The sixth-season premiere of Game of Thrones on Sunday night had a tall order to fill: The episode had to set the stage for the new George R.R. Martin-lite season, and address the Internet obsession over “Jon Snow, Dead or Alive.” Perhaps most impossibly, the premiere had some late-breaking, surprise competition as HBO’s most-discussed piece of programming: Game of Thrones was suddenly forced to top Beyoncé’s Saturday-night fever dream Lemonade, as TV’s most glorious text for exegetical discussion. WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE SEASON PREMIERE OF GAME OF THRONES.
Unlike Lemonade, the episode titled “The Red Woman” was a fairly straightforward affair, rejecting subtlety and implication in favor of escape attempts and some body-piercing-by-sword. The hour opted to touch all the Westeros bases, galloping from subplot to subplot in an edition that doubled as a recap of last season.
You could have checked the boxes on a list as each scene unfolded: Davos at the Wall, guarding over Jon Snow’s body. Ramsay mourning Myranda for about 20 seconds and then being advised that he’d better find runaway Sansa and “produce an heir” or he’d be in big trouble. Sansa and Reek on the run, only to be saved by Brienne. Cersei and Jamie reunited ’cause it feels so good. Margaery imprisoned by the High Sparrow. Trystane taken out by two women, Obara and Nymeria. Tyrion going for a chatty stroll with Varys. Jorah Mormont finding the ring in the tall grass — the jewel bread-crumb clue left behind by the captured Daenerys. Dany confronting some crude, cruel khalasar. Arya, blind and begging on the street. And finally, the magical Melisandre, transforming into a much older woman — the woman of the episode title.
This breathless hour was written, as is the custom for GoT season premieres, by show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who had clearly been chastened by the criticism of last season as being rather unfriendly toward women. This time around, they decided that they didn’t need any more of that grief: No viewer could possibly believe that any female character would not survive — indeed, in a few key scenes, female killed male with dispatch and gusto. (Benioff and Weiss rejected my suggestion for the title of this episode: “Dispatch and Gusto.”)
If you strip away all the Game of Thrones mythology gaming to be done in analyzing this episode, “The Red Woman” boiled down to a series of confrontations between the powerful and the powerless, each one resulting in either an affirmation of power leading to a cliffhanger (such as Daenerys momentarily out-ranking Khal Moro, only to hear she’s to be consigned to a temple of widows) or a triumph of the underdog over the powerful (such as the swashbuckling rescue of Sansa and Reek).
It was a good hour as far as that goes, choppy in tempo simply because it attempted to reacquaint us with so many plots. Was I surprised at Melisandre’s final, old-crone reveal? Of course not — we’re immersed in a fantasy world whose rules are not at all clear, so I always assume anything can happen. Which is also why I assume Jon Snow can be revived, resurrected, or re-assembled in some way.
Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if Arya will soon be able to use her glowing eyes to beam some heat vision long-distance, and burn Ramsay to a crisp. Still wouldn’t be as fierce as Beyoncé singing “Freedom.”
Game of Thrones airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO.