Welcome, friends, to Season Six of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Last season was one of the more intriguing, contentious, and exciting seasons we’ve had, and the time spent away from the show has done much to pique our interests and curiosities. The characters we’ve spent so much time with endured terrible hardships, and while many survived to hopefully come out stronger (Sansa, Tyrion, Brienne), others did not suffer their torments as well, and met much harsher fates (Jon Snow, Stannis) (worth noting is that those who are made stronger tended to be women). Where they will go from here, and what they will do, will prove to be some of the more intriguing questions.
Here’s what we liked from this week’s episode, ‘The Red Woman’:
— Davos and the Wall: There’s been great turmoil at the Wall, with far-reaching effects. Two of last season’s most prominent players are gone — Jon Snow and Stannis Baratheon — and the result has created a paradigm shift that I found surprisingly satisfying. Owen Teale has always done a spectacular job as Alliser Thorne, and this new shift in power allows for him to be brought to the forefront as an antagonist. His moments in this week’s episode were some of his finest, and his speech to the angry, embittered Night’s Watch where he admitted to the murder of Jon Snow was a remarkable one — not for its brazenness, but rather for its honesty and forthrightness. Thorne has become more than an angry, churlish pretender — he now comes off as a true believer, a man who consciously made terrible choices for what he believes to be right. And despite my affections for Snow and Kit Harrington’s portrayal, there was a moment — just a moment — where his impassioned speech about protecting their livelihood and their history almost rang true.
Even more enjoyable than those Wall changes is the resurgence of Davos Seaworthy as a major player. With Stannis out of the picture, Davos slid easily into a leadership role, and while his allies — complete with a terrifically understated performance by Ben Crompton as Dolorous Ed Tollett — are ragtag and desperate, they are as fervent and sincere as Thorne’s brethren. A great reckoning is coming to the Wall, and what remains standing in the aftermath will echo throughout Westeros.
— Sansa, Theon, and Brienne: Perhaps my favorite part of the show was Brienne’s arrival to save the day and pledge herself to Sansa, fulfilling a long-lasting and torturous quest. Brienne, exhausted, worn out, finally sees the one she has sought for so long and reaches deep within herself to defeat — in typically creatively bloody fashion — her foes. Yet it wasn’t the battle, nor was it Theon’s newfound courage that was the finest moment. Rather, it was a shaky, weary Brienne taking a knee before the one she swore to protect, a haltingly sworn oath from them both, and with that, a protector is born anew.
Also? “It’s a bloody woman!” are the greatest last words I’ve ever heard.
— Dorne. I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed the turn of events in Dorne, and the patriarchy-defying coup d’etat by Ellaria and her Sand Snakes. It was vicious, merciless, and unflinching, full of steely stares and wicked grins. The Sand Snakes were rather a disappointment last season, but this holds great promise for their futures. They are slaughtering their way to the top, and there’s something remarkable about having a quartet of women take that kind of power (“Weak men will never rule Dorne again.”). It’s a breath of bloody, fresh air.
— There were other little things — Ramsay Bolton, even in grieving remains as monstrous as ever (“feed her to the hounds” was one of the more chilling lines). Cersei’s face just shattering upon seeing Jaime’s boat, and her subsequent despair at seemingly being unable to produce anything good in this world. Yet the death of their daughter seems to be rebuilding that bond, and the fierceness and tenacity and — perhaps — terribleness that comes with their union. Tyrion and Varys (always a welcome pairing), walking the ruined streets of Meereen, discovering the fleet set ablaze, facing ominous and uncertain futures. Daenerys cleverly hiding her gift for the Dothraki tongue until the moment when it both saves her and damns her. All quiet little moments that succeeded in conveying a wealth of information and adding subtle hints of depth and nuance to the characters.
It didn’t all work. I found Arya’s plight to be depicted in rather pedestrian fashion, and Jorah and Daario is one of the less inspiring pairings. But in the end, “The Red Woman” was, much like most of this show’s season premieres, a setting of the stage, a preparation for the dark roads that will soon be traveled. It was an overall solid, if unexciting episode, and I found myself quite satisfied with its languid pacing and the foundation that it built. I’m particularly interested in the new, more well-written and more powerful roles for the women of the show, with those like the Sand Snakes, Daenerys, Brienne and Sansa all finding new ground and taking on more potentially strong positions. There are huge questions remaining, and perhaps none more intriguing and frightening than the one brought in by the show’s final moments — who, or what, is Melisandre? What powers does she wield, what bargains did she make? What dark secrets are held by the worshipers of the Lord of Light? It is one of the many puzzles that need to be solved.