Game of Thrones Season Premiere Recap: The Gray Lady

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Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton. Photo: HBO
Game of Thrones
Episode Title
The Red Woman
Season
6
Episode
1
Editor’s Rating
4/5

After months of internet debate regarding the existential status of Jon Snow, Game of Thrones opened its sixth season by confirming that the Night's Watch commander is really, sincerely dead. There he was in the very first scene, still splayed on the ground where Thorne, Olly, and the other Night's Watchmen had stabbed and left him in the final moments of last season's finale. And later, there his corpse was on a table, his eyes closed even though his raven locks still looked as fine and free-flowing as they always had in life.

Still, it seems fair to continue associating the name Jon Snow with at least a few question marks, not only because it was confirmed long ago that Kit Harrington shot scenes for season six in which he actually stands upright, but also because of what happens at the end of "The Red Woman." In the closing moments, we see Melisandre reveal herself to be an extremely old woman. How old? It's not clear. But I'll go ahead and guess that she received her first AARP card at least, oh, I don't know, 125 years ago?

The morphing of seductive Melisandre into Carol Kane's character from The Princess Bride could be interpreted in a lot of ways, but the most obvious takeaway is that she's immortal and, thanks to that magical necklace, able to assume the form (Sexy Redhead) that enables her to most effectively assert power. (It's been noted that Melisandre has previously removed that necklace without going Full Rest Home, but I am not sure we've seen her remove it when she's been alone. She tends to get naked in the presence of others, which means we, the viewers, may have been seeing her the way others perceive her, not the way she actually is. At least that's the theory I'm sticking with at the moment.)

After Melisandre's earlier acknowledgement that she royally effed up yet another of her prophecies — "I saw him in the flames," she says of Dead Jon Snow, "fighting at Winterfell" — some may see her elderly appearance as a sign that her powers are weakening. That was not my interpretation because immortality and being able to change one's self from "not" to "hot" simply by putting on a piece of jewelry seem like pretty powerful moves to me. Also, despite the whole Shireen stake-burning debacle, Davos still seems to have faith in Melisandre's bewitchery, so much so that he's inclined to use her as a weapon against the treasonous Thorne. "You haven't seen her do what I've seen her do," he tells his comrades, and the old-lady reveal suggests that we too haven't seen her full capabilities yet. Can she bring Jon Snow back to life? Maybe not. Could she assume his form to fight Thorne? Maybe. Yeah, you heard me. I'm saying maybe.

The spirit behind that line — "You haven't seen her do what I've seen her do" — almost feels like a mission statement for this episode, which brims over with examples of women asserting their strength. There is a fair amount of killing in "The Red Woman" and nearly every casualty meets his fate because a woman has a sword, knife, or spear in her hand.

In the most ovation-worthy moment of this premiere, Brienne of Tarth finally lives up to her promise to protect the Stark offspring by slicing down the soldiers poised to bring Sansa back to her dastardly husband, Ramsay Bolton. (With clutch assists from Podrick and, surprisingly, Theon Greyjoy.) And then there's all the stuff that goes down in Dorne, where Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes stab their way through Areo Hotah, Doran Martell, and Trystane Martell in quick succession. "Your son is weak like you, and weak men will never rule Dorne again," Ellaria tells Doran as she stabs him. What she's really saying: The women are now in charge.

This season already feels more compelling than season five, precisely because of moments like the coup in Dorne and Sansa and Theon's frantic flight away from Winterfell. There's a palpable sense of urgency in these story lines, an energy that many of last year's episodes outright lacked. (Look, I'll just go ahead and say it: Several stretches of season five were as mind-numbingly dull as the Senate chamber scenes in the Star Wars prequels.)

Even the "quieter moments" in this episode are compelling, like the heartbreaking conversation that unfolds between Jaime and Cersei after she realizes Myrcella is dead. When Cersei starts talking about how she fixated on the stage of the corpse's decomposition in the wake of her mother's passing, it's both morbid and a moving expression of how hard it is to accept the separation of the soul from the body. Jamie's insistence on ignoring fate and prophecies — which, again, links back to the questions related to Melisandre's predictive abilities — also taps into another theme that runs through this episode: resilience. "Fuck prophecy," Jamie tells his sister/love of his life. "Fuck fate. Fuck everyone who isn't us." Not to turn this recap into a Gloria Gaynor song, but the underlying message of Jamie's words is simply this: We will survive.

Arya and Daenerys, the two women who have consistently demonstrated the most pluck on Game of Thrones, will survive as well, but right now neither of them are in a great place. Arya, still blind, gets her ass kicked by the Waif, while Daenerys, once an advocate for freeing slaves, has herself become a slave of sorts in the custody of Khal Moro. When faced with a tidal wave of misogyny and the not-even-remotely-veiled threat of rape from Khal Moro, she sharpens her steely edges and stand up for herself. (God, it was nice to hear Daenerys refer to herself as Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.) Although revealing that she's the widow of Khal Drogo wins her a reprieve from the threats of sexual violence, it also means she must join the temple of the dosh khaleen, where the widowed khaleesi live in permanent residence as the Dothraki's soothsayers. (Yes, they're the same women who once told Daenerys and Drogo that their son would become the Stallion That Mounted the World.) If she's forced to stay with these elder women, it's hard to imagine how she'll get back to Meereen, where the people grow restless and her fleet is aflame. Tyrion and Varys may be stuck waiting for a while, so they better get comfortable.

In this Daenerys situation, as in the Melisandre twist, Game of Thrones introduces the idea of a woman straddling the realm of the young and the old, and asks whether that combination equates to power or weakness. It hasn't answered that question yet. But based on everything else that happens in this episode, my money is on power.

A few lingering questions:

  • When Jon Snow's body is initially lifted from the ground, Davos pauses and stares at the pattern of the blood stain as if he sees something significant. Did you catch this, and if so, what did you think it meant? I watched the scene three times and still wasn't sure how to read the expression on Davos's face.
  • How did Ser Jorah find Danerys's dropped ring so easily? When the Dothraki surrounded her last season, Daenerys had the wherewithal to drop a ring on the ground, presumably so that anyone looking for her might find it. But what are the odds that Ser Jorah would pull up right next to the thing and find it in five seconds, especially in such tall grass?
  • How much longer does Ser Jorah have before he goes full-stone man? Also, when you look at his spreading "rock rash," do you immediately get this E.L.O. song stuck in your head?
  • Will Ramsay Bolton ever change? Honestly, that's a rhetorical question because we all know the answer is no. Still, when he initially seemed moved by Myranda's death, I almost — for no more than a millisecond — felt a teensy bit bad for him. Then he faced the question of what to do with her body and bluntly said, "She's good meat. Feed her to the hounds." Once again, everything was right with the world because Ramsay Bolton proved that, as always, he's everything that's wrong with it.