The Most Horrifying Game of Thrones Death Yet
Our roundtable discusses “The Dance of Dragons,” the ninth episode of the fifth season.
Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
Orr: Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
George R. R. Martin has said that Robert Frost’s brief, Dante-inspired poem in turn provided inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire, and never has this lineage been half as evident as over the past two episodes of this season. Last week at Hardhome, we saw the chilling, remorseless hate of the Night’s King; this week, we watched the burning desire of Stannis (resulting in arguably the most disturbing scene of the show to date) and, in a less awful fashion, that of Daenerys. A few scattered thoughts on other events in the episode before I come back to these two huge developments.
First, I know I’m a broken record on the subject of Ramsay Snow/Bolton, but why is it that every single storyline connected to him has to immediately become stupid? His dad, Roose, is an accomplished military commander, but it’s untrained, never-been-to-war-in-his-life Ramsay who leads the brilliant expedition in which a couple dozen men cripple an army of thousands.
“Twenty men rode into our camp without a single guard sounding the alarm?” Stannis asks, speaking on behalf of every single viewer of this latest ridiculous Ramsayism. Ser Davos offers the nonsense reply (which has been tediously set up in previous episodes by several Ramsay references to “we Northerners”), “The Northerners know more about their land than we ever will.” Such as how to ride horses into a guarded military camp, set dozens of fires, and leave before anyone notices? Utterly, utterly lame. (Also, Melisandre: Isn’t gazing into the flames supposed to show you what’s going to happen, rather than what happened a few minutes ago immediately outside your tent?) My predictions of a week and a half ago are looking pretty good except for the assumption that Ramsay would finally get his. The Bastard of Bolton’s ability to screw up even episodes in which he does not appear suggests, once again, that showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss just can’t quit him.
Up at the Wall, Jon Snow was visibly relieved that Ser Alliser, after some consideration, opened the gate for him and his Wildling refugees. Afterward, Alliser told Jon “You have a good heart,” which is—and was intended to be—about the most vicious insult one can lob in Westeros. Although even that was nothing compared to the death gaze Olly gave Jon in response to his smile.
The scenes in Dorne were ... not completely awful? Progress! Yes, we still had to watch the ever-pointless Sand Snakes play their slap games—“Are you going to cry?”—and Ellaria Sand’s ongoing treason went well beyond implausible. Let’s review: She’s Oberyn’s former paramour, who was just imprisoned for planning an uprising and trying to kill Princess Myrcella, the betrothed of the heir to Dorne. But she nonetheless got to attend the royal negotiation between Prince Doran, Jaime, Trystane, and Myrcella (sorry for trying to kill you!), and she seized the occasion to ostentatiously pour her Dornish red on the floor. Yes, she later kissed Doran’s ring. But seriously, dude: You needed to execute her. What’s that phrase? You have a good heart.
That said, I liked Ellaria’s subsequent scene with Jaime, in which she attempted a rapprochement by way of shared sexual complications. Her comment “We want who we want” was an almost direct echo of Jaime’s line to Brienne back in season three: “We don’t get to choose who we love.” (Let’s all agree to please not extend this ethos to Ser Meryn’s pubescent fetishism.)
But enough stalling: It’s time to work through my unhappy response to the horrible death of Princess Shireen Baratheon, an event that has not taken place—at least not yet—in the Martin novels. This made it a new experience for book readers in two overlapping ways: It was the first genuinely shocking death that we hadn’t already experienced on the page and, as a result, the first for which we didn't know whether to “blame” novelist Martin or showrunners Benioff and Weiss. In some ways, it was a clarifying moment—one in which we had to ask “Are we okay with this plot development?” without falling back on the easier question of “Can we complain because it diverged from the books?”
I’m honestly torn. I don't think any of the horrors that the show has offered up so far can compare with a father—one whom we’d clearly been groomed to like and identify with this season—cold-heartedly sentencing his daughter to an excruciating death for personal gain. The show had been hinting at this outcome for a while, of course. But up until the moment the pyre was lit, I genuinely didn’t believe it would go through with it.
Another momentary digression from the awfulness of the scene itself: How exactly is this royal-blood-magic supposed to work? As the “scenes from previous episodes” reminded any forgetful viewers, a couple of seasons ago the leeching of a royal bastard (yes, after some This-Is-HBO fluffing) was enough to kill three presumptive kings. By that deadly recipe, shouldn’t a few hemoglobic drops from Shireen prove enough to take out a Warden of the North and his bastard son? But obviously, I didn’t major in R’hllor chemistry.
I’ll be curious to see how Shireen’s death sits with me in a day or two. For now, it was the first moment in which the relentlessly dark vision of the show—and in different ways, the books—felt as though it might be more bug than feature. I’m well aware that the world can be a terrible place. I don’t generally watch televised entertainment in order to be reminded of this fact. Or, as Tyrion neatly put it tonight, “There's always been more than enough death in the world for my taste. I can do without it in my leisure time.”
If there was a crucial mistake in this episode—and I think there was—it was to give us that horrifying Shireen sacrifice with almost half-an-hour still left in the episode. This was a scene that, however one responded to it, should have closed out the show.
Instead, we had the big set piece at Daznak’s Pit in Meereen, where gladiatorial combat turned into a nasty insurrection before turning into what Drogon calls “lunch.” Like Hardhome last episode, this was a Big Finale. (I’m fairly certain we’re due for yet another next week.) I had my quibbles here and there: e.g., enough with the third-rate double entendres, Daario Naharis 2.0. And seriously, Ser Jorah, it's time to get over Dany, preferably without having an intimate, slow-music moment with her (in the midst of a murderous uprising) that might pass on your notoriously contagious greyscale STD. And, his quote about death and entertainment notwithstanding, I can’t recall the show ever having made poorer use of Tyrion. That said, it was ultimately a big, terrifically executed finale (again: Drogon!), the second in two remarkably cinematic weeks.
But for me, the pyrotechnics were largely wasted. The episode essentially ended when Shireen was burned at the stake. Gladiators, Sons of the Harpy, a dragon buffet—nothing compared to a father’s decision to sacrifice his own daughter.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
I’m no longer sure which of Frost’s (and Martin’s) competing visions would be worse. And I’m not entirely certain I’m all that eager to witness it either way.
How about you two? Did this episode throw you as much as it did me?
Kornhaber: Whenever something like the death of Shireen happens—something so awful that even folks who don’t watch the show begin talking about it, usually by asking their shell-shocked friends, “Why the hell do you watch this stuff?—a few arguments get thrown around in Game of Thrones’ defense. The most common talking point says it’s silly to expect anything but brutality on a show that’s in large part about the causes and consequences of brutality. A kid got pushed out of a window in the very first episode of Thrones; did anyone expect Westeros to be a gentle fantasyland after that?
It’s both a valid and vile argument—at its core, a call for numbness. In a twisted way, it’s to the show’s credit that after five seasons of killing lovable people in awful ways, the audience can still experience deep shock and horror. Then again, that shock and horror comes by pretty crude means: ever-more-awful crimes against ever-more-lovable (and less deserving) victims. Lots of people have been burned alive on this show. Lots of people have been raped. But until this season, those fates had never befallen children who the audience had watched grow up for a few years, who’d become sympathetic in large part because of their innocence. (The closest analogue might be the faux-charring of Bran and Rickon in Season 2, a development that indeed almost made me quit watching before Theon’s duplicity was revealed.)
In fact, in the annals of popular storytelling, Shireen’s death has few precedents. Society basically only allows depictions of filicide when either parent or child has been invaded by evil spirit or illness. Even Darth Vader didn’t have the will to kill Luke, and even the God of the Old Testament didn’t make Abraham go through with the sacrifice of Isaac. So in the Thrones tradition of torching old tropes, it’s radical to have a character as generally sympathetic as Stannis kill his goodhearted daughter essentially in the name of political ambition. What’s more, she died in a manner so painful that the warrior king Mance Rayder was spared of it in the first episode of the season. It’s more than okay to be deeply disturbed.
Another defense of the show is a moral one, calling hypocrisy on anyone who mourns some atrocities more than others. D.B. Weiss trotted this one out when talking to EW about Shireen’s death: “If a superhero knocks over a building and there are 5,000 people in the building that we can presume are now dead, does it matter? Because they’re not people we know. But if one dog we like gets run over by a car, it’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen. I totally understand where that visceral reaction comes from. I have that same reaction. There’s also something shitty about that. So instead of saying, ‘How could you do this to somebody you know and care about?’ maybe when it’s happening to somebody we don’t know so well, maybe then it should hit us all a bit harder.”
This line of thinking can be useful and profound when talking about risk management, foreign policy, or giving to charity. But coming from the creator of a show in which the death of one little girl was carefully presented to have maximum emotional impact—the seasons-worth of reading lessons, the recent bonding between her and the father, those screams from the pyre—it’s galling misdirection. Game of Thrones is not here to teach a lesson about caring for each life equally. If anything, the lesson is to care about none of them.
All of that said, while Shireen's end filled me with disgust, I’m not ready to say it was reckless storytelling. In the post-episode HBO interview, the showrunners indicated that this death came on orders from George R.R. Martin and that it freaked them out as well, but that it makes sense in the universe of the show. Indeed, Stannis has been set up as someone who relishes making the hard and personally wounding choices. He believes that becoming king is not only his destiny, but something that has to happen for the good of the realm. And after Melisandre’s smoke baby, the leeches, and the failure at Blackwater, he has reason to believe in the power of fire magic. The final conversation between him and his daughter offered the finest acting yet from Stephen Dillane, who showed a mix of duty and despair via gravelly voice and sad eyes. Unfortunately, it was Kerry Danielle Ingram’s best scene to date as well. Shireen’s intelligence and attitude is so charming that you can’t help but yearn for her to live and join Arya and Tyrion in the “cripples, bastards, and broken things” Westerosi justice league.
But the most crucial moment of the whole Shireen sequence may have been after the deed was done, and Queen Selyse let out of a low, moaned “nooo.” Stannis’s response was a look of pure disorientation. All this time, his wife has been the lead fanatic of the marriage, and for her to lose her faith reminds him that he’s undertaken this heinous action on a gamble. The facial expressions on the soldiers watching the ceremony certainly indicated that this bonfire wasn't going to boost morale. If the Lord of Light doesn’t come through, Stannis is truly lost. Perhaps that would be justice.
The number of words I’ve spent on Shireen’s death indicates that you’re right, Chris, that it was a mistake for the episode not to end with it. The uprising in the Meereen fighting pits provided cool visuals but, maybe because of what came before, didn’t hit me with the momentous power I think it was meant to have. Perhaps the problem was that the dragon ex machina surprise was no surprise at all—as soon as trouble arose, I assumed a firebreather would bail the gang out. The only real twist of the sequence was that Hizdahr, the gladiatorial apologist who’d been suspiciously late to the ceremony, found himself on the wrong end of an insurgent’s dagger. The best action came before the real action, in the form of the ringside philosophical sparring between Tyrion, Hizdahr, and Daario. The show itself might want to take into consideration Tyrion’s brief for less violence:
Hizdahr: It's an unpleasant question, but what great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?
Tyrion: It's easy to confuse “what is” with “what ought to be.” Especially when “what is” has worked in your favor.
I also agree, Chris, that the Meryn Trant storyline seems like it could have been initiated and wrapped up in this episode. The lengthy amount of time spent at the brothel mostly served to hint that Arya could be in sexual peril. With the show being so cruel to its young female characters lately, the last thing I want is any suspense about what’s going to happen if Arya tries to exact revenge while pretending to be a pedophile’s prostitute. Please, Benioff and Weiss, let her just serve him a stanky oyster and be done with it. (On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind a few more scenes of the buffoonish Mace Tyrell playing the Ugly Westerosi to the cosmopolitan calm of a Braavosi banker.)
Nine episodes in, and I still don’t get what’s up with Dorne. The scenes with Jaime were indeed better than they have been lately, but the entire situation comes across as nonsensical for all the reasons you’ve listed, Chris. Mostly, I feel a sense of squandered opportunity about the setting. Doran’s palace and the Water Gardens look, for lack of another word, dope. I know book readers say Martin got bogged down with this stuff, but I want to learn more about the tiling, the shrubbery, the wine! The political situation seems so transparent—a ruler too lenient and merciful for his own good—that I’m hoping there’s a conspiracy afoot with Doran installing Trystane on the small council. And I can’t tell whether Ellaria Sand’s sudden kindness toward a Lannister is a performance, or just another example of the tempestuousness of the Dornish.
Sullivan: If forced to choose, I’d take the insult of having a good heart any day, despite the uncertainty and second-guessing that usually accompany it. It takes a fanatic to burn people alive—but a fanatic at least is completely confident, if often misguided. To burn a little girl alive when you’re unsure, when you’re playing at being confident for reasons of faith or ambition or “leadership,” is something else entirely. It’s evil.
Queen Selyse found her faith tested by the excruciating blood sacrifice of her daughter (so she does have a heart, after all). Stannis, after appearing to stand with Cersei for just a few episodes in placing love and protection of his child above all else, gives up Shireen to Melisandre because he’s too freaking proud to retreat to Castle Black. And Melisandre herself was recently flirting with Jon Snow and his much-speculated royal blood. Surely they all would have tried to exhaust every other possible option before killing a child, right? Right?
At least Queen Selyse forced herself to watch Shireen’s fiery death. Like you, Spencer, I’m torn about violence in—not as—entertainment. We may not live in a world as medieval as Tyrion’s, but I can agree with him when he says, “There’s always been more than enough death in the world for my taste. I can do without it in my leisure time.”
But in our first-world lives, we rarely have to witness unsavory consequences, whether of something like hoarding life-saving medications for ourselves, or sending others off to war for us. This past year has taught many of us that the story we told ourselves of our race-blind criminal justice system was believable only because we didn’t have to watch black men being shot in the back by police.
Before we even got to the wrenching scene of Shireen’s death, I was struck by the way the camera actually lingered on the line of soldiers waiting for their meager helping of horse stew. Those men aren’t Stannis’s blood brothers, who proudly signed up for this fight. They have no choice. They’re exhausted, they’re freezing, they’re starving, and they’re going to die.
They’re not so different from the pit fighters who declare they will live or die for the queen but in reality have little choice. Or the spectators who were slaughtered by the Sons of the Harpy. Or, for that matter, the Sons of the Harpy who were burnt to a crisp by Drogon. We’re supposed to feel relief for Dany, who lives to rise into the clouds on her dragon offspring and fulfill her destiny. But what if we’re wrong? What if she’s just another high-born with delusions of grandeur who was content to let the deaths of others be the price?
Give me Jon Snow instead, who cut off Janos’ head earlier this season in a rare instance of trying to please a father figure—this time, Stannis—but who at least had the decency to look disgusted with himself. Jon, who looked shattered this episode, not just because of the terrifying enemy he encountered at Hardhome but because of the scale of death the Wildlings suffered. Pollyanna Sam tries to buck him up by pointing him to the very real people who are alive because of Jon’s actions, but Jon can only see the very real faces of those who didn’t make it. Is a leader someone who sees each of those faces or someone who can block them out to concentrate on the larger goal? You have a good heart, Jon Snow.
Elsewhere, my notes on the Braavosi scenes simply read: “DO NOT DO THIS TO ARYA.” Okay, that’s not entirely true. There’s one other word: “Mycroft!” But by the penultimate episode of the season, this Braavos storyline should be able to do more than make me want to re-watch old Sherlock episodes. It’s been an improvement on the interminable House of Black and White plot in the books, but that is a very low bar.
And then there’s Dorne, which at this point I’m convinced has just been an excuse to keep fan favorites Jaime and Bronn involved this season. Is The Dornish Mis-Adventure a buddy comedy? A family sitcom? (Jaime’s critiquing Myrcella’s clothing choices now—heads up, girl, he must be your dad.) Why are the Sand Snakes so crazy? Why does their mom whipsaw between cartoon villain and relatively normal schemer? And she has a fourth daughter—what?
Actually, forget it. I don’t have time to care about the answers to any of those questions. The season finale is one week away, and I need to finish making my Ramsay voodoo doll.