This line of thinking can be useful and profound when talking about risk management, foreign policy, or giving to charity. But coming from the creator of a show in which the death of one little girl was carefully presented to have maximum emotional impact—the seasons-worth of reading lessons, the recent bonding between her and the father, those screams from the pyre—it’s galling misdirection. Game of Thrones is not here to teach a lesson about caring for each life equally. If anything, the lesson is to care about none of them.
All of that said, while Shireen's end filled me with disgust, I’m not ready to say it was reckless storytelling. In the post-episode HBO interview, the showrunners indicated that this death came on orders from George R.R. Martin and that it freaked them out as well, but that it makes sense in the universe of the show. Indeed, Stannis has been set up as someone who relishes making the hard and personally wounding choices. He believes that becoming king is not only his destiny, but something that has to happen for the good of the realm. And after Melisandre’s smoke baby, the leeches, and the failure at Blackwater, he has reason to believe in the power of fire magic. The final conversation between him and his daughter offered the finest acting yet from Stephen Dillane, who showed a mix of duty and despair via gravelly voice and sad eyes. Unfortunately, it was Kerry Danielle Ingram’s best scene to date as well. Shireen’s intelligence and attitude is so charming that you can’t help but yearn for her to live and join Arya and Tyrion in the “cripples, bastards, and broken things” Westerosi justice league.
But the most crucial moment of the whole Shireen sequence may have been after the deed was done, and Queen Selyse let out of a low, moaned “nooo.” Stannis’s response was a look of pure disorientation. All this time, his wife has been the lead fanatic of the marriage, and for her to lose her faith reminds him that he’s undertaken this heinous action on a gamble. The facial expressions on the soldiers watching the ceremony certainly indicated that this bonfire wasn't going to boost morale. If the Lord of Light doesn’t come through, Stannis is truly lost. Perhaps that would be justice.
The number of words I’ve spent on Shireen’s death indicates that you’re right, Chris, that it was a mistake for the episode not to end with it. The uprising in the Meereen fighting pits provided cool visuals but, maybe because of what came before, didn’t hit me with the momentous power I think it was meant to have. Perhaps the problem was that the dragon ex machina surprise was no surprise at all—as soon as trouble arose, I assumed a firebreather would bail the gang out. The only real twist of the sequence was that Hizdahr, the gladiatorial apologist who’d been suspiciously late to the ceremony, found himself on the wrong end of an insurgent’s dagger. The best action came before the real action, in the form of the ringside philosophical sparring between Tyrion, Hizdahr, and Daario. The show itself might want to take into consideration Tyrion’s brief for less violence:
Hizdahr: It's an unpleasant question, but what great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?
Tyrion: It's easy to confuse “what is” with “what ought to be.” Especially when “what is” has worked in your favor.
I also agree, Chris, that the Meryn Trant storyline seems like it could have been initiated and wrapped up in this episode. The lengthy amount of time spent at the brothel mostly served to hint that Arya could be in sexual peril. With the show being so cruel to its young female characters lately, the last thing I want is any suspense about what’s going to happen if Arya tries to exact revenge while pretending to be a pedophile’s prostitute. Please, Benioff and Weiss, let her just serve him a stanky oyster and be done with it. (On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind a few more scenes of the buffoonish Mace Tyrell playing the Ugly Westerosi to the cosmopolitan calm of a Braavosi banker.)