Turn Up The Heat

The title of season 5’s penultimate episode refers to the story that poor, ill-fated Shireen is seen reading. As she tells it, “The Dance of Dragons” details the violent, destructive war between two Targaryen siblings. It’s interesting to read into the conflicting reactions she gets from telling the story to father figure Davos Seaworth, who praises the young Princess for her wisdom and for teaching him to “be an adult”, and her actual father Stannis, who interprets the story as justification for what he’s about to do to his only daughter. Shireen’s claim that she wouldn’t have chosen to side with either Targaryen is a clever allegory for the various factions in contention for the rule of Westeros, as none of them are a great choice (yes, perhaps even Daenerys — more on that later). Unfortunately, Stannis is pragmatic to a fault and knows that you always have to choose a side; when that choice involves burning your daughter alive though, it’s hard to justify that you’ve made the right choice, no matter the outcome.

Season 5 has easily been the most controversial, divisive season of Game of Thrones so far. The show has always been notorious for putting viewers’ emotions through a meatgrinder and Stannis’s decision to sacrifice his daughter as a last ditch effort to save his army — and his hope of ever being King — is definitely the most disturbing scene since the Red Wedding, if not of the entire show. Putting aside the debate of whether the show went too far here (probably, but pushing the boundaries of good taste has kind of been this season’s modus operandi), Stannis’s sacrifice is such a thematically-dense event that it demands to be analysed beyond its shock value and how it affects the personal morality of viewers. When Shireen repeats Stannis’s statement from an earlier episode that she is, “Princess Shireen of House Baratheon, and I am your daughter”, it’s a clever inversion on the part of the show’s writers in showing how far Stannis has fallen from that earlier scene of fatherly affection.

The most agonizing part of the sacrifice scene is the fact that nobody tries to halt the murder of a young girl. It’s a difficult scene to watch, but it’s also amazingly well-shot and assembled. Kerry Ingram, the actress who plays Shireen, belts out appropriately soul-crushing screams while her mother Selyse, who has never had anything but contempt for her child, finally falls to the ground in despair, seemingly putting aside her fanaticism for a moment to realize that her only daughter is being burned alive in front of her. Whether this brutal display actually accomplishes anything positive remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say that Stannis has instantly joined Ramsay at the top of the show’s “most hated” list.

Mercifully, “The Dance of Dragons” wraps-up with a scene that feels suitably epic given the pedigree of prior seasons’ 9th episodes and after the dramatic low point of Shireen’s death, an epic clash in a gladiatorial arena featuring beheadings and dragon fire is probably the only way this episode could end satisfyingly. The extended scene starts off relatively low-key, featuring a clash that feels like a lower-budget scene out of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. There is some clever banter from Dany’ s bodyguard/lover Daario, who teases her husband-to-be Hizdhar about his lack of fighting experience and makes numerous veiled references to his bedroom trysts with the Queen. Tyrion, now officially part of Dany’s entourage, offers perhaps the best criticism of the bloody fighting pits when he observes that the world if full of enough death already, he can do without it in his “leisure time’. Once Jorah reveals himself and starts fighting in the pits, the scene really starts to heat up. The disgraced knight’s timely spear throw reveals a mass assassination plot, with the Sons of the Harpy making a dramatic entrance, a sea of them having been present in the crowds all along.

Although the proceeding clash doesn’t live up to the White Walker battle from last week’s episode, it still proves to be one of the most exciting, tense battles Game of Thrones has ever put on screen…and that’s even before the dragon arrives. Seeing Dany’s enemies roasted alive by dragon fire turns out to be a clever contrast with the emotional devastation the element causes in Stannis’s camp.This juxtaposition is something of a cathartic outlet, given how rare it is to see the show’s villains punished for their misdeeds. The return of Dany’s wayward dragon Drogon not only functions as a thrilling “in the nick of time” setpiece, but also serves as a critique of Dany’s abilities as a ruler. Tyrion in particular has made several comments in the past about having to judge for himself whether Daenerys is the right person to rule the Seven Kingdoms and that divine right doesn’t mean someone will be any good at it.

This episode does a great job of comparing and contrasting Stannis and Dany as leaders. Stannis has fallen into complete fanaticism and clearly will go to any length to achieve his goals, but he’s also only ever had success when listening to Mellisandre’s advice. Looking suitably worn and haggard, Stannis comes to the conclusion that burning his daughter alive is justified because it is the only way out. That being said, Stannis’s extremism and skewed morality make him ill-fit to rule (how could a populace have faith in a man who will kill his own daughter on the possibility that doing so will magically fix everything?) Dany, in contrast, has many of the right qualities to be an effective leader. Unfortunately, much like her excessively long list of titles, Dany may have too many conflicting desires to be the right ruler. As she rides off on her dragon at the end of the episode, she’s also abandoning every one of her allies to possible death. She’s still far and away the best candidate to sit on the Iron Throne, but much like Tyrion points out: just because she can tame and ride a dragon, does this automatically entitle her to the throne? As usual, Game of Thrones offers no clear-cut answers.

These two central scenes are so dramatically dense that everything else in “The Dance of Dragons” feels insignificant by comparison. As with most weeks, everything that happens in Dorne feels like it’s taking place on a completely different show. Jaime gets to take Myrcella and her beau Trystane back to King’s Landing, Bronn gets released from prison, and even the Sand Snakes seem to be comfortable with how things are playing out. There is no urgency to this storyline at all and it might be the worst in the show’s history. The other plot involves Arya and her tracking of Meryn Trant, the disgusting Kingsguard whom she conveniently spots at the docks. Arya tracks him to a brothel, where we learn that Trant is something of a pedophile (just to help emphasize that he’s a really BAD guy and we shouldn’t like him) and it seems pretty clear that he will be the target of Arya’s first assassination. However, given how frequently this season has dipped into sexual violence as a storytelling device, it will be miraculous if Arya gets out of this without being sexually assaulted in some way.

“The Dance of Dragons” continues the up-tick in quality initiated by last week’s “Hardhome” by being an exciting, emotional, and complex episode overall. Again, most of the quality stems from a few key scenes, but that’s generally always been the case with a show spinning as many plates as Game of Thrones does. While Shireen’s death is an agonizing scene to witness (if you’re a parent, it’s probably doubly so), but it’s still a significant event that is satisfying on a dramatic level because it is setup logically and earns its emotional resonance. Game of Thrones challenges our values and morality on an almost weekly basis and “The Dance of Dragons” continues that theme. It also has the highest quotient of dragon-burning of any episode yet, so it’s pretty much an instant classic on those terms alone.

Other Events This Week:

– Tensions are looking like they’re set to boil over at any moment at the wall. The chilling look that Olly gives Jon is as clear a sign as any that the young Lord Commander has some trouble coming his way soon. As if an army of ice zombies wasn’t bad enough, Jon might have a mutiny on his hands as well.

– Given the tragedy that follows, the touching farewell scene between Davos and Shireen only becomes more poignant. It’s hard to imagine that the Onion Knight will continue to stand by Stannis’s side now.

– Dany and Missandei’s hand-holding is a tender moment in the middle of all the chaos…until it’s pretty much rendered meaningless by Dany’s abandonment mere minutes later.

– Huh. Turns out Ramsay really did only need 20 men to mess up Stannis’s encampments. Who would have thought?

9
Incredible
Execution pyres and dragon fire make The Dance of Dragons a tragic, but stunning episode and one of the season's best.