(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows)
After last week’s brutal and hard-hitting climax at the wildling fort of “Hardhome“, a jaw-dropping scene that has literally been built upon and foreshadowed since the opening moments of the first episode, fans could be forgiven for expecting this week to pale in comparison. Luckily “The Dance of Dragons” only amped things up further in preparation for the finale, building an hour that encapsulates what may be the most horrifyingly emotional moment in the history of the show and then matches it with a scene of triumph so glorious that the audience is shaken to the core.
Any other week, Arya’s storyline would be an episode highpoint, as her joining of the Faceless Men is finally bearing fruit with the assignment of her first mission. The coincidence of Meryn Trant showing up, something we all should’ve seen coming, is poetic perfection for her arc as she must choose whether to let go of her old self or not in the most extreme of circumstances. Does she follow orders and assassinate the “thin man”, or follow her heart and cross another name off of her list? I think we all know Arya well enough to know what she would choose, new allegiances aside. Though she aimed to escape her past when she boarded a ship to Dorne in the season 4 finale, it seems that at least one part of her old life has followed her across the narrow sea.
Ultimately she fails to kill Meryn Trant in the brothel (where it’s revealed that he’s also a pedophile, as if we didn’t hate this guy enough) and must return to Jaqen H’ghar as a failure, and a suspicious one at that. We already know that Jaqen can tell when someone lies to him, so what will he have in store for Arya next week? Just what kind of punishment does the Many-Faced God dole out to those who betray his trust? I suppose we’ll find out.
In the episodes smallest plot thread, Jon Snow and his defeated army of newly united wildlings and crows (and one giant) return to the Wall, receiving at least as much scorn as fanfare at their homecoming. Ollie and Alliser Thorne are only the most high profile of characters at the Wall who disapprove of Jon’s decision to bring the wildlings into the fold, but will they change their mind when they hear the horrible tales Jon has to tell, or is his trouble only beginning? There’s a tense moment when Jon stands on the outside of the Wall as the warring wildlings themselves did just last season, wondering if Thorne will even open the gates, while Thorne’s line about how Jon’s good heart will be the death of them all has the firm ring of prophesy, but to what end?
“The Dance of Dragons” is a dynamic and devastating hour
Next, we find ourselves in the most troubling and disturbing plotline of the hour, with Stannis’ camp being broken by Ramsey Bolton’s carefully planned attack. His food stores burned and hundreds of his men dead, Stannis becomes desperate and we all know what’s coming, even as we dread it. Ser Davos seems to be most keen to what this unfortunate turn of events might yield, but all of his best efforts fail to prevent it from coming to fruition, and with the Onion Knight sent away to the Wall for reinforcements and supplies, there is no one left in Stannis’ camp to prevent the inevitable.
There are a pair of final scenes for Shereen’s father and surrogate grandfather to say goodbye to her in their own ways, one through hopeful trepidation and the other via muted fatalism. What follows is what may be the most brutal and devastating death in the series’ history, as Shereen is put to the stake and burned alive while she screams for her parents to save her. Said parents are of course in attendance and entirely complacent in the burning of their gentle and sweet-willed daughter, but ironically it is Shereen’s zealot mother who finally balks at the sacrifice and not Stannis. We can likely infer after this horrific and soul-destroying scene of smoldering innocence that Stannis will be damned in one way or another, as he cannot possibly be allowed to succeed after this. Perhaps we will see him take on the role of central antagonist as the series works toward its close, certainly he has reached a point now where he easily matches the calculated cruelty of Cersei Lannister and the disgusting debauchery of Ramsey Bolton.
The upswing to this crushing sequence of events comes in the form of a scene that is telegraphed as being as devastating as the one which preceded it. With the re-opening of the fighting pits, Daenerys sits in attendance with her husband-to-be as they watch men slaughter each other for entertainment. The first revelation comes when Jorah reveals himself to be one of the fighters, but the tricky emotional turbulence that follows serves once again as what would be an episode highlight any other week. While Daenerys acquiesces to each section of the fight, we can see the conflict in her, and even as she leaves Jorah to his fate, he returns to aid her once again. The touching moment when he holds up his hand to protect her, and she places her hand in his, is an awe-inspiring one for these two characters who have been with us since the very beginning.
The violent death of Hizdahr zo Loraq becomes almost a footnote in the chaos as the Sons of the Harpy close a devious circle around Daenerys and her allies in the fighting pit. With several principle characters facing certain death, the scene carries a heavy bit of gravitas with it before Drogon shows up to save the day. The irony of all of this should not be lost on anyone, but it is a firm reminder that Daenerys is much better at conquering than ruling. Both the appeasement of the slaving families of Meereen and the chaining up of her dragons are shown as clear mistakes as the Sons of the Harpy continue their shadow war and only Drogon’s (and Jorah’s) timely arrival save her from certain death.
The closing scene culminates in what may be the most awe-inspiring and goosebump-inducing moment in Game of Thrones history, as Drogon is pierced by a half-dozen spears in Daenerys’ defense, and just as we’re digging in for another heart-rending death sequence, instead Daenerys climbs on his back, and the two soar to safety as Tyrion, Jorah, Daario, and Missandei look upon a moment that will one day become the stuff of legends.
In the last two weeks Game of Thrones has firmly made good on two of the largest and most important storylines it has ever created, and with the amount of fan investment in this series, to have two moments as big as this in as many weeks is almost enough to make us feel spoiled.
Now if only that Sand Snake storyline would go somewhere…