Game of Thrones: The Dance of Dragons Review

In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones Season 5 dragons really do dance. But that's not the most searing scene...

Tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones lived up to both the name of its series—for what else is an armed revolt against a queen but a power move in the ultimate game?—and its episode title: “The Dance of Dragons.” Aye, the dragons danced, and chomped, and burned all manners of annoying fools. And it was spectacular.

Yet, that is not where my mind rests at the end of this hour. As brilliant as the long-awaited “gladiator” sequence was in the fighting pits—which any “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan has been anticipating all year long for Game of Thrones season five—it seems buried under the sand. No, not sand. Snow and fire.

The moment that left me the most slack-jawed tonight is when Stannis chose ambition over love and burned his daughter alive for fair weather. And I still cannot decide for the life of me if this heartbreakingly tragic outcome is a brilliant plot twist by George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, and D.B. Weiss…or the most depressingly revolting moment in a series that often skirts the proverbial line far too often.

To contextualize this bit of Greek tragedy horror (more on that in a moment), I need to tell TV-only fans that it has not happened in the book…yet. So, sitting there and watching with wide eyes as Stannis tied his supposedly beloved daughter to a stake, I was as helplessly shouting at the television for Stannis to see the error of his ways as the rest of any decent human soul that shared in this moment.

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Sure, there have been characters who have died on the show but are still alive in the books (we even made a list about them here), but none have been as gruesome or unexpected as this moment, which left me sick with the kind of gut-kick that only George R.R. Martin can deliver on a pen’s edge. And indeed, Martin did craft this as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss urgently revealed on this hour’s HBO Go featurette. Don’t blame us…

So, for any book fans crying infidelity, just know that this wasn’t a change: it was a spoiler for the sixth book where Martin will try to stomp on your heart again, as is his so often his favorite pastime.

But this one was different; we just watched a little girl get tied to a stake and lit on fire on her father’s command so that he can take an enemy castle. But now it can forever only be a pyrrhic victory for the king or his television viewing audience, because Stannis has revealed himself to be the “brittle iron” that Jon Snow always second-guessed on the page. And it has clear literary roots: Martin has turned/will turn Stannis into his Agamemnon of Greek antiquity.

The short version of this literary basis is that Agamemnon, King of Argos or Mycenae (depending on the myth spinner), led the conquest of Troy. But before his fleet could cross the Aegean Sea, the proud king was taught humility by the goddess Artemis, who demanded the human sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia…he relented and murdered his own daughter to sack Troy. And after 10 years of warfare he succeeded only to be murdered on his return home by his wife Clytemnestra while taking a bath. Whether that foretells Stannis’ fate remains to be seen, but personally, I hope Davos does both his king and queen in with equal amounts of prejudice.

Which brings us back to the actual storyline at hand. Classical allusions are nice, but again we just watched Stannis murder his daughter—and heard her screams echo through the snow as the fire crept over her body—to be given “fair wind” by the Red God.

As a character evolution, it is all too real. Personally, I never was on “Team Stannis” like so many avid readers. Upon first meeting him on the page, he had all the arrogance and off-putting faux humility of Sejanus as he “reluctantly” attempted to take Rome for himself. This is a man who murdered his brother with black magic because he could not succeed at politics, and who has long let a red witch whisper in his ear. As horrible as the White Walkers are, I could never put Westeros’ hope in the hands of two who worship at the altar of human sacrifice…and yet both the novel A Dance with Dragons and Game of Thrones season five made me reluctantly support Stannis. He saved the Wall, and he might save Winterfell from those goddamn Boltons. So, it’s perfectly in keeping with Martin’s style to only start to make Stannis sympathetic even to his skeptics just as he forces Stannis’ hand in the most vile way imaginable.

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So, it’s a Greek tragedy. And it’s also one in keeping with a character that far too many book readers have bandwagoned onto at their own peril since A Clash of Kings. But as “logical” as it is, I just watched a little girl get burned alive. And at this point, logic can be damned in such “context.”

This is the most repulsed and browbeaten I’ve felt in this story since the Red Wedding caused me to throw a book across the room and refuse to pick it up again for days. But when Game of Thrones adapted that scene, it ended an hour on it. Perhaps in an attempt to lift viewers’ feelings, Benioff and Weiss couched this sequence behind one of the most glorious and visually stunning moments in the series’ entire run—even in the history of television. But my mind is still distracted by that other moment.

Still, to move on, yes that ending was every bit as astonishing as it was in A Dance with Dragons. In fact, it was even more so since adding Jorah to the mix was a wonderful tweak by Benioff and Weiss.

In the novel, Jorah does not get to enter the arena before everything goes to dragonfire hell, but the impulse is correct since it allowed for a mixture of emotions that made the outcomes all the more gratifying. At first glance, I was as ready as Daenerys to let Jorah Mormont meet his Seven Makers after he willingly stepped upon the sand. She’s given you two chances, at this point you really can go off and die.

But the sequence, while somewhat “inspired” by a similar moment in the first season of HBO’s Rome, is brilliant and gives Dany a real reason to be disgusted and anguished by these fights beyond ethical dilemmas. Indeed, after so many seasons of letting their elephantine awkwardness go unmentioned between them, it feels like with every kill, Jorah is communicating his passion (or delusion) with Dany, and she is finally seeing it without any words or betrayals standing between them.

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read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 Predictions and Theories

It is also a blessed refrain from Daario. While I never want to see Dany and Jorah achieve anything more than their slightly creepy and pathetic bit of unrequited melancholy in the margins, this doesn’t mean I can ever warm to one of Martin’s weakest characters. And sure enough, Daario spends much of the fight trying to emasculate Hizdahr zo Loraq for attempting to take his place as the queen’s paramour. Seven Hells, this guy sucks so much at his sole job of protecting the queen that he can’t even see assassins when they’re five feet in front of his bravado.

Jorah might be Ser Sad Sack of the Island of Friendzone, but seeing him one-up Daario by killing the first Harpy who almost had Dany could have only been improved if the spear had taken Daario with it. By accident, of course.

Still, the sequence is not really about either of them: this is the moment where Daenerys comes to the realization that despite all of her political ideals and ethical compromises, sometimes being a foreign occupier in a foreign land will end in nothing less than ultimate resentment and bloodshed. So faster than you can say Middle East realpolitik, Daenerys is up in a sandstorm of blood, and it is a wonderment to behold.

David Nutter has directed some of the best episodes of Game of Thrones, and his use of digital effects to create a genuinely cinematic sequence on the sands of the fighting pit arena will forever remain a series highlight. When your TV show has gladiator fights and that’s the least interesting thing about the scene—something is going very right. Seeing the Unsullied, the sellswords, and even Tyrion Lannister with a dagger stand shoulder to shoulder before the end until Drogon appears is worth the price of admission. I even want to praise the series for dramatizing Daenerys’ potential death, which she meets not with fire, blood, or some loud proclamation. No, it’s with silence and dignity by Missandei’s side.

Then of course there’s Drogon. Anytime Drogon is visible, it is one of the best sequences ever written for the small screen, and without exception this is some of the most beautiful immolation yet. Drogon just doesn’t burn one warlock, or a single misogynist slaver. Nay, it’s an all-you-can-cremate buffet, and the Sons of the Harpy have a Groupon discount waiting for them at the front of the line. Who needs Chris Pratt and “Team Raptor” when you can watch Drogon devour screaming buffoons right here?!

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Of course this is obviously CGI, but Drogon is realized with enough digital wizardry that when coupled with the narrative magic of this story, I am still feeling the tension with every spear that the big guy took from the Sons of the Harpy. Seriously, they already killed Shireen this week, what if Benioff and Weiss sped up to Drogon’s yet unknown and unpublished death too? Thankfully, such a nightmare doesn’t seem to exist, and Daenerys finally did what any trueborn Targaryen should: she took to the skies on a dragon’s back.

Daenerys climbing onto Drogon is what I interpret to be Dany embracing her Targaryen heritage. The queen entrenched in the practicalities of ruling while clinging to her higher ideals surely must be gone. This is not to say I want a tyrant reaching Westeros with three dragons…but is there any other way for Daenerys to truly succeed as a Targaryen except on the top of raining hellfire made flesh? I am not sure that by the time Dany reaches Westeros that she will be the compassionate or sane girl she was before this moment. But I am certain she will have embraced her Targaryen destiny. And so too soon will all of the Sons of the Harpy and perhaps the totality of Meereen likewise learn what that means. Still, no matter what, at this point she is a better choice than Stannis or Tommen…

There were some other moments tonight. They ranged from the amusing (Arya is about to scratch another name off her list with Ser Meryn Trant!) to the less so (everything else we learned about Trant, Joffrey’s Sansa beater). Jon Snow even got over the Wall in a moment so genuinely suspenseful that I can forgive it should have been no problem at all since they sailed from Hardhome to Eastwatch by the Sea (which is manned by Night’s Watch men on the southside of Bran the Builder’s ginormous wonder).

Yet, I think after an hour as emotionally whiplash inducing as that, everything else seems almost trivial at this point.

Going into the finale, Jon should really keep a wary eye on Olly, the not-so-smiling steward and squire that has already murdered Ygritte before his eyes; Arya will likely slay her girl-loving prize while in disguise, but she’ll lose Jaqen in the process too once the Man who Speaks in Third Person confirms his already knowing suspicion about her lie (the thin man wasn’t hungry today? Pfft); Theon will finally remember his name in some capacity (though I dread Sansa’s storyline will not be given its overdue catharsis); Cersei will find religion…grotesquely appalling; and, if Martin is merciful, Roose Bolton and Stannis will simultaneously slay each other, sparing the North from either monster.

Sadly, I already know that Martin is never merciful.

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Which brings us back to this hour and that scene of pure Baratheon evil that I cannot decide my feelings on. In comparison, it took me days to grapple with understanding how brilliantly necessary the Red Wedding was once upon a time.

…Nevertheless when Game of Thrones adapted that sequence, it was also in a penultimate episode that made unsullied viewers wallow in misery with not even a single gesture of hollow solace—there was no immediate Joffrey death or Daenerys victory to offset that pain. By choosing to hide this moment behind season five’s showstopper—which Daenerys’ first flight and Drogon’s masquerade massacre is meant to be—I cannot help but feel that sequence was sullied as a result. Instead of enjoying gladiator carnage, we were left preoccupied with a disdain for the Stag with a burning heart…or perhaps even the show and Martin’s cynically bleak narrative itself.

Remember a month ago when watching this series was still considered purely fun?

They’re two moments that seared for very different reasons. But their juxtaposition seems a disservice to both, hobbling a penultimate episode that might have been a glory under another shock of storytelling bravery, cowardice, or both. I honestly can’t tell while the sounds of a screaming child incinerated to ash drown out whatever joy even Drogon can bring to Game of Thrones. For that reason, I’m not giving this hour a star-rating because the smell of smoke is still too fresh. You’ll have to find that peace on your own, assuming there is any to be had.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Everything We Know

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