I suppose the thinking went something like this: If we are going to have a father burn his only child to death, it should happen early in the episode, with enough time remaining for a dragon to swoop from the sky like a heavenly flamethrower. That way it can burn away not just a legion of stabby terrorists but also the persistent stink of that first awful conflagration. A cleansing fire, in other words, to smolder throughout the workweek, leaving one blessedly free of the choking smoke of cynicism and cruelty that can seep into your clothes and linger. Like the ancient scribes of yore, we want to remember the dragons dancing, not the terrible things that were actually going on around them.
It’s sound reasoning, and it arrived wrapped in some elegant, utterly unapologetic storytelling. Those final moments in Meereen were absolutely thrilling: Epic in scope and terrifying in circumstance. For the second straight week, an hour of Game of Thrones ended with what appeared to be a full-fledged riot of hopelessness. Daenerys’s bloody lesson in the limits of man- (or in this case, woman-) imposed order was an unsettling aftershock of Jon’s confrontation with an army — and an opponent — that feeds on death and respects no living structure or authority. At once, everything is falling apart and everything, at last, is happening. When Drogon arrived, circling chaotically like an Uber car in Queens, he was borne on the winds of exhilaration that only this show can generate. We knew that wind when it was just a humble breeze, four years ago, in Season 1. We appreciate how far the characters have come because we’ve walked every step of the kingsroad along with them.
I even want to give David Benioff and D.B. Weiss extra credit here, for committing the crime and then arguing, in absentia, for their own exoneration. When Tyrion quarrels with Hizdahr — after the nightmare of House Baratheon and just before the fighting pits collapsed into wholesale slaughter — the smallest Lannister gives voice to the noble viewers who remain, in the words of our Bohemian friends in Dorne, “unbowed, unbent, unbroken” despite Thrones‘ unending cavalcade of suffering. “There’s always been more than enough death in the world for my taste,” the Imp says. “I can do without it in my leisure time.” Put out, Hizdahr huffs, “What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?” To which Tyrion replies, “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when ‘what is’ has worked out in your favor.”
In other words, check your privilege, Death Merchant. As I suggested last week, there’s a way to watch Game of Thrones not as a nihilistic doom spiral but as a real-time documentary of Hell’s Ragnarok; it’s not a celebration of terrible things happening, but a final spasm of the bad old ways before something radical and new arrives to take their place. After Thrones’s better episodes and in my better moments, I like to subscribe to this view. I even caught a glimpse of it last night as Daenerys ghosted on her friends and rode her magic dragon to unimaginable new heights and Tyrion, so often the audience’s surrogate for moments of otherworldly wonder, stared as if the sky itself had cracked open. Perhaps it had. We’ll know soon enough.
But I can’t get the acrid fumes of what happened to Shireen out of my throat so easily and, I would argue, neither should you. Look, I make no grand ultimatums here. I am drawing no lines in the sand, Ellaria or otherwise. I’m a dedicated watcher of the Thrones and that is not going to change. (Though if Olly the squire shivs Jon Snow next week in true Kenard/Omar fashion, I reserve the right to reconsider.) What happened in the frozen camp outside of Winterfell deserves a thorough examination, however. And it’s hard to find anything about it that’s particularly worthy.
Before you stop me if you’ve heard this one before, let me stop you first: Despite what many of Game of Thrones’s legions of devotees like to argue, it is not, in fact, a “medieval story.” It is not received wisdom from another age. Though it has the trappings of an earlier Earth, it is actually a contemporary story and should be considered as one. And as such, I fail to see what the horrific immolation of a teenage girl added to the narrative in any way, shape, or form. What I do understand is what it took away: a pleasant performer in Kerry Ingram, any whiff of empathy or support for Stannis, and Game of Thrones’s torrid streak of 13 and a half days without a violence-toward-girls incident. For God’s sake — not you, Lord of Light, you smug asshole — even Iphigenia’s fate remained unclear! Terrible things can and should happen on Game of Thrones, just as they should in all adult drama. But the more Benioff and Weiss hammer the same chords, the less they sound like musicians and the more they remind me of Cousin Orson, another one of their inventions who, in retrospect, seems like one more clever, meta way to shrug off criticism.
Burning girls alive, raping them, or, like Meryn Trant in the Braavosi whorehouse, buying their bodies like ground meat in a butcher shop, all to demonstrate the evil that men do, seems like a lot of repetitive effort to reinforce an obvious, ugly point. It’s been 49 hours now. I think everyone gets the picture. We can laugh it off or make excuses or point and squee at the giants, but this stuff adds up. It’s bad for the soul. It hardens the heart. What does it say about Game of Thrones that it can make time for the touching reunion between a blonde queen and a CGI dragon but it can’t find a way to illustrate basic human-to-human love?
It’s a bummer to harp on this point yet again because, outside of the blast zone, I found much to like in “The Dance of Dragons.” First and foremost, of course, was the possibility that the great Ser Davos will march straight to Castle Black and then park himself there, thus granting one of Thrones’s rare decent characters an escape from the frying pan–fire collision that is House Baratheon vs. House Bolton. (Now that he’s active, does Drogon make house calls? I’d love to see him do a flyby and burn this whole story line to ashes.) And speaking of Castle Black, Jon and Tormund’s sort of homecoming was striking. (Was Tormund clutching that girl because she’s a little Giantsbane? Or because she finally had the guts to tell him he ought to be wearing a hat?) All that effort last week for the salvation of so few people — and at the cost of such burning resentment among the Night’s Watch. “You have a good heart, Jon Snow,” Ser Alliser said. “It’ll get us all killed.” Knowing Thrones, this is probably correct. But still, I loved both the line and the sentiment behind it. Fiction, like Melisandre, demands sacrifice. But I appreciate the way Jon, alone among the Thrones leads, has learned from his experiences and taken humane, decisive action in response to them. Call me old fashioned, but this sort of hero-building still matters, even if Westerosi champions tend to end up losing their heads or revealing the insides of them. It’s not that Jon has a “good” heart. It’s that Benioff and Weiss have done the work necessary to show us that heart — and not in a gory, Dothraki sort of way, either.
That said, the temporary mercy tour extended to Dorne, too. By now it’s clear that the southernmost kingdom of Westeros is a land blessed with gorgeous architecture, liberal social attitudes and, at most, nine to 10 people. (Seriously, you can CGI an entire coliseum, but you can’t afford a different palace guard?) Prince Doran revealed himself this week, and once he was given a chance to speak, it turned out Oberyn’s brother is a pretty savvy guy: breaking bread with Jaime, freeing the Sand Snakes, and allowing Bronn to survive with only a minor attempt to smash his face. I was quite taken with the Ellaria-Jaime scene, in which she found him struggling like Cersei to fill his father’s shoes, not to mention his desk. (Jaime’s clumsy handwriting called to mind Davos’s final words to Shireen, in which he thanked her for “teaching [him] to be a grown-up.” Everyone alive can be parented, at practically any age, even if one’s actual parents show no interest in doing it.) In her perverse, underbaked way — you call that a rebellion? I call it four ladies frowning in a hallway — Ellaria was echoing the strongest, most positive chorus in George R.R. Martin’s Song. By admitting that Jaime might not be responsible for the actions of his family and that it’s possible to make choices based on individuals, not archaic traditions, she was tracing out the borders of the brave new world that Tyrion wants to see and that Jon wants to help create.
After the massive calamity of last week, I feared that Game of Thrones’s apocalyptic endgame might bury its smaller stories like an avalanche. But the truth is, I needn’t have worried. The rise of the Night’s King does make minor skirmishes like the one between Stannis and the Boltons seem even more wasteful and petty than they already did. (And it makes unnecessary casualties like Shireen sting even more.) But not even an army of the dead can stamp out the vibrancy of life, especially when that life has been cultivated and cared for as opposed to shuttled about like so many figurines on the Baratheon war board. It’s good, wholehearted writing that causes us to care for Arya, even when she’s shucking up on the other side of the world, or Tyrion when he’s pledged his wit to someone who, dragons aside, has yet to prove particularly worthy of it. Fire is exciting and terrifying and can easily consume anything in its path. But no matter what we’re watching, audiences care chiefly about characters, not kindling. Any joker can sit back and watch the world burn. The mark of a great storyteller is someone able to marshal all those dangerous flames and use them to illuminate, not destroy.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no immediate intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. OK? OK!
Further note: Any questions? We will answer them! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and come back tomorrow!