Her screams are what ring in your ears long after the closing credits rolled, but Shireen, Princess of the House Baratheon, said something else we should listen to tonight. During the young woman's final conversation with her father Stannis before he murders her — let's call it what it is — she tells him of the Dance of Dragons, a civil war that pitted rival branches of House Targaryen against one another. "If you had to choose," the would-be Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms asks her, "who would you have chosen?" "I wouldn't have chosen either," she replies. "It's all the choosing sides that made everything so horrible."
Stannis may hear the wisdom from the mouths of babes, but he feels he cannot listen. "Sometimes a person has to choose," the man tells his daughter, the gravity of what he's about to do evident in every syllable. "Sometimes the world forces his hand. If a man knows who he is and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all. He must fulfill his destiny and become who he is meant to be." There's a pause. "However much he may hate it."
This conversation gave tonight's episode, "The Dance of Dragons," not just its title but its mission statement. Given the epic-fantasy-as-a-motherfucker image at its climax — Daenerys Targaryen soaring through the sky on the back of a dragon — it would have been easy for showrunners/cowriters David Benioff and Dan Weiss to simply kill time until that death-dealing lizard starting roasting Meereen's resident terrorists. After back-to-back attacks of White Walkers and flying nuclear dinosaurs, these guys have delivered already season's worth of spectacle in two consecutive installments.
Instead, they made a hard choice — no doubt a foolhardy one in some eyes — to depart from George R.R. Martin's source material as dramatically as they've ever done. In the books, Stannis Baratheon is a hard-hearted, hard-to-like stiff who is clearly misguided in the belief that he is the messiah. But he's not the kind of man willing to sacrifice his daughter to the cause, while the show's version showed no such compunction: He burned her alive while she begged him and her mother to save her. The show chose to do this, and they chose to do it now. As they say over on Hannibal, this was their design.
Game of Thrones has always been about what people will do in the name of a cause, whether personal or political. That's true across the board tonight. Ellaria Sand seeks vengeance against the Lannisters for the death of her beloved Red Viper until her plot is foiled. "We want who we want," she eloquently tells Jaime — a powerful and universally applicable axiom, leading people to break taboos and kill for the love that results.
Arya Stark sees the underside of that attitude in the pedophile kingsguard Meryn Trant, who's been on her hitlist ever since he helped the Lannisters take down her dad (and her "dancing master," Syrio Forel) in King's Landing years ago. For her, revenge against him is a cause worth sacrificing her training with the Faceless Men, whose instructions she ignores to stalk this dark knight.
On a more macro level, hardass Night's Watchman Alliser Thorne ignores his every instinct and allows Jon Snow and the wildling survivors from Hardhome through the Wall — much to the chagrin of their increasingly unhappy brothers, whose prejudice against the Free Folk runs deep. "You have a good heart, Jon Snow," Thorne tells his Lord Commander. "It'll get all of us killed." Would saving these lives still be worth it if it comes at that steep a cost?
In Meereen, Daenerys, her husband-to-be Hizdahr, and Tyrion Lannister discuss these issues directly. Dany's new advisor takes an instant dislike to her fiancé and his support of the city's gladitorial games, telling him "It's easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked in your favor." The ruler may have approved the pit fights, but she agrees, and half-jokes about burning the town down in the name of justice. "And how many people will die to make this happen?" Hizdahr asks. "If it comes to that," Dany replies, "they will have died for a good reason." The nobleman doesn't buy it. "Your reasons are true, and [the fighters'] are false? They don't know their own minds, but you do?"
The difficulty of telling true from false, of choosing sides, is precisely why the show burned Shireen. Why risk kneecapping Daenerys' triumphant reunion with her dragon and the primal thrill of her first ride with this horror? The answer lies in the look in Tyrion's eyes as he watches Drogon torch insurgents and bystanders left and right. The Imp, it turns out, is a true idealist (the biggest cynics often are; constantly being let down will do that to you). He had high hopes that the Khaleesi truly would "break the wheel" on which humanity has suffered for so long. Now, faced with the wrath of a literal monster, he sees what that the flames of war consume ally, enemy, and innocent alike. "You can stop this," he told her minutes earlier when Ser Jorah Mormont fought for her favor in the arena. "She can't," Hizdahr said. Indeed she couldn't.
This is the antiwar point the show is making even amid the wonder of Dany's wild ride, just as surely as it did during the horror of Hardhome last week, when a literal avalanche of corpses rained down upon the living. This is the point it makes every time it shows us some all but unwatchable atrocity, no matter how hard we wish they didn't. The elemental force that is war has one purpose and serves one god: death. Ice freezes. Fire burns. And as a wise woman once said, "When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy."
Previously: Dawn of the Dead