How bad did things get on “The Dance of Dragons,” the ninth episode of “Game of Thrones'” fifth season? So bad that instead of turning to Medieval Europe for context, reviewers were forced to reach all the way back to Greek tragedy. You think the Middle Ages were bad? Check out “Medea” some times. (Spoilers, naturally, follow.)
“The Dance of Dragons” ended with one of the most fan-pleasing images in “Game of Thrones” history — one that, as BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur pointed out, is one of few from George R.R. Martin’s books the show hadn’t yet depicted: Daenerys Targaryen mounting her dragon, Drogon, and flying out of Meereen, leaving behind Tyrion Lannister and some very confused-looking Sons of the Harpy — that, that is, that hadn’t just been burned to a crisp. But before that, oh man… before that. That moment of pure McCaffreyian pleasure was preceded by one of the most gruesome scenes in the show’s history: Stannis Baratheon, his troops starving and freezing in the Northern winter, sacrificed his own daughter, Shireen, in an attempt to turn his fortunes, burning her alive at the stake.
For what it’s worth, Shireen’s immolation was relatively discreet, at least when compared to Stannis’ similar torching of Mance Rayder in the season-opening “The Wars to Come.” Where that scene focused on Ciarán Hinds as the bold military commander’s eyes filled with fear, Shireen’s death took place offscreen, although her dying screams were only too audible. Instead, we saw Shireen’s parents: Her mother, who showed no emotion when Mance was put to the torch, wailing and throwing herself to the ground; Stannis impassive, drained, the look of a man who desperately wants to believe he had no choice, but knows that’s a lie.
Was it too much? Nearly every week, “Game of Thrones” seems to hit a breaking point for some viewers: Quite a few announced they were bailing after Sansa’s rape by Ramsay Bolton, and more made the same pledge this week. It’s worth noting that the only events to have caused this kind of uproar are showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ departures from Martin’s books; whether that’s because readers haven’t had years to prepare as they have for some of the show’s other atrocities, or because Benioff and Weiss have truly lost their way as they’ve moved into uncharted territory — that’s an argument we’ll probably be having even more over what are planned to be the show’s final two seasons.
For me, at least, Shireen’s death felt earned, and not as redundant as the show’s making yet another woman the victim of sexual violence. (The last thing you ever want a viewer to think as a character is raped is “Here we go again.”) It was horrible, of course, but it also definitively closed the book on Stannis Baratheon: There will be no rooting for him now. Viewers know, as only Jon Snow and those who survived the massacre at Hardhome do, how grave the threat facing Westeros’ humans is; Stannis’ actions leave us wondering if there will be any humanity left to defend by the time the White Walkers break through the wall.
Considering that “Game of Thrones” ended its first episode with a young boy being shoved out a window, Shireen’s death was hardly unforeseen: To paraphase Carmela Soprano’s therapist, one thing viewers can never say is that they weren’t told what kind of show it is. Some viewers are starting to find the incessant grimness hard to take, but Benioff and Weiss have shown little inclination to course-correct to slave their audience’s displeasure. One thing is for certain: Things will get worse before they get worse.
Reviews of “Game of Thrones,” Season 5, Episode 9: “The Dance of Dragons”
Mike Hogan, Vanity Fair
This whole subplot had me wondering why I keep watching this damn show, knowing just how sadistic George, David, and D.B. truly are. They’ve already sold me on the idea that Ramsay Bolton née Snow simply must be erased from existence in the most painful, protracted fashion imaginable, and now they add that the only way for it to happen is for Stannis — who was finally starting to seem like something other than a sadistic, self-absorbed, humorless prick — to burn the only non-repulsive member of his family at the stake. In public! In front of dozens of men who are so desperate and/or fanatical that they not only tacitly endorse the act but actually go so far as to physically restrain the (horrible) mother when a stray, unexpected shred of humanity in her finally springs to life in response to her daughter’s frantic cries for help.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
Watching this show does a number on your moral calculus, even more than one of HBO’s previous champions of a bleak philosophy in “The Wire,” which at least allowed for the possibility of good things happening on the most micro of levels. So even though I was meant to be horrified by Shireen’s death (and I was), and even though I was meant to applaud at Drogon’s arrival (and I did, even as I wished that Dany at least had some kind of dragon-whistle to make the timing seem less silly), I also found myself wondering this:
Why am I booing the burning of one person and cheering the burning of many?
Nina Shen Rastogi, Vulture
I’ve been turning this scene over and over in my mind, though I think I come down on the side of it working for me, despite — or perhaps because of — its horribleness. If Shireen was going to die at the hands of her own father, if he was going to make that terrible Greek choice, it seemed appropriate to make those of us in the audience feel it, too, on a visceral level. (Horror comes from the Latin horrere: to tremble, to shudder.) It’s still a very open question whether her death will accomplish anything for Stannis’s military campaign — and that open question is part of the horror — but it feels like it’s explored some new emotional territory here, in ways that the Sansa rape didn’t. Stannis has driven a stake through his own heart, and if he wins the Iron Throne after all, the memory of this pyre will make the victory a Pyrrhic one.
Laura Hudson, Wired
Let’s talk for a moment about Greek mythology, specifically the Trojan War. There was a king named Agamemnon who wanted to lay siege to Troy, but the forces of nature seemed to be conspiring against him, the wind always blowing in the wrong direction against his ships. A seer revealed that in order for his military campaign to proceed, he had to make a very personal sacrifice to the goddess Artemis: his daughter, Iphigenia.
In some tellings of the story, Artemis mercifully spirits Iphigenia away at the last minute, sacrificing a deer instead—the sigil of House Baratheon, and the gift from Davos. In most versions, however, Iphigenia dies on the altar, which ultimately leads to her mother murdering both Agamemnon as well as his concubine Cassandra, who happens to have the gift of prophecy. Just some food for thought
Jeremy Egner, New York Times
Honestly, Shireen’s death was as hard to watch as anything I’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t blame anyone for washing their hands of a show that would show them something like that. Part of the transaction between viewers and artists is an emotional one — I invest my feelings into your story to derive maximum satisfaction from it, but you bear some responsibility for what you do with that investment. At times “Game of Thrones” can seem like a terrible partner, showing you how much it loves you one week and then committing bewildering acts of meanness the next.
So was it necessary? It’s hard to claim that depicting the burning of a child on TV is ever necessary, strictly speaking. But does it make sense in the context of the story? I’d argue that, as constructed, it probably does.
A major theme of this show is an ancient one: the way power corrupts and destroys those who covet it, generating plenty of collateral damage along the way. Several commenters countered my skepticism a couple of weeks ago, noting the example of Agamemnon, the military leader from Greek mythology who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease a goddess and improve his fortunes in war. (It’s somewhat cheering to note that things didn’t work out very well for him.)
Myles McNutt, A.V. Club
Shireen’s death is one of the show’s most difficult to endure despite happening off screen, although in a way that is as effective as it is mortifying. Everything about the scene is terrifying, and it’s hard to move onto the rest of the episode with Shireen’s screams echoing in one’s mind. As the scene progresses, you hope that Stannis will stop things. It’s clear Melisandre — who smiles like a psychopath throughout — is committed to this, but is Stannis, really? Shouldn’t there be a limit? Selyse begins the scene convincing Stannis this is for the best, but quickly folds when she sees her daughter — who she resents — burning, yet her husband never moves. He watches his daughter burn because he has committed to this decision, and to facing the consequences therein. Much as Dany must watch the Great Games unfold knowing that she is responsible, Stannis understands that the sacrifice he’s making is one he must witness in order for it to have meaning. They will some day write about his sacrifice as they wrote about the Targaryens, and they will tell of Stannis’ self-sacrifice even if they never mention Shireen’s screams.
James Hibberd, Entertainment Weekly
The show’s deception was so well plotted, and the twist was so well concealed by the production and HBO, that Shireen’s death remained absent from online fan boards aside from mere speculation in a season where nearly every other major revelations had leaked out. And yet, there’s nobody who can say this move was any kind of a cheat. You can look at Sansa going to Winterfell and debate whether her decision feels believable, but there is zero doubt this outcome comes straight from Stannis’ core character and his entire story arc has been flying straight to this moment — and yet, it was still a shock, which is the best kind of twist.
Katie Walsh, The Playlist
Obviously, the world of Westeros is not a safe place for little girls (or anyone, but especially girls). But as the showrunners push their agenda over the storyline from the book, that element of danger is a crutch that they rely on far too frequently, and in a way that is gratuitous and often feels unearned. This episode took the theme to new and darker places, when we’ve already been in very dark places this season. As viewers, there’s a hope that these bleak depictions will lead to some kind of glorious vengeance, but it’s just not clear if we can trust Benioff and Weiss with that hope. We’ve been burned too many times before. Quite literally this time around.
Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post
I can imagine that this scene, like the scene of Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) rape earlier this season, will be considered controversial. In both cases, Nutter and Jeremy Podeswa (who directed the rape scene) choose to focus not on the agony of a young woman, but on the people around her. In this case, even more than the last, though, that decision denies us the opportunity to become — depending on your point of view — voyeurs or witnesses. It’s a choice that, frankly, I appreciate; I don’t need to see Sansa’s pain to know that she’s feeling it, and I don’t need to watch Shireen Baratheon, one of the few genuinely sweet souls we’ve seen on “Game of Thrones,” in her final, tortured moments.
Andy Greenwald, Grantland
Despite what many of “Game of Thrones’s” legions of devotees like to argue, it is not, in fact, a “medieval story.” It is not received wisdom from another age. Though it has the trappings of an earlier Earth, it is actually a contemporary story and should be considered as one. And as such, I fail to see what the horrific immolation of a teenage girl added to the narrative in any way, shape, or form. What I do understand is what it took away: a pleasant performer in Kerry Ingram, any whiff of empathy or support for Stannis, and “Game of Thrones’s” torrid streak of 13 and a half days without a violence-toward-girls incident. For God’s sake — not you, Lord of Light, you smug asshole — even Iphigenia’s fate remained unclear! Terrible things can and should happen on “Game of Thrones,” just as they should in all adult drama. But the more Benioff and Weiss hammer the same chords, the less they sound like musicians and the more they remind me of Cousin Orson, another one of their inventions who, in retrospect, seems like one more clever, meta way to shrug off criticism.