The second to last episode of every Game of Thrones season has brought with it something massive.
Previous seasons gave us the death of Ned Stark, the Battle of Blackwater Bay, the Red Wedding, and the duel between the Red Viper and the Mountain.
This year’s episode nine, The Dance of Dragons, kicks off with Ramsay Bolton’s special forces torching the tents and horses of Stannis Baratheon’s invading army. It’s a gigantic setback for Stannis — his men have endured starvation, freezing, and low morale — and casualties keep piling up before the fight has even begun. Seeing it as another reason to retreat to Castle Black, Ser Davos implores his King to change his mind, but Stannis — as always — is resolute in moving forward.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow escorts his new allies to the Wall where they wait in anticipation for the gate to lift. First Ranger Alliser Thorne watches them for an uncomfortable moment before sounding the order. Thousands of Wildlings pour into the camp, and Jon watches the reactions of his men, particularly Olly’s. Thorne, ever the curmudgeon, walks by and whispers into Jon’s ear, “You have a good heart, Jon Snow. It’ll get us all killed.”
Jon sees the potential for a giant powder keg to go off now that the Wildlings are south of the wall and in their enemy’s base, no less. And with Stannis trying to compensate for last night’s losses, Jon will soon have to accommodate a request for supplies, food, and horses. Don’t forget it was Stannis that lent Jon the boats that brought the Wildlings south, and though Jon has decided to stay with his brothers at the Night’s Watch, he may find himself in the middle of everything here in Westeros if Stannis has his way.
Back at Stannis’ camp, Ser Davos is ordered to deliver the request for supplies. Davos tells Stannis he would rather stay or, at the least, take the royal family with him, but the stubborn Baratheon denies both requests. “My family stays with me.” Davos pays Princess Shireen a visit before leaving, and he brings her a gift — a wood sculpture of a stag. Shireen tells him of the book she’s reading, The Dance of Dragons: A True Telling. In one story, a knight polishes his shield until it becomes like a mirror. The knight uses the shield to fight a dragon, hoping the sheen would show the dragon its own reflection. The plan is a total failure — the dragon simply sees a man with a shiny shield and burns him to a crisp.
Davos gives Shireen the present and leaves, while in Dorne, Jaime Lannister enters Prince Doran Martell’s court where Princess Myrcella sits next to her intended, Prince Trystane Martell. Prince Doran questions why the Lannisters resorted to infiltration and kidnapping instead of diplomacy, and Jaime tells them the princess’ necklace was sent home with a threatening message. Doran eyes Ellaria suspiciously, and she becomes infuriated when Doran spares Jaime and invites him to share in the Prince’s hospitality.
The scene is rife with political drama — Doran makes a show of his allegiance to King Tommen while Ellaria reacts with conspicious disgust and surprise at placating the Lannisters. Doran commands Myrcella to return to King’s Landing along with Trystane on the agreement that the engagement will stand. Jaime accepts the terms, and Doran also requests that Trystane take his uncle Oberyn’s place on the small council, to which Jaime gives his word. With all that’s happening back home, Jaime might find it very hard to keep his promises upon return.
Disgusted at what’s happening, Ellaria leaves the room with a few bitter words for Doran, “No wonder you can’t stand. You have no spine.”
In a rare occasion, the stoic Doran finally snaps and grabs her arm, threatening to take her life if she ever speaks that way to him again. Jaime turns the conversation to Bronn, and Doran gives Trystane the decision.
In the prison, the Sand Snakes keep themselves occupied with a game, and Tyene Sand gets the better of her sister Nymeria. Guards come to take Bronn away, and Bronn once again declares Tyene the most beautiful woman in the world. Bronn is relieved to discover he’s been released, but there’s a condition — a brutal elbow to the face that catches him by surprise. With Trystane satisfied, Prince Doran offers Bronn soup instead of pie.
For the thin man in Braavos, it’s oysters as Arya Stark moves to assassinate him. Fortunately for him, Arya comes across a target on her person to-do list — Meryn Trant, a knight of the Kingsguard who’s accompanying Mace Tyrell. Mace was sent to Braavos by Cersei in order to secure more funds from the Iron Bank, and Arya spends the entire day following Trant who ends his first night in Braavos with a trip to a brothel. Arya gains entry as a peddler, and she listens as Trant rejects each of the prostitues displayed before him.
“Too old,” he tells the madam after several girls are presented to him, each one younger than the last.
Getting impatient, he asks, “Do you have what I want or not?”
“Of course,” the madame tells him, leaving the room. One of Trant’s men finds Arya and brings her in to sell her food wares. Trant almost recognizes her, but the madame shoos Arya away and brings in a young girl that suits Trant’s desires.
“Good,” Trant says, leaving with the young girl. “You’ll have a fresh one for me tomorrow?”
Back at the House of Black and White, Arya lies to Jaqen “H’ghar, telling him the thin man wasn’t hungry.
“Perhaps that is why a man is thin,” he replies.
It isn’t clear whether Jaqen’s been taken by Arya’s lie. There are a lot of mysteries here — perhaps Trent was Arya’s mission all along. Perhaps it’s a test. The full extent of Jaqen’s powers haven’t been revealed, and the scene is another set of breadcrumbs leading somewhere forward.
While Arya’s story is more open-ended at this point, Ellaria’s boils down to two choices — declare allegiance to Prince Doran or die. Tearfully, Ellaria kisses his ring as her Sand Snakes stand by in restraints. “I believe in second chances,” he warns, pulling his hand away from her, “I don’t believe in third chances.”
Ellaria has to be careful now, and what does she do? She pays Jaime a visit and asks him about his love for Cersei. Ellaria knows about the incestuous relationship, and she surprises Jaime by asking him, “You think I disapprove?” She goes on with a discourse about loving people despite judgment. “The only thing that stays the same is that we want who we want,” she tells him before she acknowledges Myrcella had nothing to do with Oberyn’s death. “Perhaps even you are innocent of that,” she offers before leaving him.
Back in the North, Stannis pays his daughter a visit and asks her what she’s reading. When she tells him about the fight between Rhaenyra Targaryen and her half-brother Aegon, the story mirrors Stannis’ own battle with his brother Renly over the Iron Throne.
“Brothers fought brothers. Dragons fought dragons,” she tells him. “By the time it was over, thousands were dead. And it was a disaster for the Targaryens as well. They never recovered.”
After this episode, I wonder if Stannis will ever recover in the eyes of his fans. The entire scene — from Shireen playing with the stag in front of an open flame to the storyline parallels — moves to an inevitable finish.
Father and daughter discuss the meaning of the title and the story, and Shireen shows a deep appreciation and understanding of it while the poetry is lost on Stannis. When Stannis asks her who she would have chosen, Rhaenyra or Aegon, she says neither.
“Sometimes a person has to choose,” he tells her, “Sometimes the world forces his hand.”
It’s obvious now that Stannis has been thinking of sacrificing his daughter despite his previous actions. All that talk about saving his daughter from grayscale and ordering Melisandre out of his tent when she first suggested the idea has given way to Stannis’ beliefs in his own destiny. For Stannis, the way forward is a fork in the road. He can’t have his cake and eat it too — if he is to become King of Westeros, he will have to sacrifice one for the many.
“He must fulfill his destiny and become who he is meant to be. However much he may hate it.”
Shireen, ever the faithful daughter, offers her help. “I’m the Princess Shireen of House Baratheon. And I’m your daughter.” If only she knew what she had to do.
Stannis embraces his daughter one last time and says, “Forgive me.”
It’s a death unlike the others that have made the episode nines of Game of Thrones so famous in that Shireen herself is a minor character, however well-liked. But her death is no less impactful because the circumstances are unusual and bitter with ramifications for Stannis who is a major character. Some may feel the characterization contrary to his past developments, but it’s clear that Stannis is defining himself once and for all and cementing his position.
As Shireen is escorted by her father’s soldiers, she clutches the stag given to her by Ser Davos. Snow falls, and a crowd of soldiers part as she’s led to a stake where Melisandre tells her, “It will all be over soon, Princess.”
Shireen realizes what’s about to happen, and she screams for her father as she’s carried tied to the stake and tied up. Melisandre prays while Selyse tells Stannis, “It’s a good thing. A great thing. If we don’t act, we’ll all starve here. All of us.”
Selyse has always been distant to her daughter for as long as this story has been told, so it’s no surprise she’s accepted this path. Stannis, on the other hand, is painfully torn, grimacing as his daughter calls for him. When Shireen calls out for her mother as well, Selyse suddenly breaks.
“We can’t,” she tells Stannis, grabbing his arm.
“There’s no other way. She has king’s blood,” he argues, shaking her off.
Melisandre lights the pyre, and the flames begin to engulf Shireen as some of the soldiers watch woefully. Selyse runs to her daughter, but the soldiers keep her from getting close. Screams pierce the air as her parents turn their eyes away. When Selyse looks up to see her dead daughter, she lets out a regretful and guttural moan as a mother would. The scene is powerful and will be scrutinized long after this episode has run.
Stannis turns away from his daughter to contemplate his decision as applause can be heard. The scene shifts to the tens of thousands who are in attendance at the Great Games. Two warriors enter the stadium and introduce themselves to Queen Danaerys Targaryen. A terse silence fills the stadium as the crowd waits for the action to begin.
“They’re waiting for you,” Hizdahr zo Loraq tells Danaerys, “Clap your hands.”
The crowd roars, and the fight begins. Daario argues the quicker fighter will win based on his own experience as a pit-fighter, and the argument turns personal as Loraq and Daario exchange words. Tyrion listens, looking uncomfortable with the games and the point of the discussion as Loraq’s words hit a little close to home, “And in my experience, large men do triumph over smaller men far more often than not.”
The larger warrior chops off his foe’s head, and Daario walks away. Loraq and Tyrion begin to talk about the necessary conditions for greatness, and Tyrion tells Loraq, “My father would have liked you.” Danaerys hears a familiar voice speaking to her from within the ring, and she sees Jorah Mormont, appearing before his queen as a pit-fighter. Looking conflicted, Danaerys claps her hand, and the six warriors in the ring hack away.
Jorah dispatches his first foe, and he makes it a point to stare Danaerys down as if to say, Is this what you want? Another warrior battles with Jorah and moves in for the killing blow — Tyrion tells Danaerys to stop the fight, but Loraq rebuts him. Jorah’s saved by another pit-fighter, a spear-wielding warrior that ends up on Jorah’s sword. Jorah looks up at Danaerys while the crowd boos, and his expression changes to anger. He picks up the spear and launches it at the royal seats.
This is no betrayal — the spear hits a member of the Sons of the Harpy sneaking in to assassinate Danaerys.
The stadium erupts in chaos as harpies begin to kill and surround the royal couple. Daario rallies the Unsullied, and Loraq tries to get Danaerys out before he’s killed. Jorah comes to the Queen’s aid and takes her to the stadium floor. The Sons of the Harpy block off the exits, and more come flooding into the stadium, outnumbering Danaerys’ entourage by a large margin. Tentative, several try to charge in and kill her, but her soldiers keep them at bay for a moment.
It’s only a matter of time before her troops will break. The Queen grasps Missandei’s hand and closes her eyes, accepting her fate.
And then a dragon roars.
The prodigal son Drogon appears in a cloud of fire and circles the stadium before he lands on a couple of harpies. Blowing fire and taking a few spears in the neck, the dragon goes to work barbecuing the attackers. Danaerys calls out to her adopted dragon and removes one of the spears in his neck. Drogon turns and gives her an earful, but after he recognizes her, they get a quick moment before another spear strikes.
Knowing she and her dragon have to get to safety, she climbs on Drogon’s back, and they make a dramatic getaway.
It’s a crowning moment that solidifies Danaerys as a conquering Targaryen — her ancestors rode dragons into battle as they claimed dominion over the seven kingdoms. In one act, Danaerys leaves a lasting impression on her allies and foes by forcing them to recall past legends while they come to terms with what they’ve just seen. My gripe is that the camerawork left something to be desired — I would rather have seen the flight from the view on the ground rather than closeup where the bad special effects sucked the epicness away.
The Dance of Dragons overall seems a bit underwhelming when compared to the other second-to-last episodes of seasons past, but it’s an episode with a lot of development and some interesting thematic elements. Take away Jon Snow’s scenes and you’ll see that the various plots points this episode are centered on the women — the episode’s biggest movers and shakers. The various scenes also play up potential consequences for the decisions made — for Snow, it’s the possibility of a battle between the Wildlings and Night’s Watch. For Ellaria, the knowledge that vengeance and betrayal could destroy herself and her family. The attack on Danaerys could very well lead to a more ruthless Queen who puts her citizens in order through sword and flame.
I expect the last episode to be this season’s most important episode because the show is due for some payoffs. We’ve seen storylines gain momentum, and after next week, it will be months before we hit the sixth season followed by a potentially final seventh season. Speculation aside, the series has begun to forge a path not present in the books, and where we go from here will be a surprise to both readers and television viewers.
Game of Thrones
S05E09: The Dance of Dragons
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Emilia Clarke
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