"Fire and Blood"
- Targaryen House Words
Last week, audiences were treated to a ballad of cold dread at "Hardhome," a magnificent set piece in the frozen North showing the nigh invincible White Walkers massacring a wildling village and recruiting the corpses into the army of the dead. It is poetic, then, that the song in this week’s "The Dance of Dragons" was one of fire, both for good and ill.
Long before the events of Game of Thrones, before Westeros was ruled under the Iron Throne, the dragonlords of Valyria created the first true global empire, harnessing their unique bonds with dragons to bring all other civilizations under their thumb. Then, after the Doom, Aegon Targaryen and his sisters would mount three dragons and conquer Westeros, creating the Seven Kingdoms. The very sociopolitical landscape of this entire universe is a result of what these people have done, and it impacts the story even in the present time.
While The Long Night (the coming of the White Walkers) is the encroaching Doom of this world, it has been those that have harnessed and controlled dragonfire that have shaped it.
In this episode, (poor, poor) Princes Shireen tells Davos of her latest literary conquest, "The Dance of Dragons," a retelling of a Targaryen civil war that tore the realm apart and ended the power of dragons in Westeros (about 150 years prior to the events of the TV series). A confused succession when the King died resulted in two factions being born within House Targaryen; those that supported the King’s eldest daughter Rhaenyra as heir to the throne, and those that supported her half-brother Aegon II. Each side controlled a certain number of dragons as well, and as the dragons danced in the sky, people died below.
This schism would lead to a great war, pitting noble houses against each other, and in many cases, families against themselves. While the high lords played their game of thrones, the smallfolk suffered, as they would be conscripted into the wars only to become dragon food. Finally, after the realm had been bled enough, the commoners stormed the Dragonpit in King’s Landing, killing the remaining dragons (at heavy cost to themselves) and thus eliminating House Targaryen’s nuclear option.
Much of the Targaryen line was extinguished in this dance, and many other great houses were ended as a result of war and betrayal. The dragons were consequently gone from the world, and the slow demise of the Targaryen reign began.
The last of that line, Daenerys Targaryen, has been somewhat neutered over the past two seasons.
After her conquests in Slaver’s Bay, she attempted to rule Meereen as Queen, only to be knotted up in the politics of it all. Her fearlessness and perceptiveness had made her an inspirational leader and wise commander, but the art of ruling was something all-together new to her. She crucified 163 political leaders in the city in a show of justice, but she only started poisoning the well against her own rule. She let her dragons run wild outside of Meereen, resulting in the death of a little girl. And her inability to bring peace between the freed slaves and the former masters resulted in the formation of the Sons of the Harpy, an insurgency undermining her rule.
Daenerys wants to prove that she is capable of ruling Westeros during her trial in Meereen, and as Tyrion stated last week, she hasn’t been the absolute worst, as she has made some deft moves in an attempt to keep the peace. A political marriage and support of the local customs (i.e. death fighting) appeared to have calmed the tension in the city, and has allowed her the opportunity to cement her rule and possibly start thinking about Westeros.
But as mentioned, one of those Meereeneese traditions she has chosen to upheld is pit fighting, a gladiator-style death sport that seems to be immensely popular with the common people. Daenerys and Tyrion are both reviled by the act, while Daario and Daenerys’s fiancé Hizdahr seem to enjoy it.
This gets at a fundamental principle of ruling; that one's decisions will not make all parties happy, and that decisions that one detests may be endorsed by the masses. By playing this game of appeasement, Daenerys has slowly started to drift away from the "Fire and Blood" philosophy of her house, and one too focused on compromise.
"There's always been more than enough death in the world for my taste," Tyrion states, "I can do without it in my leisure time." Hizdahr responds be asking,"What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?" The sentiment proceeded and hauntingly echoed what we had seen moments earlier with Stannis and his daughter (though more on that in a bit.)
While the Targaryens may have shaped the world with fire, most every other peoples did it with blood.
War and slavery, these are the red bricks that Meereen and much of the world is built on. The brutality in the fighting pits is a reflection of that, as Queen Daenerys is appalled just as much as the smallfolk are celebrating it. What's worse (based on the next part of this set piece) is that all these concession may not have amounted to bringing Meereen any closer to peace. Her actions may be too little too late, and conquering a people then throwing them a bone (literally) may not be the way to acheive solid rule. A lesson, hopefully, Daenerys will heed if and when she heads back to Westeros.
The sickening worsens when Ser Jorah shows himself as an entrant, much to the surprise of everyone in Dany’s retinue. Mormont takes several cuts, but manages to best each opponent one way or another, all while Daenerys watches on, paralyzed by her emotions regarding Jorah and the posterity of her rule. Tyrion advises Daenerys that she can stop this at any time, and even Jorah looks in occasionally wondering if his queen would let him die on those warm sands.
There is a rich and complex history between Daenerys and Jorah Mormont, and his refusal to be put aside may have finally struck a chord. This leads to everyone in the booth being shocked as Jorah grabs a spear and hurls it, seemingly at the queen, but only to fly past her and kill a man in a Son of the Harpy mask.
Golden harpy faces start sprouting up all over the arena, and much like last week, seven hells break loose. The Sons of the Harpy are targeting everyone, be it the former slaves or the masters who have thrown in with Dany’s political pact. Jorah, at least unofficially, re-enters Dany’s service as he jumps into the box, focused only on protecting his Khaleesi. In the madness, Hizdahr takes a lethal blow, and Missandei almost gets taken down herself until Tyrion grabs a dagger and saves her life. The man who just minutes ago was decrying violence must kill out of defense; as we learned very early on, the game of thrones cannot be played without a blood price.
The party makes its way down to the pit floor, hoping to escape via the combatant entrances, but all avenues are cut off to them by the Sons of the Harpy. They encircle the group; the Unsullied are able to keep them temporarily at bay, but their numbers are too few. Daenerys, shocked at how things have come to seemingly end, grabs Missandei’s hand, resigned to her fate…
Until the screech of Drogon pierces the sky, and the winged shadows comes blazing into Draznak’s Pit. Drogon tears and burns through the Harpy, giving Dany’s small troupe a chance to fight off the remaining attackers. Most of the Sons turn their attention to Drogon, using spear and sword to try and take down the beast. Wounded (or maybe more accurately, annoyed), the dragon turns to its mother, who dislodges the spear and climbs upon Drogon’s back.
With a word in her dragon’s ear, the wyvern takes flight, leaving the pit, Meereen, and everyone else behind, with her small council looking dumbfoundedly on. It hadn’t happened in 150 years since the Dance of Dragons, but the world once again has a dragonrider. Fire and blood, indeed.
Two weeks in a row, the show has given its final scene nearly a third of the episode, allowing for the moments to breathe and the dread to build. The scene production and storytelling work amazing well in concert, as the time devoted in this setting, as well as the epic longshots that depict the coliseum, creates a lingering suspicion that something is coming. The small chats in the Queen’s box, Jorah’s story out in the pits, it all adds to this mounting feeling that something big is about to happen, and big it does. While last week’s ending gave us the icy gloom that our characters face, this week gave us the fiery hope that may be able to beat back the White Walkers.
I regret using the term "fiery hope" above, as that leads us into the horrifying events in Stannis’s camp up north. While Daenerys’s ending shows us fire in spectacularly hopeful fashion, the burning of Princess Shireen to the Lord of Light is equally depressing in its use of fire as a means to an end.
Caught in a winter storm, with provisions nearly depleted, Stannis Baratheon unforgivably orders the sacrifice of his daughter, hoping the kingsblood in her veins will grant him victory against the Boltons and the storm.
Stannis is a well-respected character, both within the story and without, but he has never been viewed as a truly noble character. He has burned people alive on numerous occasions, sat by as he watched his maester die at the hands of Lady Melisandre (in our very introduction to the character), and was about to burn his own nephew Gendry a few seasons prior before Davos put a stop to it. This, obviously, is why Davos was sent back to the Wall to send a message to Jon Snow, and more tellingly, was not allowed to take the Princess away from the oncoming battle.
Before Davos departs, he has an incredibly touching scene with Shireen (played by Kerry Ingram, who has been an absolute delight in the role - one of the instances where the show really enhanced a book character), giving her a wooden stag he’s been seen carving a few times this season. It is his thanks for teaching him how to read, or as he puts it, in "teaching him to be an adult." In a storyline full of zealotry and darkness (Melisandre, Stannis, and Selyse), Davos and Shireen have brought a lot of warmth and humanity to the arc and show as a whole, which makes the events to come even more gut-wrenching.
Before her immolation, Shireen also gets a visit from her father, who comes to her with vagaries about the choices one must make to become the person they’re supposed to be. He asks her about the Dance of Dragons as well, and who she would choose between Queen Rhaenyra and Prince Aegon from so many years ago. "Neither," she tells her father, as the civil war between the family members ended up bleeding the realm. "Neither" is how I’m starting to feel about the upcoming Stannis/Bolton showdown, and part of me just wants Brienne to somehow arrive and hack apart all parties concerned.
And really, "neither" may be the theme of Game of Thrones itself. We've had good men be leaders, like Ned and Robb, and they died, leaving their kingdom in a vulnerable state. We've seen vicious men be leaders, like Tywin and Joffrey, and they died, leaving the lands of the Seven Kingdoms soaked in blood. Even now, we see Daenerys stumble in Meereen, or watch as half the Night's Watch is fed up with Jon as he permits the wildlings south of the Wall.
The series is very concerned with what makes a good ruler, and the scene with Stannis and Shireen is the latest in that long line of questioning. Tragically, it seems, that question may not have an answer. Maybe it's just as Tyrion described to Dany last week; that a ruler only need be the right kind of terrible to prevent her people from being even worse.
Finally, we get our second pyre scene of the season (RIP Mance Rayder). If that first one was viscerally terrifying, this one was on another plane of horror. The scene is drawing much discussion, from whether it tracks with the characterization of these players, to how this might be spoiling an unreleased book in GRRM’s source text. Those aside, it’s hard not to appreciate the incredible work by all the actors involved: Stephen Dillane (Stannis), Carice Van Houten (Melisandre), Tara Fitzgerald (Selyse), and the aforementioned Kerry Ingram as Shireen. Her shrieks, especially, will cause more nightmares than the zombies or White Walkers from last week’s installment.
As to whether this tracks with Stannis’s character, I recall this quote from the second installment in the A Song of Ice and Fire text, wherein an old Baratheon armorer is telling Jon Snow about the three stag brothers:
"Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He'll break before he bends. And Renly, that one, he's copper, bright and shiny, pretty to look at but not worth all that much at the end of the day."
When he orders the murder of his own daughter, Stannis breaks. Stannis has always felt he has led a burdened life; he believes it his duty to be king. He believes he is Azor Ahai Reborn, the ancient hero who threw back the White Walkers and ended the Long Night. It's why he wielded a fiery sword in his introduction to the audience, though note he has not since.
All series long, Stannis has walked a fine line of likability, as his own decency wrestled with his belief in Melisandre and her fire god. She is capable of the mystical, having conjured a shadow baby from Stannis's seed and having foretold of the deaths of Joffrey and Robb Stark. This isn't a blind leap of faith; her powers are real, and can turn the tide in his war for the north and beyond.
Stannis has often walked the fine moral line, and usually needed guidance from Davos to remain noble. Still, he has burned people on numerous occasions, from Shireen to Mance Rayder to random lords who did not please him. He played a role in the death of his own brother Renly. He was willing to sacrifice his nephew for the "good of the realm." Stannis feels burdened with glorious purpose, and coupled with his setbacks on the march to Winterfell, we finally see a man who has persevered finally succumb to his own steadfastness. Stannis does not bend easy, and in that consistency, he's more like to break.
The biggest question remains as to what Shireen's blood was really worth; will he be able to march on Winterfell now, and depose the Boltons? How will Davos, Jon Snow, and others who have seemingly thrown in with Stannis react to the news? A seemingly unexpected turn for King Stannis has possibly reshaped the trajectory of what's to come in the north (also worth pointing out that many of Stannis's men did not take pleasure in the burning of the young girl...which of course, no one should).
This week's episode focused on the song of fire, but even more so than last week's song of ice, I was left with a chilly feeling. While the ending packed an epic punch, it will be the haunting end of Shireen Baratheon that will linger in my mind long after.
It's no coincidence that the show followed this scene with Daznak's pit; the horror we see as the Princess burns should make the audience think twice about the people Drogon burns in the Coliseum. It's not just the polarity of ice and fire at play in this series, it's the double-edged nature of fire itself; the hope it can inspire, and the terror it can unleash.
Stannis burned down all he is with this act, and now one of the most appealing contenders for the Iron Throne seems as awful as the show's villains. That may ultimately be what it takes to win any crown.
A Couple Extra Dragons
- We spend some more time in Dorne this week; while the overall value of this plot thread still seems lacking, it was welcome to see these actors getting a chance to interact verbally with each other (as opposed to poorly-choreographed fighting). We still don't know what (if any) game Prince Doran is playing, but essentially he allows Jaime and Bronn to go free, and to take Myrcella back to the capital, so long as they also take Prince Trystane and place him in Prince Oberyn's seat on the Small Council. I assume there will be a long game here, as the show wouldn't have cast Alexander Siddig to not utilize his true value. Still, it looks like it won't be until next season that we see what role Dorne has to play with the wars to come.
- Last week, Arya was given the mission of giving the gift of mercy to a shady insurance schemer working the docks in Braavos. She seems ready to poison his oysters, only to see Lannister sails seeking port nearby; Mace Tyrell, with Meryn Trant as escort, has arrived to parlay with the Iron Bank of Braavos and discuss the crown's debts (and once again, the Iron Bank is represented by Sherlock alum Mark Gattis, playing the role of Tycho Nestoris). Trant, of course, is one of the remaining names on Arya's hit list, and Lana of the Canals decides to pursue the Kingsguard around Braavos and all the way to a brothel.
Meryn Trant further exposes his disgusting side (not that we didn't know when he beat Sansa at Joffrey's command) by requesting younger and younger prostitutes, until finally settling on a girl not much older than Arya herself. Trant spies the young she-wolf a couple times, but whether he truly recognizes her is yet unknown, and given his behavior at the brothel, he may have been eyeing her for other, worse reasons.
When she returns to the House of Black and White, Jaqen asks her if she gave the gambler his justice. Arya lies, saying he wasn't hungry (he was clearly calling after Arya while she was busying following Ser Meryn), and from my intuition, I don't think Jaqen believes her. He's already seen past Arya's many lies before, and this lack of discipline may make her ill-suited to be a Faceless Man.
- Jon Snow and his band of wildlings return to the Wall, giving us television's first ever 700 ft staredown between Ser Alliser and Jon. While it looks like the fallout of this play by the Lord Commander will mostly be shown next week, Thorne does give us one of the more meta lines in the series: "You have a good heart Jon Snow. It will get us all killed." Often it's been the most honorable, the most noble people of Westeros that end up being the most helpless; Ned, Robb, Cat, even still living characters like Davos and Brienne. And as we've seen with Daenerys across the seas, having a good heart doesn't make one fit to rule.
- Game of Thrones will never be able to have CGI on par with motion pictures, but almost all of the stuff worked in Draznak's Pit. It's never going to be perfect when you do a close up of an actor riding a dragon, but most everything was believable, and marks a noted improvement in the SFX budget (for example, last year's defenestration of Lysa Arryn out the Moon Door looked pretty hokey).
Another nice touch was the flaming horse in the opening scene. It's a nod to a scene from the second book; when the Boltons take back Winterfell from Theon, Ramsay sets Theon's horse Smiler on fire, and the vision of his flaming horse is the last thing Theon sees before he falls under the torturous control of the Boltons.
- Next week is the finale. Bummer.