[This is a review of the Game of Thrones season 6 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Jon Snow is dead. Melisandre puts the “trick” in geriatric. Arya is blind and begging for loose change on the streets of Braavos. Brienne’s sense of timing has improved. Ser Davos Seaworth would like some mutton to ride south with. Welcome to Game of Thrones season 6. Welcome to the first season of HBO’s flagship series to be largely unmoored from its source material. With all the changes happening in every corner of the Seven Kingdoms at (or thanks to) the end of season 5, one might expect to see the series itself follow suit, and to deliver a season opener unlike any that has been seen before. That was not the case, however, as ‘The Red Woman’ was composed just as past premieres have bee – which given what’s at stake here is something of a surprise.
That means ‘The Red Woman,’ for all the speculation, is largely another hour of table setting. This isn’t anything new to fans of the show. Regular viewers should know by now that a year’s worth of (sometimes patient) waiting is never repaid in the first hour. For HBO, D.B. Weiss, and David Benioff, the fact that the series is back should be payment enough for everyone’s patience. Still, as much as viewers have become accustomed to the structure of how seasons of Game of Thrones work, there’s little in this first hour that wasn’t foretold in season 5.
This is a risk shows take when choosing to jump back into the mix of their storylines just minutes removed from where they last left off. Rather than serving up a series of fresh threads filled with the promise of great tension and maybe a little mystery, it can feel more like the audience is obliged to consume a wheelbarrow full of oysters, clams, and cockles left out in the hot Braavosi sun for the last twelve months. But blame it on Jon Snow – or, more to the point, blame it on Ser Alliser Thorne and his gang of assassins who ended Jon’s watch before winter arrived.
With yet another archetypal hero seemingly dead, Game of Thrones was left in a position of having to address what was perhaps its biggest question to date. And while the series was very smart in the offseason – releasing a poster with just a close-up of Jon’s face and essentially playing into the audience’s expectations without necessarily playing with them – the show was left with three choices when it came to the premiere: stall, put it off screen and ignore it, or resolve it right away. For all those who were yearning to see a resurrection in the first hour – and were perhaps not entirely off base in expecting one, considering the specificity of the episode’s title – coming away with a table-setting episode may be a little disheartening, but the hour isn’t necessarily a loss because of it.
The premiere still had its requisite powerful moments; they just came from the periphery given that all eyes have been on Jon Snow for so long. In fact, the tunnel vision with regard to Jon’s status actually helped make another unanswered mystery from season 5 feel sincere and fulfilling, even though it was of no great surprise to those watching. Brienne and Pod’s last minute arrival at what was poised to be yet another bad turn for a character who has frankly suffered enough gave the hour a much-needed sense of uplifting accomplishment. Last season saw Brienne’s toppling of the Hound followed up with a mixed bag of old oaths and stalled revenge plots. Things only turned around after Brienne happened upon a fallen Stannis (and seemingly killed him), and now her successful offer of loyalty to Sansa is finally repaid, as it should have been last season – with a little help from Pod, of course.
What’s remarkable about the slaughter of Roose Bolton’s men just outside Winterfell is not just that the threads of Sansa, Brienne, and even Theon seem headed into a deservedly more positive direction; it’s also how these once disparate characters and storylines have truly begun to converge on one another. This reversal of the expansion of the world of Game of Thrones seen in seasons past is the beginning of the series’ endgame, as characters find themselves interacting for the first time with those who may be best suited to help bring their arcs to a close. There’s still plenty of road to travel, admittedly, but this new group of traveling companions demonstrates there’s now less road than ever before.
The same can be said across most of the Seven Kingdoms. Tyrion and Varys are faced with a Meereen that’s quickly spiraling out of control, and yet it feels like both are precisely where they are meant to be and with whom. The two are certainly the show’s best pairing to date (aside from whoever is sharing a conversation with Olenna Tyrell, anyway) as they provide the otherwise somber series with a constant source of levity that even manages to shine through the black smoke of Meereen’s burning boatyard.
And although Dany’s interaction with Khal Moro reads initially like a rehash of where the character has been before, she is now blessed with a kind of tactical advantage that can only come from experience. In addition, while her two would-be lovers ride in search of her, Game of Thrones has freed Dany from the stifling confines of Meereen’s ongoing occupation/war with the Sons of the Harpy. It may feel like the show is spinning its wheels to slow Dany’s story down a bit, but anything that gets her outside of Meereen, even for just a little while, will do wonders for her storyline (just as having Ellaria Sand and her Snakes launch a coup makes Dorne suddenly more interesting than it was in the entirety of season 5). Besides, when you have the comedy stylings of Khal Moro and his men who know what’s best in the world, there’s bound to be some entertainment to be had.
When it comes to spinning wheels, though, there won’t be any non-development as contentious as Jon lying in state amongst what few Crow friends he had at Castle Black. Thankfully, Weiss and Benioff are aware the value the Onion Knight brings to the table – even when that table’s occupied with the half-frozen corpse of the bastard lord commander of the Night’s Watch. Thanks in large part to the bond he shared with poor doomed Shireen, Davos’ stock has risen considerably in the wake of Blackwater. While he hasn’t necessarily ascended to the role of an outright hero, his efforts in holding down the fort until Melisandre gets back in fighting shape or the wildlings return with Eddison Tollett will go a long way in restoring Stannis’ (not-quite whole) right-hand man.
On a structural level, ‘The Red Woman’ proved to be a fairly standard Game of Thrones season premiere. But the hour’s final reveal wasn’t just a surprise; it made the hour more like the eponymous Red Woman. And because we are talking about Melisandre, the premiere proved to be both a charlatan and the real deal. It expertly toyed with and refused to pay off viewers’ expectations, all while offering them something they almost certainly didn’t expect to see. The reveal of Melisdandre’s true form is perhaps the most important piece of table setting done during the entire hour. The authenticity of her supernatural claims is proven through her status as an impostor. The frail old woman seemingly resigning herself to a cold bed in Castle Black is now confirmed to be far more powerful than anyone had ever imagined. Such a display is precisely what the series needs to establish before it could start tying up all that one loose thread from season 5.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with ‘Home’ @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Helen Sloan/HBO
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