We’re back with Game of Thrones, everyone! And with some exceptions (Iron Islands, mostly), we’re not firmly in fantasy-land. Not in the sense that it’s a fantastical story of course, which it always has been, but in the sense that we venture beyond the book material with practically every storyline now. This will by necessity demand that we refer to some popular theories that may or may not be vindicated by the show. So I want to get this out the way once in the beginning of this run of reviews: the show is its own thing, and obviously things happen differently here than in the books. Stannis could tell you. So any kind of vindication will be my opinion only. There’s no mechanism involved that links the show to the books anymore. So, with that out of the way, let’s dig into the uneven start of the season.
Since Bran has yet to make his appearance (wise choice saving some juicy stuff for episode 2), the northernmost location we’re at is the Wall, where we spent quite some time. The episode takes off a few minutes after the finale of season 5. You can tell because the rebels are gone, but no one has appeared yet. The duty of finding Jon falls to Davos, which makes sense from a storytelling perspective, and he does some quick thinking on his feet, securing the body and gathering the remaining few Jon loyalists.
It takes them a moment to decide on what to. Edd’s impulse to go down fighting and kill as many traitors as possible is well enough in character, as the situation is dire. So it falls to Davos to once again think of the obvious: call in the wildlings! I was a bit confused as to where they’ve gone, because if I remember correctly, they only passed through the gate like a few hours ago, but I’d wager they’re just in maximum dramatic distance, so I’m quite confident.
Melisandre’s arrival was a strongly played moment. When she saw that Jon was dead, and said she’s seen him fighting in Winterfell in the flames in a broken voice, you could see her entire worldview shatter. We also get yet another nice touch by Davos, who remains a decent human being, not rubbing her failure in and keeping attention low. It seems like somehow between seasons, Melisandre told Davos about Stannis – I can’t imagine he didn’t ask – but it hasn’t been mentioned so far. It seems like Davos simply decided to carry on Stannis’ mission, which would make sense if he doesn’t know of a certain burning yet. Hopefully, the next episode will shed some light on the logistics.
In the meantime, they’re playing it straight: Alliser Thorne quickly rallies the Watch to his side (which makes sense; Jon’s base was never that strong to begin with, and the arrival of the wildlings let many doubt). Also, nice namedropping Othell Yarwick and Bowen Marsh there. I instantly believe that Alliser would kill the Jon loyalists – it’s not like he couldn’t understand Edd’s burning desire for vengeance, and he’s not like some Dornish princes to overlook such fatal character flaws in their underlings.
And with that, to the big shocker of the episode. The idea that Melisandre is in fact glamoring herself to hide that she is in reality really old has been around since the release of “A Dance with Dragons”, and I take this practically as affirmation. It just fits way too good into the narrative not to be true, and the moment is shot in an incredibly effective, haunting way, with Melisandre retreating into her dreams, endlessly vary and broken. This also postpones Jon’s inevitable resurrection, which is good. I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen here.
With that, we’re to Winterfell, where Ramsay mourns the death of his fuck-and-torture-buddy Miranda. The scene is a feint callback to the highpoint of Ramsay’s character in season 4, pulling him down to earth after the super-villain status that season 5 conferred on him in its latter half, aided by the thorough dress down he receives from a curiously unengaged Roose Bolton. Roose still talks of his plan to become King in the North and fight the Lannisters, which is…ok I guess? Gives him some motivation at least, and the Lannister can’t do fuck about it anyway. My feeling is that this is just serving as a McGuffin since I’d be surprised if they keep the Boltons around longer than episode 9. They kind of overstayed their welcome already, so this story arc really needs a conclusion, and soon.
At least, said conclusion promises to bring about interesting bedfellows. Theon’s and Sansa’s flight through the snowy winter forest carries a well done sense of urgency, and the crossing of the icy stream confers almost physical pain by watching. Theon’s desperation and edging on of Sansa helps the scene, and his courageous and futile attempt to draw off the riders (a bit late, but the gesture counts) gives the scene the emotional weight necessary for the ultimate rescue by Brienne, which came as predictable and yet satisfying as the sunrise, to work. While the fight was serviceable, it felt like a pretty complete rehash of earlier fights with Brienne. She screams, hits a guy on a horse, falls down, stabs some other guy, fights another. Pod clumsily dispatches of one foe. All is going on with swords, and the outcome is never in doubt. It’s staged competently, but so are Michael Bay movies. That formula needs some change, and soon.
But not to remain here too long, the scene afterwards repays you a thousand fold. Gwendoline Christie’s amazing acting when Brienne offers her services to Sansa (again) completely vaporizes any memory of her dismal time in plot purgatory in season 5. Despite the fact that the emotional high of the scene is totally unearned, it works incredibly well because of Christie’s, Turner’s and Allen’s acting chops. It’s a heart wrenching and incredibly well done moment, deliberately calling back to Brienne vowing her loyalty to Catelyn Stark way back in season 2. Great, great stuff. My guess is that Theon’s original plan will be what they do, linking up with Davos, Jon and the wildlings in bringing down the Boltons. No matter how that plot resolves, though, it won’t resemble the books at all.
In King’s Landing, Jaime arrives with Myrcella’s body. We get yet another great performance, this time by Lena Heady, in a subtle and understated way. No consequences are to be seen as yet, but Ser “Robert Strong” standing ominously beside her and Jaime’s paranoid “We can trust only us” and his aggressive “we’re talking back everything and more” doesn’t exactly point into a healthy direction. Without a powerful Tyrell force in the city to counter the Lannister twins, this will certainly end in blood.
In the High Sparrow’s dungeon, meanwhile, Septa Unella reads Margaery from the Seven-Pointed-Star and beats her if she doesn’t conform to her demands. The High Sparrow chalks this up under over-enthusiasm, like every good fanatic would, and tries to lead her to repent her sins. It’s not quite clear yet where this is going. Margaery seems genuinely shaken when she shuffles into the corner like a rat to escape Unella’s blows, and when she rocks back and forth after the High Sparrow talked to her. It seems like she’s slowly breaking and not faking it.
In Dorne, meanwhile, “Game of Thrones” sadly proves that the events of last season where not a fluke. Someone seems to have watched those scenes and decided that, yes, this was the way to go, which is why upon the news of Myrcella’s death, Ellaria simply murders Doran, Areo Hotah and Trystane. The guards look only on, because Doran has been “out of touch”. Aha? And you suddenly become Prince by killing the old one and fuzzy “assent by the people”? Whom we never saw?
But ok, I could roll with that particular bullshit train if it at least was well executed. But really, what the fuck was that? Why did they introduce Doran and Areo Hotah in the first place? All that stupid, badly written stuff, from the lackluster fight in the water gardens to Trystane’s hitting Bronn in the face by proxy to the infamous “bad pussy”-line, all so Ellaria, a character we know practically nothing about and who remains a cipher, can take over Dorne, a place we likewise know nothing about? And that’s nothing to say of the murder of Trystane, a scene that now rivals the “bad pussy”-scene from season 5 in sheer stupidity and tone-deafness? Oh, how I hate the Dorne-plot. It does nothing, it adds nothing, and it’s like a bad demo-reel for a cheap B-Movie.
At least in Braavos, we get a training scene between the waif, who’s in full drill-instructor-mode, and blind Arya, who gets beaten up with no idea how to fight back. At least Syrio Forel told her what to do when he trained her. The trailer strongly indicated that Arya will go full Assassin’s Creed and parkour the shit out of Braavis, I guess the training will work, but right now it’s mainly checking in. Yep, she’s still there. Something like that, but dumber, happens in Meereen. I was highly skeptical that the Tyrion-Varys-combo could be easily transferred from season 2’s King’s Landing to season 6’s Meereen, and events in this episode confirmed me in that skepticism. The two of them walking the roads of Meereen pointing out that it’s really awkward for them walking the streets of Meereen like that…well, yeah, duh. It is. The burning of the fleet also seems like an afterthought because someone rewatched season 4 and remembered that “oh, yeah, those are still inexplicably around”. But at least Tyrion is conferring the same importance to them as the viewer, so no harm done, I guess. Also, where does Varys get little birds in Meereen? This really doesn’t bode well for the whole storyline there.
Not that Jorah and Daario are so much more successful. They predictably find the ring (“Not idly do the rings of Valyria fall”) and exchange some lame barbs (did you know that Jorah was in love with Dany, but she not with him? There was you daily reminder) before looking serious. Cut to Dany, who listens to the Dothrakibros going on about how they never fucked a silver-haired woman and talking about the color of her pubic hair before one goes off to deliver this totally sick burn about fucking the grandmother of the other one. That must be the Highschool-Musical-Edition of Game of Thrones.
It gets marginally better when the khal gets some pushback from his bloodriders when they tell him that there are, in fact, a lot of better things than to see a woman naked for the first time, which would be a really nice counter-weight to the stuff before if it wasn’t exclusively played for laughs, which make the whole Dothraki encampment tonally extremely strange. Dany goes off her usual “I’m the mother of dragons, bitch”-routine, while the Dothraki tell jokes and then promise to put her into Vaes Dothrak with the Dosh Kaleen, which should feel like a problem for Dany but simply doesn’t at this juncture. Something’s off about that storyline in a pretty serious way.