SPOILER ALERT: Readers, please note: The following review discusses plot points from Sunday night’s season premiere of “Game of Thrones.” If you haven’t viewed the episode yet, please refrain from reading this story or you will be spoiled. You have been warned.
What do you know — Jon Snow really is dead. That should come as no surprise to any “Game of Thrones” viewer; executive producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff revealed that many times in many interviews with countless news outlets in the weeks prior to last night’s highly anticipated premiere.
But the sixth season opener of HBO’s Emmy award-winner for Outstanding Drama left no clear answer to the question everyone should have been asking: How will Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) come back? More than that, now that we know the Red Priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten) is not quite what she appears to be, does she even have the power to resurrect him?
From a storytelling standpoint, perhaps it’s better that we don’t have the answers to those questions yet. By making viewers wait to find out what’s going to happen to the body of Jon Snow, the audience is instead left to contemplate the elaborate plot trajectory that Weiss and Benioff have set in motion.
The sixth season of “Game of Thrones” is the first that’s completely untethered from the books; George R.R. Martin’s latest book in “A Song of Fire and Ice” hasn’t been published yet, meaning the TV series has officially outrun the story on the pages. That gives the executive producers tremendous freedom to streamline wandering plots, and dramatic license to flesh out some characters a bit more effectively.
If we’re to read anything into Sunday’s premiere, Weiss and Benioff’s new story map appears to include a conscious plan to do better by some of the show’s underserved and maligned characters, particularly the female figures in the story. Power is shifting in King’s Landing and in Dorne, with women — ferocious, dangerous women — positioning themselves to wage wars for vengeance. You know, “Hell hath no fury” and all that.
While it’s too early to say for certain — we’re not quite an hour into the season, after all — there’s reason to hope that Benioff and Weiss took to heart the scores upon scores of complaints about the show’s female characters being treated as props for titillation and voyeurism, and plan to grant the women in this show who don’t have the last names of Targaryen or Lannister a bit more agency.
The fact that the episode itself is is titled “The Red Woman” is particularly apt, given the installment’s final, quietly shocking moments. Everyone began the episode wondering about Jon Snow, but as the end credits rolled, the main question had to be what was up with Melisandre, a powerful priestess whose disastrously wrong predictions shattered all of her charms and illusions.
The premiere didn’t spend much time with Tyrion, or Varys, or even Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), all of whom are enjoying relative positions of security, although Arya discovered the hard way how much being blinded can hurt. There were no further reports on the progress of the White Walkers. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) is just fine; at this point she’s mainly in danger of being bored to death by being warehoused along with the rest of the widows of Khals at Vaes Dothrak. (Where the heck are her dragons when she needs them?)
And the most powerful scenes didn’t belong to Jon’s faithful allies in the Night’s Watch — although it’s heartening to see Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) step into a more central role, and hey, Ghost the Direwolf is back! Instead, it was Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) long-delayed team-up with Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) that ignited the heart and soul of “The Red Woman.”
Not only did the moment that Brienne knelt and pledged her fealty to Sansa represent the fulfillment of Brienne’s oath to Catelyn, the death of whom long haunted her, but it officially anointed Sansa with the solemn duty of the lady of the North.
This is the first time Sansa has been empowered to take control of her fate in the series, and the first time Brienne could honestly fulfill the duty of a knight that has long been denied her. Director Jeremy Podeswa employed numerous tight camera shots on “Game of Thrones’s” key women during the premiere, but none was as heartrending as seeing Brienne’s earnest expression, a look that verged upon dissolving into a sob after Sansa directed her to rise, fill the TV screen.
In spite of all these developments, “The Red Woman” represented only a small step forward for the plot, serving mostly to update us on the show’s various cliffhangers. For example, Myrcella Baratheon didn’t survive the serpent’s kiss delivered by Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) in the fifth season finale. This not only further devastated a thoroughly shamed Cersei (Lena Headey) but reunited her with her brother and Myrcella’s true father Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), rekindling Jaime’s dormant vindictiveness.
Weiss and Benioff also removed the Martells from the Great Game, as Oberyn Martell’s lover Ellaria and his daughters seized power. Of all of the departures from Martin’s roadmaps, this may be one of the most significant and, arguably, necessary. There are too many family trees to service in this series as it is. If a character has a good head on his shoulders but lacks the potential to be explosive or chilling, why bother keeping him around? Besides, there can be only one sensible guy in this series, and that’s Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) — and he’s brilliantly entertaining, especially with a few gallons of wine in the tank.
Season six may not have opened with the answer most of us wanted, but it did arrange the pieces on the board in ways that we didn’t expect. The executive producers still have a lot of loose plot threads to weave in the patterns of their choosing. We have yet to meet a number of Greyjoys, for example. And where in the heck is Rickon Stark after all this time? There also are several guest stars on the way whose roles are worth anticipating, foremost among them being Ian McShane.
Regardless of Jon Snow’s ultimate fate, “The Red Woman” delivered ample reason to have faith that “Game of Thrones” still has the power to surprise us after all this time. Even if you’re fatigued with all the petty battles tearing Westeros apart, take comfort in knowing that “Game of Thrones” is only slated to have two more seasons after this one, each shorter than their predecessors.
Should the rest of the season match the quality of the sixth season premiere, though, we’ll be very comfortable delaying the answer to the show’s biggest questions for as long as possible.