Sunday night's "Game of Thrones" will be remembered as one of the most upsetting episodes of the series. Next to the Red Wedding, Sansa's traumatic rape and Ned's beheading, "The Dance of Dragons" ranked fairly high in the series' most disturbing moments.
Spoiler alert for Season 5, Episode 9, "The Dance of Dragons."
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Season 5's penultimate episode saw the stomach-turning death of one of the sweetest, most innocent characters in the Seven Kingdoms, and there aren't too many of those to begin with. Stannis tricked and betrayed his daughter by handing her over to Melisandre to sacrifice the young princess to the Lord of Light for her King's blood. He and his ineffective wife, watched as their young daughter screamed and burned at the stake. It was, to say the least, incredibly painful to watch, even though luckily the actual burning wasn't shown on camera.
Fans and critics have expressed their outrage and distress over the death, with many questioning whether or not the episode went too far -- especially with Meryn Trant's request for an exceptionally young girl in a brothel earlier in the episode. Rape, murder, incest, torture, castration and pedophilia are nothing new to "Game of Thrones," but a cruel death of a young child by her parents set off devastating alarms with many. The cast and crew behind "GoT," however, don't believe that the episode pushed things too far.
Showrunner Dan Weiss spoke with Entertainment Weekly about the choice to kill off Shireen (who is still alive in the books). "Horrible things [are] happening to people in this show, and this is one that we thought was entirely [narrtively] justified," Weiss told EW. The writer continued, saying that the scene was "supposed to be awful" to watch.
But why does "Game of Thrones" continue to subject its viewers to harrowing instances of violence against beloved characters? It seems that the showrunners want such scenes to raise questions of morality for the audience. While Weiss knows fans are affected by losing their favorite characters, he's also interested in why we don't react as strongly to the deaths of characters we don't know as well. "So instead of saying, ‘How could you do this to somebody you know and care about?', maybe when it’s happening to somebody we don’t know so well -- maybe then it should hit us all a bit harder," Weiss said. Rather than feel concern only for those with whom we connect, perhaps "GoT" challenges viewers by asking us to find sympathy for the larger tragedies that don't directly affect us.
While you may or may not agree with Weiss' questioning, or the direction of the show as it deviates from the books, it should be noted that "GoT" doesn't seem necessarily interested in pleasing its viewers. More and more, the show has neglected concerns over controversy and has stood strong by its intention to depict the depravity man is capable of when thirsty for glory and power. Is it fun to watch? No, not really -- and the death of a child in particular makes dragon appearances all the less thrilling, as many viewers felt on Sunday.
However, Weiss and fellow showrunner David Benioff want to push our buttons, if just to get us to examine our own emotional responses to evil and to prove that not all stories are pleasurable to watch, especially ones that mirror the horrors of a certain era. While this isn't a defense of "GoT," it is interesting to analyze how fans continue to watch a show that disturbs them (save for those who quit a few weeks ago) and what is considered crossing the line.
Not even Liam Cunningham, whose Ser Davos Seaworth had a poignant connection with Shireen, thinks the episode went too far. Although Davos has yet to learn of Shireen's fate, Cunningham told The New York Times that he was "astonished" when he read the scene in the script. "I think there’s going to be controversy after Shireen," Cunningham said. "It’s a challenging show. One of the reasons it’s as loved and admired as it is, is it doesn’t take the easy route. It really does throw things in your face."
Like Weiss, Cunningham said that the scene should have been "horrific," and reminded fans that that's just how "Game of Thrones" functions. Whether or not you choose to watch a show that continually breaks your heart, well, that's your choice (and for the record, we're sticking with it).
"Game of Thrones" airs Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.
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