Game of Thrones Revisited: 5.09 The Dance Of Dragons
Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And this year, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros, continuing with season five's brutal ninth episode The Dance Of Dragons...
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
The ninth episode of a Game of Thrones season became synonymous with something huge happening, an event that would alter the course of the show. There were huge spectacles like the episode-long battles of Blackwater and The Watchers on the Wall or more personal, tragic affairs likes Ned Stark's beheading in Baelor and the murder of Robb, Talisa and Catelyn at the infamous Red Wedding of The Rains of Castamere. The ninth episode of season five sits closer to the latter camp, continuing to flit between various storylines and ending with something big. But there isn't the emotional intensity that came with the death of the Starks or a big battle. Perhaps if Hardhome had come ninth in the season, it might have carried on the tradition of the episode nines before it. That isn't to say The Dance of Dragons isn't a strong episode; it just doesn't have the impact of those before it.
The tragic, heart-breaking moment of the episode is in the death of Shireen, the loveable princess that has added some warmth to the very cold character of Stannis Baratheon. He has never been a particularly likeable character and you cannot forget that he has had friends and allies burned at the stake before at Melisandre's behest. But with his camp ravaged by attacks in the night by Bollton men and the blizzards blocking his army's march to Winterfell, the desperation sees him commit one act too far.
If Sansa's rape and continued abuse by Ramsey leaves season five with a somewhat unsavoury reputation, than having Shireen dragged to a pyre and burned alive to satisfy the God of Light - all to give Stannnis good fortune - really is a step too far. Game of Thrones has taken its audiences down some very dark paths but burning a little girl alive really feels like a misstep. It's traumatising to see her pleas to her father, not quite believing that the man she just hugged would do this and even stalwart believer Selyse finally breaks. Thankfully the audience is spared the visuals of her death but her screams are enough. There is a line between drama and tragedy and the horrible moment we witness. At least, it is something that leads to Stannis's undoing by the end of the season, any hope of redemption lost by this hideous act.
Far less dramatic, are the scenes in Dorne as Jamie sits down to negotiate with Doran Martell to negotiate peace. It's all rather anticlimactic, though at least there's some intrigue with Ellaria who feigns her allegiance to Doran and plays the dutiful host. The sand snakes again play their game with Bronn, but continue to feel two dimensional, particularly when facing off against Jerome Flynn's enigmatic performance.
The Braavos scenes with Arya also offer further growth in her storyline as she takes up the guise of a young girl trading seafood as part of her mission to murder an insurer at the docks. It is the arrival of Ser Meryn Trant with Lord Tyrell that changes the course of her journey. Trant was the man who murdered her beloved teacher Syrio Forel and earned a place on Arya's list. His appearance in Braavos finally sees her old life converge with the new. Trant has always been a villain, played with a gruff gusto by Ian Beattie, and this episode sees him become even more of a despicable character in the scene at the brothel, picking a girl for his bed after proclaiming that all the choices available were too young. His comeuppance next episode will be a satisfying end to his character, even if it has bigger consequences for Arya herself.
The death of Shireen aside, The Dance of Dragons is memorable for the climatic scenes at the great fighting pit of Mereen. It really is a grand, if disturbing spectacle with a tense build up as Daenerys is exposed to guts and glory of the tournament. The mix of horror and gore with the banter between the observers is well directed; the rivalry between Daario and Hizdahr so Loraq, Tyrion cutting through Hizdahr's ralemwrks about tradition and Daenerys mocking Hizdahr about his ability to fight. It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for the Mereenese nobleman.
The performances by Emilia Clarke and Iain Glen as Daenerys comes face to face with Jorah and his victories in the pit, are amazing. Without a word of dialogue, she conveys her delight, anger and hesitation; she doesn't want him to die in battle, but his betrayal still cuts deep. The scene is packed with tension as he narrowly avoided a grizzly death while she watches on, unable to intervene. Jordan's stoic stance as he comes face to face with his queen, conveying sorry and guilt and love with a single look, speaks to the deep nature of their strained relationship.
Even then, there was something rather unsettling as he raised a spear towards her and launched the weapon in her direction; the slaying of the Son of the Harpy sneaking towards her sets the scene for an absolutely thrilling sequence as the sons attack and all hell breaks loose in the arena. The sight of the good-masked killers slaughtering the fleeing crowds, closing in on the characters we know and love, is brutal and tense, Daario and Jorah the only ones able to get Daenerys, Missandei and Tyrion to safety. The death of Hizdahr is a curveball, as the season was playing him up to be behind the sons of the harpy, while there are moments for heroics all round as Tyrion saves Missandei's life.
The appearance of Drogon amid the chaos, as the characters and their Unsullied guard find themselves surrounded by superior Sons of the Harpy forces, is a joyous moment. But even with the appearance of a dragon clawing and burning his way through the enemy, the stakes are still high. With the Sons closing in a hair's breath from Daenerys's group and the dragon taking one hit with a spear after another, there is a real sense that they might not make it out alive. Daenerys saving Drogon by leading him away from the arena is a jaw-dropping moment to close the episode on, but it does raise the question of what happened to the others; did the sight if a dragon convince enough of the Sons of the Harpy to flee and give them a chance of escape?
This one gaping question aside, it is a strong, dramatic closing chapter on the Sons of the Harpy storyline that has dominated Mereen this season, ending it in a thrilling, brutal spectacle. It doesn't quite elevate The Dance of Dragons to the episode nines of before, but mixed with the horrific murder of Shireen, there is enough drama to make it one of the strongest episodes of the fifth season. After Hardhome of course. Nothing was ever going to top that.