Game of Thrones left viewers atop a mountain of questions and a molehill of answers when it concluded season five last year. The stakes had become so high and the circumstances so dark with Dany being captured by the Dothraki and Jon Snow being slaughtered by his own men that it’s difficult to think how things can be gathered and continued at the same pace. The opening episode of season six, ‘The Red Woman’, gives us answers to most of the questions laid at our feet while also fully embracing the ludicrousness of it all. There’s a huge task at hand when it comes to justifying the deaths of so many characters and redemption of others as we come into the home-stretching seasons of this beloved show. ‘The Red Woman’ feels like a response to all the dire deeds we have experienced, deftly weaving each loose thread into an intriguing centerpiece from which we will continue to spin out of until the season’s end.
There are two types of Game of Thrones episodes: the sprawling worldwide plot-mover and the intimate dramatic set piece. ‘The Red Woman’ falls into the former category and is by far the more difficult version to make an intriguing story. There are simply too many characters and plot lines in this world to succinctly and satisfyingly explore them all within a 50-ish minute time frame. The writers (and creators) Benioff and Weiss are fully aware of this by now and I think have finally mastered the formula when it comes to these full-world-spanning tales. The key comes with levity and ‘The Red Woman’ is maybe the most I’ve laughed in a Game of Thrones episode in a long time and I’m happy for it.
This is the big breath of relief before things really start to hit the fan again in this world. Starting at The Wall:
Jon Snow is dead as dead but Ser Davos’ cunning logic and brashness clashes nicely against Thorne’s prickly orders and his sudden trust in Melisandre roots our trust in his character and Melisandre’s just as she’s become the actual least-trustful person in the show.
Melisandre is more interesting than ever in that she’s been proven wrong at least twice now with Stannis’ defeat at Winterfell and the reveal that she saw Jon Snow fighting at Winterfell as well. She is a character who has been known for being absolutely correct against all odds and common decency in the past and these two miscalculations humanize her. Ser Davos coming to her side, now that he’s been given the ultimatum by Thorne, is proof that she holds a certain power despite her inaccuracy. Plus, we’re now privy to knowing just how old Melisandre’s true form is in a scene that is at once sexy and beautiful, horrific and sad. Surely, this woman will be able to bring Jon Snow back to us in some way, right?
In the only big bummer of the premiere, we’re shown that Sansa and Theon were completely unharmed by their gigantic fall from the walls of Winterfell. This disappointment is quickly erased by the reunion we’ve been waiting years for with Brienne coming to their aid as Ramsey’s troops have closed in on them. Brienne and Pod (!) dispatch six Bolton men in a sword fight that proves Game of Thrones showcases the best action on TV which occurs fifteen minutes in and feels like a gauntlet thrown down to the rest of the industry. The writing only elevates things from here. Brienne swears her allegiance to Sansa and Sansa has to look at Theon for approval to commence while Pod also has to give Sansa the verbal cues to accept Brienne’s allegiance. It’s a quick exchange but one that immediately defines each of these characters as a new family and roots our own allegiance with them all. This may be the group for which I root most dearly the rest of the season. Surely that means they’ll all die…
Jaime brings the corpse of his daughter Myrcella home to mommy Cersei and Cersei has another humanizing moment after her public humiliation that suggests, above all else, she truly loves her kids. I wouldn’t bet against these two in the immediate future.
Queen Margaery is still being tortured through verse and isn’t allowed to see her brother, Loras. The High Sparrow enters and feeds some nonsense down Margaery’s throat that suggests she may try to see the way of the Sparrow soon.
The Sand Snakes have become slightly more interesting in that they’ve now taken over Dorne in a coup that places them at the head of the table. These women are fierce and fun and I hope they’re given better things to do this go-round.
Tyrion and Varys are searching through the political rubble of Meereen to discover the best way to rule the city while Dany has gone missing. The back and forth between these two characters is strong as ever and we see Tyrion being placed behind another iron wall as the ships of Meereen burn in front of him, signaling no travel to Westeros in the foreseeable future. They’ve got to build something here first.
Jorah and Daario have discovered the trail left by Dany when she was captured by the Dothraki Horde. Jorah’s clock ticks as he becomes more Stone Man by the day.
Dany is taken and subjected once again to gross reduction by her Dothraki captors. They belittle her worth in as many ways as they can but she does not let on her true value until the most opportune moment. The exchange between Khal Moro and his lieutenants is one of the highlights of the episode as we’re of the belief that Dany is in a world of pain when she enters this hut (and it’s not like she still isn’t) but we’re instead given levity by the fact that this Khal has to suffer the idiocy of his subordinates in a memorable segment that tears apart the Conan “what is best in life” mantra before our eyes. This is the show masterfully walking the tightrope of tone and subverting our expectations in delightful ways and not just surprising ones. We also learn that Khal Drogo’s name isn’t as sullied as we once believed and respect must be paid to each Khal widow. Unfortunately, that means Dany will be sent to Vaes Dothrak to live out the rest of her life with the other Khal widows.
‘The Red Woman’ took what was the ultimate cliffhanger of a season finale* and went to the next logical yet surprising step in giving us comedy in resolution. At this point the majority of the audience has been onboard for a while now and we know what expect from Game of Thrones. There will be heartbreak, there will be death, there will likely be another castration. ‘The Red Woman’ let us know that Benioff and Weiss care about us but are whole-heartedly pushing this story ahead in some serious ways.
This is the best answer I could ask for.
*Yes, Jon Snow’s death is a cliffhanger. The Walking Dead could learn a thing or two about how to actually satisfy an audience in this regard.