Credit: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

Warning: This post contains a major spoiler about tonight’s Game of Thrones: “The Dance of Dragons”

This may have been the darkest hour yet on Game of Thrones. Sunday’s episode of HBO’s fantasy hit concluded with a murder so disturbing and stomach twisting, it’s arguably one of the most horrifying sequences yet by the international sensation that’s made an artful blood sport of shocking its fans.

Midway through Sunday’s episode “The Dance of Dragons,” Stannis Baratheon, his military campaign failing as his troops froze in the snow, sacrificed his daughter Shireen in a last-ditch effort to change his fate. At the urging of his mistress, Stannis ordered the young teen burned alive. Shireen’s walk to the funeral pyre, her dawning realization of what was occurring, and her mother’s too-late change of heart, was devastating for fans, who earlier this season swooned over a scene where the typically stoic Stannis reassured his daughter of his love.

Game of Thrones showrunner Dan Weiss spoke to EW about the sequence, and how it ties the show’s exploration of fanaticism. “Horrible things happening to people in this show, and this is one that we thought was entirely [narratively] justified,” Weiss said. “It was set-up by the predicament that Stannis was in. It will be awful to see, but it’s supposed to be awful.”

When I asked Weiss the question that fans surely have tonight: “How could you do that to Shireen?” Weiss philosophically noted you could “flip that question” into a larger debate about how we’re all highly selective about which characters deserve our empathy. Stannis has been burning people alive for seemingly trivial reasons since season 2, yet we’ve still tended to regard him as a great leader—at least, by Westeros standards.

“It’s like a two-tiered system,” he noted. “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 we’ve ever seen. I totally understand where that visceral reaction comes from. I have that same reaction. 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.”

Which is exactly the sort of morality questions that Thrones so often stimulates. Like after the brutal Red Wedding season 3, Tywin Lannister asked whether killing a wedding party of characters we love was wrong if by doing so it ends a war and saves thousands of anonymous lives?

On HBO’s behind-the-scenes video (below), fellow showrunner David Benioff added that A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin told producers about this twist (suggesting this Shireen’s death will happen in an upcoming book, as well). “It was one of those moments where I remember looking at Dan and [thinking] that’s so horrible and so good in a story sense,” Benioff said. “The very first time we saw Stannis and Melisandre, they were burning people alive on the beaches of Dragonstone and it’s really all come to this. There’s been so much talk of king’s blood, and the power of king’s blood, and it all leads ultimately, fatally, to Shireen’s sacrifice, and it’s one of the most horrible moments we’ve shot … It’s obviously the hardest choice he’s ever made in his life and for Stannis it comes down to ambition versus familial love and for Stannis and for Stannis sadly that choice is ambition.”

Weiss also added that religious fanaticism in Stannis’ camp adds another level to the Shireen murder, one that could provides some insight into our own world.

“People who watch Game of Thrones don’t see the same world as Stannis and Melisandre,” Weiss said. “To those characters, magic is real and it works. That’s something fun about this genre because when magic is real and you can see it with your own eyes in the show, it gives you a window into the heads of people who believe irrational things on faith. I can’t really get my head around how those people operate in our world, as they’re so completely disconnected from the way I process the world. So in a strange way, fantasy is a cock-eyed window into the heads of people who would do something terrible for an irrational reason.”

For more, HBO’s behind the scenes video gives some insight into the scene as well:

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Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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