Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find all of my Game of Thrones reviews here.
Game of Thrones season premieres have developed their own format by this point. True to form, “The Red Woman” behaved as both catch-up and table setting, comprising a collection of individual scenes dedicated to dropping in on each of the main characters and laying the groundwork for the season to come.
The main concern I had heading into Season 6 was Jon Snow’s absence. “The Red Woman” opened with an explicit but unsurprising confirmation that, yes, he’s dead. And though I personally believe he’s going to be resurrected at some point, it won’t happen anytime soon. So the question is, can the show work without him? After all, Jon Snow was the last active protagonist on Game of Thrones, the show’s biggest “hero” character, and the only one tying into the presumed end game. Is there a point where the series known for killing off characters kills off too many characters for its own good?
If the premiere is anything to go by, Season 6’s answer is “don’t worry, we’re good.” Game of Thrones is a rich show in a rich universe, and it has enough plates spinning to keep the drama flowing. “The Red Woman” took advantage of the sombre atmosphere following Jon Snow’s death to deliver an episode in which almost all of the characters we’ve followed over the past five seasons were at their lowest points.
Over in King’s Landing, things were as dour as could be. If Cersei hit rock bottom last season, learning of Myrcella’s death pushed her even further down. Cersei is not a character we’re used to feeling bad for. We were waiting for her to get her comeuppance for so long, yet the walk of atonement from last year’s finale ended up causing discomfort rather than triumphant elation. This opened the door for us to finally sympathize with her, which made her scenes in “The Red Woman”, bolstered by Lena Headey’s powerful acting, work especially well.
Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Arya’s been knocked down more than a few pegs. Last year she sauntered into the House of Black and White with all the confidence in the world (it’s Arya, after all), but now she’s a blind beggar getting beat up by the Waif just for kicks. Or to turn her into Braavos’s Daredevil. Whichever.
In Meereen, Daenerys’s absence left everything in shambles, something Tyrion and Varys helpfully pointed out to the audience in one of their usual stroll-and-chat sessions. Those two characters have made a habit of walking around and delivering exposition for years, but their scenes together are so enjoyable that I don’t mind one bit. You can bet Tyrion’s line about not going to King’s Landing anytime soon was directed at the viewers in order to temper our expectations. On one hand, ugh, more Meereen. On the other, yay, more Tyrion and Varys! We’ll have to see how that storyline pans out.
Speaking of Daenerys, her already slow and laborious plan to rule the universe hit another speedbump, and possibly the biggest one yet. Though I thought she escaped imprisonment a little too easily (“No, I swear, I’m Khal Drogo’s wife!”), having her shuffled off to live with other widows in Vaes Dothrak was a good way to deflate that moment of success. It’s true that Daenerys has spent way too long not doing very much, but considering the theme of the week was “everything sucks for all of the characters”, I was okay with it this time. Not to mention, that scene was pretty humourous. “… Okay, it’s in the top five things!”
The heroes weren’t the only ones facing hard times. Even Ramsay Bolton has lost his groove. But he’s such a disgusting character, nobody’s going to feel bad for him. The way he turned a would-be heartfelt speech into yet another example of how wretched he is was clever on the writers’ part. Sure, Ramsay, feed Myranda to the dogs like normal, well-adjusted people do.
Really, the only character for whom things are slightly looking up is Sansa, and theme of the episode be damned because it’s about bloody time. Every year we’re promised a better story arc for Sansa, and every year she’s passive at best, abused and victimized at worst. Teaming her up with Brienne was the right move, with the added bonus of giving Brienne more to do this season, after she spent most of last year staring out of a window. Plus, that whole rescue was a great action scene.
The only part of that storyline that was iffy was the way it shrugged off major cliffhangers from the Season 5 finale. Two things were left intentionally ambiguous: Sansa and Theon’s fate after they jumped, and Brienne’s supposed execution of Stannis. The latter especially should have been a major climactic moment, but it was instead edited into a weird question mark. So to casually discover that Stannis had simply died was a letdown. There was no story reason to leave us hanging; it was just there to keep the fans talking. But the fault lay more in the Season 5 finale than in “The Red Woman”, so it’s not a major point against this episode.
Another weak element of Season 5 overall was the Dorne storyline, and “The Red Woman” made swift moves to rectify that. I don’t know if killing off Doran (bye-bye, underutilized Alexander Siddig) and giving the Sand Snakes control was the right call, considering the Sand Snakes failed to make a strong impression last year, but time will tell. Their hatred for the Lannisters could make them interesting antagonists, and a little bit of gruesome backstabbing is always welcome on this show at any rate.
The main plotline in “The Red Woman” was at Castle Black, where the Night’s Watch was split (very unevenly) between Alliser Throne’s cronies and a handful of Jon Snow loyalists. So many things in this storyline worked, chief of which was Davos, who took on a bit of a leadership role among the small group of Jon’s friends. He even suggested enlisting Melisandre’s help, which is a major step considering his turbulent relationship with her.
Speaking of the titular Red Woman, Melisandre was the perfect encapsulation of the “hitting rock bottom” thread that ran through the episode. She had backed Stannis and even asked him to sacrifice his daughter, only to have him lose and die. She’d had a vision of Jon Snow fighting in Winterfell, and then he died too. The final scene, which almost had me rolling my eyes at yet another example of gratuitous nudity on Game of Thrones, surprised us with the revelation that Melisandre was in fact a very old woman. But the true purpose of that scene was to show that Game of Thrones‘s most determined, overzealous character has had her faith shaken.
If the stories about Game of Thrones ending in two seasons are true, then I believe this was the Empire Strikes Back moment of the series. When all of our heroes are at their lowest point, backed into a corner, with all hope lost. “The night is darkest just before the dawn”. In that sense, “The Red Woman” was a setup episode in more ways than one.
If I were to guess, I would say Season 6 will be about the characters bouncing back. Cersei and Jaime will say “fuck everybody who isn’t us” and regain their strength. Margaery will be set free. Daenerys will make her way back to her kingdom. Arya will learn to be a badass again. And Melisandre will slowly but surely regain her faith and, probably by the finale, resurrect Jon Snow Beric Dondarrion-style.
Of course, this is Game of Thrones, where unpredictability is key. Even if my prediction is correct, those journeys will certainly face obstacles and twists, and there will definitely be a few Oberyn-style swerves to what might seem a predictable narrative. So brace yourselves, because Game of Thrones has come.
Rating: 4/5 (Great)
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