In case anyone has forgotten, “Game of Thrones” has firmly reestablished that its mother material is the series A Song of Ice and Fire. Last week’s episode, “Hardhome,” left us all with a chilling coldness that was blasted away this week. “The Dance of Dragons” was on fire. Literally. And that fire wasn’t contained to just one place, person, or thing. The episode begins with fire and keeps on burning to the very last second. Was this one of the best episodes this season? Yes, because it doesn’t drag everyone down with politics and nuances and confessions. Was it better than last week’s? I think so. If you’re emotionally invested in these characters – and let’s be honest, who isn’t? – you get more than Jon Snow, Tormund, and Edd in pain as the boats leave and the dead rise. This week, we see resolutions to some of this and past seasons biggest questions. How far will Stannis go to appease the Red God, and will king’s blood save them from a cold winter siege outside Winterfell? Will Dornish Prince Doran Martell make Jaime and Bronn pay for their attempt to kidnap Princess Myrcella and their attack on Prince Trystane, or will the sands of Dorne be stained red with blood ? What will Arya do about the Thin Man, and is she ready for what the Many Faced God and Jaqen H’ghar are asking of her? Can a wolf become a Cat? (That’s for you, bookies!) Can Daenerys – who is trapped on the Meereenese throne, married to a Meereenese man she detests, and forced to follow macabre Meereenese customs, like the fighting pit matches, that are a strain on her conscience – be saved from herself and the Sons of Harpies that are slowly tightening their deadly grip on her?
While compassion was the saving grace for Jon Snow after his tragic loss at Hardhome, that was an emotion limited to the Wall. Many in the Night’s Watch hate Jon for helping the Wildlings in any way. Even if the other brothers do believe in White Walkers and worse, it doesn’t mean they don’t loathe their new Lord Commander for his decisions – be they right or wrong. Sam is stalwartly in Jon’s corner, though, as is Dolorous Edd, Tormund, the Wilding giant Wun Wun (Ian Whyte), and many other Wildings who have seen what is coming as winter settles. Jon is angry at himself for the deaths at Hardhome and says he failed them; as the line of Wildlings walks past, Sam points out all the Wildlings Jon didn’t fail as they walk into Castle Black. If only we could all have a friend like Samwell Tarly.
Prince Doran proved that he had little to no spine in his political dealings with the Lannisters and King’s Landing, even if he is only keeping his cards close to his vest; Jaime proved again what an ass he is by letting Areo Hotah, Doran’s bodyguard, exact some vengeance on Bronn. Just when it seems like Jaime is maturing and growing as a character, he goes and lets sarcasm win out. As much fun as his insults (or lack thereof) can be, Jaime needs to act his age every once in a while. Poor Bronn. He’s been the victim of many barbs and jests from Tyrion (up until last season), and now Jaime doesn’t mind Bronn getting jailed and beat up, even when all the poor man wants is a piece of pie! At least Tyrion kept Bronn fed. Poor guy. As far as Dorne went this season, the storylines have been disappointing and anticlimactic.
Stannis’ siege preparations outside Winterfell go up in flame and smoke when Ramsay shows what he can do with 20 men. Although we don’t see the Boltons or any action directly from Winterfell, the resulting damage to Stannis’ troops force him into a horrible position. Even Davos isn’t able to save his king this time and there’s not going back from what Stannis decides. This scene was one of the most disturbing things yet for “Game of Thrones,” and that’s after the rape of Sansa Stark just a few episodes ago. While we saw another touching moment between Ser Davos and Shireen, the duplicity of Stannis only builds and I can’t decide if I hate Melisandre or him more, or I want both of them to be sacrifices to their Lord of Light. What god would accept such cruelty and bless his followers afterwards?
Arya busies herself selling shellfish and has a plan worked out for the Thin Man… until that boat carrying Mace Tyrell and Ser Meryn Trant arrive at the docks. When she sees them, whatever intentions she had shift immediately. It was hard to tell if Arya was afraid of being recognized by Trant or was waiting for the perfect moment, but her showing this week was, well, not up to what I expected. Will she be amazing and surprise us all with something brilliantly terrifying next week? Undoubtedly. Will we once more hear “valar morghulis” before season 5 ends? I’d bet money we do. Aside from the dark, disturbing, disgusting soul that is Trant and his sexual preferences, there was a bit of brightness in Braavos. It was hilarious to see Mace Tyrell (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) put his arm around
Mycroft Holmes Tycho Nestoris (Mark Gatiss) and start singing, even if that singing was a bit painful. For the few moments he appears on screen, Mark Gatiss has been a treasure on “Game of Thrones.”
Moving right along, the show ends in Meereen. Daenerys has opened the fighting pit and, with Tyrion next to her husband, Missandei by her side, and Daario Neharis over her shoulder, she commences the games to begin. Seeing Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clark share the screen together makes me feel like Christmas has come early. Daario Neharis is faithfully protects his queen and scares Hizdahr zo Loraq a great deal, though the exchange between Hizdahr and Tyrion, interspersed with Dany’s pointed comments about fighting for your life, is a show winner as far as dialogue goes. Even the moments when Tyrion is only listening as Hizdahr says that shorter men never win (in the pit), it’s very obvious that Hizdahr disapproves of another Westerosi – particularly the short, bearded, scarred Westerosi Tyrion Lannister – around his queenly wife. Does it matter in the end? No. No Westerosi nor Essosi could save Daenerys, her friends, her guards, or her people when the axe suddenly falls, even though many try. And yet a final deus ex machina appears with a single command: valahd.
The emotional investment in this episode, as I said earlier, is much higher than last week’s. Jon, Tormund, and the Night’s Watch meeting up with the Hardhome Wildlings and the ensuing fight and tragic retreat is too short. The only characters we know and could have grown attached to are Jon, Tormund, and Edd. Maybe the giant, maybe Karsi (Birgette Hjort Sørensen), the Wildling woman who put her daughters on the boats and reminded me of Osha in her looks, attitude, and maternal fierceness. But that’s it – five characters at the most. This week, we have to worry about Jon, Tormund, Edd, Wun Wun, Karsi’s two daughters, and the remaining/surviving Hardhome Wildlings; Shireen and Davos in Stannis’ siege party (okay, maybe you like Stannis, Selyse, and/or Melisandre, too… for the moment); Arya, Jaqen H’ghar, and the women of Braavos; Jaime, Bronn, Myrcella, the Sand Snakes, Ellaria Sand, and Prince Doran down in the Dornish sun; and Dany, Tyrion, Jorah, Daario, Missandei, and the Unsullied (maybe Hizdahr, if you like him).
This ninth episode absolutely lived up to its four previous position holders: will we remain the fires that burned in “The Dance of Dragons” as well as we remember the beheading of Ned Stark, the Battle of Blackwater Bay, the Red Wedding, and the Wildling band v. the ragtag Night’s Watch group? Absolutely. At this point in a television show, we all have characters we love and hate and are “meh” about. There is still something deep inside, though, that, if it involves a child, we react to that travesty or happiness almost primally. When the fake Stark boys were killed, tarred, and strung up above Winterfell, you had to feel something. How could “Game of Thrones” have done that to Bran and Rickon? When Cersei was raped by Jaime, her own beloved twin, last season, something in your stomach lurched that made you want to turn away. It had nothing to do with liking Cersei or Jaime. It had to to with what was happening to Cersei and it being disgustingly wrong. The same thing with Sansa’s rape – it was horrible and horrifying. How could these characters live in such a cruel world where anyone at any age (especially the woman) are nothing but prey for another? This week, take that feeling of “this is terribly wrong” and keep multiplying it. Remember Hardhome and add to that. There are so many wrong things that happen, be they done by family or spouses or yet unknown persons, that you feel sick. I did. In the middle of this episode, I was sick – even before the Meereenese started killing each other for a fun day out. The ending and upward note of possible triumph in the face of tragedy did save “The Dance of Dragons” from being unwatchable, but just barely.
Much like the Westerosi historical Dance of Dragons, this episode is one that will live for years in the memories of fans, especially coming on the heels of the frosty fight at Hardhome. Never forget that “Game of Thrones” is always A Song of Ice and Fire. Much like Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice,” George RR Martin’s epic world is slowly collapsing and coming to some kind of end; what that end will be, dear viewers, we shall see in the next few years.
To say nothing else, next week’s season 5 finale, “Mother’s Mercy,” should be very interesting. It airs on Sunday, June 14th, at 9pm Eastern/8pm Central. Check out the preview below!