Following the overwhelmingly positive reception that last week’s episode of Game of Thrones received, big things were expected of the final episodes of the season. These were the episodes that would redeem the show’s weakest season, they would erase the audience’s memories of Dorne and poorly executed back alley fights and would return some hype and excitement to the show’s major storylines. Unfortunately, the only thing that this week’s episode, ‘The Dance Of Dragons’ , achieved was to prove that ‘Hardhome’ was a fluke, an episode of excellence in a season filled with mediocrity. Shocking deaths are par for the course in this series; it would take exceptional naivete to reach the tail end of a season of Game of Thrones and not expect some sort of twist in the tale, but poor writing was never part of that unspoken agreement between producers and audience. The character of Stannis Baratheon has been shafted since the very beginning but this episode effectively ensures that there can be redemption for him and, by extension, his storyline while in Meereen, a perfectly serviceable scene, filled with chaotic action and a dragon’s reappearance, was ruined once again by poor execution. If one didn’t know any better, it would honestly seem like the producers have a personal vendetta against Stephen Dilane and Emilia Clarke.
Regardless of whether you have read the novels or are a show-only fan, this episode was an absolute nightmare. Four storylines were featured prominently in this episode and apart from Arya’s, they were all butchered. It’s a sign of just how bad the other two storylines were when the Dornish story, of all things, was one of the better done parts of the episode. Of course, Dorne had its fair share of issues as well but it also had some of the episode’s few redeeming moments. The trouble with Dorne is that the conflict it spent the entire season building up towards – specifically, the tension between the Martells and the Lannisters – was resolved without any pain at all. Now, it might be a little too soon to mention that good conflict resolution requires pain and sacrifice, but letting Bronn and Jaime off the hook so easily makes this entire story feel even cheaper than it did before. It remains to be seen if Doran Martell has any bombs to drop on us next week but barring that, it seems that the only narrative purpose this entire futile arc served was to get Trystane Martell an escort to King’s Landing. The disappointment might have been slightly alleviated had Doran announced that he would travel with his son too since Alexander Siddig finally had a scene in which he got to do more than just sit around and look wise in. His threat and ultimatum to Ellaria were both absolutely spot on and served as a timely reminder than he and his brother are not so different after all. While it is unfortunate that Doran will remain in Sunspear, one can only hope that he decides to keep his bastard nieces around with him.
“Half my army is made up of unbelievers. I will have no burnings. Pray harder.”
Stannis’ characterization has been problematic right since his first appearance in the second season but it still somehow beggars belief that someone could read lines like the above and still characterise him as a man capable of burning his own daughter alive. The burning isn’t the only problem with Stannis’ part of the episode though; it all begins with Ramsay Snow. It seems insane that Ramsay was able to sneak into Stannis’ camp, burn all the food and sneak back out with no consequences whatsoever. What this essentially means is that a bastard with no military experience to speak of, was able to cripple one of Westeros’ most feared commanders and walk away without a scratch on him. I am aware that there is some degree of hypocrisy in my incredulity – when Robb Stark did it, everyone was cheering and drawing parallels to Alexander the Great but the main difference is that Robb was a sympathetic character where Ramsay is just the opposite.
In discussing the sacrifice, we should remind ourselves that Stannis, in any medium, is not a good character – if anyone follows the re-read of the novels that I’m doing, you’ll know that that is a point that comes up fairly often – but neither is Stannis evil. Burning someone is bad but burning your daughter is evil and burning your unsuspecting daughter while she screams for you to help her is twisted in a way that eliminates all possibility of redemption. So why did Stannis do it? Why did a character who lasted a year long siege at the brink of starvation capitulate this fast and this hard? A good deal of it can be blamed on poor writing, unfortunately. We weren’t shown just how desperate Stannis’ situation was nor how much he grappled with the decision. Instead, it felt almost as though he had been waiting for an excuse to off his daughter and Ramsay gave him a perfect reason. To be perfectly frank, the burning was also just convenient – it gave the writers a way to create the shock value that they crave so very much. The most disappointing thing about this whole affair was that it soils the one moment of positive characterization Stannis received in the whole series – him bonding with his daughter now feels manipulative, like it was put there just to raise Stannis up a little before his final fall. Yet, to give credit where it is due, that entire scene was impossible to watch – from Shireen’s screams, Selyse’s pleas to Stannis’ stony silence as it all happened. Kerry Ingram, who played Shireen Baratheon, did an absolutely amazing job; it has been a long time since I felt as disturbed watching TV as I did during that scene. In a better world, that scene would have been amazing, a testament to what this series could have but instead it turned into the perfect example of what this series has turned out to be. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Revenge of the Sith – Stannis was supposed to bring justice to the North; he was supposed to destroy the Boltons, not become one of them. We have reached a point where motherfucking Roose Bolton is a better father than Stannis Baratheon.
Last and quite possibly least, is the flaccid fiasco that is Draznak’s Pit. Let’s forget for a moment that absolutely no one in the audience was in any position to put up with more Meereenese bullshit after watching Shireen die. It is hard to care about Daenerys trying to dig herself out of her own hole right after watching Shireen die for no fault of her own. Draznak’s Pit turned out to be a culmination of everything wrong with the story in Essos this season; we have weak characters like Daario and Hizdahr zo Loraq, clumsy action sequences in which trained soldiers struggle to hold their own against untrained street thugs and a storyline that has struggled to get any emotional traction with the audience. The first problem was that the Sons of the Harpy went from being a small group of fringe insurgents to having an army of their own. You would assume that Dany, th unpopular ruler of the city said insurgents want control of, would have much better protection that a small handful of guards. Beyond all that though, I don’t know if having a dragon swoop in and save you does anything for character development. Dany is supposed to learn that her choices have consequences, that if she makes poor political decisions, she will have to deal with the fallout. Drogon pretty much keeps that from happening though he looked very impressive doing it.