There are two types of Episode Nines in Game of Thrones. The first is the big plot-heavy episodes that bring us to the climax of many of the show’s big stories throughout the season. The other are the more tightly focused big budget battle episodes. The Dance of Dragons was definitely more the former but the ending certainly had the spectacle of the latter.
So I suppose that we should start with Stannis, the Mannis, Baratheon and what he is willing to do in order to sit on the Iron Throne. In a way, that’s all that Stannis’ journey has been. We’ve seen him burn sacrifices to the Lord of Light. He’s burned leaches filled with King’s blood to kill enemies. He even had his own brother killed by a smoke monster.
As I mentioned back in the review of The Gift, all of the focus on Shireen hasn’t been about greyscale or making us like Stannis more. It was about showing how far Stannis is willing to go to claim the Iron Throne. While the lengths he’s willing to go have been illustrated before, what he did was never really that personal to him.
In being given the choice to sacrifice Shireen, we finally got a chance to see what was the priority for Stannis. Unfortunately for Shireen, Stannis’ priority is no longer his family but claiming his birthright and take the Iron Throne.
It makes me question what the writers have been doing this season. Stannis might have been the last best prospective ruler of the Seven Kingdoms that was competent and had the support of the viewers. Then he goes and does something like burning his daughter alive as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light in order to ensure victory in the upcoming battle against the Boltons. A child burning policy usually doesn’t go over too well with the general population.
Perhaps the lesson from this latest moment of insanity with Stannis is that there is no one to really cheer for in Game of Thrones. It’s just people that we hate less than the rest. Stannis ascended to least hateable alternative to Lannister rule in King’s Landing thanks to the fact that he was focused on saving the Seven Kingdoms from the impending Whitewalker assault and by being a decent father. I’m not sure one could call a man that lets his daughter be burned at the stake the father of the year.
The irony is that all it took was Stannis going way too far to swap who was playing the role of good parent. Stannis was the only Baratheon that seemed to care for Shireen until this episode. It wasn’t until Shireen was being burned as a sacrifice that Selyse became a mother again after seeming to resent her daughter for having greyscale and surviving.
In their usual post-show insights, Weiss and Benihoff admit that it was George R. R. Martin who came up with the idea to kill off Shireen in this way. In retrospect, it seems kind of obvious that Martin came up with this idea before the season otherwise Dan and Dave wouldn’t have spent the previous episodes building up Stannis as one of Westeros’ great fathers to go along with his title as one of the great military commanders in Westeros. He heads into the end of the season as neither.
It just seems like an awful lazy way to jerk the audience around. I remember previously lamenting that one of The Walking Dead’s favourite tricks is not giving a background character any character until immediately before killing them off. While Stannis always loved Shireen, we never really saw it brought to the forefront until this season. And then they used that as a means to get people to care about Shireen and then break their hearts.
So that leaves us with one episode left this season and many viewers rooting for the Boltons who they hated some three weeks ago because Ramsay raped Sansa. It’s funny how quickly people are willing to change their mind and forget some past horror when they were strung along into this like puppets. I supposed Dan and Dave did their job superbly in one sense. In another, they’re capable of doing so much better.
Meanwhile, in Meereen, the great fighting pit of Meereen, which seems to be akin to the Roman Coliseum, hosted its first great event under the rule of Queen Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.
There were a few highlights from this scene. The opening “helicopter” (in quotes because it’s clearly a fully-CGI representation on-screen) showed the epic scale of the popularity of the fighting pits in Meereen and might have been the biggest sea of people depicted in the show. There was also the many comebacks of Jorah Mormont who kept getting his ass handed to him before landing a spear through the last fighter’s stomach. That also probably lead most everyone watching, including Tyrion, to screaming at Jorah to make sure the guy was actually dead because we know the importance of the second rule of Zombieland (double tap).
When Jorah threw the spear at the royal box, I assumed he was trying to off the curly-haired fellow (whose name I can’t be arsed to look up) but he saved everyone from a Sons of the Harpy sneak attack. That begs the question what the Unsullied and Second Sons were up to. A multitude of armed, mask-wearing homicidal maniacs just walk into the fighting pit and no one notices? Also, the Unsullied have to be the worst best fighting force in Essos at close quarters combat.
That leads us to the final highlight of this scene. Surrounded by the Sons of the Harpy, it’s time for deus ex Drogon. Okay, I get exactly what was happening but I thought that was too good a line to pass on. Drogon, somehow sensing Dany’s anticipated demise, flew in to the rescue, torching and chomping Sons of the Harpy whenever they got too close. Then it was deus ex spears when the Sons start pelting Drogon with spears out of nowhere. I assume they stole them from the Unsullied but there were a lot of spears.
But then we got the latest great Dany moment of the series with her finally mounting a dragon and flying away on him as we have heard about so many times in stories of Targaryens past. Much like Drogon torching villains for the first time or the second time, this was another one of those “postcard” moments for the show.
Since I’ve been talking about Stannis’ birthright of the rule from the Iron Throne, I think it’s worth mentioning that the stewardship of dragons is the Targaryen birthright. As the last surviving family of Valyria and the only family that has dragons in their family history. Dany mounting Drogon and flying away, even though it wasn’t flying him into battle, is, in a sense, Dany fulfilling her birthright as a Targaryen.
And since folks weren’t happy with me last week, I will say that Emilia Clarke is better when she’s just allowed to emote rather than try to go toe-to-toe with Peter Dinklage. The little moments right near the end with Missandei and Drogon were great work.
Granted, Dinklage was probably better at emoting this week too. From his swallowing too hard when Daario said that the smaller fighter usually triumphs over the big one to the long looks at Drogon, Dinklage caught so much of Tyrion’s experiences in just a couple of small looks.
And in Braavos, Arya’s turn as Lana the Oyster Girl was an unmitigated failure. Her assassination of a ship insurance salesman seemed near a slam dunk until she spied the arrival of Master of Coin, Mace Tyrell, and his personally-assigned King’s Guardsman, Ser Meryn Trant. Trant, as you will recall, is on Arya’s kill list for killing Sirio Forel even though any boy whore with a sword could beat three Meryn Trants.
I’m assuming this ends in one of two ways. Either Arya’s planned assassination of the insurance salesman was all a setup by Jaqen H’ghar to lead her to assassinating Meryn Trant or she’s going to do such a bad job becoming one of the Faceless that Jaqen will send her packing without teaching her the ways of the force. Granted, at this point, I’m not sure if Jaqen is supposed to be some sort of assassin Yoda or just some religious nut.
Anyway, as if we didn’t have enough reason to want to see Arya kill Ser Meryn, we also found out that he’s a pedophile. I get the annoying feeling seeing that will give Arya an idea of how to get close enough to Meryn to kill him.
Overall, while this wasn’t as good as last week’s episode, I think this is probably the third best of the Episode Nines behind Rains of Castamere and Blackwater. That’s not exactly putting it in the realm of damned with faint praise. The standards for the penultimate episode are so high that nothing but a masterpiece will satisfy. As great as The Dance of Dragons was, I’m not sure it’ll be allowed to reach masterpiece levels.
Other random points of note:
- For all the times that Mace Tyrell was portrayed as a bumbling idiot, he certainly got to look like a boss in this episode.
- That tease of the possibility of Ser Alliser not letting Jon and the Wildlings through the wall was all for naught, wasn’t it?
- I’m fairly certain there’s no such thing as a bad scene with Bronn in it.
- Can Stannis keep marching south is he needs to sacrifice someone with King’s blood every time he’s about to enter a major battle?
- Ramsay OP. Pls nerf.
Next week, Season Five comes to a close. Bolstered by his sacrifice to the Lord of Light, Stannis marches his army on Winterfell. Cersei appears to be facing her judgment at the hands of the High Sparrow. Jon faces a tough decision about something unspecified but either to do with Stannis or the Wildlings. Sansa looks to be confronting Ramsay while Brienne lies in wait. And Tyrion, Daario and Jorah sit around waiting for Dany to turn up. Okay, I’m sure it’s more exciting than that. There are a lot of loose ends to be tied up in one final hour called Mother’s Mercy.