The 'Thrones' roller coaster becomes more extreme than ever
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This is a Game of Thrones recap I have wanted to write for a long time.

Dany escaping the Daznak fighting pit while riding Drogon is one of the most exciting and climactic moments in George R.R. Martin’s novels.

And the death of Shireen—which is not in the novels (at least not yet, but apparently will be)—is one of the most horrifying sequences in the show’s history (and something I’ve been privately obsessing over since first hearing about it).

Thrones has always excelled at giving us moments of terror and triumph, but seldom have the highs and lows ever been so extreme, or come so quickly on top of each other, than in the past few episodes. We’ve had hugs and euphoria (Dany meets Tyrion! Jon’s epic Hardhome battle!) and gut-punches and sadness (Ser Barristan dies, Sansa is assaulted). And now, tonight, in rapid succession, we witnessed the profoundly disturbing murder of an innocent child, and saw the glory of a queen reclaiming her destiny—two scenes that could easily serve as the climax of an entire season on any other show, though it’s tough to imagine any other series pulling them off as masterfully as Thrones did here (with the help of director David Nutter, who previously helmed season 3’s Red Wedding episode).

I have a lot to say about the Shireen scene in particular. So I’m going to break my usual format and begin the recap with the scene I most need to talk about first, and then we’ll dive into the rest.

Stannis’ camp: There are a series of foreboding beats..

Foreboding Beat 1: Melisandre is staring into the flames. The flames are her Netflix. She goes outside and suddenly sees—a lot more flames. Neatly done. Her eyes widen. Some psychic, she didn’t see that coming.

Ramsay’s raid was a total success. There is a flaming horse, which you don’t see every day. Stannis’ food was burned, and the weather is still awful. If only Stannis hadn’t spent so much time hanging out at Castle Black correcting grammar, he might have stood a chance against the Boltons. When you’re plotting to hang your own guards and have to eat your horses for meat, you’re finished.

Stannis sees Selyse and Melisandre, and goes to huddle with his wife and lover—his Batshit Small Council. We do not hear what is said. We are worried.

Foreboding Beat 2: Stannis decides to send Davos away, telling him some excuse about bringing back supplies. My first thought is: “Hurray for Davos, RUN!” But rapidly on top of that is: “Uh-oh…”

Davos may be loyal to Stannis, but he would never stand aside while they sacrificed Shireen. Davos wants to bring Selyse and Shireen with him to Castle Black, but Stannis insists they stay behind.

Stannis Baratheon, the Jack Torrance of Westeros, has just disabled the snowmobile.

Also, I wish Davos would have stayed. Even if the outcome for Shireen would have ended up the same, I would have liked to have witnessed Davos really defying Stannis. Davos has been rather uneasy about his king’s allegiance with Melisandre and a real blow-out between them would have been satisfying.

Foreboding Beat 3: Davos says goodbye to Shireen and gives her a present, a Baratheon-style stag. At this point in the season, we’ve had so many sweet Shireen scenes, we know she’s in real trouble.

Foreboding Beat 4: A very haggard Stannis visits his daughter. She tells him of the story she’s reading about a war between two Targaryen siblings that divided the kingdoms and resulted in thousands dying. Obviously there’s a parallel here with Stannis’ own fight with his brother Renly, and a reminder that wars cost countless lives if they drag on too long.

“Sometimes a person has to choose. If a man knows what he is and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all,” he tells her. “He must fulfill his destiny and become who he is meant to be—however much he may hate it.”

Shireen says she want to help her dad any way she can. This is very nice of her. It’s also really the wrong thing to say. “You don’t even know what I’m talking about,” Stannis says, and what’s so harsh about this scene is she’s unknowingly giving him the reasons to kill her.

Even up to this point, we’re all thinking this is not really going to happen. We think that something is going to advert this terrifying outcome. Ramsay could attack, Davos could show up, something…

And then it happens. The sequence is really difficult to watch. Shireen is led to her doom. That she only gradually realizes what’s going on in this scene—because nobody had the guts to tell her, presumably—is part of what makes this scene so horrible.

Shireen sees the pyre, and sees Melisandre. She demands to see her father. The soldiers tie her to the stake. Stannis and Selyse are watching. Unsure what’s worse for Shireen, to think her father wasn’t there or to know he was. Probably the latter.

Selyse suddenly has a change of heart (why, we didn’t even know she had one!). But it’s too late. Melisandre’s Overlook Hotel spirits have won.

There is a lot of screaming. Like with the Sansa wedding night scene, some of the most brutal parts of this show occur offscreen.

The Thrones showrunners have a finely tuned instinct for maximizing emotional impact. If something horrible is going to happen, they can always figure out all the ways to make it the most horrible (like making Robb’s wife pregnant and having her go with him to the Freys’ wedding, a change from the books).

Case in point: Several weeks ago, the top-ranked reader comment at the end of my weekly Thrones recap, with 133 upvotes from readers, was this effusive comment: “I’ve never liked Stannis more than in this episode. The scene with him and Shireen is one of my favorites this season. His wife’s cruelty is no match for a father’s unconditional love for his daughter.”

When I read this, I had to stuff socks in my mouth to keep from ranting to everybody who loves this show—or at least to somebody—about what that scene was secretly supposed to accomplish: Don’t fall for it. We’re being set-up! IT’S A TRAP.

That was the real killer-instinct scene of season 5. We talked before about how this seemingly throw-away character-building scene secretly functioned as a crucial set-up. By discussing greyscale, the scene prepared us for Ser Jorah getting greyscale, so we would instantly understand without any dialogue what it meant later when he pulled up his sleeve and saw that scaly patch.

But this is how diabolically clever the Thrones showrunners are. The scene was a DOUBLE SET-UP. It not only detailed the illness threat of greyscale for the Ser Jorah scene, but also gave us a heavy emotional anchor for the relationship between Stannis and Shireen. It made us believe that even cold authoritarian Stannis would never hurt his daughter. I reeled when I first watched that scene, all the 3-D Jenga plot dynamics at play: Here’s a quiet chatty scene that’s doing all this secret heavy lifting to set-up two huge twists and yet it’s also the fan-favorite moment of the episode. There’s plenty that Thrones accomplishes that’s clearly flashily amazing, but this scene was stealth genius.

The show’s deception was so well plotted, and the twist was so well concealed by the production and HBO, that Shireen’s death remained absent from online fan boards aside from mere speculation in a season where nearly every other major revelations had leaked out. And yet, there’s nobody who can say this move was any kind of a cheat. You can look at Sansa going to Winterfell and debate whether her decision feels believable, but there is zero doubt this outcome comes straight from Stannis’ core character and his entire story arc has been flying straight to this moment—and yet, it was still a shock, which is the best kind of twist.

When the episode aired tonight, I watched the hour with dread. Book-reading fans know this feeling well, from waiting for scenes like The Red Wedding and the Oberyn vs. The Mountain fight. You get this ache in your stomach. You know what’s coming, but since you haven’t actually witnessed it, you’re still morbidly curious and want to see how it plays out.

With Stannis, the man is so logical and sensible in the scenes where we see him interact with characters like Jon Snow, that’s it’s easy to forget that he’s also a religious fanatic. He may not come off like a pinwheel-eyed Lord of Light worshipper like his wife, but he’s still been burning people alive for a while now. Think about that. This guy ordered people to die horrible deaths for seemingly trivial reasons, calling his victims “infidels” (like his wife’s brother and longtime bannerman who refused to tear down his idols). But Thrones is so effective at making characters sympathetic that we have somehow haven’t held that against him. We’ve acted like his penchant for human bonfires is just a weird random predilection—like driving an orange car—rather than condemning people to die the most horrible death possible for faith-based objections.

Not to mention, Stannis also killed another family member, his brother Renly, who was really a pretty decent guy. Stannis has always put his career ambition first—his “duty,” as he sees it. Stannis has faced the “career vs. family” decision before, and made the exact same choice.

And what’s so perfect is, this season viewers who didn’t even like Stannis in prior years were loving his character more than ever. And why not? He respects Jon Snow, he’s going after Ramsay, he corrects grammar. What’s not to like? … aside from the nagging fact that he burns people alive who don’t agree with his religion. It’s as if the showrunners are fully aware we’ve overlooked Stannis’ biggest flaw, let it sit in the background of the show for years, and have now brought it screaming in front of us. Like his poor daughter, we’ve been abruptly moved from being witnesses to Stannis’ executions, to suddenly feeling like we’re one of his victims. If Stannis still ends up fighting Ramsay … damn … who do you even root for there?

Now Stannis’ reasoning has Westeros math on its side. Thrones is presenting one of its classic moral quandaries: What’s worse? Burning Shireen alive or letting your army die in the snow? This is like Tywin’s cold Red Wedding calculation: Is it wrong to kill a wedding party when you save thousands of lives by stopping a war? (The one thing I would have liked to have seen in this sequence is Stannis meeting with a group of his men, so we get a better sense of the pressure he’s under and the lives he’s trying to save other than his own).

Except in this case, there is an X factor in the equation: magic. Stannis doesn’t know, for a fact, that his murder will save them. He’s taking it on faith. Stannis has seen indisputable proof time and time again that Melisandre can make miracles happen. So why wouldn’t he believe it’s true?

To me, this is one of those decisions where the math doesn’t matter. Killing your daughter is an irredeemable act. It’s like when Theon murdered the two farm boys. A religious expression may very inappropriate here considering the content, but it’s difficult to express what this means for Stannis any other way: He’s damned.

Dorne: Prince Doran, Prince Trystane, Myrcella, Jaime, and a fuming Ellaria have a Dornish dinner. The Sand Snakes are not present. At first I assume they’re seated at the kids’ table somewhere, then I realize they’re still locked up.

I like Jaime’s “you must be cold” line that he gives to Myrcella about her dress, very fatherly.

Jaime explains he’s there because his “niece” was threatened. The ultra-sensible Prince Doran—who’s being an all-around swell guy about all this—asks why Jaime tried to sneak into the Water Gardens instead of just knocking on the door and having a conversation about it. Jaime says there was a threat against Myrcella. Doran seems to figure out pretty quickly it’s the supremely pissed-off widow to his left who’s not very crafty in the subtlety department. Ellaria practically has cartoon smoke blowing out of her ears.

For Jaime, the thought of simply asking for something instead of paying the iron price (as the Greyjoys would say) didn’t occur to him.

Doran decides to send Myrcella and Trystan back with Jaime to King’s Landing in exchange for the young prince getting a seat on the small council. This is a fantastic deal, though I’m sure that Cersei would totally hate it (if she wasn’t locked up lapping water off a dungeon floor).

Then the matter turns to Bronn, and the Martells are pretty cool about that, too.

We get a scene with Sand Snakes in jail playing a slap game with a kicker ending that draws a laugh. I know that the Sand Snakes and the Dorne scenes haven’t been a fan favorite this year, but this corner of Westeros continues to grow on me. The tone in Dorne is a bit different from the rest of the show. I guess what I’m saying is: I don’t need Dorne in season 6, but at the very least I really want a Dorne spinoff—Game of Thrones: Sunspear.

Braavos: Arya continues stalking the insurance huckster by the bay, just waiting for a chance to give him a dash of poisoned seafood condiment. He tries to flag her down, giving her a chance to pass her latest exam. But then Arya spies one of the names on her kill list: Ser Meryn Trant. He was sent to Braavos along with Mace Tyrell earlier this season by Cersei as part of her ongoing effort to rid herself of all her allies and support (at least Arya didn’t run into Meryn at a tavern, which is all the rage these days). Meryn meets with Tycho Nestoris, the Iron Bank representative.

Arya follows him to a brothel and brings her seafood wares into the brothel. She watches as Meryn is presented with prostitute options. He keeps rejecting them, sounding like a Hollywood casting director: “Too old! Too old!”

Arya returns to the House of Black and White and tells Jaquen that her target just wasn’t hungry today. What makes her think she can suddenly lie to him about something so crucial?

By Game of Thrones standards, selling oysters actually seems like a rather pleasant way to pass the time. Perhaps Arya should quit her vengeance quest and consider oyster peddling as a profession, just open up food truck by the docks, call it something like “Go Shuck Yourself!” and enjoy her life.

Castle Black: Wun Wun at The Wall! Jon Snow returns with the Wildlings. Ser Alliser Thorne stands atop the gate glaring down at him. I feel like when Thorne is sleeping he’s just angrily muttering “bastard” over and over.

At first it seems like he might not let Jon inside. All Thorne sees is Wildlings when looking at them at this point.

Thorne relents and lets them in. Jon blames himself for not saving even more Wildlings.

Wun Wun glares at the staring Night’s Watch and you get the feeling he’s thinking the same thing he said last week.

Thorne has a great line that once again shows what a textured antagonist he is: “You have a good heart, Jon Snow. It will get us all killed.” You see what he did there? He didn’t just sneer at Jon, he gave him a geniune compliment that showed a degree of understanding of Snow’s nature. Throne didn’t assume Jon was trying to undermine the Night’s Watch, or is working for the enemy, yet still showed how he fundamentally disagrees with his approach.

Meereen: From the screams of Shireen the scene fades to the cheers of Daznak’s Pit, a.k.a. the Great Pit of Daznak, a.k.a. the Game of Thrones version of the Roman Coliseum.

I was surprised the episode went from Shireen’s demise to this incredible sequence that’s ultimately uplifting. On most shows, the order that scenes occur is easy for to the writers to determine because you’re telling a linear story. In Thrones, there are so many story lines in different locations, there are endless ways to put the puzzle pieces together in every episode, and the showrunners spend a lot of time trying to figure out the ideal arrangement. I wonder if viewers fully enjoyed the fighting pit sequence without feeling the raging echo of Shireen’s screams in their heads. It’s like somebody ripping your heart out, and then offering a present. You’re not sure if you want the present, you just want your heart back.

Yet I suspect Shireen’s death helped make many viewers believe, really and truly, that Dany and Tyrion were going to die. It’s the very end of episode 9, after all. This is when we’ve come to expect big moves. So perhaps instead of numb detachment in the wake of seeing a little girl killed, viewers may have been all the more engaged by what came next and were hugely relieved when Drogon showed up.

Once again, we’re getting head of ourselves.

First we get some really impressive sweeping shots of the arena. Seeing Dany and Tyrion and Daario on the platform is like a grand spectacle.

Dany is reluctant, like Mother Teresa hosting an MMA fight. She has to clap for a fight to begin, which adds a tense element of participation for something she doesn’t want to have anything to do with. Plus there’s something about clapping that’s like going, “Yay! Die!” When she does give her conflicted clap, the camera awesomely pivots to show the roaring crowd.

There’s some playful exchanges between Dany, Hizdahr, and Daario, an awkward love triangle. It’s not clear how much time has passed and I wonder if Dany and Hizdahr have slept together. Daario shows off a cool move with his daggers that took actor Michiel Huisman months of playing with a dagger in his spare time to master. They debate the ethics of killing, with Hizdahr asking, “What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?” I like the way this conversation reflects back on the Stannis sequence.

Tryion gives Hizdahr a big insult: “My father would have liked you.”

Ser Jorah enters the pit. Dany is stunned. I love the way Daario tells Hizdahr to shut up the moment he tries to advise Dany in this matter. And I also love the look of grudging respect that Daario (a former pit fighter who never partciulalry liked Ser Jorah) gives Ser Jorah now that he’s on the sand.

Ser Jorah is badass. He might have greyscale, and he may have volunteered to be in the fighting pit, but he doesn’t want to die. And the combat seems more realistic than in the more stylized gladiator scenes we’re accustomed to seeing, and Ramin Djawadi’s score utilizes a nicely ominous drumbeat.

After Ser Jorah dispatches his last opponent, he suddenly grabs a spear—and throws it at Dany’s … Sons of the Harpy attacker sneaking up behind her. There’s this breath-holding flash of a shot of Dany shaking her head when she thinks that she’s his target—don’t do it!—and even in this briefest of shots you somehow get the message that she’s not afraid for herself, but for what trying to kill her would mean for Ser Jorah.

More Sons appear in the crowd. All this time we’ve been worried for Ser Jorah, when actually all of them were in danger.

Mayhem. The Sons of the Harpy attack other members of the crowd and close in on the Dany’s platform. Dany’s entourage leaps to her defense. Hizdahr dies and nobody minds. Ser Jorah joins them and there’s a nice moment where Dany accepts his help (no, I don’t think he gave her greyscale by taking her hand).

Dany, Ser Jorah, Tyrion, Daario, and Missandei race into the pit and find themselves trapped. And suddenly I realize: In a show full of morally murky characters that we feel conflicted about, we really like every one of these people. They’re all “good” guys. And now it looks as if they’re all going to die.

There’s a pause as we hear all the men breathing behind their masks and helms. You can sense the fear and desperation and sweat. Again, my respect to Nutter.

Dany and Missandei join hands.

Things look their absolute darkest. And then…

A noise.

Drogon! Rescue by dragon. After being a rebellious child for so long, Drogon shows up, just like he did on Dany’s balcony the last time she was in danger earlier this season.

Drogon just torches the Sons of the Harpy, taking out clusters of them, while leaving Dany’s friends unscathed. This is very fun to watch.

The Sons throw spears. Dany goes to Drogon like she’s tried to do before. He scarily roars in her face—albeit flameless. She’s not afraid, Drogon’s appearance here is not a coincidence, she knows there’s a strong bond.

She climbs onto Drogon’s back. And then … this is a fantasy show right? Can she really do this? Can Dany just …

Ride a freaking dragon? Like she’s in the Dragonriders of Pern or How to Train Your Dragon or that terrible Inheritance trilogy? Will super-serious ultra-grounded Game of Thrones please indulge us just one fantasy trope?

Oh yes. Thrones does. Dany rides the dragon, like she was always meant to. Her friends are left behind, jaw dropped, having just seen something out legend. Cynical Tyrion is now sold.

I hope she flies straight to King’s Landing and touches down on Tommen’s balcony.

NEXT WEEK: The grand finale. You might think that since the last two episodes have been extremely intense that the finale will feel like a relaxing epilogue as characters process all that’s occurred and Thrones sets up next season. You would be wrong. The roller coaster is still going at full speed, and there are more plunges, twists and dark tunnels ahead.

Episode Recaps

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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