The title alone should inspire viewers to think this is going to be one epic episode – if it weren’t for the fact that the final half hour of last week’s Hardhome set an enormously high bar.
But in the end it was a dark, dark hour, not without surprises and revelations, and the show left us with plenty of room to speculate on what’s going to happen next week, and next season.
Let’s dispense with the most trivial first: Dorne. It was an oddly interesting couple of scenes there this week, showing up basically everything that’s come before this season, but also suggesting that there won’t be any more Dornish action for some time.
Firstly, Doran Martell doesn’t want any more bloodshed, at least not in a way that would bring about open war with the Lannisters and the Iron Throne. I’m assuming at this point that Cersei’s imprisonment is not common knowledge. So Jaime is free to go, and so too is Bronn, after a fashion.
Doran’s bargaining has allowed Myrcella to return to King’s Landing, but only if the marriage to Trystane goes ahead, and Trystane sits on the Small Council in the departed Oberyn’s place. Jaime agrees, because this all makes sense. It just seems strange that all the Dornish action this season has preceded this decision, rather than the decision coming first. It’s logical, and handled dipomatically. What were the showrunners thinking?
Ellaria must pledge her loyalty to Doran to avoid any more antagonism between her and Jaime, and she then admits that she had no real grief with Jaime after all. Again, this begs the question why Doran didn’t quash this insurrection earlier, given that Ellaria and the Sand Snakes have been all Keystone Kops in Dorne, fooling nobody with their pretense of loyalty.
So everything in Dorne has just been backstory to Trystane landing a spot on the Small Council, which just makes everything all the sillier. What’s the net result? Trystane Martell, Kevan Lannister, Qyburn, Mace Tyrell, Maester Pycelle and Jaime make up the council – all individuals with no sense of allegiance to each other, and very little toward Cersei or Tommen. That is promising, it’s just a shame we had to go through all this nonsense first.
In Braavos, Arya’s training continues, now tasked with the mission of taking out the insurance man on the docks. But, as expected, she spies Mace Tyrell arriving with Ser Meryn Trant, who was once high on the old Arya’s hitlist, for crimes against the Braavosi, Syrio Forel.
So, the choice is, kill the insurance man and became a Faceless servant, or kill Ser Meryn and become a Stark once more. More storylines are colliding, as expected. Arya may be through with the past, but the past clearly has something it still needs from her. That, no doubt, will be resolved next week.
Jon Snow arrives leading the Wildings to the passage under The Wall, but has a tense moment where he waits just a little too long for Ser Alliser Thorne to let them through.
This is the tragedy that was seeded in last week’s episode: Jon and the others narrowly escape annihilation from the White Walkers, only to have his efforts completely rejected by the Night’s Watch. This is the summation of Jon’s leadership, where he is able to inspire everyone he meets except those he commands. The path toward the greater good is a lonely one.
Okay, now it gets dark.
Firstly, we’re at Stannis’ camp outside Winterfell. Melisandre witnesses the work of Ramsay and his men, setting fire to the camp, and jeopardising their position even further. She and Stannis both know that it is desperate for them.
So Davos advises retreat to Castle Black, but instead is sent there by Stannis, as punishment for being a good man. But honestly, when did Stannis ever take any of Davos’ counsel? We have to wonder why Davos serves him given the constant rejection. But Stannis is sending him away because he can’t bear to look at the one person who wouldn’t stand for what happens next.
If it wasn’t clear already, Stannis and his army are the batshit crazy fundamentalists of Westeros. They might have helped Jon achieve a ceasefire with Mance Rayder, and he might’ve appeared to appeal to Jon’s sympathies since (and therefore ours), but he’s always been a bad guy – we’ve just been too close to him to be concerned about it. The guy has been burning people at the stake since he first turned up, has constantly betrayed his wife and all but neglected his daughter, and is really the main challenge between notable ‘good’ characters like Daenerys gaining the throne. And don’t forget it was Stannis that was attacking King’s Landing when Tyrion saved it.
So when he agrees with Melisandre to put his daughter to death, to magic some form of an attack against the Boltons, it should really come as no surprise. The difference in Game of Thrones is that we spend time with everyone, good and bad, and it clouds our judgement. Additionally, most stories about good and evil focus on the ending, the path of the good to conquering the evil. George R.R. Martin has just developed a really really long prequel-in-disguise, where we get to witness all the seeds of the conflict that eventually will be quashed by the ‘good’ characters.
This is why events like Shireen’s death and the Red Wedding confound everyone, because we’re witnessing plot details that normally happen in the past in traditional stories, as motivation for the good characters.
Finally, to Meereen. The fighting pits are finally in full swing and the games begin, with expected Gladiator echoes in abundance. Daenerys is reluctant about the whole thing, and it’s all made worse by the pissing contest between Hizdahr and Daario, which even bores Tyrion, who normally loves verbal jousting.
But what hits home for us is that this episode has really focused on the sacrifices that people make: sacrifices for victory for Stannis, or sacrifices for popularity and stability for Daenerys. All leadership is a bloodsport in Game of Thrones, because that’s how it’s always been, as Hizdahr reminds us.
And on that theme, Jorah arrives in the stadium, ready to die for Daenerys’ lasting glory. There’s a parallel here, and not just about what Daenerys and Stannis are prepared to do for the Iron Throne.
Shireen is suffering from greyscale, and is put to death by fire. But we know that Melisandre’s fire is not true fire – it runs cold. In the song between ice and fire, hers is inert, and so Shireen’s death is all the more tragic. There will be no victory for Stannis.
Jorah, too, is suffering from greyscale, and he is prepared to die, only for the true fire to intervene. Firstly he saves Daeners from a would-be assassin, and then when trying to lead her to safety from the Sons of the Harpy as they launch a full-fledged uprising, Jorah is justly saved with Drogon’s arrival, putting the true enemies to the flame.
The show is trying to focus us on the symbolism of these moments, and how they contribute to the as-yet unknown design of the story. In the novel, Drogon’s attack on the stadium is brought on by the noise and the bloodshed, and Daenerys’ flight is a measure she takes to save everyone from his attack. Here Drogon’s arrival and her subsequent departure are presented more as symbolic conclusions to this part of the narrative – the only answer to the constant irritations in Meereen, and Daenerys’ answer to Tyrion’s questions last week about what she truly wants.
Jon’s escape from Hardhome brought us face-to-face with the big bad of the series, in a way it had never done before. Daenerys’ escape here reminds us that there is a force greater than any throne or army, and allowing us to connect these two more strongly as the inevitable convergence of the show’s ongoing conflict.
The last two episodes have allowed us to see a much clearer view of the story than we had ever before, but in doing so they’ve stretched the epic spectacle across more episodes than ever before, rather than giving us little updates on what everyone was doing, as early episodes in a season sometimes feel. With the seige on Winterfell promised now for next week, and no doubt a few more surprises, these three episodes will together sequence some of the most dramatic storytelling Game of Thrones has screened to date.
What is most fascinating is that these episodes promise to be the most free from the books to date. It’s almost as if they needed to wade through the over-written drudgery of plots like Meereen and Dorne just to get all the characters to this position where they could tell truly captivating stories.
- Valar Morghulis: look, a lot, really. Many Sons of the Harpy, many Meereenese, including Hizdahr, but it’s worth just spending time reflecting on Shireen.
- Even Selyse realises how far Stannis and Melisandre have strayed from humanity at the last minute. It’s pretty damn tragic. Can’t imagine Davos coming back in support of any of this.
- Daenerys is rendered useless during the attack. She is just standing still while blood is spilled around her, all because of her presence in Meereen. This brings her flight so much more power, as foreshadowed when Drogon visited her at the top of the pyramid several episodes back.
- Shireen’s long cold march toward her doom is reflecting that of the show, anticipated in the terrifying climax of Hardhome. The dark of winter is setting in, making the actions of those few in service of the greater good stand out so much more.
- Still no Brienne, who appears to be watching on Winterfell and Stannis’ army at the same time, without doing anything. More stalling.
- So Melisandre was able to do a hell of a lot with a few leeches on Gendry, but now Shireen needs to die? The show is doing some weird thing with her, at times distancing us from Stannis while supporting her actions, but now holding her up as completely insane. Whatever happens to the Boltons as a result of Shireen’s death, it’s hard to see any method to her madness.
- Next week: will Jon’s plan to save the Wildings work? will Sansa get free of Ramsay? will Stannis beat Roose? will Daenerys find some place to land? will Tyrion rule Meereen? will Cersei and Margaery find a way out of their dungeons?