Last week's Game of Thrones ended impressively with 15 solid minutes of action that you'd expect to have blown the budget for the season. And yet they did it again this week! But we'll get to that.
Though Ramsay Bolton wasn't seen this episode, he made good on his vow to end the threat of Stannis with just 20 soldiers. That left Stannis in a rough place No one has ever really wanted to see him come out on top here. And he's never been a particularly nice guy; he was largely responsible for the death of his own brother Renly. Nevertheless, he went several shades darker this episode, serving up his own daughter in a horrific, religious sacrifice. (And despite not showing it, the show made the moment more than effectively terrible.)
It's possible that the show has now spoiled the books in at least two ways. Shireen is not traveling with Stannis in the books, so it seems unlikely that this fate awaits her there. But there is another character in Stannis' custody in the books, one with debatably royal blood. Could that character be in for a burning early in book six? And moreover, is the show presenting us a different characterization of Stannis, or saying that Book Stannis will soon come to believe his own hype? (In the books, it's his wife that's the true religious zealot, while Stannis himself seems to rather skeptically and cynically use other people's faith to get what he wants.)
To get to this point of no return, Stannis had to send away his voice of reason. Davos is also separated from his king in the books, though on a very different mission. I suspect we will see him arriving at the Wall in next week's finale. But if not, he ends the season on a strong scene, bidding an unknowingly permanent goodbye to Shireen.
Speaking of the Wall, Jon arrived there near the top of the episode, with Wildling refugees in tow. He was allowed back into Castle Black, but endured many harsh sideways glances once there. He certainly can't feel he made the wrong decision after what he faced last week; the question still remains whether anyone else will agree.
Dorne got the most screen time of any episode this season. And it's simply gorgeous. The lavish sets, ornate props, detailed costumes... what a feast for the eyes. Plus, story-wise, we finally got some scenes that would have been better far earlier in the season. The Sand Snakes taunting one another in prison certainly fleshed out those characters more than they have been so far. And Doran was looking tougher (despite rolling over for Jamie) in his stern threat to Ellaria Sand. Of course, Ellaria didn't seem entirely cowed, and went on to have a very meaningful conversation with Jamie. At least, it certainly seemed meaningful. We're far off book here, and I'm honestly not sure what it means.
Over in Braavos, Arya has become distracted in her assassination mission by sighting Ser Meryn, a name on her kill list. In case viewers have forgotten why he is to be hated (he killed Arya's "dancing instructor," Syrio Forel... though theorists note we never saw the body), the writers made Meryn despicable all over again with his behavior in this episode. To me, the most interesting moment in this storyline was when Arya lies to Jaqen H'ghar and isn't swiftly slapped for it. Has Arya truly become good enough at lying to deceive him, or is Jaqen simply standing by his claim that death is all the same to the Many-Faced God? I have my own (book informed) theories on where this is going, but we should find out soon enough in next week's finale.
That just leaves Meereen, setting of this episode's epic arena finale. Though there was a lot of amazing action, there were plenty of great character moments too. I loved Daario and Tyrion attempting to verbally spar with Hizdahr over the merits of smaller people. It was also great to see Dany's temper flare at the sight of Jorah, bringing with it a momentary bloodlust for the fighting she'd found reprehensible just moments earlier.
But the real battle was not among the gladiators, but against the Sons of the Harpy. Their move here was much more overt and alarming than the corresponding sequence from the books. Where A Dance With Dragons really tried to advance the suspicion that Hizdahr is in fact the leader of the Harpies, the show has either gone in a different direction or explicitly disproved that theory by having them kill him. Indeed, this suggests that an assassination attempt in the books (not depicted on the show) that was apparently aimed at Daenerys might in fact have been aimed at Hizdahr. But as intriguing as this revelation might be, the greater thrill was in seeing Hizdahr, a frustrating character and side plot, killed off on screen.
Of course the biggest thrill of all was Drogon swooping in to save Dany and carry her away. Readers may have known that was coming, but that hardly lessened the rush of seeing the dragon burn and rip apart dozens of attackers. How those Dany left behind will fare, though, is a much more fraught question. The peril of the other characters is considerably more intense on the show than it was when Daenerys flew away in the books.
Teeing things up for a jam-packed finale, this episode gets an A-in my book.