Review of “Dance of Dragons”
The powerful but incredibly disturbing buildup to Shireen’s death weaved throughout Season 5’s ninth episode, and provides the most weight to this episode, good or bad. Because of the inconsistent material in two of the season’s weaker storylines, and the exciting but logistically problematic climax at Mereen, “Dance of Dragons” was the most mixed episode for me. I was thrilled, I was perplexed, and (concerning the material with Stannis) I was both viscerally angry and very impressed. “The Dance of Dragons” was imperfect, with one particularly well-done sequence that raises the quality of the episode, while also complicating my personal feelings towards it.
I will eventually discuss the burning of Shireen, but I am going to begin the review by quickly articulated my thoughts on the material with Arya and Jaime. Last week I criticized the show for taking Arya’s small scale storyline and stretching it out over an entire season. Never has her storyline felt more stretched than in this episode. Every moment felt like such a long time to provide somewhat uninteresting buildup to an event that doesn’t occur in the episode. And the event in question, the possible murder of Meryn Trant, the somewhat forgettable henchman who killed Syrio Forel, is only slightly more interesting than the will-she-kill-the-corrupt-gambler conflict they were building up to beforehand.
I didn’t hate the scenes in Dorne (I actually kind of enjoyed the interactions between Jaime and the Martell family), but the ease with which Jaime got everything he wanted makes the whole storyline feel pointless. Meanwhile, the character moments weren’t very strong here. Nymeria and Tyene’s sibling rivalry makes them more annoying than interesting, and Ellaria’s change of heart concerning Myrcella and Jaime was pretty unbelievable. I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen the last of this storyline, so I’m really hoping the climax redeems some of this buildup, but it was more perplexing than entertaining in this episode.
The episode ended with the Fighting Pits of Mereen. Now, I think a lot of what they did here was good. Jorah’s fighting the other champions showed off some great choreography. Jorah throwing the spear into the stands to kill a Son of the Harpy was shocking (even though I knew that an attack from the extremist group was coming up). The Sons of the Harpy have been a convincingly creepy group of villains since the beginning of the season, and they didn’t disappoint here. The bloody clusterf—k that occurs was really tense and exciting. I was almost convinced it was the end for Daenerys when she held Missandei’s hand…and then Drogon shows up to save the day, endangering himself for his mother before she climbs on top of him and flies out of the city.
I will say that there were some logistical issues that distracted me from what was overall a thrilling sequence. I buy that Drogon sensed his mother being in danger, but it does feel kind of convenient that he was hanging out relatively nearby in order to save her. (Last we saw him, he was flying over Valyria). And when she leaves, I kept wondering what was going to happen to her friends that she had left behind. After all, the situation down there was dangerous enough for Drogon that she flew him out of there, so wouldn’t it be even more dangerous for her small group of human advisors?
And I’m not sure what the impact of the Mereen sequence really was to the overall plot. Is Daenerys giving up on Mereen in general? That’s a decent guess. Hizdahr’s last scene seemed to be about how the cruelty of Mereen would be impossible for her to change, and the number of fanatics that showed up to attack at the Pits seem to be strong evidence that her cause is pretty hopeless. Is Jorah permanently back in Dany’s good graces now, or is there more that needs to be said between them? That would be kind of a disappointing resolution if it was one. He is still a fairly untrustworthy person who hides important secrets from her (Exhibit A: that greyscale patch on his arm). I bought her trusting him in this moment of peril, but a more permanent position at her side would feel convenient. And despite how crazy that sequence was, there were no characters we cared about who died in the process (the biggest casualty was Hizdahr, the most minor character in the group). The lack of any clear impact from the climax at Mereen kind of weakened what was an admittedly exciting and thrilling sequence.
However, I think what really hurt my ability to enjoy the climax at Mereen was because I was still sick to my stomach from what I saw immediately before it…
I have never had a more visceral reaction to a scene on Game of Thrones than when I was watching Stannis have his only daughter burned at the stake. I went to bed distressed and sick to my stomach.
Now, the fact that I had a visceral reaction doesn’t mean the scene was bad. After watching it, I was coming up with all kinds of criticisms of the scene, some way to justify the well of anger that exploded inside me as Shireen screamed for her parents to save her. I was so distressed and just depressed at what happened I immediately felt that “Dance of Dragons” was the worst episode of the season, and maybe one of the worst of the series.
But then I calmed down. I read/saw interviews with the showrunners about the scene. I thought back at everything we knew about Stannis, and everything we know about the series. And I thought about how they built up to it within the episode. If I’m being honest, they handled it perfectly.
From a character perspective, it makes sense. I wouldn’t go as far as saying Stannis has done anything quite this bad before (yeah, he killed his brother, Renly, but he had basically declared war against Stannis by trying to become king). But it certainly has been built up to. Stannis believes that his becoming King is essential to saving, well, everyone from the Long Night that threatens to swallow everyone. He has decided to use Melisandre’s powers to try to get the Iron Throne, and there’s decent evidence it works. He went from burning idols to burning people to being willing to kill his bastard nephew…Melisandre, the woman who has been right about everything so far (from his perspective) asked for a great sacrifice a couple episodes ago. Soon after rejecting the repulsive idea, his enemies successfully (and inexplicably) burned down his supplies. For Stannis, this was essentially a message from his God that he shouldn’t have rejected Melisandre’s plan.
Ever since last year, when Melisandre mentioned that Shireen would have an important role to play in the future, I was worried that Shireen would be burned. I understood that Melisandre would be willing to burn a child at the stake, and I also knew that it was possible that she could convince Stannis it was a good idea. The fact that I was legitimately worried what Stannis’s decision would be shows how convincingly the character had been written. And looking at all of the scenes in this episode with Team Dragonstone, the actors sold the hell out of the character motivations, Stephen Dillane especially. These were beautiful but tragic scenes. I really feel like the moment for Shireen was built up to extremely well.
However…it was an incredibly upsetting scene for me. And, perhaps, no matter how well handled it was, no matter how realistic it was, no matter how in-character it was, I still can’t shake how dark it was. Maybe it was just too upsetting for me to really appreciate it the way I appreciated other disturbing scenes, like the Red Wedding. I can’t fault anyone – the writers, the actors, the director – for how this scene was handled. But personally, it was just too upsetting. Maybe I’ll be able to go back and rewatch without feeling physically sick, but I couldn’t avoid that the first time.
So…this is a difficult episode to evaluate. I cannot deny that the Shireen sequence was incredibly well-done, but it’s hard to separate my objective appreciation of the scene from how depressed I was watching it. The Mereen sequence was thrilling, but its impact on the overall storyline is still unclear to me, so it’s hard to think of it as the momentous scene that it’s trying to be. And the material with Arya and Jaime really just didn’t work for me at all. This is perhaps the most flawed episode of the season, and it’s biggest strength, the Shireen sequence, is hard for me to appreciate fully because of my emotional reaction to it. On rewatch I’ll perhaps score it higher, but for now this seems like an episode that hits the middle of the pack of Season 5.
Feel free to disagree and discuss the episode in the comments!