Article originally written for Seat42F.
Given that HBO’s GAME OF THRONES has a penchant for making the penultimate episode of every season big (think: Ned Stark’s execution, The Red Wedding, The Battle of Blackwater), and given that last night’s episode is titled “The Dance of Dragons,” many assumed both splash and dragons would be served. Those people are likely not disappointed, then, with what GAME OF THRONES delivered.
The biggest thing by far in “The Dance of Dragons” is the sequence at the re-opened Mereen fighting pits. It starts off simple enough, with some charged interplay between Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) men, Daario (Michiel Huisman), Hizdahr zo Loraq (Joel Fry), and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). Daario and Hizdahr both want Daenerys’ heart, and Hizdahr and Tyrion both seek to advise her. Well, what Hizdahr really wants is likely to depose the queen and rule himself, but until that happens, things still don’t look like smooth sailing for this all-male council.
All of this goes on as the fighting happens in front of the dais, which is interesting. Brutality is happening right in front of them, but it’s at least partially ignored because it doesn’t directly concern this group. They can talk about it on an intellectual level, but not being in the pits themselves, they don’t have that person stake. This highlights the detachment of leadership, and probably why Daenerys is having trouble controlling her people.
Jorah (Iain Glen) reappears in the pit, and that does make things more personal, at least for Daenerys. I’m not sure why The Bear returns again, having twice been cast out. Does he think he will get a different reaction from Daenerys this time? I can’t see any reason why he would think so, nor does he at the start.
But then the Sons of the Harpy attack, and nothing is certain any more. Now the danger really does threaten our small contingent. Hizdahr, the one of the attacker’s own who sits with the despised ruler, dies first. Jorah re-earns a place by Daenerys’ side by defending her, which she accepts when she takes his hand. It’s a smartly staged attack, with only a few Unsullied around and our heroes trapped in a confined space. This coup is bloody and intense and viewers will not soon forget neither the unexpected way in which it happens, nor the desperation as Jorah, Tyrion, Daario, Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Daenerys cower in the center of the pit, becoming part of the fighting action themselves, no longer separate and above it. It’s a powerful image.
Then, Drogon appears. The best dragon of Daenerys’ trio, he comes when his mistress needs him, barbequing her would-be assassins. He’s not yet completely full grown, and spears do threaten him, but he startles the bad guys enough to rescue Daenerys and fly away. It’s slightly deus ex machina, but it’s also a pay-off for a long-simmering story, and a good way to reawaken the dormant ‘mother of dragons’ plot thread.
Does Daenerys not care about her fellows? Perhaps in the moment she can be forgiven for being so focused on her pet, a truly mesmerizing sight. But when she flies off, she leaves the others in the pit. I think, given the confusion and chaos the dragon causes, they can escape, but how does she know that? Would she really be so heartless as to leave the others who have protected her so bravely to fend for themselves? This is the one thing that seems out of step in this portion of “The Dance of Dragons.”
While Mereen is the setting of a large portion of the hour, it is not the only place where things are happening, of course. The second most affecting bit comes when Stannis (Stephen Dillance) gives in to Melisandre’s (Carice van Houten) request to sacrifice his daughter, Shireen (Kerry Ingram), burning her alive, which thankfully is not shown in graphic detail. Now, according to Melisandre, this will guarantee Stannis’ progress in taking control of the Seven Kingdoms.
I don’t think Stannis’ actions can just be chalked up to desperation. True, his army is decimated, the stores burned, and he’s out of options, which does lead him to consider the one he wouldn’t before, killing his beloved daughter. But I don’t see malice or regret in his eyes when he talks to Shireen beforehand, and he actually does a kindness when he gets Davos (Liam Cunningham) out of the way, as Davos would have died defending the girl. Instead, Stannis really believes he deserves the Iron Throne and must do whatever he can to get it. There’s no anger or grief or selfishness in his face; this just is, and he accepts it as the heavy price he must pay. This will likely make most viewers, myself included, turn against his ‘just’ cause, as he’s stubborn to a tragic fault.
In Bravos, Arya (Maisie Williams) also does what she thinks she must, abandoning the mission Jaqen (Tom Wlaschiha) gives her when she spots Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie), one of those she’s sworn vengeance against for what happened to her family. She follows him around instead of killing the heartless businessman, who has earned his own death.
There’s no denying Trant deserves death, especially when his whorehouse proclivities are exposed, but I don’t think Arya is ready to go after this man head-on. She’s still very early in her training, and clearly her motives are purely personal, making her emotional. Plus, if she goes against Jaqen’s orders now, and I suspect Jaqen already knows what Arya is considering and is waiting to see what will happen, she’s likely to be kicked out the program. Then what will she do? Is being a Faceless Man just something she tests out, or is it her calling? Would she be allowed to leave the church without penalty?
Other great moments include Jaime’s enlightening discussion with Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig), which shows us Doran’s character, Bronn’s (Jerome Flynn) penalty being paid for striking a prince, and the tense few moments until Alliser (Owen Teale) opens the gate to Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the Wildlings. “The Dance of Dragons” may be a big episode, but there are plenty left in these other sections for next week’s season finale, and many rich characters to keep playing with. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say Jon will be the one to watch next week, and maybe Cersei, who sits this episode out.
GAME OF THRONES airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.