Monday, 25 April 2016

Game of Thrones - The Red Woman

Contains Spoilers.

Game of Thrones lays out the tone of its entire upcoming season within the first shot of this premiere. The camera slowly flies over Castle Black towards the lifeless body of Jon Snow, lying in a pool of his own blood while his Direwolf's devastated howling echoes in the wind like some kind of warning siren. It's pretty straightforward, really: people are dying, and there will be consequences. The show's last season - labelled by many as its weakest simply due to how little narrative development took place in the former half - ended with a number of potentially came changing moments, but none were as shocking or potentially disruptive as the fate of Jon Snow, murdered by his own Night's Watch brothers whom he swore to protect. It created an enormous response from viewers, with everyone counting the seconds until we find out whether or not Jon Snow is really dead. Yet, here this episode begins, and confirms that answer within a matter of seconds. Jon Snow is dead, yes. Now the only question is how long he will stay that way for.

I have to be honest; I was scared going into this episode. Not because of any emotional connection to Jon Snow as a character or his story, but simply because the show's last season was so bumpy that my faith as a viewer slipped a bit. I was scared that the show would resurrect Jon in this opening episode, ruining any kind of narrative direction that it could have earned otherwise. Thank the Gods, then, that by the end of "The Red Woman" Jon Snow is still very much dead. His death shook each and every viewer invested in the show, but for that impact to carry through into the new season we needed to understand how his death affects the people of Westeros as well, and that's exactly what this episode does. We see a broken Edd, devastated by the loss of a true friend. We have Ser Davos, a man whose new found loyalty has been shaken and whose purpose in the narrative is now at question again. Finally, we have Melisandre; the Red Woman herself. Jon's death hits her the hardest. Melisandre has had every ounce of her faith stripped from her over this episode and the season five finale, and "The Red Woman" allows us to truly see the impact this has on her. As she retreats to her chamber, she strips naked, removes her necklace, and we see the real her for the first time: a withered, ancient woman. It's a starkly beautiful sequence, as harrowing as it is surprising. Carice van Houten - one of my favourite performers on the show - gives arguably her best performance to date here. She is portrays this fragility masterfully.

The Wall was home to a variety of excellent sequences in this premiere, but the majority of the other subplots fared equally well. Arya's brief check-in served its purpose of updating us as to where she is now, and finished with the promise of a similarly violent sequence next week. Cersei's gutting reaction to finding Myrcella was a highlight of the episode; I've always adored Lena Headey as a performer, but she truly excelled here. Watching her walk towards the docks to greet her daughter only to cut away to her in her chambers later in the day was heartbreaking, which is quite an accomplishment given some of the monstrous acts that Cersei has performed. I also really enjoyed our check in with Dorne this episode, which surprised me greatly due to how dull and lifeless the Dorne arc was last year. This time around, though, it was benefitted by a rapid change in pace. Watching Ellaria Sand murder Prince Doran was undeniably shocking, but it also worked in really emphasising how much Ellaria believes in her cause. She is willing to commit treason to gain revenge for what happened to Oberyn two seasons ago, and I felt that I understood her purpose in the show more in that one sequence than her entire arc last year.

Our brief time with Daenerys was also solid tonight. It's unusual seeing Dany in a vulnerable position after her consistent development into power over the last few years, but it works due to Emilia Clarke's committed performance and the inclination that she won't be in this position for very long. With two large dragons in captivity, and an even bigger one nesting nearby, it's hard to imagine the new Dothraki horde staying in control here: it will just be interesting to watch Dany work her way out of this. Some of the humour felt slightly forced in this story, and not a lot of it landed, but I can overlook a small quibble in an otherwise strong subplot. Brienne, Podrick, Sansa and Theon all also came together tonight in a thrilling sequence placed surprisingly early in the episode. This grouping of characters was easy to predict, but I have to admit to being surprised by how quickly this came about. I didn't expect Brienne to pledge herself to Sansa again until at least the midpoint of the season, so this quick pacing helped push along the episode in its earlier half.

Pacing was a general strength of this entire episode, really. Most Game of Thrones premieres attempt little more than a catch up of the last season's bloodbath, but here "The Red Woman" was content to cover a lot more ground. Perhaps it is down to this pacing increase, then, that it feels as if the show is beginning its end game. A handful of characters are now in places that could launch them into their resolutions, and for the first time in the show's history it feels as if we're a long way into this long, long story. Game of Thrones benefitted last year from a tighter hold on character thematics, and it seems likely that that will be kept this year too: every character, here, is focused on a situation they've found themselves in whilst working towards something else. It gives each sequence a sense of purpose in the long run, as if every character isn't really that far apart despite the fact that they're on different continents. If this strong thematic purpose can be coupled with some powerful narrative development and a handful of climactic sequences, then we could be in for a hell of year.

Notes - 

  • Sansa forgetting the words to her part of the oath was a nice touch, it's been so long since Sansa was subjected to anything as formal as this. Podrick filling in the blanks for her made me smile.
  • Tyrion and Varys were as great a double act as ever. Tyrion unintentionally trying to buy a woman's baby for lunch was a brilliantly funny moment.
  • It will be interesting to see Bran back next week, after eleven episodes without him. I don't find Bran's story particularly compelling, but I think he's going to be a big player in the show's endgame, so I guess I better start trying to like him.
  • I feel like each season of Game of Thrones has its key own strength. Season one has the most intricate storytelling, season two has the most exciting character pairings, season three always felt like it was on the verge of going haywire, season four is by far the most eventful and season five is the most thematically resonant. Maybe this will be the first season to combine all five traits perfectly.
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