A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Dance of Dragons was a brutal, heartbreaking hour that exhibited the most disturbing, harrowing death I’ve perhaps ever witnessed on any screen. It left me physically revolted in ways very few scenes even on Game of Thrones have, the revulsion crafting itself into a mental one as the evening went on. Part of that conversion was because of the sheer trauma of what was being displayed, coupled with a naive, fervent hope that someone, perhaps Ser Davos, would run back to the rescue. But on Game of Thrones, there is no rescue, there has never been any rescue, and there wasn’t one here. Perhaps part of that revulsion was because I am a parental figure myself to an eleven-year-old child and the first thing I did before driving was call back home and make sure that he didn’t need anything, that he was okay. But I would like to believe that one doesn’t have to be a parent to feel absolutely torn, that everyone who watched that episode found their hearts being torn apart by Drogon’s teeth as Shireen was burned at the stake. The Dance of Dragons at its heart is an episode where everyone is doing a dance between themselves, straddling a line and finding it utterly impossible not to fall on either side of it. The story Shireen was reading to Ser Davos is, outside of being a shoutout to the title of the fifth book, about the literal Dance of Dragons that occurred centuries ago, a Targaryen civil war where even dragons fought each other. When Stannis asks Shireen whom she would choose in the civil war, she says that she wouldn’t be able to make such a terrible choice, knowingly casting her lot in a situation so wrought with wanton cruelty and bloodshed. But there’s always a choice to be made on Game of Thrones and tonight, everyone made the ultimate choice that proves who they really are and there’s no turning back.
The episode opens with Ramsay’s attack on Stannis’s camp, which apparently works a lot better than what I had assumed at the end of last week. Being at least a semi-intelligent psychopath, Ramsay and his men go after the supply caravans and stables and set them on fire. The laxity of the Baratheon guards frankly stretches logic, but it happens quickly enough that it doesn’t irritate me significantly. A starving, freezing Baratheon camp finds their situation exacerbated to the point of no return and it pushes Stannis beyond the realm of desperation. Scene by scene the episode layers in the inevitable decision Stannis makes, each moment crushingly excruciating with a uniform dread. Her sequence with Ser Davos simply broke my heart into pieces, his quiet promise of coming back from Castle Black in a couple of days playing out like Karsi’s promise to her children last week that she would be right behind them. Their relationship is the parentage that Shireen deserved, the one adult in her life who was always there for her through thick and thin, who listened to her and made her feel as if her very existence mattered when she was shut off from the entire world. For a child stuck in a quarantine and made to feel as if she was some deceased mutant meant to be despised, there is little hope in the world but Davos’s love gave her that lifeline to find some happiness that she could latch onto. The moment Stannis ordered him to Castle Black to pick up supplies, the deal was sealed. Even if Ser Davos turned back and rides as fast as humanly possible and faster, he would be far, far too late.
The notions of sacrifices have been around since the very dawn of civilization, mirrored famously in Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac and the sacrificial sequence in Homer’s The Iliad. In the latter, the Greek fleet is unable to sail to Troy due to a intransigent winds, which in and of itself were punishments for Agamemnon killing a deer in a sacred grove dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon received advice from the seer Calchas that he needed to sacrifice his eldest daughter Iphigenia in order to lift the winds so he could sail to the Anatolian coast and he brings his daughter to the sacrificial altar under the guise of her marriage to Achilles. It’s difficult not to see the parallels Martin is drawing here (the sequence is apparently a spoiler from The Winds of Winter) as Stannis enters the tent and replies to his sweet daughter’s question of if she can help him with a quiet, understated “there is.” As Iphigenia was led to her death, the guards walked Shireen down the aisle towards something she thought was to help her father, the princess helping her king. As soon as she saw the pyre, her imminent fate dawned on her eyes. There is nothing, nothing, that compares to Shireen screaming at the top of her voice for her mother and father as Melisandre makes her usual bullshit speech about the dawn of light. As she screams “Mother”, even Selyse, the hardcore fundamentalist, can’t tolerate her daughter’s pain. She runs forward, horror escaping her visage as guards pin her down into the snow. Stannis made his choice, but from the “nooo…” escaping Selyse’s lips, it’s clear that it’s a choice that cost him whatever was left of his soul. The egalitarian Stannis made that sacrifice to earn the glory of being Azor Ahai, but no triumph could ever wipe out the screams of the little girl who believed the best in everyone, who had been tethered perhaps more so than anyone to humanity itself.
Dorne gets something resembling a cohesive plot here and everyone makes a choice that’s truer to who they are at heart versus who they might appear to want to be. Doran has the option and the legal right to execute Jaime and Bronn at a single wave of his hand, but he opts for diplomacy instead by sending his son to King’s Landing to take Oberyn’s empty seat on the Small Council. Ellaria has the choice of either being executed in defiance or bending the knee and she ultimately chooses the latter. Perhaps she’s realizing the stupidity of her revenge quest, putting on a performance to mask her true intentions, or a mix of both. Trystane (who does something besides make out with his fiancé), has the option of doling out justice to Bronn and he repays in kind, noting that his father had taught him the power of mercy. As mercy goes, Arya abounds the wicked Thin Man insurance guy in favor of pursuing the wicked Meryn Trant instead. Ever since she first appeared inside the House of Black and White, the mantra has been that she has to leave behind Arya Stark if she ever wants to become a Faceless Men. That proposition is inherently self-contradictory since Arya more than anything wanted to become a Faceless Man for the sake of taking revenge on those who had harmed Arya Stark and those she loved. Lanna, the Cat of the Canals, has no hatred, love, or any other feeling towards Meryn Trant. She would serve the Thin Man his oysters, he would die, and she would move on. She would not follow Trant into a Braavosi brothel to sell oysters, discover Trant’s pedophilia (as if we didn’t have enough reason to hate him already), and clearly formulate a plan. She certainly wouldn’t lie to Jaqen about the Thin Man not being hungry. But Arya isn’t Lanna or whomever she becomes. She’s Arya Stark and after the choice she’s made here, there’s no escaping that.
The tour de force sequence that closes out the hour is the most literal interpretation of the title. The gladiatorial combat of Daznak’s Pit is designed clearly to create echoes of the Coliseum of Roman times, designed to provide bread and circus entertainment before Powell’s Bookstore and Netflix were available. Daenerys looks disgusted by the entire affair, the expression on her face leaving nothing to the imagination. In a beautifully directed moment from David Nutter, Daenerys reluctantly claps her hands and the entire Meereeneese stadium stands up and roars. The fight that grabs her attention, however, is that of a Westerosi knight. Unlike a couple of the fights this season, the choreography here is absolutely thrilling, Jorah’s death seemingly imminent with every other move. Suddenly Jorah’s spear goes hurtling towards Danny’s pavilion, breaking the quiet moment of respite and killing a Harpy that was mere inches away from killing the Queen. Chaos erupts throughout the stadium as the Harpies overwhelm the games, seemingly murdering Hizdahr and encircling our protagonists. Daenerys had made peace with Jorah and as the Harpies close in around her, she grasps Missandei’s hands, making peace with what seems like her imminent death. Then a dragon roars. Drogon’s appearance captures the feel of Martin’s text perfectly as he tears apart the Harpies to protect his mother. Spears begin to fly at Drogon and Daenerys in an effort to protect her child climbs aboard his back. “Valahd,” she whispers quietly and Drogon lifts off into the air to Ramin Djawadi’s incredible score, inspiring fear and awe in equal measure to all those who remained alive. This is who Daenerys is and in that moment that she flewon Drogon, the smiles on her face were indicative that this is truly where she belongs, that this is truly who she is. She has been compromising for the sake of appeasing the nobility of Meereen for so long at this point that the chaos erupting in the fighting pits only serves as further proof that the city is a lost cause. As Daenerys flies off above the skyline of Meereen, the towering Great Pyramid behind her, she appears to choose her heritage as a Targaryen, her bond with Drogon over the bond she has with Meereen. Daenerys has been at this moment reborn and in this dark, bleak world that just became the darkest it’s ever been, a rebirth is something to cherish, however small its bright light seemingly may be.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“You have a good heart, Jon Snow.”
+“I never miss.”
+“You like humiliation or pain?”
+“You’re the world’s best gamblers.”
+“Perhaps that is why a man is thin.”
+Ellaria noting Jamie and Cersei’s relationship
+“I think it’s poetic.”
+“A man knows what he is and remains true to himself.” Yeah, in that case, you’re a fucking dick, Stannis. Die and die horribly.
+The production and visual design of Daznak’s Pit was beyond astounding. I especially loved the statue of the two combatants fighting that was established in the first shot as a meeting between the East and the West. I got the image of someone in the likeness of Sargon of Akkad, the first emperor in world history, fighting a Spartan.
+“Has your experience ever involved any actual fighting?”
+“There has always been more than enough death in the world for my taste.”
+“It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favor.”
+“That is greatness?”
+“My father would have liked you.” I miss Tywin.
+“One day your great city will return to the dirt as well.”
+“In my experience, eloquent men are right every bit as often as imbeciles.”
+Daenerys’s smile towards Tyrion after the quote right above
-The geography of Jon’s return really doesn’t make any sense. They just had to look at a map, dammit.
-Mace Tyrell notes a king called Maegor III, but the Targaryens, after Maegor I’s legendary cruelty, there was never another Maegor on the throne
Title: The Dance of Dragons
Written By: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Directed By: David Nutter
Image Courtesy: HBO