tv review

Game of Thrones Feels Warmer in Its Sixth Season

But let’s hope these two don’t catch hypothermia. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Well, then. Jon Snow is still dead, and the woman deemed most likely to reanimate him, the sorceress Melisandre (Carice van Houten), appears to have lost faith in the Lord of Light, or perhaps experienced a power ebb of some kind. The only really substantive reveal in the premiere showed her true form: an old woman of the sort that offered Snow White a poisoned apple in the Disney film.

What does it all mean? It means Game of Thrones is still messing with us, just as we always knew it would.

The premiere of season six gave us a nice, long close-up of Jon’s corpse haloed by a purplish bloodstain, plus a genuinely affecting reaction shot from Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) as the permanence of the tragedy sunk in. But how permanent is it? This could be a double fake out that lulls plot guessers into complacency and makes his future resurrection feel “surprising” to all. Or he might just be dead — you never know on a show like Game of Thrones, which is basically a sadistic, gory, gloomily romantic, power-obsessed comic book for adults, something like the Godfather saga by way of Excalibur with a dash of the classic board game Risk.

And you especially can’t know now, with executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss having more or less run out of rail laid by George R.R. Martin’s source novels, giving them more latitude. It’s no longer a matter of switching events around slightly on a timeline, combining minor characters or shifting the point-of-view of a scene. Martin and the show could seriously diverge from here on out. That’s exciting because it puts non-Martin readers (a category that includes this critic) and the novel’s millions of fans on the same level playing field, and ensures that the book series, should Martin ever complete it, will be surprising, too. (Ancillary benefit: We no longer have to worry about people who’ve read the novels barging into recap comments threads to tell you what happens next while pretending that’s not what they’re doing.)

Is the necklace the source of Melisandre’s power? Apparently not, since she’s removed it in the past. There’s no way I would know something like that if I didn’t have Thronie friends; I can barely keep all the family trees and hierarchical structures straight without a chart in front of me. The details are often less important than the emotions of the main characters, which at their best, are captured with the forceful purity of late-period silent cinema. The blind face of Arya (Maise Williams) is an image that D.W. Griffith would’ve made iconic; she’s become my favorite character because, even though almost every major character on the show has been through hell several times, she’s had it worst. A close second is Sansa (Sophie Turner), who flees her horrid circumstances with the traumatized torture victim Theon/Reek (Alfie Allen), bonds with him in ways that seem to draw out his buried humanity again, and accepts the protection of Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie, whose feral murder-growl was showcased in an intimate but exciting swords-and-horses sequence).

Brienne’s awesomeness fused with another subplot, which found Daenerys (Emilia Clark) being shipped off to the horse barbarian capital Vaes Dothrak, where the widows of chieftains are supposed to live out the rest of their days. Time and again, Thrones has given its female characters a form of agency only to turn around and rape, imprison, torture or kill them, as if unconsciously trying to right some perceived cosmic imbalance and keep dudes from feeling threatened. Daenerys’s situation, though, seems like one that could be solved with a bit of the same Homeric pluck showcased by Penelope. Also encouraging: The deep grief expressed by Cersei (Lena Headey) toward her dead daughter, Myrcella, returned in casket by her brother-lover Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Game of Thrones, like The Sopranos before it, is not a hit because of its tender evocations of basic human emotions; it’s the dragons and zombies and nudity and gore that make it mainstream-popular. But there are times when the drama becomes its own kind of spectacle, and there were many moments like that in the premiere. It’s too early to say for sure, but the first episode of the first post-Martin season already feels more woman-friendly, indeed a tad warmer and more embracing overall, than the preceding 50 episodes, which could feel thrillingly atavistic and occasionally inspiring but also cold, manipulative, and needlessly vicious. The world the characters inhabit is still a hugely dangerous one, but at no point did I feel as though the writers were showing us beautiful butterflies in preparation of pulling their wings off.