The title of tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones comes from a book of Westerosian history, the so-called Dance of Dragons, which, as Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) points out to his daughter, Shireen (Kerry Ingram), is an awfully poetic way of putting things. From a safe distance, these moments in history might look quite beautiful, filled with ominous foreshadowing and eerie parallels, but on the ground level, things can be quite horrific.
So it is, for instance, with Stannis’s own situation. The episode begins with a fire breaking out across his camp—an act of sabotage from the Boltons in Winterfell—which in turn leads to Stannis caving into the black-magic demands of Melisandre (Carice van Houten), as he allows the witch to burn Shireen alive in a blood sacrifice to the Lord of Light. And while it’s easy to allow such necessities in the abstract, as Selyse Baratheon (Tara Fitzgerald) is at first able to do, when a mother hears her daughter screaming for help within the billowing flames, the cost seems too high. This may explain why Stannis chooses to share a fatalistic philosophy with Shireen in his last conversation with her. If it’s true that his history has already been written, then he has no choice and can absolve himself of this murder: “He must become who he is meant to be, no matter how much he may hate it.”
The deeper irony here, of course, is that “The Dance of Dragons” refers to the divisive, needless war between two siblings for the Iron Throne: Were Stannis simply able to learn from this history, he might have avoided this cruel fate. (Likewise, if Shireen’s head wasn’t filled with stories of fairy-tale heroics, she might not have so readily volunteered to help her father.) Perhaps, then, that’s why men like Stannis prefer to hide themselves within tents, poring over tattered tactical maps filled with symbolic sacrificial tokens, rather than standing beside the men whom he must order to death. And perhaps this is why when Jon Snow returns to the Wall, the detested refugee Wildings in tow, Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) reluctantly orders the tunnel gate to be opened, recognizing that while he may disagree with the man’s principles, Jon is at least willing to stand in the trenches to defend them. “You have a good heart, Jon Snow,” he acknowledges, but not without warning: “It could get us all killed.”
In Dorne, Prince Doran (Alexander Siddig) puts a combination of history and practicality to the test. Although crippled and unable to stand, it’s not because he “has no spine,” as the bitter Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) bitingly suggests; instead, he’s a man who’s learned the lessons of both the battlefield and his books and doesn’t desire to lead his people into yet another war. Instead, showing more than a bit of Littlefinger’s tact, Doran allows Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to escort his threatened “niece,” Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free), back to King’s Landing, so long as he also takes Myrcella’s betrothed, Trystane Martell (Toby Sebastian), who will now serve as Oberyn’s replacement on the Small Council. Ellaria’s Sand Snakes are blunt tools; watch the way in which even the time-wasting game played by Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) and Nymeria (Jessica Henwick) is a form of combat training. But Doran shows the sharp edge behind his reserved civility when he addresses Ellaria once more at the episode’s end: “You can swear allegiance to me, or you can die. I believe in second chances. I don’t believe in third chances.”
Of course, not everyone is as educated: Some people know only how to play things by ear. Arya (Maisie Williams) is all set to slip a poisoned oyster to the thin man that Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) has tasked with her killing (in service to the Many Faced God) when she suddenly glimpses a despised face from her past life in King’s Landing: Ser Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie). All thought of second and third chances vanishes from her mind as she follows the man first to the Iron Bank, to which he’s escorting Mace Tyrell (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), and then to a brothel, where the showrunners heavy-handedly remind us how despicable Trant is: Even his men seem disgusted as he continues to demand ever-younger prostitutes, settling on an unwashed teenager. Then again, reckless as Arya’s actions may be, history only looks neat after it’s been written down, and dumb luck and happenstance can lead to events just as bloody as the most orchestrated of coups.
Finally, there are the noteworthy events of the Great Games in Meereen. Quite literally, here, the spectacle of potentially poetic violence is separated from the thoughtful masses, with particular attention drawn to the conversations of the royalty who oversee the carnage below them. “What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?” asks Hizdahr zo Loraq (Joel Fry). Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) replies simply that “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be. Especially when what is has worked out so well for you.” All that aside, it becomes impossible for them to dismiss the fighters as mere sacrifices to the pits once Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) again reveals himself to be fighting for his queen in the arena. Now Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Tyrion are invested enough to watch, now that these battles cannot be written off as mere games.
Things go a step further, too, once the Sons of the Harpy arrive, stripping away any sense of propriety as they murder Hizdahr, along with many other bystanders, as they attempt to reach the queen. As the mob of golden-masked and bloody-sworded foes force Daenerys and company down from the elevated dais and into the pit, the sands no longer look as “glorious,” and there’s nothing spectacular about the desperate fighting from Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) and Jorah. (This fight echoes the one from “Sons of the Harpy,” in which Ser Barristan met a valiant yet ultimately meaningless death.) The extraordinary is reserved for the moment in which Daenerys’s dragon, Drogon, swoops down to her rescue, allowing her to climb aboard his back before flying away, leaving Tyrion and Jorah to gawk as they did in Valyria. The ugliness of the battle isn’t forgotten, but perhaps there’s room for poetry and wonder on the battlefield, at least when a dragon dances. Perhaps Daenerys does represent a better, more beautiful sort of war. Then again, as Tyrion puts it, “Eloquent men are right every bit as often as imbeciles.”
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