Towards the beginning of season 5’s penultimate episode, “The Dance of Dragons,” Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram) is explaining the book of the same name to Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), her father’s last honest advisor. During a war between Targaryen factions, a knight decided to try to fool a dragon by using his shield as a mirror. But, as Davos sagely guesses, “the dragon saw a dumb man with a polished shield, and burnt him to a crisp.” It’s a fitting parable for a very sad episode of “Game of Thrones” that is all about people coming to the end of the delusions that have guided them, and recognizing the impossibility of contradictions they’ve been trying to sustain — sometimes at utterly dreadful cost.
North of Winterfell, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and Davos are coming to the end of their shared hope that Stannis can remain somehow independent of Melisandre (Carice van Houten) and the doctrines of the Lord of Light. Ramsay Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) sneak attack on Stannis’s camp makes Stannis desperate enough to choose the course he’s been avoiding: He will sacrifice Shireen. It’s a dreadful decision, and not one we see in Martin’s novels (at least not yet), but it’s critical to Stannis’s self-conception in a truly tragic way.
Stannis’s entire campaign has been built on a belief in his own chosenness that he believes helps his legal claim to the Iron Throne. In service of this belief, Stannis has prolonged the war that has already cost Westeros so much in blood, treasure, and strategic standing. He has fundamentally reshaped it through the deal he and Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) struck with the wildlings, arguing that humanity, not geography or custom, should be the qualification for citizenship in Westeros. To break faith with Melisandre on this issue would force Stannis to reckon with the possibility that that belief might be false.
If I were practicing Westerosi psychology, I’d probably argue that, painful as that reckoning might be, it’s probably not worse than watching your own daughter burn to death on your command. But David Nutter, who directed this episode, did a beautiful job with the sequence in Stannis’s camp, which took us through several successive losses of faith.
First, there is Davos’s last attempt to strike a bargain with Stannis. “At least let me take Shireen. A siege is no place for a little girl,” he asks his king quietly. “My family stays with me,” Stannis tells Davos, barely even able to look at him. Stannis may be behaving with characteristic rigidness. But this exchange, spoken between two men who know each other well enough not to need subtext, has a certain cold kindness. Stannis sends Davos away both to recruit support from the Wall and to prevent him from watching Shireen’s execution. And Stannis, recognizing his own failings as a father to the daughter who loves him so dearly that she unknowingly volunteers for her own death, gives Davos a chance to say goodbye to Shireen, to give her a toy stag, to promise her that he’ll return to hear the end of the story.
The next loss is Shireen’s. Nutter and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who wrote the episode, create a beautiful parallel with Stannis’s conversation with his daughter earlier in the season. As they’re locked in the same embrace they shared in Castle Black, Shireen echoes her father’s words from episode 4: “I’m the Princess Shireen of House Baratheon, and I’m your daughter.” But Nutter shoots what comes next with a plain and shocking starkness. As she walks through the snow, Shireen sees the stake that awaits her, then a man with a brand, then Melisandre herself. She calls for parents, who refuse to come to her. She lives to see her faith in her father become the agent of her destruction.
I can imagine that this scene, like the scene of Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) rape earlier this season, will be considered controversial. In both cases, Nutter and Jeremy Podesw (who directed the rape scene) choose to focus not on the agony of a young woman, but on the people around her. In this case, even more than the last, though, that decision denies us the opportunity to become — depending on your point of view — voyeurs or witnesses. It’s a choice that, frankly, I appreciate; I don’t need to see Sansa’s pain to know that she’s feeling it, and I don’t need to watch Shireen Baratheon, one of the few genuinely sweet souls we’ve seen on “Game of Thrones,” in her final, tortured moments.
I do think we need to see people responding to what Sansa and Shireen are experiencing, because more than simply watching pain, it lets us see the cost of their decisions. For Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), watching Sansa Stark be raped was a monstrous testament to what his arrogance has cost himself and others. For Selyse Baratheon (Tara Fitzgerald), who converted her husband Stannis to Melisandre’s teachings, her daughter’s violent sacrifice brought her to the boundary markers of her faith. As she asked Stannis to stop the spectacle, it was Stannis’s hardness even more than Shireen’s shrieks of pain that seemed to communicate to Selyse just what she’d wrought. And watching Selyse falter seemed, at least for a moment, to bring Stannis to a horrible realization. If Selyse’s faith, among the most rigid and fanatic we’ve seen on the show, can crack, then what sort of certainty does Stannis have to comfort him in the bitter coldness, and bitter guilt, of this inhuman decision?
North at the Wall, Jon Snow is trying to reckon with the partial disaster that was the Hardhome mission, even as another job that will test his ideals begins. “It was a failure,” he tells Sam (John Bradley) as the wildlings stream through the Wall, which, given Ser Alliser Thorne’s (Owen Teale) recalcitrance, is itself a real accomplishment. “It wasn’t,” Sam insists doughtily. “Every one of them is alive because of you and no one else.” But the real work continues. “I don’t think that fact is lost on them,” Jon says glumly, looking at the men of the Night’s Watch with dismay. Ser Alliser may have let Jon back through the Wall, but he clearly doesn’t have much faith in the cultural change Jon is trying to force through. “You have a good heart, Jon Snow,” Ser Alliser tells him, before turning even that into an insult. “It’ll get us all killed.”
In Braavos, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) has been trying to become no one, and has done a decent job in turning herself into an oyster seller. But when Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie) arrives in Braavos as part of Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) mission to the Iron Bank, Arya recognizes that just as she tucked away her old sword Needle, she hasn’t managed to cast off her old identity, especially when faced with one of the people on her kill list.
(Spoiler alert: The following paragraph references chapters from upcoming books in the series that George R.R. Martin has released to the public.) Readers of the books will have some sense of what seems likely to happen next, after Arya spies on Trant in a brothel. “Too old,” he rejects woman after woman. “Too old…Too old. Do you have what I want, or not?” Finally, the madam manages to produce a girl who seems young enough for Trant’s tastes, not much older than Arya herself. “You’ll have a fresh one for me tomorrow?” the rotten knight asks the madam, providing Arya with what seems like a potential opportunity. People who have been holding onto “Game of Thrones” by their fingernails may be queasy at the prospect of what might happen to Arya if she tries to disguise herself as a prostitute. But if the show, for once, hews to the chapters of unreleased books that Martin has been doling out to the reading public, Arya may finally give audiences the revenge fantasy some seem to feel hungry for.
Our time in Dorne wraps up fairly uneventfully, though with a series of tense conversations that seem to suggest disillusionment to come. Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig) still clings to the idea that he can preserve peace in his country by sending Myrcella Baratheon (Nell Tiger Free) home, with her fiancé Trystane Martell (Toby Sebastian) coming with her as half-hostage, half-member of the Small Council. After some defiant gestures, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) bends the knee to Doran, who warns her that “I believe in second chances. I don’t believe in third chances.” But whether she is giving him the illusion of what he wants in order to buy herself time for a suicidal last chance at revenge seems open to question. Dorne hasn’t been forced to make the kinds of stark choices that are taking place in the North, but it’s unclear how long the illusions will hold.
But at least one person’s been disabused of one of the central lies of his life. On his mission to Dorne, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has found out that both Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and Ellaria — the rare people in his life who feel little need to cater to Jaime’s self-deceptions — know that his love for Cersei is more than fraternal. “It’s always changing, who we’re supposed to love and who we’re not,” Ellaria tells him wistfully. “The only thing that stays the same is that we want who we want.” I suspect Jaime finds that sympathy more unnerving than comforting, and I’ll be curious to see what he does when he returns to King’s Landing. Freedom, however odd it might feel, has a way of making it harder for a man to step back into old roles.
And “The Dance of Dragons” ends with a disillusionment that, if it can’t quite match Stannis’s burning of his daughter, still has considerable pathos. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who staked her queenship on the idea that she could reform Meereen, finally reckons with the idea that she cannot. Though she’s wanted badly to believe that she could elevate the society in which she landed, the shared bloodlust of former masters and former slaves during the Great Games tells Dany otherwise. And when the Sons of the Harpy emerge from the crowd, this time killing Wise Masters as well as Unsullied, Dany finds that the politics of her opposition are more complicated than she had reckoned. Her feckless, faithless husband-to-be, Hizdhar zo Loraq (Joel Fry) is killed in the fighting, leaving Dany without an even slightly trustworthy emissary among the elite.
In a way, this week’s fight parallels last week’s face-off between Jon and the Night’s King. But because we know the characters in Meereen so much better, there are many more strong character moments in the midst of the fighting. We see the disgraced Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) save Dany from the Son of the Harpy threatening her, to her surprise and gratification. We see Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman), Dany’s advisor and lover, join forces with Jorah, a man he has reasons to distrust as a spy and a rival, to protect Dany in this dangerous moment. We see Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) kill to save Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) a season after he killed the woman he loved in jealousy and rage. We see Dany and Missandei take each other’s hands, and know in that moment just how profound their partnership is and how deep it runs.
And in the end, we see Dany touch the only wounded, frightened thing in Meereen she can truly heal with her love: Drogon, who has endured spears tearing holes in his wings to protect her. “You can end this,” Tyrion had begged Dany earlier during the matches in the Games, asking her to spare Jorah when he was threatened. “You cannot,” Hizdhar insisted. “You can,” Tyrion pushed back. Hizdhar turns out to be right, but not in the way he expected. Dany decides to flee the arena, and with it, her idea of what kind of queen she would be.
She may be dashing the ideal that helped pull Tyrion out of a suicidal depression, that led Jorah to the fighting pits, and that inspired Missandei to embrace the joys of a new kind of life. But by shaking off her intellectual and moral shackles, Dany may just find a new way to be queen. It’s a lesson her fiery predecessor in the North may have learned too late.