“The Dance with Dragons” episode is the ninth episode of season 5, and the ninth episode (aka end of Act 3) is always the most climactic episode on Game of Thrones. While this year’s episode 9 did not pack the same emotional wallop as Ned’s beheading, the Red Wedding, or the Battle at Castle Black, it was equally special in its own way – notably for its wondrous, transcendent closing scene.
This episode is about war machines whether they be burned siege engines, the children civilizations sacrifice to wage their wars, or fire from above.
The Siege at Winterfell: Stannis’ great sacrifice
Stannis’ siege of Winterfell is not going well. As we saw last week, his army was freezing and dying in the winter weather. This week Ramsey’s “twenty good men” attack Stannis’ camp at night — while Melisandre was trying to see the future in the flames.
Ramsay’s men burned Stannis’ food stores to the ground, destroyed all his siege weapons, and burned hundreds of horses to death. Stannis and his army are now in truly dire straits.
They don’t have enough food to survive the trip back to Castle Black. They are stuck in the massive snow drifts and can’t march forward to attack Winterfell.
Melisandre has already advised Stannis to sacrifice Shireen to the Red God to get them out of this quagmire. Until now, he has refused. In this episode, all of that changes.
But, how good is Melisandre’s foresight anyway? For all of Melisandre’s ability to see in the flames, she didn’t see the previous night’s flames coming. At the very least, her oversight, and its consequences, are steeped in irony.
Stannis summons Davos to his tent. He wants his Hand to take a message to Castle Black. If Jon Snow gives Stannis the supplies he needs, when Stannis sits on the Iron Throne, he will make sure that the Night’s Watch has all the men it requires: Jon will be able to man all 19 castles if he wants.
Stannis commands Davos, “Ride for castle black. Don’t come back empty handed.”
Davos bullshit detector goes up. After all, why doesn’t Stannis send a boy to deliver his request and keep his Hand nearby? Stannis claims the message is too important and implies a boy won’t be able to argue with Jon.
Davos isn’t an idiot. He knows how desperate the situation is and the power of “king’s blood” – after all, Davos personally freed Gendry from Melisandre’s clutches. And, likewise, Stannis knows that Davos is the one person who would stand up to him and perhaps even successfully stop Stannis from sacrificing his daughter.
Perhaps, Davos can’t really believe what he suspects may happen. He makes a bid to bring Shireen with him to Castle Black. Stannis merely says that his family “stays with me.”
Davos stops by Shireen’s tent to say goodbye before he leaves for Castle Black. The little princess is reading a history, “The Dance of Dragons: A True Telling.”
Shireen tells Davos about Ser Byron Swann’s attempts to kill a dragon, and this tale could easily be a metaphor for the vain Stannis’ future fate.
Shireen recounts how Ser Byron polished his shield for a week1 . When he approached the dragon, he crouched behind the shield and crept forward, hoping the dragon would only see its own reflection.
DAVOS — “But the dragon saw a dumb man, holding a mirrored shield.”
SHIREEN — “And burnt him to a crisp.”
DAVOS — “Thus ending the dragon-slaying career of Ser Byron Swann.”
Davos gives Shireen a little stag wood carving to thank her for teaching him to read. This is symbolic gift and one that creates quite a bit of foreshadowing as we shall see.
By now, it’s pretty clear that Stannis is thinking of sacrificing Shireen. When Stannis enters Shireen’s tent to say goodbye, she is sitting by the fire, playing with the stag Davos gave her before he left.
The flames frame the stag, foreshadowing the events to come.
Shireen tells her father a different story from the book. This is one is about the story of the Dance of the Dragons war.
It’s a 170-year old story of a civil war that devastated Westeros. Here’s how Wikia describes it:
“Rhaenyra Targaryen fought her half-brother Aegon II Targaryen for the throne, the great lords of the realm chose sides between them, and ultimately Targaryen fought Targaryen and dragon fought dragon. So many dragons died in the civil war that the Targaryens “never really recovered.””
Incidentally, the twelfth-century English civil war fought between rival claimants Stephen and Mathilda (and known as the Anarchy) vaguely resembles the Dance of the Dragons war. The timing is about right as well. The Anarchy ended in 1154. This is 170 years before 1324, the year when tensions began between France (with Isabella and her family) and England (with Edward II and Hugh Despenser) – and this arguably marked the period leading up to the Hundred Years War.
Stannis completely misses the message in the story. Instead, he gets distracted by a titular word he finds puzzling: “dance.”
Stannis asks Shireen for advice. If she had to choose between Rhaenyra and Aegon, who would she have chosen? Shireen replies that she wouldn’t choose.
Stannis’ ambition cannot let him except this wisdom however. He tells her that sometimes a person has to choose. Sometimes the world forces his hand, so ultimately the “choice is no choice at all.” He must fulfill his destiny, and become who he is meant to be. However, much he may hate it.
Shireen wants to help him. She comforts her father and becomes the parent – a sign in the modern world of a truly dysfunctional parent-child relationship.
Perhaps, Stannis takes the girl’s words as sign that she is meant to be sacrificed. He murmurs, “Forgive me,” as he hugs her for the last time.
Guards escort Shireen to the stake. She naively surveys the crowd, but she does not see the stake.
Melisandre meets her in front of the unlit pyre. As Shireen realizes what Melisandre has planned for her, Shireen demands to see her father. Melisandre replies, “It will all be over soon princess.” Melisandre is evil personified in so many ways.
As Shireen tries to flee, the guards grab her. She screams for her father. She still believes that Melisandre and company are planning to sacrifice her without her father’s knowledge. It’s heartbreaking.
I hate to use this word, but Stannis “bravely” emerges and looks Shireen in the eye. He is resolute, even though this is (almost) killing him. He is willing to sacrifice his beloved daughter for his vainglorious ambition.
Selyse consoles Stannis saying it is what the “Lord wants; it is a good thing, a great thing.”
Melisandre smiles rapturously and says an incantation before the sacrifice. The fire will cleanse Shireen. The light will “lead their way.” Melisandre beseeches her lord to accept this child sacrifice, “this token of our faith.” Frankly, its revoltingly and so is the please-let-me-smack-the-smile-off-her-face Melisandre.
Shireen screams and begs for her despicable mother to save her. Melisandre lights the pyre.
For me, this is far more terrible than Sansa’s rape, the Red Wedding, or anything else. And, this is quite possibly one of the most potent symbols protesting against modern-day war that I’ve ever seen on film: child sacrifice.
Selyse stays composed – until the flames begin to creep towards this tiny little girl and burn her. Finally, Selyse’s maternal instincts finally kick in.
Selyse makes a break for the funeral pyre, but it’s years too late. The guards stop her. Where has Selyse been all this time? How did it get to this point? After all, it’s only because of this sick zealot’s collusion that Shireen ended up here in the first place.
Selyse sinks to the ground. After all the many people she has sacrificed to the cleansing flames, including her own brother, now it matters.
I can’t help but think that this is a metaphor for war. It’s the elders who decide to fight and the children who are sacrificed (through the draft or whatever). When countries send their children off to war, the sacrifice doesn’t strike home until it’s your child.
Who is the sickest one of all in this scene – the neglectful mother? the ambitious-at-any-cost father? No, it’s Melisandre who smiles wickedly at the flames; she is the evils of religious radicalism made manifest.
The Wall: The Wildlings enter Castle Black
When Jon first arrives at the gates of Castle Black with the 5,000 or so Wildlings, it’s unclear if Alliser Thorne will let them in. The acting commander finally agrees.
As the Wildlings stream through the gate, Jon describes the mission as a failure to Sam. It’s unclear if Jon means that he couldn’t save enough people, build a large enough army, or prevent the White Walkers from growing their forces. Jon mutters the men of the Night’ Watch aren’t happy with all the people he saved.
Ser Alliser Thorne speaks for the Night’s Watch when he tells Jon, “You have a good heart, Jon Snow. It will get us all killed.”
Dorne: Stannis’ foil and the power of redemption
After seeing the warmongering, child-sacrificing lengths that Stannis will go to achieve his ambition, Dorne and Prince Doran (his foil) are a refreshing change. It’s redemption and peace contrasted against vainglorious ambition.
Jaime arrives in a magnificent Moroccan style sitting room for a parley with Doran. Doran isn’t going to execute him since that would cause war, which means orphans, death, and hunger. How uplifting it is to hear some medieval-esque figure care about this. In terms of his pacifism and ability to give second chances, Doran is a foil for Stannis.
Myrcella and Trystane are also at this sit-down. Jaime is less-than-thrilled to see his “niece” wearing a bare low-cut gown. Reminiscent of Cersei’s words about Margaery’s attire in seasons past, Jaime comments that Myrcella “must be cold.”
Doran wants to know why Jaime came uninvited to smuggle Myrcella out of the country. When Jaime explains the received a death threat — the princess’ necklace in the jaws of a viper, Doran sees Ellaria’s hand at work.
Prince Doran smoothly puts words in Jaime’s mouth to arrange to get Myrcella away from danger: “King Tommen insists on his sister’s return.” However, Doran adds a few other terms: the match will remain intact. Prince Trystane will accompany Myrcella to King’s Landing and sit on the small council.
Ellaria refuses to toas the new terms and dumps her wine on the floor. As she leaves, she comments that Doran can’t walk because he “has no spine.”
Doran warns Ellaria not to speak with him with so much disrespect.
After Ellaria leaves, all that remains is determine Bronn’s fate. The Knight of the Blackwater is still rotting in his jail cell across from the Sand Snakes. Bronn is guilty of striking a prince.
Doran leaves it to Trystane to decide on Bronn’s fate – will he live or die?
When the guards arrive to fetch Doran, the Sand Snakes are playing slap hands in their prison cell. It’s a pretty amusing scene of sisterly rivalry.
As Bronn walks out of his cell, Tyene, who flirted with him before as she tried to kill him, reminds him that she is the most beautiful woman in the world.
It turns out that Trystane has decided to forgive Bronn. He has one condition however. Areo Hotah – Doran’s massive guard – gets to hit Bronn in the jaw.
Prince Doran summons Ellaria and informs her that she can either swear allegiance to him or die. She submits weeping. Ellaria kneels and kisses his ring, as the Sand Snakes look on with their wrists bound The humbling of Oberyn’s (effective) widow is almost as humiliating for them as it is for her. Prince Doran warns Ellaria, “I believe in second chances; I don’t believe in third chances.”
Later, Ellaria visits Jaime, where she finds him struggling to write a letter with his left hand. The purpose of this visit isn’t completely clear – is it an apology? a chance for Ellaria to get some closure?
Ellaria frankly acknowledges Jaime’s feelings for Cersei2. She then says, “You think I’d disapprove. Why? Because people of disapprove of that sort of thing where you are from. They disapprove of Oberyn and me where you from. Here, no one blinked an eye.
But, then Ellaria makes a most interesting statement: “A Hundred years ago nobody would have blinked an eye — if you’d been named Targaryen.” Is this an ironic hint about Jaime and Cersei’s true parentage? I may hold the minority view, but I think there is a chance that Jaime and Cersei are Targaryens.
Ellaria’s final words are a testament to how grief can distort one’s perspective: “I know your daughter had no part in the terrible thing that happened to the man I love. Perhaps, even you are innocent of that.”
As philosophical as she is, Ellaria cannot see that Oberyn chose his fate, even though the Lannisters are to blame for his desire for vengeance.
Arya hasn’t lost her identity yet
Arya’s on her mission to kill the thin man. Just as she reaches his stall by the docks, she spots Ser Meryn Trant and Mace Tyrell getting out of a skiff.
Arya hates Ser Meryn since he is the one who (presumably) killed her beloved “dancing” (sword-fighting) master Syrio Forel. And, Syrio died for her defending her against the men in the King’s Guard who came to collect (and possibly kill her). In short, Ser Meryn is on Arya’s list.
Arya spends the rest of the day shadowing Ser Meryn and his men. During this time, we see Mace Tyrell try to butter up Tycho Nestoris without much luck. Mace even serenades him.
Come nightfall, Arya follows Ser Meryn and his blokes into a brothel. A brothel bouncer almost kicks Arya out, but a whore pities her and the bouncer relents. Arya discreetly weaves her way to the back room where she sees Ser Meryn procure his evening’s entertainment: a girl who looks younger than Arya. It’s clear that he intends to abuse this girl and he wants a replacement for her the next night. Will Arya volunteer?
Arya’s transformation into one who serves the House of Black and White isn’t as complete as Jaqen, and perhaps even Arya, might hope. After all, it didn’t take much to divert her from her mission in favor of her own personal goals. Faceless men don’t have identities or desires, so Arya is – thankfully – about as far away from being subsumed by this twisted religion as you can get.
When Arya arrives at the House of Black and White late that night, she tells Jaqen that the thin man wasn’t hungry that day. Does Jaqen buy it? It’s hard to say, but if he doesn’t Arya will certainly pay.
Meereen: The Great Games
The Great Games are by far the best moment of the show, if not the season, if for nothing else than their special effects. But, frankly, there is a lot more to this riveting sequence than CGI.
Much to her dismay, Daenerys is presiding over the opening of Meereen’s Great Games, which resemble nothing so much as the Roman gladiatorial games.
Her husband-to-be Hizdahr zo Loraq arrives late. His excuse is that he was “Just making sure everything is in order.” As we will see later, this is quite fishy.
As the games begin, Dany, Hizdahr, Daario, and Tyrion wax philosophical about the role of the games. The unwittingly dreadful Hizdahr argues that the games are a “necessary part of the great city of Meereen.”
Dany’s not enjoying the games. From her perspective, it’s a senseless waste of bloodshed. And, she disses Hizdahr asking him when he has fought.
When the second combatants appear, Jorah is one of the fighters. He wins in a breathtaking battle sequence.
As Jorah’s last opponent lies dying, Jorah picks up a spear. It looks like he is about to deliver a death blow. But, instead, he throws the spear at Dany’s box seat. The weapon slices past Dany and impales a masked member of the Sons of the Harpy, who is just about to assassinate her.
The crowd panics and pandemonium breaks out. Spectators try to escape the amphitheater, but the Sons of the Harpy descend and slaughter many of them.
After Jorah, Daario, and even Tyrion fight off the would-be assassins, Jorah leads Dany to down into the amphitheater to safety – or so we think.
Instead, the Sons of the Harpy bolt the entrances and then encircle the queen and her entourage. Vastly outnumbered, things don’t look good.
Just as Dany shuts her eyes and braces for the end, a dragon roars and Drogon arrives.
Now we get to see the power of a nearly full grown dragon. His fiery breath incinerates hoards of the Sons of the Harpy. This is a preview for what these incredible war machines will be like. It’s World War II’s fire from above.
And, then came the moment that took my breath away. Dany climbs onto Drogon and flies away. It is amazing, beautiful, and truly awe inspiring. Not only do we see the love between Dany and Drogon – and Emilia Clarke delivers a great performance — we get to see somebody fly a dragon.
The scene is so magnificent with this beautiful girl-woman flying on this amazing dragon that it creates a sense of wonder and awe. For a fleeting second, I almost felt what it might be like to fly on the back of a dragon. And, that’s Game of Thrones. We have the horror of child sacrifice, the darkness of assassins, the freezing and starving soldiers, and the destructive capabilities of the ultimate war machine. Yet amidst all the darkness comes the power of forgiveness and the soaring beauty of the impossible.