Welcome back to the Game of Thrones TV Book Club, a discussion space for Thrones viewers who have also read the five books (so far) of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This week, Hillary Busis and Darren Franich cover “The Dance of Dragons,” which attempts to put one of the single greatest Book-Moments onscreen—while also killing yet another still-alive-in-the-books character. Be sure to check out the recap of the episode by Thrones maestro James Hibberd, then join us as the venture into the narrative borderlands of A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons, and beyond. (You know there’ll be spoilers for both the books and the show, right?
HILLARY: Let the circle be unbroken: Ned was beheaded in season 1, episode 9. Hundreds perished in the Battle of the Blackwater in season 2, episode 9. The Red Wedding, of course, came in the next year’s penultimate episode; Ygritte met her end in the one that followed. (Oberyn’s death by eyeball-squishing actually happened in episode 8 of season 4—but it’s a spiritual sibling to those other killings.)
Now we’ve got another upsetting demise to add to the list: poor, innocent Princess Shireen Baratheon, the latest victim of Melisandre’s bloodlust. It’s a move most show-watchers probably saw coming, but that didn’t make it any easier to stomach—especially for the masses of book readers crowing that it makes no sense for Stannis to ax his one and only heir. So let’s start here, Darristan Selmy: Was Shireen’s cold (hot?) blooded murder a sticking point for you as an ASOIAF fan, either because it seems like a puzzling deviation from canon or because it’s a twist that even GRRM might call overly brutal?
DARREN: There are twists, and there are twists. Some twists are completely unexpected. The romantic noble warrior-daddy fantasy protagonist pulls a Janet-Leigh-in-Psycho and dies in his story’s first act? That’s shocking, because it runs counter to our understanding of how the fantasy genre works. A sudden rush of main-character-deaths at one wedding is immediately followed by a shocking main-character-death at another wedding? That’s shocking, because we’re trained to expect long-running stories to quiet down a bit after a massacre, like an marching band collectively catching its breath.
And then there’s the burning of Shireen. I actually didn’t think the show was going to kill her, just because it seemed so obvious. One of the things I love about GRRM’s books is how unafraid he is of painting himself into a corner, then finding a way out: Every death of a major character requires him to figure out how to promote a heretofore minor character into the A-list. I realize this doesn’t work for everybody—but if Ned Stark didn’t die, I don’t know if GRRM would’ve been able to turn Jaime into such a tragic figure. And if Joffrey didn’t die, then the moral stakes defining the battle of Westeros would’ve been so much simpler. (Joffrey is a great villain in every conceivable way—but when he dies, it gets a lot harder to define who the good guys are.)
But so, Shireen. After a few seasons living through her own private G-rated Oldboy, Shireen gets a few big scenes this season that establish her as a Tyrion-esque character—an aristocrat hated and feared because she’s “different,” with a love of history and reading… and that’s just a lead-up to her getting burnt because Melisandre says so? I don’t quite buy the plot mechanics that led us here, and the decision to yet again film a horrific violent act performed on a young woman from the perspective of a man watching the violent act, and looking really sad. (Stannis at the burning = Theon on Sansa’s wedding night.)
Also, Davos doesn’t see this coming? Explain to me why any of this had to happen, Hilltown.
HILLARY: Had to happen? I think that’s a question only the Lord of Light could answer.
Joking aside: You make a compelling argument, especially when noting that Shireen’s death is framed in terms of what it does to Stannis rather than what it does to Shireen. That, plus yet another rage-inducing only-on-the-show brothel scene—we KNOW Meryn Trant is a bad guy because he killed Syrio and beat Sansa! Why oh why does he have to be an ephebophile as well?—plus everything else we’ve seen so far combine to officially make season 5 GoT’s worst season for women. Essay question: Is this true of the show generally, when compared to the books? Show your work.
Maybe the problem here is that—as you outlined—the twists that originated in GRRM’s books are shocking because of the way that they play with the conventions and tropes of storytelling. The twists that are original to the show, though—things like this and Talisa’s murder at the Red Wedding and Jaime’s rape of Cersei (and yes, duh, it was a rape, are we even still having this argument)—are shocking according to another definition of the word. They’re not surprising so much as viscerally, horrifyingly awful, the sort of things that make viewers want to hide their eyes and moan. Sure, complaining that a franchise built on gritty faux-medieval “realism” (in as much as that’s a thing) is getting too violent is sort of like complaining that 30 Rock season 2 is too funny. But I do think Thrones has a habit of taking things to 11 simply for the sake of taking them to 11—one it doesn’t share with the books.
I wonder, though, if it’s premature to call Shireen’s murder gratuitous, since the show is tweaking the books in ways us Sullied viewers can’t really anticipate. Why did any of this have to happen? The real answer is that we won’t know until we learn what happens when Stannis gets to Winterfell. In A Dance With Dragons, Jon gets word that Stannis is dead; in The Winds of Winter (spoiler, as if we’re not all lapping up excerpts the moment GRRM posts them), it will be revealed that he’s still alive but of course hasn’t reached Winterfell yet. I can’t imagine that the show would put us through the Shireen ordeal only to kill off Stannis—that would just be pure sadism—and I also can’t imagine that next week’s finale will end with the king still stranded outside of Winterfell’s boarders. So: If it turns out that Melisandre was right and this sacrifice has enabled the army to defeat the Boltons, will you be able to forgive the show for what it did to our scaly little pal?
DARREN: Your theory about Surprising vs. Horrifying leads me to another theory. In book form, A Song of Ice and Fire is soccer: Lots of dribbling, lots of vague movements that look like incredible strategy to fans but which just look boring to non-fans, very occasional moments of OH-MY-GOD-THEY’RE-AT-THE-GOAL excitement. (Jaime = Cristiano Ronaldo. Stannis = Wayne Rooney. The Greyjoys = The American Team. We’ll do better in 2018, Team USA!) In TV form, Game of Thrones wants to be football: Every minor moment could be a major breakthrough, the scores are much higher, it’s more violent, and there’s maybe a bit too much focus on the pageantry and not enough on the nitty-gritty gameplay. Sports!
If the sacrifice of Shireen does result in Stannis taking Winterfell, it will definitely be intriguing. The only part of the whole Stannis story arc that worked for me last night was what Stannis said to Shireen: the idea that a man has to live up to his destiny, even if it ruins him. That’s an extremely GRRM-esque idea. I just wish that the show could’ve found a more inventive way of expressing that idea. In the book, Stannis’ struggle in the North is explicitly socio-political: How does he balance the needs of his fire-happy followers with the tree-worshipping Northerners he’s trying to win over? The show opted for an old-fashioned Abraham-and-Isaac morality tale—Deity Demands Kid-Killing!—which might’ve been a bit more interesting if we hadn’t already been through this back in season 3 with Gendry.
I’m going to say something a bit crazy, which I will attempt to simultaneously defend and deconstruct: TV-Shireen has become Book-Quentyn. Now, I like Quentyn Martell—but I understand why people don’t like him. For some of the sullied, Quentyn’s an example of GRRM’s too-expansive instincts: A character introduced at the start of Book 5, who spends his entire character arc on a literal journey, before finally arriving in a distant land and getting burnt to bits. This is basically Shireen’s journey: Swinging in, taking up valuable narrative real estate, and then finally dying pointlessly. The difference, I think, is that Quentyn was an active participant in his fate. Shireen was just sitting around waiting to get killed in a penultimate episode.
HILLARY: DARREN. HOW ARE YOU POSSIBLY MAKING THIS ABOUT QUENTYN.
DARREN: Everything is about Quentyn!
HILLARY: A Game of Quentyns. A Clash of Quentyns. A Feast for Quentyn.
DARREN: A Quentyn of Quentyn and Quentyn.
Listen, I’m hoping that next week’s finale figures out a way to bring back all the excitement I felt in midseason about the seven-ring-circus of swirling subplots in the North. Because I think at this point, I’m about ready to throw up the white flag on the show’s treatment of the distant South. What do you make of the latest developments in Dorne, Hillario? A couple weeks back, you had mentioned the theory that this whole Dorne subplot was a long route towards sending Jaime and Bronn and maybe a couple Sand Snakes eastward. As of now, though, it looks like Jaime will just be heading up to King’s Landing—which makes his whole arc this season feel like a weird delaying tactic.
HILLARY: I think it’d be rough to defend this entire storyline as anything more than an exotic, topless exercise in water-treading. Intellectually, I understand it—Benioff and Weiss wanted to introduce a new location and give Jaime something to do without getting mired in the increasingly digressive muck that is GRRM’s Dorne storyline. That’s a noble, defensible goal. Practically, though, the episode has read like an extended, season-long variation on Jon’s not-in-the-books trip to Craster’s Casa del Rape: something designed to give an actor screen time while delaying the next big beats of his story. (Which really makes it GRRM’s fault, if you’re in the mood to assign blame. And who isn’t?) If the whole point was simply to bring Jaime and Bronn right back where they started from—with Myrcella in tow—couldn’t that have been accomplished in an episode or two rather than nine?
I’m more engaged by BatArya Begins, which is set to reach its climax next week when the lil’ ninja crosses another name off her list. While watching that portion of the show, though, my UnSullied viewing companion had one question: “Wait, who’s that guy?” Thrones took pains to transport Meryn to Braavos rather than a random Night’s Watch deserter; I’m wondering, though, if his death will even register with non-book-readers who almost certainly don’t remember who he is or what he did to get on Arya’s murder itinerary.
DARREN: Here’s where I want to give the show some props: I love how Benioff & Weiss assume that unsullied viewers will be able to keep track of minor characters across long years and long between-season breaks. The best example of this is Alliser Thorne, a brooding presence up in Castle Black who was a key figure in season 1, completely absent for two years, and has now become a more complicated-but-still-brooding presence in seasons 4 and 5.
I wonder if we’ll someday look back on this season of Thrones as, like, the Year of the Miniboss. Arya crossing Meryn Trant off the list is sort of the equivalent of Mario fighting Iggy Koopa: a tougher-than-usual fight, but really just an appetizer for the final battle. I don’t really know how I feel about the decision to suddenly transform Meryn Trant into the Worst Person Ever Of the Week with that extremely gross brothel trip—but I wonder if it’s all part of the show’s attempt to start whittling down its supporting cast, until all that’s left is Arya facing off against Cersei and Dany riding her dragon against the White Walker.
I think you’re a much bigger fan of Arya than I am, Hillarerys, so I’d be intrigued to know: How do you feel in general about the show’s treatment of her Braavos storyline? Do you feel like they carved something interesting out of a very digressive Rocky-montage? And am I the only one who found Mace Tyrell’s singing positively charming?
HILLARY: I do love Arya, but I don’t particularly love her Portrait of the Artist as a Young Assassin storyline in either medium. This, I think, is the one plot where GRRM’s original plan to jump ahead five years would have paid the best dividends. (Well, that and Meereen.) As it is, in my humble and correct opinion, the show’s done a good job of keeping the Arya stuff just interesting enough to justify her foregrounding in the narrative; I care more about watching her become a Faceless Girl than I do about watching Jaime leave for Dorne, get to Dorne, stay in Dorne, and leave Dorne, all without accomplishing much at all.
DARREN: For anyone who’s confused by Hillary’s explanation, I helpfully graphed Jaime’s season 5 story arc.
HILLARY: I’ll also give the show credit for assuming its viewers are smart enough to remember minor characters; that’s certainly refreshing, even if plenty of Unsullied probably wish the show had a slightly less strict policy against hand-holding.
But wait: How have we gone this long without dissecting the episode’s big Crowning Moment of Awesome, the sequence all of season 5 (and A Dance With Dragons) has been leading toward? We’ve been talking about it for weeks, and here, finally, it happened: Daenerys’ escape from the fighting pits, via deus ex draconia. Was it everything you hoped it’d be?
DARREN: If I tried to come up with my ten favorite chapters in A Song of Ice and Fire, then the ninth Daenerys chapter of of A Dance With Dragons would definitely be on the list.
It starts small, not particularly dramatic. Dany takes a bath. She’s about to visit the fighting pits. She’s already married to Hizdahr zo Loraq, a personal sacrifice which in the book is merely the most visible example of how she’s had to compromise all of her best instincts for what she considers the greater good. Daario’s gone; Jorah’s gone; there’s a general sense that Dany has brought peace to Meereen only by bringing violence back to Meereen. In the pits, the people cheer for her. “Hear how they love you!” someone tells her. “No,” she thinks, “They love their mortal art.” Dany wanted to be a transformative leader—but she’s secured her power by giving the people exactly what they want.
Dany is one of the most powerful human beings in the Known World, and this chapter is all about the moment when she feels the most powerless. Hizdahr tries to get her excited about the fights yet to come, but Dany has had enough. “One will die, or the other will. And the one who lives will die some other day.” This is the person who was supposed to be, like, the revolutionary progressive of Westeros: aSoIaF’s combination of Moses, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, with maybe just a little Fidel Castro thrown in. And Martin dares to let her suddenly have a moment of existential purposelessness. One will die, or the other will: What’s the point?
And THAT is when the dragon appears. And the dragon doesn’t attack a bunch of bad guys cosplaying the Eyes Wide Shut orgy. The dragon eats the impaled carcass of Barsena—a woman pit-fighter, WHAT A CONCEPT RIGHT???—and then attacks a bunch of spearmen, and seems likely to burn the whole city down. That’s when Dany steps up and tames Drogon—actually TAMES him, with a lash—and achieves her destiny, climbing on top of her baby dragon. “Yes, now, now, do it, do it, take me, take me, FLY!”
It’s a moment that plays even better in context. In both the show and the books, Drogon appears just in time to rescue Dany. But in the books, he’s rescuing her from something far more complicated than a bunch of masked attackers. That final line feels like the moment when all of Dany’s pent-up frustrations just explore: Another way to read it is, “GET ME THE LIVING HELL OUT OF MEEREEN.” And crucially, Martin lets you read that scene in a lot of different ways. Drogon’s appearance isn’t heroic. It’s terrifying. It feels like a moment guaranteed to end any hope of Dany being a beloved Queen—how can you love a ruler who has a pet that occasionally swings down in the middle of town and starts burning people? It’s ambiguous, is what I’m trying to say: A triumphant moment that’s also a moment of madness.
We’ve talked a lot about how the show tries to dramatize the character’s interior psychology with exterior drama. Maybe that explains why “Thrones” turned Dany’s big dragon moment into the equivalent of a Richard Curtis wedding scene. See: Dany’s two boyfriends sniping at each other! See: Tyrion Lannister, begging Dany to save Jorah’s life for no apparent reason that I could figure out! See: Jorah Mormont, who can throw a spear the way Clint Eastwood shoots a six-shooter, narrowly saving Dany’s life from a surprise attack by the Sons of the Harpy! See: Heretofore buckwild Drogon, only attacking the bad people!
I dunno. I liked some of the visuals in this sequence—the moment of Dany accepting her death and grabbing Missandei’s hand was touching, even if Toy Story 3 did it better—but I thought this was an absolute bungle. I realize that there are a lot of different things to love about A Song of Ice and Fire, and maybe there are some people who wish there were way more scenes in Martin’s books where dragons sweep in and kill a bunch of faceless fantasy Ultrons. And there’s still obviously plenty to love about Game of Thrones—but this scene confirmed for me just how far afield season 5 has taken the show from what I love about the books.
I’m assuming you’re less of a grump than I am, Hilldahr zo Loraq. What did you think?
HILLARY: I, uh… I liked the part where The Lorax died.
Seriously: I thought the scene was cool if a bit anti-climactic, but I don’t have NEARLY as much to say about it as you do. Should… should we just take it to the comments?
DARREN: Let me start with a choice point about the White Walkers, from somebody who definitely has a different perspective than I do.
John O’Hoolihan: The White Walker attack is both necessary and an improvement over the source material. One thing that has always worried me about the books is that the big bads (The Others) are pretty much nonexistent. This wasn’t so much of a worry in the earlier books, but as the books approach book 7, which is still seemingly the end point of the series, the lack of anything relating to the White Walkers is concerning.
Really, I think that Martin doesn’t know how to wrap up the story at this point. He’s taken so much time dealing with the minutiae of Westeros politics, that I think he’s having a hard time switching from that to the broader fire v. ice themes that have been underneath the surface since the beginning. Presumably, at some point Danearys is going to learn to control her dragons and bring them to Westeros, at which point a lot of people think she will be instrumental in fighting the White Walkers (possibly with Jon Snow, who may be the real Lord of Light). All of this has to happen in two more books/seasons. If they don’t start establishing this apocalyptic threat now, when will they? If they wait too long the whole thing is going to feel rushed.
DARREN: This is a completely accurate argument if you believe that there is an ultimate Good vs. Evil/Ice vs. Fire endpoint for GRRM’s story, with everyone on one side or another. And it’s possible that that IS what GRRM is building towards.
Counterargument: Whatever GRRM was building towards when he first introduced the Others way back in the prologue of Book 1, he’s become much more interested in the endlessly fascinating human complications that result when war breaks out between a bunch of powerful armies run by powerful families of people who occasionally fight against each other. But I’m Mr. Minutiae, so I’m down to concede that the show has definitely found a lot of cool ways for the White Walkers to kill inessential cast members.
HILLARY: I also see where John is coming from, and I too assume that the entire franchise has been building up to an ultimate fight of good vs. evil, ice vs. fire, zombie vs. dragon, Coldemort vs. Harry Pottstark. I’m also with you, Daryion Frannister, in that ASOIAF has obviously transcended what GRRM initially had planned—and regardless of what happens next it’s going to be tough to pivot back toward the conventional battle he once intended to serve as his saga’s climax. Given that, why not change the Walkers from silent menaces to characters in their own right?
Alrisha: If years have happened, how is Baby Sam still a baby???
HILLARY: Theory: Sam actually hails from the same land as Revenge’s ageless dog, Sammy. HUGE if true.
DARREN: Theory: In Westeros, seasons last for years and babies don’t age for the first ten years of their life.