Because it isn’t a penultimate episode without an awful, entirely avoidable tragedy.
Sometimes a person has to choose. Sometimes the world forces his hand. If a man knows who he is and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all.
I imagine that as Benioff & Weiss were prepping “The Dance of Dragons” for air, they expected audience reaction to be a collective “F— YEAH” as Daenerys gets the ultimate Achievement Unlocked, riding her prodigal son Drogon higher and higher into the sky — a thing that no one has done for centuries. And that was certainly cool. And, though not exactly unexpected, it came not a moment too soon. But I’ll have more to say about that at the end of the recap, because that’s not my headline today.
I’m going to be careful not to overreact here, because what happened to Shireen tonight has been telegraphed for a LONG time — in the books as well as in the show, so this isn’t an ill-conceived invention like Sansa’s misfortunes this season. That track hasn’t just been laid, they’ve put duplicate tracks on top of it. And yet, like a fool, I still hoped that it would be averted at the last moment. Maybe Davos would take her away like he did Gendry. Maybe the storm would break. Surely, I’ve been telling my friends, even *this* show wouldn’t go that far. The outcry would be too great. I knew such an inexcusable act would ruin Stannis as a relatable character. I thought we’d get perilously close, maybe see the flames start to spread, but it would be called off in the nick of time. And when Selyse Baratheon, up ’til now a character more brittle than a Kit Kat, called on her husband to stop it — a much-needed redemptive turn — then rushed forward herself, I assumed that’s exactly what would happen. But I was wrong, and now I’m the one feeling betrayed.
It’s certainly true that this is far from the first child death on this show (think back to the Hound and the butcher’s boy, or Polliver & Lommy). So what makes Shireen’s different? Why is this the moment that puts me on my heels, and not Sansa’s wedding or any of the show’s previous moral missteps? Because it’s at the hand of someone we’d come to believe in. Because it’s not only thematically unnecessary, but narratively unnecessary. We’ve already established that Melisandre can work her power just with a few leeches. We’ve also seen that she’s not entirely infallible, and has to sometimes use theatrical tricks to get her point across. All she saw was a vision of herself walking the ramparts of a conquered Winterfell, but not how that would come to pass. In her zealotry, she convinced herself that tying sweet, trusting Shireen to a stake was the only way, and gave Stannis a Sophie’s Choice: Your daughter, or your rightful throne. And once Stannis — as resolute as iron — makes up his mind, he never changes it. The Abraham of the Bible was ready to sacrifice his son, but his God was merciful. Stannis’s is a bloodthirsty demon.
The question hanging over all of this now is a simple one — what if they’re wrong? If Stannis isn’t Azor Ahai reborn (which it’s hard to believe he is), and he just had his daughter killed for nothing, what then? Either Stannis goes down in battle, or he gets to exact painful, well-deserved revenge on his Red Woman. And I desperately hope it’s the latter, because after Ramsey Bolton, there’s no one I want to go down more. Hizdahr suggests to Damy later that you can’t accomplish greatness without cruelty. But that’s ludicrous, and we’re meant to think so when he says it — except that’s how the show sometimes behaves.
Speaking of Ramsey, this is also on him. It’s his stealth attack with his “20 good men” that leaves Stannis’s army in shambles. Tents on fire; horses on fire; food and siege weapons gone. Stannis feels his back against the wall, and Davos knows far too well what that means. Stannis even takes pains to send his Onion Knight back to Castle Black to request more supplies, just so he won’t be around for whatever happens next. And so, like so many (SO MANY) characters before him, Davos makes a promise to a loved one that there is no way he’ll be able to keep. “Thank you,” he tells Shireen before he goes, “for teaching me to be a grown-up.” She’s been reading about the Dance of Dragons, a bit of history from the Targaryen dynasty where brother fought against brother for control of the kingdom with untold casualties. A bit close to the mark, eh Stannis?
But Stannis doesn’t care. He has to “fulfill his destiny,” whatever the cost. And Shireen, bless her heart, wants to help. Maybe you thought her quoting back to him what he said back at Castle Black might weaken his resolve, but no. (Why even have that scene, weeks ago? Just to twist the knife?) All he can manage is “Forgive me.” As the platform is lit, and Shireen realizes that rescue isn’t coming, we can see Stannis’s men shaking their heads and turning away. Why would they follow a man like that? Why would we? As a father myself, I don’t even know how to begin to process this — Stannis was one of my favorite characters — except to hope that he and Ramsey destroy each other.
I’ve gotta move on. But I’m not happy.
Speaking of heavy-handed foreshadowing, ENOUGH WITH OLLY’S STINKEYE ALREADY. I don’t even know what he’s going to do, but it’s thuddingly obvious he’s going to do something. This week’s episode is all about missed opportunities, and Jon blows one upon his return to Castle Black by not standing up on a balcony and telling everyone what just went down at Hardhome. Now there’s a few thousand Wildlings taking up oxygen on the south side of the Wall, and a substantial number of missing black brothers. Those who stayed behind blame Jon for all of it. Thorne pays him a typically back-handed compliment: “You have a good heart, Snow. It’ll get us all killed.” NOT EXACTLY, IF JON COULD TAKE FIFTEEN SECONDS TO EXPLAIN. Believe me, guys, this will all make sense if you talk to Edd or whoever.
Who else is surprisingly bad at their job? Arya Stark. She’s the least-stealthy child assassin since — well, I won’t answer that. But this week showed she has a lot to learn, as she gets distracted from completing her mission with the Thin Man by the sudden arrival of Mace Tyrell — and Meryn Trant, who is still on her list — on the pier. She follows them (poorly) to the Iron Bank, where Tycho Nestoris (keep getting them checks, Mark Gattis) puts up with Tyrell’s doofy prattle, and singing, with thinly-veiled contempt; she follows Trant (poorly) to a brothel, where she eavesdrops (poorly) on Trant’s behavior as a literal pile of human garbage, and doesn’t even get to take a shot at him. Making matters worse, when she tries to tell Jaqen she’ll take care of the Thin Man “tomorrow,” Jaqen knows immediately that something is up.
Okay, let’s look for positives this week: how about… Dorne? Yes, Dorne! (I can’t believe it either — we’re all upside-down. Shadowcats and Direwolves lying down together.) Alexander Siddig has been wasted as Prince Doran up to this point, getting a couple of lines every three episodes, but he’s finally awarded some red meat in a big scene where he negotiates with Jamie and puts Ellaria in her place. His silent fury when he learns that the Kingslayer’s only here because of an ill-advised threat snake Ellaria sent to King’s Landing… well, it’s palpable. We know that Doran is a man of peace, or at least he claims to be — “Many in Dorne want war,” he begins, “but I’ve seen war. I don’t want to lead my people into that hell.” He gets everyone to raise their glasses to a continued alliance with the Crown, but can’t make everyone drink.
And I guess we’re all going to pretend that “King Tommen” is the one “insisting” that his sister Myrcella comes back safe and sound? In any case, Doran is happy to oblige, on a few conditions: first, her engagement with Trystane stands. Second, that very Trystane gets a seat on the small council (because that worked out so well for the last Martell who came to the capital). Third, and easiest of all, Bronn gets a vengeful elbow to the face for his part in the attack. Jamie, who still has no clue as to the situation in King’s Landing, agrees to all of this with ease; now Ellaria and the Snakes have to play nice — though if Obara’s frown was any deeper, she’d be Grumpy Cat — or face their own consequences. But we’re still wondering: is Doran really as weak as he seems (and as everyone seems to believe), or is he playing a longer game? And if it’s the latter, what in the world could that possibly be?
Finally: the dusty fighting pit of Meereen, where things are getting tense up in the Queen’s courtside box. Dany and Hizdahr — who’s acting suspiciously — are exchanging coded threats about “cities returning to the dirt” and about who here actually has fighting experience; Daario’s twirling his knife, Tyrion’s making jokes, everyone’s fast-talking like it’s an episode of Gilmore Girls while gladiators decapitate each other on the ground below. Then Jorah comes out for his melee, and things go quiet. He’s ready to die for her, or at least die in front of her, and she claps to start the fight because she doesn’t really have a choice. It’s not a hot start for our beleaguered knight, who takes multiple shots and slices, eventually ending up on his back before a well-timed spear takes care of that assailant. But from there he turns the corner, ultimately becoming the last man standing (the crowd boos, hilariously), but instead of waiting for Dany’s signal to finish his opponent off, he throws his spear… towards her box… and into the chest of a masked assassin just behind her. Oh dear.
Surprise! The arena is full of Sons of the Harpy. In an even bigger surprise, Hizdahr isn’t one of them, and we know this for sure because he gets stabbed in the heart. Whoops. It’s only moments before Jorah is back at Dany’s side, offering his hand — NO, THE OTHER HAND! THE NON-INFECTED HAND, JORAH — which she accepts. It seems like the entire city has turned against Dany, and there’s only so much Jorah, Daario, and Tyrion (who saves Missandei) can do. The five of them sprint across the pit, but are quickly encircled. (Attack of the Clones, anyone?) It’s only a matter of time. Dany closes her eyes, and waits for the inevitable — wait, what’s that? A dragon call! Suddenly Drogon bursts into the pit like the Kool-aid man, roasting any Harpy that isn’t smart enough to immediately scatter. Any other week I’d be much more excited about it than I am right now, but I’ll give director David Nutter credit for how he staged this whole sequence.
Whether she’s overcome with gratitude or guided by some deeper Targaryen instinct, Dany takes her chance to approach her eldest son, pulling out one of several spears awkwardly sticking out of his neck. He bellows in her face, but there’s no fire. Instead, he… smiles? Like a puppy who just wants to be scratched behind the ears? She climbs onto his back, and commands a single word in High Valyrian: “Fly.” And fly he does. Out of the pit, out of Meereen, until he and his passenger are just a speck against the bright desert sky. Tyrion and the others can only watch, dumbfounded. What are they supposed to do now?
And having witnessed both the best and the worst of what Thrones can offer, what are we supposed to do now?
Next week: The Season Finale. All I’m saying is, Brienne better kill somebody.