It seems fair to call the Game of Thrones premiere the most hotly anticipated premiere on television this year. It’s hard for other programming to compete with a winner of 26 Emmy Awards, whose vocabulary is now regularly used in media to describe real-world political conflict.
Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R.R. Martin, derives its success from apparent paradox—it’s loved not only for its epic fantasy and world-building but also for exploring eerily real personal and political struggles.
Its scale and characterization, however, lend it the notoriety of having an unwieldy number of characters and an unusual amount of sexual and graphic content. It’s also infamous for killing its apparent main characters, like in season three’s “Red Wedding.”
The show follows members of the seven great houses of Westeros as they grapple with each other to contest their late king’s seat. All the while, ancient magic looms, from the dead rising in the North of the world to dragons hatching in the East. Sound confusing or only vaguely familiar? Luckily, HBO has prefaced the episode with a three-minute recap of the main plotlines beginning from season one.
The Game of Thrones season-six premiere, “The Red Woman,” saw a revisitation of most of the show’s major arcs, which was a good way to re-familiarize viewers with the show’s most recent drama. At the Wall, the Night’s Watch, a military force tasked with keeping order in the North, discover their dead lord commander, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), betrayed by his fellows. At Winterfell, Jon’s half-sister Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and their childhood friend Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), escape the tyrannical House Bolton’s forces and finally run into Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), an event long in the making.
At the capital, King’s Landing, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) reunites with his sister Cersei (Lena Headey), bringing home their daughter’s body. Meanwhile, Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) languishes in the prison of the Faith, the Seven Kingdom’s dominant religious order.
Across the Narrow Sea in the city-state of Braavos, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), newly blind, begins training to fight in a visually painful sequence. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), captured by a nomadic Dothraki horde during her quest to find a fleet to sail to conquer Westeros, finds mercy in Dothraki culture. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and former adviser-of-kings Varys (Conleth Hill) struggle to keep order in Daenerys’ city, even as rebels set fire to her ships. Jorah (Iain Glen) and Daario (Michiel Huisman) search for their queen in the wastes outside the city.
But while the episode serves primarily as review of season five and exposition for the new season, it certainly doesn’t lack twists of its own. First, on Westeros’ southern tip of Dorne, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) stages a bloody coup resulting in the death of Dorne’s crippled prince and his son. At the Wall, the titular “Red Woman” Melisandre (Carice van Houten), a priestess of the fire god R’hllor who proved a key political strategist in past seasons, renounces her faith and, in a Shining-esque moment, is revealed to be an ancient woman disguising herself with magic.
And despite fitting so many different scenes into one episode, the season premiere doesn’t neglect character development either. In a cinematographically memorable example, Headey shows Cersei’s change of emotions deftly over two long camera shots, as her almost-smile gives way to tears as Jaime’s boat approaches.
But Cersei isn’t the only humanized villain—Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), up until now a seeming sociopath, actually mourns his murdered lover with visible emotion. On top of that, he seems perturbed by his father’s ignominious threats of disinheritance. The unfazeable Red Woman herself is shown, for the first time, in a state of uncertainty and lost faith from which her character has the potential to develop.
Game of Thrones has, in previous seasons, received fan criticism for straying from Martin’s written plot, but the showrunners’ changes now seem crucial to reduce the scale of the show, which continues to sprawl outwards in the novels. Interactions between main characters, which will hopefully increase over this season, and well-thought-out character deaths will advance the show toward its final conflict in an exciting but manageable way.
This is not to say that there is no one new to look forward to this season. Most notably, Isaac Hempstead Wright returns as Bran Stark after a season-long hiatus. Rumors have been circulating for months as well about new cast members joining as mysterious characters and old cast members (possibly dead characters) returning again. The truth will be revealed as the season progresses.
This season premiere shows Game of Thrones’ ability to pace itself and to deliver on its cliffhangers, balancing character development with its own sweeping scale—traits that it must maintain if it is to keep audiences’ and critics’ interest for its probable final three seasons.
Featured Image By HBO