Did ‘Game of Thrones’ go too far with its fire this week, or not far enough?

A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I put my money on the smaller man…

“Sometimes, a person has to choose. Sometimes, the world forces his hand.” -Stannis

Last week, the Song of Ice and Fire leaned heavily on the former element, with the chilling zombie massacre at Hardhome, and the Night's King's taunt of Jon Snow in its immediate aftermath. With “The Dance of Dragons,” fire was the dominant element, and it was horrible, and then it was wonderful.

Or maybe it's all the same.

Surely, Stannis ordering Melisandre to sacrifice his daughter is among the more despicable actions taken in the run of the series, and among the show's most difficult to watch scenes(*). Drogon's rescue of Dany, while definitely a bit of dragon ex machina(**), was thrilling, and an effective counterweight to the White Walkers' victory last week. There, the forces of darkness are unstoppable in both numbers and overall power, while here, our heroes are saved from a situation where the odds are overwhelmingly against them because of the arrival of a friend from above.

(*) One advantage of the absence of screeners is that I get to watch with the captions turned on, which helps with some of the dumber name spellings. Occasionally, closed-captioning can be a distraction from a dramatic moment, but with this scene, it only added to the horror, as we see the mother's face as the caption reads, “(screaming stops).” I shuddered a second (or fifth) time just reading that.

(**) First, the White Walkers – who have been moving damn slow all this time we've known them – show up at Hardhome at the exact moment that the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch has come to recruit the wildlings. And now Drogon returns from his flyabout at the exact moment when Dany most needs him? These avatars of ice and fire have a good sense of timing, if nothing else.

Yet Drogon's arrival, and the Sons of the Harpy ambush that makes it necessary, is preceded by a debate between Dany's smug fiance Loraq and the members of her informal small council about the merits of the fighting pits and the Great Games.  We're of course meant to side with Tyrion as they debate about the necessary conditions for greatness, and whether cruelty has to be a fundamental part of the world. Yet “Game of Thrones” has offered ample evidence that it believes to a degree in Loraq's worldview. On this show, kindness is punished and cruelty rewarded far more often than the opposite conditions are true. The “good” people are too often blinded by nobility and codes to realize how badly they are going to be hurt – unless they're fortunate enough to have a dragon or a Valyrian steel sword when the occasion requires it – while the likes of the Lannisters, the Boltons and Littlefinger have thrived.

When Jon Snow brings the wildlings he rescued from Hardhome to the Wall, Alliser reluctantly lets them through the gate, then expresses something of a series ethos when he tells his commanding officer, “You have a good heart, Jon Snow. It'll get us all killed.”

Watching this show does a number on your moral calculus, even more than one of HBO's previous champions of a bleak philosophy in “The Wire,” which at least allowed for the possibility of good things happening on the most micro of levels. So even though I was meant to be horrified by Shireen's death (and I was), and even though I was meant to applaud at Drogon's arrival (and I did, even as I wished that Dany at least had some kind of dragon-whistle to make the timing seem less silly), I also found myself wondering this:

Why am I booing the burning of one person and cheering the burning of many?

Yes, Shireen is a sweet, innocent girl who had the bad fortune to be born to a pair of religious fanatics with massive senses of entitlement, while the Sons of the Harpy are a faceless (literally most of the time) group of terrorists who want to restore Meereen's slave economy. On that level, it's obvious why the burning of one is monstrous and the burning of the many is a victory. But on another, Dany has turned her rule of Slaver's Bay into a clown show of long standing, while Stannis is the only man at the moment in any position to rid Westeros – and “Game of Thrones” itself – of the Boltons. As it became clear that the guerrilla raid on Stannis' camp had sealed Shireen's fate, a part of me was outraged, while another part of me thought, “Well, if it means no more Ramsay on this show…” followed by thoughts of innocent (or innocent-ish) characters I felt more attached to than this poor girl.

And for all of Stannis' obnoxious zealotry, it's not like he committed this atrocity out of blind faith in Melisandre. He's seen what she has been capable of doing when empowered by king's blood (though I did wonder at the choice of burning Shireen, which would make the literal blood very difficult to collect). When he does what she says, his enemies fall, at times through incredible magic; when he ignores her counsel, he gets out-strategized by an imp. In describing the plot of the book that gives the episode its title, Shireen herself points out the destructiveness of her father's single-minded pursuit of the Iron Throne, and chances are that he'll never succeed. (Even if he takes out the Boltons, he'll then have to deal with Littlefinger's well-rested army.)

Meanwhile, for all of Dany's belief that she can teach the people of Meereen the morally proper way to live, she's had ample evidence that they have no interest in the lesson. Even before the Sons attack, the Great Games sequence is an ugly rebuttal to the ideals behind her rule. Dany has been told that opening the fighting pits will be a way to appease the locals – a sop to their tradition that will make it easier for them to accept this white-haired conqueror in their midst. And she enters the arena viewing it as a necessary evil, not ready for the level of full-throated bloodthirstiness the crowd will display during the early matches. Loraq represents a philosophy that Tyrion and Dany are right to reject from our point of view in 21st century North America; in ancient Essos, he knows what the people wants much more than his new comrades, even if his proximity to them appears to cost him his life.

I had wondered how the show might try to top, or even equal, the level of spectacle on display in “Hardhome.” Benioff, Weiss and director David Nutter (back for his first episode since the end of season 3) answered with that stunning arena sequence – featuring some of the show's best marriage of computer effects and pure photography – and the riot that followed. Drogon proved trickier to weave into the action than the zombies and Wun Wun were in “Hardhome,” and there were a few times I could see the digital seams as he mixed in with both the fighters and Dany. But it was still worth it for the glimpse of the mother of dragons, breaker of chains, clapper of hands climbing onto his back and soaring into the heavens on the back of her biggest child. (It would have been classier for her to then swoop down and burn up the remaining Sons to protect the friends she left behind, but presumably Drogon already took out enough of them that Daario, Jorah and the Unsullied should be able to handle the rest.)

Our time in Meereen wasn't as long as the stop in Hardhome last week, but on the whole, Benioff and Weiss have learned the power of lingering in locations as they near the end of each season. We only had a few stops this week (and King's Landing wasn't one of them), and none of them were rushed. We were with Arya for what felt nearly as long as the day she spent shadowing Meryn Trant, for instance, and that allowed the awfulness of his intentions at the brothel (involving an innocent girl we aren't even as attached to as we are to Shireen) to fully bloom. Trant was already enough of a villain that he didn't necessarily need this added layer of filth, but it also may wind up being the avenue that Arya uses to get close enough to him to try to kill him(***).

(***) Was Trant's reaction to her one of recognition – even on a faint, “I know I know that girl from somewhere…” level, or him being distracted by the first girl in that room to fit his particular heinous appetites? If the former, it would be really handy right now if she already knew how to become a faceless woman, right? Then again, Jaqen seems to be wise to at least some of what she's up to, so maybe he'll step in well before she gets a chance to cross another name off her list.   

Another aspect the Hardhome and Meereen riots shared: the characters at the center of them are among the handful of “GoT” regulars who seem to exist outside the franchise's “anyone can die” ethos. For Dany to be killed before she gets to Westeros would be such terrible storytelling that it would call into question how much of the show has just been sadistic filler, and we're already asking that about Ramsay. And the White Walkers are such a clear part of the show's end game that some representative of the Night's Watch needs to be there for it, though I suppose Sam could wind up our eyes in that corner of the world if need be.

But “anyone can die” is also something of a parlor trick. Walter White wasn't going to die midway through the run of “Breaking Bad,” but that knowledge didn't make the situations where his life was in danger any less suspenseful. That I suspected Jon would make it to the boats in time, and that Dany would find some way out of the fighting pit (a way likely to involve the one dragon she hadn't chained) didn't make the climaxes of these past two episodes any less exciting, or scary, or emotionally exhausting. Similarly, the only way this episode could have made Shireen's impending demise any more obvious would have been to have her tell Ser Davos that when this battle at Winterfell is over, she'll take him for a ride on her boat the Live-4-Ever, and that inevitably didn't take anything away from the pain of her actual death. (If anything, seeing it coming from that far away only made it easier to feel rage for Stannis, and sympathy for Davos at his inevitable discovery of what his beloved king has done.)

These episodes have offered many of the things that “Game of Thrones” does best, at times on a more powerful level than the show's ever reached before. But they've also represented the many ways that watching this show can be an ordeal. That is exactly what Benioff, Weiss, George R.R. Martin and everyone else want you to feel. It doesn't seem a coincidence that the longer the series lasts, the more events happen that seem to be the sadistic straw that breaks the camel's back for one viewer or another. (Midway through writing this review, I got an email from a friend that read, simply, “Aaaand my wife is out at Stannis's daughter.”) There are areas where the show doesn't appear quite as in command of its tone and themes as it wants to be (as we saw with the response to the Jaime/Cersei and Ramsay/Sansa rape scenes these past two seasons), and others where all the creators involved seem to be going out of their way to rub our noses in the awfulness of it all.

At the same time, some nose-rubbing doesn't always feel out of place, even as I find some of the show's more sadistic characters to be terribly one-note. Given the world “Game of Thrones” depicts, and the thrills it gives us, maybe it's not unreasonable to remind us of the emotional cost of those thrills. As Loraq asks Tyrion, what great thing – and that includes many of this series' great predecessors on HBO – has ever been accomplished without cruelty?

Some other thoughts:

* This review may have been delayed by 10 or 15 minutes as I made a futile search to find a vintage “Star Trek” clip of Captain Kirk busting out one of his patented fight moves, the dive-roll into a punch or neck-chop, because dammit if Jorah didn't borrow part of that to finish off his final fighting pit opponent. (Though I couldn't find actual footage, here's a “Ben Stiller Show” sketch where Stiller-as-Shatner busts it out on Odenkirk-as-Segal.)

* Other than the chance to enjoy some Bronn/Jaime banter, Dorne has been a near-total misfire all season. Looking forward to Jaime returning to King's Landing next season, and not just to see how he reacts to his sister's imprisonment.

* When Mace Tyrell started singing, I initially wondered if the producers had liked the “Game of Thrones: The Musical” idea so much that they wanted to make it a part of the show. Amusing reaction by Mark Gatiss to that bit of business.

* Rest in peace, Loraq. I only learned your name the week before you died, and I had so many “I am the Loraq. I speak for the trees” jokes that I never got to use!

As usual (though this may be the last season in which we have to do it, as the show has begun significantly deviating from and/or passing the books), all comments will be moderated to prevent book spoilers from slipping in. We are here to talk about “Game of Thrones” as a television show, not do constant comparing and contrasting of the show and the books. There are plenty of other places online to do that, and if your comment discusses the books, it won't be approved.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com