“All I could think about when she died was what would happen to her now. every day, every night, what does mama look like now? Has she started to bloat? Has her skin turned black? Have her lips peeled back from her teeth?”
Cersei’s monologue about her childhood obsession with her mother’s corpse is ‘The Red Woman’ in a nutshell. Season 6′s melancholy premiere sets its scenes in desolate courtyards and silent harbors. Characters look down at their departed leaders and loved ones or ride through yawning canyons in pursuit of a vanished queen, their eyes fixed firmly on the past and all that they have lost. The camera lingers on wreckage both literal and personal. The ships that burn in the Bay of Meereen are a home placed beyond reach. The ragged fringes of hair Cersei fingers are the bloody wound where her pride was cut free. What does she have left but an ironclad certainty that her children, the one extension of herself that gave her any sense of her own capacity for good, will die?
Fitting, then, that as the episode dwells on loss and emptiness, it defers resolution for so many of its hanging threads. Jon lies in state in a barren room, his eyes tenderly shut by Dolorous Edd. Bran, Rickon, the Ironborn, Dany’s dragons, and many others are nowhere to be seen. The conflict in King’s Landing continues to brew between Cersei, Margaery, and the Faith in the hulking shadow of Ser Robert Strong, who neither crushes nor impales anyone. Indeed, in his only appearance he is dwarfed by the sheer brick walls of the secluded harbor where Cersei watches Jaime bring their daughter’s body back across the water. The monstrosities are all at bay, for now, made small by the sheer volume of suffering contained in the world.
Nowhere is the sense of ruination more thorough than in Theon’s and Sansa’s flight. The landscape is a gnarled and hoary wilderness, their choices death by hypothermia or being torn apart by hounds, their refuge a dead tree’s broken roots. Even as Theon comforts his fellow fugitive, it’s hard not to notice how many of his glove’s fingers are empty and loose, and the succor he suggests to her is Jon, a man lying dead on a table and surrounded by enemies. There is beauty in the northern wilderness, but the real release comes when Brienne rides out of the forest to cut down the Bolton pursuers in a messy, bare-knuckle battle that ends with her swearing allegiance to Sansa in the snow. I’ve watched the episode with two different people, both of whom screamed and fist-pumped when she rode in, and it’s an earned reaction. The sense of catharsis is just fucking huge.
The other ingredient leavening the episode’s pervasive melancholy is a really fantastic run of jokes. The Khal who suggests that seeing a beautiful woman naked for the first time is life’s greatest pleasure only to revise his claim in exasperation to, “It’s among the five best things in life” when his bloodriders won’t stop listing off things they think are better is hilarious even through subtitles. Ditto for Tyrion’s accidental attempt to purchase and eat a baby. Game of Thrones has always had a robust sense of the absurdity of life, and it’s nice to see it keeping up with the surprise skull-impalement and sibling rivalry based around kill counts (“You’re a greedy bitch. You know that?”) even while telling stories of loss that are by nature slow, quiet, and contemplative.
That whole Dornish plot plays out like an attempt to scrape last season’s missteps into the bin. And, mostly, it works. There’s a madcap energy to the gruesome assassination of Doran and his bodyguard, the formidable Areo Hotah, and the image of Obella’s spear erupting from Trystane’s face is outright cackle-worthy. If it all feels a bit thin, well, there isn’t much to distinguish these characters from each other as of yet, so we might as well just enough the vicious, pointless bloodshed. Last season’s ‘Hardhome’ really drove in how futile all this squabbling and infighting is, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be kinda funny.
In an episode littered with gorgeous shots, from the Bolton men conversing in the cavern of their empty dining hall to that windswept landing where Arya and the other beggars sit in silence, the Titan stretching out an empty hand to an empty sky behind them, Melisandre’s big reveal still stands out. Her faith shattered, her sense of self undone, she sits alone on a bed that isn’t hers and stares into flames from which she now takes no comfort. If she can be so wrong as to see a dead man fighting in a battle yet to come, why should she even try to interpret the visions she receives? Dispirited, she allows the illusion of her youthful self to fade, becoming every inch the fairy tale crone she’s so often accused of being. It’s as much an act of power as it is one of surrender. Melisandre’s entire life is a gigantic ruse, a one-upping of everyone else in the world, and that she’s grown tired enough to put it aside and face herself in the blurry depths of her mirror is an extraordinary moment. For the poster girl for the series’ take on religious fanaticism to stop and reassess herself is a resounding moment, one with rebirth on its mind as well as desolation.
Thanks for tuning in to my yearly coverage of David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s Game of Thrones. I’m excited to see where the season takes us!