Traditionally, episode nine of each season of Game of Thrones has held the climatic action of the season’s arc. This particular episode was difficult to watch for several reasons: a) as soon as Stannis sent Ser Davos away I knew what was coming, and b) as a book reader, I knew that Drogon would save the day and a fantasy long imagined in my mind was fulfilled – Daenerys rode her dragon.

What happened to Princess Shireen was horrible, but there is something to be said about a show that can deliver this horrible sacrifice of a character we’ve become somewhat attached to and immediately follow it with the epic event in Meereen. Two big players in the game of thrones made two very big decisions in this episode, and those decisions could not possible set them further apart as the kinds of leaders they are, and could be, if either of them gain the Iron Throne.

Jon Snow Returns

Jon Snow is back from the massacre at Hardhome. I doubt he’ll ever sleep right again after that stare down with the Night’s King. There’s a moment when he’s approaching The Wall when we think that Alliser Thorne isn’t going to open the gates. I knew it wouldn’t last, but it was enough of a moment of tension to make me kind of panic, because we know what will happen to them if they stay out there.

Thorne eventually gives the command to raise the gates and he and the wildling refugees shuffle through Castle Black. There is no love for these people. They are walking into enemy territory, but they’ve just seen some of the most crucial supernatural craziness on the show as of yet. I don’t know why Jon takes the attitude from Thorne. He admits his feelings of failure to Sam, and Sam, forever the optimist, tells Jon that while he didn’t save them all, he did save some. And it’s more than any other Lord Commander at The Wall would have done.

I wanted a speech. I wanted Jon to stand up on the steps and tell his men what happened at Hardhome. I wanted him to make it real to them: Winter is coming and it looked me right in the eyes. The army of the dead is coming, and the Night’s Watch needs to drop their attitudes and get ready.

(A note to book readers: I think Olly is being built up to fill in a story line that belongs to Bowen Marsh in the books. It makes sense. I dread it like I dread the day before a colonoscopy.)

Dorne

Sigh. Things happened. I guess I’ll talk about them since this is a recap and that’s what I’m supposed to do, but what’s happening in Dorne seems so far removed from everything else that is going on. I think Dorne will be important later, as the Martell’s were a house that married into the Targaryen family and supported their claim to the throne. I can see that they would be a noble House that would help Daenerys should she come up from the South.

But right now, Jaime is forgiven, Myrcella is scantily clad, and Trystane will be returning with her to King’s Landing. Trystane and Myrcella will remain engaged to maintain the alliance between the Lannisters and the Martells and he will serve on the small council; a small council that is in shambles because of Cersei’s cunning and subsequent backfire. Bronn is also released from his cell to get punched in the face by Areo Hotah to account for his mishandling of Trystane.

Later, Doran makes Ellaria Sand pledge her allegiance to him. He tells her he believes in second chances, but not a third chance, so basically she needs to knock her rebellion off or he’s going to have her killed. The Sand Snakes must watch as Ellaria bends the knee. I’ve not made a secret of the fact that I feel like this story line has played out the flattest for me as a viewer. I think the elimination Doran Martell’s daughter, Arianne Martell, as a character and the haphazard replacement of her with Ellaria’s vengeance and the poorly developed characters of the Sand Snakes was not successful story telling.

I do believe Dorne could be important down the line, but it’s been such a throwaway story this entire season. Does anyone feel truly invested in any of these people? In the books, Arianne Martell was promised (in secret) to Viserys Targaryen, and House Martell was going to be a key ally for the Targaryen resurgence and help them reclaim the Iron Throne and strip power from House Lannister. However, when word was received that Viserys was dead, plans were quickly made for Doran Martell’s son Quentyn to go down to Meereen and seek out Daenerys and propose an alliance between their houses through a marriage with him. This seems like an important part of the book that the show just decided to completely cut out. It ties the two families together and guarantees that there is a Noble House waiting for the Targaryens to return. But then again, Dany gave that speech about breaking the wheel of house power in Westeros last week, so maybe the show runners cut out the connection with Dorne because it isn’t a part of Daenerys’ ultimate destiny.

A Girl Sees Ser Meryn Trant

Arya is still on her first official mission for the Faceless Men – to kill the skinny gambling man. It seems like she is about to make her move, when she spots a familiar face. A face that we’ve heard in her death prayers over and over again: Ser Meryn Trant. If you don’t remember his offense to Arya, you have to go way back to season one when Cersei has every member of House Stark rounded up. He is the one sent to fetch Arya; he is the one who likely killed Syrio Forel.

There is no question that Arya would rather fulfill her need for revenge than do the bidding of the Many Faced God; which speaks a lot to where she stands with the separation from her identity. However, she still follows the rules of observation, a technique taught to her so that she may know her enemy before killing him. She follows Meryn Trant from the docks straight to a brothel where his taste for young girls is made known. This was definitely cringe-worthy, but it only makes him more despicable as a man. Arya observes all of this. It’s not clear whether Ser Meryn recognizes her or not, but she definitely catches his eye, and that might just be because he’s a pedophile. Arya has observed his weakness now, and she heard his demand for a fresh young girl upon his next visit. I bet that next young girl will be Arya, and I bet you she uses that as a way to get alone with him so she can kill him.

Perhaps this is what Jaqen meant last week when expressing indifference as to whether or not Arya was ready to kill for the Many Faced God? Maybe he knows that she will kill and serve justice, even if the skinny gambling man has to wait until she crosses a name off her death list first.

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Stannis Fucking Baratheon

Well, I was hoping Ramsay Bolton’s cocky claim that he could inflict damage with only 20 men would get him killed. That wasn’t the case at all. Ramsay managed to burn Stannis’ food supply, kill some people and horses and push Stannis toward the desperate religious fanaticism we were hoping he would steer clear of this time around.

And yet, I have to keep myself in check, because even though Stannis helped out the Night’s Watch, showed respect for Jon Snow and a proclivity for proper grammar – he still allows the Red Woman to burn people alive on a regular basis. As viewers, these people don’t mean anything to us, so we just pushed it to the back of our minds as we let Stannis grow on us. Lest we forget, his wife had her own brother burned at the stake and Stannis had sex with Melisandre so she could carry his shadow baby that killed his only living brother. Dude is a fanatic.

We were supremely misled earlier in the season when Stannis was humanized by a visit with his daughter Shireen, during which he confesses how much he loves her. The scene served multiple purposes; one was to introduce us grayscale, so we’d understand what it meant when Jorah Mormont gets it, and also to make us believe that even though he’s a little severe and engages in religious fanaticism, he loves his little girl.

I knew the moment he sent Ser Davos back to The Wall to ask for supplies and men that he was going to sacrifice his daughter. Ser Davos is truly the only one who would oppose him, and he knew that. Stannis promises Lord Commander Jon Snow that he will man The Wall and all its castles once he wins the Iron Throne in exchange for what he asks. That means he’s made up his mind already. He’s weighed the importance of his being King against the life of his daughter.

During Ser Davos’ last visit with Shireen, in which he gives her a beautifully carved stag, she tells him about the story she is reading that is called “The Dance of Dragons,” which ties in neatly to the end of this episode. The story is more fully explained when Stannis comes to visit Shireen. “The Dance of Dragons” is about a fight between Rhaenyra Targaryen and her half-brother Aegon who both believed they belonged on the Iron Throne. The war was a disaster as the people began declaring for either Targaryen, dividing the Kingdom in two; brother fought brother, dragon fought dragon. By the end of the whole thing, thousands of people were dead. Shireen says that the Targaryen Dynasty never truly recovered after that.

This story she is reading is a beautiful parallel to what we’ve seen happening in Game of Thrones as the Seven Kingdoms have broken apart and the multitude of Kings declaring it is their right to sit the Iron Throne. It is Stannis’ reaction to this story that provides us with some insight into just how deeply Stannis has bought into the idea of destiny and King’s right that Melisandre has planted in his mind. The two speak of choice and Stannis basically says that the world has forced his hand, because he knows that his destiny is to be King of the Seven Kingdoms. He basically decries, “I am fortune’s fool,” and has succumbed to this ultimatum given to him by Melisandre. The only way for him to become who he is meant to be is to sacrifice his daughter to the Lord of Light for the sake of her King’s Blood. He makes this choice based on his belief in Melisandre and the prophecy of the Lord of Light. This is an example of extreme religious fanaticism with some mysticism thrown in there with the idea of King’s Blood having true power. I mean, the leeches full of Gendry’s blood resulted in the deaths of all of Stannis’ opponents to the Throne, so he has reason to believe it.

To hear Shireen tell her father that she would do anything to help and then watch as she is walked to the pyre where she is to be sacrificed, the realization slowly dawning on her as she approaches and sees Melisandre, was heart breaking. I kept waiting for Stannis to change his mind. Then to hear Shireen’s screams for her father, only to see him stand by and watch, and Queen Selyse’s ill-timed change of heart and the guttural wail she releases when she realizes what she has let happen – it made this scene painful. Painfully sad, painfully ruthless and painfully evident that Stannis has fully given himself over to this idea of destiny that Melisandre keeps whispering into his ear. He sacrificed his daughter, the baby he almost lost, but saved by calling on every Maester in the Kingdom. It was as though he only did that so he could one day use her as a tool for his own gain. Which is how most men on the show view women anyway; they see them as commodities and as a means to an end.

I hope this woke people up. Stannis is a puppet for the Red Woman and whatever agenda she is working through the Lord of Light. Stannis is propelled by the delusion of some grand destiny where he is King of the Seven Kingdoms. Who wants to build their reign on sacrificed children and mystical forces that no one really understands? Stannis just killed his daughter based entirely on faith. Remember that and how crazy it seems. Faith is a common instrument used even in our day and age to commit heinous crimes with some internal source of affirmation from whatever god the person believes in.

Will Stannis now win the siege of Winterfell? Will he gain the North and then the Iron Throne? I don’t know, but I do know that the common folk will likely be unreceptive to a King who listens to a Red Priestess and sacrificed his own daughter.

Daenerys Goes for a Ride

I have been waiting for this moment for years. It came on the curtails of the horrifying scene I just described, so it was hard to make the emotional shift from what Stannis just did to what Daenerys just accomplished.

We’ll start from the top. First of all, that necklace Daenerys is wearing is absolutely stunning, kudos to the costume crew. The scene takes place at the big opening day for the fighting pits of Meereen, and Daenerys must grant every atrocity her permission with the clap of her hands. This makes her complicit in a savage sport that she is opposed to in every way. It’s a Meereenese cultural tradition and just another example of why Daenerys shouldn’t be ruling in a city so far from where she is needed in Westeros.

Tyrion also doesn’t like the show of killing. Hizdar zo Loraq poses an interesting question that speaks to what Stannis has just done as well as to what is happening in the fighting pits: what great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty? There’s a lot of good conversation taking place while these men kill each other. What establishes greatness? The permanence of legacy in a place and a culture; the concept of what cause men live or die for, and whether it is their own choice or at the hands of those in power who make those decisions for them. There’s actually quite a bit of dialogue I found to be rather valuable in understanding where Daenerys, Tyrion and Hizdar all stand on these issues.

And then Jorah Mormont is introduced into the fighting pit, and you can read on Dany’s face that she fears for his life. Tyrion tells her she can stop the fight, she can save Jorah, but Hizdar insists that she can’t interfere. No need, because Jorah has grayscale and nothing to lose, and he fights like a man who doesn’t fear death. When he pitches the spear at the end, letting it fly loose and stop the Sons of the Harpy assassin who has crept up behind Daenerys, my insides went tense.

What followed was absolute chaos, and was perhaps the reason Hizdar zo Loraq was late to the fight; did he arrange this? If he did, things went terribly wrong for him, as he was stabbed several times. The few unsullied, Jorah, Daario and Tyrion all fight to defend the Queen, but they are vastly outnumbered by the Sons of the Harpy that are appearing everywhere. This was almost as exhilarating as what happened at Hardhome, except I knew how this was going to end. Once surrounded and closed in, Daenerys reaches over and takes Missandei’s hand and closes her eyes. One could argue she is preparing for death, but I think she was sending out a call to her dragon. Drogon senses her distress, and his appearance is quite a thing to behold.

He lays waste to Dany’s enemies, setting whole groups of men on fire. Wow, that would be really useful up at that place where there is an army of undead that can be killed with fire, where is that place again? Oh, yeah, The Wall. Right.

Drogon doesn’t escape this without harm, he is filled with spears, and as Daenerys goes over to him to take a spear out, he roars in her face. But then he submits to her, because he knows who she is. And then Daenerys climbs on top of Drogon. It’s something we’ve only ever heard in stories told by the children of Westeros. Arya loved the story of a Targaryen warrior princess who fought from the back of her dragon. In climbing onto Drogon’s back and taking flight, Daenerys is fulfilling a part of her own destiny.

We’ve seen her hang her house sigil, wear jewelry fashioned like dragons and talk shit about having dragons, but she chained up two of them and Drogon went rogue. Daenerys’ caged her dragon power, which is a part of her ruling power. This scene is all about Daenerys embracing her inner dragon. She is the Mother of Dragons. I thought it was very well done. It could have been cheesy, but the effects were great. For Tyrion and Jorah it was like witnessing something transcendent, something they’d only been told in tales from long ago. Daenerys is now officially the character with the coolest power – riding dragons.

What will she do now? Where will she go? Will she come back to Meereen? She could do anything! I can’t wait to see how the show handles what happens to Daenerys next. She can’t completely abandon Meereen because of the people she cares about that are there and also, that’s where her other dragons are still being contained.

My Final Thoughts

I did really enjoy this episode, even with Stannis sacrificing Shireen, because it reminds us who he really is as a leader. He is no better than Cersei who enacted the Faith Militant. It was easy to lose sight of Stannis’ faults because he helped out the Night’s Watch, but he’s not a good man. His rule is rooted in blind faith and an idea of destiny planted in his head by a Sorceress. Jon Snow is attempting to overcome thousands of years of hate between people separated by an ice wall in order to fight off an army of ice zombies. And Daenerys just escaped a massive assassination attempt by calling in her dragon and riding off on his back. These are all very different rulers with different ideas on how to rule and with different driving morals. I don’t know if the season finale will have us on the edge of our seats or if it will be a dénouement of sorts, tying up some of the huge things that happened in these last two episodes.

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Amanda Lowery lives, writes and studies in Baltimore where she is held hostage by potholes, stray cats and rats that make her watch way too much TV and rhyme unnecessarily. You can find her book reviews and pop culture thoughts at amandasthinkingoutloud.blogspot.com.

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