I guess ‘Game of Thrones’ didn’t blow its entire production budget for the season on that big action scene last week. In the penultimate episode of the season, the show builds to an (in my opinion, which surely nobody else will agree with) even better sequence this week.
By the reaction on the internet, I appear to be the sole person on the entire planet who was disappointed in last week’s big zombiepalooza extravaganza. Fine, so be it. I don’t need anyone else to agree with me. I just don’t really care about Jon Snow or any of the anonymous hordes of Wildlings, and still find the White Walkers to be kind of cheesy. In contrast, I care a lot more about the characters featured this week, and dragons are way cooler than silly skeletons.
Oh, sorry, did I spoil that too soon? The episode is called ‘The Dance of Dragons’, so it’s right there in the title.
Stannis Baratheon’s Camp
Although he’s not shown on camera this week, Ramsay Bolton is successful in his sapper raid on Stannis’ army. The episode opens with a series of fires breaking out in the camp. Food and weapons are destroyed, and hundreds of horses are killed. This comes on top of the generally miserable state the army’s already in due to the winter conditions (which don’t really look all that bad, to be honest; I had way more snow in my front yard this winter). Nevertheless, Stannis is determined to press forward anyway. He is confident in Melisandre’s vision.
When Davos once again advises his king to postpone the attack on Winterfell, Stannis orders him to return to Castle Black and beg for new food and supplies. It’s an errand that any messenger could perform, and Davos knows that Stannis is just trying to get rid of him. What he doesn’t realize is just what kind of atrocity Stannis has planned that he doesn’t want Davos around for.
Before he leaves, Davos has a nice moment saying goodbye to Stannis’ daughter Shireen. Yeah, that’s a really bad sign for the girl.
(If you want to get nit-picky with me, ‘Dance of Dragons’ is also the title of the history book Shireen is reading about the Targaryen feud for the Iron Throne. It’s clearly meant to have a double-meaning, however.)
In what may be the most horrifying thing to ever happen on ‘Game of Thrones’, Stannis sacrifices his daughter Shireen to the God of Light by burning her at the stake in front of his entire army. While her death mercifully isn’t shown on camera, the girl’s screams are so piercing that even her batshit crazy mother (who has never shown any love for her in the past) breaks down and has to be restrained from running to save her. Melisandre, on the other hand, watches approvingly.
Jon Snow returns to the Wall with the 5,000 or so Wildlings he was able to rescue, including that one giant. (How did he fit on a ship?) Ser Alliser hesitates for a moment before opening the gate. When Snow explains his failure, Alliser (again) comments that his mercy is a weakness that will get them all killed.
Jaime is brought before Prince Doran, who makes it clear that (unlike Ellaria) he has no interest in starting a war. He even raises a toast to King Tommen – to which Ellaria dumps her drink on the floor. Jaime will be allowed to return to King’s Landing with his niece Myrcella, on the condition that her fiancé Trystane go with them and they still marry. Also, Trystane must take Oberyn’s place on the Small Council. Jaime gratefully accepts.
When Jaime asks what will happen to Bronn, Doran leaves that decision to Trystane, because Bronn hit him during the Sand Snake skirmish. Trystane agrees to be merciful, with one condition of his own. When Bronn is brought before them, the big guard named Areo Hotah punches him in the face. Hard.
Doran will also let Ellaria live, but forces her to swear allegiance to him, which she does grudgingly. He cautions her that he believes in second chances, but not in third chances.
Later, Ellaria visits Jaime and rubs it in his face that she knows all about him and Cersei, and that Myrcella is really his daughter.
Arya takes the vial of poison that Jaqen gave her and makes her rounds with the oyster cart. As she gets to the gambling man, however, she ignores him when she spots a boat arriving at the docks with Mace Tyrell (whom Cersei sent to negotiate with the Iron Bank) and – more importantly to her – the knight Ser Meryn Trant. The latter has been on her hit-list since (presumably) killing her swordmaster Syrio Forel.
Arya becomes obsessed and stalks Meryn to a brothel, where she discovers that, among his many other unpleasant qualities, he’s a pedophile who likes little girls. It seems pretty clear where this is going next.
Daenerys and Tyrion attend the grand championship at the fighting pit arena, even though neither of them approves of the sport. The first match pits a strong fighter versus a quick one. Blatantly flirting with Daenerys in front of her fiancé Hizdahr, her boyfriend Daario boasts of his own accomplishments in the fighting pits (which clearly turns on the hypocritical Dany) and says that he always puts his money on the quick over the strong. Just a moment later, he’s shown-up when the burly knight decapitates the smaller one. It’s a lesson this show has made a few times previously (most notably The Mountain killing Oberyn Martell) that brute strength often wins over showy technique.
At the next match, Dany is disappointed to see Jorah in the pit, as one of three sets of dueling fighters. She gives the go-ahead for the battle, probably thankful for an excuse to kill him without technically ordering his death.
At first, Jorah does poorly and takes a beating from the Merenese champion, but eventually emerges triumphant against all challengers. He’s booed by the crowd as he stands before the queen. Shockingly, Jorah chucks a spear directly into the stands. But this isn’t an assassination attempt. The spear strikes and kills a masked Harpy who was sneaking up behind Daenerys.
Suddenly, more Harpies reveal themselves. The crowd is filled with gold masks on every side. Mass chaos erupts. The Unsullied guards move in to protect their queen but are greatly outnumbered. Many of them are killed. A Harpy kills Hizdahr. Jorah rushes in and rescues Daenerys from another. Tyrion saves Missandei.
As they try to escape, Daenerys and her group are forced into the center of the fighting pit, surrounded in a circle by Harpies who push closer and closer toward the remaining Unsullied.
Just as things look hopeless, a screech cries out. Of course, if you paid attention to the episode title, you can guess what happens next.
Drogon, the biggest of Dany’s three dragons and the one she wasn’t able to lock up, swoops into the stadium, setting dozens of the attackers aflame with his fiery breath. Harpies toss spears into his back and neck, wounding the dragon, but Daenerys is able to walk up to him, climb onto his back, and fly off to safety.
I fully admit that the final shot uncomfortably recalls ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ and is perhaps a little corny, but I’m with it all the way. This episode is, for me, everything that last week tried to be. I’m much more invested in the fates of these characters and, personally, I think the action is more interesting. It’s just a shame that it has taken literally 90% of the season for the show to finally kick into gear.
Traditionally, ‘Game of Thrones’ finale episodes function as dénouements and rarely feature big action set-pieces (though last year tried). I don’t expect next week to top this one.