Spoilers up to and including Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 4
Game of Thrones, Season 5, Episode 9: “The Dance of Dragons”
HBO Official Synopsis: “Stannis confronts a troubling decision. Jon returns to The Wall. Mace visits the Iron Bank. Arya encounters someone from her past. Dany reluctantly oversees a traditional celebration of athleticism.”
Y’know, I’ll sound like a broken record, but there is a definite pattern with the way Game of Thrones kills its major and minor villains. As with Joffrey, as with Viserys, as with Janos Slynt; the show reminds us just how much we fucking hate these characters before it gives them a wildly satisfying and absolutely brutal death. A prime example is found in this episode and the next – Merryn Trant.
Merryn Trant has always been reprehensible. Aside from generally being in Cersei’s pocket, Trant has done some terrible things. He killed Arya’s dancing master Syrio Forel. He frequently hit and abused Sansa on Joffrey’s behalf. But all of that seems like trifles in comparison to Trant in this episode, where he goes to a brothel and informs the madam that all of the women are too old for his taste, until she brings out a child and Trant is pleased. It really turns your stomach. It’s generally uncomfortable to watch, and will have you screaming with joy next episode when he gets his just deserts.
This episode also has one of the show’s most traumatizing scenes, featuring the death of Shireen Baratheon. Up to this point, Shireen had been Stannis’ cute daughter who showed up once in a while to make us like her and also feel bad for her. She was always immensely likable in the face of adversity; her mom hated her and she had greyscale, but she still managed to be kind and friendly, and taught Ser Davos how to read. If she had a little more screentime and was a little more dynamic, she might be one of my favorite characters, period.
But that set up of Shireen as such a wholly good and kind character in the face of such gloom and danger is a huge part of what makes this such a heartbreaking scene. She truly did not deserve what happens here.
Her scene where she and Stannis discuss the Dance of Dragons and prophecy is absolutely heartbreaking and insightful. It reminds us of the earlier scene where Stannis tells Shireen the story of her birth and illness, it ends with Stannis’ proud declaration “You do not belong across the world with the bloody Stonemen. You are Princess Shireen of House Baratheon, and you are my daughter,” which is followed by a hug from Shireen. We might think back to that moment as Stannis talks of destiny, knowing what he plans to do to her.
After that scene, they cut right to Team Daenerys at the fighting pit. There are only so many scenes where Game of Thrones feels genuinely fun, and the fact that this comes right on the heels of a child being burnt alive does kind of put a damper on it, but this is one of the show’s more fun scenes. (It’s important to not the difference between a scene that is fun and one that isn’t serious.)
There are a lot of moving parts in this sequence which make it a real delight to watch. And it’s interesting to see how this sequence is divided into three “acts.” The first act goes from the very start of the event up to when we see Jorah. And as I said, this is where the episode is a lot of fun. The fights are compelling, Daario’s attempt to intimidate Hizdahr is amusing, and Tyrion telling Hizdahr “My father would have liked you,” is always worth a chuckle.
The second act of this sequence goes from when we see Jorah right up until Drogon arrives. And I’ve said it before, notably in the previous post, that for whatever reason, all of Jorah’s fight scenes are among the show’s best. Something about his methods of combat or actor Iain Glen’s choreography, I don’t know, it’s just so well done. And we see that here, it’s great.
After Jorah wins his fight we get the creepy and absolutely thrilling revelation that the coliseum was just a trap for Daenerys to be attacked by the Sons of the Harpy. And then Team Dany trying to fight their way out of the coliseum is exciting. It’s during this sequence that we see the death of Hizdahr, the most aggressively mediocre character in the whole series. I thought I’d have more to say about Hizdahr dying, but it’s fitting that I don’t.
Dany and Missandei have this tender moment where the two hold hands in the face of the impending attack. Suddenly, everything feels hopeless until the third act begins with Drogon arriving and lighting up many of the Harpies. And this is the first time we get to see Dany climb onto Drogon and ride him. And I said this about the dragon-riding episode in the first episode of Season 8; just about any time we get to see characters riding the dragons, we suddenly feel like this is truly a fantasy world with magic. And this isn’t lost on the characters, either; in the episode’s last shot we get to see Tyrion’s awed face as he watches Dany ride off, utterly inspired. Coming so soon after the sacrifice of Shireen Baratheon, it becomes clear that this world can still be epic, exciting and hopeful.
Favorite Line: Stannis’ tragic pontificating: “If a man knows what he is and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all. He must fulfill his destiny, and become who he is meant to be. However much he may hate it.” OR Tyrion’s subtle jab of “My father would have liked you.”
Favorite Scene: The coliseum; Jorah fights, Dany flies.
Season 5, Episode 10: “Mother’s Mercy”
HBO Official Synopsis: “Season Five Finale. Stannis marches. Dany is surrounded by strangers. Cersei seeks forgiveness. Jon is challenged.”
So much stuff happens in this episode! I remember watching this episode at a friend’s house and we all thought that by the time that the battle at Winterfell is over it felt almost like we had scene a full episode.
In fact, let’s start with the Winterfell scenes, because they’re some of the episode’s best. First, we need to mention that this is the first time we see Theon, specifically not Reek. I don’t know if what he does here is a strategic move or if it just ends up being a coincidence, but he throws Ramsay’s lover Miranda from the castle walls. Did he tell Miranda of Sansa’s escape attempt to appease Ramsay and then change his mind? Or did he tell Miranda to get her to the top of the castle so he could kill her? I’m not exactly sure, but it’s a cool scene regardless.
Then we get to see the battle between the Boltons and Stannis’ forces. It’s less of a battle and more of a massacre, and a perfectly tragic conclusion to Stannis’ story. The episode starts with pretty good news for Stannis, as they find out that the snows have melted enough to march. But then, things begin to fall apart – the sellswords abandon and take the horses with them, Selyse hangs herself, Melisandre leaves camp. Now, things are truly hopeless for Stannis. His back is against the wall, and he has no option but to go forward to Winterfell.
And when he gets to Winterfell, he is greeted by an army that’s probably twice or thrice the size of his. And what is he able to do but draw his sword and watch them come? And this is where Stephen Dillane really shines as an actor. There’s this great moment where we get a shot of Stannis’ face just as the army approaches, and there are so many emotions there. You can clearly read on his face the realization that he isn’t the Lord’s chosen as he thought he was, that his prophecy was a lie, and that he will almost certainly die. There’s a cold resignation there, in which Stannis understands that his only option is to die fighting.
And then, after the battle, we see Stannis wounded and trying to fight off the last few men of the Bolton army, only to be killed by Brienne, as revenge for Stannis’ murder of Renly, showing that all of Stannis’ sins have caught up with him. His last, bitter line of “Go on, do your duty,” is among the best final words of the show.
Stephen Dillane has been quoted as saying that he thinks his performance wasn’t all that great because he didn’t exactly have a great understanding of what was going on, and that he felt generally disheartened by his performance, but I really think that negative energy really lent itself to the character.
While I’m offering my last words on Stannis, let me refer to this great post from the Shakespeare of Thrones blog comparing Stannis to the tragedy Macbeth; Stannis Baratheon: Macbeth Revisited Really a terrific read.
In the south, we get to see Jaime’s tender moment with Myrcella just before she succumbs to the poison. It’s nice that Jaime was able to have that with arguably the most likable of his children, but it only makes the scene more heartbreaking. Since the Dorne storyline was pretty universally panned, it’s easy to forget about this scene – I personally think that it influenced Jaime’s perspective in the subsequent seasons. There’s no moment I can point to exactly to indicate it, but I think that there is some kind of connection between this scene and the man Jaime is in Seasons 6-8.
Meanwhile, things aren’t so good for Cersei, who is forced on her now-iconic Walk of Atonement, or walk of “Shame!”. It was always said that Cersei’s love for her children made her a sympathetic villain, and this is something that everyone can understand in the abstract sense, but it takes her misfortune along the walk of shame to really drive home that we can feel bad for her and understand her as a human. In addition to the emotional pain of being stripped naked in front of the population of King’s Landing, it’s made very clear that she’s also enduring a great deal of physical pain, as her feet are bloodied from the effort of walking that distance. The Walk of Atonement is brutal, and rightfully has become one of the show’s most iconic scenes. It fittingly ends with Cersei arriving back at the Red Keep and giving a defiant look towards the Sept of Baelor – already thinking of what she will do to her enemies in only ten episodes.
Here’s an episode where Arya gets her revenge on Merryn Trant. For all of the reasons listed in my paragraph about Merryn Trant above, this scene is super satisfying. For a brief moment, Arya remembers who she is and turns to focus on her list and being a Stark instead of being a Faceless Man. That’s just another thing which makes this revenge incredibly satisfying. (And it’s definitely a step up from the book, where she instead kills a Night’s Watch deserter, which is decidedly less personal.)
I actually hate the follow-up scene where “Jaqen H’gar” drinks the poison and dies, just because of the problems it creates for the show. We’re lead to believe that the one Faceless is Jaqen and the other is the Waif. But both faces are removed, and the audience is reminded that both of these people aren’t Jaqen or the Waif, they’re no one. And it sets this really dangerous precedent where anybody could be anybody in disguise. But I digress.
I feel like it’d probably be wrong to end this post on anything other than Jon’s murder. Again, this follows the Stark death pattern of the Stark ignoring warnings and being shocked when they end up being murdered. (Stannis tells him to send Aliser Thorne to Eastwatch, all the brothers warn him not to go to Hardhome or let the Wildlings through the wall, etc.) But that didn’t stop it from being absolutely heartbreaking. The fact that Olly – the boy that Jon was training to one day follow in his footsteps – is the one to land the last blow is emotionally devastating. I have to admit that Jon’s death did feel less permanent than Ned’s or Robb’s or Catelyn’s, but that didn’t make it any less upsetting. It would make for a sad but expected end for a character on Game of Thrones; betrayed and murdered for doing what he deemed right.
I’ve written about Jon’s death before, in one of this blog’s most frequently-read posts: The Gospel of Jon Snow: Christian Allegory in Game of Thrones
Favorite Line: “Go on, do your duty.”
Favorite Scene: Jon’s death – it’s a pitch-perfect scene. It builds upon the tragic format of Ned and Robb’s deaths, but uses the characters of the Night’s Watch like Olly and Aliser Thorne to make it unique. Jon hearing news about his uncle being alive, only to be betrayed by Olly and Aliser. “For the Watch!” What a scene.