This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will occasionally refer to future events more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books.

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For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.

When Jon Snow returns from the battle at Hardhome, he’s considered a failure on two levels. The first is in the eyes of many of his peers, who see the efforts to partner with the Wildlings as a reckless act that places them all in danger. The second is in his own eyes, as he failed to save all of the Wildlings from the White Walkers’ attack on the village.

This is not an uncommon position among those in Westeros. At various stages of living in this world, you are required to make decisions knowing that there will be no clean cut victory at the end of the line. When Sansa agreed to go along with Littlefinger’s plan to marry a man from the family who helped murder her own, she knew that this was not going to be a “win win” situation. There are no “win win” situations in Westeros, or elsewhere as Dany discovers with the reopening of the fighting pits. With each clap of the hands, Dany must make the conscious choice to send men to their deaths, believing it to be for the greater good but seeing the immediate consequence unfold before her eyes.

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“The Dance Of Dragons” is therefore a suitable thematic framework for this penultimate hour of Game Of Thrones’ fifth season. Shireen takes the moral of the story of the Targaryens’ war between siblings to be that picking sides is what caused their downfall, but she is young and idealistic. You always have to pick sides, at some point, and it means there is collateral damage. The question becomes which side you take, a question that reverberates throughout the episode as Shireen’s worldview is—along with Shireen—put to the stake in horrifying fashion.

Shireen’s death is one of the show’s most difficult to endure despite happening off screen, although in a way that is as effective as it is mortifying. Ramsay’s attack on Stannis’ camp cripples the attempted siege of Winterfell, leaving them low on supplies and freezing to death. Unable to turn back and incapable of moving forward in the current circumstances, Stannis turns to the one thing that has worked in the past. Stannis’ only successes to this point have been at the hands of Melisandre, whether through Renly’s death, the leeches removing threats to the throne, or the defeat of Mance’s army in the north. He has given the Lord of Light his faith, and he has been duly rewarded for choosing this side in the war at hand. It only makes sense to follow the same path in this low moment.

As with last week’s scene where Sam’s advice to Olly could be taken as a justification for two completely different actions, there’s tragedy in Shireen’s advice here. When Stannis goes to her, he clearly knows what he intends to do, and so it’s incredibly affecting to see her unknowingly telling him why he should burn her alive. She even goes so far as to volunteer her services, believing it was her responsibility as a princess to do everything in her power in order to help her father, the king, succeed. Stannis has explained that his hand has been forced, and she gives him the all-clear to do the terrible thing he has to do, with no idea that it is her own death.

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Everything about the scene is terrifying, and it’s hard to move onto the rest of the episode with Shireen’s screams echoing in one’s mind. As the scene progresses, you hope that Stannis will stop things. It’s clear Melisandre—who smiles like a psychopath throughout—is committed to this, but is Stannis, really? Shouldn’t there be a limit? Selyse begins the scene convincing Stannis this is for the best, but quickly folds when she sees her daughter—who she resents—burning, yet her husband never moves. He watches his daughter burn because he has committed to this decision, and to facing the consequences therein. Much as Dany must watch the Great Games unfold knowing that she is responsible, Stannis understands that the sacrifice he’s making is one he must witness in order for it to have meaning. They will some day write about his sacrifice as they wrote about the Targaryens, and they will tell of Stannis’ self-sacrifice even if they never mention Shireen’s screams.

Stannis’ decision mirrors Dany’s nicely, each ruler having to watch the consequences of their actions unfold in front of them. For Dany, this begins as the fights themselves, but devolves when Jorah wins his fight but sparks a battle as the Sons of the Harpy emerge from the crowd and make an attempt on Dany’s life. It becomes a much larger consequence, suggesting that Dany’s attempt at placating the elite of Meereen was a fool’s errand. Pulling directly from the books, albeit with a slightly different sequence of events and participating characters, Dany is placed in danger but rescued by Drogon, who arrives to fight off their attackers and then leaves injured with Dany on his back.

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It’s a powerful image, rendered as effectively as it could be given the budgetary limitations of the series (which, although plentiful, can’t replicate the composite work of major Hollywood blockbusters). Watching Dany soar about the stadium on Drogon is an iconic image, but it’s not one that any other characters could really experience, which is meaningful in and of itself. She leaves behind a Meereen torn apart by class conflict, and a group of advisors who must now work to pick up the pieces or abandon the city to its corrupt elite. It’s a transcendent image, but in the process Dany exits the plane of struggle she has lived on thus far, and heads on a different kind of journey that someone like Stannis does not have access to. It’s a clear climax, but only for Daenerys herself, and not for the story unfolding in the city.

The reframing of Dany’s story as an individual one points to the tension in her rule over Meereen, where she was ultimately more about fulfilling her own destiny—or how she sees her own destiny—than serving the people in question. She was always going to leave them behind like she did with Yunkai to sail to Westeros, and so Martin’s choice in the books to literally airlift her out of Meereen was a way to reinforce that her journey is larger than this particular segment of the narrative. Repeating the same here makes sense, although there remains the book’s issue of rendering the “Meereenese knot”—as Martin refers to it—inert by allowing Dany to leave without playing a role in its resolution. The show has a wider range of characters with meaningful development left behind than there were in the books, but what does Meereen mean without Daenerys when it has been so solely defined by her leadership?

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This question will be answered in the finale and in the seasons to come, but it echoes also in the other goal of “The Dance Of Dragons,” which is to pull the season’s most problematic storylines into thematic alignment. Stannis and Dany’s decisions are legible and offer clear consequences that pay off the dramatic stakes therein—both land as clear pivot points that set their characters on paths heading into the finale, and both are well-executed and engaging. But although there are similar stories playing out in King’s Landing and Winterfell, we spend our time here in Dorne and Braavos, which have struggled to connect this season for two separate reasons.

In Arya’s case, the show has struggled with just how narrow her perspective is. I like Arya’s chapters in these last two books, and find her arc compelling, but there’s a limit to its effectiveness when it exists so separate from everything happening around it. Arya’s story is one long training montage this season, and while there are thematic links—giving up your past self, learning to take fate into your own hands, etc.—there is a ponderousness to Jaqen’s teachings that is purposeful yet stifling from a dramatic perspective. And so I’m not shocked to see the series deviating from the books and giving Arya her own case of convergence, as Mace Tyrell and Meryn Trant’s excursion to Braavos—seeded earlier in the season—replaces her run-in with Dareon the deserter from the Night’s Watch.

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The decision leaves Arya with a clear choice: either she kills the man whose death would potentially save the lines of many others in Braavos, or she kills the man whose death would bring her own quest for revenge to a close. The episode works overtime to draw out the difficulty of this decision, even going so far as to give Trant a penchant for underage prostitutes to give Arya an even stronger reason to break from her teachings—which, remember, teach her to suppress who she once was—and gamble on killing Trant. The episode presents her with both motive and opportunity (the need for another young prostitute), and gives the story clear momentum for the first time this season, even if nothing is resolved in this hour in and of itself. Although next week will tells us how Arya’s story comes together this season, the effort has been made to draw its ideas together in a climactic moment.

There is a similar effort in Dorne, but it would appear Dorne is a lost cause this season. I have not had any significant issues with the way Dorne has been depicted to date, but the efforts here to bring the story to a close point out just how scattered the work was in this new environment. If Arya’s storyline suffered from being too focused on a single character, Dorne’s suffered from a lack of such a character, and the lack of any coherent sense of what was going on. “The Dance Of Dragons” makes a case for Doran being one of the decision-makers, choosing against war in favor of a continued alliance with the Lannisters, but we’ve barely spent any time with him. Doran was not the one who sent the necklace to Cersei—that was Ellaria—and he has no intentions of being the one to harm Jaime, as he wants nothing more than to put this rebellion to bed and move on—all of is this is well and good, but it lacks purpose when Doran was so underdeveloped.

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It’s a sensible storyline once it’s laid out, and thematically appropriate, but it raises troubling questions about Dorne’s role this season. Unlike Arya’s story, which builds on this theme to create suspense and tension, the storyline in Dorne is almost absurdly resolved by the end of the hour. The Sand Snakes would appear to exist solely to play games with one another and entertain themselves with sexual mind games. Ellaria’s rebellion is seemingly resolved by a humbling kiss of Doran’s ring and a disarmingly civil conversation with Jaime about loving who you love. And the ultimate result of Jaime and Bronn’s invasion of this kingdom is Bronn getting his teeth knocked in as Hammurabi-esque retribution, and Trystane returning to King’s Landing with Myrcella and taking a seat on the Small Council in Oberyn’s place.

From the books, we can presume this is a false resolution, and that next week’s finale will offer a glimpse of the show’s larger plan for Dorne. However, false or not, this resolution puts the failings of the Dorne story into perspective, as it is possible to imagine a world where all of this just gets thrown away. It becomes possible to see a case where Jaime and Bronn’s excursion is successful, and Trystane and Myrcella return, and we never again come back to see Prince Doran as he spends his days at the Water Gardens watching the children play and watching the war unfold from afar. None of the storytelling in Dorne has made any of these characters feel essential, or special, which is the same problem Martin faced in the books and is compounded here by having significantly less time to establish them and removing the one story—Arianne’s—that was the most clear and legible.

This season has improved on the books in many ways, but introducing entirely new worlds is particularly risky. It’s a decision that comes with consequences, and they’re consequences the show has to deal with once the decision is made. Those consequences have ultimately remained fairly tightly found within the Dorne storyline itself, but they remain prominent nonetheless, and here are unable to be overcome by being tied to stronger, thematically-linked stories around it. While the Dornish anti-climax of “The Dance Of Dragons” could prove to have been purposeful before the season is done, it stands out here as a case of the show bearing the weight of its failure even as it pays off other stories leading into the finale.

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Stray observations:

  • Heartbreaking work from Stephen Dillane and Kerry Ingram in their final scene together before the sacrifice, building on work earlier in the season, but it’s Liam Cunningham whose final moments with Shireen broke my heart. This is the most effective a Stannis storyline has been, and it’s because the show invested in the people around him—it makes it more poignant when he turns his back on them and sacrifices one of them for the cause.
  • Indira Varma’s accent work has always been a bit broad, but that’s fine—what’s weird is how inconsistent it can be, like when it all but disappears in her conversation with Jaime as he scrawls out using his left hand. Would be curious if there was a method to the madness.
  • We can add the brothel owner to the list of people making tough decisions: in order to avoid failing as a proprietor, she must fail the young girl she plucks from the kitchens—or the cleaning staff—and gives to Trant.
  • The brothel scene is notable for the conscious absence of nudity, as well as the efforts to draw in Arya’s relationship with the brothels of Braavos from the books.
  • Mace Tyrell turning the streets of Braavos into a one-man show was a delight, and I won’t hear anything otherwise. A nice bit of lightness in what was otherwise a very dark hour.
  • I appreciated Tyrion’s presence during Hizdahr—R.I.P.—and Daario’s cock-measuring contest during the first battle, as his eye rolls and general distaste reflect ours as the audience.
  • Greyscale Watch: Jorah was willing to sacrifice his life for Dany, and he ultimately saved it here, but he’s also still infected and potentially going to infect others, right? This was not the self-sacrifice he had maybe imagined it to be.
  • It was hard not to watch that final scene and think about Gladiator, or, if you’re me, think about Elizabeth Taylor announcing Gladiator at the Golden Globes. It’s how I say it any time I think about it.
  • Had at least one conversation with a non-book reader who thought Dany was wrong to leave everyone behind. I suggested that Drogon would have destroyed all of them—good or bad—if she hadn’t led him away, but I don’t know if the show necessarily made the case strongly enough.
  • Arya’s story is pretty much taken out of an Assassin’s Creed game in general, but seeing her stalking and eavesdropping on her targets might as well have been a mission. I kept expecting to see a 100% sync message.

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The Night Is Dark And Full Of Spoilers (explicit book spoilers):

  • So, Dorne. Surely Doran has some sort of plan for Myrcella, right? The books give Ariane—here Ellaria—the impression he is kowtowing to the crown before revealing the Quentyn plot and the effort to reach Daenerys. But here, with that off the table, and with the whole “female succession” side of Dorne left out, what’s the plan exactly? I’ve read a few theories, and it would seem at this point one or more of them have to be true for Dorne to have anything even approximating a purpose.
  • Olly is definitely killing Jon. Did you even see that look he gave him, and the way Jon’s smile withered? What is the other option here, exactly?
  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Watch: Someone in last week’s comments was very angry that I was giving y’all even a shred of hope regarding this after the producers denied it, so let me be clear that I’m in no way convinced this is happening. But in the current climate, it’s hard not to think that the writers would be willing to execute an elaborate con to surprise the book reading audience. And so you could read Martin’s defense of Lady Stoneheart’s future role in the books in that light, if you wish.

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