This is the strongest opening episode of Game of Thrones.
Yes, Jon Snow is still dead, but the lives of all the survivors in Westeros and Essos are as compelling as ever. Expertly shot (and looking super expensive), each sequence was effective at setting up the next, with dashes of drama, action, horror, and humor. Thrones season premieres have never been the best episodes, usually focused on re-establishing all the various story lines. But after all the assorted cliffhangers in last year’s finale, “The Red Woman” (and oh yes, we’ll get to that shocking Melisandre reveal), just barreled forward picking up each thread where it left off. In previous years,Thrones tends to get stronger as the season progresses. If that happens in season 6, perhaps what the showrunners have declared will prove correct — that this is the best season yet.
Thrones smartly opens exactly where we want it to:
Castle Black: We start with an angle on Castle Black we haven’t exactly seen before and swoop in as Ghost howls. Jon’s wailing direwolf is like the collective Thrones fandom after last year’s finale given voice. The crying strikes a perfect balance between mournful and eerie. It’s unsettling, and it begins the slow stir of your emotions as we enter season 6.
Ser Davos finds his body. Not only is he really dead, but Jon Snow looks even more dead than the last time we saw him. This leads to several reverent moments, with Davos and Jon’s Night’s Watch supporters touching him. Has any dead body on Thrones ever been treated with so much adoration? Melisandre enters. She’s confused: “I saw him in the flames fighting at Winterfell.”
Yeah, well, you saw a lot of things, lady…
And hey, Melisandre, everybody at home watching you in this scene has a terrific idea that would make millions of viewers extremely thrilled. How about you–
But then she exits. Ah well.
Over in the Castle Black cafeteria, Ser Alliser Thorne declares, “Jon Snow is dead!” — totally rubbing it in. There’s some understandable outrage among the men. Thorne states his case: Jon Snow was a threat to the Night’s Watch as a whole, so Thorne was protecting the Night’s Watch by killing its leader. Ideally, he’d like to Make Westeros Great Again by deporting all the Wildlings north of the Wall. As always, Thorne is adept at staying just shy of being an outright villain; he’s a pragmatist who could be a hero from a slightly different point of view.
Meanwhile, Jon is still just… lying there. Just dead on a table, like a piece of creaky Castle Black furniture while all the drama just goes on around him.
Winterfell: Another body on another table. Ramsay mourns his lover Myranda. She was a fittingly sadistic life partner for him despite the annoying spelling of her name. “Your pain will be paid for 1,000 times over, I wish you could be here to watch,” Ramsay says, and we don’t doubt his sincerity.
And then, just in case we actually start to feel a bit of sentimentality for Ramsay, he orders her body to be fed to his hounds. This provoked a disapproving groan at the Thrones premiere screening a couple weeks back. But for a castle that’s been under siege by Stannis, plus dealing with wintertime food shortages, it’s actually a pretty pragmatic choice and rather kind to his hounds. Is it better to let dogs go hungry? And since she’s the kennel keeper’s daughter, wouldn’t she have wanted this? Or no? This is what the brutality of Westeros does: It makes you actually debate the morality of feeding a loved one to killer hounds.