"Game of Thrones" Season 5, episode 9, "The Dance of Dragons," had to follow the impressive "Hardhome." Not only did the episode deliver on its promise, "The Dance of Dragons" exceeded expectations by focusing on emotion and powerful moments for some of its main characters.
Warning: "Game of Thrones" Season 5 spoilers and "A Song of Ice and Fire" discussion ahead.
Daenerys' Flight To Freedom
This was one of the worst kept secrets of "Game of Thrones" Season 5. While Tyrion's arrival in Meereen and Ser Barristan's death were departures from George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire," Daenerys' storyline followed the book's path. "Game of Thrones" streamlined her time in Meereen, but few had any doubts the season would not include Daenerys' departure from the fighting pit on the back of Drogon.
Meereen's fighting pits are open, but Daenerys takes no pleasure from the sport. There's some interesting discussion about who will win or what's the right answer when it comes to bloodshed. Tyrion and Hizdahr zo Loraq spar intellectually about the merits of what is successful and what should be successful. While the old way may have led to riches, that doesn't mean it was the right way. While Dany's inner circle remains opposed to the fighting pits, the people are easily won over by the bloodshed.
Jorah is once again fighting for his queen and we get to see what the old warrior can do in battle. He's not the skilled warrior Ser Barristan was, but Jorah has heart and is resourceful in battle. Jorah is bloodied and battered, but he has survived to the last round of combat with a Meereen champion. Some quick thinking and agility earns him a killing blow, but the Sons of the Harpy have returned and begin killing everyone inside the fighting pits.
Hizdahr is killed and Jorah is back to his queen's side as the threat consumes the fighting pit. The Sons completely outnumber the remaining Unsullied and it seems like death is inevitable until a scream from above. Drogon has returned and is breathing fire. He's huge and evens up the fight, but he may not be enough to protect her entirely. In a desperate act, Daenerys climbs onto his back and rides him away from the Fighting Pit. Tyrion looks on in awe, but there are plenty of unfinished business in Meereen.
The Fires Claim Another Victim
Melisandre witnesses the fires that devastate morale and create a huge setback in Stannis' march toward Winterfell. The attack on Stannis' camp forces his hand and he sends Davos back to Castle Black for supplies and horses. Shireen is reading "The Dance of Dragons" and the death of Ser Byron Swann. The story she tells Davos is the one where Ser Byron Swann foolishly thinks he can hide behind his shield and kill Syrax. Swann was trying to copy Serwyn of the Mirror Shield's plan to use the dragon's reflection as a decoy.
Before he parts, Ser Davos gives Shireen a present and he is rightly worried for her safety. Story time continues, this time with Stannis. The Dance of Dragons comes up again, this time focusing on the larger civil war between Aegon II and Rhaenyra, which saw both killed by the end and Aegon III crowned king.
Stannis talks about his duty and how he can't turn away from his current path. The stories Shireen tells -- and the general themes of this episode -- are pointed looks at foolhardy decisions that lead to death. She agrees to help her father in any way she can, but that means a sacrifice to the Lord of Light. Unfortunately, Shireen does not realize what she agreed to and she pleads for her mother and father to intervene. The sight of her daughter being burned at the stake is too much for Selyse Baratheon, but several guards stop her before she can help. Stannis stands silently while the screams of his daughter are heard in the background.
It's a terrible ending and one that may destroy any goodwill for Stannis. Sure, he may have the rightful claim to the Iron Throne, but what's the cost. The quest has destroyed his family, and his army is starving and stuck in a blizzard. Is serving the Red God really worth it, and does Melisandre really see the truth in her fires?
Setting Up For The Finale
"The Dance of Dragons" smartly focused on two major storylines and did enough to set up the "Game of Thrones" Season 5 finale. Jon Snow, Tormund, Wun Wun the giant and hundreds of Wildlings arrive at the gates of Castle Black. While it looks like Alliser Thorne may not be too happy about their arrival, he does the right thing and opens the gates. Jon thinks he failed in his rescue mission, but there may be other concerns with the Night's Watch. There are plenty of stares and men who would not be considered allies of Jon Snow. Alliser admits Jon is noble and good-hearted, but the compliment comes with a dagger at the end.
Over in Dorne, Jaime Lannister meets Prince Doran, Princess Myrcella Baratheon, Prince Tyrstane Martell and Ellaria Sand. Prince Doran decides to send Myrcella and Trystane back to King's Landing with Jaime. Bronn is set free but receives an elbow from Areo Hotah for his troubles. Ellaria swears her allegiance to Prince Doran and she extends something of a peace offering to Jaime. Her speech goes back to choosing what's right for yourself and not what's right for everyone.
Across the Narrow Seas, Lana of the Canals is distracted by the arrival of Mace Tyrell and Ser Meryn Trant. The knight of the Kingsguard is on Arya's kill list, but that has no place now that she is serving an apprenticeship with the Faceless Men. It looks like Arya will have to settle an old score and complete her mission.
"A Song of Ice and Fire" Discussion
-- Shireen's death has not happened in "ASOIAF," so this is a bit of shock for readers and viewers. Many were hoping this would be a way to show Stannis has a heart, but it serves to show just how consumed he is with winning the Iron Throne. Selyse was never a popular character, but she may have won a few fans after "The Dance of Dragons."
-- Hizdahr's death is another shock for readers. Many suspected he was behind the Sons of the Harpy, but that's not the case in "Game of Thrones." Hizdahr is still imprisoned, but alive in Martin's novels. Does his death serve as a spoiler for "The Winds of Winter" or is "Game of Thrones" going a different route?