08th Jun2015

‘Game of Thrones 5×09: The Dance of Dragons’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Sometimes a person has to choose. Sometimes the world forces his hand.”

We do so much because we feel it is impossible to do otherwise. Straying from destiny’s path, we fear we’ll show the world where to find the gaps in our armor. Spare your daughter and the throne slips through your fingers. Give up your vendetta and the man you loved will never be avenged. Easiest just to tell yourself that the choice you know is wrong is, in fact, the only way forward. As Tyrion says in response to Hizdahr’s claim that no greatness was ever accomplished without cruelty, “It’s easy to confuse what is with what must be.”

‘The Dance of Dragons’ is a complex, ugly, thrilling episode of television. It contains one of the show’s most agonizing, heart-wrenching deaths alongside a jaw-dropping action set piece in the vein of last week’s massacre at Hardhome. Dense, witty exchanges stand cheek by jowl with duels to the death paced so tightly and choreographed with such energy that the sum total feels like one grand melee mixing barbs verbal and real. It’s a mark of how much the show has grown that it could generate all that tension and excitement without going to its usual well at King’s Landing, long the heart and soul of the series. The material in Dorne is still a little limp, rushing to conclusions after what amounts to a bunch of farce, but it stands on Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s talent for pulling weird faces and on the strength of Alexander Siddig’s and Indira Varma’s performances.

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Jon, after a brief moment of ocular hate-fucking with his nemesis ser Alliser, gets the Wildling survivors of Hardhome through the Wall and into the Watch’s protection. The weight of both Jon’s decision to bring the Watch’s ancient enemies into an alliance and of his feelings of failure at not having saved all of them is plain on the young Lord Commander’s face. Ser Alliser sums it up brutally. “You’ve got a good heart, Jon Snow. It’s going to get us all killed.” Even Jon’s squire, Olly, refuses to look at his erstwhile mentor. Things at the Wall seem poised on a knife’s edge. Tension in Stannis’s war camp, meanwhile, finally boils over.

Ramsay’s raiders push Stannis’s army into desperate straits. Denied food, stripped of shelter, horses and siege engines burnt to ashes, the army cannot retreat and it cannot move forward. Stannis can’t accept that his war is over, that it was and is as pointless and vicious as the war between rival Targaryen claimants to the throne from which the episode takes its name. His daughter tells him, when he comes to her with hollow eyes and a broken face, that presented with a choice between warring monarchs she would choose neither party. There is, she insists, a third way, a way without wars fought with fire to see who will rule over the ashes. Stannis chooses instead to give his only child to Melisandre’s pyre in hopes of procuring the favor of the Lord of Light and enabling a march on Winterfell.

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“Why am a getting a present?” Shireen asks ser Davos when the Onion Knight visits her to ask after her reading and press a beautiful wooden stag into her hands. “Because you deserve it,” he tells her. He knows what Stannis means to do, but he too feels the pressure of his precious loyalty, his duty to the king he’s sworn to serve. He kisses Shireen’s forehead and rides out of camp. Later, the girl is dragged by her father’s men to a stripped branch jutting from a pile of oil-soaked wood. At first, queen Selyse babbles to her husband that their daughter’s death is good, a service to their god, a proper sacrifice, but in the end it’s Stannis who stands icily and watches Shireen burn while Selyse, howling for her daughter, loses her faith in the crackling of the fire and the screams of the only living child she bore.

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The soldiers mutter amongst themselves, shaking their heads in disgust. Selyse sobs in the snow. The scene is paralyzing for its sheer horror. Across the Narrow Sea, more children come into harm’s way when the repulsive, scowling Meryn Trant is revealed as a violent pedophile. “Too old,” he snarls again and again as the madame of the brothel he’s chosen brings out women to tempt his fancy. Arya, having followed from the docks, watches through a screen and sees a chance for revenge. Trant states up front that he’ll need “a fresh one” on his next visit. Trant, who looks like a snail without a shell in the absence of his Kingsguard armor, is a presence who seems poised to derail the self-erasure Arya has worked so hard to achieve. He’s also a reminder that the ruling hierarchies of the world conceal monsters at virtually every level.

It’s a literal monster we end on. After a nail-biting sequence in the reopened fighting pits of Meereen, the violence Dany has reluctantly sanctioned and watches with loathing spills the arena’s bounds as the Sons of the Harpy descend on her box. The tension begins even before the bloodshed leaves the sands, though, with Daario showboating with his daggers while trading jabs with Hizdahr and Tyrion. Dany, meanwhile, is forced by tradition to inaugurate each fight by clapping. “I fight and die for your glory,” the combatants tell her. The interplay crackles, its punctuation marks little bursts of shocking violence, its talking points stabbing uncomfortably close to the blood and muscle underneath monarchy’s ugly skin. Once Dany learns that ser Jorah will take the field in her honor, the anguish with which she and Tyrion watch the fight’s progression becomes physically difficult to tolerate. “You can stop this,” Tyrion pleads.  “Actually, she can’t,” says Hizdahr. “She can,” Tyrion insists.

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Jorah survives his ordeal in the ring, then the real battle starts as the Sons swarm out of the crowd. Team Dany jumping into motion is a fist-pump moment if ever there was one, but even with the band back together the queen finds herself surrounded and her defenders hopelessly outnumbered. It’s then, just as Dany accepts her own death that Drogon, drawn by the arena’s noise or by his mother’s peril, descends on the sands to bathe the Sons of the Harpy in flames. Dany, fearful that the dragon will be overwhelmed and killed on land, scrambles up onto his back and urges him to fly. The two soar high above the city, away from the fray, away from the complexities of ruling in a foreign land. It looks like triumph. It sounds like triumph.

Tyrion, who watches Dany’s flight with awe and trepidation, told Jon snow once that as a boy he dreamed of seeing the world from a dragon’s back, of raining down fire on his family to avenge a life of indignities and suffering. He knows that when fire answers you, things begin to look like they need burning. When Dany touches Drogon’s bloody muzzle she’s rejecting the peace she’s worked and sacrificed to make. She’s casting all her efforts on the pyre in favor of the dragon’s path, the dark side of her Targaryen heritage.

“Do you want to wake the dragon?” Dany’s pitiful brother threatened her a hundred years ago when she was a trembling girl about to be sold to a barbarian warlord. Now it’s Dany who’s been woken.

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