This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 1
And like that winter is over. Indeed, spring has truly sprung when there are birds chirping in the park, flowers blooming on every branch, and plenty of pollen to go around. But for Game of Thrones fans, this really just means that by the graces of the gods old and new, we have finally been allowed back into the world of Westeros, and it is every bit as beautifully twisted as we recall.
A lot has happened for the series in the interim since last we left Jon Snow learning the exact same lesson that his father and brother enjoyed before him: Game of Thrones was officially confirmed as surpassing George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book narrative when Martin failed to meet his self-imposed January deadline for The Winds of Winter; Game of Thrones picked up its first Emmy for Best Outstanding Drama (even if it was for perhaps not the series’ best season); President Barack Obama revealed he is so invested now that he reads Game of Thrones reviews during his lunch break—which by the way, if you are perusing this article Mr. President, I would love to discuss with you in depth the realpolitik of Westeros, and Meereenese civics, any time that would be convenient!—but most importantly of all, there has remained a lingering question amongst fans. Is Jon Snow really dead?
While 10 months of speculation, gossip, and leaked intel has pointed in one direction, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have remained adamant that Jon Snow is dead. Of course, the real question has never truly been whether Jon Snow is dead. Rather, the more substantive query is will Jon Snow stay dead?
Well, the bad news is this season premiere appears prone to tease you on that mystery a little longer while offering no definitive answers. However, in the plus column from this bit of emotional manipulation is that the Jon Snow problem bookends what might just be the best season premiere in Game of Thrones’ history. So without further ado, let’s dig in with the comforting knowledge that for once, whether book reader or Unsullied, we are all in the same boat!
Again, the season picks up right where it left off with poor Jon Snow’s blood yet warming the slush upon which he found his funeral shroud. Admittedly, one gets the sense that Benioff and Weiss are rubbing in a nigh year of audience trauma with the same kind of glee relished by Joffrey when he forced Sansa to stare at the severed head of her father. Nevertheless, there is immediate purpose to this torture since it kicks off what is a dizzyingly suspenseful and breakneck pace—at least as far as the North is concerned.
Times have changed, indeed, over the years since in previous seasons, it was in King’s Landing, and the wars around that capital’s throne room, where the series had its most addictive and bloody intrigue. Yet now, perhaps as an early indicator of where the action is shifting in its sixth season and beyond, almost all the major moments of exhilaration and horror happened where the snow is already kissing the ground. It is also there that Ser Davos Seaworth and the few good men left on the Night’s Watch find Jon Snow’s corpse.
Seeing how few are willing to rally around Jon Snow is a strange mixture of pride and despair. On the one hand, there is some semblance of redemption for the Night’s Watch in this sequence, because now audiences are reminded that not all Watchers on the Wall are scheming, treacherous bastards. In fact, as the show notes, it is both amusing and terrifying that our hopes for “honor” to be redeemed in this part of the realm rests on Dolorous Edd’s shoulders, the last friend Jon Snow has at Castle Black from season 1.
Quickly, Edd is dispatched to rally the wildlings to their cause. The implicit danger is, however, that it was also the wildlings’ presence that led to Ser Alliser Thorne to make his power play, and thus transform Jon into a Wight-in-Waiting. Ergo, any attempt to restore order and justice at the Wall at the end of a wildling’s spear seems dubious at best. Still, it’s better than waiting around to be killed.
Because while the heroes hover over Jon’s body, Ser Alliser reveals himself to be a bit of a Marcus Junius Brutus (one wonders if Benioff and Weiss asked Tobias Menzies for advice on writing this scene?). Of course, Brutus loved Caesar like a father while Thorne loathed Jon Snow from day one. But be that as it may, he makes a convincing argument in the moment that what he did was for the good of the Watch. And it is sadly, and easily, sways far too many brothers. After all, Alliser and the other conspirators are all good, honorable men who will not deny their righteous action.
Fortunately, the Night’s Watch is not a republic nor is it even a mob. So while there is no counterpoint offered by a proverbial Marc Antony in this sequence, the truth remains that the dispute will be settled like all things in Westeros: with brute force and displays of power. With Edd’s sojourn to the wildlings being dragged out an extra week, that leaves some grim images of Ser Davos and other nameless good guys, plus the always wonderfully vicious looking Ghost, to fend for themselves. And the tension is rife as Ser Davos sees through Thorne’s false claims of sparing lives and throwing down swords. If a man of supposed honor has already murdered his Lord Commander, surely he can be trusted to show leniency toward Jon’s loyalists, right? No. This door must not be opened until it is time for Ghost to rip throats. And Ghost won’t be ripping any throats until breath stirs once more within Jon Snow’s chest.
And honestly, does anybody really expect Jon Snow to stay dead? Every viewer and their Nan at this point has read or written the online theories (including my own) about how Jon will rise again. It is also transparent that Melisandre will be the eponymous Red Woman to make it happen. Just as we witnessed Beric Dondarrion resurrected by Thoros of Myr (a priest in Melisandre’s cult), so too will the Red Woman save Jon Snow from oblivion.
The clarity with which we all know this is happening (in some degree) makes it is mildly frustrating that it was held off yet another episode (probably just in case anyone at the Game of Thrones season 6 premiere in LA might have spoiled it online). It also makes the likelihood of Jon returning from the dead unscathed more dubious since he’ll have been gone for now a full day—plus, shouldn’t he risk turning into a Wight soon?
Still, the way the tension is slowly increased more than makes up for any such delays. Consider alone the premiere’s startling revelation about Melisandre.
To skip to the end of the episode for a moment, we do not see the Red Woman work her magic on Jon, but we did discover tonight that her cult’s red god acts as the ultimate Instagram filter. Indeed, it is a stunner of a closer when the always stunning Carice van Houten revealed her annual nudity, but with a more precise reason this year. Whether you love or hate Melisandre—and I will never forget Shireen, nor do I imagine Ser Davos will when he learns the truth—she is a fascinating figure that walks the ambiguous lines of literal shadow, and just not the kind that comes out of her womb. As a character who preaches a dogmatic religion of black and white Zoroastrianism, she paradoxically will never emerge from the darkness nor fully hide from the light. She is a woman of noble intentions (save the world from the Long Night that is coming by way of the White Walkers) and one who will implement them with the utmost monstrousness.
However, in a world as cynically utilitarian as Westeros, that does not necessarily make her evil, even if her good intentions have paved her personal path toward the Seven Hells. And tonight, it is really sinking in for the Lady of Red how damnable her decisions really are after the loss of both Stannis and now Jon Snow. Her visions showed Jon Snow standing victorious on Winterfell’s battlements… a feat we might yet see. But in this moment, she does not comprehend how she can reach that achievement.
In her self-doubt, she disrobes and reveals, if only to herself, her true, withered form. Without her magic ruby necklace—the same one that protected her from a maester’s poison way back in season 2—she is not nearly so comely as the red headed mistress busied in Stannis’ chambers. In what amounts to a massive spoiler for book readers, she is in fact as ancient as Old Nan, and far more self-loathing. Playing to the folklore image of witches (and literally appearing to step right out of this year’s wonderful The Witch film), Melisandre strangely seems more sympathetic in her humbled, and saddened state. One wonders if those extra years makes the murder of babes weigh heavier on her conscience? Since it all seems to have been for nothing at the moment, I’m pretty sure she is kicking herself for a great many things.
Nonetheless, she will ultimately try resurrection, even if it will be her first time casting the spell, and all that anxiety about her prophecies will be made right. And hopefully, this will occur next week!
In the meantime, the action happening in and around Winterfell is every bit as riveting. Ramsay Bolton revealed that he actually did kind of love his mistress, at least as much as is possible for a sadistic sociopath with a penchant for wholesale slaughter. I cannot say that his affection for a woman equally as wicked as he earns any real sympathy. For however much Ramsay calls himself a Bolton, he will be ever only a Snow. And the mean bastard knows this too. I imagine on some level, her death is merely an excuse to torture and kill Theon in new exceedingly gruesome ways. After all, he thinks his supposed love’s body is worth no more than the meat fed to dogs, and the Man Who Was Reek is his absolute favorite hound.
Ramsay is also reminded again that he is still a bastard in his father’s eyes, and now with his bride gone and no heir to unite the North around his seat in Winterfell, father Roose Bolton is dangling the threat of Walda being pregnant over Ramsay’s head. This scene is chilling for several reasons. On the first, Roose, who was so cunning in his deceit before murdering King Robb Stark, seems oblivious to the depths of his son’s malice. If he keeps threatening Ramsay’s fortunes with the life of his unborn child, chances are that Ramsay will make sure that birth, and the mother who would see it done, never make it to delivery. Further, Roose seems to suggest that he is expecting a day of reckoning between himself and the Lannisters is coming. This seems questionable at best since the Lannisters couldn’t give a fig about the North, even in times of peace, so long as they bend the knee and pay their taxes.
If this paranoia is about making Sansa Stark Ramsay’s wife, he should rest assured that Cersei has bigger concerns to worry about at the moment than Sansa Stark and the distant North. It all seems moot since I suspect that the Boltons will face the military terror of their Northern kinsman first. For while Roose and Ramsay scheme, their Stark linchpin further eluded their grasp in the most exciting scene of the night.
Aye, at that very moment, Theon definitively proved I can stop describing him as Reek (which rhymes with weak), because he has guided Sansa Stark to something approximating safety. From forcing her to wade through icy rivers to trying to warm and dry her with his meek self, to finally futilely offering his body to once more be Ramsay’s play thing in an effort to hide Sansa, Theon at least earned back his humanity if not his soul or redemption. Of course, even before his degradations, Theon was never a very competent fellow, so it is unsurprising that in his pathetic attempt at distracting Ramsay’s men, he led them only what appeared to be about five feet away from the Stark girl. Fortuitously, Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne showed up and truly did bring the pain in the most cathartic kill-fest this show has seen since Joffrey kicked the bucket.
Tis a thing of beauty when the knight of Tarth sliced even that one beggar’s throat. But more importantly, Sansa is finally safe enough to begin fulfilling her destiny. There was almost a touch of Arthurian legend to the sequence where Sansa awkwardly took on Brienne’s oath of loyalty and service to what may yet be Sansa’s future claim as Queen in the North. The uncertainty with which she recited the chivalrous words, but the growing sense of regal strength she discovered as they continued to pour from her mouth prove that the North has a new power broker entering the game, and finally there might be some justice to mix with that wintry slush that has descended on these harsh lands.
But not all of “The Red Woman” took place in the North. Much farther to the south, there was a mixed bag of scenes. The more important ones, with subtly visceral anguish, belonged to Lena Headey, who gives a heartbreaking performance as she glimpses Jaime Lannister return from Dorne not with a daughter, but with a coffin and shroud. Cersei has lost much. Too much. Even her composure leaves her as she reveals to Jaime that all her life she has been superstitious—dreading the day an old witch’s prophecies came true.
I do not like Cersei. I probably never will. Not after all the evil she has inflicted, or let her son inflict, upon this world. But as Tyrion once said, her love for her children is her one redeeming quality. And no mother should have to bury two children (though Joffrey’s wake was a happy one!). Between that suffering and the misogynistic shaming endured at the hands of the Sparrows, for once Cersei is justified in her paranoia and desire for bloodshed—it has even brought Jaime back into the fold as a lover and ally where once there was only a yawning distance last season.
That’s why when Cersei inevitably takes her bloody revenge too far (notice Franken-Mountain at her back when Jaime’s boat arrives?), the destruction and ruin she’ll bring down upon her house will be all the more bittersweet and utterly confusing for viewers’ emotions.
Margaery’s scene with the High Sparrow tonight was also of interest as the pious but power-hungry seption seems to be taking a special interest in the young queen’s need to confess. He showed similar understanding and patience for Cersei, and we all saw where that got her. So, Margaery should of course be wary, yet I am left curious what exactly does he want the Tyrell Queen to confess to? They already know she perjured herself in the eyes of the Seven while lying that she knew not of Loras’ sexuality. If she confesses to that knowledge, would it condemn Loras to certain death? Somehow, I expect Loras’ days are numbered no matter what. And it is for this very reason that I don’t want Margaery to betray her brother.
Compared to the Lannisters, the genuine love shared by the Tyrells (even if they’re a little too comfortable wandering into each other’s bedrooms) is one of the few legitimate touches of compassion and human feeling in King’s Landing. If the seeds are being sown for Margaery to betray that humanity in order to save her own neck, things inevitably will be grimmer still.
But in striking contrast to all these tantalizing questions, there was a thudding sound heard nationwide when Game of Thrones cut back to Dorne. Unquestionably the weak, weak, weakest link of season 5, the Dornish subplots already promise to be an albatross around season 6’s neck as well. Of course, I will give the series some credit since I expected Prince Doran to kill Ellaria Sand at the beginning of this season instead of the other way around. But either way, it was still dippy and feels like an absolute waste of an actor of Alexander Siddig’s talents—forced to just grimace from a chair for a few scenes. It also is distractingly ridiculous to believe that every single one of Doran’s bodyguards besides his personal favorite wanted him dead. Poor writing shortcuts are still poor.
Worse still were the scenes of the other two Sand Snakes murdering Doran’s son, Tyrstane Martell. First of all, Trystane was doomed the second that Ellaria murdered Myrcella Baratheon while he was still aboard Jaime’s ship. Obviously, Cersei would answer blood with blood. So, why have the Sand Snakes kill him?
Presumably, it is meant to make the Sand Snakes seem more dangerous after last year’s clunky misuse. However, seeing Cersei exact her revenge on an innocent young man would have been far more satisfying narratively—as well as instantly make us question our sympathy for her, as she again proved to be just as ruthless and uncaring about who dies as ever. But nope, we are given a scene that makes absolutely no sense. After all, Jaime’s ship arrived in King’s Landing the day before this murder, and yet Trystane was left aboard? Either a royal hostage of immense importance for a war brewing between the Houses Lannister and Martell or a scapegoat for Cersei’s fury is left on a ship and not protected deep within the Black Cells of the Red Keep?! What?!
And just as preposterous is the idea that the Sand Snakes could reach King’s Landing and Jaime’s ship without being noticed, particularly after the death of Myrcella made Trystane the highest of Lannister prizes. Unless, we are to believe the stowed away on the ship or about a week without Jaime, Bronn, or anyone else noticing. No matter the answer, it is simply bad storytelling at the excuse of trying to redeem the Sand Snakes and Dornish intrigue as something worth our time. Better luck with all of that next week…
But lest this sound too negative, really the mediocrity of the Dornish subplot is just a very noticeable blemish in an otherwise great season premiere. Much like their presence in season 5 as a whole, Dorne and the characters who inhabit it feel like a wasted opportunity that takes away time from what works so well. And amongst those qualities were the developments in Essos.
In a more traditional Game of Thrones season premiere format, Arya Stark appears mostly to remind audiences of the character’s current status quo, which in this case is that of a blind girl. Punished for murdering out of a sense of selfish revenge, as opposed to selfless randomness, the girl who is still truly Arya Stark seems temporarily impaired. Unfortunately, Netflix did not loan out Scott Glenn to teach Arya how to hone her senses as a pint-sized, blind badass assassin. Alas, she is left to continue to be the whipping child of the House of Black and White—which leads to the question if that is her Jaqen in another face-mask beating on her? I suppose it matters not, for he is really no one.
This sequence is here though to mostly reestablish what we already know: the girl who is Arya has always been Arya and always will be Arya. For if this show has any sense of catharsis (and it does despite Martin’s malevolent sense of misdirection), then it will be as Arya Stark that she claims some sort of vengeance in the final seasons. Hence, this year’s Arya subplot is not how will she survive as a blind girl, but how will she lull the Faceless Men into believing she is true to their cause and get her eyesight back, without sacrificing her identity in the process?
Similar queries about status and manipulation arise in Daenerys’ scenes as well. From Mother of Dragons to Dothraki cattle, her new station as a prisoner likewise reminded us what we already knew: the Dothraki are a barbaric and rape-happy culture. Still, it is an acutely demoralizing change of fortunes. After five seasons of building herself up from what was essentially a sex slave to a khaleesi, and then a self-made royal conqueror, she has been brought low to where she originally started.
Daenerys is wise to keep her knowledge of the Dothraki language hidden, much as she left a certain Astapor slaver ignorant to her fluency in Valyrian. But this time it gets her only so far.
For my book readers out there, please remind me if her new menacing khal’s proclamations about Dothraki culture are true: must a dead khal’s widow be left untouched while she is returned to the Vaes Dothrak? My memory is fuzzy and seems to recall the Vaes Dothrak punishment is accurate, but I am unsure if the rest is from the books or not.
In any event, I do not believe for one minute that Daenerys will remain powerless and in Dothraki servitude for longer than a few episodes. From trailers, we know that she will at least make it to the Vaes Dothrak, but so will another party of fiery importance…
In Jorah and Daario’s sequence, they quickly found where Dany was captured by Dothraki last season—which along with one of the Sand Snake’s growing hair muddies the timeline since this is supposed to take place minutes after the end of Jon and Sansa’s storylines last year—but they also found remains of a long gone Drogon.
Tonight also saw Tyrion and Varys’ cameo amount to learning that the Meereenese fleet had been destroyed, leaving them to lament that Daenerys will not be sailing to Westeros anytime soon. But they’re only half-right since she simply won’t be sailing from Meereen. For surely when Drogon appears at Vaes Dothrak, she can use his might to force the Dothraki to bend the knee and then take advantage of the sudden horsepower from the Horse Lords as a way of “persuading” another port city, say Volantis, Pentos, or Braavos, into seeing things her way about crossing the Narrow Sea.
After all these seasons, Viserys’ dying wish appears likely to come true: a Targaryen army made up of Dothraki shall make landfall in Westeros.
Overall, it was a tremendous hour of television that broke the norm for Game of Thrones. Whereas most other season premieres in the show have taken their time to slowly acclimate viewers to the current status quo again (much like the Essos scenes tonight, but for all other storylines), “A Red Woman” was galloping more swiftly and confidently through its exposition and action than a direwolf in pursuit of a stag’s throat.
The sequences in the North were like their weather: chilling but gorgeous to look at as history and politics mingled in the Night’s Watch’s conspiratorial nightmares. Sansa Stark also took one step closer to her destiny after Brienne marched about 20 on her own path toward becoming the show’s biggest badass. I even feel comfortable in calling Theon by his name again!
Meanwhile, Cersei’s gradual decline has only begun to be faintly explored tonight, and one can already taste the blood in the water.
It really is a near flawless episode. But Dorne… they really need to do something about Dorne. Or better yet, nothing at all. Cersei and Jaime have their hands full right now with the Sparrows and Tyrells. Let’s just ignore the desert from here on out, and it will be easier to give the next one five stars!
Yet, as the series goes forward, I imagine Cersei’s bloodlust will make war with the south inevitable. But in the even closer immediacy, Melisandre has some blood magic to perform, because next week a snow is due to rise up instead of fall down.
Also, feel free to chat Game of Thrones with me anytime on Twitter @DCrowsNest.