Last week, the Game of Thrones creative team threw us a curve ball by filling the backend of “Hardhome” with the kind of dramatically intense large-scale battle sequence that is typically reserved for later in the season (ahem, tonight’s episode nine, for example). So, going into “The Dance of Dragons,” we were all wondering what huge event was in store.
In some ways, this episode was better, in my opinion, than the massive battle at Hardhome.
The episode began with some shocking imagery: Stannis’s camp is attacked and effectively burned to the ground by the Bolton’s small attack force. As Melisandre watches just outside of her tent, a burning horse races by her. It is an eerie image, one so full of dread as to make you think this is one of her legendary visions. Facing the grim reality of a battle without an army, Stannis looks to Melisandre and to Shireen, another eerie omen. She is seen in a subsequent scene with Davos who gives her the gift of a carved stag before leaving camp for supplies and backup. How… convenient and deadly for his daughter.
Our fears are confirmed later in the episode when Stannis’s daughter volunteers to do whatever she can to help his cause. Unbeknownst to her, Shireen is set to be burned at the stake by Melisandre. And they follow through with it. Stannis looks completely haunted. No doubt the screams of his dying daughter will continue to haunt him for years to come.
On a side note, this is certain a horrific display, burning a small girl to death at the stake. I’m certainly not justifying it, but this is fiction and it follows its own path whether we like it or not. As I’ve said before, though, it’s certainly not out of character for the series. Men, women, and children have been killed before and likely will be for years to come on the show. You all loved and hated the Red Wedding (where a pregnant woman was stabbed in the stomach repeatedly). Why is this any different?
Jon Snow returns to Castle Black with his Wildling survivors. No one is particularly pleased, particularly given the shattering events of last episode. Once the Wildlings start staggering into the camp, Jon is told that “You have a good heart, Jon Snow, but it’ll get us all killed.”
Another sequence takes place in Dorne which makes for fantastic set design but inept drama. Part of the problem is with Prince Doran, the ruler of Dorne. He is literally the one ruler in the entire bloodthirsty series who insists on keeping the peace, an admirable task in the real world but rather uninteresting in Game of Thrones. Jaime Lannister bargains with him for Bronn’s freedom. Ellaria Sand, Oberyn’s lover, is angry. I yawn. Later, she is forced to kiss the hand of Price Doran in a symbol of allegiance or face certain death. Still yawning.
Arya Stark (or “a girl”) embarks on her mission previewed in last week’s episode where she is to sell poisoned oysters to a local insurance who is stiffing widows and families on payments. Just as she starts to take action, she sees Mace Tyrell’s emissary from King’s Landing arrive seeking to refinance the crown’s debt. They didn’t use those words, but that’s effectively what they’re doing. Ignoring her original mission, she infiltrates Tyrell’s group, selling oysters as she winds in and out – obsessing over a single man, Meryn Trant, who is on her list of those who must die.
Finally, we return to Meereen where Daenerys (and her new advisor Tyrion) oversee the opening of the fighting pits. Combat and gore continue much to the assembled crowd’s glee. Daenerys shows little interest until Ser Jorah shows up to fight, after which she cannot take her eyes off the events. You can clearly see passion and sadness in her eyes as Ser Jorah struggles to win against stronger opponents. At one point, she almost seems to want to cry out to stop the slaughter, but she does not, slightly shaking her head at Ser Jorah. He wins, briefly, but then hurls a spear into the crowd just behind Daenerys. Turns out, the Sons of the Harpy were not done for after all, and they begin hacking into the crowd and those guarding Daenerys, including her betrothed.
In a thrilling sequence, what feels like a thousand Sons of the Harpy ultimately surround Daenerys and crew. Hopelessly outnumbered, Daenerys’s protectors (Ser Jorah included) begin to fight the amassed mini army, but it doesn’t really look good (where the hell did all the unsullied go, by the way). Then, the most amazing thing I’ve seen on the show in years happens. Daenerys grabs the hand of her chief handmaiden and closes her eyes. Suddenly, the sound of a dragon’s cry silences the crowd, and I started to clap. Daenerys has a “connection” between her and Drogon. The dragon flies into the arena, lands, and starts burning and eating men left and right. There are too many for him, though, and he is stabbed with numerous spears. Injured but not down, the dragon allows Daenerys to climb upon his back. He flies her out of the arena, leaving behind her protectors. It’s a glorious moment – a moment from which many have begged.
It was well worth the wait. As Tyrion watches Daenerys fly away on the back of her dragon, I think he thinks that too.