‘Game of Thrones’ Season Six, Episode One Review: ‘The Red Woman’

Every week, for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.

Kornhaber: Melisandre always seemed to harbor a secret, and now we know it’s that she, like someone in a Catfish episode or like many witches of centuries-old folklore, is secretly saggy. It’s the kind of fun, meta twist that only Game of Thrones could pull off. After the show has spent so long jamming spears through handsome young prince heads in order to prove that it’s not reliant on fairy-tale tropes, it can occasionally shock simply by serving up some of the oldest magic tricks in the storybooks. What are we watching, after all, if not what the thoroughly demented Brothers’ Grimm might create on an HBO budget?

Though the hype for this episode ran even higher than usual due to Jon Snow’s stabbing and the fact that it opens the first season whose story has not yet revealed by George R.R. Martin’s books, a Game of Thrones season premiere is, in the end, a Game of Thrones season premiere. Which means this hour was always unlikely to rank among the show’s best episodes; there’s so much work to be done getting viewers up to speed and setting up future conflicts that the big plotlines don’t have time to move forward all that much. That said, “The Red Woman” managed to deliver a fair amount of action and intrigue as it conducted a tour of the grave sites created by last season’s bloody finale.

Jon’s body was dealt with first, as is fitting for its fame. While the camera closed in on the yard of Castle Black, the direwolf Ghost’s howls were heartbreaking enough to nearly distract from the question of why Alliser Thorne’s gang just left their victim laying in the open. Seems like a sanitary liability, at the very least. Davos and Snow’s bros then sat shiva for their fallen leader and plotted mutiny against the mutineers. Edd—now promoted to being one of the few Night’s Watch guys whose names you need to knowadvocated a suicide mission, but Davos suggested they improve their odds by enlisting allies who he did not name but whose designation probably rhymes with “mild things.” All involved seemed motivated by a strange and likely fatal desire to stand up for justice, but maybe a reality-checked version of Jon will preach pragmatism if the old lady in red decides to raise him.

The next corpse on display was that of Myranda, the kennelmaster’s daughter who will soon be kennel-denizen’s fodder. There is little precedent for the human sadness Ramsay displayed about her, but then again, there is little precedent for the human depravity she gleefully enabled. Ramsay’s desire for revenge would seem like enough of motivation for him to release the hounds on Theon and Sansa, but Roose upped the stakes with characteristically terrible parenting by implicitly threatening to revoke the family name Ramsay has dismembered so many people to earn. More interesting was Roose’s mention of potential war with the Lannisters; talk of battling houses is enough to induce nostalgia for Thrones’s early seasons, when the Iron Throne seemed worth sitting in.

Outside of Winterfell, Sansa and Theon practiced outdoors survival techniques, feebly. Even if Brienne’s arrival was timed a bit too conveniently, it was nice to see her there, if for no other reason than she allows the Sansa-on-the-lam plotline to progress at a rate worth watching. The battle between her, Podrick, and the Bolton men was one of those classic Thrones skirmishes where the brutal choreography triggers well-earned fear that one of your favorite characters might die in random and ignoble battle. Instead, Theon’s rehumanization process continued at a rate that ensured Brienne and Podrick’s further survival. I was then moved by Sansa accepting Brienne’s offer of fealty—it felt like a well-earned moment of adult self-determination for the Stark, and it meant the Tarth finally achieved something she set out to do.

In King’s Landing, Lena Headey earned yet another episode-MVP title simply for the shot in which her face turned from naive excitement to despair to hardened anger while watching Jaime arrive sans Myrcella. I’ve been dreading this particular corpse-centric plotline the most, simply because even Cersei Lannister doesn’t deserve to have to face another child’s death. But she took the news pretty well, all things considered, by chalking Myrcella’s fate up to the witch’s prophecy that we saw in flashback at the beginning of season five. The lack of blame for Jaime was, from an entertainment-hungry viewer’s standpoint, exciting—Westeros’s weirdest couple can finally get back to collaborative scheming. Question: Since the prophecy said that Cersei’s three gold-haired children will die, does that mean she’s resigned to King Tommen becoming toast? A Cersei that’s resigned to anything bad happening to her children would be a whole new character.

If the numbness subsides and Cersei decides to go to war over Myrcella’s death, she will have newly energized enemies in Dorne thanks to Ellaria’s coup. The Dornish scenes have always seemed ported in from some other show where the writing is a little cornier and the plotting a little sloppier than Thrones usually is, and this episode did not fix the problem. Ellaria killing Doran makes enough sense, but the two Sand Snakes feistily confronting Trystane does not—why were they on the ship in the first place? I’ll admit I laughed at one of the assassins calling the other a “greedy bitch,” but it was mostly because the line seemed so out of place for this show.

The banter between Tyrion and Varys as they toured Meereen, on the other hand, felt like the logical extension of rapport established earlier. And Daario and Jorah’s exchange about hoping to live to see Daenerys’s world domination was a nice reminder of the stakes of their quest, even if we know the elder of the two guys will be—at best—quarantined in Old Valyria by the time Khaleesi reaches Westeros. Her travails with the Dothraki were tough to watch; we saw lots of this sort of sexist abuse in season one, though I do appreciate that the point here is that she’s having to reconquer her past as some sort of allegorical test. But why, oh why, didn’t she lead all of her encounters with the braided bunch by saying she was Khal Drogo’s widow? Even if it meant being banished with the other Dothraki widows, it would have gotten her out of physical bondage sooner, which seems to be a big Daenerys priority. Maybe when you’re able to assume that dragons will eventually bail you out of any bad situation, it changes your decision making.

Over in Braavos, Arya, now blind, will receive that thing we’ve long wanted Arya to get: More training! Just kidding; this entire show’s run has been taken up with Arya being trained for things. Of course her cockiness about that training is what has led her to the beggarly situation she finds herself in—like Dany, she has to go back to go forward. The Faceless school, happily, hasn’t given up on her entirely, even though their version of continuing education includes stick-hits to the face that Arya still very much possesses. If the Jaqen H’ghar won’t eventually teach her how to restore her youthful visage, maybe she can complete a course with Melisandre.

Lenika, Chris, how’d you enjoy our first hour back in Westeros and Essos? Do you have anything to confess, whether of a Margaery-level sin or a Melisandre-level secret?

Cruz: In the light of the Seven, I confess … I’m happy Jon didn’t come back this episode! Unlike with other cliffhanger deaths TV has experimented with recently, there’s a clear narrative purpose to be filled by prolonging the reveal. Jon’s return has significance beyond the fact that fans want his character back in action: The particular magic required to resurrect him will probably take some time to figure out and could prove crucial to the show’s endgame. That said, I’m curious to see what Davos’s plan is moving forward. It’s chilly up at Castle Black so Jon won’t rot for a while, but the longer he lies there, the more time for something as calamitous as a White Walker raid to happen. Whatever he has in mind with the wildlings (sorry, the Free Folk) and the Red Woman and Dolorous Edd, he better get to work quickly. Nightfall is coming, and I’m pretty sure he had no intention of heading south on a horse with a pouch full of mutton.

I know the gut reaction many viewers had toward Melisandre’s big secret was some variation of disgust—either because of ageism (smooth, youthful naked bodies only, please, HBO!) or because of the sheer dissonance. I can’t blame people for indulging Melisandre-related Schadenfreude, either—this is after all the woman who convinced the just-starting-to-become-lovable Stannis to burn his own beloved daughter alive and become the worst father in a continent full of terrible fathers.

Maybe it was the sad, tired expression on her face or how suddenly vulnerable she looked, but the unexpected pathos I felt for her outweighed any revulsion. Here was a woman on some kind of spiritual journey lasting (probably) hundreds of years, and her faith was slipping away now that the Lord of Light’s last two ostensible vessels are dead. There are some interesting theories floating around online about Melisandre’s true form and how she maintains her illusion, but equally as fascinating to me is how the episode’s final scene continued to build the case that her powers are real, if imperfect or at least inconsistent.

Speaking of crones, it looks like Dany is being taken to Vaes Dothrak to live out the rest of her life with the dosh khaleen. While it’s a major step down from being Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, Queen of the Andals, etc., etc., being a widowed khaleesi is probably one of the sweeter deals when it comes to institutions designed solely for women in GRRM’s world. We caught a glimpse in season one of the dosh khaleen (they were the ones interpreting Dany’s childbirth omens in the tent of gastronomic terrors), but they’re essentially highly revered holy women. So while I’m happy that Dany appears to be out of harm’s way for now, though still in the company of Braided Bros Who Love Monty Python, I’m also concerned about Daario and Jorah’s rescue efforts. Their road trip could last for a good chunk of the season, considering Vaes Dothrak is across the massive Dothraki Sea, basically, in the exact opposite direction of Slaver’s Bay and the Iron Throne. Even if they do make it there soon, I can’t imagine a successful siege unfolding (the Dothraki city is a bloodshed-free zone, and the pair are woefully outnumbered). All signs are pointing to a Drogon ex machina as Dany’s only hope, though I’d love for something to complicate that storyline a bit more.

Back in Meereen, Tyrion again proved himself a keen political observer, telling Varys, “We’re never going to fix what’s wrong with this city from the top of an 800-foot pyramid.” Miscalculating that distance between the ruler and the ruled, between leader and follower, has proven fatal in several recent instances. Daenerys’s mishandling of Meereen led to an uprising, and now the city’s literally on fire. Doran (and Myrcella and Trystane) all died, according to Ellaria, because the gout-stricken prince of Dorne didn’t fully understand how most of the kingdom felt about him refusing to avenge the deaths of his siblings. And Jon, of course, died because he had underestimated the anger his decision to make peace with the wildlings would inspire among certain Night’s Watchmen.

But I can’t justify why the Halfman and the Spider would wander around an abandoned Meereenese square and loudly discuss Varys’s network of spies or their plans to uncover the Sons of the Harpy’s ringleader—there was definitely someone watching them through a window! On a related note, I’m disappointed about the prospect of Dany and Tyrion being ripped apart from each other after giving viewers such great scenes together; the show is always better when more characters’ storylines are given chances to intersect in meaningful ways.

I’m hoping this is the case with Brienne, Pod, Sansa, and Theon (f.k.a Reek), whose reunion was about as well-timed as Sansa’s candle-lighting in the season-five finale wasn’t. If they’re heading north to Castle Black, there are a few things to consider: Ramsay is already assuming they’re heading there. Jon is dead, for now. And Bran, Rickon, Hodor, Osha, and Meera are still wandering around, in case anyone’s in the mood for more serendipitous, wintry meetings. (Gilly, Sam, and Baby Sam are heading to Oldtown, which is close to Dorne, so they could cross paths as well.) Unless Petyr Baelish decides to make a reappearance, or Brienne thinks to take Sansa to the Vale or her maternal home of Riverrun, northbound seems the most likely option. It also seems like the most dangerous one, after what we saw at Hardhome last year.

There’s still so much to address—King’s Landing, Braavos, the perennially rowing Gendry—but I’ll end by saying that I’m eager to see how Game of Thrones handles its female characters this season. The sheer range of personalities, motivations, and backgrounds of the show’s women has always been impressive compared to other TV dramas, but its missteps have often been proportionally frustrating. So while we did get some vile banter about pubic hair and matter-of-fact rape threats, “The Red Woman” had its fair share of women shifting out of bystander roles and taking action: Brienne saving Sansa, Sansa taking Brienne into her service, Ellaria and the Sand Snakes overthrowing Doran (“Weak men will never rule Dorne again”), Arya moving into her next phase of training. While these developments don’t hold equal weight for me (it’s going to take a lot to convince me the ladies of Dorne are as badass as they seem to want to be), they do suggest a season where women seize agency that they had lost or been denied. As Bolton Hunting Party Member #2 put it when Brienne rode up: “It’s a bloody woman!” Those are words I wouldn’t mind hearing again in the coming weeks.

Orr: Yes! For those of us book-readers, having Brienne finally save a Stark girl from peril is like the fulfillment of a promise approximately 20,000 pages (and quite a few televisual hours) in the making. Apart from that, though, I feel as though I have to give this episode a grade of “incomplete.” To be blunt: Nothing much happened. Yes, of course, a huge part of the purpose of the episode was just to remind us where all of the myriad storylines stand. I literally gave myself a headache last week trying to catch up with everything that had taken place at the end of season five.

But if Benioff and Weiss’s proposed schedule is to be believed—10 episodes this season, seven the next, and six the one after—then we’re already in the home stretch: 51 episodes into a 73-episode run. And apart from resituating us, the season premiere didn’t move the story forward as much as I would have liked.

Melisandre’s Big Reveal was moderately interesting, I suppose. But she’s always been an Exotic Mystery Woman, and the revelation that she’s 100 years old (or whatever) is not all that surprising as deep, dark secrets go.

The Dornish rebellion by Ellaria and her Sand Snakes was probably the most important development, but I agree, Spencer, that everything in Dorne has seemed like something “ported in” from another, inferior, show. (This episode’s “greedy bitch” felt like an echo of last season’s awful “good girl, bad pussy” line.) And I confess I was a bit at a loss to determine exactly what the scene with the Sand Snakes’ murder of Trystane was even intended to convey. So: He was on the boat with Jaime, but was not imprisoned when they reached King’s Landing? And the Sand Snakes had hidden on the ship for the entire journey without discovery, only to kill him once they were in harbor?

I felt there were mild narrative lapses like this throughout the episode. As you noted, Spencer, the idea that Jon Snow’s killers would just leave his body in the courtyard for Ser Davos to find seems a tad far-fetched. And does Davos know what happened to Stannis, Selyse, and his favorite, the Princess Shireen? These seem like questions he would have asked Melisandre upon her arrival at Castle Black.

Dany’s discovery of the benefits (no raping!) and drawbacks (but confined forever!) of Khal widowhood was well executed. But honestly, if there is one thing in the world that Game of Thrones does not need, it’s another reason why Daenerys can’t go back to Westeros and fulfill the destiny we’ve been waiting for, lo, these many years. (And is it just me, or did our new Khal’s line, “Seeing a beautiful woman naked for the first time is among the five best things in life” seem just a little too Conan?)

That said, there were some promising reunions in the episode. Tyrion and Varys have always been among the show’s best characters, and having them jointly manage Meereen (even poorly) will inevitably be interesting. And the twincestually reunited Jaime and Cersei hold real promise. I agree that the look on Lena Headey’s face as her brother ferried in was the most memorable visual of the entire episode. But his subsequent declaration was equally striking: “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 it back, and more. We’re going to take everything there is.” The heirs of Tywin Lannister have battles ahead of them—clearly against the High Sparrow, perhaps against Dorne, or Margaery, or any of a handful of others. I can hardly wait.

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