Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. Spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss whats coming? Thats what our experts reviews are for.

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Everything else in “The Red Woman” moves at such an overworked gallop that it’s almost funny how the Jon Snow subplot just lies there. The thing everyone wants to know most is the one thing still awaiting resolution. The typical season premiere luxuriates in the new status quo. Past premiere subplots include Dany lost in the desert, Oberyn’s arrival in King’s Landing, and Tyrion and Varys making plans for a road trip. It’s natural to have expected Theon and Sansa to spend more time trying to evade the Boltons before getting caught. Or Dany to endure her march a while before she gets an audience with the new khal. Or Jorah and Daario not to have already found the only three clues to her whereabouts in all of Essos. The pace of things on Game Of Thrones has sped up considerably since the early years kept promising us winter was coming. But lately it feels like producers are so focused on destinations they’re missing the journeys.

Then again, “Mother’s Mercy” is no typical season finale. It’s edited for maximum momentum, jumping between trains and expecting us to know the abandoned cars get where they’re going. And sure, enough, they did: Stannis is dead, and Arya is blind, at least for now. But it ends that way, too, with Jon Snow lying in a puddle of blood and a skeptical audience refusing to take producers’ word for it that he’s dead. In “The Red Woman,” Alliser quotes the party line: “Jon Snow is dead.” Sure, but so was Beric Dondarrion. And as Davos attests, Melisandre can do some shit.

“The Red Woman” doesn’t burn or bury Jon, but it doesn’t magically resurrect him, either. The Wall plot is fairly methodical for late Game Of Thrones. The mutineers have left Jon there in the snow, Ghost howls in anguish, and that alerts Davos to the scene. Dolorous Edd and Unnamed Jon Snow Allies one through five or so join them, and they hole up with Jon’s body in one room soon to be under siege. While they plot their next move, Edd leaving to rouse some wildling backup, Alliser executes his, owning the treason with the other officers and marshaling the remaining troops. This is classic Game Of Thrones, dueling strategies and dire odds, and it’s a delight precisely because it doesn’t skip any steps. It lies in the bed it made.

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Davos’ position at the Wall sets the stage for a whole episode of individuals in enemy (or at least frenemy) territory and precarious balances of power in the ruling courts of the world. That is, Meereen is one bad day away from harpy rule, King’s Landing is overrun with the Faith Militant and the Lannisters apparently helpless to stop them, and Dorne undergoes a coup to make Ser Alliser proud. Well, at least Alliser stabs Jon from the front. The Sand Snakes conspicuously consolidate power through literal back-stabbing. When Doran gets the news about Myrcella’s death (from whom and why, I wonder), tiny Obara stabs her tiny dagger in Areo Hotah’s back. Meanwhile her sisters face Trystane on the ship, raising other questions the episode races to avoid, and soon enough a spearhead sprouts from his face. Credit where it’s due: Ellaria Roose Boltons Prince Doran right in the heart and tells him why. He did nothing when Elia died. He did nothing when Oberyn died. “Weak men will never rule Dorne again.” But to be clear, Ellaria’s argument is that they have grounds for war because Oberyn died in a duel. It’s not clear what Doran could have done, legitimately, but she clearly isn’t very big on legitimacy anyway. Murdering your family has to rank somewhere up there with betraying guest right, right?

Doran and Jon are viciously betrayed for the same reason: They seek peace. They’re leaders who won’t go to war willy-nilly, even when they have been wronged. Season five offered some hope of the world escaping all these short-sighted power grabs. Both Shireen and Tyrion suggested opting out of the Iron Throne altogether to potential rulers, and Jon and Tormund actually managed a truce between the wildlings and the Night’s Watch. “The Red Woman” reveals Ellaria’s cut from the same cloth as Alliser. They’re too self-centered to see the big picture.

It’s an exciting moment, and a disappointing one for fans of Alexander Siddig and DeObia Oparei, who were cast to be betrayed. With a little more time spent endowing Sunspear and its characters and its culture, maybe even calling the capital by its name on the title credits map, it would feel more like payoff than just getting to the good stuff. As it is, the episode skips over the pesky details of conspiracy and boat-racing to get to the high points, just as the season before it skipped over the careful strategizing of seasons past to give us opposing kidnapping missions in broad daylight under the prince’s very nose.

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The other subplots are a little rushed, but only Dany’s skips that many steps. It’s interesting to see what Dany would do in a subordinate position after all this time ruling cities, but the answer should be no surprise. She asserts her power. She is Daenerys Of House Targaryen, Rightful Queen Of The Andals And The First Men, Breaker Of Chains, Stormborn, The Unburnt, And Holder Of The Sacred Chalice Of Rixx. Khal Moro (Joe Naufahu) laughs at her until he finds out she’s widow to Khal Drogo. That gains her some power and loses her some. She won’t be subject to rape, and she’ll likely be treated fairly well, but she doesn’t have the freedom to choose her destiny. The widows of khals are supposed to live out their days in Vaes Dothrak, and Khal Moro is going to see that she does. The way things are going so far, Jorah and Daario will beat her there.

“The Red Woman” almost continues the five-year tradition of torturing Sansa, although at least she and Theon both survive the fall with all their limbs intact. But they cross an icy river, and the Bolton hounds still catch up to them. There’s never any escape for Sansa. This is the old woman who told her, “The North remembers,” all over again. I was huffing and puffing about this impossibly frustrating horror movie Sansa’s trapped in when Brienne Of Tarth and Pod appear. The fight’s tense, but the real power is what comes next, Brienne kneeling before Sansa and pledging her services once again. The parallelism is gutting. If only Sansa had accepted her service the last time, she might have avoided Ramsay and Myranda. She would have been spared so much torment. But now the four of them make a strange, exciting brotherhood, Sansa holding court, Brienne kneeling before her lady, Theon nodding his head to advise her, and Pod standing by dutifully. The wide shot of the ragged underdogs against the ugly, snowy waste is the image of the episode, an old nudist notwithstanding.

The line of the episode belongs to Ser Alliser: “I never once disobeyed an order.” He’s a trip. In his speech to the Night’s Watch he then pivots to loyalty, which is the quality the Night’s Watch needs most now that some people have chosen to be disloyal. The cognitive dissonance is hilarious, but it focuses the episode. There is something special about loyalty in “The Red Woman.” There’s a moment before Brienne arrives when Theon decides to sacrifice himself to protect Sansa. She refuses to leave without him, but he insists, both of them devoted to each other in this hellish scenario. Team Sansa only survives the Boltons through force, but they have a rare loyalty, and not the Jaime Lannister “Fuck everyone who isn’t us” kind, either. That’s the quality Tyrion admires in Pod, that’s the defining romantic virtue of Brienne, and that’s what binds old friends, well, old surrogate family Sansa and Theon. Now they’re something like a court held together with oaths and honor. It’s unusually dramatically satisfying for this show, because Game Of Thrones insists on self-interest trumping virtue just about every time. The good guys don’t win so much as the bad guys die, too. But here in “The Red Woman,” Sansa and company make a stark contrast with the coups everywhere else. Disloyalty has been punished plenty over the seasons: Prince Theon, Rickard Karstark, the Red Wedding. Maybe loyalty stands a chance.

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A question of loyalty comes up three times at the Wall. In the beginning, as Davos and Edd discuss who they can trust, there’s a knock on the door followed by Melisandre’s voice. Which raises the question: Can they trust her? Melisandre and Davos are the polar opposites of Stannis’ court, and now they’re the two still together. For years he’s struggled against her. She’s had him thrown in the dungeons of Dragonstone, she’s manipulated Stannis against him, and now she’s responsible for the execution of Shireen and the collapse of Stannis’ forces. The question comes up again when Alliser tries to negotiate. Actually he dictates terms; it’s Davos who comically begins the negotiation. “And some mutton. I’d like some mutton.” Alliser offfers to let Davos take Melisandre with him or leave her to them, but Davos doesn’t answer. Not that he would show his cards yet, but it’s an open question. How loyal is he to her after everything that’s happened? But at the end, with no sign of wildling reinforcements, Davos decides Melisandre might be their only hope, and he admits to her powers. Which leads to a revelation about those powers. In her own room, she removes her jeweled necklace to climb into bed, and suddenly she reverts to her real form, that of an old woman. An old naked woman—this is still Melisandre, after all. It’s played for the grotesque, because it’s a scene about spectacle rather than character. It’s about revealing Melisandre’s true form rather than playing the actual moment of Melisandre, apparently shaken in her faith, crawling into bed alone and defenseless at a castle in conflict. “The Red Woman” doesn’t shed any light on Jon Snow’s fate, but it does tell us a little more about the power that may yet resuscitate him.

Stray observations

  • “The Red Woman” is written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Jeremy Podeswa.
  • I’ve read the first two books (and only the first two books) in A Song Of Ice And Fire, but since they correspond with the first two seasons of Game Of Thrones, I’m still a “newbie” for review purposes. Just to be clear, I’ll focus strictly on the HBO series in these reviews.
  • RIP Prince Doran, Areo Hotah, and Prince Trystane. We hardly knew ya.
  • Melisandre can’t believe Jon’s dead: “I saw him in the flames, fighting at Winterfell.” In season five she tells Stannis she’s seen the Bolton banners coming down and herself walking the battlements there. All three visions may yet come true. She may not know how to realize them, but that doesn’t mean the visions are false.
  • Ramsay makes a pledge to Myranda: “Your pain will be paid for a thousand times over. I wish you could be here to watch.”
  • Roose says he would “reward the man” who killed Stannis if he knew who it was.
  • What do you think the Foley effect is for Cersei scratching her head? A mouth of Doritos? The scrape of steel wool?
  • Cersei says Myrcella gave her some hope for herself: “I thought if I could make something so good, so pure, maybe I’m not a monster.” Hard to imagine she has the self-awareness to consider herself even potentially monstrous. Maybe that time in a cell did her some good.
  • Margaery gets a visit from the shaming septa, but she confesses to nothing. She admits she’s not perfect, but the High Sparrow says she has a long way to go before she can go home. Remember, this is all because she allegedly perjured herself about her brother’s sexual activities.
  • Apparently Tommen’s been asking for her, and apparently he’s been doing so without taking the Mountain and a Lannister army with him to retrieve his queen.
  • Arya’s living her days as a blind beggar. She’s the image of hopelessness, and then one day the waif arrives to beat her with a staff. Worst cult ever. But at least the training continues.
  • Tyrion and Varys get a more typical premiere plot, setup for their rule of Meereen. The city is wracked with fear, but there are groups of freedmen willing to stand up to the harpies. And Varys is already at work assembling his network of little birdies.
  • Another light comic scene: Khal Moro’s bloodriders discussing things that are as good as seeing a woman naked. Moro finally puts his foot down. “Seeing a beautiful woman naked is one of the five best things in life.” Usually I don’t like when characters straight-up espouse the viewpoint of the show they’re in, but…

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