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The Real Story Behind Game Of Thrones' Most Harrowing Death Scene

Game of Thrones featured plenty of upsetting death scenes throughout its eight season run, but one awful sacrifice stands out as the worst of them all.

In James Hibberd's expansive new oral history of the HBO series, Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, the editor-at-large of Entertainment Weekly went behind the scenes on Game of Thrones throughout the years to collect an incredible amount of behind the scenes secrets and stories, including the story of one of Thrones' most viscerally upsetting death scenes. Spoilers ahead!

During Game of Thrones' fifth season, spurred by his Red Priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten), would-be King of the Seven Kingdoms Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) makes an unconscionable and horrifying choice, which he believes will ensure a win in his next battle. At Melisandre's urging, he sacrifices his own daughter, the sweet Princess Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram), believing a blood sacrifice will help him win the War of the Five Kings. Ultimately, it doesn't help. Stannis' forces desert him, his wife takes her own life, Shireen dies for no reason, and Melisandre flees from the Baratheon camp, while Stannis dies alone, executed for his many war crimes by Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie).

Most Game of Thrones fans remember this particular death was incredibly upsetting, which isn't exactly a surprise. As it turns out, the behind-the-scenes process was pretty difficult for the cast and crew alike. Here's the real story behind Game of Thrones' most harrowing death scene.

The Game of Thrones cast and crew knew Shireen's death would be difficult

In his book, Hibberd details just how anxious the cast and crew felt going into "The Dance of Dragons" (the penultimate episode of season five) once they knew what was coming. As far as van Houten was concerned, she figured the audience would hate her forever after the episode aired.

"I thought, 'This is the end of my sympathy point,'" van Houten mused. "I knew my days as a friendly character were over. I knew the audience was going to hate me from then on. They didn't like me in the first place, but that was really pushing it, and rightfully so. But at the same time I thought it was so bold and cruel and epic, even though it was awful."

Liam Cunningham, who plays Stannis' right hand man Davos Seaworth, was equally horrified, but also understood the moment's importance to the overall story. As Cunningham recalled, "When I read the script, I thought, 'You've got to be f**king kidding me.' But it's genius dramatically. When Stannis tells Davos to [leave their camp for Castle Black], you know you're not getting that information for a very f**king good reason. I've had shouts from people on the street, 'Why didn't you stay?!' and I shout, 'I tried!'"

Meanwhile, producers knew that fans would have to relive this scene in a different way in George R.R. Martin's forthcoming books. According to Hibberd, Martin told producers the scene will transpire differently in the final books of the Song of Ice and Fire series, making the on-screen depiction utterly harrowing and wholly original all at once.

Filming Shireen's death scene was horrible for everyone on the Game of Thrones set

When fans think about Shireen's death scene — if they dare — they probably remember Ingram's incredibly disturbing performance, and according to director David Nutter, Ingram ad-libbed some of the most upsetting parts. "A lot of the screaming was ad-libbed," Nutter told Hibberd. "When Shireen is screaming and crying for her mother, we got that on location [rather than looping it in later] to add the emotional resonance. When the mother finally realizes how awful this is, it's so powerful."

Cunningham, who shared several scenes with Ingram, vouched for her sheer talent, saying, "There's an old saying in Hollywood: 'Don't work with children or animals.' I found the opposite. Kids play for a living, that's their job, and most of us, when we grow up, we put play to one side. Kids are experts at it. Kerry Ingram was incredibly impressive. She has this inner contentment about her, like an old soul. A lot of us aim for things. She's not aiming. She walks on, and there's just 100 percent truth when she speaks."

On set, some of the cast and crew had their own visceral reactions to the scene. "It was harder for the adults than it was for Kerry," said writer Dave Hill. "She had bubbly kid energy. But Bryan [Cogman, a producer] refused to watch. He was like, 'No, I have kids of my own. I cannot watch him burn a child.' While Stephen [Dillane] was like, 'This is pretty rough, guys, even for Game of Thrones.'"

All of Game of Thrones — including this incredibly difficult scene — is available to stream on HBO Max now.