“Does Jon Snow survive?” That’s the question that has dominated discussion of Game of Thrones during its latest hiatus. In a show famous for shocking twists, Snow’s assassination has stirred discussion like no other. In large part, this is because people have been debating Snow’s fate since well before the season five finale, going back to 2011’s A Dance with Dragons, the latest in the Song of Ice and Fire novels the show is based on. Given the repeated delays for the next novel, Snow’s fate is the first major plot point that the show will (likely) address before the books do. And that’s the great mystery that hangs over this season.
Spoiler Alert! From this point forward, many spoilers for season five and season six will be revealed, so continue at your own risk.
With the show outstripping the books, everything from here on out is a mystery to the audience, and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have a chance to really make this story their own. So, 10 years after the first novel was published, where does this new chapter take us? Everywhere but forward. The Red Woman touches base with the many people and places introduced over the first five seasons, serving as a gentle reminder of just how sprawling the story has become.
The Wall: Jon Snow, wanted dead or alive
The Red Woman opens at the place on everyone’s mind: The Wall, where Jon’s body lies in blood-black snow. Davos Seaworth, right-hand man to the presumably deceased Stannis Baratheon (and all around good guy), and Night’s Watchmen loyal to Jon find the Lord Commander’s body. It’s a slow, quiet open to the season, the stillness of the night accented by the howling of Ghost, Jon’s Dire wolf.
Realizing that Jon was betrayed, Davos and Jon’s friends hole up in a cabin, knowing that mutinous traitor Alliser Thorne will soon come for them. Their only hope is to alert another group loyal to Jon: the Wildlings. Thorne, for his part, has taken up the mantle of Lord Commander, convincing the rest of the men that his actions were for the good of the Watch. So begins a standoff at The Wall, into which steps the titular Red Woman, Melisandre.
The red priestess is having a spiritual crisis. Her visions told her of Stannis winning the Iron Throne, and Jon doing battle at Winterfell, and now both men are dead. Melisandre has always been a fervent adherent to her god of fire, but now that her powers have failed her, she seems lost. The episode ends with her taking off her choker and revealing that she is, despite appearing as a beautiful woman, actually an old crone. Her identity is in flux, literally and figuratively, and that’s a fitting thematic statement for a show that now gets to define itself — free of the source material.
Those hoping the episode would end with Jon’s eyes opening may be disappointed. This question of whether Jon will come back to life or stay dead is the greatest mystery Benioff and Weiss have to play with this season, as evidenced by all the preseason marketing and cagey interviews. From the opening scene onward, it is clear that the show intends to let this story simmer.
Sansa and Theon meet a friend
While the story at The Wall was largely a meditative one, Sansa Stark’s story, not too far to the south, is almost like an action movie. Sansa and Theon, having escaped Ramsay Bolton’s clutches by leaping from the fortress wall, are dashing through the woods, Bolton’s hounds and hunters at their heels. Despite crossing a freezing river (and somehow not dying of hypothermia), they only outrun their pursuers for so long. Cornered, it seems as if the two will end up back in Mr. Bolton’s Torture Palace, though Reek/Theon shows a moment of valor and attempts to sacrifice himself to protect Sansa.
While Theon’s courage appears to be in vein, we are suddenly treated to a rare moment of triumph. Brienne of Tarth, the wandering swordswoman who swore an oath to protect Sansa, swoops in with her squire Podrick, making light work of Bolton’s men and pledging herself to protect Sansa. Theon, long the plaything of Ramsay, recovers more of his old moxie in the fight, backstabbing a Bolton man and saving Pod’s life in the process. In the aftermath, Sansa and Brienne take center stage, and as they pledge themselves as lord and vassal, the relief on both women’s faces is touching. This is Game of Thrones, and they will likely be thrown into some fresh hell next week, but for now, they have this moment of celebration.
Dorne: A den of vipers
Dorne proved to be one of the most divisive storylines last season. Perhaps trying to capitalize on the popularity of dashing Dornish rogue Oberyn Martell, the writers made the Dorne storyline a sort of pulpy adventure story, with Jaime and Bronn trying to rescue Myrcella while battling Oberyn’s edgy, “badass” daughters, the Sand Snakes. The Sand Snakes curse frequently, wield exotic weapons, and strip often.
Whether you buy their schtick or not, the show seems to be doubling down on the Sand Snakes as the focus of Dorne. After Jaime sails back to King’s Landing, Ellaria Sand and her followers assassinate Dorne’s prince Doran and his son, killing off the one character who brought a sense of dignity to a one of the more corny sections of the show. Still, Dorne gives the audience a chapter of action in an episode otherwise dedicated to foreshadowing. What consequences will Ellaria’s rebellion have? Given her hatred of the Lannisters, and the fact that she poisoned their daughter Myrcella on her way out of Dorne, war seems likely.
King’s Landing: aristocrats in trouble
Speaking of Myrcella, her death hangs over Jaime and Cersei tonight, as the former returns to King’s Landing with her body in tow. The Lannister siblings, despite being the cause of so much suffering, have somehow managed to become two of the most sympathetic characters on the show, and their mourning for Myrcella highlights this. Cersei has a rare moment of self-reflection, wondering how she could produce something so good despite being so rotten. She also mentions the witch who foretold that she would have three children and all would die, to which Jaime tries to rouse her with a speech about how they will screw destiny and those who have hurt them. These two characters, despite being so close, have come to wildly different viewpoints now. Cersei is shell-shocked and fatalistic, while Jaime is trying to maintain control over his life in a world where control seems impossible.
The Lannisters are not the only aristocrats suffering in King’s Landing. Margaery Tyrell, despite being married to the current king, is imprisoned by the zealous Faith Militant, a radicalized arm of the church. She stands accused of covering up her brother Loras’s homosexual relations, and the High Sparrow is adamant that she confess to her sins if she is to be released.
Tyrion and Varys run Meereen
Far from Westeros, Tyrion Lannister finds himself once again in a tenuous position of power, acting as governor of Meereen after Queen Daenarys flew away on the back of a dragon. Daenarys’ flight happened when the Sons of the Harpy attempted a coup, and wandering the streets with Varys, Tyrion notes that various factions in the city, both rich and poor, have cause for rebellion. Adding a bit more powder to the keg is a red priest, preaching to the people of Meereen that they need to take up the flames.
Tyrion has always been the most sympathetic of the Lannisters. Despite being a dwarf in a world that ridicules him, and despite coming from a family that despises him, he still manages to show charming kindness, as when he tries to give a poor woman some coin to feed her baby. But because his grasp of the Valyrian language is tenuous, we get a moment of levity when he accidentally says that he wants to eat her baby instead. Moments like this help to balance out sometimes suffocating darkness in the series.
Viewers hoping that the Meereen story would converge with the action in Westeros will be disappointed. Tyrion and Varys find that the ships in the harbor have all been set on fire, and Tyrion notes, all but winking at the camera, that they won’t be going to Westeros anytime soon.
Daenarys vs. Dothraki sexism
Daenarys Targaryen, First of Her Name, Queen of Meereen, and all her other titles, is, like most of the characters in this episode, surrounded by enemies. After her dragon left her hapless in a field, a Dothraki horde appeared and took her prisoner. Remaining silent about her identity, she listens as her captors joke about what they’ll do to this beautiful slave they’ve captured. There are few societies in Game of Thrones that are particularly kind to women, but the Dothraki, nomadic tribes who treat raping and pillaging like an art form, are especially crass about their intentions.
The Dothraki soldiers bring Daenarys before their leader, Khal Moro, who informs her that she will sleep with him and bear a son, Great Stallion willing. Daenarys is no stranger to men trying to control her, however, and having conquered a notable chunk of the world, she talks back. Image is a recurring theme in The Red Woman. Melisandre drops her glamour, seemingly questioning who she really is, while Daenarys hopes to intimidate Khal Moro with hers. Unfortunately, all her titles are no good to her. Moro has an army surrounding them, while Dany has only her wits and will.
Khal Moro is unimpressed by Dany’s titles and assertions, until she mentions that she was the wife of Khal Drogo. Moro notes that is it forbidden to lay with a Khal’s widow, and that no harm will come to her. Dany is saved by the Dothraki devotion to their religion, but she is also imprisoned by it too: the widows of the Khals must, by Dothraki law, live out the rest of their lives in Vaes Dothrak, which is where Khal Moro intends to take her.
Dany’s time with the Dothraki is surprisingly funny. The Dothraki joke among themselves about how great it is to kill other khals and pillage cities. It is a hilariously casual way to talk about death and destruction, one that conveys the Dothraki worldview. These characters get a lot of characterization in a brief amount of time, particularly Khal Moro, who treats the frequent asides from his soldiers with a weary patience.
Searching for Dany are Jorah and Daario, two men who love her. The two banter about their reasons for wanting to rescue her, and while Daario playfully talks about becoming an old man like Jorah one day, there is a dramatic irony to their talk. Jorah contracted the disease Greyscale, which will eventually kill him, or at least leave him as a crazed “Stone Man.” Jorah’s time is running out, and if he is lucky, he can at least rescue Daenarys before it does.
Arya on the streets
While her siblings try to survive in Westeros, Arya Stark languishes on the streets of Braavos. Last season, Arya joined the Faceless Men, a group of assassins who can disguise themselves with different faces, hoping to learn how to kill her enemies. After stealing a face from them, Arya disguised herself in order to kill Meryn Trent, one of the men on her hit list. Angered by her theft, The Faceless Men blinded her at the end of season five, and season six finds her living as a blind beggar on the streets of Braavos.
The Faceless Men are not yet done with her, however, and one of them, a small girl known as The Waif, appears to taunt Arya, handing her a staff and challenging her to a duel. The Waif trounces Arya thoroughly, informing her that she will be back tomorrow. It seems that Arya is undergoing further training, and will have to beat The Waif without the use of her eyes in order to progress.
Overall, The Red Woman is a strange and pivotal moment for Game of Thrones. Freed from the duty to follow the books, the show has begun setting up the next phase of its story. That’s largely what the episode is: pieces being put in place. The board is set up, and the question now is how long until someone flips it over?