Liam Cunningham on Being Sent Away by Stannis and Why Game of Thrones Is Like Washington

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Spoilers ahead for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

Poor Shireen — what a way to learn that the night is dark and full of terrors. Her BFF Davos would have intervened had he known that Stannis was planning to burn his own daughter in one of Melisandre's blood sacrifices. After all, Davos sent away Gendry on a rowboat to save him from the same fate, risking his own life in the process. And even though he didn't know, he pleaded with Stannis to let him take Shireen back to Castle Black: "A siege is no place for a little girl." Since Davos wasn't available for comment, we got the next-best thing — the actor who plays him, Liam Cunningham, who had plenty to say about one of most horrific child deaths on the show to date.

When you were talking before the premiere of this season about how there would be an episode that was more shocking than the Red Wedding, were you referring to this specific Shireen scene?
I was thinking of a couple of things. Basically, when I was asked about this season, I did a sharp intake of breath, as I was trying to figure out how I was going to answer it delicately. And I started getting quoted around the world saying, "There's something worse than the Red Wedding!" But certainly, the climax to this season is astonishing. It's absolutely remarkable. I remember reading the last two episodes, and I forgot to close my mouth when reading both of them. They're dramatically delicious, and difficult as well. Difficult as a viewer. But I mean that in a good sense. You'll be looking through your fingers. I think we'll have people screaming at the television. It's going to be such a treat for the audience.

What happens here is something that's been foreshadowed. Melisandre told Selyse that they would need Shireen, to bring her along. She advised Stannis that Shireen was a source of king's blood. But when she first brought it up, he refused to do it. And now, with conditions worsened at the camp, he does it. 
It's absolutely horrific. When I read it in the script, my jaw hit the ground. It's dramatically devastating, as they say. And it's going to be heartbreaking. I imagine there's going to be a few people shaking their fists at the television. [Laughs.] I probably will be as well! It's tough, but that's Game of Thrones! It doesn't all smell of roses on Game of Thrones! There are hard things, hard truths, as Stannis would say. It's pretty horrific.

Both Melisandre and Davos have been trying to help Stannis get to the same goal, but they have very different methods, and we know that Davos doesn't agree with those methods but can't really stop her all that much.
Diplomacy and lateral thinking are the weapons of Davos, and Melisandre uses any means available — shadow babies and leeches and fire and magic. They both want the same thing, but Davos wants to do it honorably, and that's where the dramatic clash comes from. But because Stannis doesn't want to do what he's going to do, he sidelines Davos and sends him away, because he doesn't want to look in Davos's eyes when he does this. He wouldn't be able to go through with it. And yet, he wants to get on the throne. And he's convinced Davos wouldn't let him do it — Davos would sacrifice himself just to save Shireen. So he has to get him out of the way.

This comes not long after we started getting the cuddly moments between Stannis and Shireen, when we started thinking he was a warmer person, that he was a good father. It made us root for him.
It's extraordinary, because there's an awful lot of people that I've been bumping into, having to bite my lip as the season has progressed, because they seemed to be on Team Stannis. People wanted him to do well. He saved Jon Snow. He saved the Night's Watch. And things had been going well with the military campaign. So there seemed to be a lot of people behind Team Dragonstone ... and I think that might alter slightly in the next couple of weeks. [Laughs.]

You think? The problem is, even if Melisandre's methods seem to work sometimes, say, with the shadow baby and Renly's assassination, it's hard to say that she's got a perfect track record. Did she really cause the deaths of the kings she promised with the leeches? Did Joffrey die because of her blood magic? Did Robb Stark die because of her blood magic? Is Balon Greyjoy even dead? It's hard to justify spilling more king's blood, to slaughter an innocent, when you don't know for sure.
It will be interesting to see where that goes. That story may continue into season six. But I'm sure wherever Melisandre goes, she leaves damage in her wake. And it'll be incredibly interesting to see where that goes. We've been watching Daenerys and Tyrion getting together, and they're going to be a formidable force with what she has, with the Unsullied and the dragons and Tyrion behind her. They're beginning to look incredibly strong now, just as it's all unraveling for the Lannisters. Who would have thought four or five episodes ago that we would see Margaery and Cersei in jail, with a major threat on their lives? That's one of the things I love about the show, it completely knocks you down every couple of episodes and you go, "Oh my God, I wasn't expecting that!" What happens in the books to Shireen?

Well, she hasn't been burned at the stake. She doesn't even go on this journey with Stannis — she stays behind at Castle Black. But perhaps this is a fate George R.R. Martin has planned for her in The Winds of Winter? So far, though, with the published works, Shireen is safe.
Well, this is the thing now: As we leave the books behind, everybody's going to be in the dark. So one of the things that I love is when friends or acquaintances go, "Tell me about this show," if they haven't seen it. It's a difficult thing because you can't describe it in two sentences. It doesn't do it justice. So what I normally do is I whip out my phone and show them the Red Wedding reactions on YouTube. There's one that's six minutes and five seconds long that I've shown many times. So while my friends are looking at that, they're going, "You've got to be fucking kidding me," because all these guys and gals are pulling blankets up and screaming at the television. And I go, "So that's the reason you should watch the show, because if a piece of drama has that effect on you, it's worth watching."

And the other thing is, there aren't good guys in white hats, or bad guys in black hats. A lot of the hats are grey, out of political expediency. I think that's one of the reasons the show is so popular in Washington! [Laughs.] They see it as pretty close to their lives, the backstabbing, the lust for power, the paranoia, the legacy, all of that. And it's hugely respected. The best kind of art is when it holds a mirror up to society, so even though we have dragons and shadow babies and all that, I think, in regards to a drama about people and these huge issues, topics that are dealt with, it's so truthful.

Did you do anything to say good-bye to Kerry Ingram, the actress who played Shireen?
I had a little moment with Kerry. We exchanged gifts, as our characters did. I gave her a little silver stag, and she gave me a beautiful cushion with an embroidered stag on it, and it was completely by coincidence that we both had these little stag things that we gave to each other. I think in was in the last couple of days before production shut down for the season. So it was sad, because I really respect her, not only as a glorious young lady and a beautiful human being, but she's also fantastically professional and well prepared on set. She's got a wicked sense of humor as well. She's just lovely. So professionally, I'm really sad that I won't be working with her again. Those were some of my favorite scenes, what I did with her.