Game of Thrones: Season 6, Episode 1 - "The Red Woman"

Mark W. Pleiss

The women of Game of Thrones drive this episode's narrative, and upend both expectations and reality.

Game of Thrones

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Iain Glen, Maisie Williams
Subtitle: Season 6, Episode 1 - "The Red Woman"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2016-04-24

The most recent episode of HBO's Game of Thrones largely evaded the two major questions from the previous chapter, and instead lined up its sixth season to gravitate around the heroics and cunning of its female protagonists.

The first question left unanswered is whether the death of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) means the definitive end to his character. The show erased any doubt that Snow might live after being stabbed repeatedly in the abdomen at the end of season five, but it didn't rule out the possibility that his death might be reversed. The idea of his resurrection is both the product of teasers for season six as well as a general sense of verisimilitude within the story.

Without Snow, the show loses both its most formidable heartthrob and one of its most captivating narrative lines. He's perhaps the only character that allows viewers to see how a possible defense against the White Walkers may eventually take place. Not only has Snow formed unions among otherwise warring societies, but he has learned what weapons are needed to defeat his frozen enemies.

Unexpected and unjust deaths certainly aren't new to the show (just ask Ned Stark [Sean Bean]), but the complete removal of Snow would represent both a waste of emotional capital, and the elimination of one of the series' last remaining male heroes.

The second question -- why is Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) smiling? -- also left room for discussion. The arrival of her incestuous brother-knight Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) prepares the way for her vengeful return to power, but it was accompanied by a crushing emotional setback. Her excitement at seeing Jaime was quickly nullified by the death of her daughter.

The episode puts into motion what may be a change in the way audiences perceive Cersei Lannister. Her humiliating walk of shame through King’s Landing and the sudden death of her daughter have left her in such a dire situation that it’s only fair to begin cheering for her.

Moreover, our patience with Unella (Hannah Waddingham), High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), and the Faith of Seven is also waning. At first, they seemed reputable because they were the only ones who could hold Cersei accountable for her actions, but their overblown punishments have now reached more noble characters, and we're left with the impression that their brand of religious extremism is profoundly threatening and unjust.

Cersei's personal knight, Ser Robert Strong, will likely lead the rebellion against the Faith of Seven in the upcoming episode. If this does take place, I believe Cersei won’t be the only one applauding the violent death of High Sparrow and his brethren.

From there, the show was all about the women.

The show's female characters live under the threats posed by largely violent and unruly societies, but they now hold control of the major storylines. The Stark daughters, for example, continue to pique interest and make us wonder when they'll cross paths.

Since the death of their father, both have lived miserable lives. Ayra Stark (Maisie Williams) has lived in poverty as a scoundrel and a rascal, while her sister Sansa (Sophie Turner) has been a slave in royal clothing to suitors and kings. Ayra first seemed to be the Stark most likely to avenge her father's death, but her association with the Faceless Men may have led her too far astray. Broke and blind after a misstep at the House of Black and White, she's now on the street, and is being tortured by her previous master’s favorite student.

Sansa, on the other hand, has slowly evolved into the more likely future leader. Her escape from Ramsay Bolton represents the first time she's been free from conspiring men since the death of her father, and her new protection, offered from Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), may allow her to begin a new phase of her life.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), on the other hand, suffered the opposite fate. Her return to the Dothraki was not as well received as she had hoped, and she now faces a stiff transition from royal life to the realities of an enclosed chamber.

From there, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) and her harem of sexy Sand Snakes killed King Doran (Alexander Siddig) and his legacy, and the only other male star of the episode -- Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) -- walks through the empty city of Meereen, both as a bored and passive observer, and a potential leader capable of bringing it to relevance.

The closing scene returns to the story of Jon Snow vis-à-vis another female character. Snow's last surviving allies -- and a dire wolf -- wait cornered and ready to die for their murdered leader, but it is suggested that Melisandre (Carice van Houten) may be of help.

The show ends as the only hope for Snow takes off her clothes before bedtime. Melisandre's uncovered breasts are no strangers to the camera, but this time there's a twist. The removal of her necklace externalizes her true form, that of an aged witch who may not be healthy enough to save Snow and his men.

Melisandre's tendency to disrobe has made her an object for what some call the "masculine gaze" of television and film, but the removal of her necklace frustrates expectations and instead suggests that her beauty -- like that of many other characters -- is not indicative of her true physical or moral nature. Melisandre's breasts consequently raise questions about the nature of reality in the sixth season, and they invite speculation as to whether she's the only character who possesses a second, sinister identity.

Such is the wonder of the red woman.


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