Just when we thought things would start to calm down again after the last action-packed episode, Game of Thrones threw us a couple more curveballs this week – but with very different effects.
First, after spending some time this series bulking up Stannis’ relationship with his cute daughter Shireen (including one of the sweetest scenes in the show’s history in episode 4), the show brought everything crashing down as the wannabe King burned his daughter alive to gain some sort of magical tactical advantage.
Even by Game of Thrones standards this was particularly gruelling, slowly building up to Shireen’s demise as she chatted with Davos and Stannis about her new book – then that slow, grey walk to the scaffold and her screaming death.
As she called for her father and mother (who had a sudden change of heart and tried to save her daughter), it was genuinely difficult to watch – and a chilling reminder of what Stannis will do to get his mitts on the Iron Throne. That’s Game of Thrones everybody, where even the supposed heroes are child-murdering religious zealots who correct everyone’s grammar.
In all seriousness though, I think Shireen’s death has claims on being one of the series’ most upsetting moments. Sure, all the “good” characters tend to end up worse off in the series but there’s something so much worse about a child being killed than a seasoned Dornish warrior, or a King, or a noble Lord. Shireen was just a little girl who wanted to help her father – and then she was killed in the most horrible way.
In some ways, it reminds me of the controversial sexual assault on Sansa Stark a few episodes ago – both scenes of extreme medieval cruelty against a young woman that didn’t come from the source material, but weren’t circumstantially different from violent acts we’d seen perpetuated against minor characters before.
They’re not just emphasising that none of our favourite characters are safe – they’re also challenging us on our moral flexibility, our ability to treat atrocities casually when they’re not happening to characters we’re close to.
Case in point, this week’s other big curveball scene also involved lots of fire and burnings – only this time it was aimed at the enemies of Daenerys (so we don’t care). Her stroppy teenage dragon Drogon returned to save her from assassination at the hands of the Sons of the Harpy, setting fire to anyone who got in his way. This was a big moment for the show – a huge CGI dragon in action as hundreds of extras milled about in a huge arena, in a pivotal scene clearly attempting to be an uplifting counterpoint to Shireen’s death.
I wasn’t overly impressed, though – after last week’s brilliantly choreographed and kinetic battle with the White Walkers this all felt a bit staid, with lots of sedate walking and standing in circles. Maybe it was the continued incompetence of Daenerys’ Unsullied army as they were slaughtered by untrained soldiers with tiny knives, maybe it was that the whole thing reminded me too much of the ending to Star Wars: Attack of the Clones – either way, I was a little disappointed.
Still, it was almost all worth it when Daenerys climbed up onto her dragon and flew away, cheerfully leaving her friends to their deaths for no apparent reason as she soared through the CGI sky. I mean, I’m sure Tyrion, Missandei, Daario and the newly-redeemed Jorah won’t actually die – maybe the plot will reason that the Sons of the Harpy only wanted Dany – but that leap of logic is about as big as one of Drogon’s long-haul Essos flights.
Elsewhere this week we got a few more placeholding scenes like Jon coming back from the battle while his Night’s Watch pals glared at him welcomingly, Arya finding a new target for her assassination in the nasty Kingsguard Ser Meryn Trant (who has some rather distasteful sexual appetites) and Jaime having tea with the Dornish royal family. How exciting.
Still, it’s the screams of a little girl that really stick with you after this episode – we’ll just have to see if Stannis is satisfied by whatever his sacrifice gets him in next week’s final episode. What could possibly go wrong?
Game of Thrones is on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 9.00pm