Monday, 8 June 2015

Game of Thrones: Season Five II - The Dance of Dragons

The previous eight reviews can be found here.

9. The Dance of Dragons

Game of Thrones is infamous for it's ninth episodes. The show has been met with, and this season has continued to garner, critical acclaim, despite occasionally drifting away from its real focus. But the show's fifth outing has been it's most polarizing; whilst the opening half of the season forced the narrative into a backseat in favour of strong thematic ideas and bucket-loads of character development, episode seven onward brought the pace back to season four standard, with every individual narrative strand lurching forward simultaneously. As expected, Game of Thrones sustained this effortlessly, with episode seven giving us a character meeting audiences have desired for years, while episode eight presented arguably the show's greatest battle sequence yet. Whilst the former was a brilliant narrative development and set up a potentially great story, the latter felt different somehow. The events that took place in Hardhome felt akin to any other season's episode nine standard stuff. This only begged the question; If that was forced back to episode eight, what have they saved for episode nine?

The show's run of ninth episodes have been consistently excellent, either relying on a shocking and emotional character death or an elongated battle sequence. The Dance of Dragons, whose title is a play on the latest novel in George R.R. Martin's source material series, takes the two conventional episode nine structures and mashes them together, not unlike the ways in which Aegon and Rhaenyra Targaryen fought in the titular Dance of Dragons, set decades before the show's time frame. This historic battle provides the framework for the episodes two most notable scenes; Shireen's sacrifice and Dany's reopening of the fighting pits, both of which I'll get to later. There's bound to be controversy surrounding the former, a narrative twist I would like to immediately defend, but if the Game of Thrones following has any justice left, no-one will attack the events of the episode's closing sequence. Because that was just awesome.

But within these two large stories (Dany doesn't appear until the final act, and then fills the remainder of the episode), we're also made to cut back and forth between Braavos and Dorne, which ultimately play out as episode filler, despite being consistently engaging. Arya's story has felt like a training montage this season, so it was worthwhile to finally see her faced with a difficult decision. She could abandon her training there and then to cross a name from her hit list, but would she drop everything she's learnt over the past nine weeks? Hopefully this will be answered in next week's finale, but I for one would like to see Arya use the poison on Meryn Trant, I don't believe they can keep Arya's story interesting should she remain as part of the Faceless Men. Dorne was the episode's weakest moment, an element that audiences are becoming far too accustomed to now. Nothing here was actively bad this time around, it just failed to stand out against the larger and more compelling narratives. Here's hoping there is some real development there next week if we are to be returning to Dorne for season six.

The Dance of Dragons hits its stride after we leave the Wall and Braavos and Dorne, as the episode's final half hour lies solely with Stannis and Dany. This episode saw Stannis suffer an attack from Ramsay and his men overnight, leading to him succumbing to Melisandre's cruel plan to sacrifice his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light. This is unquestionably a horrific ordeal to watch, and director David Nutter's notion of filming the faces of those watching rather than the victim suffering isn't a far cry away from the framing of Sansa's rape back in episode six. It's already been proclaimed that this was entirely out of character, for Stannis to sacrifice and burn his own daughter at the stake, but I fail to believe this. Stannis was, after all, introduced as a man so insistent on taking the throne that he murdered his own (innocent) brother in cold blood, and willingly sent hundreds of men to their death after the wildfire explosion in Blackwater Bay. Every time Stannis has been backed into a corner, he has relied on and taken Melisandre's advice, and it is entirely justified that he would do so again, now that he's in his most difficult corner yet.

Earlier in this season, Stannis and Shireen had a heartfelt moment in which Stannis told her the story of how he saved her from Greyscale, and proudly declared her as his daughter and someone whom he loves. Perhaps bis uneventful time the Wall softened viewers to Stannis, a man who, let's face it, has shown repeated signs of bordering on insanity. When placed in that context, it is Stannis and Shireen's nicer scene that feels more out of character than his sacrifice of her. The show rarely portrays Stannis in a positive light (there isn't much there to portray, after all), and for him to burn his own daughter at the stake feels entirely true to both his character and his motives, as difficult as it is to watch. And that it is, I'd place this only a fraction below the emotional weight of the infamous Red Wedding, this time two seasons ago. We knew what Stannis planned as soon as he sent Davos away, so for Shireen to unknowingly offer herself up for the sacrifice was a heartbreaking scene, followed only by her sudden realisation and ultimate demise. Screaming for her parents whilst she burns alive, Kerry Ingram (Shireen) gave the performance of the season in the show's most emotionally devastating sequence in years; a moment that will not be forgotten easily.

But it is followed by a sequence that, whilst far from the emotional weight of Shireen's death, is arguably the most intense fight the show has offered. And this is coming just one week after Hardhome, which, despite being the larger and more surprising fight, didn't have anywhere near as much at stake. After Jorah won his battle in the fighting pits, he throws a spear directly towards Dany, only for it to impale an incoming Son of the Harpy warrior. This immediately escalates into a full blown fight, with Dany and her company stranded in the middle of the arena, surrounded by attackers. As Dany takes Missandei's hand (the shot that stuck in my mind the most), she closes her eyes, and then we hear it. Dany and Drogon's relationship has been rocky for a while now, but it only seems right that he would come to save her in her most dire moment. Drogon fends off the attackers while taking a few spears himself, but when Dany approaches him he screeches at her. This was the moment that both Dany and the viewer understood the same thing; if she doesn't get him out of there, he will kill everyone, including the likes of Tyrion, Jorah, and Missandei. In what I can only describe as the most breathtaking moment of the entire show, Dany climbs atop of Drogon and leads him to the sky.

And, for some reason, I found this really emotionally affecting. Dany has been my favourite character in this show for quite some time now, and to see her and Drogon together in such a way hit me harder than I imagined it would. They fly off together, leaving her company (and the audience) stood in awe at what they've just seen. This has been a slow season for Game of Thrones, but it was needed after the bloodbath that was season four. Every ounce of character work and narrative setup has led to this episode, and it exceeded any expectation I had of it. Every now and then, a television episode comes along that is all entertaining, thrilling, emotional and shocking. The Dance of Dragons managed this seamlessly, delivering the best hour of television so far this year. With just one episode to go before Game of Thrones leaves our screens for another year, the show has but one hour left to wrap up this season and leave us mindlessly gaping in awe in await of another superb run, and with so many plot strands still in the balance, this will be a difficult feat to pull off. But do you know what? I don't doubt them for a second.

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