Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
We’ve spoken before (many times) about the difference between rigid and fluid thinking, and how characters on Game of Thrones tend to fare better when they can make certain moral sacrifices in service of the greater good. It’s a lesson that’s been demonstrated with fatal consequences over and over, with Ned and Robb Stark as the most dramatic examples on the good side, and Joffrey as the prime example on the bad. But in last night’s terrific “Dance of Dragons,” we saw something like the opposite lesson. When a character sacrifices his or her integrity—when they become too flexible—there are consequences.
Let’s start with Daenerys. Every fiber of her being screams against these fighting pits, which are a brutal and gory homage to a bloodthirsty city. Nevertheless, she made a political move in order to make peace with the former rich slaveowners of the city who were desperately trying to have her killed in order to restore their former way of life. On the face of it, it seemed like a diplomatic move, even a smart one, and no lesser brain than Tyrion complimented her last week.
But what Daenerys failed to do—and what would have been very difficult, for someone with so little seasoning—is to really look at the people to whom she was making concessions. They are the wealthiest of the wealthy, used to getting their way, and they’ve been unseated almost overnight by a conqueror. Not only that, but they’ve tried to kill her, and they’ve wrought horrible damages on her army with guerrilla tactics. They are, in short, an armed enemy, and one who will do anything to restore their power against this foreign usurper.
How can you meet people like that halfway? How can a group of people who think slavery is okay, and whose favorite leisure-time activity is watching sanctioned murder, be accommodated? Diplomacy has its limits, and in hindsight, Daenerys had the right idea when she brought the city’s leaders into the dragon pits and displayed her power and iron will. This is how you deal with the Meereen aristocracy. Instead, she made an unwise concession to a people who will take a mile on every inch, and nearly paid for it with her life. Only the intervention of a dragon—which she apparently summoned, or which could sense her imminent danger—saved her life.
And what a special moment that was. We’ve seen the power of these creatures, but this was the first time we’ve seen one deployed in a battle situation, and it was phenomenal. Even the moment when the dragon almost yelled at her, a roar that seemed to summon every feeling of betrayal and then offer forgiveness, felt emotionally resonant to me. As did Tyrion’s face, as he bore witness to a force he had once scoffed at.
(A couple quick tips for the dragons in future battles, though:
1. Dudes, attack from the air. That’s your strength. Don’t get down to human level, because there’s no real advantage. It would be like having an airplane, and choosing to use it like a tank. I know you don’t know what an airplane is, dragon, but it’s essentially a non-fantasy version of you.
2. Fire is your best weapon. Stick with it. We’re all impressed that you can tear a human limb from limb, but you’re losing a ton of efficiency. To go back to the plane metaphor, it would be like having one dude in the cockpit open up the window and a throw a series of steak knives at the enemy, rather than dropping a bomb.)
But Daenerys isn’t alone in her mistakes. Stannis Baratheon, too, shows that he’ll sacrifice everything, up to and including his daughter, for the sake of power. That scene, Josh, was f***ing awful. I know Game of Thrones has taught us not to expect last-minute interventions, but I honestly thought they might spare us Shireen burning. I wonder if that moment will produce any Internet activist clamor the way the scenes associated with sexual violence have—I’ve made my feelings on that clear already, but man, that was one of the toughest scenes we’ve had to watch. I hope Ser Davos drives a stake through Stannis’ heart when he returns, and Melisandre with him.
My desires aside, you have to think that this was an example of Stannis abandoning his morals to no end. Forget the revulsion we all feel at watching a man kill his daughter, or the betrayal of blood, especially after his nice speech earlier this season. Instead, think of the practical side. On one hand, you have Melisandre’s visions. On the other, you have a ragged army, starving and cold in foreign territory, who just watched you kill a member of your own family. How does that inspire loyalty? How does that not result in total mutiny? As if things weren’t bad enough, now they see that their leader has clearly gone insane.
You can only think, and hope, that he’ll pay for it. Regardless, it can’t have been a great tactical decision. (If it somehow leads to Ramsay’s death, though…well, I’m not saying it’s a trade I love, but at least Ser Davos is okay. I’m willing to be flexible to get rid of Ramsay, especially if we can throw in Melisandre as a package deal.)
I’ll throw it back to you, Josh. I haven’t gotten to Jon Snow yet, or Arya preparing to kill the pedophile Meryn Trant (you have to hand it to HBO, and I say that with sarcasm—when they decide on a bad guy, they throw all subtlety out the window and make him the baddest guy possible…I can’t imagine George R.R. Martin loves the way they sometimes blot out any shade of gray), or the ongoing weirdness in Dorne…which, I have to admit, was pretty enjoyable tonight.
Overall, I thought this was a nice follow-up to “Hardhome,” which was the toughest of tough acts to follow. What’d you think?
I’ve always been haunted by the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham took his son up to the mountain and was about to sacrifice him when God intervened. The book of James says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” My Sunday school teachers praised the faith of Abraham who would offer up his son because of his trust in God. They’d point out the parallels to God offering up his son Jesus on our behalf. But I could never imagine how following an edict so objectively evil could be credited as righteous. And God put a halt to the proceedings.
Not so R’hllor.
We’ve seen the power of the Red God. There’s no longer doubt that Melisandre will use this sacrifice of King’s blood to reign fury down upon the vile house of Bolton. Stannis’ faith will be credited to him. But his ambition for the throne has been corrupted beyond repair. A god who demands the murder of an innocent child is not a god worth serving. And the self-satisfied smile on Melisandre’s face when the fire engulfs Shireen was as evil as that on Ramsay Bolton’s when he talks about flaying his victims. At least Queen Selyse, whose blind devotion to Melisandre originally put Stannis in this mess, realized how wrong this was in the end. She’s never shown an ounce of love toward her daughter, but watching her burn has shattered her frozen demeanor.
So yes, this was as difficult to watch as anything that’s happened in Game of Thrones. Shireen was the most innocent and lovely character we’ve seen on the show bar none. She deserved better.
Never has it been more evident that Westeros needs Queen Daenerys. In the novels, she climbs the back of Drogon and we don’t know where she’s gone. We probably won’t find out until next season unless Mr. Martin surprises us with the next book (just kidding—there’s no way that’s going to happen).
Historically, the ninth episode of each season has been the one that left us breathless. This season, it came an episode early and there was no reason to expect that we’d see anything approximating the Battle of Hardhome last night. But I agree it was a fine follow-up with the revolt in Meereen. I do feel like the Unsullied haven’t really lived up to their reputation lately. Sure they did well being as outnumbered as they were at the fighting pits. But weren’t there 8,000 of these guys at one point? You make a great point that Daenerys picked the wrong time to become flexible in her thinking and the wrong compromise to make. If she’d have bent when it came to granting mercy to the former slave who was trying to help her, she’d have never had to bend when dealing with the Great Masters.
So now Meereen is in shambles. Tyrion, Jorah and Daario are left to pick up the pieces until Daenerys returns from her joy ride.
But there was much else to love about this episode, from Bronn getting cold-cocked to Arya going off mission when one of the names on her list shows up in Braavos to a giant wandering through Castle Black. If there was a slight dip in the action through the middle of Season 5, the last two episodes have more than made up for it. There are still enormous threads hanging loose that will need to be tied up next week—perhaps a battle for Winterfell and a trial in King’s Landing? Maybe Arya crossing a name of her list? And what does Ser Davos do when he sees how low Stannis has fallen? It almost seems like we need a two-hour finale. Are you worried there’s not enough time left in the season?
“Worried” doesn’t begin to describe it. How the hell are we going to wrap up everything in 55 minutes of television? And it’s way worse this year for book-readers like us, because we have no idea where the hell any of this is going. In past seasons, we were mainly just waiting to see how the show would hit GRRM’s beats, or deviate from them slightly. Now, we’re in the dark like everyone else, and as you pointed out, that old so-and-so doesn’t appear to be spending long hours at his writing desk these days. Where’s the urgency, George?!
Let’s take a look at what’s been resolved, and what resolution remains. First, RESOLVED, for now:
1. Daenerys. I don’t think we’re going to get any more Mhysa this season. She’s off on her dragon, safe from harm, and we can safely guess that Tyrion and Daario have survived the battle as well. However, did you notice that Jorah touched her? With (I think) his greyscale hand? What the hell is he up to? It seemed like a super deliberate move, and I’m wondering if he has some secret loyalty to Westeros…or maybe now that his father died, he really wants to get back and restore his house, so he’s assassinating Daenerys in the slowest way possible? Although that doesn’t make sense either, because his days are numbered, and I was long ago convinced that he’s in love with her. Maybe he wants them to die together in some weird love pact? If he can’t have her, nobody else can?
(By the way, totally agree with you about the Unsullied. How are the Sons of the Harpy, who I’m assuming are a bunch of rich kids, repeatedly beating trained fighters? And why aren’t there more of them around Daenerys in public? It always feels like there are roughly 12 Unsullied in existence.)
2. Dorne/Jaime/Martells. Entertaining resolution to a pointless diversion. I hope Bronn and the most beautiful girl in the world get together, because that’s a fun relationship…any time the first moments of a relationship entail a sword fight, followed by a guy having to beg for antidote to a poison, you know you’re on solid ground. Also, Bronn getting knocked in the jaw was hilarious. I like Trystane.
And now, UNRESOLVED:
1. Jon Snow. This is only an educated guess, but I didn’t like the way the other Night’s Watchmen were looking at him. I think we’re going to see him again. I’ll say no more.
2. Cersei. Again, I’ll say no more. There’s one more beat here that book-readers have long been expecting.
3. Arya. She’s going to kill Meryn Trant. And maybe the life insurance guy, too. We will definitely see this next week.
4. Stannis/Boltons. I have a feeling this will make up the lion’s share of the finale (that would have been a great pun if it involved the Lannisters). I’m in agreement with you—one way or another, I think Stannis will prevail with Melisandre’s magic. I also think the way they’ve been ratcheting up Ramsay’s evil all season has to mean we’re going to see him die. On the other hand, is it weird that I almost hope Stannis gets slaughtered? At least Ramsay knows who he is, Josh! Love him or hate him, he sticks to his guns! (Oh God, I’ve become a monster.)
5. Sansa/Petyr Baelish. This is tied up in the above, but I’m curious if we’ll see any more from either of them.
6. Lord Varys. Where is that bald ole coot?
I can’t believe the season is ending, Josh. I can’t believe we have to wait another year to find out anything. But I’m with you—this scene started out strong, dipped, and hit its stride in spectacular fashion toward the end. I really hope they can close with something incredible. Now, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to rank the characters I’ve mentioned above in “death order”—which ones are you most or least willing to part with? Again, those characters are: Baelish, Lord Varys, Arya, Sansa, Stannis, Roose Bolton, Ramsay Bolton, Cersei, Jaime, Jon Snow, Bronn, Tyrion, and Daenerys.
I do not envy you this task. A lot of hard choices at the top.
Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin,
That is indeed a difficult task, but I’ll do my best. I have a feeling that at least one of these will be meeting his or her end next week. Let it be number one…
1. Ramsay Bolton – And not just because he’s sadistic and evil. But because he’s a terrible character.
2. Stannis – And I hope it’s by the fingerless hand of Ser Davos. I’ll never forgive him for Shireen.
3. Roose Bolton – The architect of The Red Wedding has long had it coming and he won’t be missed.
4. Cersei – She also has long had it coming, but a big part of me will miss seeing Lena Headey’s phenomenal portrayal of the bitter queen mother. By the way, this is what she looks like without that flowing wig:
5. Jaime – He’s gone from compelling villain to complex likable rascal to kind of boring.
6. Bronn – Here’s where it starts to get difficult. I love watching Bronn. I was relieved when the Sand Snake threw him the antidote last week.
7. Sansa – I don’t want to see any more harm come to poor Sansa, but I don’t want to lose anyone after her in this list. Why are you making me do this?
8. Petyr Baelish – Baelish is awesome. I want to see his long game play out. Please don’t kill Baelish.
9. Varys – Remember Varys’ long monologue about becoming a eunuch as he opened that crate? I love Varys. I want to see more Varys. Why are we talking about killing him off?
10. Daenerys – How many names are on this list? Thirteen? Now we’re down to picking favorite children. Daenerys can’t die but neither can…
11. Jon Snow – Don’t even think about killing Jon Snow. He’s already had to watch his lover die in battle. And to suffer that look of betrayal from Olly.
12. Tyrion – Twice in the books I was convinced that Tyrion was dead and twice I was relieved to find out he was still alive. You can’t kill Tyrion, but…
13. Arya – If she dies, I may just quit watching. Or at least I’ll threaten that before getting sucked back in.
Please don’t die, numbers 6-13.
Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.