Airdate: June 7, 2015
Directed by: David Nutter
Showrunners: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss (creators); George R.R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire” by); David Benioff & D.B. Weiss (written for television by)
So, I had some ideas coming into tonight’s episode about just what messrs. Weiss and Benioff had in store for us. My suggestion for what the big penultimate episode shocker would be turned out to be off the mark, but something that I suggested might happen actually came to pass, acting as a shocker I didn’t really think would take place. The title of tonight’s episode turns out to have several layers of meaning, referring not only to the Targaryen civil war about which a book with the same title was written (and which is being read by Shireen), but also clearly alludes to Dany and her brood. Dig a little deeper, and the civil war aspect has a further resonance, what with all the parties and erstwhile allies at each others’ throats, and you can see that the showrunners have been steering us into this episode for quite some time. And while I thought it was a solid hour of television, that doesn’t mean I have to like everything that they gave me to watch tonight. Click through for my detailed discussion of the episode.
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of Game of Thrones S05E09, “The Dance of Dragons.” Spoilers and occasional colorful language abound – read more at your own risk.>>
In an episode where we should all be standing around the water cooler tomorrow discussing Dany’s triumphant flight aboard Drogon’s back (we’ll forget for a moment that she just left her four most loyal followers to the Sons of the Harpy below as she glories in her freedom), instead we’ll be talking about that other daughter of a king, Shireen Baratheon, and the utterly evil act inflicted upon her.
As I suggested in my preview article, Stannis’s tough decision tonight was about whether or not to listen to Melisandre, feeding her god’s insatiable desire for king’s blood. Ser Davos can sense something’s up, and initially resists Stannis’s order to head back to Castle Black for food and supplies, and when he agrees to go, tries to get Stannis to let him take Shireen. But Stannis has other plans for his daughter.
The whole season has been leading up to this sacrifice (at least so far as the Stannis storyline is concerned), but still, I didn’t see this coming. Stannis comes in to talk to his daughter about hard choices, and she tells him the story of the Targaryen civil war, which she’s been reading in the book The Dance of Dragons. She shows far more wisdom than her father, saying that it wasn’t the competing claims that caused the deaths, it was people choosing sides. This is a clear allusion to Stannis’s final step over to the dark side. He’s going to follow Melisandre and her dark magic all the way to wherever she takes him – and I don’t suppose it’s going to be anywhere too nice.
Back in Episode 504, “The Sons of the Harpy,” Stannis did something that made me actually begin to like him – he stood up for his daughter, and told her that she was worth everything to him. How quickly things change. Here, she throws back at him the line he used on her, that she is “Princess Shireen of the House Baratheon, and [your] daughter.” He barely winces, when the man should fall to the floor begging her forgiveness for even considering what he’s come here for. He does, in fact, ask her forgiveness, but only after he’s skillfully maneuvered her into offering to do anything to help him, something he clearly does to try to assuage his guilt.
We jump to her being escorted through rows of soldiers. The camera lingers on her hands, where she is holding a beautiful stag – her house sigil – that Ser Davos carved and gave her before he left. As the soldiers part, she sees Melisandre standing by a pyre, and she immediately knows what’s happening. The rest – I don’t want to get into details, but it’s disturbing, and the young actress playing Shireen, Kerry Ingram, does an excellent job of dealing with some tough material. I kept hoping for a moment of redemption, for Ser Davos to show up, or Stannis to come to his senses, or even one of the soldiers to put a sword through Melisandre’s foul black heart, but the only glimpse of humanity was when Shireen’s mother, Selyse, finally showed something more than contempt for her daughter, trying to get to her – but she was stopped by soldiers on Stannis’s orders. As he listens to his daughter die, he turns away, his face a hollow shell.
Simply put, Stannis has to die – but he’s been set up as the only way to get rid of the Boltons, who are equally despicable. Who does that leave? Jon marching south to deal with both problems? Brienne entering the camp and dealing with the child-killer (remember, she does owe him a death for the murder of King Renly) – after all, she’s worth at least twenty of Ramsay Bolton’s men, and look what havoc they created in the camp.
Frankly, I don’t know what direction they’ll take up here in the north, and at this point, beyond hoping Sansa plants a knife somewhere very sensitive on Ramsay’s body, I’m beginning to lose interest. The Wall remains interesting, but things in Winterfell and environs have just become one long, drawn-out horror show. Not one of the power brokers in the area are redeemable. Hard to find a team to cheer for in those parts.
Why did Benioff and Weiss decide to go there? I honestly can’t see a single good narrative reason why they took this step; after all, all it took was leeches filled with Gendry’s bastard blood in order to bring about the deaths of two rival kings – wouldn’t Shireen’s blood, that of a true-born heir (to R’hllor’s supposed favorite, no less), be even stronger? Why not a little transfusion into the flames? I think they’ve lost consistency, figuring that most of us need greater and greater shocks to keep us coming back – but I just want good, strong, old-fashioned storytelling, along with the occasional dragon. Shock for shock’s sake is a cheap cop-out; we’ll have to see if this choice does, indeed, have some sort of narrative payoff going forward – but I guarantee you there will be people tomorrow who stuck with the show through some pretty horrific and gratuitous moments before, who won’t stick around after this. For them, a future potential payoff is irrelevant.
There were a few other things going on tonight, as well. Jon gets to the Wall, and Ser Alliser mysteriously allows him to bring the wildlings and Wun Wun the giant through. Most of the men of the Night’s Watch seem less than pleased, and even Olly has nothing but frowns for Jon. There is far too much tension, and far too little control in Jon’s hands for things not to get interesting quite soon at Castle Black.
In Dorne, we finally get something more than sulky chest-exposing Sand Snakes. Ser Jaime is brought to see Prince Doran, and the two not only speak amicably, but they are able to come to some form of new agreement – Myrcella to go home, Prince Tristane to accompany and join the Small Council, and Bronn to be given a punishment chosen by Trystane. This turns out to be a hard elbow to the face courtesy of Areo Hotah, which leaves Bronn looking distinctly discomfitted, but still alive.
In Braavos, Arya goes to complete her task of assassinating the Thin Man, but is distracted when she sees Mace Tyrell arriving, accompanied by Meryn Trant. If you’ll recall, he was the King’s Guard sent to arrest Arya back in Season 1, and is the presumed killer of Syrio Forel, Arya’s fencing instructor (we don’t ever see his body, however, so I believe he’s still around – some have suggested he might even have been a face-changed Jaqen H’ghar). In any case, she has him on her list of people to be killed, and seeing him draws her to follow.
Eventually, we end up at a brothel, where Meryn’s proclivities for pre-pubescent girls gives us yet another reason to despise the man, to go along with attacking Arya, beating and stripping Sansa in public, and being an all-around asshole. Arya’s plans are spoiled, however, when she is chased out by the Madame. I think we got a pretty clear indication of how she’ll get to him, though, and it will be through the Madame. Meryn told her that he wants another girl the next night, and guess who that girl is likely to be? I’m just curious how she’s going to do the deed – the most poetic way would be to get Needle, and kill him with the sword Syrio taught her to use. Let’s hope!
We end the episode in Meereen, where Daenerys reopens the Fighting Pits, much to the glee of a rather large crowd. The first fight features a battle of wits between Hizdahr and Daario, arguing about what makes a better fighter. Might as well replace the word “fighter” with “lover” and admit what they’re really talking about here. Tyrion looks on, approving of Daario’s contention that the smaller man usually wins, again a thinly veiled “a-ha!” moment from the writers for us, as many of us are kinda hoping Tyrion – the small man – is there at the end.
The second fight includes a surprise: Ser Jorah has come back, yet again. When he inevitably wins the fight, he grabs his opponent’s spear, and casts it toward the royal box. Everyone’s in shock, until they see that he’s killed a would-be assassin, a Son of the Harpy, who had been sneaking up on Dany. The crowd erupts in a panic as suddenly dozens, perhaps over a hundred, people in masks arise, stabbing and slashing at all around them, and attacking the royal box. Daario looks at Hizdahr, obviously suspecting him of collusion, but his concerns are quickly allayed as Hizdahr gets stabbed repeatedly. Trust of a sort came, but just a bit too late.
Ser Jorah leaps onto the dais, and offers his hand to Dany. This is actually a touching moment in the midst of chaos, as you can see the love for her burning in his eyes. When she takes his hand and allows him to lead, it almost looks like he’s going to swoon. Good acting here.
Still on the stage, Tyrion grabs a dagger, and saves Missandei’s life as she’s cornered, after which the two of them join Dany, Ser Jorah, and Daario in the pit. They’re surrounded, and the Harpies are getting closer, when Dany learns a new trick: she closes her eyes, and appears to summon Drogon to her. A telepathic link betwixt her and the dragons? Very interesting possibilities.
Drogon arrives, and begins toasting and eating Harpies left, right, and center. They attack back, sticking him with spears (which begs the question – why didn’t they just kill Dany from a distance with the spears they all suddenly seem to have?). He begins to slow, and Dany goes to him, pulling a spear from his side. He roars in her face, but then goes nose to nose for a touching moment, mirroring the moment she just had with Ser Jorah. Looking as though she’s just had the weirdest idea (seriously, she looks totally lost in this moment, like “What the hell am I doing?” lost), she pulls herself up onto Drogon’s back, and then orders him to fly in High Valyrian.
He gathers steam, and then leaps into the air. They do a couple of circuits of the stadium (spears have mysteriously stopped being thrown again), her hair and gowns streaming out behind her in a glorious shot. Her face is full of wonder, hope, and joy, and…but wait…what about her followers? Oh yeah, Missandei, Daario, Ser Jorah, and Tyrion are all still surrounded by the badguys, and the only thing keeping them at bay – Drogon’s extremely bad breath – has just conveniently flown away.
This really is a beautiful scene, and while the two moments of stillness in the chaos – Ser Jorah taking Dany’s hand, Dany communing with Drogon – seem to ring a little hollow, it is true that, in moments of great stress, one’s sense of time can slow down drastically. I’d like to think that this is all we’re seeing here – and that Dany will turn that winged beast right around and help the others.
Horrific beginning, triumphant finish, with both ends of the episode bookmarked in flames. We open with Ramsay’s fire destroying supplies and horses, move to the fire “purifying” Shireen (in Melisandre’s words), and end with Drogon’s fire saving Dany’s life, and scaring the bejeezus out of those Harpies he didn’t outright fricassee or eat. Last week’s theme was clearly ice, as we saw the Night’s King and his horde, bringing the deathly cold with them; tonight’s was fire, the other half of George R.R. Martin’s title for the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire (remember, Game of Thrones is only actually the name of the first book in the series, which is now up to five volumes).
Beyond Shireen’s horrific death, I had a few other problems with the episode. The primary ones revolve around Melisandre as well – why does she need so much more blood than before? Why was Stannis’s semen powerful enough for her to birth a shadow assassin once, but she never uses this power again? Why didn’t she sense the attack, by fire, on the camp before the enemy was already among them (and then why did she look more curious than concerned while it was happening)? Why is she still alive to use her foul magics?
So on the one hand, I’m pissed off about Shireen’s sacrifice; on the other, it was such a joy to see Dany finally mounting one of her dragons, and come into her power. Maybe this is why she’s not concerned about her retainers left behind – maybe she knows that her and Drogon flying together will be enough to shock the Harpies into stopping their attack. Don’t count on it though.
The bar on despicable actions got lowered yet again tonight, and I begin to fear just how low/how desperate characters are going to be getting. I love the show, but if its predominant theme becomes darkness, I may need to seek out my own fire. And worst of all, we now only have one more week to process all that has happened, and to try to set-up some cliffhangers moving forward into the long hiatus.
Steve’s Grade: B-/A-, overall B+
A tale of two shows. I give the Shireen sacrifice a B-, only because the actress was fantastic in a difficult scene, and because the act feels gratuitous (much like the Cersei/Jaime scene at the Great Sept of Baelor when Joffrey lay in state). The fighting pits and Meereen I give an A- to, as they were well choreographed, with some interesting personal moments interspersed within. Dany is beginning to fully come into her own at last.