Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 9 – The Dance of Dragons

“Sometimes a person has to choose. Sometimes the world forces his hand.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

With the full throttle carnage usually expected from ep 9 of Game of Thrones having come early last week, this week the question was, what will ep 9 bring this year? As it turned out, it was much the same mix as last week, the Big Action Set Pieces split over two eps this year. As with last week, the ep started slow, then built to an unexpected epic battle in the third act; less epic than last week, perhaps, but that’s quibbling. By any other show’s standards, this might have been a season finale. In Game of Thrones, it was ep 9.

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Yes, previous penultimate episodes have been intensely focused on the season’s Great Battle to the exclusion of all else, which led to some breathtakingly action-packed television. But it was in danger of becoming formulaic, with everyone breathlessly anticipating the action spectacular that would come in ep 9. Benioff and Weiss (on scripting duties again this week) have rather pulled the rug out from what the fans expect, and a damn good thing too, in my opinion.

Among other things, it means that these last two eps have had a far more balanced pace, escalating from the usual political wrangling and memorable dialogue to a storming third act – rather than starting out at full throttle and staying there throughout.

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So, as the show frequently does, we were treated to a series of snapshots of where each plot has got to this week. The fallout from last week’s battle with the Walkers was touched on briefly, with a genuine bit of tension as the frosty Ser Alliser Thorne seemed to haver over whether to open the Wall to Jon and his Wilding refugees. But as we saw in last year’s battle for Castle Black, Ser Alliser may be a sourfaced git but he’s a good military commander. Presumably he sees the merit in swelling his forces with an army of Wildlings, especially since they’ve brought an honest to goodness Giant with them.

After last week’s Long Big Punchup, though, the ep didn’t spend too much time on this plot thread. Instead, we got (at least in the first two acts) a pretty heavy focus on what’s going on with Stannis Baratheon’s beleaguered forces and Jaime Lannister’s less than secret mission to Dorne.

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There was also a brief catchup with Faceless Apprentice Arya Stark, and it was no surprise that she’s disobeying orders already. As I’m sure I saw someone predict in last week’s Guardian comments thread, she dropped her mission to kill the ‘thin man’ the second she spotted the arrival of Ser Meryn Trant, one of the men whose death she regularly prays for.

Ian Beattie has made Ser Meryn one of the show’s most hateful characters from the start, so it was hardly a surprise to find, as he visited a Braavosi brothel, that his taste in women runs to the young. The very, very young. As Arya watched him browsing the wares, I half expected her to volunteer her services, just to get close enough to kill Ser Meryn. It turned out not to be, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that’s what she does next week. It was unclear whether Ser Meryn recognised her, but if the show goes down that route, it’s a dark path indeed.

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And if you think it won’t, just consider the events at Stannis Baratheon’s icebound camp this week. We know Stannis can be a very inflexible man; we also know that he is utterly in the thrall of Red Priestess Melisandre. With his camp gutted by a commando raid (courtesy, presumably, of Ramsay Bolton), Stephen Dillane presented us with a man who (in his own mind) faced a hard choice. His food supply gone, his horses nearly all killed, unable to move forward or retreat – could he possibly be considering Melisandre’s horrific proposal to sacrifice his own daughter to the Red God?

Well, this is Game of Thrones – what do you think? Young Kerry Ingram has made Princess Shireen a truly likeable girl for three seasons now, her surrogate-father relationship with the likeable Ser Davos a recurring highlight. They got another touching scene together this week, as he departed to Castle Black on an errand to bring supplies; but like a classic war movie, it was obviously a farewell rather than an au revoir.

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Stephen Dillane made a good show of Stannis’ horrible choice. His scene with Shireen was hugely tense, as the viewer knew exactly what he was getting at with his talk of choices, while Shireen, all unawares, promised to help her father any way she could. Her burning at the stake was one of the most unpleasant things I’ve seen this show do, the more so because we’d come to genuinely like her. And it made us think less of Stannis, who stood stony-faced with the air of a man faced with a very nasty task that just has to be done – while his daughter screamed for his mercy.

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Compared to that, Jaime’s continuing wrangles in Dorne came as light relief. Despite this season’s introduction of the Dornish as major players in the Seven Kingdoms, we’ve actually seen pretty little of them so far. This week redressed the balance, and for a wonder, actually gave Alexander Siddig as Doran Martell more than about three lines. Finally this week, we got a sense of who he is as a character – less headstrong than Ellaria and her Sand Snakes, but still clearly a force to be reckoned with. If nothing else, Ellaria’s clearly reluctant submission to him made that clear. This may be a guy who can barely stand (due to gout), but he’s clearly not to be fucked with.

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I do question his wisdom in sending the admittedly gorgeous Trystane Martell to King’s Landing to sit on the Small Council though. The flamboyant Oberyn was more than a match for the vipers of the Council, but Trystane? They’ll eat him alive. Unless of course that was Doran’s plan all along…

But all that political manoeuvring was merely an hors d’oeuvres for the Main Event – an unexpected full on battle in the Fighting Pits of Meereen, as insurgent fundamentalists the Sons of the Harpy finally showed their true force. I must admit, it took me by surprise despite having read the books; I’d not expected to see much, if anything, of Dany, Tyrion and Jorah after last week’s ep having spent a fair bit of time on them.

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But no, here they were – and if you’d been missing the show’s usual violence, director David Nutter suddenly delivered it in spades. The gladiatorial combat in the arena was nasty enough; but then it was followed by the Sons rising from that massive audience and starting to slaughter everyone. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more violent, Dany’s errant dragon Drogon showed up and started incinerating people left, right and centre.

I’ve got to be honest, while it was pretty spectacular it lacked the terrifying intensity of last week’s confrontation with the White Walkers and their undead army. In part, I suspect this is down to the direction; David Nutter, who cut his teeth directing myriad unexceptional episodes of The X Files, has never struck me as much more than a workmanlike hack. He did pretty well here, but I did wonder how much of that was down to the sheer quality of the material he was working with.

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Sex and Violence

Not much gratuitous sex this week, though Ser Meryn’s insistence on ever younger prostitutes at the brothel was pretty unpleasant to behold. Thankfully, given the subject matter, the very young girl he finally settled on was actually quite modestly clothed.

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Violence, though, there was plenty of. Ser Jorah has obviously overcome his reluctance to kill, and his stint in the arena saw him bloodily impaling plenty of people. However, the most (probably unintentionally) blackly humorous moment was the beheading of the ‘small man’ on whom both Tyrion and Daario would have bet:

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The Sons’ unexpected slaughter saw throat slitting after throat slitting, while the panicked populace packed and ran – I’m not sure they’re going to be winning many hearts and minds with this approach:

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And Drogon’s brutal incineration of his mistress’ enemies was none too pleasant either.

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But the most upsetting bit of violence took place offscreen, as poor Shireen burned to death shrieking for her father and mother while Stannis looked impassively on. It goes to show, you don’t have to show everything to really traumatise your audience.

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Choice dialogue this week

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Arya, making excuses: “The thin man wasn’t hungry today.”
Jaqen, probably not taking her at face value: “Perhaps that’s why a man is thin.”

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Ser Alliser Thorne, echoing a classic line from Avon in Blake’s 7: “You have a good heart, Jon Snow. It’ll get us all killed.”

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Doran, scolding the rebellious Ellaria Sand: “I believe in second chances. I don’t believe in third chances.”

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Ellaria herself, pontificating on the moral hypocrisy condemning Jaime’s incestuous relationship: “It’s always changing, who we’re supposed to love and who we’re not. The only thing that stays the same is that we want who we want.”

This was a solid episode, with plenty of structural similarity to last week’s. And yet it wasn’t quite as enthralling; perhaps, as I say, it’s down to the direction. Nevertheless, the death of Shireen Baratheon is up there with some of the nastiest stuff the show’s ever done, and David Nutter deserves plaudits for playing that one well.

We’ve also got virtually to the end of George RR Martin’s book narrative at this point. As Dany flew off on the back of her dragon (rather leaving Tyrion, Daario, Jorah and Missandei in the lurch) she virtually reached the last time we’ve seen her in the books – in volume 5, A Dance with Dragons, whose title this ep obviously appropriated. As someone who devoured the whole book series somewhere between seasons 1 and 2, this is the where, for me, the show gets truly exciting. Because now, I really don’t know what happens next.

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