Westeros is a fantasy continent: Lords and ladies, warriors and wastrels, bastards and banter. But don’t let the finery fool you: Westeros is a graveyard. In the very first scene of the pilot of the HBO fantasy drama, a Night’s Watch northward patrol meets the living dead — and dies. A lone survivor flees south — and gets killed by Ned Stark, our apparent hero. On the way home from the execution, Ned and his children find a dead stag and a dead direwolf. The direwolf’s pups cuddle against their mother’s corpse, victims of a battle fought by things that are no longer living, remnants of a fight nobody won.
Remember the first sighting of King’s Landing in the pilot? It’s a funeral. There lies Jon Arryn, eyes wide shut. Remember Jon Arryn? His death is the inciting incident for everything that has happened. (It took four seasons to find out who killed him. His wife confessed — and then died.) Or maybe Jon Arryn was just a symptom. Maybe everything that happens on Game of Thrones was inevitable. In the pilot, King Robert Baratheon and Warden of the North Eddard Stark visit the Winterfell crypt. Robert remembers friends and enemies long gone: beloved Lyanna Stark, hated Rhaegar Targaryen. They’ve never appeared on the show — and yet, if you’re a certain kind of fan, you might believe they are the most important characters in Westeros history. “Dead” is never “gone” on Game of Thrones. Burn the dead, bury them, feed them to the dogs, stash them in a barricaded room: The dead will come back. They’re marching South as we speak.
So Thrones comes by its death fixation honestly. It’s in the show’s DNA. But we’re in a kill-happy season of television just now, and it’s worth pointing out that we are cusping on a curious anniversary. Ten years ago next week, Lost aired an episode called “Two for the Road.” It’s not a very good hour of television, but it is one of the great course-corrections in modern TV history. The episode ends with a scene involving three characters: Ana Lucia, Libby, and Michael. By this point in the show’s run, Ana Lucia was a failed experiment, Libby was a nothing, and Michael was a one-note character, and that note was “WAAALLT!” screamed a top volume. Was there a way to turn three negatives into a positive? In a twist with zero build-up, Michael grabbed a gun and shot Ana Lucia and Libby dead.
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“Character not working? Kill ’em off!” That brutal calculus powered Lost and 24, rescued Walking Dead, has caused at least four Shondaland mid-series reboots. And that’s the hilarious subtext to the standout sequence in last night’s premiere. In Dorne, Ellaria Sand — and her sidekick Posh Snake — listen to old Doran Martell talk about his dead brother Oberyn. They nod — and then slay Doran and his bodyguard, promising to rain fire and blood on all the land. Elsewhere, Doran’s son Trystane faces off against Sporty Snake and Baby Snake. They challenge him to a duel. He accepts, thinking he’s facing honorable people. Just as he’s about to strike, Sporty Snake stabs him through the back of his head. None of these characters are particularly exciting. But hey: Half of them are dead now!
Last season’s Dorne subplot was a rare and absolute misstep for Game of Thrones, a go-nowhere cul-de-sac that banished two of the show’s best characters to a land populated by strange accents and Chained Heat stripteases. The show’s had some blind alleys before — Dany spent years wandering through plotlines that felt leftover from Hercules: The Legendary Journey. But the Sand Snake problem was a real problem. Death is part of the fun of this show — but any series that kills off main characters ultimately grapples with the problem of introducing new characters.
In season 5, the Martells were only the most obvious newbies lacking something essential. Across the show’s world, soliloquizing zealots devoted to some God or other were pontificating. The High Sparrow preached class war, and Melisandre preached her fire gospel, and the Nameless Man preached ninja nihilism, and the Night’s King didn’t even need to preach to his accumulating flock of murder zombies.
“The struggle against fundamentalist zealotry in a post-traumatic society” is fine fodder for an HBO drama TV show; it’s called The Leftovers. But I’m not sure that master arc played to the soapy, pulp strengths of what Thrones has become. And I’m not sure the sixth season premiere immediately solved last season’s problems. The demented Bolton clan is still a hoot to watch, and I love how Iwan Rheon’s crazed Ramsay plays off stonefaced Michael McElhatton as Roose Bolton. (Roose is a new kind of villain in Westeros: An ambitious and murderous conqueror with the attitude of a middle manager in an accounting firm.) But the Boltons are grotesque, lacking the added dimensions of the brutal-and-brutalized Lannisters. Meanwhile, in Meereen — has any phrase ever felt more like a threat? — Tyrion and Varys take a walk around their adopted city, and find only foreignville tableaux: A starving mother, an irate religious mob, a whole dock set aflame.
Much of the buzz around this new season has focused on the fact that the show has moved beyond the narrative real estate of George R. R. Martin’s books. As of this first episode, that’s only partially true. Anyone who read A Dance with Dragons when it first came out has waited half a decade to find out Jon Snow’s fate. We’re still waiting: Jon Snow is “dead,” but in close proximity to magic, so maybe he’s not quite dead. And the gradually decomposing corpse of Kit Harington is either the show’s most vivid portrait of how the dead linger in our lives — or a Glenn-on-Walking-Dead fakeout. (We’ll know next week? Maybe?)
The show has tried hard to solve “the Meereenese Knot,” Martin’s half-joking, half-exhausted term for the narrative conundra that tormented him in the later books. But Meereen still lacks the texture of settings like King’s Landing and Winterfell. Into Tyrion’s mouth, the showrunners placed a signpost for the season ahead. “We won’t be heading to Westeros anytime soon,” said the Imp — another phrase that sounds like a threat, come to think of it.
Maybe Game of Thrones‘ biggest asset has also been its biggest problem. The fantastic books that inspired the show linger over every episode, a dead relative the show must honor, and also occasionally a noose around the show’s neck. Anxiety of influence can halt momentum, or forestall it. A show like History’s Vikings might lack the lavish premium-cable production value of Thrones — such beautiful ceilings, so many splendidly attired extras! — but Vikings can leap forward six years in a commercial break, while Brienne spends a whole season staring patiently at a window, while armies march and snow falls.
So maybe you sniffed a slight amount of apology in the season 6 premiere — and, occasionally, a renewed energy. Brienne rescued Sansa, pairing Gwendoline Christie’s devotional swagger along Sophie Turner’s quiet desperation. The rebellion in Dorne was explicitly feminist in tone: “Weak men will never rule Dorne again,” said Ellaria, with maybe extra emphasis on the second word. And in King’s Landing, Jaime Lannister had some thoughts on destiny. “F— prophecy!” declared Jaime. “F— fate!” Worth pointing out, maybe, that I’m not sure the world-weary, battle-exhausted Jaime from the books would ever say that. And worth pointing out, too, that coming out of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s mouth, those words were the night’s invigorating high point, a promise that better worse days lie ahead.
The episode ended with the revelation that Melisandre — beautiful, mysterious, tantalizing, oft-naked — is actually an ancient elder, a hundred years old, or more. Maybe that was a bit of meta-commentary, too. Few shows on television look better than this one, but it’s coming up on great-drama retirement age. Game of Thrones is getting older. But it’s not dead, yet. B
More coverage: Read James Hibberd’s deepest-of-all-dives recap for “The Red Woman and check out his interview with Gwendoline Christie on Brienne’s rousing return and his look at the episode-ending Melisandre reveal. And subscribe to our season 6 post-episode podcast here, and listen to the new episode below: