Recap Digest: Game of Thrones 5.9, "The Dance of Dragons"

Jun 08, 2015 by Alex Castle

It only took 49 episodes for Game of Thrones to finally give us what we really wanted, and it was glorious: as the Sons of the Harpy tried to assassinate her just as she finally gave them what they wanted – reopening the fighting pits – Daenerys was saved, and then airlifted out, by the wayward Drogon, who returned either in reply to her telepathic message or just because he sensed she was in danger. Either way, the sight of the Mother of Dragons leaving the quagmire in Meereen astride her fire-breathing firstborn was deeply satisfying, particularly as it really had a helicopters-off-the-Saigon-embassy-roof feel to it – she may not have actually left Meereen yet, but it’s clear enough that she can win neither hearts nor minds in this backward slave state, and it might be best just to move on. Or maybe she’ll just flambé all the slaveowners. In any case, she’s free of her engagement to her civilian advisor and Jorah seems to be back in the fold; the shot of Tyrion, Jorah, Daario, and Missandei watching in awe as Daenerys flew off was one of the most iconic images the show has yet given us; it felt like a paradigm shift for the show just as important as last week’s introduction to the Night’s King.

Marvelous and satisfying as that ending was, we had to slog through some really wrenching stuff to get there. Stannis' sacrificing his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light via bonfire, while the poor child’s anguished screams rang throughout his camp, was truly awful, and undid all the character rehab Stannis was enjoying. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was starting to think Stannis on the Iron Throne might not be a bad thing, but it’s hard to root for a guy who would use his daughter as kindling, no matter what strategic advantage it might advance, and judging by the looks on some of his troops' faces, his army might soon be having a change of heart as well.

Book readers were probably at an advantage during Arya’s scenes, because as a non-book reader I couldn’t remember who this knight was who Arya decided to go after instead of the oyster-sucking insurance guy – someone on her list, I assume, but he didn’t appear to even remember her so I am still not sure who he is or why he wants her dead. And after last week’s reveal of the coming apocalypse from the North, it’s hard to get too invested in the idea that Jaime promised a Small Council seat to Myrcella’s Dornish Fiance in return for letting him bring them both back to King’s Landing, or what that might mean for the future – other than the fact that Jaime is headed back to King’s Landing, where he will soon discover that Cersei is in prison and Tommen is cowering under a table.

The fact that Daenerys is fully reunited with her dragons and they seem to be on the same page – now that’s interesting, particularly as it seems like a fire-breathing beast would be the best defense against an army of ice zombies.

Totally horrified by Stannis' sacrifice of Shireen, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald looks to Meereen for a silver lining:

For the second straight week, an hour of Game of Thrones ended with what appeared to be a full-fledged riot of hopelessness. Daenerys’s bloody lesson in the limits of man- (or in this case, woman-) imposed order was an unsettling aftershock of Jon’s confrontation with an army — and an opponent — that feeds on death and respects no living structure or authority. At once, everything is falling apart and everything, at last, is happening. When Drogon arrived, circling chaotically like an Uber car in Queens, he was borne on the winds of exhilaration that only this show can generate. We knew that wind when it was just a humble breeze, four years ago, in Season 1. We appreciate how far the characters have come because we’ve walked every step of the kingsroad along with them.

I even want to give David Benioff and D.B. Weiss extra credit here, for committing the crime and then arguing, in absentia, for their own exoneration. When Tyrion quarrels with Hizdahr — after the nightmare of House Baratheon and just before the fighting pits collapsed into wholesale slaughter — the smallest Lannister gives voice to the noble viewers who remain, in the words of our Bohemian friends in Dorne, “unbowed, unbent, unbroken” despite Thrones‘ unending cavalcade of suffering. “There’s always been more than enough death in the world for my taste,” the Imp says. “I can do without it in my leisure time.” Put out, Hizdahr huffs, “What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?” To which Tyrion replies, “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when ‘what is’ has worked out in your favor.”

In other words, check your privilege, Death Merchant. As I suggested last week, there’s a way to watch Game of Thrones not as a nihilistic doom spiral but as a real-time documentary of Hell’s Ragnarok; it’s not a celebration of terrible things happening, but a final spasm of the bad old ways before something radical and new arrives to take their place. After Thrones’s better episodes and in my better moments, I like to subscribe to this view. I even caught a glimpse of it last night as Daenerys ghosted on her friends and rode her magic dragon to unimaginable new heights and Tyrion, so often the audience’s surrogate for moments of otherworldly wonder, stared as if the sky itself had cracked open. Perhaps it had. We’ll know soon enough.

Vulture’s Nina Shen Rastogi thinks the scene will be more meaningful if or when Stannis succeeds:

Has anything on the show been more chilling than Melisandre assuring the princess that “it will all be over soon”? It is, of course, and it isn’t. Shireen is dragged to the pyre, and in her final moments, stops calling for her father and turns to Selyse. Something breaks inside the queen, but it’s too late; she runs to her daughter but is held back by her husband’s soldiers. We see her mother’s face, and then, for a terrible moment, her father’s, all haggard and lost. Shireen’s actual death may have occurred offscreen, but her screams were insistent, rattling in our ears and guts as they built to an animal-like wail.

I’ve been turning this scene over and over in my mind, though I think I come down on the side of it working for me, despite — or perhaps because of — its horribleness. If Shireen was going to die at the hands of her own father, if he was going to make that terrible Greek choice, it seemed appropriate to make those of us in the audience feel it, too, on a visceral level. (Horror comes from the Latin horrere: to tremble, to shudder.) It’s still a very open question whether her death will accomplish anything for Stannis’s military campaign — and that open question is part of the horror — but it feels like it’s explored some new emotional territory here, in ways that the Sansa rape didn’t. Stannis has driven a stake through his own heart, and if he wins the Iron Throne after all, the memory of this pyre will make the victory a Pyrrhic one. (And here I should pause and say that none of this would have worked if Stephen Dillane and Kerry Ingram hadn’t been so good, for so long.)

The A.V. Club’s Brandon Nowalk also considers what Shireen’s sacrifice portends for Stannis:

Davos brings Shireen a hand-carved wooden stag toy as a goodbye present for Shireen. He thanks her for teaching him to read, and speaks of her as a surrogate child. It brings me back to Arya and Ned, who provides perhaps the show’s only other example of unselfish paternal love (as opposed to Cersei’s perverted version). Game Of Thrones so rarely gives us anything sweet that moments like this are all the more potent. And then Stannis sits with his daughter, really confronts what he’s about to do, and Shireen tells and shows him exactly why it’s a bad idea. She returns the baton he passed a few weeks ago: “I’m Princess Shireen of House Baratheon, and I’m your daughter.” The Dance Of Dragons is quite a parable here if only Dad would listen.

What’s more, for a long time Stannis’ love for his daughter was his only redeeming, human quality. Without that he’d just be a law-and-order robot. As it happens, he’s not just a law-and-order robot. He’s a tragic monster who, if I read the fire correctly, literally every single viewer is now gleefully anticipating dying. But first the tragic part. The execution scene is excruciating, not viscerally like Sansa’s rape but more tonally. It’s like embers cooling. Whatever hope we may have had for this plot is dead. The actual execution sequence is constructed like that rape scene. After the merciless setup, that long walk through the armed men, Melisandre peeking out at the front, soldiers physically tying the child to the stake, we see Shireen on the pyre briefly and then the rest is the sounds of her agony—dragonlike cries, if you ask me—over reaction shots from everyone else. The surprising one is Selyse breaking, illustrating how far-gone Stannis is by comparison and how much blood relations mean in this universe where Theon could flip on his adopted family so easily and Cat could hold such a grudge against Jon Snow. Not even Selyse could go through with this.

Melisandre stands there happy to be of service. What service, though, I wonder? The mechanics have been conveniently vague from the moment she pulled the headache excuse to get out of making another shadow with Stannis’ face to kill Roose Bolton. “Your fires run low,” she tells Stannis. Well how high are his fires going to run now that he’s killed his own brother and his own daughter? I bet Stannis himself becomes a shadow after this. Speaking of Shireen and Renly, just who is supposed to inherit the throne after Stannis now? Think it through, pal. And what of the blood magic? Is Roose about to just drop dead? Because, you know, that one leech named Balon Greyjoy is sure taking its sweet time. And yet, as the episode opens, we seem to witness Melisandre genuinely staring into fire and reading the future, seeing that the camp is about to burn. She hasn’t been wrong yet, but this “sacrifice” doesn’t just mean the death of Roose Bolton or whomever. It means the death of Stannis.

HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall points out the ethical paradox that the Stannis and Daenerys scenes present:

Watching this show does a number on your moral calculus, even more than one of HBO’s previous champions of a bleak philosophy in “The Wire,” which at least allowed for the possibility of good things happening on the most micro of levels. So even though I was meant to be horrified by Shireen’s death (and I was), and even though I was meant to applaud at Drogon’s arrival (and I did, even as I wished that Dany at least had some kind of dragon-whistle to make the timing seem less silly), I also found myself wondering this:

Why am I booing the burning of one person and cheering the burning of many?

Yes, Shireen is a sweet, innocent girl who had the bad fortune to be born to a pair of religious fanatics with massive senses of entitlement, while the Sons of the Harpy are a faceless (literally most of the time) group of terrorists who want to restore Meereen’s slave economy. On that level, it’s obvious why the burning of one is monstrous and the burning of the many is a victory. But on another, Dany has turned her rule of Slaver’s Bay into a clown show of long standing, while Stannis is the only man at the moment in any position to rid Westeros — and “Game of Thrones” itself — of the Boltons. As it became clear that the guerrilla raid on Stannis' camp had sealed Shireen’s fate, a part of me was outraged, while another part of me thought, “Well, if it means no more Ramsay on this show…” followed by thoughts of innocent (or innocent-ish) characters I felt more attached to than this poor girl.

And for all of Stannis' obnoxious zealotry, it’s not like he committed this atrocity out of blind faith in Melisandre. He’s seen what she has been capable of doing when empowered by king’s blood (though I did wonder at the choice of burning Shireen, which would make the literal blood very difficult to collect). When he does what she says, his enemies fall, at times through incredible magic; when he ignores her counsel, he gets out-strategized by an imp. In describing the plot of the book that gives the episode its title, Shireen herself points out the destructiveness of her father’s single-minded pursuit of the Iron Throne, and chances are that he’ll never succeed. (Even if he takes out the Boltons, he’ll then have to deal with Littlefinger’s well-rested army.)

And Esquire’s Jacob Hall points out that this episode didn’t really have any winners:

On the other hand, we have a young lady calling herself a queen who has responded to her problems by flying away on a dragon (as one is wont to do). It’s a moment we’ve been waiting for since the first time we heard about ancient Targaryens taking flight on their scaly steeds, but Dany’s ancestors usually did the dragon-riding toward their problems. It was a cool escape, but let’s face the facts—the Mother of Dragons is running away from the total quagmire that her friends, lovers, advisers, and loyal translators are now stranded within. Granted, she ran away like a total baller, but let’s not give her too much credit.

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