Dread is founded in anticipation. With no expectation of violence or unhappiness, dread is impossible. We live in a culture of anticipation, and this connects both to our intimate knowledge of structure and a pop cultural landscape that focuses on “what’s coming next” (rather than what is happening now). While there is no doubt a constant rush of instant reactions to new releases, they are very quickly forgotten after just a few days. There is a strange comfort in knowing what is coming next — even if it is horrible. It lets the audience feel smart; it lets the audience in on the secret. Great films like Black Christmas maintain dread beyond the narrative by not allowing closure, refusing to satisfy our perverted gaze with answers.
Now in its fifth season, Game of Thrones has long settled in the category of dread built on anticipation. Just the whisper of “Episode 9” is the signal of bad things to come for even the more passive Thrones fans. The question becomes: is this a good or a bad thing? Dread is an emotion, and like sadness or happiness, it is not inherently indicative of quality or morality. Also, in more cases than not, chaos doesn’t often make for good storytelling, which is why few filmmakers ever try it (even fewer succeed). Game of Thrones has a tried and true formula, and considering its enduring popularity, something is clearly working. It is not surprising that they lived up to the promise of an emotionally wrenching episode 9.
Last night’s episode, “The Dance of Dragons,” hinted at what to expect in the title: the return of the dragons. Aside from those who read the books, I’m not sure that many could have anticipated the exact direction of the tragedy that unfolded last night, even though by now we know to anticipate horror. In that sense, the makers of the show did well and created a surprisingly resonate episode that continued in the tradition of last week’s horrific and brilliant “Hardhome,” which ended on a note of incredible and pervading hopelessness. The sense of despair carried over into “The Dance of Dragons,” which was made of poetry of death. What a stark contrast between the treatment of this episode’s horror with that of the controversial and justly maligned sexual violence of earlier episodes!
The strength of the episode’s emotional resonance lies very much in its embrace of contradiction, as “The Dance of Dragons” deals with leadership and loyalty. Both values are held under intense scrutiny and, for better or for worse, demonstrate why we are apt to lose ourselves to merciless Gods and unforgiving rulers. The treatment of Daenerys in particular resonates deeply as we have seen her evolve over the seasons. We have come to appreciate her desire to be a good leader, and her failures have been easy to write off as unfortunate circumstance or inexperience. However, it becomes increasingly clear that she is a better conqueror than she is a leader. This does not bode well for a peaceful future if she overtakes the Iron Throne.
Therein lies the problem though, as Game of Thrones continues to thrust forward. Winter is approaching, and war continues to stretch across the lands as we are anticipating the possibility of a just and fair ruler to overtake the Kingdoms. It is clear that the Lannisters will not be able to maintain their power for much longer, but why do we anticipate that their potential replacements will be noble and true? This is the heart of the show, for none of the characters are truly infallible. Any peace, prosperity, happiness or well-being will be temporary and ultimately wrought in bloodshed. Perhaps this is why Game of Thrones relies so heavily on formula and anticipation… the entire exercise itself is wrought in dread.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.