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

“Fuck prophecy. Fuck fate. Fuck everyone who isn’t us.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

So, we stride boldly into uncharted territory as Game of Thrones returns for its first season premiere Since The Books Ran Out. As if to show the training wheels were off, showrunners Benioff and Weiss immediately started running with radically new plotlines (though to be fair it might be based on what George RR Martin told them). This involved interspersing the usual collection of short establishing vignettes in the season premiere with some massive plot twists, and some seismic shifts in Westeros’ balance of power.

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In true Game of Thrones style, this was partly achieved by bringing actors back to play longstanding major characters, then have them killed off before the hour was out. Chief among these was Dornish prince Doran Martell, played by Hollywood’s go-to rent an Arab, Alexander Siddig (here performing on autopilot).

The Dornish actually got shorter shrift than most of the characters (I believe the corpse of Jon Snow got more screen time), but it was one of the most dramatic moments in the premiere – a palace coup in one of the major kingdoms of Westeros. And yet, for all that, I wasn’t Red Wedding-level enthralled. Doran may have been around for a while, but we’ve never seen enough of him to get attached. Besides, like the Dornish people apparently, I think it would be way more fun to have the Sand Snakes running the place.

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They were as great as ever, Indira Varma’s Ellaria oozing contempt at the dying Doran, while her daughters went off to assassinate his pretty but comically dumb son Trystane (Toby Sebastian, who I shall miss just looking at). Sadly, this also meant we had to lose stoic bodyguard Areo Hopah (DeObia Opareh), who seemed actually interesting as a character.

Of course, the big question since last season was – would Jon Snow survive? Kit Harington persistently tried to convince us not, denying he was returning to the show in every interview since. Imagine our surprise then, to see his name in the opening credits. Of course, the show already has several characters who have (apparently) returned from the dead. But it may be that Benioff and Weiss are just having a little joke, and the corpse is all we see of him. Full marks to Kit Harington if he’s getting paid main cast rate just to lie motionless on a table.

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His assassin, Ser Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale) was, however, one of a group of quite nasty characters who spent the episode engaging your sympathy. He’s never going to be likeable, but he has integrity; he honestly believed he was doing the best thing he could for the brotherhood he’d sworn fealty to. Trouble is, he seemed to have forgotten that the point of the Night’s Watch wasn’t to fight bandits, but those scary supernatural things beyond the wall. He may come to regret that.

Also engendering sympathy, improbably, was the vile Ramsay Bolton (the lovely Iwan Rheon). The show’s been building heavily on what, in the books, is more implied – he may be a sadistic psychopath, but all he really wants is the love of his remote, aloof father. Aww. At least he let Reek and Sansa get away, which is why the inimitably cold Roose (Michael McElhatton) started dropping anvil-heavy hints about the son his new wife was supposedly having.

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It’s easier to be sympathetic to Reek (I’m actually fancying Alfie Allen even more with shaggy hair, shame about the character’s penis deficiency), but Sansa was being decidedly annoying. Really, after being repeatedly brutalised and raped you’re worried about how cold the river is? Fortunately Brienne and Pod turned up for a swordfight that was, quite definitely, the action set piece of the episode.

Genuinely gaining sympathy was Iain Glen’s marvellously world-weary Ser Jorah Mormont, still tracking Daenerys across a location that looked unfortunately identical to the one for the different country where we last saw the Hound. Yes, it is massively improbable that he would have found her tiny ring in all that grass; but it’s a good excuse to keep him and Daario (Michiel Huisman) on the trail as yet another of the show’s wandering bromance couples. Let’s hope they catch up with Daenerys before she finds out what happens to the widows of Khals…

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While the plotlines in King’s Landing continued to circle in a holding pattern, the ep’s Big Emmy Moment was undoubtedly Cersei’s speech about her dead daughter. Last season’s horrific “walk of shame” plainly still weighing heavy on her, Lena Headey’s sad monologue about the only good thing Cersei’s done in her life was hypnotic to watch – though the lengthy description of imagining her mother’s decomposing corpse was very Edgar Allan Poe.

A word, too for Jonathan Pryce’s genial ‘High Sparrow’ – Pryce has the awesome knack of making him seem almost cuddly (“I’m sorry, Septa Unella is a little… overzealous”) even while you’re aware this humble, compassionate man is actually spearheading Westeros’ own Spanish Inquisition.

It was notable that, while we had well-written but tokenistically brief appearances from the likes of Tyrion, Varys and Arya, the ‘Red Woman’ of the title barely appeared. I have to say, though, that Carice van Houten made the most of her brief screen time, showing this previously haughty and mystical figure as someone battered and broken by turns of fate. The crowning glory must have been her final appearance, magic necklace removed, as a naked who-knows-how-old crone (shades of The Shining). Apparently the head was van Houten covered in prosthetics, the body a genuine old woman. Still, it worked brilliantly; if only I could figure out what the metaphor was about…

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Sex and violence

Plenty of the latter this week, but surprisingly little of the former. If it was gratuitous nudity you were after, I’m afraid you had to make do with Melisandre, Carice van Houten doffing her clothes as readily as when I first saw her dying her pubes in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. That should keep the woman-fanciers among us happy. Especially if they like them old.

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Violence-wise, after seeing Alexander Siddig’s Doran Martell croaking his dignified last in a spreading pool of blood, the ep’s top moment must have been the unfortunate mishap visited on his son’s pretty face courtesy of the Sand Snakes:

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Choice dialogue this week

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Varys, appalled: “She thinks you want to eat her baby!

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Ser Alliser, justifying his mutiny: “He thrust a terrible choice upon us. And we made it.”

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Ser Jorah, as cynical as ever: “I’ve been all over the world. There’s no escaping men like us.”

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Ramsay Bolton, channelling Mr Burns when asked if he wanted the only woman he truly loved buried or cremated: “She’s good meat. Feed her to the hounds.”

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And the moment that made you well up a bit even for Cersei Lannister: “If I can make something so good, so pure… Maybe I’m not a monster.”

Although this had the essence of a standard Game of Thrones season opener (a scattershot bunch of snapshots of the most popular characters), Benioff and Weiss put their own stamp on it by immediately changing loads of the politics of Westeros and Essos. And as ever, the dialogue was great. In weeks to come, for the first time I’ll be as ignorant of the future as everyone else (unless they return to the bits of the books they’ve skipped over). That’s rather a nice feeling. This season opener may not have given much of a glimpse of where the plot is going – but I’m glad that, finally, I don’t know myself.