War is awful, all-consuming turmoil where death can come on a massive, indiscriminate, and impersonal scale, where friend and foe alike are consumed by the machine of war—in this case, by a dragon’s flames. War is also specific and personal; of the warring factions in the War of the Five Kings, four must die or be destroyed. No one is safe, not even the children.
This episode is named after a Targaryen civil war that took place almost two-hundred years before the events in the show. This war between two factions of the same family pitted a king against a queen for the right to sit on the throne, both of them armed with dragons (hence the “Dance of the Dragons”). The queen, Rhaenyra, was eventually captured and fed to King Aegon II’s dragon in front of her son. However, Aegon II also died from the wounds he sustained during the war, so after all that, neither of them got to rule for long.
As a result of the ambitions of two would-be rulers, cities were sacked and burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt again. King’s Landing was in ruins. Other rival kings across the realm declared their right to rule, resulting in anarchy throughout the land. The Seven Kingdoms took a generation to recover. In just a few years, the dragons were extinct.
“The Dance of Dragons” draws an easy parallel between the Targaryen civil war and the current War of the Five Kings. “Both of them thought they belonged on the Iron Throne,” Shireen retells of the civil war to her father. “When people started declaring for one of them or the other, their fight divided the kingdoms in two. Brothers fought brothers, dragons fought dragons. By the time it was over, thousands were dead, and it was a disaster for the Targaryens as well. They never truly recovered.” War is ruin for cities, species, families, hearts, and minds.
In many ways, Game of Thrones is intensely antiwar. George R.R. Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War (he worked with the domestic Peace Corps instead), which may seem odd given the abject violence of his novels and the adaptation. However, it’s in this violence where his views are made clear, and this episode was certainly no exception.
“Many in Dorne want war, but I’ve seen war. I’ve seen the bodies piled on the battlefields. I’ve seen the orphans starving in the streets. I don’t want to lead my people into that hell.” – Doran Martell
Outside of Winterfell, Ramsay Bolton and his “twenty good men” burn the Baratheon food stores and siege weapons, destroying the last of Stannis’s will. With no ability to march on Winterfell and no desire to retreat to Castle Black, Stannis is left with only one choice in his eyes: Melisandre’s sorcery.
As a religious fanatic, Stannis not only believes in the power of her blood magic, but also in the prophecy of his divine right to rule. Fanatics are, by definition, uncritical of their beliefs and extremely zealous. Stannis follows R’hllor (the Lord of Light) and as a result believes “there is only one hell… the one we live in now” (as Melisandre told Shireen in Season 4). He believes that the Lord of Light saves His faithful from the darkness, but requires offerings and human sacrifices.
Most importantly, he believes in prophecies, since visions in the light are a key tenant of their religion. Melisandre’s visions have long held that he is “The Prince That Was Promised” to drive out the “coming darkness” (an apocalyptic event). Back in Season 2, she foretold, “You will betray the men serving you, you will betray your family, you will betray everything you once held dear… and it will all be worth it, because you are the Son of Fire, you are the Warrior of Light.”
On the ropes, Stannis finally submits to Melisandre’s command to sacrifice his daughter, Shireen, to the Lord of Light, but he knows that he cannot get away with it while Davos remains in the camp. Davos set Gendry (Robert Baratheon’s bastard) free before he could be sacrificed in Melisandre’s flames. Stannis knows that Davos would never let Shireen be killed, so he sends his Hand back to Castle Black for men, supplies, and horses. He knows this is a fool’s errand; the Night’s Watch swears to not take sides in the battles of the realm. Even Davos suspects something is afoul, asking why someone else cannot deliver the message, or why he cannot bring Shireen and her mother Selyse with him, but he eventually obeys his king’s command.
Before leaving, Davos visits Shireen to say goodbye. He finds her reading a book about the Dance of the Dragons, and they laugh about the story of a knight who tried rather unsuccessfully to kill one of the dragons by using a mirrored shield. Then, Davos gives her a carved stag figure as a present, thanking her for teaching him how to read and fulfilling the wish of his dead son.
When Stannis finds Shireen reading her book about the Targaryen civil war, he asks her whose side she would have picked. She says neither, explaining, “It’s all the choosing sides that made everything so horrible.”
Stannis draws his own connections to the present day and gets defensive of his position. “Sometimes a person has to choose. Sometimes the world forces his hand. If a man knows what he is and remains true to himself the choice is no choice at all. He must fulfill his destiny and become who he is meant to be, however much he may hate it.” Stannis truly believes that he is prophesied to save the world and has had to come to terms with the sacrifices required of that role—his daughter, Shireen, must be given as an offering to the Lord of Light.
Shireen consoles her despondent father, offering to help him in any way she can. When she hugs him, he whispers, “Forgive me.” The innocent girl does not seem to know her fate until she sees the stake and the Red Priestess. She struggles and calls out for her father as they bind her to it, but a disheveled Stannis only looks on. As in the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible, Stannis believes that this is a test of his faith; only in this case, no angel (or Davos) appears to stay his hand.
Under the cries of her daughter, Queen Selyse talks herself through Stannis’s decision. “It’s what the Lord wants. It’s a good thing. A great thing. If we don’t act, we’ll all starve here. All of us. But if we make this sacrifice…” Soon, Shireen appeals for her mother. Something clicks in Selyse, and she turns to Stannis and says, “We can’t.” Stannis stays firm in their need for a sacrifice of king’s blood, but Selyse runs through the crowd to try to get to her daughter. She’s held back by the soldiers and is unable or unwilling to put up much of a fight. As she watches her daughter burning and crying out for her, her eyes go distant with despair. When at last her daughter is silenced and consumed, Selyse cries out in anguish. Melisandre only smiles.
Back when Stannis was about to sacrifice Gendry he defended his choice to a horrified Davos. “How many boys live in Westeros? How many girls? How many men, how many women? The Darkness will devour them all, she says. The Night that never ends. Unless I triumph. I never asked for this, no more than I asked to be king. We do not choose our destiny, but we must do our duty now. Great or small, we must do our duty. What’s one bastard boy against a kingdom?”
At that point, Davos still believed in Stannis’s goodness. “You’re not a man who slaughters innocents for gain or glory.” He helped Gendry to escape before he could be sacrificed, sparing his king the horrible choice. This time, Davos was not there to save Stannis from himself.
Jon Snow and the wildling survivors approach the Wall from the north, unsure if they’ll be let back into the southern lands. Jon looks the least confident of all, knowing he relies on the word of his enemy, Alliser Thorne. He takes a few steps forward and sets himself apart from the crowd. From atop the Wall, he looks strong, but his face lacks the same command. Luckily, Thorne cannot see this and opens the gates to wildlings and giants.
The Night’s Watch gives a frosty welcome to the survivors, who are ushered directly through the gates to the lands of the Gift (farmland under the control of Castle Black). Jon talks with Sam, feeling a failure for not bringing all of the wildlings back. Sam wisely counsels him to remember all of the lives he managed to save, but few others are willing to commend their Lord Commander. “You have a good heart, Jon Snow. It’ll get us all killed,” Alliser tells him.
In Dorne, Jaime sits with Prince Doran Martell, Ellaria Sand, Trystane Martell, and his “niece” Myrcella. He tells Doran why he invaded Dorne to save Myrcella, telling him about the threat they received (Myrcella’s stolen necklace dangling from the mouth of a viper), which was obviously from Ellaria.
Doran agrees to let Myrcella travel with Jaime to King’s Landing as long as Trystane goes with her and regains a seat for the Martells on the king’s Small Council. This also conveniently puts the young girl out of Ellaria’s reach, removing the spark that she hopes would ignite a rebellion and a war with the Lannisters.
When Jaime asks about Bronn, Prince Doran allows his son to make the judgment on his assailant’s life. Trystane agrees to follow his father’s example and be merciful towards the man who hit him, on the condition that he suffers a blow from the giant Areo Hotah.
Later, Ellaria and the Sand Snakes are brought before Prince Doran and given an ultimatum: swear allegiance or die. Ellaria begins to cry as she bows to kiss his hand, offering her allegiance, but not without regret. She then visits Jaime and tells him that she knows his “daughter” (notice: not “niece”) had no part in her lover, Oberyn’s death, and maybe he did not either. She leaves peacefully, but with the implied threat of her knowledge of his incestuous love affair—a fact that is currently bringing down Cersei and has the potential to negate Tommen and Myrcella’s legitimacy.
Arya, posing as a merchant girl named Lanna, is on a mission to kill the “thin man” who sells life insurance to sailors by putting poison in his oysters. As she approaches the man with her cart, she spots Mace Tyrell and Ser Meryn Trant arriving in Braavos at long last, after having been sent by Cersei on a smoke screen errand to ask the Iron Bank to stop recalling the crown’s huge debts.
Arya has wanted the Kingsguard Meryn Trant dead ever since he helped in the plot against her father (and potentially killed her sword-fighting instructor, Syrio Florel). She ignores her mission for the Faceless Men in order to stalk the knight, following him all the way to a brothel. He seems to notice her several times, but it’s unclear whether it’s out of interest in her or recognition.
At the brothel, she is nearly kicked out until one of her best customers, a prostitute named Lhara, begs the bouncer to let her stay and sell her oysters. She slinks around looking for Trant. In a back room, she sees him turning down a whole number of beautiful women until he is brought a young teen. After witnessing this perversion, Arya is ushered away by the madam, who has received instructions from Trant to bring him another “fresh” girl tomorrow.
Back at the House of Black and White, Arya lies to Jaqen H’ghar about her failed mission, telling him that the “thin man” was not hungry for oysters. Though he looks suspicious, he does not call her out, nor does he hit her with a switch as they do in the game of many faces whenever someone tells a clear lie.
In the beginning of this sequence, two men approached Arya (as Lanna) and crudely sexualized her youth before laughing and walking away. Unfortunately, this may have foreshadowed the next identity Arya must assume in order to get close enough to kill Meryn Trant at long last.
Finally, in Meereen, the Great Games commence in a large coliseum. Hizdahr zo Loraq, Daenerys’s betrothed, arrives late. “Just making sure everything is in order,” he says as he takes his seat. As she watches the matches, Daenerys is obviously disturbed by the ritual violence she has been forced to accept. Soon, Jorah Mormont makes his way into a melee, worrying her immensely when he is nearly killed.
Tyrion insists that Daenerys can end it when Jorah is on his back and nearly killed, but Hizdahr says she could not. “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked in your favor,” Tyrion tells the former Grand Master.
Luckily, Jorah manages to stay on top of the pack and is the last man standing when suddenly he throws a spear over Daenerys’s shoulder. He hits a Son of the Harpy assassin behind Daario, and all hell breaks loose. The insurgents rise among the crowd and kill former masters and slaves with the same blade. The Unsullied are, again, laughably helpless in quelling the violence. As the insurgents descend on the royal stands, Hizdahr panics and tells Daenerys he knows a way out. A second later, he is stabbed by three Sons of the Harpy.
Jorah is welcomed back into the fold and, alongside Daario, defends Daenerys well against the attackers. Tyrion saves Missandei and they all convene in the center of the stadium. Almost immediately, they are surrounded by the Sons, who are temporarily held off by the Unsullied troops. Eventually, when hope looks to be running out, Daenerys takes Missandei’s hand and closes her eyes. A second later, a dragon cries.
The long-absent Drogon swoops in through a ball of flames and circles the stadium, torching the Sons of the Harpy and unmasked innocents alike. Tyrion’s face says it all as he is both relieved and horrified to see this monster at work. The insurgents hit Drogon with spears, but he fights on largely unphased.
On an impulse, Daenerys climbs on the back of Drogon and tells him to fly. She rides away on his back, the first dragonrider in over a hundred years, and fulfills her Targaryen destiny.
Other Thoughts on “The Dance of Dragons”:
- The scene in the prisons of Dorne was a much better characterization of the Sand Snakes, compared to what’s preceded it. Nymeria and Tyene Sand play Red Hands, with Nymeria taunting her half-sister for being too slow. Tyene takes several hits, then gets inside Nym’s head (“You’re thinking too much”), forcing her to miss. When it is her turn to slap, Tyene hits her sister hard across the face. They are interrupted before coming to a brawl, but the effect is clear. Finally, a more fully-formed characterization of these hitherto underwhelming Sand Snakes.
- Was Hizdahr zo Loraq the leader of the Sons of Harpy? He shows up late and says happily, “Just making sure everything is in order.” Later, when he offers an escape for Daenerys and gets killed, it shows that he is either innocent, having a crisis of conscience, or trying to trap her.
- As much as I have hated the character, Selyse’s change of heart was one of my favorite moments of this season. Up until this point, she has been a cruel and unfeeling mother with little love to spare for her daughter. She is a zealous religious fanatic who kept her stillborn sons preserved in jars and watched her own brother burn for his lack of faith. Despite (even perhaps because) all of this, I was incredibly moved to see Selyse’s maternal instincts kick in in defense of her daughter. As she watched her own daughter burn, the actress, Tara Fitzgerald, portrayed the anguish and insanity perfectly. A mother’s love runs deep, even if it is often unseen.
- Shireen’s death is the first major spoiler for book readers (the character is still alive in the novels, but George R.R. Martin made it clear to the showrunners that her death is in a future novel). Many book readers will have a big decision to make next season, as almost all of the source material has been exhausted in five seasons. I, for one, am excited for scenes where I can’t predict everything. I love the books and I love the show; I’ll take whatever I can get, whenever I can get it. but not everyone agrees.
- The Dance of the Dragons civil war may eventually be made into its own HBO show someday, according to George R.R. Martin.