Game of Thrones' recap: 'The Dance of Dragons'

The hits keep coming in Season Five's penultimate episode, which features a wrenching sacrifice and an arena sequence with multiple climaxes.

Last episode’s epic, eponymous battle of “Hardhome” threatened to make the rest of season five seem like an anticlimax. How much emotionally involved can you really feel in, say, Princess Myrcella’s well-being when Westeros faces an invasion of White Walkers, who’ll kill half the populace and then raise them as zombies to kill the other half?
Jon Snow’s return to the Wall seems to visually echo a shot from that scene: we see a close up on Jon’s boots, walking from left to right, not unlike the boot-level shot of the Night King on the dock. Jon and his team show up looking utterly chastened and demoralized, especially for a huge horde of people with a giant on their side. When they get there, the gate’s shut and Alisher Thorne glares down at them as if about to deny Jon’s group entry, but Thorne orders the gate raised. Crisis averted?

Jon laments that the mission was a failure, but Sam points out at the Wildling survivors, “You didn’t fail him. Or him. Or her.” Young Olly seems highly unenthused at Jon’s return, but Thorne remarks, “You have a good heart, Jon Snow.” Hey, maybe he’s not so bad after all. Thorne adds, “It will get us all killed.” D’oh!

At the other end of the continent, in Dorne, the action’s pretty low-key. Jaime gets a sit-down meeting with his niece-daughter Myrcella, her betrothed Trystane, the conniving Ellaria and Prince Doran, who’s put-out by all the intriguing, but not enough to break the alliance with the Lannisters. He gives Jaime permission to bring Myrcella home to King’s Landing, but Trystane’s going to come with her and be a member of the Small Council. Also, Bronn gets freed, with a punch in the face as a seemingly equitable punishment for striking Trystane.

Rebellious Ellaria swears loyalty to Doran rather than face execution, and pays a visit to Jaime, revealing that she knows of his relationship with Cersei (and probably that he’s Myrcella’s real father). Not in so many words, she points out that incest isn’t a big deal in Dorne, a point that Jaime contemplates inscrutably.

Over in Braavos, Arya pushes her oyster cart along the docks with the intent of poisoning the thin man. She chances to see rich Mace Tyrell arrive and meet Mycroft Holmes the Iron Banker. But Arya focuses on Mace’s royal escort, Ser Trant, one of the names on her list — which she clearly hasn’t forgotten, even though she’s supposed to have relinquished her past identity at the House of Black and White. She puts Trant under surveillance and follows them to brothel, where he rejects the girls offered as “Too old” until the madam brings out a young one dressed more like a servant, and clearly unsure of what she’s getting into. (So gross.)

Back at Faceless Man HQ, Arya tells Jaqen that the thin man wasn’t hungry and didn’t get the poison. Does Jaqen know what she was really up to? Did he put her at the docks because he knew Trant would eventually come along?

The episode begins with Melisandre looking around icy Camp Stannis in the dead of night. A tent catches aflame, and then more, and even a burning horse runs by. Is it some kind of vision of R'hllor? No, apparently she saw the results of the raiding party Ramsay mentioned last week, which burst in, torched the food and siege engines, then killed a bunch of guys and horses. Stannis’s bad situation is growing worse, and he’s grown what appears to be a salt-and-pepper beard of evil: “Have the dead horses butchered for meat.” One horse is already cooked, it seems.

Stannis orders his conscience — I mean, Ser Davos — back Castle Black to demand more men, horses, and supplies. “At least let me take Shireen,” Davos suggests. “My family stays with me,” says Stannis, implacable. Davos knows the situation is incredibly unsafe for the little girl, but seems unaware of the proposal Melisandre has put on the table involving Shireen’s royal blood. Davos visits Shireen and gives her a carving of a stag (the Baratheon logo) as a thank-you gift for teaching him to read — “for teaching me to be a grown-up.” Liam Cunningham does a great job as Davos, who makes a stronger impression in the books as the POV character from which we see the Stannis storyline.

With Davos out of the way, Stannis visits his daughter, hinting that he’s facing a difficult choice. “Is there any way I can help?” she asks, and later says, “I’m Princess Shireen of the House Baratheon, and I’m your daughter,” echoing back a line he said to her a few episodes ago, and really laying out the guilt, if Stannis is capable of guilt.

What follows is possibly the most wrenching scene ever from “Game of Thrones,” which is really saying something. Shireen is walked out — and then dragged over and bound — to a wooden stake, presided over by Melisandre. While the Red Priestess goes through the sacrificial ritual, Shireen screams for her father. Stannis stands by his wife Selyse, who’s always been the more fanatically religious of the spouses, and seemingly more cold towards Shireen. But as the flames go up and the screams continue, Selyse breaks, calling for her daughter to be saved.

How bad a death is this? The season’s first episode had Melisandre burning Mance Rayder at the stake, and Jon Snow shot him with an arrow as an act of mercy. Playing Stannis, Stephen Dillane seems utterly desolate, as if he’s killed part of himself along with his daughter. I know people on social media who were shocked and appalled by the scene, but horrific as it was, it was inevitable by the rules that the show set up and the path Stannis had taken. Princess Shireen, RIP.

The sound of fire crackling gives way to applause in Mereen as Dany reluctantly leads the opening of the fighting pits — another leader presiding over what amounts to human sacrifice in the name of achieving a political end. Dany, Tyrion, Daario, and Dany’s rich betrothed Hizdahr watch the opening match between a huge strong guy and a smaller quick guy. Daario, a fighting-pit veteran, predicts the quick guy will win, up until he loses his head. Oops!

Dany and Hizdahr argue about the fate of Mereen and her political methods, and almost miss the fact that Jorah is competing in the second match, one of six guys fighting at once. Dany hesitates at the sight of him, then claps to signal the start of the match. Jorah kind of gets his ass kicked — he must be fighting a better class of opponent than the ones he beat up a couple of weeks ago — but ends up the last man standing.

And, in victory, he throws a spear at the royal booth! WTF? But he was aiming at an assailant behind Dany in a familiar gold mask. And sudden the Sons of the Harpy are all over the place, slashing freed slaves and trying to assassinate Dany. They even kill Hizdahr, so I guess we’ll never know if he was a Son of the Harpy after all. Tyrion saves Missandei from an assailant, and they dash with Dany, Daario and Jorah across the arena, but end up surrounded by Sons of the Harpy, who start closing in.

But what’s that roar? It’s Drogon, who swoops in like boss, gobbles up one of the Sons of the Harpy and burns more with his fire. You gotta hand it to the Sons of the Harpy — they stand their ground, throwing spears at Drogon, and draw blood. Dany affirms her title as Mother of Dragons — she yanks a spear from his side and stands her ground when the dragon roars in her face. She touches his snout, his expression softens, and she climbs onto his back and bids him to fly away. So Drogon saved Dany, and Dany saved Drogon.

Daario, Jorah, Missandei,  and Tyrion watch her soar away, and are like “Uh …” Anyone want to run Mereen?


- Offstage this week: Everyone at Winterfell and King’s Landing.

- This episode is called “The Dance of Dragons,” but George R.R. Martin’s fifth book is called “A Dance with Dragons.” If memory serves me right, Martin chronicles the Targaryen civil war Shireen and Stannis discuss in a novella called “The Princess and the Queen.”

- With his cheerful demeanor and penchant for song, Mace Tyrell strikes me as this show’s equivalent to “Mad Men”'s Bert Cooper.

- I watched the episode with subtitles on, and when Arya talked with Jaqen after he was ministering to a guy, the subtitle “Thuds” appeared, announcing the death in a bluntly comedic fashion.

- The structure of the final battle — gladiatorial combat that turns into a pitched military battle, with heroes surrounded until rescue comes from above — is weirdly reminiscent of the Geonosis arena scene in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

- Next week is the season finale — “Game of Thrones’” 10-episode seasons go by so quickly. One thing I’m sure we won’t see — and probably won’t see next season, either — is a battle royale between Dany’s dragons and the White Walkers. But that has to be where all this is eventually heading, isn’t it? The books have the overall name “A Song of Ice and Fire,” which strikes me as some pretty overt foreshadowing. Then again, Martin loves to subvert expectations.