After a beautiful panning shot of the Wall glistening in the light, “The Red Woman” begins with Davos, Edd and some other loyal Brothers scraping Jon’s corpse off the floor before sequestering themselves away from the rest of the Watch. Once inside the room, the lads sweep away the various items cluttering the table to clear space for Jon. In a sense, that’s what this episode is doing: brushing away various loose ends to make room for something more important.
Invariably, the season opener is a case of cleaning up the mess left by the end of the previous one and beginning to move the pieces into place to allow new stories to unfold. The speed with which this episode rattled through the plots of multiple characters, and actually resolved some remaining conflicts, suggests that the showrunners have a lot to get through this year.
Just think how quickly this episode established and advanced the situations of all of the characters. One of the show’s favourite things to do is to pair people off and use their dialogue to slowly reveal extra dimensions of their personalities as they travel together and overcome obstacles. This episode doesn’t abandon that structure, but seems to play it on fast forward – it would have been no surprise to have a few episodes of Daario and Jorah traveling together before finding Daenerys’ ring, or to spend a couple of weeks with Theon and Sansa on the run from the Boltons before they teamed up with Brienne and Pod. Stakes are established and progress is made to point our characters in the right direction for what’s to come. The result is an episode that feels a little rushed, but it does have a strong sense of forward momentum.
Nowhere is this haste more apparent than in Dorne. They were not fucking around here. It seems like any scheming or plotting has been dumped in favour of jumping straight to the end game. Fair enough, I guess. It gets us to where we need to be, but it did cause things feel a little flat when perhaps it should have hit a little deeper. The beautifully tranquil scenery of the Water Gardens provided a great backdrop to make the quite brutal assassination of Doran and Areo Hotah seem shocking, but their deaths failed to have any resonance beyond the initial violation of the peaceful atmosphere. This is largely due to the fact that we’ve not really spent enough time with these characters to form much of an attachment to them, so their demise doesn’t feel like any great loss – we know what type of people these two are [Areo – strong, silent, loyal; Doran – patient, thoughtful, peaceful] but no understanding of why they are like that or what motivates them.
The same goes for Trystane. Although painting eyes on Myrcella’s funeral stones is quite sweet, we don’t know enough about him to care when he dies. His death is grisly and gruesome, but has little lasting impact beyond that initial sensation of revulsion.
The shallow, ill-defined relationship with the Dornish cast seems to be reflected in the title sequence, where the region is vaguely referred to just as ‘Dorne’ rather than the specific locales we get for the rest of the Seven Kingdoms and Essos. When you paint with such broad brushstrokes, you can’t expect anyone to care about the details.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing. The events in Dorne were not well-received last year, so at least they’ve dealt with things swiftly. Some book readers were up in arms, as this races ahead of the point reached by the end of ADWD. Doran’s plot to create a marriage allegiance with the Targaryens has faltered; his ploy to wed his son Quentyn to Daenerys fails and he sends his daughter Arianne to meet with Aegon, who has [almost certainly] been cut from the show. Given the tenuousness of these plans, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Martells don’t factor into the end game. That said, the Sand Snakes do leave the door open for Daenerys to join forces with Dorne in a Girl Power Coalition against the Lannisters later on.
With the erasure of the Martells, we’re running a bit low on major noble houses at this point, you know. The [trueborn as I guess Tommen technically still counts?]Baratheons ceased to existence as of the end of last season. The Tullys are down to Edmure and the Blackfish. House Arryn has only the mighty Sweetrobin to uphold the family name and, with Littlefinger circling like a … mockingbird, he doesn’t seem long destined for this world. Everyone else in the realm think that the Starks are only surviving through Sansa at this point. The Tyrells have their two children imprisoned by the Faith Militant and the last time we saw Mace he was being escorted around Braavos. Dany’s ‘break the wheel’ speech from last season is sounding more ominous by the episode and more convincing as a manifesto pledge for the show as a whole, even if there is potentially not going to be much of a wheel left to break by the time she shows up.
[Seems significant that there’s no mention of the Martells or the Greyjoys in her speech]
The Sand Snakes rubbing the Martells off the map plays quite nicely into the ideas espoused above by our prescient princess and their actions seem to signal a theme that is going to unite the various threads of our story: established rulers [or rulers trying to establish themselves] facing coups from populist insurgent movements from the lower classes.
We’ve already seen Jon pay the price for not dealing with a vocal minority with an axe to grind and in this episode we seen Ser Alliser Thorne doing his best to quell the unrest amongst the rest of the Brothers. His appeal to their sense of loyalty to the Watch causes the tension to subside for now, but it remains to be seen whether it lasts when Edd returns with the Wildlings in tow. Cersei’s main concerns in this episode revolve around the death of Myrcella, but we are given a reminder of the brutal asceticism of the Sparrows in their interaction with Margaery Tyrell. The Faith Militant and their trial are bubbling along in the background for now, but when they boil over for real, it’s going to be messy for King’s Landing. Meanwhile, Tyrion and Varys’ romantic stroll through the derelict undercity of Meereen reveals the desolation that Daenerys’ rule has brought to the small folk. We’re informed that, alongside the threat of the Sons of the Harpy, a faction of freed folk are beginning to show rumblings of discontent. They, along side the troubling sight of a priest of R’hollor preaching to an ever-growing crowd, mean that the city could soon descend into a cocktail of competing and conflicting groups, none of which will end well for the incumbent regime. It’s a mess that Dany has made and it’s down to Tyrion to clean it up.
Our characters in positions of leadership are going to have a lot on their plate, it seems. Having watched the sacrifices they’ve made, and lengths that they have gone to to achieve power, it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with the demands of ruling now that there are those who want to overthrow them. It’s a natural extension of the show’s exploration of the nature of power – once you make it to the top, how do you make sure you stay there? The different methods and mentalities that characters use will undoubtedly vary [it’s difficult to see Cersei and Tyrion adopting the same tactics to deal with a populist, religiously-motivated uprising, for example] and it’s going to be fascinating to see how they decide to balance despotism and diplomacy.
Tyrion’s position in Meereen recalls his time as acting Hand in King’s Landing and this sense of history repeating itself is one that is inflected in almost every other scene of this episode: Jaime and Cersei are re-united and back in us-against-the-world mode; Ramsay is seeking the approval of his father as the Boltons find themselves with a loose grip over the North again; Arya has to learn to use her senses in order to learn how to fight, much like her time with Syrio; Brienne is back in the knightly service of a Stark; Sansa once again finds herself in the role of courtly lady [the way this echoed Brienne’s scene with Cat was wonderful and Pod having to prompt Sansa with the right words was funny and heartbreaking in equal measure] and Daenerys has to go back to Vaes Dothrak to be reinstated amongst the Dosh Khaleen.
At the end of ADWD, Dany is reminded of the words of the mysterious Ashai’i woman Quaithe, who told her that: “To go north, you must go south. To reach the west, you must go east. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow.” In the text, this seems like a poetic way of convincing Dany that in order for her to achieve her goals and realise her dreams as a conqueror, she needs to revert back to some of the savagery of her upbringing and rediscover her true, fiery, bloodthirsty nature. There seems to be something similar happening in the show; with many characters finding themselves in positions they have previously experienced, it’s going to be intriguing to discover what the implications will be for those that fail to heed the lessons of their past.
Although the title of the episode seems to be fairly self-explanatory, the motif of a red woman was one that cropped up again prominently in one scene. As Cersei runs to the shore to welcome Jaime and her daughter home, she is wearing a faded red dress. Lena Headey conveys so much with just her face and body language and the silence of the scene only underscores the heartbreak she feels in that moment.
At first glance, it may seem irrelevant but given the other prominent woman dressed in red, it’s worth considering the way the repeated colour pattern of the costuming can be seen to tie the seemingly disparate threads of the narrative together. Here they are at their lowest ebb, grief-stricken and defeated by an overwhelming sense of loss. Cersei and Melisandre are both women who have managed to navigate the structures of a highly hierarchical system by using their beauty to manipulate men and by the end of this episode, the parallel between them will be heightened as Melisandre’s symbolic nakedness recalls Cersei being stripped during her walk of shame.
That said, it does most clearly refer to Melisandre. Perhaps this reveal came as less of a shock for book readers as in her POV chapter it is heavily implied that she is far older than she appears and, given what she does with Mance/Rattleshirt, it’s clear that she has some fairly potent glamouring tekkers. Even so, this was a powerful moment.
Melisandre, usually a beacon of strength and steadfast in her beliefs, suddenly looks unsure of her convictions; the first time that we have seen her mask slip*. Jeremy Podeswa managed to visually communicate this flickering faith elegantly, cleverly utilising light and fire imagery [an obvious choice given its importance to Mel].
We open with a shot of the hearth crackling away in the background, while Melisandre’s hands in the foreground are bathed in a cold, blue light, suggesting that she no longer feels the warmth of the flames:
She then gets up and pulls the shroud from her looking glass. The mirror is flanked by candlesticks on either side, although only one of them is alight:
The camera then lingers on her body, as she removes her necklace and her red robes which usually serve to mark her as different from others and highlights her connection to her faith [the other Red Priest we see in this episode is wearing similar robes].
And what’s left? A frail, weak old body underneath. It’s entirely emblematic of her state of mind after the death of Jon leaves her faith shaken. You can hear the resignation in her voice as she earlier tells Davos that Jon was the one she saw fighting on the battlements at Winterfell and this disrobing scene is that sensation made material: the visions of her god have been proven false and, without her faith, she has been left broken and vulnerable.
Game of Thrones often gets mocked or criticised for its gratuitous nudity and frequently it’s well justified. Not here, though. Melisandre’s nakedness is an intrinsic part of communicating her character. This is a scene of a knight being stripped of their armour and being left vulnerable to the cruelties of the world. It may not be all bad though; it was only in a moment of true despair and when his faith had thoroughly waned that Thoros of Myr was able to call up R’hollor to revive his pal Beric Dondarrion…
On a textual level, it’s a profoundly strange and uncomfortable scene, but one that works brilliantly to add some layers to a character who has previously been held at arm’s length from the audience. But you can’t help but feel that the timing of this is significant. This scene, at this point in the episode, at this point in the season, at this point of the narrative… it points to something on a broader level.
There’s a way that you can read this scene where Melisandre becomes a metaphor for the show itself: she’s someone who had previously received visions from an omniscient power that guided her by revealing the future – granting her glimpses of a story that had already been written. Her faith in those visions has been undermined and, as a result of losing her guide, her belief has essentially evaporated. She decides she no longer has the strength to keep up the pretense of power, standing alone, laying herself bare.
The show is at the same point. Now that they’ve surpassed the books and they’ve run out of source material; both Mel and the show have lost their all-seeing guide, with no-one slowly revealing the overarching plan to them. And what’s left is something old and shriveled and weak and powerless – a shell of its former beautiful self, a manifestation of the creator’s neuroses…
…ok, that last bit might be pushing it a bit, but this episode certainly has a preoccupation with authorship and the nature of stories that have already been told. Cersei tells Jaime about Maggy the Frog’s prophecy and Jaime’s response is pretty telling, as he unequivocally rejects the notion of allowing someone to dictate the terms of your future:
“Fuck prophecy. Fuck fate.”
Daenerys shuts down the mouthy Dothraki banterlads claiming they’d put a bun in her oven by confidently repeating Mirri Maz Duur’s prophecy, while Tyrion and Varys asking “who wrote it?” when confronted with Meereenese graffiti seemed like a self-referential nod from the writers of the show. The show is out on its own now, with no more text to draw upon so it seems natural for this to be something reflected in the show’s writing. The tension between fulfilling a role already laid out for them and trying to establish their own legacy is one that affects a lot of characters in this story, so it makes sense for this to be a significant theme. Keep your eyes peeled for other references to questions of authorship and agency over the rest of the season.
Bits n Pieces:
* On that note, it bears mentioning that much of the promotional material for Season 6 involved images of the main cast having their faces displayed in the same way as the dead do in the House of Black and White. Most of the speculation borne out of this was naturally about who would be dying in the forthcoming season. After this episode, I’m not sure that it’s necessarily going to be as literal at that. With Melisandre’s reveal, along with Arya’s situation, Dany having to deal with her past and what happened to Cersei last year, I wonder whether this season will be more concerned with the ways in which the facades adopted by characters so far are shown to be just masks, and the tension that arises between this and their true nature are in conflict.
Trystane’s death was pretty bloody horrible. Was it a reference to the sigil of House Martell? Could also work as dark pun on Sun Spear/son spear.
When you first see Melisandre in the distorted looking glass after she’s taken her necklace off, I thought it was a vision of Dany. Old Mel has silver/grey hair – is that a product of just being or does it reveal something about her heritage? Shiera Seastar was a Targaryen, after all…
Was it just me, or was their an unusual focus on Ghost’s face in this episode? His eyes seemed particularly striking and vibrantly red. Eyes are important when it comes to warging, so is this suggesting that’s the way Jon’s surviving outside of his body right now?
Really enjoyed this shot of Tyrion and Varys. It comes just after there’s that eerie shot of someone surreptitiously spying on them from inside the building. Boxing them in like this makes them seem small in the frame and helps create that ominous sense of things on the periphery beginning to close in on them and surround them. The dangling spikes hovering above their heads is a nice touch, and paints a target directly onto their back.
Speaking of, Tyrion’s “Well she won’t be sailing to Westeros any time soon.” line after they discover the blazing ships in the docks has to be a double bluff, right? Seems far too on-the-nose otherwise. Still, Daenerys does need some more boats now. If only there were a seafaring nation with a substantial fleet looking for an alliance…
This episode had some fun with finding neat ways of visually communicating Arya’s blindness. The introductory shot of her accomplishes this neatly, rendering the entire background as being blurry and out of focus. We share Arya’s experience of being unable to properly see, which works well. Similarly, during the fight sequence with the Waif, the camera cuts to different angles frequently, making it somewhat difficult to follow what’s happening. It’s the same principle at play and it’s a sweet example of using the medium to inform the message.
Not quite sure of what to make of the shot of Arya panting with the Titan of Braavos at the end just yet. There are plenty of different ways to read this: is it contrasting the might of the Titan with how low Arya feels? Is it suggesting that, despite her appearance at the minute, there’s a warrior lurking within Arya? Or is the Titan a symbol for her blindness – a soldier with a broken sword? It depends on the path her story takes from here onwards, but it’s an evocative image regardless.
Ramsay eulogising Myranda before offhandedly demanding that her body be used to feed the dogs is mostly played for a dark laugh, but it tells us something important about him that often gets overlooked. His words are tender and have a mild tinge of regret about them and there’s even the smallest hint of grief mixed in there… and yet he still asks for her to be chopped. In short, he’s capable to acknowledging emotions and chooses to be an amoral, violent monster anyway. He’s the charming face of sociopathy, and the fact that it’s an active decision he makes is what truly makes him scary.
We’re introduced to Ramsay’s Maester, who is clearly terrified of him. Can’t really blame him there. He gets a close-up though, so he’s obviously going to come into play later on. Lady Walda is expecting a child after all. This cannot end well.
Another nice costume design detail is that the Red Priest we see in Meereen has the same hexagonal design as Melisandre’s necklace and Quaithe’s facemask. It’s minor, but it helps tie the characters associated with Asshai/ The Lord of Light together.
Line of the night:
“It’s a sad fucking statement if Dolorous Edd is our only chance”. So say we all.