This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and email eadams at avclub dot com or contact Erik on Twitter, and hell take care of them as soon as possible. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’thappen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss whats coming? Thats what our experts reviews are for.

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The cutest little girl who ever graced Game Of Thrones tells us the story of the title, “The Dance Of Dragons.” It was a war of succession between two Targaryen siblings that sounds basically like the violence and bloodshed we’ve been witnessing ever since Shireen’s uncle, King Robert, got taken out by his wife and her fuck buddy/cousin, with Stannis and Renly taking the place of the Targaryens. Now Stannis asks his daughter which Targaryen she’d have supported. Shireen says she wouldn’t choose between them. As Kenneth Parcell knew, choosing is a sin, and in this case, it’s the sin at the root of all the ensuing bloodshed.

In the War of the Five Kings, who would you choose? For a while Game Of Thrones offered strong rooting interests for the audience, charismatic, relatively just leaders like Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister pulling the levers of power. Nowadays I’m just hoping poor Sansa even survives this damn story. But as for the questions of the throne, we’re trapped between a blizzard and fillicide. Sitting on the throne is a sweet, impotent child, an extraordinarily lifelike puppet operated by his mother, the hilariously myopic Cersei Lannister. The “rightful” king, in the sense that King Robert had no trueborn heirs and so the throne should have passed to his eldest brother, is Stannis, a hardass being carried to power by fundamentalists who were introduced by burning Stannis’ relatives at the stake for not converting. He has one of the most skillful players in the whole game at his side in Davos, but he also has Melisandre clouding his vision. And in the final corner, for now, is Dany, who strikes me as a pretender who’s very good at giving off a “don’t fuck with me” vibe and far less good at actually learning how to rule. But she at least believes in things like “people shouldn’t kill each other for entertainment” and “you shouldn’t rape the women in the village you’ve conquered,” and she’s always had a strong group of advisers around her, from Drogo and Jorah to Daario and Tyrion. I could see rooting for Stannis and Davos, but imagine Selyse in Cersei’s position. Would all the commoners have to convert or die? Similarly I could see rooting for Dany, but she doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. People have been mocking her lack of game plan for years now. “The Dance Of Dragons” may not choose among the kings, exactly, but it crosses one name off the list and furiously highlights another.

Stannis burning his daughter Shireen at the stake is the hardest Game Of Thrones has hit since the Red Wedding, only this violence is completely drained of excitement. It’s not a shock moment, and there’s no gross-out gore as in Oberyn’s death. Instead it’s a long, cold death march. What’s most impressive is the pacing, which is not the season’s strongest suit. Think about how rarely characters are seen on the way to and from places. In previous seasons, the journey was half the plot. Nowadays we don’t see Lady Olenna until she’s outside King’s Landing, and Jon and Tormund are off the map between Castle Black and Hardhome, both ways. Dany takes forever to figure out what to do about the fighting pits, just long enough for Jorah and Tyrion to cross a continent. It takes Mace Tyrell almost as long to cross the Narrow Sea as it does for Arya to go through all that training, first Arya as a mortician or whatever and second Lana as a seashell seller.

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But here, at last, taking a page from “Hardhome,” Game Of Thrones takes time to give its story weight. What’s going to happen is going to happen, barring a last-minute reprieve—and even then we have to get to that last minute—from the moment Stannis dismisses Davos. Which makes that scene hard to watch on its own. Stannis is sending away the only person in camp apart from the child he’s about to execute who might speak reason, and he knows it. And Davos knows it, too, at least on some level. He tries to rescue Shireen, and that’s the moment I think Stannis finally pulls the trigger. Davos is not going to take his daughter away from him, except once Davos is dismissed, Stannis might as well be completely under Melisandre’s spell, so he’s losing Shireen anyway.

Davos brings Shireen a hand-carved wooden stag toy as a goodbye present for Shireen. He thanks her for teaching him to read, and speaks of her as a surrogate child. It brings me back to Arya and Ned, who provides perhaps the show’s only other example of unselfish paternal love (as opposed to Cersei’s perverted version). Game Of Thrones so rarely gives us anything sweet that moments like this are all the more potent. And then Stannis sits with his daughter, really confronts what he’s about to do, and Shireen tells and shows him exactly why it’s a bad idea. She returns the baton he passed a few weeks ago: “I’m Princess Shireen of House Baratheon, and I’m your daughter.” The Dance Of Dragons is quite a parable here if only Dad would listen.

What’s more, for a long time Stannis’ love for his daughter was his only redeeming, human quality. Without that he’d just be a law-and-order robot. As it happens, he’s not just a law-and-order robot. He’s a tragic monster who, if I read the fire correctly, literally every single viewer is now gleefully anticipating dying. But first the tragic part. The execution scene is excruciating, not viscerally like Sansa’s rape but more tonally. It’s like embers cooling. Whatever hope we may have had for this plot is dead. The actual execution sequence is constructed like that rape scene. After the merciless setup, that long walk through the armed men, Melisandre peeking out at the front, soldiers physically tying the child to the stake, we see Shireen on the pyre briefly and then the rest is the sounds of her agony—dragonlike cries, if you ask me—over reaction shots from everyone else. The surprising one is Selyse breaking, illustrating how far-gone Stannis is by comparison and how much blood relations mean in this universe where Theon could flip on his adopted family so easily and Cat could hold such a grudge against Jon Snow. Not even Selyse could go through with this.

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Melisandre stands there happy to be of service. What service, though, I wonder? The mechanics have been conveniently vague from the moment she pulled the headache excuse to get out of making another shadow with Stannis’ face to kill Roose Bolton. “Your fires run low,” she tells Stannis. Well how high are his fires going to run now that he’s killed his own brother and his own daughter? I bet Stannis himself becomes a shadow after this. Speaking of Shireen and Renly, just who is supposed to inherit the throne after Stannis now? Think it through, pal. And what of the blood magic? Is Roose about to just drop dead? Because, you know, that one leech named Balon Greyjoy is sure taking its sweet time. And yet, as the episode opens, we seem to witness Melisandre genuinely staring into fire and reading the future, seeing that the camp is about to burn. She hasn’t been wrong yet, but this “sacrifice” doesn’t just mean the death of Roose Bolton or whomever. It means the death of Stannis.

And that’s not even the climax, because this is a zero-sum game. As Stannis sinks, Dany soars, and she does so by strengthening her family ties, rather than burning them at the stake. There’s a lot going on at the fighting pit—Daario and Hizdahr’s pissing match, Tyrion bonding with Dany over disgust for the fighting, Jorah and Dany having the world’s most passive-aggressive fight—but all of that falls by the wayside when Jorah, victorious, drinking in the boos of the audience, grabs a spear and hurls it at the stage where Dany and company are gathered. After just long enough for the audience to collect its breath, the spear turns out to have stopped a murderous Son of the Harpy sneaking up behind Dany. Suddenly, the insurgents are everywhere, and the former masters are dropping like flies. I get being scared for the heroes in “Hardhome,” but this sequence offers way more characters we’d (I’d) rather not see killed off. Missandei’s a target until Tyrion slices his way through her attacker. Jorah fights his way to Dany’s side, and the two finally reconcile in the heat of battle.

Hizdahr bites it, but the episode goes out of its way to make him expendable to us first by having him engage in a battle of wits with Tyrion in which his main argument is greatness can’t be accomplished without cruelty. How elegant that he dies shortly thereafter as part of the great liberating movement of the Sons of the Harpy. “The Dance Of Dragons” really stacks the deck in case we weren’t sure how to feel about characters like Stannis or Dany. Just look at Meryn Trant. Dude “killed” Syrio (I’m a truther on this front; show me the body) and beat Sansa, but just in case we forgot who he is, he’s reintroduced as an asshole who badmouths the man he’s there to protect, gets in a good homophobic remark, and then turns out to have criminally young tastes in women at the brothel whose employees he treats like property, which adds some disquieting context to the earlier scenes of him either faintly recognizing Arya in the streets or just scoping out an underage conquest. Anyway, Arya doesn’t kill him quite yet. So far he’s just here to give Arya the dilemma between becoming faceless and killing the insurance salesman or remaining Arya and crossing names off her list, but Arya stalking her prey is every bit as rich as the other major sequences.

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The danger has never been more palpable in Meereen as when Dany, Jorah, Daario, Missandei, and Tyrion are surrounded in the middle of the fighting pits. Jorah and Daario can only take out so many insurgents on their own. Dany and Missandei don’t even have weapons. They’re just waiting to die. The close-up of Dany taking Missandei’s hand is so vivid I’m practically getting misty now. All of a sudden Drogon screeches in the distance, and everyone stops and looks. Soon enough he’s flying around the arena inexplicably not torching every Son he sees. He does get down to war eventually, but on the ground. He’s a jet playing a tank. He clambers forward at the camera and bites into some guy like it’s Jurassic Park, and then he starts roasting people. He also takes a few spears in the side, and for a moment I wondered if they might actually take the dragon out. That’s a red herring. So is the moment Dany pulls a spear out and Drogon screams in her face. Instead what happens is Dany climbs on his back and flies her dragon out of there. I repeat: Dany rides a dragon! The CGI could use some polish, but nothing short of Shireen can turn my smile upside down.

It would have been nice for Drogon to make sure everyone else is safe, or hell, to carry them, too. It looks like most of the Sons are dead, but the plot mechanics are off, because danger is what necessitates Dany getting on Drogon’s back in the first place. And where’s Drogon going anyway? Regardless, Dany and Drogon make an excellent rebuke to Stannis. The tragedy of The Dance Of Dragons, and “The Dance With Dragons,” is blood turning on blood.

Stray observations:

  • Erik’s on ATX Festival duty this week, so he asked me to step in. I’ve read the first two books, corresponding with the first two seasons, and they shed zero light on “The Dance Of Dragons.” But Erik will be back with a completely unsullied review of the season finale next week.
  • Stannis determines his guards either failed to spot Ramsay’s crew or conspired with them. “Find out the truth and then hang them.” Remember what Tyrion said about a leader who kills those loyal to them?
  • And about the arson, I get that the Northerners know their land better than Team Stannis, and visibility is extra low while it’s snowing, but those fires started all over the place at once. Nobody saw anything?
  • Sunspear Update: The writers made some arbitrary decisions that fill up time in the hopes that it seems like there was a season-long plot of any consequence in Dorne. To be specific, Doran lets Jaime and Bronn go free with Myrcella for the low, low cost of a single punch to Bronn. They also have to take Prince Trystane, who will replace Oberyn on the Small Council, which is an arrangement that you’d think would have been made immediately following Oberyn’s death, but I guess they had to justify this terrible vacation somehow. Also Doran makes Ellaria kiss his ring and reaffirm her fealty, as if she had actually been in rebellion all this time and not just off-screen while the Sand Snakes got day-drunk and decided a kidnapping was a smart move. It’s really traumatic for Ellaria to kiss the ring, I guess because this means the end of her grief vengeance for Oberyn, but boy, has season five failed her and him and everyone else in Dorne.
  • Then again, there have been some bright spots, like Jaime discovering a new use for his hand. And the scene where Areo releases Bronn from jail. “Am I gonna be happy at the end of this walk?” “You’ll find out soon.”
  • Tyrion: “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has always worked in your favor.” Hizdahr has a good line or two, but as Tyrion says, “In my experience, eloquent men are right every bit as often as imbeciles.”
  • As Jorah faces death in the pits, Tyrion implores Dany, “You can end this!” Hizdahr butts in: “She can’t.” Tyrion: “You can!” Notice he doesn’t say, “She can,” to Hizdahr. He keeps talking to Dany, keeps the ball in her court. Tyrion can’t get back in the Tower of the Hand soon enough.

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