red Starfleet uniform. We can only hope this figurine will be found by Stannis later and used to haunt him indefinitely.
Before Stannis reveals his sacrificial decision, however, we’re treated to a nice scene between Shireen and her father. Here, she recounts “The Dance of Dragons,” an old Targaryen tale of two sibling rulers who famously battled for domination from the backs of their dragon-steeds. When asked by Stannis who she would’ve sided with, she refuses to choose. The last representative of innocence on this long trek to war, she’s the only one who holds onto any shred of hope. Stannis, on the other hand, already shed any remaining sentimentality and idealism when he murdered his brother during his own “dragon dance.” To him, decisions aren’t made through diplomacy but through the battlefield, and although he can have it in himself to hold a miniscule amount of mercy, the natural order of the world isn’t so kind. Melisandre may represent an otherworldly magic but the vision she showed him in the fire is so real to him, so tangible, that he’s prioritized this conjured future over any kind of future for his family.
So, just as soon as we see the softer side of Stannis (which sounds like a terrible deodorant catchphrase) while he’s sharing a tender moment with Shireen a few episodes back, this latest father/daughter exchange is personal and intimate, but not so tender. We know what’s on his mind. And when he asks her what she’d do if tasked with a burden like his, she confirms his better judgment – she is the princess Shireen and she would do whatever he asks.
Unlike the past couple of penultimate-season-ending episodes, this one jumped around a bit from location to location. But we spent enough time in Stannis’ camp to feel the gravity of his actions. During Shireen’s long, slow march to the pyre, you know why she’s the only one not wearing a jacket. This outspoken Joan of Arc, Jr. is about to meet her end. Melisandre greets her at the stake and her smirk is a bit much. Come on, Meli, you don’t have to go rub it in! You gotta hand it to this witch, though, she’s dedicated. And as evil as her actions are, she doesn’t seem to be doing it for herself but for the Red God, which is somehow scarier than Littlefinger’s selfish machinations. Stannis, himself, watches stone faced. I’m sure it hurts, but he’s made his decision and there’s no turning back.
The big surprise suddenly comes when Selyse has a change of heart. It’s all the more gut-wrenching to see her run to her child: it’s the only compassion we’ve ever seen from this mother and it’s come too late. Like Theon from the end of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” Stannis watches as a young girl screams off camera. Both have the power to end it, but by choice, they do nothing. This asks the question: who are we going to root for in the Battle of Winterfell? When compared to the Boltons, I’m a member of Team Stannis all the way, but things have gotten more complicated. Through Stannis’ inaction, he’s transformed into a monster, and he changes our sympathies for good.
Another note on this death: as she’s tied up, you can see Stannis’ men flinch. How far does their allegiance go? If their fortunes do clear up, and their march toward Winterfell is improved, will that blot out the memory of a little girl’s last screams? One thing’s for sure: Davos won’t be so loyal to Stannis when he gets back. Also, Melisandre is so sure her visions will become a reality, but these gods like to send their messages in metaphors. She said she saw herself walking on the walls of Winterfell earlier this season, but was it conquered? Who was she walking with? I wouldn’t be surprised if she just saw herself watching from walls, misinterpreting the tide of the upcoming battle and failing to see that she’s on the wall as a head on a pike. It would be a horrible image, yet I don’t think that’s out of Game of Thrones’ wheelhouse. Stannis has sold his soul to the Red God, but R’hllor isn’t the only deity holding sway in Westeros and his wager doesn’t stand a foolproof chance of paying off.
Jorah, for one, knows that waging his life in the grand fighting pit isn’t a done deal either. With nothing left to live for and greyscale eating him away, it’s worth one last go. We see just how far he’s fallen when compared to Tyrion. In the span of – I don’t know – a couple days, Tyrion has gone from Dany’s sworn enemy to her most-trusted advisor? Hey, I’ll take it; he’s a smooth talker and we all want this partnership to last. He even verbally slaps Hizdahr around, and as a former master who we don’t really trust, this guy deserves it. They debate over the merits of strength vs. smarts while a David and Goliath style match takes place in the ring below. Hizdahr believes that power can only truly be attained through violence, but Tyrion’s seen too much pain and suffering on behalf of the Iron Throne to keep mincing words with this pampered lord. “You’re an eloquent man…In my experience, eloquent men are right every bit as often as imbeciles.” Soon after, Goliath chops David’s head off – so I guess when you’re in the fighting pit, any opinion is debatable.
Daenerys is more of a listener than an active participant in this conversation, and she loses all her focus when Jorah shows up. Sure, she’s still mad at him, but with his persistence and surrounded by a crowd that mostly hates her guts, she starts to finally come around. Also, Jorah gets the crap kicked out him. He’s much more fatigued than when we last saw him and with all his flesh wounds, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if the writers had the old knight bite it. But dammit if this guy doesn’t Maximus his way into victory, killing the competition. If only he could drink in his win – instead he picks up an unattended spear and hurls it at the dais. For a second, I wasn’t sure exactly who he was aiming for – having read the novel, I half-thought he was going to impale Hizdahr as he came back from poisoning the locusts (a moment that’s been cut in the adaptation). Instead, there was a Harpy’s Son sneaking up behind our queen. Good shot. Then, a hissing army of Sons rise from the stands and just starts Red Wedding-ing every tunicked Jack and Jill this side of Pentos. This place takes a bloodier turn than a pool party at Caligula’s – and Hizdahr is one of the first to get it.
Oh. I guess he wasn’t so bad after all. Oops.
There’s not much time to mourn his death as our heroes back themselves into the arena. With no escape in sight, they’re cornered into the center of the fighting pit. All Daenerys can do is grab Missandei’s hand and wait for the end. When she closes her eyes, everything slows down and we hear the shriek of her dragon. The way this all played out, it almost seemed like she’s summoning Drogon, the way Bran might skinchange into his direwolf or Hodor. Almost. If this is the reveal of a new power, she should develop it soon – there’s a lot of villains to psychically eat.
While Drogon is, you know, an enormous fire-breathing beast, he does take a heck of a beating. If only he was less conservative with his dragon fire, then he’d have to take less spears. But maybe this is his first time fighting. Maybe if he spoke with Sean Connery’s voice, he could have lulled them into a false sense of security, or told Dany, “Hey! Khaleesi! Hop on my back already, they’re throwing spears at us!” Luckily, the queen doesn’t get impaled, she mounts her dragon for the first time, and rides off in a grand, sweeping shot that would’ve served as a great closing image for the season. Instead, we’re left with the perspective of the men and Missandei, who have been left behind. I mean, there was definitely room for some of them on Drogon’s back, but in the heat of the moment, you’re not always thinking fully. Regardless, the closing shot leaves Daenerys’ followers and the audience in a similar position. We know what we just saw – the show is casting its lot with Daenerys as the rightful heir to the throne. With the cast of characters dwindling down to a mere fifty lead roles and kings killing each other and their children, we should probably enlist in the service of this girl. Hey, she’s got the imp and she’s got the dragons.
While not as unified an episode as last week, “The Dance of Dragons” contained a thrilling finish that injected enough adrenaline into Daenerys’ storyline to push her closer to becoming the true queen of Westeros. As a followup to “Hardhome,” her journey compliments Jon’s defeat of the White Walker last week and ultimately, this episode is the perfect companion to that one. Where the latter installment focused on the ice-cold grip of the Others in the North and the untold horror that lies just beyond Westeros’ nightmares, this most recent hour dealt with the very human doubts and fears that serve to undermine the common good. Here, Melisandre waylays Stannis’ doubts by giving Shireen to the flames of the Red God. And when the Sons of the Harpy fight Daenerys’ regime by launching all out war in her arena, only dragon’s breath can burn them out. With the White Walkers’ attack in episode 8 and the final dragon dance in episode 9, we’re given a much deserved dose of ice and fire.
In my ranking of Game of Thrones' ninth episodes, 'The Dance of Dragons' would be #4. That's no knock against it, though. It still packs a wallop and sets things up nicely for the finale.