“Is Jon really dead?”
Such was the lingering question HBO’s Game of Thrones left us with at the end of last season. Mass speculation, as well as the existence of the question itself, suggested that he was not, but the character’s possible return was one of the show’s biggest points of contention going into “The Red Woman”.
As such, director Jeremy Podeswa wisely kicks off Season 6 with a gorgeous and gloomy overhead shot of the Wall, zooming in to confirm our ostensible suspicions (or at least provide a red herring): Jon is dead. But with Davos declaring, “He is gone,” along with Alliser’s proud statement to the Night Watch regarding his part in the killing, leaves the show protesting a bit too much to be taken wholly at face value. Regardless, Edd and his allies are out to revenge the death they think is a done deal, ready to jump at Alliser’s throat like a group of angry readers out to get George R.R. Martin for potentially leaving the series unfinished in book form.
But Edd doesn’t see what we see: Melisandre is older than she looks, and the final shot of “The Red Woman” suggests that its titular character very well may be able to resurrect Jon and do quite a bit more. Alliser may think he’s covering himself by keeping an eye on Edd and Davos, but he might have more to worry about than even a direwolf before too long.
Yet “The Red Woman” doesn’t let us ruminate on the question of Jon’s fate, or that of any character, for very long, preferring instead to jump from plot to plot. If there’s a single flaw in the episode, and Game of Thrones as a whole at this stage, it’s the show’s abandonment of developing individual arcs in the interest of providing as broad a scope of Westeros as possible. Game of Thrones has always been at its best when it settles on a single location (think of the battles of Hardhome or Blackwater), and “The Red Woman” does very much the opposite. There’s a lot of expository detail, and little development in the singular arcs beyond the exposition.
And when there is major action, it comes in some of the less compelling areas of Westeros. It’s nice to see the women of Dorne finally getting their due, particularly after the atrocious “bad pussy” line in last season’s finale “Mother’s Mercy”, but the coup doesn’t quite have the gravitas of the show’s more notable deaths. Nevertheless, the “weak men” of Doran meet their fate, leaving room for the Sand Snakes to take charge.
Also taking charge is Brienne, who, in the episode’s most exciting and satisfying scene, defends Sansa and Theon from the clutches of Ramsay Bolton’s men. Theon’s subplots have provided some of the most repetitive and cringeworthy moments in the series, but they make his renewed sense of agency and determination to protect Sansa all the more meaningful.
Ramsay, meanwhile, hasn’t changed a bit. Even his initial apparent sadness over Myranda’s death is quickly overwhelmed by his desire to “feed her to the hounds.” Game of Thrones has always reveled in the insufferable snottiness of its brattiest villains, and Ramsay is no exception.
But the show also doesn’t hesitate to give its ostensibly soulless characters depth when it’s deserved. Jaime and Cersei have a long and ugly history, but Cersei’s grief over Myrcella’s death is genuinely moving, thanks in no small part to the work of Lena Headey, who over the past few seasons has staked a strong claim to being the MVP in an overall outstanding ensemble. Jaime, on the other hand, is too concerned with revenge to mourn along with his sister, saying, “Fuck everyone who isn’t us” with a conviction letting us know that he aims to act on his words.
Also aiming to act, but quite a bit more hamstrung, are the two young women who have increasingly positioned themselves as the show’s heroes: Arya and Daenerys. Arya has her fighting skills put to the test once again, though her blindness challenges her once seemingly unquenchable will for resilience. Daenerys, on the other hand, finds herself in literal chains, subject yet again to the vulgar leers of Dothraki men. But, in a move paralleling actress Emilia Clarke’s own resistance to the series’ much discussed sexism, the Mother of Dragons refuses to take the abuses without fighting back, earning herself at least a temporary release from bondage.
Daenerys, like much of Westeros, ends “The Red Woman” with us learning little about her fate beyond a reveal of where she’s ended up since the end of Season 5. And if the episode is too unfocused to be among Game of Thrones’ finest hours, it does at least set the stage for potential climactic battles and meaningful power reversals soon to come.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.