Game of Thrones, HBO’s fantasy hit based on the works of George R.R. Martin, garners much of its acclaim from its sheer scale. Be it story lines or characters, casts or sets, or cost or audience, Thrones has always excelled at the immense. This makes the season six premiere, "The Red Woman," an astounding accomplishment in the vein of "less is more."
The story downsizes for the briefest of moments, providing denouement on several arcs from last year while withholding climaxes in others (though not without a shocking revelation in the end; more on that later).
Thematically, the episode veers away from the game of thrones and White Walkers, and instead focuses on something very human: loss, and how these characters deal with it.
For the second time in this saga, Jaime Lannister is returning home to his sister Cersei in King’s Landing. And again, he is burdened with the pain of loss. Jaime’s return from capture by Robb Stark and the North left him short his sword hand; his coming from Dorne heralds the death of his incest-begotten daughter Myrcella.
His sister’s reaction throughout this sequence underscore the change she’s gone through since season five; at first, when Dornish sails are spotted in the Blackwater, a joyful smile spreads across hers face as she sprints to the docks to see her sweet daughter. Upon arrival, however, her joy turns to ash as she realizes Myrcella’s fate, a grief that lingers into a later conversation with her brother.
Prior to her walk of atonement, "grief" and "joy" were not emotions often associated with Cersei Lannister.
Ferocious and reckless, the lioness of Casterly Rock had never hesitated to pounce when tragedy befell her. When Ned Stark discovered the truth of her children, she outmaneuvered him to maintain control of the Iron Throne. At the Purple Wedding, she seized the opportunity to accuse Tyrion of Joffrey’s death. But after her shaming, not to mention the loss of her father and two eldest children, Cersei finds herself relatively neutered. She still has resolve, and an undead Mountain zombie, but this may be the weakest Cersei Lannister has been thus far.
Jaime’s reaction to Myrcella’s loss serves as a contrast here, not to mention flips the script on his own character from previous seasons.
In the past, when misfortune came to Jaime, he would often slink away inside and resign himself to his fate. It took coaxing from Brienne of Tarth, and later his brother Tyrion, to push him to remain resilient and to find a new purpose without his martial abilities. Jaime needs no coaxing now, as he tries to rescue Cersei from her dismay. Jaime colorfully notes that nothing matters except for them; they will have their revenge, they will have their power, and they will have each other.
While the Lannister twins are dealing with the loss of their child, Meereen is dealing with the loss of its Queen, Daenerys Targaryen. In her stead, Tyrion Lannister aims to keep the peace in Meereen. Dany, with her armies, dragons, and god-like stature, struggled to keep the masters of Meereen in check; effectively without those, the Imp, aided the Spider must look to win the political game in the ancient city.
Meereen appears fairly desolate in the fallout from the fighting pits. The streets are empty, save a few beggars scattered at the footsteps of the pyramid. Varys and Tyrion are not alone, however. POV camera shots from inside houses and behind obstructions indicate that they are being watched.
Varys notes that the leader of the Sons of the Harpy remains a mystery; Hizdahr zo Loraq (Daenerys’s Meereenese betrothed) was killed in the fight pit melee, and the attack was too well coordinated for just guerrillas. Given the dearth of political players out East, I wonder if someone inside Dany’s camp is behind the Harpy, or at least feeding information to it.
Too, Tyrion is quick to realize that Daenerys’s popularity with the commoners is not absolute. Graffiti reading "MHYSA IS A MASTER" shows that the Meereenese believe they traded out one despot for another, even if the other broke their shackles.
Political banter abruptly halts shortly thereafter; our pair comes across the burning wreckage of the Meereenese fleet, leaving our Essosian cast stuck in Slaver’s Bay for the foreseeable future. So Meereen, already in shambles prior to Daenerys's exodus, has now lost both leader and fleet in a very short span of time.
While Meereen misses its dragon queen, Daenerys too has lost all that she has fought to gain over the course of the series. With no advisers, army, or Drogon at her side, the Khaleesi made for easy capture by Khal Moro’s khalasar.
Readily apparent is Dany’s loss of station; she walks on foot, which is a position of servitude or punishment in Dothraki culture. Her attendant captors hurl invectives at her and threaten to take her to bed, which continues into her audience with the Khal himself (and leads to some unexpected subtitled humor between the Khal and his bloodriders).
The exchange in the Khal’s tent is fascinating in retrospect; Dany’s white-blond hair and pale skin have the handmaidens calling her a witch on multiple occasions (it’s a description that perfectly describes what we see of the Lady Melisandre later).
After Danaerys takes in the banter around her, she reveals that she not only speaks and understands Dothraki, but is a Khaleesi in her own right. The tone suddenly changes, as Khal Moro has nothing but respect for the bride of Khal Drogo. Withholding her knowledge of Dothraki until she could apprise the situation makes for a nice callback to her sack of Astapor (in which our multilingual Khaleesi hid her Valyrian tongue).
This does not buy Dany her freedom, unfortunately. In Dothraki culture, widowed Khaleesis must return to Vaes Dothrak, where they join the dosh khaleen to live out their days with the other widows. Dany can only comply at this point; with Drogon nowhere in sight and Daario and Jorah just picking up her trail, she’s on her own for the time being.
Lastly, we turn to Castle Black, where there are losses abound among our heroes up there. In the episode’s opening shots, Davos, still grieving from the loss of Stannis and Shireen, comes across Jon Snow’s body, and has it quickly moved into safety by Jon loyalists.
Ser Alliser, meanwhile, convenes the rest of the brothers to explain the mutiny what was done so with the blessing of the other presiding officers. The men are furious, but Thorne’s explanation of how Jon betrayed the Watch has them mollified for the time being. This allows Thorne and the rest of the mutineers to gather their strength, and offer "terms" to Davos and his crew ("terms" in quotes, obviously, as Thorne wants all of them killed).
Davos wastes no time fortifying his own position in Castle Black; he ensures Ghost remains by Jon’s side, and sends Dolorous Edd out to fetch Tormund and the rest of the wildling survivors. The Lady Melisandre too has powers, Davos pleads to the men, and hopefully they can use that to their advantage. Davos has until nightfall to surrender to Thorne, and the episode leaves us waiting to see the clash between the two sides.
Instead, Game of Thrones ends its season premiere on epiphany; the titular Red Woman removes her robes and her ruby amulet, revealing a withered old crone staring back at the audience. Her decrepit appearance echoes a more traditional fantasy appearance for the witch, unlike the sexually vibrant Melisandre that we have seen up until this point.
Other characters are losing loved ones or political power, but Melisandre is dealing with both, resulting in a true loss of purpose. Her wagon was hitched to Stannis Baratheon; he was the victor in the flames, her cause celebre, her messiah. Further, her visions told her Jon Snow would also play a part in the War for the Dawn.
With both champions vanquished, her faith is wholly shaken. The Red Woman does possess true magic, as we’ve seen, but she too can be stripped of all that defines her (in an unlikely parallel to what happened to Cersei Lannister in last season’s finale).
The running theme of loss in Game of Thrones season premiere offered both a change of pace in scale and theme for the popular show, while effectively setting the stage for the season to come.
Many story lines from last year’s finale remain unresolved; Jon Snow is still dead, Dany is still lost, and Meereen and King’s Landing are still both in chaos. But with the story avalanching since the Red and Purple weddings, the show effectively pulled back for one hour to reacquaint us with the human side of this great tragedy.
On Melisandre and Glamours
It may be worth stepping back to examine what we know of Lady Melisandre. A shadowbinder from Asshai, Melisandre explained to Gendry back in season three that she was once a slave sold to a temple of the Lord of Light. Melony, perhaps, was her name. We have little further information about her timeline, but her visions lead her to Stannis Baratheon on Dragonstone during the reign of King Robert.
Melisandre’s origins are as mysterious as her powers; aside from the visions, we’ve witnessed her birth shadow demons, drink poison, and (possibly) doom the fate of three kings with blood-filled leeches. The episode’s end may reveal a shriveled old woman, but this too speaks to her power if she can disguise herself as a warm, charismatic seductress.
In Martin’s text, Melisandre occasionally uses "glamours" to create visual deceptions like the one we see here. They are often powered by artifacts of her god R’hllor, such as the ruby on her necklace. As Melisandre is a champion of light and shadow, her shadowbinding abilities enable her to change her appearance, masking the crone below. We know the Faceless Men can tap into such deception as well, but this power seems to be from an altogether different source of magic.
With the old crone reveal, the Lady Melisandre’s true age comes into scrutiny. In previous conversations with Stannis and Davos, she has stated she has fought in many wars and killed many men, often leaving her male counterparts befuddled. A further dive into Melisandre’s history is surely coming, but credit the showrunners for ending the episode on this jaw dropping note.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- While a morose tone permeated through much of the episode, Sansa and Theon’s encounter with Brienne and Pod provided overwhelmingly satisfying climax for the respective story arcs here. All these characters have suffered loss in the past seasons, and for one brief moment, we have a complete victory on all fronts.
Brienne has spent the better part of two seasons failing to save the Stark daughters, so her rescue here is equal parts spectacle and catharsis. The snowy backdrop not only provides a beautiful setting for the skirmish, but also an appropriate visual as Brienne swears her sword to the Lady of Winterfell. Brienne has avenged Renly, and now finally, has a chance to fulfill her promises to Catelyn Stark and Jaime Lannister.
The moment is monumental for Sansa and Theon as well. For the former, Sansa has taken her first steps into ascending as ruler of the North. She has the right name to rule, the latent loyalty of much of the North (which the lords of Bolton hint at), and now is protected by the most capable sword north of King’s Landing. Brienne has more to offer Sansa Stark as well; she knows that her little sister Arya is still alive.
Theon, on the other hand, has slowly been emerging from his Reek personality; with steel in hand, he saved Pod and once again found a part of his former self, the Ironborn within. Maybe more importantly, the brief hug he shared with Sansa might be the most humanity either character has experienced in years.
- The Boltons are also at a loss, despite Ramsay's dominating victory over Stannis Baratheon's forces last season. The Boltons have always been more feared than respected by the North, and integral parts of their power play were both Sansa Stark and the alliance with Tywin Lannister. With the former fled and the latter dead, the Boltons have lost their political bargaining chips and must play a more subtle game in the north. On a more personal level, Ramsay has suffered the loss of his "lover" Myranda (who, in typical Ramsay fashion, gets fed to the hounds), but he's also lost his bride, and lost his Reek. No doubt he wants both back.
- The season premiere takes us to Dorne, the much-maligned story location of season five. We spend just enough time there to see Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes execute a coup against the Princes Doran and Trystane, claiming power for their own.
These women still mourn the loss of Elia Martell and Prince Oberyn, and will not abide Doran’s pacifism any longer. While the path forward for the Dornish is unclear in the short term, Ellaria’s words "weak men will never again rule Dorne" are particularly insightful.
Dorne, having been united under Princess Nymeria epochs ago, has always been a progressive society (by Westerosi standards) towards woman, allowing them to rule. Perhaps then they would be open to a strong female ruler, one with dragons and close familial ties to House Martell who is looking for a landing spot in Westeros…
- We also get brief visits with Arya and Margaery this season, most likely scenes to set up more substantive happenings in the next few episodes. Arya is doing a Matt Murdock routine in Braavos, blindly fighting the waif, while Margaery remains in the clutches of the High Sparrow and the Faith. Both visits are short, but both keep with the theme of loss in this episode.
Arya has lost her sight and apparently her favor in the House of Black & White, while Margaery still has no recourse, no contact with her brother, and no access to the power she's accumulated these past few seasons.
- A couple major players we did not catch up with this week: Samwell, Littlefinger, Bran, and Tormund. There’s a good chance some of them pop up next week.