Once more into the fray!
After last year recapping (most of) season 5, I’m back to recap Season Six. Thanks to friends who have encouraged me on this. It’s a project I really enjoy.
Season Six begins with an episode not unlike previous season premieres: essentially a more detailed version of the show’s opening animation, showing us where all the various pieces are on the board following the events of the previous finale.
In performing that function, it succeeds. In getting me excited about what’s to come..? Eh. There’s always next week.
Let’s get to it, deconstructing “The Red Woman.”
- Jon Snow Remains Visibly Dead
The episode picks up right where the previous season’s cliffhanger left off. I really liked the opening shot of dawn at Castle Black, with the camera flying past the Wall, over the battlements and into the courtyard, with Ghost’s plaintive howling the only sound we hear. The camera finally arrives on the image we ended last season on, but with several hours having passed, and Jon’s blood freezing in the snow.
Ser Davos and Surviving-Jon-Snow-Loyalist-Whose-Face-We-Recognize (henceforth SJSLQFWR – I could look it up, but y’all, there are too many people on this show), and a handful of other men scoop up the visibly dead Lord Commander and take him inside. As they do, Davos’s eyes linger a moment on the bloody patch of snow, immediately turning it into the internet’s newest collective Rorschach test.
At this point, it is worth pointing out that Kit Harrington gets 5th billing in the episode’s opening credits. That would be pretty high on most shows, but this is Game of Thrones. The Wikipedia list of Game of Thrones characters has over 40 people listed in the “main cast” alone. In a crowded show like this, 5th billing seems pretty high for a dude to just be a pretty-faced tablescape.
This is where I have to assume that if you’re reading someone’s recap of the episode, you must be the sort of person who watches the show regularly and has regular internet access. That being the case, I have to assume that you have some opinion as to the long term fate of Jon Snow and are at least somewhat familiar with the Internet-ubiquitous theory about the implications of Melisandre’s return to Castle Black.
Showrunners Weiss and Benioff have got to also assume as much for at least a large share of their audience, and they’ve constructed this whole episode around toying with the audience’s expectations about Jon’s fate. Even the fact that the first thing we knew about the episode was its title, “The Red Woman,” is a tease for fans wondering whether she’ll do it and how*.
I’m fine with them not paying off the big lingering question right away, especially since so much else happens in this first episode. But the show has a tendency to overplay its hand when it comes to trying to tease out narrative strands. Hopefully we aren’t waiting too much longer.
- Lord Commander Jerkface Back in the Saddle Again
Meanwhile, Alliser Thorne has convened the rest of the men to admit that he killed their Lord Commander, “but I never once disobeyed an order.” So I guess that makes it okay? I kind of feel like “don’t kill me,” if not technically an “order,” is implicitly a pretty important rule to follow. Thorne and Zack Snyder’s Superman would get along.
He then basically repeats the Alliser Thorne Mission Statement on the Wrongness of Jon Snow, which amounts for 100% of his dialogue from the preceding 5 seasons and should be news to none of these men. It nonetheless seems to suddenly convince them all that he’s right and totally not a murderer and they should get ready to point crossbows at anyone who disagrees.
Did they have crossbows before? Those would probably have been handy.
Olly is also there, having hit puberty since the previous night. Killing changes you, man.
Back at the makeshift Irish wake, SJSLQFWR wants to avenge Jon right away, knowing that he, Davos and the several unnamed Jon Snow loyalists will totally die trying. Davos cautions that they “aren’t the only ones who owe [their] lives to Jon Snow,” presumably referring to the Wildlings. SJSLQFWR heads off, presumably to find them.
Later in the episode, Thorne approaches the room Davos and the remaining members of Team Jon locked up in (I think) the Lord Commander’s chambers. The best laugh of the episode for me was Davos, who knows Thorne is lying about letting him go free, asking for mutton.
“What’s one redhead gonna do against 40 armed men?”
“You haven’t seen her do what I’ve seen her do.”
It’s true**. More on that later.
- The Boltons Remain the Worst
Ramsay gives what is, for Ramsay, a fairly emotional eulogy for his recently de-parapeted girlfriend***. The moment passes, and we remember who we’re dealing with when re tells the Maester “this is good meat, feed it to the hounds.”
He then runs into Roose, who, after a season of hinting to Ramsay that his legitimization is provisional, gives the least veiled threats he’s given so far about it. In first giving Sansa cause to escape by “playing games with” (read: raping) her, then actually allowing her to escape, Ramsay has made their situation more precarious.
“I rebelled against the crown to arrange your marriage to Sansa Stark. Do you think that burning wagons in the night and mowing down tired, outnumbered Baratheons is the same as facing a prepared and provisioned Lannister army?”
So… okay. They “rebelled” by teaming up with Littlefinger to marry Sansa, who Cersei thinks is responsible for killing Joffrey, and Cersei knows Littlefinger was in the North with the Boltons. But why doesn’t she suspect that Littlefinger, who happened to disappear from King’s Landing to marry Lysa and claim the Eire – where Sansa was later spotted — right about the time Joffrey died. Did those other rando Tullies keep Sansa’s presence secret for her? Why?
In any case, questionable plot motivations aside, this seems to be setting up a Bolton-Lannister showdown for control of the North. To say nothing of a Roose-Ramsay showdown over who really rules in Winterfell.
- Poor Sansa, Part 51
Sansa and Reek must know how to press forward on the analog stick on the landing, because they tucked and rolled their way into remaining miraculously unharmed from their long plunge. Now, pursued by Bolton hounds, they cross a freezing river to find safety.
All together team: Poor Sansa.
We get a little glimpse of the humanity (Theonity?) returning to Reek when he first helps warm her with his own body heat – probably the first kind touch Sansa has had in a while – then serves as a decoy for the pursuing hunters. They see through his ruse, but just before the dogs are allowed to get to Sansa, Brienne rides triumphantly in.
And Pod finally gets to kick some ass! Go Pod! Those daily sword lessons are paying off.
Rewatching the fight scene for this recap, though, I’m wondering what happened to the dogs. We never see anyone take care of the guy holding their leash, and not that I’d want to see it, but the show hasn’t exactly shied away from killing dogs before. Also, I think Brienne gets kicked in the face more in her fight scenes than the rest of the cast combined.
Once they wrap things up, Brienne pledges herself to Sansa and shows incredible restraint in not saying “I told you so.”
But now three of our favorite characters (plus Theon/Reek) are all together. They’re bound for Castle Black, and it’s going to be a real bummer once they get there, but this is the best day Sansa’s had in a while!
- Why Didn’t Jaimie Send a Damn Raven?
Seriously. Seeeeriously. It’s got to be at least a few days’ boat trip from Sunspear to King’s Landing. Surely these fancy boats have birds. If not, he also had the time to stop somewhere and pick up a golden sarcophagus. That was not on the boat already. He had to land somewhere. There are birds.
Showing up in the harbor with your dead niece/daughter who is also the sister of the King seems like something you just don’t do unannounced. Bad manners, Lannister. You send a raven.
Afterward, Cersei tells Jaime she’s obsessing over Myrcella “suffering” because “her beautiful little face” is going to decompose, which is a reminder that Cersei is a bit hung up on looks. That said, Lena Heady is excellent in this scene.
“She was nothing like me. No meanness, no jealousy, just good… I thought if I could make something so good, so pure, maybe I’m not a monster.”
She then tells Jamie that the witch’s prophecy is coming true, to which Jamie tells her “fuck prophecy, fuck fate, fuck everyone who isn’t us. We’re the only ones who matter. The only ones in this world. And everything they’ve taken from us, we’re going to take back and more. We’re going to take everything there is.”
On the one hand, this is the Lannister twins at their most sympathetic, mourning a child (and for once, not having super uncomfortable sex next to the open casket) and finding strength in one another. On the other hand, nothing good can come of anyone, much less a Lannister, adopting a “fuck the world” attitude. We may be seeing the beginning of the un-redeeming of Jamie Lannister.
- Just Checking In
We get two short scenes about a couple of characters that, honestly, probably could have been saved for next week. I know these season premieres have to cover a lot of ground and show us where our various players are, but did we really need to see Margaery briefly chatting with the High Sparrow and contemplating the upsides of confessing? Or blind Arya getting pummeled by the Waif?
The latter of these is a little interesting, if only that I found myself wondering whether the Waif is always the same Faceless person, or if it’s just a face that the Faceless Men wear whenever they want to antagonize Arya.
Notice that what I found interesting wasn’t what was actually happening in the scene itself, but some unrelated tangential mystery.
Here’s what’s annoying about this little glimpse into Arya’s current sad state, though: we’ve already done the kung fu training thing with her. A couple of times. First with Syrio Forel, then a little bit with Jaqen when she was passing as a boy, then again at the House of Black and White. Now we’re starting with her again at square one for some training. It doesn’t take a whole lot of foresight to see that this season is going to involve her learning how not to get pummeled by the Waif while blind.
But most kung fu movies do the training in montages for a reason: five years is too long for me to be invested in the journey. I’m ready for Arya to be whatever she’s supposed to become. It looks like we’ve got at least a chunk of one more season before we find out what that is.
- Dorne is finally interesting!
This was one of a couple of things that made me genuinely gasp. Actual excitement in Dorne! Sand Snakes doing things!
Prince Doran gets a raven with the news about Myrcella (from someone much more sensible than Jaime Lannister, presumably), and then the knifin’ around starts. After last season insisted to us that Doran’s bodyguard is great with that axe, he doesn’t even get a chance to wield it before getting stabbed in the back. Ellaria kills Doran as well, telling him ominously:
“Weak men will never rule Dorne again.”
Meanwhile, the other two Sand Snakes give their cousin Prince Trystane a new nose piercing.
They’re on a boat, but where are they? It’s a different boat from the one Myrcella and Jaime were on, right, because the Sand Snakes were on the dock watching that boat sail away. But he already knows about Myrcella, because he’s painting her dead person eye rocks, and presumably Prince Doran would have been the first in Sunspear to get the raven about Myrcella. Or maybe they are already in King’s Landing, but the Sand Snakes took another boat?
It seems nitpicky, but this show needs to focus up on its geography and how long it takes people to travel from one place to another. The episode is bookended by scenes at Castle Black that take place within hours of one another, and all taking place the very day after the events of the previous season finale. But folks seem to cover a lot of ground during those couple of hours – unless we aren’t supposed to believe that the various stories and perspectives within a single episode are necessarily chronological.
The only reason I am harping on it is that the first few seasons were able to create some great drama out of how long it took for people and information to travel across Westeros and the dread of not being in a place you needed to be in time. With the distances between places suddenly feeling more compressed, the world seems smaller, coincidence seems rampant, and the scale of the unfolding events becomes less grand.
In any case, this three-minute coup is more effective – both practically and dramatically – than anything these characters got up to in the previous season. They still don’t quite feel like fully rounded characters, but at least they’re finally doing something.
- Quagmires Gonna Quag
Candidate for least interesting scene of the episode: Tyrion and Varys surveying Meereen. It’s a change of pace to see the deserted streets of the city from someone else’s perspective than Daenerys and the Unsullied, but ultimately we don’t learn much. Other than that someone has torched the harbor. Presumably it’s the Sons of the Harpy, protesting a blow to their slave economy by… making trade impossible?
Meanwhile Jorah and Daario have successfully tracked a flying dragon and happened upon the one place where they can pick up Dany’s trail and found the one clue, the ring, that the khalasar somehow didn’t notice when they grabbed her. Fine. Again, everyone is suddenly extremely able to be right where they need to be in no time at all.
Taking bets now on how long until Jorah eats it. I like him! But we’ve had the ticking clock of his Extremely Serious Eczema since the middle of last season, and it seems like every chance he gets to pull up his sleeve and look at it, he takes it. We know he’s on his way to a noble and tragic sacrifice moments after finally confessing his love for Daenerys. My money is on Episode 8. Something always goes down in Episode 8.
- Once a Khaleesi…
The show has gotten some mileage in the past at Daenerys rolling her eyes at people who don’t know she can speak their language. Previously, it was a guy who thought he was going to con her and her army. This time, though, as she’s the object of men’s leering and rape fantasies, it’s hard not to imagine this scene as something of a reaction to critiques of the show.
Benioff and Weiss have been pushed to answer for the show’s blasé attitude toward sexual violence. They haven’t shown much interest in changing it, but given the pushback the show has gotten – particularly the scene with Sansa in the last season – you can’t imagine a scene like the ones with Daenerys this week being written in a vacuum. The creators of this show have put together this scene knowing that they are under scrutiny for how they handle depictions of sexual violence. And so, Daenerys scoffs and rolls her eyes: the audience proxy, smarter than these men, better than this.
Nevertheless, the fact is this fictional world is one where sexual violence is so commonplace that these men talking out loud about raping Daenerys is completely unremarkable. The show knows it is being looked at, but isn’t about to change.
Five years in, we have to come to terms with the reality that maybe Game of Thrones is never going to say anything interesting about gender and sexual violence. Sure, there are a number of women characters on the show who have found paths to empowerment in this fictional world in spite of the pervasive sexual violence. Indeed, a remarkable thing about this episode is just how often women are our viewpoint characters in scenes. But as the six season starts unfolding, the truth is no character, male or female, has ever done anything to seriously reckon with the impact of this world’s pervasive sexual violence****, nor is anyone within the show particularly troubled to stop it.
This show has inspired perhaps more critique and analysis than perhaps any other show currently airing – hell, I’ve spent the last couple evenings writing 3,000 words about one episode in my spare time. But for as much analysis as Game of Thrones inspires, it doesn’t seem particularly interested in analyzing itself. Complex doesn’t mean deep. Perhaps Ian McShane was actually getting at something true about the ethos of this show when he said that “it’s only tits and dragons.”
In any case, back to the episode itself. The reveal that Daenerys will be taken to Vaes Dothrak to live out her days as a Khal’s widow is pretty excellent. This was a custom we briefly learned about early on when we first went to Vaes Dothrak in Season One, but which was handily forgotten when the important thing about Daenerys was no longer that she was a khaleesi.
- You Won’t Believe this One Weird Trick
Okay. Meliandre, the titular Red Woman.
She, along with the handsome corpse of Jon Snow and its attendants, bookend this episode. Before I get to the big surprise at the ending, I want to talk about her first scene though.
When she sees Jon’s body, she says “I saw him in the flames, fighting at Winterfell.” This is the first of two times we hear women in the episode talking about prophecies. But while Cersei is finally believing hers, Melisandre is doubting her own. It’s deeply troubling for both of them.
And so, we’ve had the whole length of the episode to let the fact that this woman, who so far has been right all the time and is confident in her visions to the point of zealotry, is having a crisis of faith marinate. So when she takes off the choker (which flashes a subtle red glow right when it comes off her body), we have to wonder if this is something she does a lot, or if it has been a very, very long time since she’s
The very end is very strange. Although I did gasp when we first saw Melisandre’s true nature, what was most surprising about the scene was how long it lasted. There is a full minute of screen time between the reveal of the face in the mirror and the fade to black at the end of the credits. I watched the timer. For every second of that footage, the old woman Melisandre is in the center of the frame, first watching herself, then crawling into bed.
Khal Moro told us earlier in the episode that seeing a woman naked for the first time is one of the five best experiences in the world. And as I said before, the show must by now be conscious of how its audience digests its depictions of women’s bodies. What are we supposed to experience seeing the “true” Melisandre naked for the first time. The show doesn’t seem to want it to be erotic. Is it pity? Shame? Revulsion? I’m not sure.
In any case, it’s an odd beat to go out on, lingering on her old, frail body as she shuffles off to bed.
Game of Thrones is back. Melisandre is old. And Jon Snow is still dead.
* – My money is on: yes she will, but it will somehow be way messier than when Thoros of Mir did it. It’ll probably involve the wolf and somebody dying.^
** – What do you think Brienne has said more often on this show: “A shadow with the face of Stannis Baratheon,” or “That does not release me from my vow?”^
*** – Her name was “Myranda,” which I’d forgotten. This is terribly confusing in a show that also has a Myrcella, a Melisandre, a Missandei, a Meryn, and a Margaery.^
**** – We may yet get some of that from Lady Sansa, with her newly-pledged female knight, so perhaps all hope is not lost.^
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