The penultimate episode is, traditionally, when Game of Thrones ups the ante and gives viewers the 'Red Wedding moment' that dictates water cooler talk / YouTube reaction compilations for weeks to come.
'The Dance of Dragons' did not disappoint, though wisely it seems as though David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have decided to avoid any attempt to repeat the 'multiple deaths' shock tactic of previous seasons (though there is, of course, another episode to go).
Instead we had another virtuoso final twenty minutes that ranks alongside any moment in the show's history, and one big stakes death that fell a little flat.
Those and the other major talking points, then.
1 | Stannis undoes all his good work
Any regular readers of these recaps (Hello? Mum?) will know that we've been banging the drum for Team Stannis since episode one this season. Up at Castle Black he was all pithy quips and grammatical pedantry – not to mention the cool new beard – and increasingly we found ourselves backing him for the top job.
But then, just when you're starting to like a fella, he decides to appease a false God and satisfy his power lust by burning his own child to death at a stake, and suddenly you're forced to reconsider your opinion.
Princess Shireen's demise was, when you think about it, the most brutal thing ever to happen on the show. I can't think of another time a child has been subjected to an agonising death. Somehow, though, despite a strong perfomance from young Kerry Ingram (channeling Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man) it left me unmoved, and I think the problem was that I didn't quite buy it.
Stannis had lost some food and men to the fires started by Ramsay and his saboteurs, but the situation didn't feel extreme enough – nor has he felt so enthralled to Melisandre this season – that burning his own child to death seemed like a price worth paying. It is hard to believe that Stannis really thinks it will make him King.
Also, the show repeated its bad habit of setting up a contrived scene designed to ramp up the emotional impact of the death – in this instance, Sir Davos giving little Shireen a toy and telling her she'd helped him 'grow up' – that actually just gave the game away. Like the Wildling Clan Mother last week and Ser Barristan before that, you saw her death a mile off thanks to all the clunky heart string-plucking.
2 | Politics actually works in Dorne
Meanwhile in Dorne – or, 'the storyline they ran out of budget for', as I call it – everything was resolved amiably between Jaime and Prince Doran. Myrcella and Trystane are to return with Jaime and Bronn to King's Landing to be wed, a storyline that will presumably now be left for season 6. If only the rest of Westeros knew diplomacy was this easy, they'd save a lot of bloodshed. Or maybe it was just to make life in the writing room a tiny bit easier. Either way, the Dorne storyline – and the Sand Snakes in particular – has been the big anti-climax of season 5.
3 | It's probably time Arya went back and got her needle
In Braavos, Arya's A-level course work assignment to kill the Tin Man was interrupted by the arrival of the imbecilic Mace Tyrell on a begging mission to the Iron Bank from King's Landing. Accompanying him was one of the young Stark's long standing hit list: Meryn Trant, the Knight who killed (we think) her fencing teacher Syrio Forel back in season one.
OK look, we need to talk about Ian Beattie's face, which has disturbed me for several seasons now. Either he is an extravagantly gifted physical actor or just an unfortunate bloke, but something about that snarl and those pointy eyebrows means he has, for my money, one of the scariest human face in history. Every time he comes on screen I feel like I am peering into the eye of true evil, which is unfair because he's probably a lovely bloke.
His character Meryn Trant, on the other hand, is revealed to be a pedophile, during a horrible scene in a brothel. It is a little unclear where sex with minors fits in Game of Thrones' dubious moral universe – his fellow soldiers raise an eyebrow and the brothel's madam is disgusted (though complicit), but Trant makes zero effort to conceal his prediliction – though the moment when it looked as though Arya might take the place of his victim was deeply disturbing. We can only hope, as with her sister over in Winterfell, that Arya gets a chance to exact her revenge soon.
4 | Life isn't about to get any easier for Jon Snow
Where the budget clearly has been spent this season is up at The Wall, where Jon Snow arrived with the surviving Wildlings at his back, hoping to be let through the gates. Alliser acquiesced, and it was another scene of epic, bleak beauty that recalled last week's spine-tingling finale with the White Walkers.
Jon's mission to make love not war between the Night's Watch and Wildlings took a tentative step forward, but plenty of cutaways to disgruntled extras hinted at the tensions ahead. The question is, what will happen first: the march south to join Stannis or this uneasy truce falling apart?
Having said that, after Stannis' child burning antics, the fight for Winterfell no longer holds much excitement, does it? The Baratheon / Bolton showdown has become the equivalent of Liverpool vs Man United – a match you wish both sides could somehow lose, even if it means Littlefinger riding in at the last moment.
5 | Daenerys finally steps up
As with last week, 'The Dance Of Dragons' left the best till last. The final twenty minutes were beautifully orchestrated and wonderfully tense, as Dany presided over the great games at the fighting pits which was soon overrun by the Sons of the Harpy.
Before that, Jorah appeared (again) to fight before his unrequited love and did pretty well despite being a little rusty (and, lest we forget, slowly turning to stone). He made it through a series of entertaining battles to stand before Dany as the final victor, which for a moment felt like the point of the scene.
Not at all. Suddenly, Jorah threw a spear towards the royal box and for a horrible moment, you think he's trying to kill Dany herself in a moment of "if I can't have her, no one can!" mania, when in actual fact he is taking out a Harpy assassin sneaking up behind her. That's when things really kicked off.
Watching Daario, Jorah, the Unsullied and – in one fist-pumping moment – Tyrion team up to fight off a large army of Harpys was made all the more exciting by the fact Daenerys was caught up in the middle of it all. For the first time, you sensed she was truly vulnerable in Meereen. It was another sequence of the kind of edge of your seat action that has elevated this season and papered over some of the more dubious plot points.
And what to make of Drogon swooping down from the sky? We've watched the scaly little buggers hatch, grow into moody adolescents and now, finally, start looking after their Mother. It was a brave decision to show Dany mounting Drogon and fly off into the sky – the inevitable Twitter parodies involving The Never Ending Story soon flooded in – but somehow, it worked.
Actually, I say 'somehow' – it was Peter Dinklage's awestruck face as he watched Dany soar into the sky, as always somehow conveying a gravitas that elevates the silliness of the show to something affecting and profound. Now he knows Daenerys is the real deal, and so do we. The Mother of Dragons finally came of age, and I can't think of a time I've more looked forward to an hour of television than this time next week.
– Great to see the pompous Hizdhar finally meet his end. His jealous bickering with Daario before the fighting pits started was a joy, though when Dany asked where he had been, he answered rather suspiciously with "Just making sure everything is in order" I wouldn't be surprised if we learn next week that he was behind allowing The Sons of the Harpy to sneak into the area.
– As the first fight got underway in the pits, the announcer declared it a match between 'strong vs quick'. It made me think, fond-sadly, of The Mountain Vs The Viper. The beheading was a small but extremely brutal moment.
– Dodgy double entendre of the week goes to the guard at the brothel, who told the cockle-carrying Arya to "sell your fish somewhere else".
– Jorah's forward roll killing move during his final fight in the pits was proper Karate Kid stuff, wasn't it?
– Another theory: did Davos 'know' what was coming? If so, it makes his character far more interesting to think he left anyway. Perhaps he has realised he has finally lost Stannis to the dark side. I have a sad feeling though that he may become one of those characters we just never see again.
Line of the week:
"You have a good heart Jon Snow. It will get us all killed."
– Even when Alliser is being kind, he's being a dick.