Stannis (Stephen Dillane) confronts a troubling decision. Jon (Kit Harington) returns to The Wall. Mace (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) visits the Iron Bank. Arya (Maisie Williams) encounters someone from her past. Dany (Emilia Clarke) reluctantly oversees a traditional celebration of athleticism.
“The Dance of Dragons”, naming itself (roughly) after a historical event, opens new chapters in the Game of Thrones stories—both chapters that are based directly on the published novels, and chapters that may (or may not) be pure inventions by the show’s producers as the show carries on past the point of the published volumes to reveal…
Well, something. We have an entire video devoted to one of those things, an out-of-episode spoiler from the executive producers that connects a detail on the show to something specifically identified as being part of the future plans for the novels. You can learn more about that here, but bear in mind that that’s genuinely spoiler material! So much of the show has been, up to this point, clearly drawn from the books that have been published or, on the other hand, are clearly inventions of the production, while all the rest sits in a middle ground of ambiguity: invented or based on what GRRM plans, who can say? But in this particular case, the producers felt it appropriate to remove that ambiguity and to be explicit about it.
We have, suffice it to say, some issues with the show deliberately and unambiguously spoiling Martin’s work-in-progress when it can be at all avoided. Producers don’t really need to say where a particular event comes from, if it’s based on their own original creation or if it’s based on their notes from GRRM regarding the unpublished books. We can only hope this was a one-time error, and it will not become a pattern with the show.
“The Dance of Dragons” is a solid episode, in my mind, and largely a good one. But it’s not a homerun, despite holding that key penultimate episode position which has generally been held for momentous episodes. It is momentous, in its way, bringing to a close the mishandled drama of Jaime’s mission to Dorne by revealing Prince Doran would happily have dispatched Princess Myrcella to King’s Landing if only he had been asked. It’s hard to find any way to argue that the Dornish misadventure is a definite whimper from the production, incredibly misjudged and for no obvious reason. It’s certainly the weak spot of the episode.
The two key events of the episode—the death of Shireen Baratheon at the hand of her father’s own “ambition” (more on that later) and the departure of Daenerys from Meereen on the back of Drogon—are each given significant weight, and each has their own merits. But there’s a sense that the rush of a ten episode season, the rush of a prospective seven seasons (maybe seven-and-a-half, maybe even eight, but not nine or ten according to the showrunners) has detracted from what the scenes could have been. This isn’t a matter of questioning the scope, as such—the show doesn’t have the enormous budget that would be necessary for a more exacting adaptation of the novels, with the grand scale of them—but rather questioning the way the producers have tried to shoehorn events into this season which deserved significantly more build-up to remain consistent with the show’s own characterizations.
Shireen’s sacrifice is the primary case in point here. When that poignant line from Stannis to Shireen from The Sons of the Harpy was echoed by Shireen to her father, Shireen ignorant (as the audience was not) of what Stannis was preparing to do, it was certainly a punch in the gut. It’s not that Shireen’s death was unforseeable: there have been hints in the show ever since she was introduced in the third season, and this season has laid the groundwork with Melisandre and Selyse both alluding to it at various points. But here the show—helped substantially by Kerry Ingram as Shireen and, especially, Stephen Dillane’s wonderful performances—created the sense of a deep emotional bond, one that the taciturn Stannis was hard-pressed to express, and with that bond established it was able to plumb the depths of pathos by having Stannis do the unthinkable.
It was a horrifying scene, but it was played and directed with a real sense of the gravity of what was happening. If there’s a fault, it lies in that rush to get to this point, when Stannis—in very similar circumstances (actually, somewhat worse, since men of his are starting to commit cannibalism in their hunger)—isn’t anywhere near the point of such a step. It’s not that we deny he might eventually come to believe that the sacrifice of his daughter is necessary—we fully believe Stannis Baratheon will, push come to shove, choose his duty to the safety of the realm and the world over his own blood—but that the show failed to make the situation seem sufficiently dire enough for Stannis to make such a choice.
Meereen is something of a different story, having made some significant and understandable cuts to Daenerys’s dilemma in Meereen (as we’ve noted previously, the external threat—Yunkai and the other Ghiscari cities, Qarth, Volantis—has disappeared) and so seeming to have properly set up what follows when the sons of the harpy launch themselves at Daenerys. The murder of Hizdahr—little-remarked, alas, but Joel Fry did a fine job this season—is one of the results, but for many the really significant thing was Daenerys’s departure. The visual effects for Drogon were quite breathtaking, and I’ll admit that I became rather misty-eyed the first time I saw the entire sequence. It felt triumphant, in its way.
But there were, alas, some issues. For my part, the biggest problem was Emilia Clarke’s performance. Understanding that it must be extremely difficult to play wonder and amazement in front of a giant foam dragon head or whatever it is the production uses for its stand in for Drogon, Clarke’s Daenerys did not seem especially overawed by the flight on the dragon’s back. Truth be told, when compared to the novels, Daenerys’s departure felt rather trite.
There’s something otherworldly about Daenerys when she confronts the wild dragon, whips him into submission, and then—possessed by instinct and destiny more than her own will - vaults onto the dragon’s back to rip out the spear that had sunk into him. Half-naked after throwing off her tokar (they really should have made her wear the female version of Meereenese noble dress, to emphasize her accepting Meereenese culture for at least a moment), her hair catching fire from a gout of Drogon’s flame, she is fey and intoxicated by the experience.
It would have been really remarkable if the direction, writing, and performance—especially when Daenerys tried to clamber on Drogon’s back—had matched that moment of wonder. It would have called back to her otherworldly turn at the end of the first season, connecting these great events surrounding her dragons to the sense of a greater destiny that can’t be contained by Meereen. And, if I may nitpick, on second viewing I realized that on the downside of this all, Daenerys abandoned her friends and allies while they were surrounded by sons of the harpy (who, obligingly, to a man decided to flee as soon as Daenerys starte to fly away); it seemed a bit of an odd choice to create that situation and then not have her at least direct Drogon to terrorize the terrorists for a bit to clear them off.
Some will say these are nitpicks, but if they are, they are nits that we think require picking because they could have attempted to correct these issues with their writing and production plans, and instead they did not. All we can judge is what’s on screen, and what’s on screen for this episode included things that no other television show has ever dared… and things that some other television shows would have made more of, to the show’s benefit.
The episode covers elements from the following chapters: The Sacrifice (ADwD), The Watcher (ADwD), Mercy (TWoW), and Daenerys IX (ADwD)
Other scenes of note:
Shireen: As noted, scenes featuring her are invented by the show. However, it bears mentioning that the Shireen of the novels has potentially-prophetic dreams that have been construed by fans to mean that she may eventually be a sacrificial victim, although it is a matter of debate among those fans whether Stannis will be involved in that. Another, more minor detail is the fact that the Targaryen conflict Shireen names the Dance of Dragons is instead called the Dance of the Dragons in the books.
The Sand Snakes: As previously noted, scenes such as this are an invention of the show. The characters of Tyene and Nymeria do not have the kind of relationship depicted by the show, and we suspect the hand-slap game is something of an in-joke from the writers.
Mace Tyrell in Braavos: As previously noted, Lord Tyrell is not sent as delegate to the Iron Bank; that role is carried out by Ser Harys Swyft. Mace’s generally clownish behavior is a bit of departure from the novels, where he’s more boor than buffoon. His song is an invention of the show, while his erroenous claim about a Maegor III is either an error by the writers or an attempt to show him as being rather ignorant.
Ellaria: This allegiance sequence is an invention of the show. As previously noted, Ellaria is not at all opposed to Doran’s rule nor his attempts to keep Dorne at peace in the novels. On the show, she has taken a very different position, possibly somewhat more related to that of Doran’s daughter and heir Arianne Martell, but Doran does not have her swear renewed allegiance to him. Ellaria’s visit to Jaime never happens in the novels, since Jaime is not in Dorne.