The showrunners of Game of Thrones explain last night’s horrifying decision — and imply that it may have come from George R.R. Martin himself.
In the penultimate episode of season 5, “The Dance of Dragons,” Stannis Baratheon made the brutal decision to sacrifice his daughter to R’hllor. With no one to defend her, Shireen burned alive at the stake while her parents watched, and Melisandre smiled.
Part of the reason why Shireen’s murder was so viscerally upsetting was because the hideous event has not occurred in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series — yet. But in HBO’s “Inside the Episode” featurette, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss strongly hint that the idea for the devastating scene came from Martin himself.
“When George first told us about this,” David Benioff recounts, “It was one of those moments when I remember looking at Dan, and I was just like, “God, that’s so horrible — and so good in a story sense, because it all comes together.”
It’s been no secret that Martin has told Benioff and Weiss many details about the continuing story and ending of A Song of Ice and Fire, allowing them to craft the narrative of Game of Thrones. Before this season began, Benioff confirmed that the HBO series would eventually include spoilers for the books — though he suggested that this would not be a major concern until season 6.
Still, the overwhelming implication of Benioff’s words is that poor Shireen will meet her end through brutal (and possibly sacrificial) means in Martin’s books.
Fans familiar with the events of A Dance With Dragons may feel that the details are likely to be quite different (we suggest doing further research into the story of Azor Ahai for further potential ideas.) But like several other changes made in the adaptation, it seems uncomfortably likely that the outline of events will remain the same.
Though they may not have originated the idea for Shireen’s murder, Benioff and Weiss still have plenty of thoughts to share on the devastating event.
“It’s one of the most horrible moments we’ve shot, in terms of the emotion of it,” Benioff admits, laying a large part of the blame on Stannis’s choice of ambition over familial love.
And Dan Weiss weighed in on Queen Selyse’s much-too-late attempt to save her daughter. Seeing Shireen burn, the showrunner says, Selyse’s consistently fanatical faith crumbles.
“In that moment, she finally becomes a mother again,” Weiss says.
Weiss also shared his thoughts on the event with Entertainment Weekly, where he took a colder view of the blood-curdling scene.
“Horrible things happen to people in this show,” the showrunner says. “And this is one that we thought was entirely [narratively] justified… It will be awful to see, but it’s supposed to be awful.”
Weiss also toyed with the idea of moral equivalency playing out through the on-screen murder of a child.
“It’s like a two-tiered system,” he says. “If a superhero knocks over a building and there are 5,000 people in the building that we can presume are now dead, does it matter? Because they’re not people we know. But if one dog we like gets run over by a car, it’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen.”
“I totally understand where that visceral reaction comes from,” Weiss admits. “I have that same reaction.” However, he says, “There’s also something shitty about that. 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’s point is a familiar one, though in our opinion, his logic seems somewhat disingenuous. Whether the idea comes from George R.R. Martin or Benioff and Weiss, the burden of emotional response falls on the storytellers — not on the audience.
Martin, of course, got there first for most of Game of Thrones‘s most painful moments. But if the show has really beaten the books on this brutal event, deflecting grieving fans toward philosophical arguments encourages a less confident attitude toward the showrunners’s grip on such slipper and sensitive material.
The Game of Thrones season 5 finale, “Mother’s Mercy,” will air on Sunday, June 14 at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.