Joining a show in the sixth season of it’s run is generally not a good idea. Sometimes you can without trouble, particularly when it comes to comedy. Both M*A*S*H and Cheers reinvented themselves in their sixth seasons, allowing them to endure for a further five years. But dramas have long established story arcs, characters, and conflicts, and none more changing and alienating than Game of Thrones.
I can’t imagine anyone starting Game of Thrones with “The Red Woman”. At this stage the show is unrecognisable from where it first started, not only because most of the main cast of that first season are gone, but the world’s been invariably changed by shifting political powers and war. As such for a few seasons now, the first episode has needed to establish how things are and where characters stand while dropping a few hints at where they’re going. Unlike say “The North Remembers”, season two’s opener, “The Red Woman” doesn’t start with a bang. But it does an okay job of reminding us where the characters are and how the world is now shaping, especially in light of Jon Snow’s “death” at the end of last season.
By “death” I of course mean that it’s a public secret he’ll be coming back somehow this season. He featured way too heavily in the marketing and is the show’s closest thing to an honourable protagonist and leader. And as expected, the episode opens on the immediate aftermath of his brutal murder by Alliser Thorne and the Night’s Watch mutineers. Davos Seaworth and a troupe of Jon’s friends rescue and keep his body in a storage room. The news really affects Melisandre who having also just led Stannis’ army to their slaughter is pretty downtrodden. As Thorne defends his actions to the rest of the Watch, tensions rise between his crew and Jon’s loyalists. Edd then goes to get help from the Wildlings leaving Davos and only a few others to hold off Thorne for the time being.
I’m glad this episode gave us a great deal of Davos, who may surpass Tyrion as my favourite character on the show (Liam Cunningham’s just so awesome!) His conversation with Thorne through the door was full of subtext and really exceptional. I’d also like to highlight Owen Teale’s performance which doesn’t get enough attention, and to a lesser degree Ben Crompton’s Edd who’s managed to be the only minor Night Watch character to survive this far. The scenes at the Wall both open and close the episode and even though I liked them, they don’t quite feel dramatically deserving enough. I’m generally much more invested in what takes place elsewhere.
Of course a lot of the one-off scenes are just there to catch up on characters. We see Jorah Mormont and Daario are still tracking Daenerys, we see Margery still in prison asking about her brother, and that the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce as compelling as ever) still has very much an iron grip on King’s Landing. We get a couple reactions to events of last season’s finale as Cersei discovers the death of her daughter and Roose Bolton expresses pride in Ramsay but chides him for losing Sansa. These last couple work as more than just refreshers because of the performances. Say what you will about Cersei but Lena Headey played her expectation and subsequent sorrow over Myrcella’s death really well. Her reference to the flashback last season opened on though, feels more like just the writers trying to assure it does mean something. As for the scene at Winterfell, Michael McElhatton plays greatly Roose’s simultaneous respect and disrespect for his son. His admonition of Ramsay’s sadism because of its political repercussions is a good reminder he’s somewhat above that himself, and in terms of son-hating cunning politicians, I think Roose may be our new Tywin Lannister. Iwan Rheon is still as despicable as ever as Ramsay. We also get a brief scene of Arya struggling with her new blindness. While it’s awful to see she’s regularly being beaten up by that other girl, I am really excited to see where her story goes. I’m very much hoping she learns to use her blindness to her advantage and becomes even more incredible for it, like Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender. And Maisie Williams being one of the best actresses of her generation, I have complete faith she could pull it off.
Unfortunately it appears Daenerys is irritatingly back to where she started from as a prisoner of the Dothraki. She tries to convince her captors to take her back to Mereen where Tyrion is left in charge of a ghost town, but it looks like that’s not going to happen. Hers has never been the most interesting story to follow and this feels like a step in the wrong direction and potentially a waste of Emilia Clarke’s talent. As for Tyrion, he and Varys’ banter is still fun but you get the feeling the writers don’t know what to do with them. And considering this is the first season without the books to go by, I understand how the writers might be a little lost. But at the same time they have free reign now. They can get Dany and her team to Westeros so I don’t understand why they’re stalling at least three plotlines in this outside world. But who knows, there could be some interesting developments in Mereen at least. Maybe those ships burning are going to amount to more than just a good visual after all.
After taking a season’s break I’m a little disappointed we weren’t reintroduced to Bran in this episode. But his sister Sansa saw some decent action. The redemption of Theon from last season was one of the developments I was most interested in, and it’s nice to see both him and Sansa escaped from Ramsay’s clutches. Sophie Turner and Alfie Allen have reasonably good chemistry. I was worried for a moment they might backtrack on this plot too when Bolton horsemen caught up with them. But now that she’s killed Stannis, Brienne of Tarth has come to Sansa’s rescue as badass as ever! Gwendoline Chrisite’s deservingly become a breakout character on this show and it was good to see that despite abandoning her post at the end of last season she’s still there for a Lady Stark.
The most movement though was in Dorne, as the ruling family got completely wiped out. Indira Varma is back, which is a shame because it’s just to kill poor Alexander Siddig, whom I was hoping to see more of. And these scenes fulfilled the episode’s violence quota with a particularly gruesome stab to the head of the Dornish heir apparent. I’m very curious to how the relationship between Dorne and King’s Landing is going to play out now!
Returning to the Wall for the ending, the writers had to leave the audience on a high note as they try to at the start of every season. This one was certainly one of the more memorable. It’s a good thing Stannis died not knowing what we now know -that his lover and religious fanatic advisor Melisandre is essentially that ghost woman from The Shining. Turns out all along she’s been a frail old woman made to look youthful by her necklace. It’s not the most surprising reveal as we all suspected Melisandre wasn’t what she seemed. But I was groaning in anticipation of another pointless nude scene, when this one wound up actually working in the show’s favour. The shock of such depressing and un-eroticized nudity adds to the effectiveness of the moment.
Without any more books to adapt from, this season of Game of Thrones is going to be particularly under the radar for the choices it makes. And while this season opener promises some will be interesting and inspired, a few feel like they’re stalling until George R. R. Martin gives them an idea. Once we get into the meat of the season hopefully this will change. This still is one of the most interesting worlds with some of the most interesting characters television has ever seen. And I get the feeling it’s still capable of making for unpredictable and engaging storytelling. “The Red Woman” was an okay episode and a good reminder of where we are, now let’s see concentrate on moving forward.