Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Game of Thrones 6.01: The Red Woman

Hello and welcome back to yet another season of Game of Thrones!! As with every season previous to season six, I will be recapping each episode with my comrade-in-arms, the lovely and talented Christopher Lockett, who will be posting it over on his blog simultaneously (but with different pictures). Until this season, Christopher has been the guy who knows the books inside and out and has commented on how each episode worked as an adaptation, whereas I just talked about the episodes in and of themselves. Now that we're officially off-book, both of us will be analyzing and discussing the new season in how it fits in the pantheon of what came before, and where we see it going.

So without further ado, here's Christopher to start us off!

Christopher: Well, we begin precisely where we left off last season, with the lifeless body of Jon Snow in the courtyard of Castle Black. We’re treated to an artful overhead shot skimming the edge of the Wall and craning down into the yard, coming in close on Jon’s lifeless face. Wolves howl in the distance, and the silent emptiness of the yard is broken by the rattling of a locked door. And then we see Ghost: locked in a room, in answer to your question, Nikki, in our last post of season five. Where was Jon’s direwolf as he was stabbed to death? Safely imprisoned, apparently.

As openings go, this was pretty deftly done: not least because every single fan of this show ended last season in a state of either trauma, denial, or rage (or all of the above) at the thought that Jon Snow was to be added to Game of Thrones’ butcher’s bill. If they’d been cute and started this episode anywhere else, I have to imagine that rage would have been volcanic. But no … we close in on Jon, deserted by his assassins who, we will shortly glean, have scarpered to the mess hall in order to justify their mutiny to their fellows.

Leaving poor Jon to be discovered by … Davos. There, the Onion Knight is joined by Jon’s friends, and together they carry the body indoors. That it is Davos who first finds him and takes command in short order is significant. Here is a man who has quite literally lost everything: his sons killed at the Battle of Blackwater, himself sidelined by his king to stay at Castle Black, and subsequently left without a king or an army after Stannis’ calamitous defeat at the hands of the Boltons. Yet here he is, siding with a small handful of Jon Snow loyalists. I have had many occasions to praise the casting on this show, and I can think of few actors who have better inhabited GRRM’s characters than Liam Cunningham as Davos Seaworth. He radiates gravitas, and so beautifully and subtly communicates the pathos of a man whose loyalty and service were undeserved by the object of his devotion, Stannis Baratheon.

All of which is at least a little beside the question that everyone waiting breathlessly since last year has been asking: is Jon Snow really dead? Well, yes. Quite dead. But will he remain dead? Will he become a wight? Had he thrown his consciousness into Ghost? Will Melissandre resurrect him? This last question will rebound on us when we discuss this episode’s final moments, but for now we can safely say: Jon Snow is dead. At least for the entirety of this episode.

What’s interesting is the possible battle lines that have been drawn: Dolorous Edd Tollett has been dispatched, presumably, to recruit the wildlings to the cause of Jon Snow’s friends. Davos makes it clear that he has no truck with Jon’s assassins. Ghost is seriously pissed. Meanwhile, Alliser Thorne and his co-conspirators paraphrase Brutus’ post-assassination speech from Julius Caesar in the mess hall, apparently successfully. The stage has been set for some serious shit to go down at the Wall, with or without a live Jon Snow.

What did you think of this season’s opening salvo, Nikki?

Nikki: I loved it (all except that part where Jon Snow didn’t magically come back to life, of course). But I’m also glad they’ve kept it a secret. Season 5 ended with the death of Jon Snow; perhaps season 6 will end with him coming back to life. It would be really interesting if they draw it out, either to keep our hopes up or to divert our attention elsewhere. The thought of Tollett returning with a band of wildlings is exciting — as Davos says, “You’re not the only ones who owe your lives to Jon Snow” — and I wonder if this might be where Bran could re-enter the picture this season.

Meanwhile, over in the Super Happy Fun Times Castle, Ramsay strokes the face of his dead lover before declaring that she’s “good meat” that should be fed to the hounds (we all, um, grieve in our own way, I suppose?) before Roose takes him out into the hallway to chastise him for the way he handled his ragtag battle. He’s lost Sansa and Theon, and he says the North will never back them if they don’t have Sansa Stark, and they’ve lost the heir to the Iron Islands. And then he hints that perhaps the newest Lady Bolton is carrying a son, which once again reminds Ramsay that he’ll be once again relegated to bastard status: heir of nothing.

Meanwhile, Sansa and Reek have been running from Ramsay Bolton’s castle and forge an icy stream (where Sansa, for some reason, doesn’t remove the 100-pound cloak from her back and hold it over her head so they can use it later as a blanket) before finding solace under a felled tree. I LOVED the scene where we saw another glimmer of Theon, where Sansa is both so physically and emotionally numb she can’t move, and he embraces her, rubbing her back to keep her warm, but also to let her know that her “brother” is back. And when Ramsay’s hunters catch up to them, Theon throws himself in their path as a sacrifice, trying to save the girl who was raised as his sister and right all the wrongs he’s done to the Starks. It doesn’t work, however, and juuuuuust when you think oh NO, they have to head back to that bastard’s castle... along comes Brienne and Pod.

You know a show is great when you’re cheering for joy on the couch and it’s less than 15 minutes into the premiere episode. The fight scene was fantastic, where Brienne holds her own, but not without some trouble. She’s large, she’s strong, and she’s an excellent fighter, but these men have horses, and — not to put too fine a point on it — they’re men. And she still manages to better them, with the help of Podrick and Theon, who guts one of them. She ignores their cries for mercy because she has one goal and one goal only: to save Lady Stark, whose life she has pledged to keep safe. And when she kneels before Sansa and once again gives her that pledge — and I was half expecting her to say, “NOW will you come with me, you jerk?!” — and Sansa accepts it (with some help from Podrick when she can’t remember the formal language), it’s a joyous moment. 

And to be honest, I couldn’t help but think to myself, I would love a Brienne:

“See that woman over there, Brienne? She told me off at the PTA meeting, and is one of those moms who volunteers for everything and makes me feel bad that I don't. And her daughter’s a bully who made my daughter cry last week. Deal with her.”
“Yes, m’lady!”


OK, back to reality.

From here we move to King’s Landing and the Lannisters. What did you think of the reunion of Jamie and Cersei, Chris?

Christopher: On a purely emotional level, it was my favourite scene of the episode. I too was fist-pumping as Brienne rode to the rescue, was aghast at the events in Dorne, loved the buddy comedies unfolding in and adjacent to Meereen, and was gobsmacked by the episode’s final moments … but in this reunion I think we got some of the finest acting we’ve seen from Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau yet—which is saying a lot, as neither of them have exactly been slouches in the previous five seasons.

If there’s something this show does well, it’s making us sympathize with otherwise hateful characters, and making us cringe when the supposedly likable characters do hateful things (the obvious exceptions being the requisite sociopaths like Joffrey and Ramsay, whom we just loathe unreservedly and with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns). We know what’s coming—we know as soon as Cersei receives word that her twin has returned that her joy at the prospect of seeing him and her daughter will turn to ash. And while she’s a character for whom we would be well justified for indulging in some schadenfreude, the scene is instead heartbreaking, for reasons Cersei herself identifies. “She was good,” she weeps. “From her first breath, she was so sweet. I don’t know where she came from. She was nothing like me. No meanness, no jealousy. Just good … I thought if I could make something so good, so pure … maybe I’m not a monster.” Her grief in this moment is wildly different from her grief for Joffrey, which was almost feral in its rage and fear. We might interpret that as Cersei valuing her male child over the female, but I think not—it was, I’m inclined to believe, her unspoken recognition of her son’s monstrosity, seeing herself reflected in it, and her visceral reaction to being attacked.

Her grief for Myrcella is quieter, more fatalistic, the shock at the death of innocence. It is a moment of rare self-reflection on Cersei’s part, in which she sees her own machinations and ruthlessness rebound upon her. Except that we know her well enough to know she would not be surprised to have the revenge of her numerous enemies visited upon her: Myrcella’s death at the hands of the Sand Snakes is yet one more innocent lost in the larger war, and we soon see her erstwhile fiancĂ©e similarly dispatched back in Dorne—dead for the sin of having the wrong parents. It was a moment that called to mind the murder of all Robert Baratheon’s bastards in season one.

As I’ve mentioned many times in the past five years, Lena Headey as Cersei was always one of the few bits of casting that never entirely sat right with me—not because she’s not a good actor, but because her portrayal is dramatically at odds with how Cersei is described in the novels, and for that reason she’s had more of an uphill battle in this role than almost everyone else in the show. But I must say, she has come to own this role, and in moments like this brings more nuance to the character than GRRM gives her in the books.

And she’s well matched in this scene by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, whose impassioned “Fuck prophecy! Fuck fate, fuck everyone who isn’t us!” is one of the more eloquent employments of the f-bomb I’ve seen since Deadwood ended. A point I raised several times last season is the way in which this show depicts radicalization: the way in which circumstances drive certain characters and groups of characters to extremes. The rise of the sparrows is the most obvious example, but we see it also in the scenes in Mereen, where the red priests look to be getting traction with the disenfranchised ex-slaves. Jaime’s “fuck everyone who isn’t us!” mirrors such sentiments on a smaller and more intimate scale, a reactionary clenching in the face of fear and loss.

Speaking of the sparrows, we segue from Cersei and Jaime to where Margaery remains imprisoned, subjected to the shaming of a septa who seems to take a little too much pleasure in her duties. What think you of the fortunes of House Tyrell, Nikki?

Nikki: Oh, Margaery. Just as you said with Cersei, there’s a part of me that wants to see her suffer for everything she’s done to the people around her. But then you see her on the ground being badgered by a nun, and... actually, yeah, I’m still OK with her suffering at this point. When the High Sparrow enters the room after Sister Ratchet has been ordering her to confess, Margaery once again tells him that she has nothing to confess. “You believe you are pure, perfect, wholly without sin?” he says to her. “None of us are,” she replies, and despite the cringe-worthy grammatical error in that line (move on, Nikki, MOVE ON) it’s one that sums up every person on this show. Everyone is seeking revenge on someone else for harms that person has done to them, all the while harming other people. Margaery was justified in the actions she took against the House of Lannister, but she’s been so awful and bitchy that I just couldn’t stand her anymore. Meanwhile, Cersei and Jaime in the previous scene are lamenting what’s been done to them by everyone, and yet Cersei is the one who brought the High Sparrow to King’s Landing in the first place, and she’s also the one who had Oberyn killed, which led to the murder of her daughter.

And the Sand Snakes aren’t stopping there. Now that they’ve gotten to Cersei through her daughter, they turn their sights to the House Martell. Prince Oberyn’s brother Doran, the ruler of Dorne, is a quiet, pensive leader who is a lot calmer and more calculating than his younger brother, whose head was smooshed like a cantaloupe when he got too cocky in the midst of battling the Mountain. When Ellaria Sand raced to Dorne to tell Doran what had happened to her lover, Doran did not rush to exact revenge on the House of Lannister — he knew doing so would simply start a war that he wanted to avoid. And so he said no, let’s wait, come up with a plan, and find a way to fix all of this. The problem is, this isn’t the first time the Lannisters — and, specifically, the Mountain — had torn their family apart. Remember that before the events of the series, Rhaegar Targaryen — Daenerys’s beloved older brother — had been married to Elia Dorne, and when Robert Baratheon’s army moved on Rhaegar, with Baratheon himself killing the Targaryen, Tywin Lannister then moved his army into Rhaegar’s castle, and the Mountain not only killed Elia’s older child, followed by her infant son, before her very eyes, but then raped her violently before killing her, too.

The effect this would have had on Oberyn was immense, as he was very close to his sister, and Ellaria vowed revenge on that day, but Prince Doran refused to move against the Lannisters. Now that they’ve killed both his brother and his sister and he still refuses to move, Ellaria can no longer wait for something to happen. “Your son is weak, just like you, and weak men will never rule Dorne again.” And as Doran lies on the ground, gasping for breath after Ellaria has stabbed him through the lung, his last thought is that his son is next.

And he is. In one of the gorier moments on Game of Thrones — and one most viewers probably saw coming, since A) no one turns their back on Obara and gets away with it, and B) Obara would like nothing more than to take a satisfying kill away from Nymeria — Obara pushes her spear diagonally through Trystane’s back and up through his face. Thus endeth the House of Martell.

And from there we move to Meereen, where Tyrion and Varys return (and there was much rejoicing... yaay...) and Varys stops Tyrion from a potentially embarrassing baby-eating incident. What did you think of the return of our favourite twosome, and the rumblings of rebellion in Meereen?

Christopher: I would be happy with a Game of Thrones spin-off that was just Tyrion and Varys on a road trip. To say that these two actors have amazing chemistry might suggest that they don’t have great chemistry with everyone else in the cast, which they do; but there’s a particularly good match between these characters that the series has exploited to much greater effect than the novels. They are both marginalized figures who more than compensate for their outsider status with their shrewd intellects; and both work for a greater good in spite of the fact that they receive no gratitude for it. I’m reminded of the moment in season two’s final episode, after the Battle of the Blackwater, when Varys sits beside the gravely wounded Tyrion’s bed and informs him that he cannot expect any commendations for his valiant defense of the city. “There are many who know that, without you, the city would have faced certain defeat,” Varys says sadly. “The king won’t give you any honours, the histories won’t mention you … but we will not forget.” That “we” is vague, but suggestive, hinting at a silent majority—the people themselves, the forgotten, who are so often crushed by the great wheel Daenerys spoke about last season.

This little scene is one of the subtler bits of writing we’ve seen: one of the things this show is good at is depicting the monumental difficulty of ruling in a just and equitable manner. Nothing is easy, and this in a genre that has so frequently figured the difference between bloody war and utopian peace as merely a matter of sitting the right arse on the throne: whether it’s Aragorn’s coronation at the end of Lord of the Rings, the Pevensie children ascending to Cair Paravel in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, ruling is a matter of destiny rather than statesmanship and diplomacy. Game of Thrones dispenses with this trope almost entirely.

Almost—there is still the vague sense of destiny floating in the air, especially in terms of Daenerys’ ostensibly inevitable return to Westeros, but the sojourn in Meereen has proved such a catastrophe so far that the mere rightness (or what seems like rightness) of Daenerys’ motives falls far short of what is needed to actually run a kingdom.

Tyrion’s first line in this scene—“We’re never going to fix what’s wrong with this city from the top of an eight hundred foot pyramid”—sums this point up rather pithily. Daenerys arrived in Meereen with noble intentions, but ruled in a literally top-down fashion that ignored nuance. Tyrion brings Varys down to ground level, but his drab merchant’s garb can’t efface his privileged background: “You walk like a rich person,” Varys says, skeptical. “You walk as though the paving stones were your personal property.” Tyrion may have excommunicated himself from his family and fortune and been subjected last season to a host of indignities, but he is still a Lannister. The bit of comic business in which Tyrion inadvertently offers to eat the destitute woman’s baby is emblematic of the serial miscommunications that marred Daenerys’ reign, and as he and Varys continue through the city, there is a palpable sense of imminent danger. The red priest urges the people to take things in their own hands rather than wait for the queen’s return; graffiti highlights Daenerys’ own conflicted status, and the disillusionment of the people she sought to save; and as Tyrion and Varys enter what appears to be a deserted part of the city, the apparent absence of people is belied by their unseen watcher lurking in the shadows. The sense of a city holding its breath is broken by tolling bells and the screams and cries of people in flight, and we see what appears to be the Sons of the Harpy’s next attack: the burning of the fleet in the harbor. “We won’t be sailing to Westeros anytime soon,” Tyrion grimly observes. Given that Daenerys’ absence and the city’s chaos mean that her return to the Seven Kingdoms was a ways off in the future, the burning of the ships is more significant for the fact that it obviates the possibility for escape.

Which brings us to a somewhat more awkward buddy narrative as Jorah and Daario find the site of Daenerys’ capture, and Jorah finds the ring she left behind. Of course, we also get a requisite glance at Jorah’s forearm to remind us of his creeping greyscale, whose progress says tempus fugit—his days are numbered, and the time he has to find Dany is limited.

Speaking of the erstwhile Mother of Dragons, she is back in the familiar context of a khalasar, except this time as a captive and slave. What did you think of Daenerys’ scenes in this episode, Nikki?

Nikki: Agreed on that scene being one to rush over. I like Daario, but I like him more when he’s in Clone Club.

The scenes with Daenerys were fantastic. First, as she’s being pulled along in the dust and desert while the two riders speak Dothraki in front of her, assuming she can’t understand a word (all the while with her face showing the “as soon as I get the upper hand again, you two asshats will be the first to be flame-broiled by my dragon” look), and then when we get to the tent where Khal Moro unwittingly enters a Spanish Inquisition sketch.

Moro: The absolute BEST thing in life is seeing a naked woman for the first time. Seeing a naked woman and killing another Khal okay the TWO best things in life are seeing a naked woman for the first time... and killing another Khal.
Moron #1: And conquering a city and taking people as slaves.
Moron #2: And removing the idols back to Vaes Dothrak...
Moro: OK THE FOUR, FOUR best things in life are seeing a naked woman for the first time, killing another Khal, conquering a city and taking the people as slaves, AND taking her idols back to Vaes Dothrak. And breaking a wild horse and forcing it to submit to your will OK AMONG THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE... is seeing a naked woman for the first time.

Actor Joe Naufahu is brilliant in this scene, simply by tilting his head and looking off into the distance while his yahoos try to outwit him and prevent him from making a very brief and terrifying point to his prisoner, and it’s hilarious. And completely unexpected in the midst of a Dothraki scene. Meanwhile Daenerys has this “are... you... kidding... me...” look on her face the entire time that makes the scene even better.

But on a more serious note, throughout this scene we can’t help but move back in our memories to a very similar scene in season one, when she was first trotted out to Khal Drogo, who similarly looked at her like another possession, was taunted by his fellow riders and women sitting nearby, and was terrified. Her brother Viserys had put her up to it back then, but this is a very different Daenerys who is facing them this time. This one is a queen, a mother of dragons, a woman who not only conquered Viserys, but made Khal Drogo worship her, who has loved and lost and risen above everything, who commands armies and who has a very serious shot at taking back the throne of Westeros. This isn’t the young girl from season one (only 13 years old in the books when it happens). This is a powerful woman. And it’s no surprise when he suddenly steps back, cuts her bonds, asks her forgiveness, and acquiesces to the power of Daenerys...

...except that’s not exactly what happens. Instead of being let go, she’s told that as a widow, she will be forced to live out her days in the Temple of Dosh Khaleen, a place where widowed khaleesis go to live out the rest of their days. (And... apparently as he was dying a horrible, painful death, Khal Drogo didn’t think to mention this to his wife? Yeesh. Men.)

Things are about to get interesting.

Meanwhile, as the show continues in its quite anti–Happily Ever After vein, Arya is now blind and begging for coins on the streets when she’s met with her old roomie from the House of Black and White, who beats the utter living snot out of her with a staff in what appears to be the beginning of a truly violent series of lessons that will teach Arya to see in a very different way (think blindfolded Luke in lightsaber training as he tried to block the shots coming from the Marksman-H... only imagine it if Luke missed every shot and came away half-dead). Just as Daenerys’s scene reminded us of how far she’s come since season one, this scene reminds us of a young Arya as she had her “dancing” lessons with Syrio Forel... all these years later, the training is far more vicious, and Arya is no longer the little girl she was back then.

What did you think of the “training” scene with Arya, Chris?

Christopher: I think one of the best lines of this episode was when Daario says he hopes to live a long life, because he wants to see what the world looks like when Daenerys is done conquering it. That’s a sentiment that resonates on a host of levels with this series, both the macro and the micro. What will Westeros look like after it gets the Daenerys treatment? But on the micro level, what will survival of these tempestuous, indeed catastrophic times mean for all of these characters?

It’s a question I find myself asking at each stage in Arya’s evolution—from tomboy daughter of a noble house, to a fugitive cutpurse, to a girl suddenly faced with the fact of her family’s destruction, to an assassin-in-training required to surrender her sense of self in the name of becoming Faceless. What is being required of her in the House of Black and White is nothing less than the dissolution of her selfhood, to truly become “no one” in order that she can assume myriad identities. That loss of self is chilling enough a prospect to consider in the abstract, but even more so when it is a character so compelling and complex as Arya. I don’t want her to become no one! I always want her to be Arya Stark in all of her stubborn idiosyncrasies.

And it is difficult to watch her broken down and humiliated in this way. On one hand, it is reminiscent of every kung fu movie ever made in which an apprentice suffers at the hands of a master, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that entry into the most elite society of assassins is slightly more brutal than becoming a Navy SEAL. On the other hand, a man wonders what will be left of Arya when all is said and done (assuming she survives).

One way or another, the writers aren’t really giving us any room to sympathize with “the waif” (which is apparently what we’re calling that tween girl version of R. Lee Ermey).

But speaking of loathsome characters, we haven’t yet talked at any length about Ser Alliser Thorne doing his very best Brutus-addressing-the-mob impersonation back at the Wall. A quick note of correction: you suggested that perhaps Edd Tollett’s mission to go bring the wildlings back might bring Bran back into the picture, but the point is that the wildlings are now south of the Wall—that was the mutineers’ main quarrel with Jon, that he let the Night Watch’s traditional enemy through to settle the lands that they had always raped and pillaged in the past.

“He forced a choice on us, and we made it,” thunders Thorne, at once acknowledging that he broke his oath in killing Jon, and justifying that act as Jon’s own fault. Here as elsewhere in this world, there is a tension between tradition and revolution, between the way things have been and what they have to be. Jon Snow recognized that the enmity between the Watch and the wildlings was small beer compared to the imminent war between the living and the dead, but Thorne and his ilk are too stuck in old hatreds to remember that the Wall was not built to keep wildlings out, but to defend against a far more profound threat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it takes an outsider to recognize as much. Davos sees what Jon Snow saw, and what Alliser Thorne cannot. But the battle lines have been drawn, with Davos and his fellow loyalists given an ultimatum that they all recognize as false: “In my learned opinion, if we open that door,” Davos begins, and one of Jon’s friends finishes, “And they’ll slaughter us all.” Their only hope is with the wildlings—or is it? “There’s always the red woman,” Davos counters, and is met with skepticism. But, “You haven’t see her do what I’ve seen her do.”

Cut to a despondent Melissandre in her chamber: all the bets she’s staked seemed to have failed. Stannis is dead; Jon, whom she saw in the flames “fighting at Winterfell,” is dead. She stands before her stained mirror and—surprise!—opens her dress. My friend with whom I watched this episode snarked with mock surprise that it had taken them a whole fifty minutes to get to their first boob flash of the season.

But then … well, I’ll leave it to you, Nikki, to play us out with this episode’s closing shocker.

Nikki: Ha!! Sounds like your friends and I were on exactly the same page. As Melisandre stood looking at her mirror, completely bereft, I said out loud, “Undo the dress, Melisandre... there’s no way HBO would have greenlit this episode without at least one boob.” And she complied. To which I said to my husband, “Man, no matter how many seasons this show is on, that woman’s breasts are spectacular and perky.”

And then she removed her necklace.

And I immediately said, “Ohmygod I take that back.” Because, turns out, Melisandre is old. Like, beyond elderly... we’re talking fairy tale witch old. That gorgeous ubiquitous ruby necklace has actually had a purpose in keeping Melisandre looking young, but in fact, she looks like she could be quite ancient, give or take a century or two.

And of course the mind begins to run back to her seduction of Stannis and Jon Snow, of the fact that her way of speaking is always slow and measured, wise and mature. She speaks like someone who not only believes in the Lord of Light, but knew the guy personally at one time. And now that we see her remove the necklace to go to bed, I wonder if she has to do this every night? What magic beyond the necklace creates the illusion that Melisandre is indeed a young, beautiful woman? Does it take an enormous amount of strength? Where did she get the necklace? Who created it for her? How many years has she been doing this, and why?

Regardless, this episode left me with only one really major thought: please tell me there’s some sort of WesterEtsy shop where I can buy one for myself...

Thanks for reading, everyone, and please join us again next week!