Even with such a tantalizing title, you have to feel a little sorry for this episode. With Hardhome being universally praised as an all-time highlight, it would be a hard act to follow this week. Though, let's not forget.... this is episode 9. The episode that has a reputation for something crazy going down: from Bay’s igniting to an ill-fated wedding, giants riding mammoths, and all with plenty of faces breathing their last. So will this dance set a dracarys to the dance floor or simply smoulder from the side? Mostly, yes. It’s not quite the typical 9th episode madness and doesn’t match the last week's climax but still has a hell of a lot going for it. Not to mention for the 2nd week running, Game of Thrones gives us something we’ve waiting years to see as our imaginations aren’t they only thinks taking flight.
The Dance of Dragons – When their fortunes turn for the worse, Stannis is forced into making a horrible choice. While on her assignment, a familiar face changes Ayra’s plans. Jon Snow makes it back to Castle Black with the Wildling survivors. A settlement is reached in Dorne and in Mereen ,the great games are upon Danny and her subjects with a few less welcome surprises.
This episode actually comes with a warning of “distressing scenes”, and indeed those with children my find some parts unsettling.... no, not the kids, you as their parents. Be warned: this week is not kind to the small or young. However none of it could be conscribed as gratuitous. Instead, the victimisation of innocence becomes a powerfully dramatic tool. The main focus is on Stannis and Melisandre’s episode 7 requesting of an in-house sacrifice to solve their problems. Previously, Stannis would no sooner consider performing this than kneeling to Mance Raider, but now the actions of Ramsay and his 20 good men have left him at the point of desperation. While the opening sequence of the night being dark and full of burning things was entertaining it would have been nice to get at least a glimpse of The Bolton’s at work rather keeping them off-screen. Even if only a smug aftermath shot of Ramsay declaring the night as a lovely time. However, the rest of the Stannis scenes are far more rewarding as they do a great job of taking us inside his mindset. From the subtle little touches of morally broken men shivering and starving in the cold to the more direct marks about being forced into a difficult decision, “Sometimes a person has to choose; sometimes the world forces his hand” we really feel his reluctance and inhibitions here. Even as stern and resolving man this takes him as close as it gets to breaking. The real star here is Kerry Ingram as Shireen Baratheon. She’s been an upbeat pleasure in many episodes with her storytelling to Davos. Were it not for the episode’s climax she’d be stealing the show but still does a wonderful job of making us invest in her outcome. From her determination to help without knowing what it entails to her every haunting moment from when the penny drops in the snow. The outcome feels an early certainty but if anything, the episode plays on foresight to tug and tease a bit harder on our heartstrings. As Stannis stands transfixed, you can’t help wonder if his mind is flashing back to Mance Raider and Jon Snow. Maybe now he finally understands Jon’s mercy. As for his wife, she aptly proves faith is never real until it has been tested.
The other parent sensitive material comes from Ayra’s story. It took them long enough but Mace Tyrell has arrived Braavos for a good spot of dignified grovelling along with his King’s Guard accompaniment Ser Meryn. He gets some good pompous laughs, from his unusual persuasion tactics (we’d probably give him whatever he wants to stop him singing). The later White Sword has long been a name on Ayra’s list and her immediate curiosity implies she’s thinking about crossing him off; but there in sits the problem. While Ser Meryn has never been a likeable character and has committed some awful acts, (including beating Sansa on multiple occasions) they were all under the direct command of a greater evil like Joffrey or Cersei. Even if he seemingly enjoyed many of his actions, just as The Hound implored the Brotherhood without banners, a sworn sword shouldn’t take the blame for carrying out his liege’s orders. So if this Trant is going to bite the dust, then we need a good reason to hate him and some clear stand alone evil..... and now we definitely have it. His specialist tastes within the brothel will send him rocketing up most people’s hate lists (2nd only to Ramsay probably). His sickening final remark of needing “a fresh one” the next night really has us egging Ayra on in the most painful way she can imagine, but it looks like this outcome will be saved for the finale.
The scenes at The Wall feel a little bit lacking but the tense standoff between Jon and Ser Allister is brilliant. His character has become so much more fun since losing the leadership election as he constantly feels like a live wire, ready to turn on Jon at a moment’s notice but for now just biding his time. The Wildling’s arrival feels a bit dull though. We get a few appalled looks from the odd Crow as hordes pass through the gate but nothing that really represents the heavy animosity shown by many in The Watch and probably plenty of Wildlings too. All it really needed is quick 30 second kick off between a couple heads on both sides; a simple visual representation that there’s still no love lost between these enemies of millennia’s. Although Ser Alliser’s sentiments at least allude to their feelings, “You have a good heart Jon Snow... it’ll get us all killed”.
The climax of the Dorne storyline has much to enjoy. It runs the danger of becoming a Disney-like happy ending for the young prince and princess Myrcella, but the two teens make such an adorable couple that we can let that one slide. There are some good laughs from Bronn’s process of release as his broken nose story gets a little longer. The sisterly slap game give us another great moment from Tyene and Ellaria’s parting with Jamie make a nice touch for her character. Her tears when kneeling in defeat almost imply that by abandoning her thirst to average her beloved Oberyn, she is finally accepting his passing. This conclusion leaves us uncertain about whether we’ll see certain characters again. We’re definitely leaving Dorne behind and without an immediate story reason to return which is a shame.
Then like last week, we spent a lengthy period of time in final location set peace. These grand games have been teased ever since Hizdar first suggested re-opening the fighting pits and they appear to have been worth the wait. The opening, swopping over sides camera shot feels a nice nod to Ripley Scott’s Gladiator which introduced The Coliseum in a similar way. In fact, the whole setting packs quite a few fun internal and external references. The opening “strength vs speed” match feels a great throwback to last season’s similar Mountain Vs Viper affair. Not to mention the whole pandemonium that ensues takes several queues from Star Wars Attack of the Clones: from the outnumbered centre arena standoff to the sudden cavalry arrival the force is most definitely strong with Thrones this week. Save the closing money shot, the most effective part about this extended stay in Mereen is how the entertainment is not all about the action. The “Everyone Hates Hizdar” banter fest in the royal box is an absolute riot with Daario’s subtly disproved speed over muscle speech being a comedic highlight. That isn’t to say the action doesn’t impress. Jorah’s melee is an eye-pleasing mix of different fighting styles even if Mormont spends a bit too much time on his bear arse. As for everything that follows, it's a non-stop mix of chaos and thrills with the absolute perfect ending to it. The visual effects are stunning and hopefully, it's a sight we’ll be seeing much more of in Season 6. This Season of Thrones has taken a fair amount of fan flak but after the last episodes, nobody can deny that the show hasn’t fulfilled some of our hearts' desires.
Looking ahead to the season finale, it seems we can expect Cersei’s trial, the resolution of Ayra Vs Meryn, and quite a bit going down at Winterfell (get Brienne in there already!). The season is on a great roll of momentum and while that doesn’t necessarily make it easy for the finale blow us away, this Dance of Dragons has certainly showed us that a tough act can still be followed up well.