Well, that happened. I was actually moderately excited about this episode for the Daznak’s Pit stuff, and even that was disappointing. “The Dance of Dragons” is just a big old mess of bafflingly terrible adaptational choices topped off with pretty clear evidence that they spent their whole effects budget on Hardhome last week.
The episode opens in the North, with Melisandre hearing something happening outside her tent. As she walks outside and lifts a lantern to see into the night, men start yelling and fires start springing up all over the camp. In perhaps the coolest visual effect of the episode, a horse runs by actually on fire and screaming its head off, which is a horrifying sound and definitely adds to the sense of terror here. That said, it seems a little silly that this is the stuff that freaks Melisandre out. A woman who burns people alive for a living and who is one of the driving forces behind this war to begin with is this unsettled by stuff that is part of completely conventional warfare? Okay. Sure.
In the morning after this attack we find out that this was Ramsay Bolton’s plan being successful. Less than twenty men managed to sneak into Stannis Baratheon’s enormous encampment, completely undetected, and destroy all their food, supplies, and siege weapons. If they can do that successfully, why not just assassinate Stannis himself? Or Melisandre? Where did the Bolton men get their intelligence? How on earth, no matter how well they know the North, did they know exactly where to go in that camp to do the most damage? When all the tents basically look the same and everything is covered in snow? Like so many other things on this show these days, none of this makes much sense if you think about it at all.
Even farther north, north of the Wall, Jon Snow has returned with the relatively few Free Folk that he’s managed to retrieve from Hardhome. There’s an attempt to create a tense moment as Alliser Thorne glowers down disapprovingly from the top of the Wall, but there’s not really any point at which one seriously feels that he’s going to refuse. In a huge disaster of an episode, I did love this moment, even though I don’t think it was entirely successful as a piece of drama.
Owen Teale as Ser Alliser really just knocks it out of the park in this episode, and I feel like he’s brought an interesting level of depth and sympathy to the character that never existed in the books, where Ser Alliser is only experienced through the point of views of characters to whom he acts as an antagonist. His thoughtful gaze as he watches the Wildlings from the top of the Wall communicates a lot about this character’s reaction to these events, and Alliser proves his loyalty (or maybe just his basic humanity) when he opens the gate to let them in. However, his last remarks–”You have a good heart, Jon Snow; it’ll get us all killed”–make his position more clear. Ser Alliser won’t leave children to starve in the snow; he’ll let them in, but he won’t be happy about it.
Back at Stannis’s camp, Stannis is sending Davos back to Castle Black to demand more horses and supplies. First Davos suggests that any boy with a scroll could deliver this message, but Stannis insists that it must be Davos. Then Davos offers to take Selyse and Shireen with him, then just Shireen (”A siege is no place for a little girl.”), but Stannis only responds that his family is staying with him. And holy shit, are they about to do what I think they are going to do? Of course they are.
But first, Davos goes to visit Shireen, and it breaks my heart that this is the last scene we’ll see between these two characters because their friendship is so sweet and good and one of the few nice things that happen in this show. As much as I love this scene because I love these characters, the lead-up to what’s about to happen to Shireen is so goddamn heavy-handedly done, I end up just feeling resentful about it. Because of course the show is going to give us this beautiful scene (and this season’s earlier nice scenes with Shireen), even though we probably all should have known she was doomed as soon as Stannis didn’t leave her at the Wall like he did in the books.
In Dorne, we get our first awkward family dinner with the Martells, and this is the first scene in Dorne that I haven’t completely hated. Probably because awkward family dinners are perhaps the single thing that this show does consistently well. Jaime is insolent, Ellaria pouts shamelessly and ends up flouncing off in a huff, Trystane looks beautiful, Myrcella is still in teenage rebellion, Doran is much slimier sounding than I envisioned him in the books, and Areo Hotah looks long-suffering. Looks like Myrcella is going back to King’s Landing after all, but with Trystane in tow to take Oberyn’s place on the Small Council. And Bronn will be released back to Jaie.
I kind of hate this, actually–I did only say I didn’t completely hate this scene. In the books, it’s Lady Nym who is sent to King’s Landing with Tyene accompanying her, and this is after their plot to crown Myrcella queen has been foiled and Doran has brought them into his plot. It’s bad enough that the show decided to omit Arianne Martell altogether, and it’s obnoxious what they’ve done with Ellaria–they’ve characterized her (and the Sand Snakes) as unreasonable, stupid, and ineffectual to boot–but replacing the Sand Snakes’ trip to King’s Landing with sending Trystane? This is just ridiculous. Not only did we not get a major female character from the books, but the group of women we did get are being sidelined from their own story in a way that will basically leave them with nothing to do.
Why did the show even bother to include the Sand Snakes and the trip to Dorne at all if this is how they were going to handle it? They could have just as well had Doran send a letter saying “Hey, I’m sending your daughter home, but here’s my son and the betrothal is still on.” If a full season full of “story” can be done equally effectively by just sending a raven, there’s a big problem.
But wait, it gets worse! Because, goodness knows, we have to head off to Doran’s dungeons now, where Bronn is listening to the Sand Snakes playing some kind of game that sounds like 50 Shades of Grey. Apparently, the game is for Nym to try and slap Tyene’s hands, which she is holding completely stationary so Tyene gets slapped again and again while Nym taunts her all sexy-like about how Tyene likes humiliation and pain. It’s gross and unnecessary, and just as they are about to get into a sexy girl fight, Areo Hotah shows up to spoil their fun by glaring disapprovingly at them. As Bronn is released, Tyene wants him to tell her again that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, and Obara stops sulking just long enough to call her sister a slut. Because D&D will never miss a chance to demean women as much as possible, and for some reason they really hate the Sand Snakes. Bronn is turned over to Jaime, but not before Areo Hotah elbows him in the face–Trystane’s condition for Bronn’s release, apparently.
Speaking of demeaning women, we next move along to Braavos, where Arya is verbally assaulted by some gross dude without seconds of appearing on screen. I was kind of enjoying the wider shot of the docks and was planning on saying something nice about how seeing these broader views of the setting helps make the world of the show feel more real. But then I got this lovely reminder that even in fantasy worlds women can’t escape disgusting men who feel the need to harass them on the street for no reason whatsoever besides being a random act of sexual aggression towards a character who is supposed to still be a very young teenager.
Arya is doing her rounds and getting ready to spy on the thin man that she’s supposed to kill when she recognizes Ser Meryn Trant, who has just arrived in Braavos with Mace Tyrell. For all that Arya is supposed to have made some real progress this season, she basically immediately abandons her true mission in order to pursue her vendetta against Ser Meryn.
Mace Tyrell is a bloviating windbag, and not even in a particularly entertaining way as he attempts to schmooze with the banker, Tycho Nestoris. I thought I would be more excited to see Mark Gatiss back, but I just found myself bored with these scenes. It’s pretty much just Tyrell blustering (and singing, ugh), Nestoris smirking, and Trant looking around suspiciously and almost recognizing Arya like five times.
Eventually, Arya follows Trant to a brothel, where we get another disgusting scene of female degradation as prostitutes are trotted out one after another for Trant’s inspection only to be deemed “too old” over and over again. Finally, he’s brought a literal child to brutalize, and Arya is finally shooed out of the brothel. This scene is actually really weird to be because the madam who is showing the girls to Trant seems so reluctant to bring him such a young girl, but does it anyway. And her removal of Arya from the place seems motivated at least partly by concern for Arya’s safety or virtue in such a place. If this woman has such scruples, why cater to a piece of trash pedophile in the first place? And, if this woman is concerned for Arya, then how is Arya going to convince her to allow Arya near Trant the next night, since I’m assuming that’s where this is going? It just doesn’t make much sense.
Also, it makes me sick that Arya’s character is even being used this way. I suppose we can be glad that Maisie Williams was only seventeen during filming for this season, so we probably won’t see her get actually raped or anything, but it’s truly reprehensible how Benioff and Weiss seem so determined to expose the Stark girls to sexual violence.
Back in Dorne, Ellaria has to swallow all of her rage and pride and reswear her fealty to Prince Doran because her “rebellion is over.” Which is pretty laughable, really. One half-baked bungled plan to capture Myrcella isn’t exactly a rebellion. Honestly, it just feels like a putting of Ellaria and the Sand Snakes back in their place, whatever that is, since it certainly isn’t what it was in the books. And as much as I’ve hated what has been done with Ellaria’s character this season, I think this moment is the thing I hated the most. The writers have made her irrational, cruel, and stupid, and now they make her abase herself before a man she disagrees with and who has threatened to just kill her (multiple times just in this episode) if she doesn’t submit to his authority. And they do this while the Sand Snakes are forced to look on meekly.
Systematic disempowerment of women seems to be a running theme this season, and this definitely plays on that. Even worse, it’s incredibly disappointing to me as a book reader. Ellaria Sand, the Sand Snakes, and Arianne Martell were, in the books, a diverse and interesting group of women with ideas and plans and opinions of their own that didn’t always agree even with each other. In the show, they’ve been reduced to a group of sexy caricatures of Strong Female Characters.
They’ve accomplished nothing at all, and the most significant development in their storyline from the books has been given to Trystane.
After her humiliation in front of Doran, Ellaria goes to speak with Jaime to let him know that she knows about him and Cersei. I actually kind of like this, as it shows Ellaria being emotionally intelligent and empathetic (even though there’s no good reason why she would be kind to Jaime at this point), as well as insightful. I felt like there was a sort of veiled threat at the end of her speech, but it was so veiled I’m not sure it was actually a threat. It’s another weird scene that doesn’t really seem to fit with anything else that has happened in the season.
Back in the North, Shireen is playing with the toy stag Davos gave her earlier when Stannis pops in to speak with her. Because this show is fucking terrible they write this scene so that Shireen practically absolves Stannis of what he’s about to do to her. Because, you see, she wants to help her dad. She’s practically signed herself up for being burned at the stake–which is exactly what happens next, in what is hands down the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen on this show.
Still carrying her new toy, Shireen is marched to the stake between four armed guards, down a gauntlet of mostly horrified-looking men on either side, and it’s clear that she has no idea what is going on. Then she sees the stake, and Melisandre steps into her line of sight, and she knows. The next couple minutes are nothing but Shireen’s increasingly panicked screams for her father and mother and her pleas for them to save her. It’s actually Selyse who breaks in the end and wants to stop it, but it’s too late. Stannis holds his wife back, and by the time she fights her way free of him and through the crowd around the stake, Shireen has stopped screaming words at all.
Even knowing that this was coming, because I googled the episode before I watched it, I still couldn’t quite believe they really did it. Stannis’s love for his daughter in the books is really part of the core of who he is, and this is basically the one thing he’s absolutely unwilling to do in order to win. He’d have sacrificed Aemon Targaryen, and he’d have sacrificed Mance Rayder’s baby, but he won’t sacrifice Shireen. It’s really one of book!Stannis’s few redeeming characteristics, and this has been true on the show as well, to the point that Stannis has been a fan favorite character pretty much since he was introduced on the show. Shireen is an actual child, and her sweetness and kindness and her friendship with Davos have led to some of the show’s best scenes in the last couple of seasons, again creating a character who is beloved by fans.
To have Stannis sacrifice Shireen like this is just a piss poor decision on the part of the show runners, and it doesn’t even quite make sense. It’s implied that it has something to do with helping Stannis be successful and keeping the troops alive, but it’s not really clear exactly what Shireen’s sacrifice is supposed to accomplish. Melisandre’s magic, such as it is, has never been that well defined in the show or the books, and the only true magic that it’s confirmed she can do is birthing the shadow baby assassins. By this point in the books, it’s even confirmed that her visions aren’t particularly accurate and are very tricky for her to interpret, so the burning sacrifices she makes to her god are of debatable use other than as a way of disposing of inconvenient people and putting on a terrifyingly impressive show for people who are impressed by that sort of thing.
All it has accomplished here is to make Stannis such a thoroughly dislikeable character that I don’t see how anyone will like him ever again. It may even be a sign that Stannis’s own days are very numbered. We know that he’s about to engage in a sizable battle, and we know that he’s been on a collision course with Brienne of Tarth, who wants to avenge Renly’s murder. It could be that next week’s episode, or perhaps the first episode or two of season six, will see the end of Stannis Baratheon. I imagine this would send Melisandre scuttling back to Castle Black, putting her in place to be handy when Jon Snow gets attacked by his own men and needs to be resurrected. Then again, all this would start to make a little sense then, and sense-making has not been Game of Thrones’ forte this season so I’m not getting my hopes up.
Similar to last week’s episode, “The Dance of Dragons” ends with a long segment in a single location. This time, it’s about seventeen minutes in Daznak’s Pit, something that I’ve been looking forward to all season because getting to see dragons eat people is one of the very, very few truly pleasurable things about watching this show anymore. I’m sad to say that this scene didn’t at all live up to my expectations, and when Daenerys finally flies away on Drogon it reminds me of nothing more than the last scenes of The Neverending Story.
The aerial views of the Pit are kind of cool and initially give a sense of grandness and scale to the events, but the smallness of Daenerys’s court undoes a lot of that effect. This is something that has been a problem on the show in both Meereen and King’s Landing, to be honest. The books have literally hundreds of characters, and the various royal courts are full to the brim with colorful personalities who make these places seem alive.
Daenerys’s court, such as it is, now consists of Hizdahr zo Loraq, Missandei, Daario Naharis, and Tyrion, and these folks don’t even fill up a small platform at the Pit. It’s just not very impressive, and it’s times like these that the world of the show feels very empty–no matter how big a crowd they manage to composite in to a giant stadium.
The actual gladiator matches were fairly well done, although Jorah’s fight does end up dragging on just long enough to start to be silly. The main event, though, is when the Sons of the Harpy attack, which is another significant departure from the books that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense the way the show has presented it. In A Dance With Dragons, Daenerys’s marriage to Hizdahr is contingent upon the curtailing of the Sons of the Harpy, and as soon as she agrees to the marriage and to reopening the pits, the Sons are mysteriously controlled. It’s pretty certain that if Hizdahr isn’t their leader himself, he’s at least up to his neck in the whole business.
In the show, however, the Sons of the Harpy have been a lot more ambiguous in their goals. It’s been kind of stated that they are people who want to return Meereen to Meereenese rule and bring back slavery, but even that is mostly conjecture, as the issue just hasn’t been dealt with all that well. With their attack at the Pit, the Sons of the Harpy now make a lot less sense. In this episode, they seem to be killing pretty indiscriminately, just slaughtering people in the stands. They even kill Hizdahr, which seems to suggest that they aren’t his people–even though Hizdahr was running late and sort of ominously said he was making sure everything was ready. So, basically, the political situation in Meereen–which was deep and nuanced and fascinating in the books–is a mess on the show, and it manages to be both overly simplistic and completely confusing.
None of this is helped, either, by Daenerys flying off on Drogon at the end of the episode. It does kind of inexplicably end all the fighting, which we notice in the last shot of the episode, which focuses on the stunned faces of Tyrion, Daario, Jorah, and Missandei, who are all just standing in the middle of the Pit, not doing anything.
The worst thing about Daenerys flying off, however, is how truly terrible the special effects are here. It’s really, truly poorly done, and it turns what should be one of the most amazing and empowering moments of the season into a moment of silliness.
All in all, “A Dance of Dragons” just another letdown in a season of letdowns. It veers wildly between being offensive and being offensively badly written, and the adaptational choices of the show runners just become increasingly ill-conceived the more they diverge from the source material.