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.
Somewhere all too close: Sansa and Theon are on the run. Hey, this is a cheat! We concluded their story line with these two unlikely partners leaping from Winterfell’s bulwark, a seemingly suicidal jump, and we’re denied the conclusion of that shot. Did they land in a fluffy snowbank with a puff of powder?
Sansa and Theon reach an icy river. (Fun behind-the-scenes fact: This river crossing was shot in the summer in Northern Ireland; all the ice and snow is pure movie magic). The result gives us flashbacks to The Revenant as Theon and Sansa wade into the freezing water to escape Ramsay’s hounds. They’re wet, they’re cold, they’re acting — give them some Oscars.
They make it across and find a tree to huddle against. Theon hesitates to put hands on a lady but then holds her for warmth. The hounds find them anyway. Theon tries to shield Sansa, but they discover her, too. “I can’t wait to see what parts Ramsay cuts off you next,” one of the guards tells Theon. All hope is lost when… Brienne to the rescue! This provoked a big cheer in the preview audience. Sansa, Pod, and Theon work together to take out Ramsay’s men. Pod’s training had paid off.
Brienne once again offers her servitude to Sansa. There’s a bit of tone to her delivery, like, AGAIN I’m doing this; for god’s sake take it — I’ve been waiting around in the snow for weeks and just saved your life.
Sansa accepts her oath, and Pod serves up some impromptu cue cards to help with her side of the vows. It’s a rousing moment, almost anti-Thrones with its traditional heroism combined with surging emotional satisfaction; normally you’d expect an element of all-too-realistic downside, like Podrick losing an eye or something. Also: If she hadn’t already, Brienne has totally earned the name of her sword.
King’s Landing: Joyous news for Cersei: Jaime and Myrcella have returned. We see a very rare smile from Cersei. It’s probably even rarer now that she’s completed the grueling King’s Landing ShameWalk 5K (you would think the Faith Militant would have at least give out T-shirts and water bottles for that).
Cersei skips down to the bay to meet Jaime’s boat. His grim expression — and that tell-tale mound under a gold shroud — tells her everything she needs to know. It’s like coming downstairs on Christmas morning and finding the big wrapped box sitting under the tree is a cage full of dead hamsters.
We’ve been anticipating this moment since the finale. We expected Cersei to flip out, to yell and scream. That was doubtless the first thing the writers considered because it’s the obvious reaction. But Thrones hates to be obvious and instead came up with another response that still feels credible: Cersei feels grief and, instead of blaming Jaime, hinges her daughter’s fate on Maggy the Frog’s prophecy from last season. It was fate! There’s a part of Jaime, perhaps a huge swath of him, that has to be giddily relieved that Cersei isn’t blaming him for this one.
What follows is a speech by Cersei that’s surprising: “I don’t know where she came from. She was nothing like me. No meanness, no jealousy — just good. I thought if I could make something so good, so pure, maybe I’m not a monster.”
To this Jaime is literally like, “I know.” Not, Oh hey now, you’re not a monster, don’t say that about yourself! But more like, Yup, you kinda got that right, but it doesn’t matter.
As Lena Headey told us, these are words she never thought Cersei would say. Cersei is many things, but introspection and self-awareness aren’t her thing. Once again, Headey’s performance is gripping.
Jaime tells her to “F— prophecy! F— fate! F— everyone who is not us.”
Ironically, the Lannisters’ problems all stemmed from these two refusing to f— anyone who is not them.
Meanwhile, the Faith Militant haven’t improved Margaery’s hairstyle either. She’s in a cell with only the shame-shame-shaming Septa Unella to keep her company, reading verse and giving her a one-word reply to any query: “Confess.” She manages to make Hodor look like a great conversationalist.
Enter the Faith Militant’s schlubby leader, the High Sparrow. With his pauper’s attire, wild white hair, and anti-elitist stance, he’s like an evil King’s Landing version of Bernie Sanders. He’s all sweet to Margaery, though, especially compared to Unella — they’re playing a game of Good Sparrow/Bad Septa with her. I really just want the High Sparrow to start lecturing about how he’s going to get rid of student loans, break up the Iron Bank, and lobby Cersei to release her Small Council transcripts.
Dorne: Ah, Dorne! We’ve seen next to nothing of Dorne in the trailers. I’ve suspected the Dorne arc would be leaner and meaner this year but didn’t realize how lean and how mean until seeing this episode. Prince Doran is meeting with Ellaria and her Sand Snake daughter Tyene. The pacifistic prince gets a note revealing Myrcella’s death. He’s seconds from figuring out that Ellaria killed the princess against his orders, but she’s not going to give him that time. What happens next is a total shock: Ellaria kills Doran while Tyene takes out his captain of the guards, Hotah (she even quite literally kills the messenger).
The sequence really works because we don’t expect recurring characters in a TV show to get brutally murdered within mere seconds of returning for the season — who does that? Doran expresses some dying concern for his pretty son Prince Trystane, which leads us right into showing him in his chambers, where Obara and Nymeria boldly announce they’ve arrived to kill him.
The duo give him a choice of which one to fight. He picks Nymeria, probably because she’s being more rude about killing him. Or perhaps he figures that in the rock-paper-scissors version of fighting Sand Snakes, sword surely beats bullwhip every time, especially in a small room. He then inexplicably turns his back on one of his declared assassins, and Obara rightfully slams her father’s spear through the back of his head. I find myself uselessly scolding Trystane for not waiting where he was for one of his attackers to make the first move.
So right away, the Dorne cast has been nearly cut in half — three key characters down and only Ellaria and her Sand Snakes left to presumably run the kingdom. You must figure that Cersei and Jaime would probably be highly annoyed to learn there are fewer people they can take revenge on at this point (sure, the dead Dornish had nothing to do with Myrcella’s murder, but like the Lannisters would care).
Meereen: Tyrion and Varys are out for a stroll. You’d think they’d have a bunch of guards along after what happened last time they were hanging out in public, but the streets seem pretty calm. We get some Slaver’s Bay humor when Tyrion mangles his Low Valyrian in telling a woman he wants to eat her baby. The scene basically re-establishes that the political situation here is dangerously chaotic and as Westerosi outsiders Tyrion and Varys need to get up to speed quickly — “You can’t fight an enemy we don’t know.”
Lest we actually have a scene in this premiere without something pretty dramatic happening, their chat is capped by the discovery that their fleet of ships is ablaze in the harbor. “We won’t be sailing to Westeros anytime soon,” Tyrion notes (but viewers had already kinda figured that).
Braavos: The good news for Arya is she’s no longer shilling bottom-feeder seafood. The bad news is she’s a blind beggar and doesn’t even have a sign to appeal to passersby (“Disabled War of the Five Kings Veteran, Anything Helps”).
Suddenly her routine is interrupted by the House of Black and White’s resident Mean Girl tormenter the Waif, who comes up to start whacking Arya with a stick. She’s disappointed that Jaqen H’ghar’s rebellious young Padawan hasn’t developed Daredevil-like abilities just yet (yes, I know, that’s mixing franchises).
“See you tomorrow,” the Waif says.
Well, at least Ayra now has something to look forward to.
Grasslands: Ser Jorah and Daario are on Dany’s trail. I was prepared to balk at the seemingly far-fetched idea of these two finding Dany’s tiny ring amid that entire countryside, but showing them tracking the horse-trampled ground that’s surrounding where the Breaker of Chains was captured sold me on it. I like that Jorah freely confesses to being totally frustrated by being in Dany’s friend zone, which we already figured but it’s refreshing to hear him say it nonetheless.
Jorah also does a quick check on his spreading deadly greyscale, which is starting to look like a hipster’s wrist tattoo.
Somewhere near-ish: Dany is on the march, captive, with some damn dirty Dothraki whipping her butt and making degrading comments. You know exactly what she’s thinking: Where is my dragon?!
Dany doesn’t speak until they take her to their leader, Khal Moro. I feel for any actor — in this case Joe Naufahu — who has to play a khal after the star-making performance of Jason Momoa in season 1. Khal Moro ponders Dany as his jealous handmaidens urge him to kill her. One of my favorite things about having the Dothraki back in Thrones is the return of “It is known” as a reply. This actually comes in very handy in everyday conversation (“I’m just having no luck on Tinder lately” / “Yeah, it is known”). We get some straight-faced Dothraki humor as Moro debates whether seeing a woman naked for the first time indeed should rank in their collective Top Five Best Things In Life list. It’s like Dany just stumbled into a Dothraki sports bar.
She finally breaks her silence and starts tossing off her titles to get some leverage on this guy. Not one impresses until she reveals she was the wife of a khal. Moro informs her she’s out of immediate sex abuse danger but now condemned to what sounds like total boredom by living out the rest of her life in the widows’ Temple of the Dosh Khaleen.
Castle Black: Jon Snow? Still dead.
Thorne gives Davos and company an ultimatum to come out and make peace. Ser Davos is confident that Thorne will kill them all if they open the door. It’s like a Castle Black-based sequel to Green Room. I hate to doubt the wise Onion Knight, but I’m not certain Thorne really would just cut them down. Thorne kills out of necessity, and I’m not sure he would make his new position even more shaky by getting rid of additional Night’s Watch members if they convincingly declared they’d support his new regime.
FINALLY: Melisandre’s Shining moment
Davos says to get Melisandre for additional help. He notes he’s seen her do some amazing things. We go to Melisandre in her chambers, and she takes off her clothes because that’s what she sometimes does. But then she does something we’ve never seen before — she removes her gold-and-red-jeweled necklace* and looks at herself in the mirror. We see Melisandre’s true self, and she’s not the fairest of them all. Not since Jack Torrance went to 237’s bathroom have we had such an age-advancing creep-out, and it’s a shame Stannis isn’t around to see this.
Visually, this is a very disturbing and realistic-looking creation that shows Melisandre as far more uncertain and fragile than we’ve ever seen before. And there’s something particularly unnerving about watching Melisandre climb into bed, and it took me awhile to figure out why: It’s the relatable simplicity of what she’s doing. We all get into bed. And normally that’s a boring shot to have in a show. A screenwriting rule is you try to avoid transitions like this. I remember watching Don Draper slowly climb into bed during a particularly dull Mad Men episode and ranting internally to the writers: Why show us that? In other words, part of the genius of this scene is that a hugely magical reveal is mixed with a relatable action. Melisandre’s not casting a spell or making some flashy Once Upon a Time-like display. She’s a woman in a cold castle getting under some covers to get some needed sleep while our heroes need her help; far more vulnerable then we’ve ever seen before — and that’s what makes the magic of the scene feel real.
So does this mean that Melisandre is actually more powerful than we thought? …Or less? And how much of her magic is derived from her accessories, anyway?
That’s it for the premiere. No Bran (yet). No Sam and Gilly (yet). And Jon Snow? Still dead.
MORE COVERAGE AND NOTES:
We have an interview with Melisandre herself, Carice van Houten, giving some thoughts on that premiere shocker (along with some observations of our own). Director Jeremy Podeswa explains how the stunning effect was achieved, and gives his thoughts on Melisandre’s age. Plus, we have Gwendoline Christie talking about the importance of her heroic scene. Monday, we’ll have the first proper episode of EW’s new Game of Thrones podcast, where myself and Darren Franich will talk in detail about “The Red Woman.” For those who used to read Darren’s popular Game of Thrones book club column after each episode, the podcast is sort of taking the place of that since we’re going into a book-less story zone. Subscribe and listen to the podcast here.
Bonus: We’re giving away free GoT stuff this season — Thrones season 5 Blu-rays, Thrones Monopoly and Risk games, beer steins, and more. Both the recap and the podcast will contain a different trivia question each week and one lucky winner who emails the correct answer to GOTpodcast@ew.com will receive the prize courtesy of the HBO Store (you can only win once this season).
The first question is… Let’s do an easy one first: How many titles did Dany give Khal Moro before she tells him she used to be married to Drogo? (Won)
The first official episode of our new Game of Thrones podcast is now live: “How Old Is Melisandre, Anyway?” We talk about The Red Woman’s accessorizing, stabby Sand Snakes, the future of Jon Snow’s decomposing corpse and more. Subscribe to the podcast right here, or just check out the new episode below:
*Melisandre has actually removed the necklace before — during a bathtub scene in a previous season, as readers pointed out on Twitter. This could be a continuity error, or perhaps her necklace isn’t the only element behind her age-hiding catfishing disguise.