Warning: This review contains spoilers and speculation
Seeing a beautiful Game of Thrones episode for the first time – what is better than that? If you have already watched the Season 6 opener ‘The Red Woman’, you can probably name the things that are better, so I’ll concede the point: Watching a Game of Thrones episode for the first time is among the five best things in life.
If the last ten months have felt more interminable than usual, it is because the HBO series finally caught up to George R. R. Martin’s books with the Season 5 finale, which meant that even the readers didn’t have the luxury of knowing what was going to happen next. The cliffhanger was a cliffhanger for everybody, making this the most anticipated season premiere in the show’s history.
So how did the episode fare? Addressing first the bleeding elephant in the room, we now know that Jon Snow is dead, but we still don’t know if he is going to remain that way. We are still hanging from that cliff by our fingertips, although we sense that a rope may soon be forthcoming. As many fans had predicted, Lady Melisandre has returned to the Wall, and she may have something up her shadowy sleeves.
I’ll return to Melisandre in just a bit, but first, a brief travelogue about this week’s journey through the Seven Kingdoms and beyond:
Arya is still blind, and Daredevil-style, will learn to accentuate her other senses and become some kind of unspeakably cool ninja warrior. This should be a show unto itself.
I am losing patience with the stalling in the Daenerys storyline. The Breaker of Chains, etc. etc. conveniently rode off on her dragon into the middle of nowhere, and now she’s gone and got herself kidnapped by another Dothraki. While said Dothraki will considerately not rape her because she is the widow of another Khal, he is all set to pack her off to some kind of widow’s ashram. Now it will probably take Daario, Jorah and dragons the rest of the season to extricate her from this predicament. Is she ever going to launch a campaign for the Iron Throne? The show openly tells us not to hold our breath. “Looks like we won’t be sailing to Westeros anytime soon,” proxy ruler Tyrion says ruefully as someone sets Daenerys’ fleet on fire in Meereen.
Sansa and Theon are two of the show’s best characters, so it’s no surprise that their northward journey is currently one of the most exciting story threads in the series. When we left the pair in Season 5, they had just made a desperate leap off Winterfell to escape the Boltons. Reunited with them, we see that they are running for their lives; Ramsay Bolton’s hounds are in hot, hungry pursuit. Theon helps a panicked Sansa to cross a freezing river, and then comforts her as she slumps against a fallen tree, shaking from cold and fear. It’s a poignant moment, but in classic GoT style, doesn’t last. Bolton’s troops find them, and it appears that all is lost. But aha! In my favourite moment from the episode, in rides Brienne to save the day. Assisted by good old Podrick Payne, and good new Theon Greyjoy, she decimates the would-be captors, and offers once again to pledge herself to Sansa Stark. This time, Sansa accepts. Brienne has been longing to serve and protect since Season 2 – first Renly, then Catelyn, then the Stark daughters by turns. To see her sincere and noble ambitions being repeatedly thwarted was one of the most consistent heartbreaks on the show. Watching her obvious emotion at finally being accepted was genuinely touching. Gwendoline Christie did a fantastic job in this scene, as did Sophie Turner.
Meanwhile, in Winterfell, we learned that Stannis really is dead. Roose Bolton has seen the body, and you can trust Roose Bolton to make sure of these details. I was surprised to see what appeared to be genuine pain from Ramsay Bolton at the death of the kennel-girl, but his response when asked whether she should be buried or cremated made me feel at home again.
Princess Myrcella is dead, poor thing, and Cersei is beside herself. She has now lost two of her children, confirming her belief in the dreadful prophecy she heard many years ago. In the most significant development from this storyline, Cersei’s pain has led to an apparent reconciliation with Jaime, who vows to take back everything that has been taken from them. This could very well set up a war with Dorne, and may even not bode well for Queen Margery, who remains a captive of the High Sparrow. A tip of the hat to Lena Headey’s brilliant performance in the scene where she rushes to the harbour for what she thinks will be a happy reunion with her daughter, only to realize she is receiving a corpse. There is no dramatic breakdown; her eyes simply slide imperceptibly from joy, to confusion, to shock, to grief.
Of course, the Sand Snakes are the reason we are down another Lannister, and rather shockingly, they have now disposed of their own kin as well. Ellaria Sand brutally stabs Prince Doran, expressing contempt at his weakness. Meanwhile, Doran’s son, Prince Trystane, gets massacred by another of the Dornish women. I knew that Game of Thrones was truly back when I saw a spear emerging from poor Trystane’s nose via the back of his head.
Gratuitous violence is only half of GoT’s yin-yang life force. There has to be gratuitous nudity as well, and so I rolled my eyes as we saw Melisandre begin to disrobe at the end of the episode. Okay fine, my eyes didn’t roll, they were staring fixedly. But the point is, I smirked knowingly in anticipation of the seemingly pointless nakedness that was sure to follow, but I was shocked by what happened next. As the Red Woman took off her necklace, she transformed into an ancient and withered crone. Melisandre is apparently a centuries-old witch.
Well, at least that’s one interpretation. In the books, it is revealed that Melisandre is capable of a kind of magic called ‘glamour’ that can change physical appearances. Is she just a two-hundred year old Asshai priestess who has been Wizard-of-Ozing herself all this while for marketing purposes? I prefer a wonderful alternate theory going around – that Melisandre has somehow witched away decades of her life to give them to Jon Snow. If the next episode is titled The Picture of Dorian Red, you’ll know.
Overall, this wasn’t a landmark GoT episode. Primarily functioning as a setup for the season, ‘The Red Woman’ is the equivalent of a stretching exercise: the real drill begins next week. If I were to look for a common theme across the multiple story arcs this week, it comes down to the women. The show has always done a wonderful job detailing the various shades of womanhood in Westeros, and this episode is a further exploration of that theme. Brienne, the complete antitheses of what a woman is expected to be, has pledged herself to Sansa, who is the epitome of it. Arya has also chosen an unconventional path for a female, but tellingly, her mentor on that path will be a woman. Daenerys finds to her despair that being a queen counts for nothing in her new surroundings – she is merely an object of lust and ridicule, and has to start over. Cersei’s pent-up frustrations with a patriarchal society have led her to make rash decisions independently, and at her nadir we see her almost humbled into seeking a man’s partnership again. The Dornish women also scorn male rule, but in the most literal and deadly manner imaginable. Jon Snow may be the most important character in the series, but it will take everything Melisandre has got to resurrect him. The last shot almost symbolizes the sheer exertion of being female in this world. The men began the game of thrones. The women are poised to finish it.