Game Of Thrones season 5 episode 9 review: The Dance Of Dragons

5.9 The Dance Of Dragons

When you have a show as good as last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, it’s going to be hard to top. I thought Hardhome was flawlessly executed, exciting, well-staged, featured great-looking special effects and did a wonderful job of adding character to a bunch of wildlings we’ve never met before so that we cared when they were inevitably killed by the White Walkers. Without a lot of familiar characters to lean on, the show pulled off a staggering high-wire act that resulted in a thrilling hour of television.

In that sense, The Dance of Dragons has a lot to do to meet that high water mark, and maintain the tradition that the ninth episode of a season is the best episode of the season. Even though it doesn’t quite meet that mark, it’s still a great episode, and it features some spectacularly cool moments courtesy of the Mother of Dragons, one of her children, and her growing crew of interesting flunkies and hangers-on. And speaking of children, a very big plotline concerning one of the most beloved children in Westeros came to an unpleasant close this week thanks to a sacrificial pyre and some religious fanatics.

I have no idea if Stannis Baratheon can recover from what he allowed to take place this week. He allowed his daughter Shireen to become a sacrifice to the Lord of Light in the hopes that the winter snows will thaw enough to move his army south to Winterfell and engage the Bolton after a brilliant bit of arson and murder from Ramsay Bolton and the gang forces his hand. He can’t wait, he can’t advance, and he can’t retreat with his food stores burned; Stannis sends Davos away—knowing that Davos is the only one who can talk any sense into him—and does the terrible deed of sacrificing Shireen on a pyre, in an attempt to turn the tide of the impending battle.

It’s been building for awhile, but the execution is tragic. Never mind the fact that Selyse finally proves herself to be a decent mother much too late, but boy, the look on Stephen Dillane’s face as Stannis allows this to happen is heartbreaking. Ditto Liam Cunningham in Davos’s last scene with Shireen. Knowing what’s being teased is one thing, but when it finally happens, poor Kerry Ingram’s screams are heartbreaking (but when they stop? That’s even worse). I’m not sure if Stannis will be able to recover from this, and I’m not sure if the internet’s feelings for the character will ever recover from it, either.

Remorse or not, he killed a sweet, innocent child because he felt like it was his obligation to become king, something he doesn’t even seem to want anymore but pursues because it’s already cost him too much to back out or because he’s too proud to admit defeat. At this point, he’s already screwed up royally, and clipping the Baratheon line like he does is merely compounding that folly into high tragedy. He’s doomed, he’s a fool, and I think he knows it, but it’s in the nature of Stannis to do the right thing even when it’s against his own best interest, and this is definitely that. He’s not charming enough to pull off a Jaime Lannister-like reinvention, and I doubt he’d go on a road trip with Brienne anyway. This might be it for The Mannis, and capturing the Iron Throne won’t bring his daughter back, even if he feels like it’s the right thing for him to do for the kingdom and his rapidly dwindling family.

Thankfully, David Nutter doesn’t leave us with that bad taste in our mouths (though it’s a credit to him that we knew it was coming, and yet it still packed a serious punch by focusing on the reactions of the parents and the crowd, not the girl herself). Indeed, we’re left with another big moment. As crushing as Shireen’s fate was, Daenerys Targaryen’s fate was not. At the opening of the fighting pits, watching her beloved Jorah Mormont fight for her approval and his own life, miserable and emotional, and that’s long before the Sons of the Harpy make their reappearance and we have our second slaughter in as many episodes, though these people don’t stand up ready to pick a fight after they’re downed.

This all culminates into a moment the show has been teasing since Daenerys Stormborn walked into her husband’s funeral pyre with a clutch of fossilized dragon eggs: Dany goes dragon riding. It’s as thrilling as Shireen’s death was anguishing, though at times the rear projection looked a bit dodgy. The dragon itself was rendered spectacularly, and the whole scene is thrilling, particularly when Dragon shows up to burn a bunch of people and tear folks in half for scaring his mommy.

The hour ends, as much as any episode featuring filicide, on a happy note, but not even Emilia Clarke riding around on a dragon can take the taste of ashes out of the mouth, or extinguish the screams of a dying, burning child. Even though it was a great episode, and the acting in the Baratheon bonfire subplot was stellar, it’s hard to look past that and call it an episode I enjoyed. Having that happen in the middle of the episode allowed following events to blunt the blow, but it also tarnished what should have been a victory for Dany and Jorah shippers everywhere.

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