A review of “The Dance of Dragons,” the ninth episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”
by Miodrag Zarković
In case there was anyone left unconvinced that “Game of Thrones” is the most unfaithful adaptation ever, the penultimate episode of the fifth season definitely cleared any doubts. After realizing there are no more human characters or animals or beasts they haven’t already changed beyond recognition, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the two showrunners, finally turned to the deities in said episode. So now we have book R’hllor, that exists in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R. R. Martin, and TV R’hllor, that operates in a somewhat different manner.
And it’s only fair. What makes the gods so special? Why should they be spared from Benioff and Weiss’ famous creativity?
On first impression, the new R’hllor isn’t too unlike TV Meryn Trant, in that they share this penchant for young girls. And both got what they wanted in this episode, though not before some trouble, of course, because this is “Game of Thrones” after all: nothing is easy in this world, not even for seasoned knights and supernatural forces.
Poor Meryn had to sit through what was arguably the most shocking sequence Benioff and Weiss treated their audience to: a multitude of prostitutes parading onscreen without a single sight of nudity. TV R’hllor, on the other hand, was forced to wait until TV Ramsay, channeling Chuck Norris, set the supplies of TV Stannis Baratheon’s army ablaze, and only then his demand could ultimately be met with.
(From the scene of the Boltons’ attack on Stannis camp, keep in mind that poor horse on fire. It’ll be helpful later on.)
The demand was to sacrifice Shireen Baratheon, Stannis’ only child, by burning her alive. And yes, it arguably means that the girl acquired by Meryn Trant was actually the luckier one. O tempora, o mores!
It also means that “Game of Thrones” is like a car without an engine, or a restaurant with no food, or a bank with no money, or practically any other entity that’s failing to fulfill its basic purpose. Yes, the “anyone can be killed” show actually sucks at killing its characters.
That’s hardly news. It’s been like that ever since the pilot episode, which in its very first scene stripped Ser Waymar Royce’s death of any heroism. It was like that this entire season, as evidenced by TV Barristan’s death. But the burning of Shireen was a whole new level. Opposite to many other of Benioff and Weiss’ interventions, this one wasn’t exactly illogical (not because it’s logical but because there’s no criteria the act can be measured against in regards to logic), as much as it was the very definition of unearned moment. Even though the showrunners packed it with Shireen’s screams and the soldiers’ horrified looks and Selyse’s late tears, the scene just couldn’t operate beyond the pure spectacle aspect. If you’re generally disturbed by the image of a child burned at the stake, or, even more, by her agonizing cries for help, chances are the sacrifice of Shireen was not an emotionless viewing. But it hardly reached something deeper.
It simply couldn’t, because a) none of the characters involved, almighty R’hllor included, was ever properly established or developed, and b) the context it shapes is, typically for Benioff and Weiss, contradicting any realistic take on the setting.
TV Stannis is exactly what Benioff and Weiss want him to be: a fanatic devoid of any humanity, a driven sociopath, nature’s cruel joke that never made anyone laugh. How can such an individual ever inspire any loyalty or devotion, is among the numerous questions Benioff and Weiss wouldn’t know how to even begin answering. TV Selyse is someone who keeps dead fetuses in jars; whoever thought that can lead to a relatable character, probably watched too many movies with dead fetuses in jars. TV Shireen was a kid borrowed from some fairy tale, too perfect for her own storytelling good: characters of that type are written either by authors at odds with realism, or as an exercise in some cheap manipulation aimed at breaking the hearts of the audience at some point; or, as it’s sadly often the case with GOT, both. TV Melisandre is out of character every time she appears dressed, and, speaking of her dress, R’hllor isn’t The Red God anymore, if the fifth season is anything to judge by. If those are the characters that occupy a particular storyline, well, don’t expect that anything that happens to them will actually matter. The audience may be instinctively affected by this horrific sight or that one, but that’s where any intellectual and/or emotional connection stops. Honestly, the only remotely relatable element in that scene was those shocked soldiers, hence the point number two. In a world that is entirely built around the institution of family, a character that burns his own daughter just because his supplies and horses were destroyed is perhaps possible, but definitely not useful in a storytelling sense, unless the sacrifice itself isn’t the very climax and practically point of his arc. Since the episode aired, many critics and commenters compared Shireen’s death to the sacrifice of Iphigenia committed by Agamemnon ahead of the Trojan War, but it’s just wrong for a number of reasons. First, Agamemnon doesn’t even have a family name. He is not Agamemnon of the House Whatever. He’s just Agamemnon, because that entire society is built of quite a different fabric from Westeros. Second, in Greek mythology deities really are everywhere and involved in everything. When Agamemnon’s fleet can’t sail because the wind stopped, there is no shadow of a doubt in the mind of any soldier or subject of his that the gods are behind the obstacle—just like they actually are. So, Agamemnon is forced to appease, one way or the other, the deity he insulted.
ASOIAF is a completely different story, set in a fundamentally different culture. One of the most important aspects of the saga is that supernatural forces are coming back to the world. In effect, that means Westeros, at the beginning of ASOIAF, is a place governed by rationality, simply because it didn’t witness any magic for ages. There is faith, of course, because the Westerosi don’t delude themselves into thinking they can control the rain and the snow and the storms and whatnot. They never mistake themselves for gods. They are aware some things will always escape their reasoning, and therefore they do place their faith in the deities of the religion they happen to belong to. But they are a pretty rational society. Primitive compared to modern societies on 21st century Earth, but very rational. The traditions and rules they follow are established by centuries and centuries of human experience, and not because this divine authority or that one issued an order. One could say that even their faith in higher powers is somewhat rational at its core.
That delicate balance between reason and faith is what enables the culture that commands the political and social system in Westeros. And in such a culture, a king who sacrifices his daughter just because that’s how he interpreted the order form the deity he worships is a freak, an abomination, a lunatic that nobody would follow anywhere, let alone into war.
And it’s not that the Westerosi never heard of the concept of sacrifice. In fact, in the early stages of Stannis’ arc in the books, we’re told the story of Azor Ahai and his beloved Nissa Nissa, whom he had to kill in order to save the human race. But that’s exactly the point: Nissa Nissa died so the world would be saved, and not for a victory in a dynastic war. With that legend, the author makes us understand what kind of sacrifice is possible in the world he created, which, by extension, renders some other types unacceptable.
And in the books everyone’s aware of that. Whatever feelings Stannis has for his daughter, he’d never even think about sacrificing her for the Iron Throne. Melisandre would never even mention such a suggestion to Stannis, nor does she herself ever entertain the idea, it seems. Even R’hllor looks pretty uninterested in Shireen at this stage, although Stannis at the end of ADWD (and beginning of TWOW) is arguably in a worse situation than his TV namesake—if for nothing else, because that TV blizzard is a joke compared to the one Martin described in the book.
Have to say, I was unpleasantly surprised by a number of people that reacted to TV Shireen’s death with the notion that Stannis in the book would never burn his daughter like that, but Mel totally would. I really can’t say where that interpretation of Melisandre is coming from, but Martin’s famous statement that Mel’s probably the most misunderstood character in ASOIAF only makes more sense now. There undoubtedly is a fanatical and merciless side to Melisandre, but she’s not all evil. Far from it. In the very chapter she’s introduced in, when Maester Cressen approaches her with a poisoned wine, she openly warns him against the deed, signaling him to abandon the attempt on her life. Many readers seem to forget or overlook that detail, but it’s quite a telling one. It doesn’t mean she’s some kind angel, of course not; some of her acts are clearly repulsive and unforgivable; but, just like the vast majority of ASOIAF characters, she’s nuanced and layered. And no, not in any moment so far she even thinks about burning Shireen or indicates that it has to be done.
But David Benioff actually claims Shireen will be sacrificed in the books, too. In “Inside the episode” video, this is what he said:
“When George first told us about this, it was one of those moments where I remember looking at Dan, it was just like, `God, that’s so, it’s so horrible, and so good in a story sense, because it all comes together.`”
At face value, this may look like Benioff’s storytelling talent finally came through. At long last, he produced a line that is subtle, mysterious, intriguing, open to various, though not necessarily illogical, interpretations, and worthy of a serious analysis. And, most importantly, it didn’t happen by chance; no, he obviously intended it that way.
And that’s it. That is really the full extent of Benioff’s talent, because in the very next sentence he managed to embarrass himself and deliver a factually wrong recollection of his own work:
“You know, from the beginning, from the very first time we saw Stannis and Melisandre, they were sacrificing people, they were burning people alive on the beaches of Dragonstone. And it’s really all come to this. There’s been so much talk about king’s blood and the power of king’s blood, and that all leads ultimately, fatally, to Shireen’s sacrifice.”
Beg your pardon, Mr. Benioff, but what the hell are you talking about? What people were they burning alive on the beaches of Dragonstone? Those were statues of the Seven, not people, Mr. Benioff! If you want to leave the impression you’re in command of Martin’s yet-untold story, you shouldn’t be misremembering parts of the story you yourself already told. But let’s get back to the beginning first line: “When George first told us about this . . .” What does this “this” of yours stand for, Mr. Benioff? If you’re trying to say that George told you Stannis will allow Mel to burn Shireen after Ramsay destroyed his army’s supplies, you’re either lying or once again misremembering vital parts of the story. Melisandre and Shireen aren’t even with Stannis on his march to Winterfell in the books. Ramsay doesn’t perform some miraculous commando mission in the books. And George did write those books, all five of them so far. So he theoretically couldn’t have told you about “this”!
What he possibly did tell you, is that Shireen will indeed be sacrificed, maybe even by Stannis himself. But many a reader speculated about that possibility for years and years. I guess you and Mr. Weiss were busy reading online theories about Jon Snow’s mother, so perhaps you didn’t have the time to go through other predictions dedicated readers keep posting, because otherwise you wouldn’t be too surprised when George first told you about “this.”
Yes, Shireen’s sacrifice has for long been hinted at in the novels, and since Martin didn’t rebut your statement, it’s now as good as proven that it’s going to happen in the remaining two installments. But it’s even more certain Martin isn’t going to do it in such a shallow and gratuitous way as you two did.
(Gratuitous! What a word. It was in every GOT-related article these past weeks, but now, when TV Stannis gratuitously burns his daughter, it’s nowhere to be seen, it seems. It’s as if this kind of violence doesn’t particularly disturb mainstream media, because it’s not politically bankable.)
Your scene, Mr. Benioff, lacked the gravity ASOIAF scenes are famous for. It happens a lot in this “adaptation” of yours, because things that fascinate you two apparently confuse you too. For example, you also managed to misunderstand patricide, as evidenced last year when you omitted the most important part of Tyrion’s decision to abandon his escape from prison and go look for some explanations from Tywin. This season, a sacrificial murder of a man’s own child was obviously too much for your comprehension, even though you couldn’t resist putting it in the show.
And yes, you also failed to properly interpret Ramsay, although you evidently adore the guy. And allow me to show you what I mean, by asking you a simple question: When did you discover you’re in love with Ramsay’s shenanigans?
Here’s my guess: only when you read “A Dance with Dragons,” e.g. by the time you already scripted the entire second season of your show. Was it humiliating, Mr. Benioff, to read in awe those Winterfell chapters in that book, while all the time thinking about the huge mistake of cutting Ramsay out of your “adaptation”? Yeah, in the third season you managed to bring Ramsay in (and ever since you waited for the opportunity to add a burning horse, which is a book scene associated with Ramsay material you skipped in Season 2), because by that time you became obsessed with him and his cruelty. But you were still mad at yourselves, and possibly at George, for omitting Roose’s bastard from the second season, which resulted in the mess that was the TV Winterfell storyline that year. Was it then when you finally made George tell you the endgame for ASOIAF, so you could avoid similar missteps in the future?
Was it then when you also found out about Shireen’s ultimate fate? Because neither Shireen nor Selyse appeared in Season 2, which indicates that when you were writing the scripts you probably still didn’t know about that “this” thing you referred to in the latest “Inside the episode” video.
Seeing how fascinated you obviously are with both Ramsay’s sadism and Shireen’s sacrifice, I’m positive you’d have included both in Season 2, had you known back then what Martin had in store for them. Not that Ramsay’s or Shireen’s TV arc would benefit from it. I mean, just look at what you did to the Daznak’s Pit scene, which, in the same “Inside the episode” video, you described like this, Mr. Benioff:
“Even before we put it in paper, I remember reading this scene in the book and saying ‘Holy shit.’ And, actually, I remember e-mailing George right after I read the scene, even before I finished the book, just after reading this scene, and saying: `That’s one of the best scenes in any of your books and I have no idea how we’re gonna do it`.” Well, looks like eventually you got some idea. This is how you “did it” in the end: you made it even more complicated, though in a completely ridiculous way that inevitably removed every quality the scene possessed in the book and replaced it with some silly action the ultimate purpose of which was, yes, to feed Peter Dinklage with what you probably recognize as award material. You even failed to reward your man Jorah with a badass moment: when he hits that Son of the Harpy with a spear, it looks impressive at first, but then one realizes Jorah couldn’t miss actually, because the Sons of the Harpy were everywhere. In whichever direction he sent that spear, he’d kill one of them!
But all of that is small potatoes compared to your biggest, meanest, vilest gesture ever, Mr. Benioff. Let’s get back to “Inside the episode” video and your “When George first told us about this” line.
Asking you what right did you have to spoil the future books that way, would definitely be futile. Earning a right to do something is, clearly, one more concept you see no problem rejecting. I also doubt you ever think about comeuppance, seeing how dismissively you look at the very idea of higher justice. Just like I’m sure the next time you need to cover your unparalleled incompetence, you’re again not going to hesitate to put the responsibility on Martin, and spoil the coming novels in the process. But don’t fool yourself, that’s sort of kinslaying what you do. And you are on ASOIAF ground. And you’re about to lose all your supplies, because scripts for the next season you’ll have to turn in any day now, and “The Winds of Winter” is still not out.
And, after the last episode, I think you two have a very clear idea how strong and mind-corroding is the despair that falls on self-entitled, under-equipped fanatics caught on hostile, unfamiliar territory.