[WARNING: The following contains spoilers from Game of Thrones' episode, "The Dance of Dragons." Read at your own risk!]
How can we feel both heartsick and elated within the space of 30 minutes? Thanks, Game of Thrones.
On Sunday's double-stuffed shocking episode, we learned just how far Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) would go in his quest for the Iron Throne: He'd kill his own beloved daughter. After losing even more of his army's men, horses and precious resources to a guerrilla attack, the self-proclaimed One True King let Princess Shireen (Kerry Ingram) burn at the stake. Melisandre (Carice van Houten) had suggested the sacrifice to the Lord of Light two episodes ago, but we never expected him to go through with it.
The scene itself played out in the most appalling way. As Shireen marched outside the tents, realization suddenly dawned on her when she caught sight of the stake and Melisandre. She's already seen several other sacrifices, including wildling leader Mance Rayder earlier this season. The biggest difference here was that there was no ally, no Jon Snow to lose an arrow and give her a merciful death. Although we were spared the sight of her twisting in agony, we could still hear her high-pitched screams and frantic, uncomprehending pleas for her parents' help. It was horrifying and sickening, and we just wanted to make it stop.
Oddly enough, the only person who actually tried to prevent the atrocity was Shireen's mother Selyse (Tara Fitzgerald), which comes as a surprise since she has never shown any affection for her daughter and even spoke of Shireen as a disappointment and tainted by her greyscale. Selyse had always been the one to gleefully watch people burn (even her own brother) in the name of the Lord of Light, and her sudden whiff of maternal feeling sadly came too late.
By this act, Stannis has probably become the most loathed character on Game of Thrones. The rather stoic, cheerless character had a surprisingly fierce fandom who dubbed him "Stannis the Mannis" and loved the fact that on a show full of histrionics and shiny grand-standing, he was a grim, implacable force. Earlier this season, we even learned of how he had spared no expense to save his daughter from greyscale, normally a fatal disease, when she was a baby instead of sending her to Valyria where most sufferers slowly turned into the doomed Stone Men. The betrayal — both of his daughter and the fans — is unforgivable, and yet, we should not be terribly surprised given his past actions and demeanor. We just hoped that this would be an exception, given the fact that we actually got to know and care for Shireen. She made him human, and by this decision, he has joined the ranks of the other monstrous characters on the show.
But twisting the knife wasn't enough for Game of Thrones. Oh no. After Shireen perished only halfway through the episode, that was our clue that something even bigger was to come. Over in Meereen, the opening of the fighting pits got our blood pumping as we watched free men battle to the death. But while these skirmishes, the verbal sparring between Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Hizdahr (Joel Fry) and Ser Jorah's (Iain Glen) own nail-biting personal battle to prove his loyalty to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) were riveting, they were only wonderfully prepared courses leading up to the big finish: Drogon's arrival.
Just as Jorah was about to be declared champion of his battle royale, the gold-masked Sons of the Harpy dissidents sprang up everywhere and systematically began slashing and stabbing in the stands, killing terrified Meereenese citizens and then descending upon Daenerys and her small circle of followers. It was clear that they were outnumbered and ultimately doomed until the beautiful, screeching cry of Daenerys' black dragon could be heard.
Despite Drogon's massive size and his ability to burn handfuls of men with one breath, even he could not overcome the Sons' sheer numbers. While he was crisping up some on one side, others would spear him on the other flank. The Mother of Dragons could not stand by and let her scaly child be taken down, and yet, she could not fight back either. Trust the Khaleesi to figure out a sideways solution by climbing on Drogon's back and making her great, cinematic escape out of the fighting pits. It was awesome, it was spectacular, and by the gods, we've been waiting for Daenerys to finally live up to her Targaryen birthright and be the boss.
By the end of the episode, our spirits were with Daenerys up on Drogon. Although we couldn't completely forget our grief and horror over Shireen, we reluctantly admit that there was no way to be unmoved by the gleeful energy of dragonflight. Also, in an episode with the worst betrayal possible, it also showed loyalty in many forms in Meereen. That is the power of Game of Thrones when they get it right. One more episode to go. Where could they possibly go from here?
Were you sickened by Stannis? Did Drogon help ease your pain? What is Arya up to now that she's seen Ser Meryn? Are the Sand Snakes truly broken? Weigh in with your thoughts about the episode below!
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.