Game of Thrones Recap/Review: Season 6, Episode 1 “The Red Woman”

For an episode titled “The Red Woman,” last night’s season six premier had remarkably little to do with Melisandre, and it didn’t introduce the other red priestess who has been teased in some of pre-season promotional materials. Still, the episode sort of starts with Melisandre, and it definitely ends with her, so I guess the title works alright.

The hour opens with Davos discovering Jon Snow’s corpse, which Alliser Thorne and his men have just left laying out in the snow, in spite of the fact that they know that corpses at the Wall must be burned so they don’t rise up as wights. Davos and some of the men loyal to Jon take the body indoors and put it on a table while Ghost tries to escape from the room he’s shut up in. Dolorous Edd is sad and angry, but he leaves to get Ghost when Melisandre shows up. Melisandre says that she saw Jon Snow in the flames, fighting at Winterfell, but we all know how accurate shit she sees in the flames is.

Elsewhere, Alliser Thorne is humble bragging about how he killed Jon Snow out of patriotism or whatever and tries to rally the remaining men of the Night’s Watch against the Wildlings. He’s basically a dour Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Davos has a plan as well, which is good because Dolorous Edd is ready to just die gloriously trying to avenge Jon’s murder. Davos sends Edd to go talk to the Wildlings, because obviously a bloody, senseless battle is exactly what everyone needs to help them work through their grief. I’m guessing that we should expect a significant battle between the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch in the second half of episode two, or more likely in episode three. I’m calling it right now, though: Melisandre is going to resurrect Jon while the battle is raging, and he’s going to come out and his mere appearance will miraculously unite the Night’s Watch and Wildling factions. Also, either Jon Snow is going to chop off Thorne’s head to prove what a big man he is or he’s going to magnanimously allow Thorne to live and Thorne will become a creepily fervent supporter of Jon Snow.

Because this show definitely has its priorities in order, we’re taken next to Winterfell, where Ramsay Bolton is mourning his dead girlfriend by talking about how he first saw her when she was just eleven. It’s okay, though. The writers just buried the lead—Ramsay wasn’t much older, himself. Whew. And I thought this was going to be gross and creepy. Nah, it’s just supposed to be kind of sweet, I guess. Even sadistic torturing rapists have feelings that we’re supposed to be invested in. Just kidding! Ramsay tells the maester to feed Myranda to the dogs, because she’s good meat, after all.

No joke, I cackled maniacally when this happened, and it wasn’t just because I’d already downed half a bottle of wine. It was legitimately hilarious, and it gets even more hilarious when Ramsay gets a talking to from his dad. There is nothing funnier on this show than Roose Bolton dispassionately chiding his bastard son for irresponsibly losing his wife and pissing off the whole North, then threatening to pass Ramsay over in the succession in favor of a baby that isn’t even born yet. I love that D&D love Ramsay and his storyline so much and that they seem to see him as a sort of misunderstood but ultimately lovable antihero that they never stop trying to get us to root for. Because moral ambiguity, obviously. He really loved his evil girlfriend! And he’s got daddy issues! Sad trombone!

Theon and Sansa are running through the woods with Ramsay’s men in pursuit with dogs. They cross a freezing river in order to throw off the hounds, but not five minutes later the dogs find them anyway. Probably because, instead of traveling up or downstream to confuse their pursuers and buy themselves more time, Theon and Sansa just crossed straight over, leaving a very visible trail in the snow. Good news, though! Brienne and Podrick arrive just in the nick of time to save them. Because this is not at all unlikely, and goodness knows we need more scenes of Brienne straight up butchering guys (not really kidding, I actually kind of like seeing Brienne destroy like eight dudes at a time).

Here’s the thing, though. For all that D&D and directors and actors have talked up Sansa in the last couple of years and continuously promised that no, really, this season we’re going to get to see her come into her own, that’s not what happens here. Theon has to practically drag her into the water with the ominous warning that he’s seen what Ramsay’s dogs do to people, as if Sansa isn’t already very aware of her husband’s cruelty. Sansa at one point begs Theon not to try and sacrifice himself to save her because she says she won’t survive without him. Then, of course, Sansa is totally useless when Ramsay’s men do catch up with them, while Podrick is apparently a kind of badass now and even Theon gets to pick up a sword and kill someone.

The really unforgivable part of all this, though, is that when Sansa is finally safe(ish), after Brienne has dispatched Ramsay’s men and saved the day, Brienne again offers her service to Sansa, just like she once offered her services to Sansa’s mother. It’s the first time that Sansa has had a meaningful and more or less unconstrained choice to make in a while, and she looks to Theon for permission. It’s only when Theon nods his assent that Sansa accepts Brienne into her household (such as it is), and even then, Sansa—one of whose defining qualities (in the books, at least—I’m pretty sure that consistent characterization is a total mystery to D&D) is her knowledge of and adherence to social conventions no matter how terrible her circumstances—cannot remember the traditional response that she is supposed to make to Brienne’s oath. She has to have Podrick remind her of the words.

Listen, I’m sure that there are a thousand justifications for this. I’m certain that it will be explained away as Sansa being traumatized, that it’s a sign of just how much Ramsay’s abuse has affected her. It could be that they intended this moment to be illustrative of the similarities between Sansa and Podrick, who is admittedly a sort of kindred spirit to Sansa in this way. It could even be sowing the seeds for a romance between the two characters because the show is essentially just awful fanfiction at this point and no bad fanfic is complete without a crackship. Oh, god, this is really happening, isn’t it? I can’t help feeling as if by putting it into words I’m willing this garbage into existence, but now that I’ve had the idea, I’m about 80% certain that this is exactly where the show is going. Jesus wept.

In King’s Landing, Cersei is excited when she thinks Myrcella is home, and it is actually fucking heartbreaking to see her face fall when she realizes that her daughter is dead. It has nothing to do with the books, and it’s not particularly consistent with anything that has come before this on the show, but I actually don’t hate the following scene, where Cersei is grieving and Jaime is trying to comfort her. I did laugh like a maniac when Jaime says “Fuck everyone who isn’t us!” though. Because probably these two would have far fewer problems if they’d been doing that all along. In any case, there’s not much to mock here. The scene focuses on Cersei’s belief in prophecy, and it does kind of make it seem like we’re supposed to think she’s stupid for it, but it’s not the worst thing this show has done with these characters, and Lena Headey is great at making me care about her character even when what she’s doing makes no sense at all. This material is about three quarters plausible based on what we’ve seen of Cersei up to this point, so it seems great in comparison.

Elsewhere, Margaery would like to see her brother, but Septa Unella is a big old bitch. Sure, she might be a petty Catholic schoolboy’s misogynistic caricature of an overzealous nun, but really she’s just the bad cop to the High Sparrow’s good cop. I guess it’s good to get some kind of update on Margaery, but there’s not actually a lot of information in this scene, just a vague suggestion that Margaery might have stumbled upon the right thing to say in order to get herself out of jail. Alternatively, the High Sparrow may have simply realized that keeping the queen in a filthy dungeon for no real reason is probably not conducive to his continued good health. Who even knows, really?

With that, we’re whisked away to Dorne, where Ellaria and her daughters have staged a comically ridiculous coup. “Weak men will never rule Dorne again,” Ellaria says. Okay, but WHO WILL BE RULING DORNE NOW? This makes no sense whatsoever. Ellaria’s murder dress is stunning, though.

On the other side of the world in Meereen, Tyrion and Varys are walking through the apparently totally empty streets of the city. In case you’ve forgotten, Varys has no cock, which is a hilarious joke apparently. Tyrion is so funny. Things get even more hilarious when some poor brown lady thinks that Tyrion wants to buy her baby to eat and Varys has to explain that Tyrion just sucks at speaking Valyrian. Also, something something Tyrion walks like a rich guy, even though Varys is walking next to him in literally the exact same way. I hate this all so much. It makes no sense that Tyrion and Varys are now in charge of the city in the first place, and this is just deeply silly. Oh, “Our queen is not as popular in Meereen as she used to be”? Okay. When was that, exactly? There was violent resistance to her rule from day one. I guess at least the red priests are on Daenerys’s side, sort of? Oh shit, the entire harbor is on fire.

I had somewhat high hopes for comedy value of the Jorah and Daario bro journey, but it turns out to just be some rather maudlin reflections on how much they both love Daenerys. D- banter. The way they track Daenerys is kind of dumb, but okay. Jorah finds the ring Dany dropped in the middle of a huge field, where it was somehow not trampled into the ground or washed away by rain or just covered by grass, and now they know that she’s with the Dothraki.

Speaking of the Dothraki, this show really loves to have wide shots where Daenerys is the only white person in a sea of brown faces, huh? Just to make sure we know how bad things are for Daenerys, we have to listen to a pair of Dothraki men say gross and demeaning things to her for several minutes while she’s marched to see the Khal whose property she now is. There’s plenty of racist overtones throughout Dany’s time with the Dothraki this week, but this first part kind of takes the racist cake, as the two cheerfully rape-y Dothraki men and their sexually violent and degrading comments are explicitly presented in contrast to Daario and Jorah’s true and pure love for their queen. This is all compounded, of course, when Dany is finally brought before the Khal and he too talks about raping her while a couple of Dothraki women just say superstitious garbage and advise him to kill her. It’s almost as if this show wants to make really sure that we know that the Dothraki are ignorant, vicious barbarians or something.

Fortunately for Daenerys, all she has to do is name drop her dead husband and instead of getting raped and enslaved she’s going to be treated with some basic dignity and carted off to Vaes Dothrak to live with the rest of the widows of Khals. I’m not sure why she’s so surprised and dismayed by this, though. I know the show has diverged pretty wildly from the books, but even in the show she’s supposed to have become very assimilated into Dothraki culture during her marriage, so she would know that this is what is supposed to have happened when Khal Drogo died. In the books, trying to avoid this fate is part of what drove her to travel away from the Dothraki in the first place; she wanted to be a queen, not stuck in what is essentially an old folks’ home. Here, though, it’s just one more thing for Jorah and Daario to rescue her from. I guess it beats them having to rescue her from sexual violence or slavery, but still. Ugh.

There’s a brief Arya scene, of course, where we learn that she is indeed blind, and begging in Braavos. The Waif shows up and beats the shit out of her for some reason, then goes away promising that she’ll see Arya tomorrow. Okay.

The episode ends back at Castle Black, where Alliser Thorne is trying to secure his hold on the Night’s Watch. Davos and the few Jon Snow loyalists are still barricaded in a room, and Thorne is trying to get them to surrender, promising that, no really, he’s definitely not going to murder them all if they just open the door come on guys pleeeease. I’m not really sure what Davos and company think they’re going to accomplish all holed up with Jon Snow’s corpse, and I don’t really understand why Davos thought this was a thing he needed to get this deeply involved in to begin with, but apparently everything depends on Dolorous Edd now. Then Davos is all “Well, we could use the Red Woman,” and the other guys are like, “For what?” but we don’t find out this week.

Instead, we get to see Melisandre, who is still pretty bummed about how things went down with Stannis, I guess. She starts stripping in front of a mold-covered piece of metal, because we haven’t seen any boobs yet this week, but PSYCH! She takes off her necklace and she’s been an old hag all along! Even though, back in season four (episode seven) we’ve already seen Melisandre completely naked in a bath without her necklace and she was still a total babe. I feel like this is meant to be shocking and symbolically resonant because she’s metaphorically aged by her experiences and is now feeling her age in a way that she hasn’t up to this point. Okay, sure, whatever, but it doesn’t even work.

It’s hinted at in the books that she’s much older than she looks, but the show has never hinted at this before and it explicitly contradicts what we’ve seen on screen years ago. D&D might think their audience is stupid—they have a long track record of both abandoning stories that they have done groundwork for (like Tyrion and Tysha, for example) and introducing “twists” like this seemingly out of nowhere. It’s incredibly insulting to the audience—we really can keep up; it’s not that complicated—and it’s in every case a disservice to the show’s characters. Which doesn’t even touch on the added insult of using an aged woman’s body as spectacle in a way that is calculated to make the viewer feel disgust and shock just at seeing it. Thanks, Game of Thrones.

Still, “The Red Woman” isn’t a terrible episode. Unlike most of the other first episodes of the show’s seasons, this one spends a minimal amount of time just recapping the events of the previous season. The hour does still mostly consist of setup for future events, but it nonetheless manages to feel as if there’s some forward movement on all its many fronts. Probably the most positive thing I can say about the episode, though, is that they made a smart decision to do this week’s storytelling in longer scenes than usual, without skipping around between settings. Often, Game of Thrones does well at crafting particular moments and events, but the show has struggled, increasingly, for years with actually forming those moments into coherent stories. With a couple of exceptions (Arya’s scene, most notably), every scene this week worked to move the story along, and there was even a sort of linear logic to the episode that made it fairly pleasant viewing. It wasn’t the regular scattered vignettes on a theme that we have become used to, and that’s a positive development. Now, if only we could get the stories and character development on this show to actually make some kind of sense, the show might be halfway good again.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Every scene at Castle Black and Winterfell is unrelentingly dark and gloomy, still. It’s actually distracting, as it’s downright difficult to see what’s going on at times.
  • Roose confirms that Stannis is dead, but they don’t know who did the deed. “I’d reward the man,” Roose says. Hardy har har. See, it’s funny because we know that it was Brienne. Hilarious!
  • The Sand Snakes really are the worst. I think the best we can hope for is that this is the last we’re ever going to see of them.
  • Jorah’s greyscale is getting worse. Also, I am pretty sure he was definitely considering rubbing it all over Daario. “If” Daario grows old, indeed.
  • I did chuckle at “Seeing a beautiful woman naked for the first time is among the five best things in life” but I kind of hate myself for it.
  • I love the dude that’s like “Well, we’re fucked if we have to depend on Dolorous Edd.”

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