The following article contains spoilers.
Though the season premiere Game of Thrones didn’t resolve the show’s biggest cliffhanger ever, to expect them to rush to resolution when they know the audience is hooked on the drama would be simply un-Thronesian. The wide-ranging “The Red Woman” laid down track for where the sixth season plans to travel. Though it wasn’t perfect, there’s a lot of promising things to be excited about.
“The Red Woman” begins right where the Season 5 finale left off; with Jon Snow bleeding out in the snow. Lingering on this death sets the tone for the episode, where its participants all seem to be stuck in an intense situation, pondering some kind of relief. Daenerys is taken prisoner by the Dothraki, Cersei and Jaime deal with the unexpected and cruel death of their daughter Myrcella, Tyrion and Varys philosophize about the roots of revolution while watching their easiest escape go up in smoke. Capturing these transitional phases is what this episode is all about, and what exactly the characters can and cannot control — “Fuck prophecy, fuck fate!” says Jaime to Cersei upon their reunion, and Podrick has to walk Sansa through her gods-fearing oath to Brienne, who saves her from Ramsay Bolton’s men — is as unclear as ever.
As always, drawing a coherent conclusion from one episode is an impractical way to approach Thrones. But it would seem as if that the way forward for the series will have much less to do with the details and minutiae of the “game” itself — lore that has often overloaded the series, and can be bought if you even want more of it — and more to do with the principle characters themselves. Already, we’re seeing quiet, invigorating rage from Daenerys, a confidence from Davos that seems to surprise even himself in wake of Stannis’s defeat, and a moment of deep vulnerability and doubt from “The Red Woman”, the red priestess Melisandre.
As always, the Game of Thrones shows you its cards. As Varys and Tyrion walk through Mereen, they pass by a street preacher proselytizing about the Lord of Light and the salvation his religion promises, even as the Sons of the Harpy lurk in the shadows. LORD OF LIGHT, roger! The episode’s big “reveal”, which is more of a telling visual moment than a plot-rending surprise, holds value as the episode’s more important character moment; while the showrunners flatly acknowledge that Martin always told them Melisandre was “several centuries” old in “The Red Woman”‘s behind the episode featurette, the look of deep doubt and disbelief in her eyes communicates more than a Sand Snake spear through the head does. For this show to ever transcend its “tits and dragons” reputation, it’s going to require more moments like the climax of “The Red Woman.”
We’re not out of the woods — the proceedings of “The Red Woman” displayed a number of Game of Thrones’s more damaging hallmarks, like its thirst for gratuitous rape (Daeny is threatened by it, again, Jesus) and violence, as well as Dothraki banter that seemed lifted from Entourage. The convenience of the Dothraki “code” when it came to Daenerys’ imprisonment — I, the new Khal, can’t rape you, because all widows of dead Khals have to live together in some kind of makeshift nunnery, obviously! — was only the latest example of the show’s spotty and flighty relationship with “plot”.
More good than bad here, though. While we don’t know if Jon Snow will be resurrected — that seems like more of an episode 3 thing, anyway — it would appear that Game of Thrones will depend more on its performances and lean into a brisker pace. Even for diehard fans of the show, a glimpse of leaner Game of Thrones might be the premiere’s most striking element, naked crone and all.
Watch a preview of next week’s episode, “Home,” on HBO’s website.