Game of Thrones

HBO's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' TV Show


EP509: The Dance of Dragons

Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by David Nutter

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event comes from, if it’s based on their own original creation or if it’s based on their notes from GRRM regarding the unpublished books.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.

Book to Screen

The episode covers elements from the following chapters: The Sacrifice (ADwD), The Watcher (ADwD), Mercy (TWoW), and Daenerys IX (ADwD)

  • The Sacrifice (ADwD): What we see on the show is not directly in the novels, but draws heavily on this chapter as it depicts Stannis’s desperate forces as a snowstorm leaves them with rapidly dwindling supplies and mounting losses from the environment. The northerners in his host—omitted on the show—are doing better than the southerners, but the situation is growing desperate. There is no attack from the Boltons destroying supplies and horses, in the novels. In the chapter, some of the Queen’s Men—knights who have taken up R’hllor—attempt to sacrifice a group of men who committed cannibalism in hopes that it will break the storm. This sacrificial act is authorized by Stannis, but the origin of the idea is not his. It is worth remembering that in the novels, Stannis leaves Shireen, Selyse, and Melisandre at Castle Black, while Davos is sent on a mission to gain more supporters for Stannis, so none of them are present in his campaign.
  • The Watcher (ADwD): Details from this scene on the show are drawn from this chapter, most notably Doran’s willingness to send Myrcella home, and sending Trystane with her. However, in the novel it is Cersei who requested Trystane accompany Myrcella, and Doran claims that he has information suggesting Cersei intended to have their escort attacked so that Trystane could be killed while the men who perpetrated it pretended to be loyal to Tyrion Lannister. Ellaria’s emptying of the wine cup at the toast to Tommen is based on Obara doing the same at the dinner the prince holds for Ser Balon Swann of the Kingsguard, who Cersei sent to bring Myrcella home in the novels. Doran’s desire to have Trystane sit on the small council seems based on Doran’s intention to have Nymeria Sand—who attends the dinner in the novel, with her sisters Obara and Tyene—take up Oberyn’s seat there. Finally, while the matter of Bronn is an invention of the show, Doran’s remark that Trystane must one day learn to rule seems as explicit as the show will get that Trystane is Doran’s heir, a deviation from the novels where he is the third youngest child.
  • Mercy (TWoW): This Arya chapter released from The Winds of Winter contains many details omitted from this section of the story, but Arya coming across the Iron Throne’s representative to the Iron Bank (Ser Harys Swyft, not Mace Tyrell, in the novel) and a member of his guard whom Arya has on her list (Raff the Sweetling, one of Gregor Clegane’s men, in the novels) are drawn from here. Ser Meryn does not show interest in underaged girls in the novels, but Raff the Sweetling does, and so this seems to have been moved to Trant. It should be noted that the “thin man” is killed by Arya in her final A Dance with Dragons chapter, so the fact that he is still alive when she spots the delegation is a change in the timeline.
  • Daenerys IX (ADwD): There are many differences between the novel and the scene in the show. To begin with, Tyrion is still a slave at this point in time, belonging to Yezzan, and in fact he and the young dwarf Penny are sent out to Daznak’s Pit to perform before Daenerys, jousting on the backs of a pig and a dog. However, they little realize that their owner has agreed to then feed them to lions for the entertainment of the crowd, and it is only Daenerys forbidding it that saves them. She never comes to learn that one of the dwarves is Tyrion. The interaction between Hizdahr and Daario is invented, as Daario is at this time in the novel a hostage to the Yunkish host, sent with other hostages as surety for the safety of the Yunkish delegation in Meereen who are attending.

    There are various gladiatorial fights presented as Daenerys sits unhappily through it, as shown. However, Jorah is not a participant in them, being held in a cage by Yezzan for his intractable behavior. Finally, the meat of the episode, the attack of the sons of the harpy, is the show’s replacement for the attempted poisoning of Daenerys (and possibly Hizdahr) by unknown persons who adulterated a dish intended for her. She is saved by the fact that Strong Belwas eats the offered sweets instead, and begins to vomit terribly when Drogon—drawn by the violence or hunger or something else—lands in Daznak’s Pit to eat the remains of the female gladiator Barsena (as well as the boar that killed her, after roasting it alive). This causes calamitous chaos as the arena audience runs in panic, and as Hizdahr shouts for the Meereenese guards to kill the dragon. Daenerys jumps down into the pit, throwing off the tokar she wears, to try and stop and save Drogon; in the novel, Barristan Selmy (still alive) shouts at Drogon, trying to draw the dragon’s attention toward him in hopes of saving the queen from the rampaging dragon. The show omits her use of a whip to force him to back down from her, and her leap onto his back in the novels is much less deliberate than on the show, motivated by a desire to pull a spear from it. Daenerys can hardly breathe or think as she acts, and then suddenly Drogon launches himself into the air without her prompting whereas on the show it seems she tells him to fly. It later transpires that one gout of flame from Drogon sets Daenerys’s hair on fire, a fact that she doesn’t even seem to realize as he carries her into the air.

    To reiterate, there is no attack from the sons of the harpy in the book as depicted here, and Hizdahr goes on to rule Meereen as king rather than be targetted and killed by them.

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.