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