Previous seasons of Game of Thrones have played a precarious dance between the past and present action detailed within George R.R. Martin’s series, but the season-six premiere episode, “The Red Woman,” provides viewers with their first glimpse of what the future looks like, and it’s disappointing. Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the sorceress from whom this episode takes its title, stands over the bloodless corpse of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and remarks that “I saw him in the flames, fighting at Winterfell.” Magic may yet play a role in some sort of resurrection, but this episode focuses only on the weary, bitter state of affairs in Westeros.
Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) knows that the Red Woman is powerful, but her predictions mean nothing given his current predicament. He’s barricaded in a room within Castle Black with those few soldiers remaining loyal to Jon Snow, looking for a way to escape without being similarly butchered by Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale), the man who openly usurped command of the Night’s Watch. He cannot trust that Thorne murdered Snow only out of a fear that the man’s tenderness toward the Wildlings would ruin everything their brotherhood stood for. The truth, like magic, is often meaningless against dire reality.
Such is true a little farther south in Winterfell, where the sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) shows a moment of compassion for his murdered lover, Myranda, but not so much that he’d give her a burial or pyre. Instead, he orders his men to feed her to the dogs she helped him raise and turns back to his immediate needs: recapturing his bride, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), so that he can produce an heir that will give him a legitimate claim to the throne. If not, his father, Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), is all too prepared to find other alternatives—maybe even a second son. It’s hard to say which of the two Boltons is the more frightening: the callous, evil torturer or his exceedingly practical, emotionless father.
What these scenes with Davos and the Boltons lack is any sort of urgency or activity. This, to some extent, is the consequences of killing off so many of the show’s central characters. Reality dictates that others will fill the void—and, indeed, this episode chases more threads than pretty much any other before it, so it hardly matters if Davos escapes or which Bolton successfully inherits Winterfell. By contrast, Sansa’s flight is immediately more active, given that it picks up mid-flight, with her and confederate Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) desperate enough to ford a freezing river, knowing that being caught by the dogs would lead to a far crueler fate.
The episode sees the writers ruthlessly beginning to sew up loose (or underdeveloped) plots.
These higher stakes also force real emotion. Yes, Theon hugs Sansa tight because she’s shivering and he’s trying to warm her up. But it’s also the first time she’s been treated with any real kindness since fleeing King’s Landing. The subsequent fight, in which Theon attempts to sacrifice himself to throw off Ramsay’s hounds, only to be rescued by Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) is satisfyingly bloody, but it’s also perfunctory. The episode’s richest moment follows, when Brienne once again pledges her allegiance to Sansa, and finally has her service not just accepted, but warmly welcomed, despite the constant cold that’s chafing their lips. It’s the one moment of happiness that “The Red Woman” offers, and not for nothing does it come in the grim wake of bloodshed.
Everything else in “The Red Woman” is comparatively lifeless and plot-heavy, especially as the writers ruthlessly begin to sew up loose (or underdeveloped) plots. After all the time spent in Dorne last season, the episode returns there only long enough for Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) to usurp the throne from her brother-in-law, Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig). Elsewhere, two of her Sand Snakes murder Doran’s son, Trystane (Toby Sebastian), which means that Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) returns to his sister and lover, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), with nobody to hold accountable for the death of their daughter, Myrcella. Sure, Jaime talks a good game in swearing that “Everything they’ve taken from us, we’re going to take back, and more,” but it feels more than a bit hollow. This, after all, is a place they’ve been before, and perhaps that’s the problem with this premiere: It takes us nowhere that Game of Thrones hasn’t already been before.
This is especially true across the ocean, where Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and Varys (Conleth Hill) again walk and talk through the slums of a city, this time Mereen. Or where Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) again ride in search of their queen, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Jorah surreptitiously pulls up a shirt sleeve to check on the Greyscale that’s slowly infecting his arm, so the situation has somewhat changed, but the series doesn’t really treat it all that differently. The banter is still just that: two men hoping to see old age, knowing that they won’t.
There’s at least a little hope of growth and change in the way that Daenerys reacts to her new circumstances. Though she’s once again in the hands of the Dothraki, this time a group led by Khal Moro (Joe Naufahu), she’s stronger and unafraid. Moro’s harem of women do a literal double-take when Daenerys announces that she will not allow Moro to fuck her, as if the concept of denying a man something is an idea that had never crossed their minds before. That said, Clarke is wise to show a glimmer of fear, vulnerability, and doubt alongside her character’s defiance; it keeps her character human, not just an ideal, and it makes the viewer flinch along with her when she’s casually whipped like chattel.
Game of Thrones, then, would be best served to invest more time in its characters instead of enigmatically shuffling around between them. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) is now a blind beggar on the streets of Braavos, but we know nothing of her desperation before she’s once again in the hands of the House of Black and White, with the Waif (Faye Marsay) challenging her to a fight and, after badly bruising her, promising to return to do the same again tomorrow. Once again, viewers are meant to watch Arya train and overcome adversity. It’s a new verse to the same old song, though, and there’s only so long Game of Thrones can rely on its bloody chorus to keep viewers tuning in.
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