Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, executive editor Matt Yglesias, climate change writer David Roberts, politics writer Andrew Prokop, and deputy culture editor Jen Trolio. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Jen Trolio: Episodes like "The Dance of Dragons" are why I'm beginning to think about Game of Thrones as a collection of engineered moments, rather than as an ongoing epic. I'll come right out and say it: I didn't much care for this jam-packed penultimate installment of season five, and not just because of the Shireen stuff (which I'll get to in a minute).
The follow-up to last week's excellent "Hardhome" felt like showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss saying, "Welp, we always do something big in episode nine to lead into the season finale, and we have to top that insane White Walker battle in terms of getting people talking, so let's go with burning a child alive and putting Dany in grave danger before letting her fly away on a dragon." I get the sense they're starting to focus too much on crossing off plot developments from a checklist rather than weaving them into the story organically.
This is a fairly new opinion for me; back when Ned lost his head, or "merriment" devolved into massacre at the Red Wedding, I didn't come away thinking, "Bring on the internet outcry!" And perhaps I'm prone to this line of reasoning simply because I'm well aware of Game of Thrones' history with internet outcry. But more and more, it seems like Benioff and Weiss are trolling fans and baiting critics with fodder for hot takes — especially in instances when the events of the show wildly diverge from what happens in the books.
Take Ramsay's rape of Sansa, for instance. It didn't reveal anything new about Ramsay, Sansa, or the brutal world they live in, and it largely seemed designed to stir controversy. Many viewers, myself included, are still wondering how it will ultimately serve the story.
But now, while we wait for something new to happen on the Sansa/Ramsay front, we've got the sacrifice of an innocent child to argue about. Stannis's decision to have his daughter Shireen tied to a stake and set aflame in deference to the Lord of Light was devastating — and it certainly demolished his recent "good dad" status — but I can't help feel as though the balance of the ordeal was a bit off.
There was so much buildup, between Davos and Stannis each sharing a heartfelt moment with the girl and then the slow processional to the pyre, only to culminate in a somewhat hasty "ceremony" and, once the fire was lit, cutaways to Stannis's subtle sorrow and Selyse's anguish while Shireen screamed offscreen. Then we were off to Meereen for the big Sons of the Harpy showdown at the fighting pits, because there's no time for sustained emotional impact when thar be dragons on the horizon!
There's no question that the Harpys' attempt on Dany's life and her escape via fire-breathing beast, to say nothing of the potential deaths of Tyrion, Jorah, and Missandei, were supposed to inspire awe and edge-of-your-seat tension by way of a big, episode-ending set piece. However, not only did the fighting pit scenes undercut the gravity of Stannis's murder of Shireen, they were even a bit boring at times.
Yeah, I said it. While there was plenty of spectacle — nearly 20 minutes' worth of hand-to-hand combat, a sudden (and weirdly comical) beheading, dramatic music, another Harpy ambush, Dany's potential assassination, heroics from Tyrion and Jorah, and the grand and timely entrance of a day-saving dragon made sure of that — there was also a lot of clumsy movement and pacing, manufactured peril, and bizarrely slow running on the part of supposedly panicked targets. For every thrilling highlight (Jorah chucking that spear at Dany's box and impaling the Harpy who was sneaking up behind her), there was a longing stare or a melodramatic pause that lasted just a few beats too long (Jorah sure had time for a lot of charged eye contact with Dany when he should've been concentrating on not getting himself killed, didn't he?).
There were some parts of the battle where the urgency just seemed so fake, no matter how many times Daario yelled, "Protect your queen!" Each time a would-be killer advanced on one of our heroes, the camera would linger on an "I'm about to kill you" smirk from the weapon-brandishing attacker or a worried glance from the victim that would allow someone else to show up and literally stab the villain in the back. I couldn't believe that just a week ago, I was wincing and recoiling left and right as the infinitely more intense battle of Hardhome played out on my TV screen; whereas the tumultuous and multi-directional clash between wights, White Walkers, wildlings, and Night's Watch rangers pulled me in and made me truly fear for Jon Snow, this week's Harpy brawl was an anti-climactic conflict that didn't pose as much of a threat as it should have. It was almost a letdown that no one except Dany's new hubby actually died, beyond all those nameless Unsullied fighters, of course.
Speaking of which, what about the Unsullied? Aren't they supposed to be super tough and virtually unstoppable? Why do they have so much trouble mobilizing and fighting back in chaotic situations? It makes me wonder whether the Harpys are indeed a scary force to be reckoned with, or the Unsullied just aren't as skilled as they were made out to be — and at this point in the season, we shouldn't have to ask.
To some degree, all the Dany stuff seemed like inconsequential filler intended to do little more than showcase some fight choreography and fiery CGI while reuniting Dany with her problem child Drogon and recreating the moment from the books when she flies away on his back. (Did anyone else get a Harry Potter vibe from Drogon's appearance, as if he showed up because he could sense Dany was in danger?)
Ultimately, Shireen's death and the Harpys' attack on Dany were forced to compete for screen time, and both were shortchanged by the fact that Game of Thrones is seemingly becoming more self-conscious in its continued efforts to be known as a "shocking" TV show. I don't know what next week's season five finale has in store, but I sure hope it concentrates less on staging "big" events and more on how the ones we've already witnessed will affect the overall story in season six.
What did you guys think of "The Dance of Dragons"? What do you want to see in the season finale?
Read the recap. Come back for more discussion throughout the week.