The Big Question going into “The Red Woman” is technically still unanswered at its end: will Jon Snow return to life? But if there was any doubt before, it has to be a given now. Subverting heroic narratives is great at all, but the series has proven enough times over its willingness to kill off likeable heroes, such that it doesn’t really need to reestablish that cred. And all the hullabaloo about protecting Jon’s body (which why would that be a thing important enough to die for at this point? The damage is done, and everyone at the Wall, regardless of allegiance, agrees bodies need to be burnt) naming the premiere after the Red Woman with ties to a god that can bring the dead back to life, reminding us that she saw him fighting at Winterfell…this amounts to a rather elaborate troll if the entire point is just to get our hopes up only to dash them, again. We already had all year to work ourselves into a tizzy over this, it would’ve been nearly as devastating and far more narratively efficient to just open with Jon’s body being burned or whatever.
So, we’re getting Jon back, which is not a prospect that would have particularly excited me in the first 3 seasons. But now, Castle Black is my pushing out King’s Landing as the setting I most want to visit each episode. The capital was for most of the series the place with the most different people and agendas running up against each other, but now it seems to have been whittled down to the Lannisters vs the High Sparrow, with the Tyrells as collateral damage. But in the North, even if Jon were to stay dead (which he won’t), we have the army of the dead moving from north of the Wall, the somehow even more villainous Boltons to the south, the Wildlings, what’s left of the Watch, and now Davos and the Red Woman running around.
That woman, it turns out, is apparently extremely old and only uses illusions to look like all the sex in the world. Which was somehow unexpected but not really surprising, if that makes sense. I mean, it’s a little creepy, but so what? We already knew she was magic, and it’s not like a woman lying about her age is some novel fantasy game-changer. So she doesn’t look as good without her make-up and hair did? None of us do. Melisandre’s character is starting to feel like the experiment where Ali Reed tried (and failed) to pair a photo of a model with a dating profile repugnant enough that men would not message it. Like Game Of Thrones just wants to see how far they can push my predilection for pretty redheads. She’s a literal witch you say? Even hotter. Dabbles in child murder? Well, we don’t need to share all our hobbies. Likes to put leeches on guys’ junk? A little kink can be a good thing. Moderate chance of Room 237-ing? I feel like you’re just not getting it, show.
To the east, Tyrion and Varys just sort of muse idly about the politics of the city that we and they know doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things, which would be interminable if the actors weren’t so engaging. Then there’s a “dramatic” reveal that Dany’s ships have been burned, and it’s impossible not to sigh a little when Tyrion notes they won’t be sailing for Westeros anytime soon. Welcome to Mereen, half man, where the primary exports are gold masks and
Putting Dany back with the Dothraki had more promise, as it not only returns one of the more interesting cultures to the fore after years of absence, but strips her of all the dragons and armies and moony-eyed bodyguards that have insulated her from the sense that her troubles are at all significant for the last several years. Well, most of it, as she is still able solve her immediate problem by defiantly listing her name and titles. And look, I’m not going to be the guy saying that a major character should be raped for the story to work, but I would like it if she were to develop a new move for dealing with trouble. “Dragons!” can still be fun, but the “I am Danaerys Stormborn…” speech has lost some luster over the years.
All in all, a solid start to the year. My excitement for this premiere had been tinged with worry about the show going into uncharted territory, having surpassed the books in some storylines (but not others, I understand, so let’s keep the comments free of book-talk for the time being). Not because I am a book purist or anything; I only read the first volume within the last month and I was mostly struck by how closely the first season followed it. I know GRR Martin has given the showrunners the broad strokes of the rest of the story, and given how thoroughly the world of the show has been established, that is probably enough. Still, not having actual books does remove a safety net of sorts, as until now, they have provided a full, existing blueprint. TV is traditionally a seat-of-the-pants sort of storytelling, with the myriad of network and productions issues, actor availability, and serialized nature of the storytelling requiring adjustments small and huge to be made the fly. TV production tends to be at a more breakneck pace compared to novels or film, and the ratings model encourages it to be more reactive to audience responses, which can be a good thing but encourages unevenness. In a traditional show every episode is a first draft, but adapting books can make for something of a smoother ride just for having that roadmap in place from the start. But so far without that map, things feel much the same. The Essos material seems, as ever, on the verge of becoming great. The delays in resolving Jon’s fate and the Lannister’s counterstrike feel less than completely necessary but are packed with enough great performances for me not to mind. The Dorne subplot is finally out of the gate, and the developments around Sansa are aces. A fairly typical mixed bag of a premiere, which is in a way more reassuring than if it had roared out of the gate with dragons roasting zombies and Ramsay being drowned in a pit of horse manure. That would be awesome, but would also suggest a lack of confidence or patience.
Now bring back Jon Snow already. I’m tired of being patient.
I’ve decided this year to try to keep books on some of the multitudinous developments in Westeros:
Subplot Report Card:
The North: A
Castle Black: A- (dinged for stringing along a foregone conclusion, but raised by Davos being a delightful sassypants)
King’s Landing: B+ (table setting, but Headey and Coster-Waldeau together don’t need all that much to work from)
Dorne: B (giant Areo going down to a single jab from a toothpick costs them the +)
Dany: C+ (I was also taken briefly out of the show by the structure of the jokey exchange with the
Khal mimicking Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition”)
Season Morgulis: Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, Areo Hotah
MIA: Bran, Hodor, Osha, Rickon, Littlefinger, Olenna, Bronn, Grey Worm, Missandei, FrankenMountain, Tommen, Loras, Sam, Gilly, Tormund, Yara/Balon Greyjoy, High Sparrow, Gendry, Blackfish
Death Watch: Varys – I think he’s served his purpose putting the Imp and Mother of Dragons together, and his general likeability and the strain it would add to Tyrion’s lot paints a narrative target on his back