I fight and die for your glory, oh glorious Queen
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by: David Nutter
Following the ominous conclusion to "Hardhome", it would seem as if the rest of season five should dip in quality a little. That's been the trend: a particular Game of Thrones season hits its climax right around the penultimate episode, and then the season finale is...not as climactic. Season five bucks this trend a little, because there is still plenty more to get through in these final two episodes, and boy do D&D seem to be feeling extra ambitious, especially when it comes to running the risk of generating even more controversy. That's right: if you thought "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" was enough to turn people away from season five for good, then brother, you've got another thing coming in "The Dance of Dragons", an episode that, of course, isn't as good as "Hardhome" but nevertheless hurts your soul in the usual Game of Thrones fashion while continuing to bring on the awe-inspiring action.
One of "The Dance of Dragons"'s greatest strengths is also its greatest weakness: the characterization. More often than not, D&D excel at finding ways to flesh out a character's personality and put them in situations that challenge what they believe, which is why it's so fascinating to see where a character is in seasons four, five, and six versus where they were in seasons one and two. The series will always have a reputation for killing characters when you least expect them to be killed, but for those characters like Jon, Sansa, and the Lannister siblings, all of whom have been around since "Winter is Coming" they all have a clear character arc that justifies why they've been around for as long as they have. At this point, it should be pretty clear the direction that certain characters are going, and while the characterization for Arya and Jon continues to roll along nicely, things get a little bumpy here for the likes of Stannis and Ellaria.
For nearly all of season five, Arya has been training to basically shed herself completely of her identity as Arya Stark, in hopes of becoming "no one". Ever since her father was executed, Arya has had almost no sense of an identity, always travelling on the road and having nowhere to settle down and call home. She hasn't been in Winterfell for years, she hasn't participated in any of the wars involving House Stark, and she has had next to no contact with anyone who knows and serves her direct family. Having been away from her life as a Stark for so long, it makes all the sense in the world for Arya to want to embrace a whole new identity, and luckily for her, she had the House of Black and White to turn to. Everything appeared to be going swimmingly, until now, as Ser Meryn Trant surfaces in Braavos, and Arya's past comes back and whacks her square in the face. Amidst all her preparation to become "no one", Arya has still clung to one thing that still keeps her identity of Arya Stark alive: her kill list. Upon seeing Meryn Trant step out of a boat, the tug-of-war between "no one" and Arya Stark begins in her head, and, at least for now, Arya Stark is winning the war. This full-blown identity crisis is a terrific direction for D&D to take with Arya, and it will serve them well during most of season six.
I'd actually like to hold off talking about where things currently stand for Jon, because I think given what happens with Jon in the season finale, it would make for a better discussion. The Dornish story line, meanwhile, keeps finding ways to shoot itself in the foot, even as it's about to come to an end. Doran agrees to let Myrcella return home to King's Landing with Jaime and Bronn, and Ellaria doesn't take the news very well. In fact, she storms out like an angry teenager stamping their feet and screaming, "It's not fair!" If we want to be especially cruel, we could say that Ellaria has acted like an angry, rebellious teenager for this entire season. I've never take into question the acting of anyone who has ever been on Game of Thrones. It seems like D&D and everyone else in the casting crew have always had a knack for finding the absolute best talent to fill in the roles, which is why top-notch acting has always been one of the best things about Game of Thrones. Indira Varma, however, really makes a run at worst actor/actress to ever have a prominent role in Game of Thrones, because time and time again, she has not quite been able to sell the fact that Ellaria Martell is vengeful, cunning, and a character worth caring about. Now, don't get me wrong, Varma's acting, overall, is good, but it has been a bit of a struggle for her this season, especially during scenes in which she expresses her hatred for the Lannisters. It does really take you out of a scene when one of the actors/actresses looks and sounds like they're about to have a temper tantrum.
Oh, but that's small potatoes compared to what D&D have Stannis do in this episode. Stannis finally lets his pride and his desire for true power get to him, agreeing to sacrifice his own daughter so that the path to Winterfell will clear up. This is an ugly, torturous scene to watch, and not because anything execution-wise is botched. Kerry Ingram, the actress who plays Shireen, is phenomenal with her acting: her fearful expressions and high-pitched screams look and sound completely genuine and really amp up this scene's soul-crushing mood. Let's first mention that we're watching a freaking child get burned alive here. I wouldn't blame you one bit if you decided you couldn't watch any more Game of Thrones after that. What I think is the most bothersome about this scene is that it feels like Stannis reaching out to an extreme we didn't have anywhere near enough build up to. Several past scenes were dedicated to Stannis expressing how much he loved and cared for his daughter, and that, even after she was stricken with greyscale, he refused to let her die a slow and premature death. Melisandre mentioned Stannis sacrificing his daughter before, but never did we see Stannis struggle with deciding if he should sacrifice his daughter in order to progress his journey as "the chosen one", or finally decide to put his family and the well-being of his army before one major victory in battle. I actually praise D&D for actually going to the extreme of having Stannis sacrifice his daughter; especially when it came shortly after the controversial rape scene in "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken". Where I think the main issue lies is in the fact that there was not enough build-up to Stannis committing such a heinous act. I think D&D could have led up to this scene even better had Melisandre mentioned earlier to Stannis about offering a sacrifice to the Lord of Light, and follow that up with several short moments of Stannis debating what he wants to do. That, dear readers, could have made one of the most disturbing moments in television in recent years, all the more effective.
Well then, let's not keep getting bogged down in all this doom and gloom. The episode is titled, "The Dance of Dragons", so you bet your ass that an actual dragon makes a sighting. After the Sons of the Harpy disrupt the fighting ceremony in the Daznak pit, Drogon arrives and finally gives us our first real dragon action of the whole series, and man, is it satisfying. The swift wide shots of the Sons of the Harpy getting burned to death and the semi-overhead views of Drogon breathing fire give us great perspective of the action and just how deadly this grown dragon can be. Daenerys' dragons are very close to becoming full-blown fantasy weapons of mass destruction, and while poor Rhaegal and Viserion have had to spend this entire season imprisoned in a catacomb, Drogon stops by to remind us, "Hey! You can't forget about me! I'm a motherf*cking dragon!" As we watch Daenerys fly away on Drogon's back, there's a radiant sense of triumph, as if Daenerys has finally found a way to bond with her dragon after having been separate from them for so long.
It's certainly an episode with some extreme highs as well as some striking lows, but for a penultimate episode that bears the burden of being sandwiched in between "Hardhome" and the season finale, "The Dance of Dragons" is still able to function as another solid hour of Game of Thrones, providing more jaw-dropping action as well as some pretty terrific characterization, albeit with some not-so-terrific characterization too. Watching Stannis sacrifice his daughter might be a little too much for some viewers to stomach, and Ellaria Martell continues to give the Dornish plot line a harder time from being labeled as one of the weakest parts of season five. On the plus side, Arya's quest to become "no one" takes an interesting turn, and dragons are just plain awesome. It's a dragon dance that trips and fall a few times, but hey, there's definitely some fire, and how can you have dragons without fire?
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