Game of Thrones might be too familiar, too expansive, to have the same force it once did. When a show’s been on the air for five years, it’s harder for it to surprise you. The characters are well-established; you know most of the series’s tricks, and you also know a great deal about what the show’s good and bad at. Game of Thrones is good at a lot of things–humorous asides, daring rescues, and moving character moments–so that even when it’s simply chugging along, it’s still a very enjoyable show. But for a season premiere, “The Red Woman” was a bit underwhelming.
It wasn’t bad, mind you. There were plenty of exciting moments, surprising twists, and interesting developments. But there was little to make you sit up and take notice of a series at the height of its powers moving toward its end game, save for perhaps one scene.
That scene featured Brienne saving Sansa and pledging her fealty, while Podrick fed Sana the appropriate reciprocal affirmations and Theon nodded in approval. Several parts of the lead up to that moment made it stand out: For one, there were real stakes to Sansa and Theon’s attempt to escape from Winterfell, both from the apprehension imparted by the hounds barking in the distance and their clear fatigue and stress from traipsing through the snow. What’s more, the escape effort led to legitimate character development and deepened their relationship, with the cold giving the two of them a reason to embrace, and the hounds prompting Theon’s attempt to sacrifice himself in order to save his near-sister.
At the same time, Brienne’s daring rescue is a thrill, giving solid moments to Brienne herself, Podrick, and Theon. The action felt anything but gratuitous given what was at stake, and the aftermath is triumphant, with Brienne at last fulfilling her oath, the poor, constantly embattled Sansa finally having a true protector; and their seconds each having a hand in the result.
It’s also notable because it’s one of the few parts of “The Red Woman” where the story is moving inward rather than continuing to expand or simply running in place. While I’m sure there’s much more to come for the characters departing from the ramparts of Winterfell, that moment is a major landmark in Brienne’s quest to fulfill her promise to Catelyn Stark, to Sansa’s effort to not only be safe but also in charge of her own destiny, to Podrick’s hope to help his master rather than hold her back, and to Theon’s quest for redemption. Each of these story threads tie together in one tremendous scene.
That stands out in comparison to the rest of the episode, which has some scenes that are better than others, but for the most part feels scattershot, with little indication that things are falling into place. A season premiere for a show like Game of Thrones is difficult, because as the series’s plots have telescoped and come to encompass so many different stories and characters, there’s a sense that at the start of a new chapter, an episode like “The Red Woman” has to check in with all of them (give or take a warg).
The result is something of a hodgepodge of tones and atmospheres and settings, most of them glancing blows, many of them perfectly fine, but few of them truly cohesive. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. Game of Thrones is a series known for its scope, and by definition, that’s going to require some jumping around in terms of stories, especially when the show’s reminding its audience of all of the ongoing conflicts. It just makes it hard to judge an individual episode like “The Red Woman” as anything other than the mere sum of its parts.
Three of those stories stem from the aftermath of last season’s adventure in Meereen. The best and most promising of them is Tyrion and Varys’s walk through the streets of their new home. I could watch an episode of just the two of them bantering back and forth for an hour and still be entertained, but “The Red Woman” uses Tyrion’s attempt to get to know the place he intends to govern as means to illustrate both how he, unlike Varys, is not a man of the people (however much he may care and try to be), and that a civil war is brewing in the contentious land they’re trying to keep in order.
The worst is Jorah and Daario’s little horse ride on the way to finding their queen. The scene does little besides repeat character beats we’re already familiar with, remind the audience of Jorah’s cheesy greyscale infection, and move the rescue plot a few spaces forward.
Somewhere in the middle lies Daenerys’s encounter with another group of Dothraki. The journey to meet the new Khal is a bit silly and more than a bit crude, but it’s also generally amusing. Dany’s captors appear to be the Dothraki answer to a Kevin Smith movie. And Dany’s look of palpable disgust when listening to a conversation her captors don’t think she can understand is perfect.
That scene, and the ensuing one where the reigning Khal declares his intentions to lie with her regardless of her wishes will no doubt launch a thousand thinkpieces. But Daenerys’s encounters in this episode lean into a venerable tack when it comes to the mother of dragons — the way she is at once attempting to project strength and power, but still quite vulnerable, uncertain, and even frightened at what fate might await her. Emilia Clark does a superb job of showing the many shades of the character as her fortunes wax and wane during her discussion with this new Khal. The promise to transport her to what sounds like the Dothraki homeland is an unpleasant one, which threatens to add yet another spot on the map for the show’s intro.
The least interesting of the stories in “The Red Woman” are centered around the events of Dorne. There’s some of the trademark Game of Thrones shock to the Sand Snakes’ coup at the Dornish palace, but we barely know most of the people involved, so the impact of it is blunted. Admittedly, there’s some intrigue in Dorne being ruled by someone who’s directly antagonistic to the Lannisters, and to the idea that the people of Dorne resented their leaders and yearn to stand against those who hold sway over King’s Landing. But there’s more promise in the concept than in the execution thus far. Similarly, the scene featuring two corniest Sand Snakes taking out the Dornish Prince only served as a reminder of how pointless he was to begin with and how annoying, dare I say Poochie-esque, his assassins are.
That said, there was more to mull over in Cersei and Jamie’s reunion. The excitement in Cersei’s voice when she heard tell of a ship on the horizon, and the way her expression slowly but surely fell when she saw the burial shroud heading toward her coupled with the grave look on her lover’s face, was a wonderful, devastating sequence.
The death of Joffrey brought Cersei to anger, to her most bitter and vindictive point. But Marcella’s death has a much different effect on her. Here, Cersei is simply crestfallen, brought as low as she imagined possible, slowly but surely losing the most important things in her life. The idea that Marcella perishing is particularly heartbreaking for Cersei because she saw her daughter as pure and good, and it made her feel better about herself and all she’s wrought, is one that adds yet more depth to one of the show’s most complex characters. Jamie’s response that they are neither cursed by misfortune nor bound by fate, but should respond to this horror by lashing out at those who brought it to their doorstep, does more to warrant excitement as to where the conflict with Dorne will lead than all the bloody coups and painful attempts at bon mots that preceded it.
The episode also takes time to check in with the rest of its characters across Westeros and beyond. Arya’s still blind and begging on the streets, finding herself tested by The Waif in a bow fight that seems liable to turn into a Karate Kid montage at any moment. Margaery Tyrell is still in prison, thoroughly cowed and shell-shocked after her repeated encounters with the rough-handed captors who abound. The High Sparrow plays good cop-bad cop with her while she asks after her brother, with little more than an ominous assurance for her to go on. And even Ramses has a brief moment of humanity, couched though it may be in his usual sadism, as he mourns the loss of the only lover who shared his deranged sensibilities and feels the blowback from his father for how his extracurricular activities led to the loss of both Sansa and Theon, threatening both the Boltons’ hold on Winterfell and Ramses’ claim as his father’s heir.
But the other major fireworks of “The Red Woman” take place at Castle Black. Ser Davos proves his usefulness once again, in his kindness, his cunning, and his resourcefulness when he collects Jon Snow’s dead body, brings in Ghost, and holes up with everyone in one of The Watch’s storerooms before sending Edd to rally support among The Wildlings. Davos’s dry wit carries the day in these scenes, balanced by the hopelessness conveyed by shots that sweep across the desolate environs at The Wall.
At the same time, Thorne has an impressive moment of his own, defending himself in front of his fellow brothers after confessing to the murder of their Lord Commander. As I wrote in my discussion of the Season 5 finale, what makes Thorne’s actions and his speech here so interesting is that it’s easy to believe he truly means what he says, that there’s a certain noble impulse behind his choices even if they seems foolish or wrongheaded to the audience.
Thorne’s disdain for Jon Snow has been clear from the beginning, and he admits to the assembled that he had no love lost for our erstwhile hero. But there’s something genuine in his demeanor when Thorne says that he never disobeyed an order, that as harsh or self-important or dismissive as Thorne could be, his own coup, aided by the other commanders, was about something bigger than himself — a tradition and a brotherhood that he saw poised to be destroyed under Jon’s care. I don’t exactly admire the man, but I admire the show for making him more than the one-dimensional villain that he occasionally devolved into in previous episodes.
Finally, there’s the titular Red Woman. She sees Jon’s dead body and has a moment of self-doubt. In her vision, she saw him fighting at Winterfell, and yet there he lies, white as a stone. She promised Stannis that sacrificing his daughter would lead his side to victory against the Boltons, and yet the would-be king is (probably) dead and his army soundly defeated. It becomes much more of a question (smoke monster or no) how much real power Melisandre has or had real power, and the extent to which her prophecies and persuasions are simply more of her admitted parlor tricks.
Then, she undresses and reveals a much older, withered woman, and the nature of her abilities is at once both more and less of a question. It’s a revelation meant to be one of those trademark big moments in the pantheon of Game of Thrones big reveals, but for the time being, it mostly just seems strange, with little immediately obvious point for the time being.
Perhaps it simply fits into what appears to be the animating principle for the rest of “The Red Woman” — giving the audience just enough of a taste to rekindle their interest in the spiderwebbed plots that stretch across Westeros, while gently pointing us down the path the rest of the season will follow. The episode feels more like a grand reintroduction, a preview almost, for what’s to come, than a unified story all its own.
In the absence of some emergent property to come out of the interplay between these different, disconnected stories, familiarity with the shape of the series’ arcs takes some of the thrill away from elements of the episode like that closing twist. But it’s enough to keep us talking, and wondering, and tuning in next week to find out where things are head. I suppose, to that end, it’ll do just fine.