[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 5, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
Only one episode of Game of Thrones season 5 remains. And while a great deal could happen during next week's finale that might completely change the nature of the conversation about it, it would seem, by and large, the season has proven to be about the difficulty of choice.
And yet, despite the narrative moving again and again to the idea of characters like Jon, Dany, Stannis, and so on being faced with making difficult and often unpopular choices, the discussion surrounding the season has actually been dominated by the decisions going on behind the scenes; the ones being made by the creators of the series. This season we have seen D.B. Weiss and David Benioff taken to task for certain storytelling choices that didn't occur in the books. For example: the final scene in 'Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.' That decision has inadvertently placed the notion of choice in an odd position, as the decisions faced by the characters have generated some fairly heated exchanges about the choices being made by the series' writers and the merits of violence, particularly violence directed towards young women.
This being Game of Thrones, it was inevitable that the conversation would begin anew, after another horrific choice sees another young woman meet a brutal and violent fate. In the case of 'The Dance of Dragons,' it is none other than Stannis Baratheon's only daughter Shireen, who is burned alive as a symbol of the Red Woman's faith (and to a lesser extent, the faith Shireen's mother and father have) in the Lord of Light. Or is it Melisandre in whom they've placed their faith? It's hard to be sure, and that's probably the way Game of Thrones wants it to be.
Strangely enough, though, the violence enacted upon Shireen is depicted in much the same way that the violence enacted upon Sansa was: With the camera centering its focus away from the victim and onto the horrified eyes of those bearing witness, all while the victim's screams fill the air. At least in this case, the screams snap Selyse out of her less-than-motherly ways, though it's all for naught, as the damage has already been done and Shireen's cries eventually cease, as her mother looks on in horror.
That seemingly leaves Stannis with the question: Was the Lord of Light sufficiently pleased with his sacrifice, and will he and his starving army be able to make war on Winterfell before the season is over? But it leaves the audience with an even bigger and harder question: Is there any hope for Stannis as a character, now that he's done the unthinkable and chosen his ambition over the child he professed to love in a surprisingly heartfelt speech in 'Sons of the Harpy'? There's always been a contingent of fans that have held a place in their heart for the stubborn Stannis, but after killing his brother and now sacrificing his daughter, so that he can be one step closer to ruling Westeros, is there a fan who can continue to support his campaign to claim the throne?
What's worse, Stannis' choice leaves the North in a precarious position. With Jon Snow busy saving wildlings and killing White Walkers, there's no one to take control of Winterfell but two unlikeable bastards. Right now, the choice is between Flaymaster General Roose Bolton and he of the red-ringed eyes and frozen heart, Stannis Baratheon. With a choice like that, you almost begin to root for the White Walkers – at least they respect life enough to bring the dead back to it. But then again, isn't that something devotees of the Lord of Light can do as well?
It will come as no surprise, then, that the choices faced by characters in 'The Dance of Dragons' have to do with more than the decision made by Stannis. Over in Braavos, Arya is preparing to engage in her first assassination, but is distracted by the arrival of Ser Meryn Trant. As if there weren’t enough reasons for the audience to already want Ser Meryn dead – or anyone else on Arya's hit list, for that matter – the show underlines the character's despicableness by demonstrating his proclivity for very young women. This again is a character choice that somehow winds up reflecting more on the people behind the scenes of the series than on the character in question.
Meryn's choices seem to be set up an inevitable meeting with Arya, but they also demonstrate how emotionally manipulative the show can be, by continually placing children in horrific and brutal situations as a means of evoking a response from the viewership. It's effective to be sure, but it also hammers home what some may see as the frustratingly endless nihilism of the series; one that undercuts the few hopeful things we are given, like Dany's flight on Drogon in the closing moments of the episode.
And as amazing as Drogon's appearance and Daenerys' connection with her dragon is, the highlight of the episode may actually be something Tyrion says to Hizdahr zo Loraq before all hell breaks loose. He says, "There's always been enough death in the world for my taste. I can do without it in my leisure time."
A conscious decision was made to put this line in, and given the discussion during the season over the depiction of a specific kind of violence on the show, one has to wonder what the nature of the line was intended to be. On one hand, it demonstrates Tyrion's attitude toward the world at large, and perhaps the hope he feels someone like Daenerys and her dragons can bring. But on the other hand, it's a wildly ironic line that seems to be the show pointing a finger at itself. And if that's the case, how are we to interpret Loraq's question to Tyrion: "What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?"
These are questions being asked not only by the characters, of the world in which they live, but also by the writers of the series, in regard to the story they have created. And that's rather significant. It implies the same kind of self-awareness that was heard last season in Tyrion's speech about Orson Lannister and the beetles, but this time, instead of simply addressing the nihilism and violence, a question is posed as to its value as a storytelling tool. Because of the way the show is produced, only the writers know how self-referential the lines of dialogue actually are. Either way, they could be the start of a compelling discussion.
Game of Thrones will conclude season 5 with 'Mother's Mercy' next Sunday @9pm. Check out a preview below: