The Dance of Dragons

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My interview with Vox Day should go up some time tomorrow over at Pex Lives, along with an accompanying Shabcast in which Jack, Kevin, James and I talk about the interview. There will be an announcement here when they go live.

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Lions of Meereen: Tyrion Lannister
Lions of Dorne: Jaime Lannister
Dragons of Meereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
The Burning Hearts, Stannis Baratheon and Mellisandre
The Ship, Davos Seaworth
Snakes of Dorne: Elaria Sand
Direwolves of Braavos: Arya Stark
Chains of Dorne: Bronn
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
Coins of Braavos: No one
Swords of Meereen: Daario Noharis
Butterflies of Meereen: Missandei
With the Bear of Meereen, Jorah Mormont

Winterfell and King's Landing are abandoned.

The episode is in parts. The first is two minutes long and is set in Stannis Baratheon's camp north of Winterfell. The opening image is an establishing shot of the camp in the snow.

The second is three minutes long and is set at the Wall. The transition is by dialogue, from Daavos talking about Castle Black to the northern gate to Castle Black.

The third is four minutes long and is set in Stannis Baratheon's camp north of Winterfell. The transition is by hard cut, from Jon Snow to Stannis's map, and by dialogue, with Stannis talking about Jon Snow and the Wall.

The fourth is six minutes long and is set in Dorne. The transition is by deeply idiosyncratic relationships between fathers and daughters, from Shireen to Myrcella.

The fifth is eight minutes long and is set in Braavos. The transition is by hard cut, from Bronn to an establishing shot of the docks.

The sixth is three minutes long and is set in Dorne. The transition is by dialogue, from the House of Black and White to Doran informing Ellaria that she has a choice ending with "or die."

The seventh is six minutes long and is set in Stannis Baratheon's camp. The transition is by dialogue, with both scenes talking about Targaryens. It features the death of Shireen Baratheon, burnt to death on her father's orders.

The eighth is seventeen minutes long and is set in Meereen. The transition is by the theme of barbarism, from Shireen's death to the fighting pits of Meereen. It features the death of lots and lots of people. The final image is of many people surprised at the unexpected departure of their queen and the means of her conveyance.

Review

In many ways this has the same structure as "Hardhome," although Meereen is not as large a part of the episode as Hardhome was - this is an episode that deals with some smaller plots and then does a big endcap scene. Given this, there is a certain anticlimax, especially given the near-mythic power that "episode nine" at this point has within Game of Thrones. Put simply, this year the big set piece is not in the ninth slot; it was in the eighth, clearly. Unless it's in the tenth.

Which is to say that the inevitable comparisons to "Hardhome" do this no favors. "Hardhome" ended with a big battle scene in which all bets were off because we'd careened off the path of the books. "The Dance of Dragons" ended with a big set piece taken straight from the books, with a very well-telegraphed ending. "Hardhome" had the first Tyrion/Daenerys scenes in its buildup. "The Dance of Dragons" had Stannis.

None of which is to say that "The Dance of Dragons" was bad. Actually, it was pretty fantastic. The sacrifice of Shireen was a phenomenal moment. There's an obvious comparison here to Sansa's rape; it's a moment of astonishing horror and brutal cruelty, built to with sickening inevitability. But where Sansa's rape felt tawdry, obvious, and cynical, Shireen's death unfolds like a well-structured tragedy, with way out after way out crumpling until the final, awful moment. I have quibbles, most obviously that Selyse's change of heart is a dreadful and sexist cliche; given how consistent her character has been up to this point, the only possible explanation for it is some sort of essentializing comment about women and motherhood. But like fridging the cool Wildling woman after a badly cliche scene about how she promises she'll rejoin her kids last week, this is a moment of sighing and rolling my eyes within a tremendously effective bit of television. (Also interesting - the explicit crediting of the scene to Martin in the "inside the episode" bit. Wonder how the equivalent will play out in the books.)

Arya's sequence was also very good; Maisie Williams's crazed, wide-eyed expression as she stalks Meryn Trant was fantastic acting. It felt in some ways like Game of Thrones doing True Detective for a scene, full of claustrophobia and obsession in all the best ways. It is a truly wonderful thing to watch Williams develop this character, and I really hope the show follows it through to an appropriately unsettling endpoint.

It's also probably the best week Dorne has had so far, although that's damning with faint praise at this point. Alexander Siddig actually gets material, which he predictably shines with. Elaria and Jaime's scene towards the end is fascinatingly nuanced and ambiguous. But it's surprising to me how little has actually happened with this plot; at this point it seems all but certain that the real development of Dorne will come next season, which feels like a missed opportunity, and like it will end up being the biggest disappointment in the otherwise stellar work this season has done adapting two very tough-to-do books.

And there was a Wall scene.

But of course the set piece - the one demanding discussion - is the Meereen scene. Except that, well, it's just not that interesting. I mean, it was well done. There were some real charms - the scale of the Sons of the Harpy's eruption was impressive. As was the death of Hizdahr, cheerily subverting all the hints of his treachery (hints that would be wholly consistent with the books) by having him turn out to have been an honest and in hindsight wholly sympathetic character, a fact that is revealed when he's casually knifed down.

But it is in the end just not that interesting a scene. It's well-executed, and yes, its importance to Daenerys as a character is real, but there are too many ways in which it's a classic Game of Thrones delaying tactic. And more broadly, as a game-changing moment, it doesn't rate. It's a big set piece in terms of amount of spectacle, and the show gets all the moving parts to work very well, but as a conceptual scene it's merely good.

Although man, in hindsight spear guy's decision to kill that guy before he'd taken Jorah out instead of right after was a hell of a bad tactical decision.

Ranking

  1. Hardhome
  2. The Dance of Dragons
  3. High Sparrow
  4. The Wars to Come
  5. Kill the Boy
  6. Sons of the Harpy
  7. The House of Black and White
  8. The Gift
  9. Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

Predictions

So, looks like we've got Winterfell, King's Landing, the Wall, Meereen, Braavos, and I'm pretty sure I heard dialogue from Dorne. So everything.

King's Landing: Cersei's walk of shame, surely. With so much else going on, though, I'd be a little surprised if this went much deeper.

The Wall: The mutiny against Jon Snow has to happen, it would seem. It's not like they'll be able to hide whether Kit Harrington is in it next season, though, so I really wonder how this will be done cliffhanger-wise.

Braavos: I would guess Arya's plot goes up to her going blind.

Meereen: I doubt Daenerys will make it back this episode, though there's not really much Battle of Meereen left to do, and I have to admit, the preview shot of them all sitting in the throne room seemingly exhausted and bored is hilarious. No idea what they'll do with Daenerys, who is "surrounded by strangers." In the books, it drops her in with the Dothraki. I suspect this will be changed.

Winterfell: It sincerely appears we're doing the Battle of Winterfell. I assume Sansa survives it.

Dorne: Nope. Not even a guess. 

I'd guess that our end state of play icludes Cersei still facing trial by combat, Jon knifed, Stannis and the Boltons both dead, and Arya blind.

Comments

TheOncomingHurricane 2 years, 3 months ago

What a load of...bollocks.

Fridging Shireen? Putting Trystane in the role of one of the Sand Snakes that was cast? Does consistent characterisation or internal logic count for anything? Or like themes, are they merely for 8th grade book reports?

Of course creatively this made sense, because they wanted it to happen.

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arcbeatle 2 years, 3 months ago

I'm following your posts and my friend's posts rather than watching at this point, as the Sansa plot made me stop, and this is the first positive thing I've seen on the episode. The general thing I've been getting is that people thought the Shireen scene seemed really forced and didn't fit at all with what they'd been doing with Stannis with some added misogyny added via her mom.

I mean, I haven't seen it, but the dissatisfaction of people I trust with most of this season is disheartening towards picking this up again.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 3 months ago

I think it's entirely consistent with Stannis, who is at the end of the day a ruthless fanatic, and has always been presented as such. The snapping of one of the few vestiges of humanity and kindness he had was always an inevitable endpoint of his character.

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TheOncomingHurricane 2 years, 3 months ago

Fanatic or not (which book Stannis is decidedly not), burning your only heir is probably not the most sensible of moves.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 3 months ago

Neither is starving to death in the snow.

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Froborr 2 years, 3 months ago

I mean, ever since Melisandre brought up king's blood it was obvious to me we were heading for an Iphigenia situation? And it's absolutely in character for Stannis to do it. I agree with Phil, the only person out of character there was Selyse.

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Ciaran M 2 years, 3 months ago

I think my only real problem with it was how they bungled up the setup of it over the season to make it feel both tragically inevitable and also irritatingly contrived.

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Ciaran M 2 years, 3 months ago

Whoops. That was meant to be a reply to the above discussion of flaming Shireen.

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Matt Marshall 2 years, 3 months ago

Well I'm glad someone liked the bizarre assassination of Stannis' character! I find it really hard to believe he'd want his only child and heir burnt to death, especially because the blood magic hasn't actually proved itself to be that powerful or even do much (Balon is still live and kicking after all). Really the only blood magic that worked is those two leeches and that was just leeched blood. Did Stannis get any clear magical benefit from burning Mance alive?

I can see Selyse and Mel burning Shireen on their own initiative and Stannis getting pissed, but not him doing it. That's baffling.

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liminal fruitbat 2 years, 3 months ago

Show Stannis or Book Stannis? In the books Stannis is in the same situation for long enough for people to resort to cannibalism, and he refuses to burn anyone. He might well burn Shireen in the face of a full-on zombie invasion, but for this, from a man famous for surviving the siege of Storm's End?

Shireen's blatantly doomed, and maybe even by Stannis' hand, but this is just contrived.

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Alex Antonijevic 2 years, 3 months ago

It's misogynistic to show a mother reacting poorly to her only daughter being burnt to death.

Good to know.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 3 months ago

No. It's sexist (although I think in common usage "misogynistic" is now essentially a synonym for sexist, and will thus not quibble with someone who uses the term, I am inclined towards the precision of "sexist") to suggest, as the scene did, that women possess some fundamental maternal trait that will always lead them to protect their children, and that men lack.

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William Whyte 2 years, 3 months ago

I thought the Shireen scene was well-executed as spectacle, and it left me very sad, but at the same time it was deeply unsatisfying. Lots questions went unanswered that for me would have both made it a better scene and made it develop the ongoing story more strongly.

When did Shireen know? What did she think was going to happen? Was she going willingly?

What exactly does Stannis think he's going to get? When?

Did Stannis tell Shireen? How can he think he has the moral strength to be king when he isn't brave enough to be with his daughter at the hour of her death, which he ordered?

How does no-one in the crowd speak out against this?

What do they think of Stannis's cowardice in not coming forward? Do we seriously believe that every single soldier in that crowd agrees with horribly killing a child? Will anyone step forward and challenge him on it?

I don't know. It was effective at the time but the more I think about it the more I think it wouldn't have happened that way.

I liked the dragon scene though. I take your point that it went on too long for the narrative purpose necessary, but I like dragons.

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Matt Marshall 2 years, 3 months ago

It may be mixing a bit too much of the book into it, but of the pair, Selyse is the religious fanatic who would absolutely be more enthusiastic about burning her only child alive to serve her god than Stannis. But of course, women all have a magical motherly power that trumps their personality (and mean old Stannis does not as he is an evil man).

Of course, that's not to say that it's unrealistic for anyone to have a "Wait, oh boy, now we're doing it maybe burning our daughter isn't the right move"

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nataliesaidihaveto 2 years, 3 months ago

If I might offer a dissent on Selyse, I would argue that the scene serves to show just how far Stannis has descended. Even Selyse breaks at this point, whereas he doesn't, not because women possess some fundamental trait, but because Stannis lacks humanity.

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TheOncomingHurricane 2 years, 3 months ago

The thing is, Selyse has never had even a hint of humanity about her, whereas Stannis has.

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David Ainsworth 2 years, 3 months ago

I also felt it was consistent for Selyse's character, although unfortunately nobody seems to have bothered to tell Tara Fitzgerald to perform the charactor in a way which offers any genuine hints at this result. Selyse has two notable characteristics: her faith, and her unhealthy obsession with her stillborn sons. She's deeply self-loathing because of her reproductive failures. Is that misogynistic and deeply connected with reproductive futurism? Certainly, but it's well-established years ago and this moment isn't a departure from it. One could easily offer a redemptive reading that the show wants us to be deeply uncomfortable with the expectation that she should be blamed for not bearing Stannis a male heir.

Of course she wants her (in her mind) deformed daughter locked up, hidden away. Of course she hates her as a living symbol of her own failure. But those stillborn children whose bodies she hangs onto are also symbols of her failure, and she can't put them to rest, either. From a reproductive standpoint, Shireen may be a huge disappointment to Selyse, but no child at all is worse still.

Selyse's lines justifying the murder right before she breaks sounded to me more like she was trying to convince herself, not reassure Stannis.

In addition, her fanaticism regarding the Lord of Light always struck me as being a commentary on the kind of self-righteous religious fanatic whose beliefs are grounded in self-hatred and a desire to feel superior to others, not in genuine faith. At the moment when Selyse realizes that she is losing something with Shireen's murder, she breaks.

Stannis, on the other hand, at least show Stannis, seems to have a core of faith; one imagines that the lore about Azor Ahai sacrificing his wife would be in his mind here, though I don't think the show told us that story so one has to imagine. More to the point, though, Stannis has a strong streak of duty, obligation and self-sacrifice. Sending Shireen to safety when her death could save his men would, to him, be like running away himself and leaving them to die.

I doubt Stannis dies in the next episode. His fate is tied to Melisandre and she'll definitely survive. Stannis only dies if she abandons him, and I don't think she's ready to do that quite yet, though she may jump ship for Jon Snow. I also don't think Stannis will last another season of the show.

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David Ainsworth 2 years, 3 months ago

The scene makes it obvious she has no idea until she sees the torchbearer and the stake. Melisandre has never explained what she's doing to Stannis prior to doing it, and he's gone along because she's gotten results. And yes, Stannis thinks he's doing something extremely courageous but does it in a cowardly way.

The open question is what the army has been told about what's going on. Given that others have been sacrificed to the Lord of Light, I presume they know something, at least that Stannis is making this sacrifice to save them. In that situation I'd expect the soldiers to be deeply uncomfortable but also secretly relieved that Stannis may have found a way to save them all. In one twisted way, if this sacrifice works, the soldiers all owe their lives to Stannis' decision.

On the other hand, they're likely to be grateful to him alongside hating him. I've not seen a better example of how Stannis can be so disliked while always trying to be inflexible but fair. One can't picture Tywin killing one of his children under any circumstances: they are special and soldiers are common rabble. Stannis represents a bunch of principles we'd generally want to accept but twisted in horrible ways.

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tom harries 2 years, 3 months ago

"I also don't think Stannis will last another season of the show."

I don't know; Agamemnon lasted for ten years after executing his daughter at the start of the Trojan War - and ended up getting killed by his wife, after he'd taken the Trojan Priestess Cassandra as his .. well, as his, basically

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tom harries 2 years, 3 months ago

I saw an interview years ago with Irene Papas, who was in a Greek film version of the original Iphigenia story, which I haven't seen, and she said that in that version, the soldiers cheered the girl as she was led to her death for saving them. According to Papas, it wasn't scripted - it was what the actors felt they should be doing.

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David Faggiani 2 years, 3 months ago

See, I actually don't think it was sexism to have Selyse break down like that, I thought it was a brilliant bit of (gender-irrelevant) character work. And it surprised me, in a really effective, desperately sad way.

Stannis and Selyse's relationship with the Faith of R'hollor has been very different for both of them, and founded on very different things, different sorts of hope and pragmatism. I think having her morality overcome her dogmatism (although too late), while a very different argument wins out in Stannis' head, was a dark and terrible illustration of faith, family, pragmatism, delusion, fatalism, and all the grounds which overlaps and merges there. The effect on both characters should be shocking to behold. RIP Shireen.

P.S. When Davos finds out, I would fear to be Stannis. Or Mellisandre. Or anyone there in the camp. The Onion Avenger is coming for you all!

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J. L. Webb 2 years, 3 months ago

This posits the existence of 'gender irrelevant character work' which, like most apoliticism, assumes a vacuum where in fact we have a very charged society. This is a dangerous assumption at best, and often self delusion or active deception (not a slight on you, just indicating the dangers).
And character work is of course going to be at some of its most gender-politicized in relation to themes of parenthood.

For what it is worth I found the idea of this dimension to Selyse welcome texture to a character who had been shown rather... flat, as yet, the issue however is the timing, that is the lack of foreshadowing, which brings her maternalism to the fore at a point contrasting Stannis such as does neither of them great favours.

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Tymothi 2 years, 3 months ago

The impression I got with Selyse breaking down was that it was more about Shireen begging her for help. Which seemed to have been the first time in a long time (ever?) that Shireen asked her mother for any kind of help. As far as I remember, we don't ever see any affection between the two of them, it seemed like the first time Selyse ever saw her as a person, and not a means to an end. Stannis, on the other hand, only ever really saw her as a means, even his saving her when she was an infant seems to me to have been more about the fact that she was a Baratheon, than any actual empathy to a fellow human being. Davos was the only one who he had to really worry about saving Shireen, because he was the only one who always saw her as a human.

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phuzz 2 years, 3 months ago

I enjoyed the heightened levels of snark in this episode, especially in Dorne (and yes, it was nice to see Alexander Siddig finally get some lines), but there was a few zingers in Mereen as well before it all kicked off (although what kind of sword did the big guy in the first bout have? It looked more like a plank painted silver.).

As for the dragon action, I felt it played out a little slow. They could have cut it down a bit and it would have been more action-y imo. Maybe I just thought that because I had a good idea of what was coming.

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Re-animator 2 years, 3 months ago

There are some parallels between Stannis' character arc and the biblical story of Abraham. Besides the obvious - forsaking the religion of his people to worship a strange monotheistic cult that demands sacrifices of blood and burning people, I mean. In this episode, he has his binding-of-isaac moment but no miracle comes to prevent the death of his firstborn. He gets all the doubt and hesitation of Abraham but none of the surety - he can't even address the Lord directly but only via a priestess. He is locked into a path he can't stray or return from, since that would mean making all the sacrifices (literal and figurative) meaningless. I read the queen's last-minute regret slightly differently - being a fervent believer in the goodness of the Lord of Light ("this is good, this is necessary" being her mantra as Shireen is tied to the stake) she might have expected a miracle to take place, a substitute found, or maybe, as with Abraham, the Lord would have deemed the willingness to go through with the sacrifice a sufficient substitute for it. But seeing her daughter burn gives her a realization that her Lord may not be that good after all. He might be as indifferent or encouraging to the death of her child as to the death of anyone else in Westeros.

Also, as a first time commenter but year-long reader, thank you for the blog! It's been a great companion as I made my way into Doctor Who.

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Daru 2 years, 3 months ago

I do generally agree Phil. I had hoped, really hoped that Stannis's hard-headed reaction would be to refuse Melisandre and find another way through. So I was shocked when Shireen was burned as I did really adore the way she was played.

Great to watch Arya in action in Braavos.

And I do admit to loving the spectacle of Drogon appearing even if yes it was easily telegraphed. Yes it wasn't a game changer, so I'm with you there - I did love the sight of it though.

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Seeing_I 2 years, 2 months ago

"I have quibbles, most obviously that Selyse's change of heart is a dreadful and sexist cliche; given how consistent her character has been up to this point, the only possible explanation for it is some sort of essentializing comment about women and motherhood."

Another possible explanation is just that while she could convince herself in her mind of the action's righteousness, actually seeing her child burning alive was too much. Nothing to do with being a mother or a woman, but being, you know, human.

Or, it's just a sexist cliche. Sometimes I feel you're being more reductive than the show itself.

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