“The Dance of Dragons”
Before I wade in here, let me just state because I think it’s important: what happened in Stannis’ camp was not a TV invention. It’s going to happen in the books – we know this because David Benioff talked this week about the way he and D.B. Weiss reacted when Martin told them about it. I say this not as a blanket defense of what happened, but only because it’s become popular to pile on Benioff & Weiss for “ruining” Martin’s story. I don’t agree with every change they’ve made by a long shot, but this is apparently not a change.
We’re in funny territory here, spoiler-wise. Do I have to spoiler-tag stuff from the adaptation that’s spoiling what hasn’t happened yet in the source material? That’s ass-backwards from the norm, but that’s the world we’re living in with Game of Thrones right now. This story is all over the map – literally, figuratively and chronologically.
I’m wondering if Benioff and Weiss intended the climactic scene of the episode to be the one people talked about – the centerpiece of the usual “Episode 9 blockbuster” formula GoT has employed since Season One. It was certainly visually impressive (and one of the few moments in this ep book readers more or less knew was coming) but bluntly, they were fools if they expected people to be talking about anything but Shireen being burned at the stake. It’s been teased for a while, sure, but it still stands as yet another truly shocking moment in a series that’s offered up more than a few of them.
We’ll see how Martin handles these events (maybe in 2028 or whenever “Winds of Winter” comes out) but Benioff and Weiss sure were sadistic about it. There is a certain glee both they and Martin seem to share in torturing the viewer/reader that seems to extend beyond what’s necessary to make the poetic or philosophical point, and one that unsettles me as a critical observer. Shireen and her relationship were built up cruelly, to the point of a devastating final scene with Davos, who knew what was coming (read about Liam Cunningham and Kerry Ingram’s final day on set if you really want to bawl). And then it happened. And while we weren’t shown much visually, it was unsparing and existentially brutal. I found this far more disturbing than Sansa’s wedding night, as terrible as that was (and it was shot basically in the same manner).
Stannis has always been one of the most ethically grey characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, perched most precipitously on the wire dividing hero and villain. If anything GoT has tended to push him further towards the sympathetic side, but I think these events are the nail in the coffin for any scenario where one can be on “Team Stannis”. Yes, his claim is likely the most valid – but he’s built his efforts on human sacrifice, fratricide (via black magic), and now burning his own daughter alive. Melissandre may be the psychotic pushing him, but he could always say no – and he’s done what he’s done. Desperation is no excuse, nor is talk of “destiny”. Destiny can go fuck itself if it requires a man to do what Stannis did here.
The allusion to Agamemnon here is obvious (he killed his own daughter to please the Gods so he could conquer Troy), and perhaps Stannis’ tale is most like a Greek tragedy of any in this story. But we all know how Greek tragedies end – they call them “tragedies” for a reason – and I’ll shed no tears for Stannis when that happens. It’s no wonder he sent Davos away before he did the deed – it’s not as though Davos could have stopped it, but he would have tried and forced Stannis to kill or at least banish him for it. And even worse, the coward Stannis would have had to look in Davos’ eyes and admit the truth. Davos has always been too good for Stannis’ service, but to see even the vile Selyse pushed past her breaking point and trying to intervene while Stannis stood by and did nothing is the truest condemnation of the man.
One might perhaps have expected big events up north after “Hardhome”, but they’re mostly deferred to the finale. There was a very strong moment when Jon stood outside the gates of Castle Black as Thorne stared down at him from atop the Wall, akin to a great game of chicken (though why Jon didn’t just sail his ships to Eastwatch in Westeros is a puzzlement) – Jon and we are left to wonder if those gates will open, or whether a coup has taken place in his absence. They do open, and the wildlings do trudge into the keep (including Wun Wun) but the reckoning here has obviously only been deferred, not avoided. The old hatreds still burn strong here.
I’m not even going to talk about Dorne except to say that it seems to have been an anti-climax (even more so than in the books). Really – after all that meandering, that was the payoff? Things are poppier over in Braavos, where Arya happens to catch sight of Mace Tyrell and Meryn Trant coming ashore as she’s preparing to take out the Thin Man. Mace is at is most amusing here, and Trant his most vile – looks like he’s a pedo on top of all his other nasty qualities. It’s interesting to me that Arya still thinks she can lie to Jaqen and get away with it, but a girl keeps on trying.
As for the climactic scenes in the mosh pit, they were certainly spectacular. Adding Jorah was a nice tweak, because it added some real pathos to the moment (and that somersault-thrust kill was awesome). It’s not “Castermere” or “Blackwater”, but it’s good – though I think “Hardhome” would have been the more fitting for the Episode 9 crown. I confess to a certain disappointment that Hizdahr seems to have been killed off (though perhaps not) with so much of his potential untapped. I enjoyed his verbal sparring with Dany (including this week’s), and he asks her questions that need to be asked. I like his moral ambiguity, and mysteriousness – is he actually the Harpy himself? Does he genuinely want to save his city, even if it means making peace with a conquerer like Danerys?
The ending certainly leaves us with some interesting questions. Does Dany have Greyscale (perhaps given Shireen and Jorah’s roles this ep will come to be known as “The Grey Wedding”) now that she’s taken Jorah’s hand? And am I nuts, or did Dany just basically leave Tyrion and all her allies to die by mounting Drogon and flying away? We may not get answers in this arc until next season, but it’s looking marginally more interesting than it did.
It seems odd for Tyrion of all people to end up as the lone voice speaking for idealism, but I found his remark to Hizdahr very telling – “It’s very easy to lose sight of the difference between what is and what ought to be.” Surely, Stannis has lost sight of it – and trying to keep her eye on it is perhaps the central pillar of Dany’s arc. Both the books and the TV seem intent on crushing idealism, both in the characters and the audience. Martin stubbornly guards what the “ought to be” endgame might be – perhaps the point is that it doesn’t exist at all. This is a bleak and despairing tale by any standard. but at least as far as the TV version is concerned, it’s never been more difficult to believe that spring might one day arrive to thaw the cruel chill of winter.