Game of Thrones: 509 “The Dance of Dragons” Review
Reviewed by Mark McCullough.
Episode nine of a season of Game of Thrones is one that comes with a unique reputation of being a game-changer. Looking closer and a pattern appears to emerge of alternating shock deaths and large scale battles. With last season opting to depict the epic war at the wall, this season was likely to go down the major character death route. Unfortunately the reputation of the prestigious episode number served only to undermine the episode. Whilst it definitely delivered on the shock factor the show is famed for, it failed to offer much else.
Of the five locations showcased this week, two of these featured events which were undeniably huge in scale and will undoubtedly have major consequences which I suspect will spill over into next week’s season finale. Consequently, the remaining three locations were left feeling somewhat pointless and a tad neglected by the narrative.
Fresh out of the battle of Hardhome, Jon Snow arrives at the Wall with the ensemble of Wildings in tow. There is a tense moment where the audience are left unsure as to whether the men of the Night’s Watch are going to grant their leader entry. Apart from that, not much actually happens within the Jon Snow narrative strand this week. This in itself begs the question as to what the purpose of its inclusion was in the first place. We had already witnessed Jon’s colleagues voice their disdain for his decisions in previous episode, so this week offered nothing new. It very much seems as if it was included to give some sort of follow on from last week’s breath-taking dénouement, but even then, it’s extremely odd that the principle aspect of said dénouement, the White Walkers, are unmentioned here.
In Dorne, previously we had seen Jaime and Bronn captured and held prisoner. The narrative this week took the former before Prince Doran who brought the entire storyline to a swift close by offering a diplomatic solution that would see benefit for both him and Jaime. The problem with this however is that it was too safe, a major flaw throughout the largely sub-par Dorne storyline. Technically it was the sensible approach from Doran mirroring what would have happened in real life, but for Westeros it was a fresh turn of events. Unfortunately it proved true the old cliché that real life doesn’t make very good television. Unless of course Doran has a plan up his sleeve, but the narrative hasn’t focused on him enough yet for us to know his character well enough to judge that yet.
In Braavos we see Arya turn her back on her latest assignment and by extension her training with the Faceless Men. The reason for her deviation: Meryn Trant’s arrival. This represents a step back for Arya’s character as Ser Meryn was one of the names on her list, so essentially this a reversion back to Series Four Arya, and one that proves she wasn’t ready for Faceless Men. It does fit quite well with the narrative though, especially when viewed in the light of her hiding needle earlier in the series. One minor criticism I would have of the story (and this is more my fault than the writers) is that I actually forgot who Ser Meryn was, so a mention of even his name might have been helpful. Nonetheless the narrative was able to sufficiently paint him as a vile paedophilic man, who I would be happy to see Arya impart justice upon in the finale.
Undoubtedly the key scenes for this week took place in Stannis’ camp as the moral question posed earlier in the series is brought to the fore again. In order to frame the decision, the narrative opts to have Ramsay’s ambush on Stannis play out without actually showing the former. This leaves the focus on Stannis and the impact the attack has on him and his men. From this point it is clear where the writers intend to go with the story, and it is obvious that Princess Shireen’s fate is sealed, (although that does not stop us from holding out hope that somehow there will a change of heart). The narrative builds us up to the big moment with the use of three separate one on one scenes. In the first Ser Davos pleads with Stannis not to do anything rash, he must have some idea of what is about to happen as he tried to get Stannis to permit him to allow Shireen to accompany him, but to no avail.
The next scene sees a farewell between Davos and Shireen, and it definitely has an air of finality about it. It is also from this scene that the episode takes its name: The Dance of Dragon. This turns out to be a book depicting a civil war within the Targaryen family. The purpose of including it here becomes apparent after we see Stannis share a similar scene with Shireen as Davos had previously. The two men are used to depict on screen the personal conflict that must have been occurring at the time for Stannis. Davos shows the side of the caring father, as such it is no coincidence that the gift he gives is the stag, the symbol of house Baratheon. On the other hand, Stannis gets his daughter to in her naivety to offer to help him. For me, this was actually the lowest moment for his character and a stark contrast to the scene we witnessed between him and his daughter earlier in the season.
With the foreboding out of the way, the stage (and the pyre) was set for the scene that has displaced Red Wedding as the most disturbing scene featured on the show. There were a couple of things that were noteworthy that occurred before Shireen met her tragic end. Firstly Melisandre, who hadn’t been seen since sowing the seeds of the idea to Stannis is now back to the fore, and it is Stannis who is nowhere to be seen. It is not until Shireen cries for her father that he eventually emerges from behind the tent with his wife in tow. The second key aspect is from Selsye, his wife, who initially seems to be going along with the idea, however upon hearing her daughter’s heart wrenching screams she quickly reverts to trying to stop it. The whole scene by my interpretation appears to represent a commentary by the writers on the nature of extremes of religion and its ability to essentially brainwash normal people like Stannis into extreme acts that they may not normally do. For that reason I’m not sure whether I hate Stannis or Melisandre for what happened to Shireen. All I am certain of is that it was a shocking scene which was difficult to watch, essentially Game of Thrones’ niche in a nutshell.
Having barely been given a moment to register what happened, we are catapulted into Meereen where the fighting pits are about to begin for the great games. Daenerys, Tyrion and her husband-to-be Hizdahr zo Loraq are in attendance. What is initially only small talk and relatively boring scenes receives an injection of life on Jorah’s arrival. Placing Jorah in a position of peril proved to be necessary to make Dany realise how she truly felt about him. However her joy at his victory was short-lived as an ambush by the Sons of the Harpy was initiated. Unfortunately this is where the episode started to suffer for a number of reasons. Firstly it was too much too soon after Shireen’s death to have another large scale event such as this one. Secondly, but much more importantly, was the execution of the battle. In contrast to last week’s perfectly choreographed epic huge scale clash at Hardhome, this week’s effort felt almost sluggish without any clear sense of where it was going other than setting the scene for the episode’s dénouement and Drogon’s arrival.
It’s a safe assumption to state that Dany’s dragon riding scene was one of the most anticipated moments since the Dragons were first born at the end of Series One. So in many ways it makes it all the more disappointing that the scene didn’t have the effect it should. For starters, there appears to be an issue with Drogon’s size as the dragon appears to be significantly smaller than in previous appearances. Furthermore there is the matter of Dany’s comradeship, the narrative choose to show her display an ‘in it together’ mentality only to abandon her friends seconds later leaving them mid ambush, it doesn’t seem right for the character of Daenerys. To compound matters further, there is also the massive juxtaposition in the sombre mood following Shireen’s death and the triumph of Dany riding her dragon. This contrast is just too big, and the two don’t sit well together calling into question the decision to have both occur within one episode.
By no means was this a bad episode of Game of Thrones, it just wasn’t a very good one. It would appear to be a case of not living up to the expectations set, and is easily the weakest of the five episode nines. However the problem is slightly bigger than that as not for the first time this season the writing appears to have been designed to incite a reaction within the fanbase rather than developing the story naturally. As you would expect the series suffers for it, particularly this week where it becomes so jarring that it takes you out of the story.