This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will address events from the books more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers just in case (although we acknowledge that this is less relevant now than it was before the show “caught up.”)
For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies.
This is a question that many television series want the audience to be asking at the end of a season, but it’s one that Game Of Thrones had never prioritized in a finale up until its fifth season. Although the show has a number of memorable finales, the show’s “Now what?” moments—Ned’s death, Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the assault on The Wall—typically came in the penultimate episode, with the finale’s denouement effectively the beginning of the show’s answer to the question in earnest. And while there are lots of storytelling reasons for this, one of the most practical is that a vocal minority of the show’s audience already knew the answer. What happens after Ned dies? What happens after the Red Wedding? These were questions that were already asked and answered for readers of A Song Of Ice And Fire, and so the typical season structure sought to put the readers and non-readers on as similar a page as possible: with the pieces moved into place for the next season, both groups are asking “How” as opposed to “What,” even if one group has more information to go on.
Although Jon Snow may have known nothing, his death changed everything. With the narrative approaching George R.R. Martin’s final Jon chapter in A Dance With Dragons, Game Of Thrones was finally in a position to create a cliffhanger where no one knew the answer, and it’s hard to fault the writers for taking advantage of it. As much as the trolling about the fate of Jon Snow became a little much over a lengthy hiatus (only exaggerating the fact it was a troll job from Martin to begin with), their joy at playing with semantics is only natural when they were denied the opportunity to leverage this type of storytelling for so long. They were making a television show where their ability to create uncertainty was always compromised, even in situations where they deviated from the books significantly, and that image of Jon lying dead in a pool of his own blood had to have been cathartic.
However, “The Red Woman” reveals that Game Of Thrones is not particularly concerned about the fate of Jon Snow, at least for the time being. Whereas some cliffhangers—The Walking Dead’s recent one comes to mind—demand to be resolved immediately, it’s logical given the show’s pacing that this this one would have a longer tail. We confirm that the writers spoke the truth: Jon Snow did, in fact, die at the end of the fifth season of Game Of Thrones. And throughout this premiere, he stays dead, even after Melisandre—the person most likely to resolve the cliffhanger—knocks at the door to share with Davos that she had seen Jon in the flames. And then the characters just move on: Edd wants revenge, Davos knows the wildlings are the only ones who can help them overthrow Thorne, and a standoff begins with the payoff to come in the weeks ahead.
Melisandre still earns the episode’s title, though, and for good reason. The haunting final scene is the episode’s premise laid bare, notably coming directly after a blind Arya struggles to adapt to her affliction. Melisandre was a woman who saw the future in the flames, but the flames betrayed her, and tapped into a very basic insecurity: without her necklace, she is an old and broken woman, withered and frail, with none of the power she conveys and demands from others. It’s a shortcut to vulnerability for a character that has undoubtedly become more vulnerable than ever before: ever since Melisandre was introduced, she was singularly focused on Stannis’ rise, and has never wavered from that cause because she has been given no reason to. Now, that cause is gone, and she stares in the mirror wondering what her purpose is, and strips away the veneer of power in favor of something the world would only see as broken (but which we can see as ancient and mystical [and immortal?]). And she asks herself the question, if not directly: “Now what?”
The textual dynamics of this question are in no way new. Game Of Thrones began with a stable sense of order, and has subsequently systematically destroyed any semblance of it. Jon Arryn’s off-screen death began the sequence of events that led us here, as strange as that sounds, and none of what has happened since has followed any kind of reasonable pattern. Brienne is perhaps the best example of this, a character who leapt from purpose to purpose in search of an understanding of what she was supposed to accomplish. She is someone who requires order living in a world with none, but that’s what has made her character arc so satisfying. The quixotic qualities of Brienne are a perfect fit for this world, constantly driving her forward, sending her barreling into groups of soldiers with Podrick in the search of purpose, that flame that lights a fire under her ass. And when it pays off here, riding in to save Sansa and Theon from Ramsay’s men and finally becoming the sworn sword to one of Catelyn’s daughters as she has long hoped to be, it’s a rare victory for long-term planning. And it is to be cherished, because it’s unlikely we’ll see many such victories in the immediate future.
A Song Of Ice And Fire is full of failures of long-term planning. Quentyn’s story in A Dance With Dragons is easily the best example of this, as Martin was clearly interested in the idea that Dorne—more than any other of the seven kingdoms—is gifted at seeing the entire chess board, and understanding the importance of thinking ahead. But Prince Doran’s plan ultimately failed because it was a plan built without any sense of how to execute it. It sounded like a great idea to link the Martells with the Targaryens, but Quentyn was never the person to do it, and too much happened with Daenerys between then and now for it to be a realistic proposition. Quentyn’s brutal failure is echoed here in a less poetic way, as Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes murder Doran, Trystane, and Areo for their failure to act swiftly in the face of injustices to Dorne. It’s abrupt to the point of comedy, and an example of the show potentially learning its own lesson about long term planning and cutting its losses on a Dorne storyline that never worked last season (and which has only slightly more promise in its newly thinned-out version).
The swift action in Dorne is absent elsewhere, as we’ve come to expect in Game Of Thrones premieres. In general, Benioff and Weiss—perhaps because they don’t want to move too quickly past the books—portray the characters at a collective crossroads, most trapped in situations that they can’t yet act upon. The situation at King’s Landing still finds the Queen and her brother in custody, and Cersei is free from captivity but unexpectedly mourns yet another child. Roose and Ramsay Bolton have big plans for the future, but Sansa’s absence complicates them significantly, leaving them largely stuck holding their own dicks as opposed to the severed dicks of their enemies. Arya is blind and panhandling on the streets of Braavos, her lack of eyesight crippling her training and pushing her back to her early days of training with Syrio. And in a similar case of coming full circle, Daenerys is once again among the Dothraki, first as a slave and then as a revered widow who discovers her place is apparently in Vaes Dothrak with her fellow widows instead of on the front lines of a war against Westeros.
Consistent across these stories is the most basic of conflicts: characters wanting one thing and finding that there’s something standing in their way. But “The Red Woman” reminds us that this is an individual struggle, and there is a larger social struggle unfolding in Meereen: while the Sons of the Harpy represented an example of the victims of Daenerys’ rule lashing out in opposition, Tyrion rightfully observes the free folk represent a threat in a different way. They were given what they wanted (their freedom), but then their leader abandoned them on the back of a dragon, and they are once more in search of a purpose. And it is the Red Priest guiding them to R’hllor who is gathering a crowd, and what is religion if not an answer to “Now what?”
Although we do not venture beyond The Wall, it is important to acknowledge that the rise of the Night’s King last season brought to the surface the broader conflict between ice and fire that ultimately gives the book series its title. And while we can point to characters that represent these sides—including, if we want to get presumptive, a resurrected Jon Snow fighting ice with R’hllor’s fire—we’re also conditioned to understand this as a starkly individualistic story (pun about how the Starks have been separate so long unintended, but embraced). With so many of these characters, their conflicts arise from their disinterest in following a path set before them, breaking out of their social shackles to follow their own path. The core of nearly every remaining central character is someone who was told to fill one role and refused in some way or another, and yet to some degree the larger story depends on them working together in the interest of those common people. There will need to be a point where this collection of disparate individuals realizes that Winter is upon them, and an army is rising from the dead in the North, and yet the idea of these individuals all realizing they’re on the same side is difficult when so few of them are even in the same continent.
And so “The Red Woman” becomes the start, I feel, of the characters gaining perspective. Jorah is currently the most clear-eyed of any of the characters, because he is no longer thinking beyond the short-term. A cursory expositional glance at his greyscale reminds us that he has a finite lifespan, and he is focused on what he’s always been focused on: protecting Daenerys, in much the same single-minded way as Brienne is living up to her oaths. His look down at his greyscale is the equivalent to Melisandre’s look in the mirror, a visual reminder of what motivates him or, in Melisandre’s case, a reminder of a search for motivation. And that’s a productive way of anchoring a season premiere, as characters largely focus on taking stock of their surroundings and preparing for how to mentally move forward—just look at Cersei and Jaime, the former going on about the witch’s prophecy and the latter presenting a clear opinion on that matter: “fuck prophecy.”
We also have more perspective on the plans for this season, and it’s off to a typically solid start. As book readers, this season is obviously something of a test, but the show’s approach to moving forward—at least for now—focuses on simplifying characters’ stories and returning to their basic character traits and motivations. At least for this collection of characters—many, including a returning Bran, a new crop of Greyjoys, and others scattered about Westeros, are unrepresented—the show has done the work necessary to develop meaningful character arcs, and here mostly asserts that those arcs are getting set to evolve in the seasons to come. We are now well past the halfway point of this story, and “The Red Woman” is one of the first times that it’s felt like it. Even without a major battle, and without what one would consider significant forward momentum, the show presents an answer to “Now What” that feels climactic: the end is nigh.
- Nothing new in the opening credits this week, although this was one instance where I wish they had skipped them in favor of a cold open, cutting directly from the end of the “Previously On” clip of Jon’s dead body to the eerie shot of The Wall that flies into the courtyard to discover his body once more.
- That shot was a nice moment for director Jeremy Podeswa, although my favorite directing bit was the cut to a wide shot as Sansa and Theon are hiding, tricking you into thinking the scene is ending before the barking dogs bring them back to life. Given how similar that “check-in” would have been to what Arya gets in the episode, I bought that the scene could end there, and it helped create excitement around Brienne’s inevitable but satisfying arrival.
- There’s a point where the misogyny of the Dothraki—or, as they shall now be known, the Doucheraki—who captured Dany started to feel too modern, but it was nice to see the show condemning (and then shutting down entirely) that type of sexism.
- “Do you feel like a victor?”—I am still not sure that Roose and Ramsay can sustain a story of their own, if I’m being fully honest, but this bit from Roose is a nice reminder of how fleeting victory can feel when nothing but small battles are being fought and won.
- Burning Meereen’s entire fleet is an interesting choice, and I have to presume a practical one—it seems a little early, however, to be forcing the issue when it comes to flying across the Narrow Sea instead.
- Chekhov’s Embittered Orphan doesn’t speak here, but he does stand by Thorne like a tough guy, which is helped by the actor’s growth between seasons. Olly’s really aged into his betrayal nicely.
- I am interested in how they choose to move forward with Thorne, who continues to be a villain only insofar as he is unable to see the big picture, and thus foregrounds tradition and his immediate priorities over any other type of conflict. Is that what defines a character as a villain, even if he’s not entirely wrong about the extremism Jon displayed in his actions? Is he maybe just misguided? I’m curious how they choose to put a grace note on that character before Ghost and/or Lord Stoneheart takes his head off.
So this section was typically used for explicit ways that each episode connected with future events in the books, but…well, that’s maybe not as productive now (at least not here). So I’m going to mix it up in this section, using it as a spot to reflect on either theories from the books that are brought up by the episodes (I saw some chatter on Twitter about Melisandre’s identity related to this bit of history), or in some cases a consideration of how the show’s path forward ties into where the books are likely headed.
This week, I was struck by the way Dany’s brief time as a Dothraki slave reminded me of Tyrion’s time as a slave in A Dance With Dragons. I don’t think anyone was shocked when the show skipped over Penny and Tyrion’s time in captivity to elevate Tyrion into a more central role in Meereen—it would have made no sense to isolate Tyrion in the show, where convergence is more valued and where Dinklage has been such an asset. But Dany’s brief game of wits with Khal Moro hit on similar beats, of going from someone of significant title to nothing, except that Dany’s claim to the title of khaleesi elevates her out of that position immediately.
It remains unclear how much this is going to line up with Martin’s plans for the story (I guess we can presume he’d have dragged it out more, if nothing else), but the similarities remind us how often Martin likes to isolate his characters, and how similar those stories can feel at times.
Meanwhile, I’d be interested to hear more from you about what you’d want this section to be—these reviews will still be from the perspective of a book reader, and create a comment community of similar mind, but I’d like to explore the relationship between the show and the book in some new ways, so I’m open to suggestions.