I have to admit, I never had such a hard time to keep my inner book reader at bay as I had in this episode. So many things are changing so fast, it’s hard not to cry foul at any given minute and to separate the simply new stuff from the foul one. On a theoretical level this was always to be expected, and I have myself confidently predicted that this would happen, coddled into a false sense of security by the idea that it would just mean that characters end up in the same locations by different routes. This naïve idea died screaming on a pyre this episode.
But let’s start as we are wont in the far north, where Jon arrives with his new wildling guests at the Wall. The location takes a back seat this episode, just showing us the immediate fallout from the last episode and letting things ripen a bit in anticipation of a certain encounter between Oly and Jon. And really, if there was any doubt left in anyone who would be the culprit, it’s over now. When Jon has his staring contest with Alliser Thorne over the 700 feet height of the Wall, the last chance for the First Ranger to mutiny is consciously foregone, much like Bowen Marsh’s in the books. Thorne might not agree and even dislike Jon, but he’s a man of the Watch, and he obeys his Lord Commander. Had he been part of Mormont’s Great Ranging, no way he would have joined the mutineers no matter how much he disapproved. It’s the same here, and it’s a shame that his character was underutilized in the last seasons so much. Owen Teale has done his level-best to courageously play against the instinct of the writer’s crew to make him into a stereotypical drill instructor type.
Meanwhile, we see the wildlings pass through the gate. They’re visible worn out and exhausted, which can best be seen with Wun Wun and his colossal sigh at the hatred he sees from the black brothers. The exhaustion is mirrored in Jon, who, in his mind, failed doubly. Not only did he lose the allegiance of his own tribe, he didn’t even succeed in his mission. No amount of pep talk from Sam will change that, and the withering of Jon’s smile when he sees Oly’s stare tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in him. This, folks, is good television. Perhaps someone over at AMC’ “The Walking Dead” watches and takes a cue, but I doubt it.
With that, we’re going further south, where Ramsay’s attack is happening off-screen. His bluster from last episode that he would only need 20 men to kill Stannis and his army proves to be a little bit more substantial, as it doesn’t entail the direct attack on Stannis, as it sounded back then, but the burning of his food supplies. This is actually clever, and it sets up what is surely the most controversial storyline since Sansa’s rape. It is also the moment I had my hardest time yet of consoling my inner book reader with what was happening on screen, and took me about an hour of contemplation after I watched the episode to come to terms with what happened. So, let’s take a step back and consider it.
My first reaction was to cry foul. I mean, this is essentially a character assassination. Book Stannis would never, ever burn Shireen (Melisandre is another matter entirely). I had at first a hard time of seeing how Stannis was now any different from the Boltons. Who am I going to root for when they finally clash? The maniac who flays people or the maniac who burns his own daughter? But. But. But.
Let’s face it: the Stannis of the show was never the Stannis of the book, which is an often criticized fact. Rambling about this might have made some sense in season 2, but we’re in season 5 now, so this is basically a fact. And one has to say – the whole scene has been carefully constructed without any flaws. The decision for Stannis was set up over several of the past episodes, with Ramsay now providing the trigger. Stannis deliberately shut out his conscience in the person of Davos by sending him away on a mission that might even constitute a Pink Letter situation (though I kind of doubt this) and talked to his daughter, who, unwittingly, provided him with the absolution and historical reference frame he needed: the Dance of the Dragons, where people had to choose their allegiance (or were given it to them by sheer force of destiny).
Stannis’ decision to murder Shireen in order to fulfill his destiny is curiously at odds with his muted sense of manifest destiny in the show, as he still talks of taking King’s Landing and his rights a lot, which leaves the urgency he feels solely in the responsibility of Stephen Dillane, who was to convey it. All the actors deliver in the scene (although Melisandre is almost deliberately understated in her fanaticism this time, leaving the center stage to Stannis), and Dillane’s wide, fanatical eyes tell you everything – except what he is so fanatical about. The way the scene reads is that he wants to become king really bad. The next episode will decide whether or not that holds true. If it does, then Stannis is no better than the Boltons, and he can freeze to death in the snows for all I care. They really need to tie his story in with the larger narrative of the Others and the end of the days approaching (as I assume they wanted), because right now, this isn’t clear enough. I’m also not sure whether it was a good idea to let Selyse crack under the strain. It doesn’t make her much more likeable, and it seems to feed into the pervasive topic of women being weaker than men, especially if they are mothers. Like Selyse’s fanaticism can’t hold up as well as Stannis’. I might be overreacting, but I didn’t quite see the point. Perhaps Selyse is falling out with Stannis, I don’t know. Let’s wait and see.
Winterfell is again not a point of reference this episode, which makes me wonder whether or not there will be any larger finale resolving the current situation. Will Ramsay die? Will Winterfell be attacked? Given that Drogon flew away this episode already (which I hadn’t really anticipated), there certainly is some room, but on the other hand, we haven’t seen King’s Landing at all this episode, which would leave any resolution in the North hard pressed for time. So far, we have Cersei’s walk and Jon’s assassination as two major events. A third one might be too much.
With this, we’re making the jump to Dorne, where finally Alexander Siddig gets more than ten seconds of screen time. Not even he can salvage much of that storyline, though. Jaime is called before Doran, where he is simply bantering with Myrcella, Ellaria, Doran and Trystane, but it doesn’t really work as most likely intended. Instead of being Jaime being charming as he was with Brienne, he just seems out of touch with his situation. It is just a re-hash of a previous storyline that for some reason works, without anyone even knowing why, much like if Tyrion for some reason had won his second trial-by-combat as well. Luckily, Doran’s patience is absorbed with Ellaria instead of Jaime, who is almost comically defiant, a defiance which will inexplicably be gone later when she swears allegiance to Doran who suddenly threatens to kill her if she doesn’t. Can we make up our mind about this already? This seems to set up the same kind of reveal as in “A Feast for Crows”, when we learned that Doran was in truth conspiring to bring the Targaryens back, but this isn’t a possibility here because no Dornish are on their way to Meereen. I have the fear that this storyline will simply be dragged along into season 6 and hopefully relegated the same amount of screen time and importance as it was this season.
Anyway, Jaime also manages to free Bronn, who watches pointless sexy talk between the Sandsnakes as well as their totally badass hand-slapping games. At least I imagine someone thought all this cringe-worthy dialogue would make them badass, because it really doesn’t. Bronn fits in nicely with the general sit-com atmosphere at Doran’s place and gets hit in the mouth by Areoh Hotah. All that’s missing is the background laughter from the audience. We then fast track to where the books are: Myrcella and Trystane are sent to King’s Landing (and I can only assume the Sandsnakes and Ellaria too) to take up Oberyn’s Small Council seat. Yeah, well. Perhaps Toby Sebastian will bring something to the role that I don’t see yet, but I’m not holding my hopes up.
With that, we’re sailing across the Narrow Sea to Braavos, where Mace Tyrell and Meryn Trant arrive. Arya, just minutes before the completion of her objective in poisoning the insurance guy, is of course distracted and synchs 100% while eavesdropping and stalking Mace (who has to suffer to yet another swing at his buffoonity by singing in the streets and embarrassing his host, Shylock Holmes). Meryn Trant, who is guaranteed to be Arya’s victim in the following episode, is doing his level best to remind us why Arya has to abandon the mission that Jaqen gave her. Not only is he looking about really evil-ish, he’s also mean to his men and a pedophile, because you don’t remember him killing Syrio back in season 1 and therefore the capacity for hate may have been emptied. It’s a sledge-hammer of storytelling, but it works.
Let’s go out on a limb and say that Arya will be the fresh prostitute next episode, killing him. Martin essentially spoiled it in his “Mercy” chapter. There are some nice details in the scene, though. Not only do we get a nod to the various “Cat of the Canals”-scenes in “A Feast for Crows” in the brothel (in which the prostitutes display an unusual level of cloth for “Game of Thrones”-standards). The theme of the episode – about the hard choices that rulers have to make – finds its low-level equivalent in the brothel keeper, who has to decide whether to make the money that Trant offers or to save her kitchen girl. Stannis, the brothel keeper and Dany all decide in the same manner, taking the instant gratification over what would be the right thing. Deftly done, “Game of Thrones”.
Speaking of Dany, the finale of the episode belongs to her. In a wise budget decision, the pit of Meereen has a certain Colosseum vibe to it, and when Dany opens the games, it sure looks epic. That’s the feeling you’re aiming for here. The first fight then is only a backdrop to an ethical debate between Tyrion and Hizdahr, with Daario’s cock-measuring thrown in as a distraction. Hizdahr and Tyrion both make good points, while Dany sits there and visibly suffers under the morally bankrupt spectacle that Hizdahr has arranged for. Tyrion’s comment about Tywin liking Hizdahr is so on the mark that I can only applaud the writers. The dialogue in this scene is excellent, and the difficult questions of how death and glory relate to each other and how they’re justified in reaching the end that maybe you but not the people think desirable are treated with the respect they deserve, condensing much of what makes “A Dance with Dragons” such a superb book into a single scene. This is then mirrored when Drogon enters the pit, burning enemies, allies and innocent bystanders alike, with Dany again being torn about what to do. When she finally decides to mount Drogon both in an attempt to rescue herself and the people of Meereen, the whole thing comes to a close. Just look at Tyrion’s eyes when he watches the dragon burning all those people – he knows what happens when “Fire and Blood” will come back to Westeros, and him trying to reign in Dany’s darker impulses will almost certainly be a running theme in the next season.
However, not everything is good in Meereen. In a not even remotely flattering way, Dany’s storyline is currently mirroring that of Jon in season 2 and 3: people are constantly telling us that she is the queen deserving of their unwavering allegiance, the one that will save everyone, but there is nothing on the screen to tell us why. It really echoes all the “I like you, boy” that Jon got from Mance and Tormund for no reason at all. It took until this season for Harrington to really show us why anyone would follow Jon, and at the moment, it’s unclear why people like Tyrion would follow Dany. We know that the disenfranchised will follow her well enough, but that’s not the question.
Anyway, I’m also not sold on the fight choreography of the deathmatch that Jorah took part in. Even my wife was bewildered at the constant swirls that Jorah makes and that should get him killed thrice over, and while him lying on the floor awaiting a thrust by his waterdancer enemy gave Tyrion, Hizdahr and Dany a good opportunity to hash out the limits of power, there was no feeling of internal logic to anything happening down there. Does Dany have to give the thumbs up/down? Can she even? Why does the guy wait? Why is the other guy allowed to stab him while Dany makes up her mind (or not)? This doesn’t make any sense.
I’m not sold on the attack by the Harpy, either. For one, the Unsullied once again look like fucking idiots. How do you ever want to sell them as an elite fighting force again if they can’t manage to screen HALF OF THE AUDIENCE for weapons and really not that inconspicuous masks? Or hold their own in an arena with plenty of room against a few amateurs with daggers? Why do they even attack and kill Hizdahr? The whole politics of it, the complicatedness of the situation that presents a proper quagmire for our actors is all out of the window, for the cheap thrill of an identifiable enemy (granted, the masks and the hissing work really well). What will the new triumvirate of Tyrion, Daario and Jorah do next episode? What argument is there even against either eradicating or abandoning Meereen if even the most painful compromise doesn’t work?
This was one truly uneven episode. The writers aimed high for it, trying to hit all the major themes and tying them together, but they only partially succeeded. In several cases, the ball is dropped, the target missed, the result too muddled to be recognizable anymore. This doesn’t mean that there is no hope left; the show did manage to salvage the whole storyline at the Wall this season, for example. But it’s a damn shame to watch talented people failing this way. Well, at least they tried. Not every bold move is paying off all the time, and it’s not like George R. R. Martin himself would be a stranger to this experience.