Season 6 of Game of Thrones was a methodical start, re-establishing the various narrative arcs and tying up a few loose ends…in characteristically violent fashion. Along the way, there were a few little surprises tossed in with a mixed bag of scenes, some of which showed the series’ strengths, and also its weaknesses. Here’s the analysis, and cocktail suggestions inspired by the most memorable moments:
Events at Castle Black bookend the episode, opening with a slow, aerial pan from the icy wall, down into the inner ward of the castle, where the man of the hour, Jon Snow, is still very dead. The howls of Jon’s direwolf, Ghost, alert Ser Davos to the crime, and he and Jon’s few allies lock themselves in a room with the body. They know who the assassins are and the peril they face, but Davos remains as clear headed as ever. When one of Jon’s besties, Eddison Tollett, wants to go on a revenge rampage, Davos sends him to go get support from the Wildlings. (They’re gonna need it.) When Alliser Thorne comes knocking, demanding a surrender from Davos and the rest of Jon’s allies, Davos just sasses back. He knows that Thorne just wants them out in the open for an easy slaughter.
Thorne has already openly admitted to the entire Watch that he and other officers (and dim little Olly) were the assassins, but insists that his hand was forced when Jon aided the Wildlings, thereby dooming the Watch to obsolescence (or worse). The crowd defers, as they still have not caught on to the peril presented by the Army of the Dead, advancing from the north. As it happens, the more immediate threat may be coming from the south.
The Boltons have just destroyed Stannis Baratheon’s army, but Ramsay is mourning the death of his main squeeze, Myranda (before suggesting her body be fed to the hounds), and Roose is mourning the disappearance of Sansa Stark. Ramsay has poisoned relations with the Greyjoys and will never have the support of the north as a whole without an heir by Sansa. Roose may have a new heir on the way, so Ramsay (his would-be heir) unleashes the hounds right quick to get his wife back.
And he almost does, except (almost too conveniently) Brianne of Tarth and Pod show up and slay the search party. For the third time, Brianne pledges her life and sword to someone (second time to a Stark, no less). Sansa accepts. Hopefully, the third time is the charm, because as Littlefinger pointed out during one meeting, Brianne’s track record hasn’t been so great. All the same, it’s one of the happier moments of the episode, as Brianne gets to redeem herself, Sansa gets some much needed protection, and we get to see two plot lines merge. For now.
Speaking of reunions, Jaime and Myrcella and Cersei are reunited, but not in the way that Cersei had hoped. As much as I love to hate Cersei, I have been dreading the moment when she is forced to greet Myrcella’s corpse, who was poisoned at the end of Season 5. It even occurred to me that, because Myrcella would have been lying dead for the entire voyage, it would be an especially sorry sight. Wouldn’t you know it, a significant part of Cersei’s monologue dwells on the nature of decay after death, as she recalls what it was like to see her own mother’s corpse bloat and rot.
Beyond these little details that make for a believable world in Game of Thrones, there are key moments when the characters show a deeper humanity, making them pathetic even if they are mostly loathsome. This is one of those moments with Cersei, as she admits that her fondness for Myrcella wasn’t just a mother’s love and pride; Myrcella’s sweetness and purity from infancy suggested to Cersei that she herself could not be all rotten if she had produced something so angelic. Cersei has shown flickers of self-loathing self-awareness throughout the series, especially in relation to her children. She knows that she is rash and cruel. (She even implies Joffrey‘s villainy came from herself.) She knows that her idea of peace is selfish, and she must also know that both the civil war (instigated by Robert’s death) and the rise of The Sparrows as a militant power were her doing.
Worst of all, she is embittered by a fatalistic sense that all she wants to protect is doomed anyways. She recalls to Jaime the prophecy given to her by a witch when she was still a child (the flashback that opened season 5), which told her she would have three children, all of whom would die before her. This gives Jaime an out (seeing as he failed to protect Myrcella after all), but he stubbornly insists that they can beat fate. Cersei seems less than convinced, but no matter…the Sparrows are the more immediate problem for the family, and we can bet that her rage will find vent on them.
Of course, the Sparrows are also a problem for the Tyrells. Margaery and Loris are still both in the Black Cells, and we see Margaery getting a stern sermon from Septa Unella, who is looking more smug than ever after her virtuoso bell-ringing performance during Cersei’s walk of shame. The High Sparrow comes in and plays a little “good cop” to Unella’s “bad cop,” coaxing Margaery to admit that she is not without fault. It becomes apparent that to the High Sparrow, no one is without fault, so one might ask why everyone in the city isn’t locked in with her.
Of course, we know the answer to that: She has power, and as much as the Sparrows speak of equality before the gods, like all fanatics they are out to seize control for themselves. The High Sparrow is less driven by wanton appetites and more honest about his aims than the hypocritical royals. His sense of righteousness is all the justification he needs to dole out arbitrary justice and violence. But we’ve seen how this plays out: In 15th Century Florence, the fiery friar Gioralmo Savonarola rose to power, and ended up burned at the stake. His contemporary, Machiavelli, outlived him and has attained a more lasting legacy. I suspect a similar dynamic will play out in King’s Landing—with the Machiavellians back on top before long.
Speaking of Machiavelli, the author of The Prince could have taught Prince Doran a thing or two. At the very least, as ruler of Dorne he would have done well to heed three simple rules. Rule number one: Those in power do not get to recuse themselves from the plays for power happening around them (as Cersei is painfully aware). Rule number two: High-minded principles are great, but if you don’t strategize twice as hard, they will get you killed—especially if they piss off your allies. (Robb Stark was a cautionary tale in this.) Rule number three: Failing all that, use common sense and never turn your back on a known assassin.
Prince Doran and his son, Trystane, learn all of this the hard way. In trying to keep his country out of war, Prince Doran refused to get embroiled in a blood feud over the deaths of his brother and sister, Oberyn and Elia, who both died at the hands of The Mountain by orders of the Lannisters. We come to learn that his diplomacy didn’t win him any allies at home, where Oberyn the man of action was beloved. Inaction led to outrage, and apparently, Doran’s right-hand lance, Captain Areo Hotah, was the only person loyal to him in the country. When Ellaria Sand stabs Doran in full view of the palace guard, and Sand Snake Tyene drops Hotah with a dagger from behind (see rule number three above), the palace guards just look on in disgust as he dies.
Meanwhile, on the ship from Dorne to King’s Landing, the other two Sand Snakes, Nymeria and Obara, bust in on poor Trystane, who is quietly mourning the death of his fiancee. They give him a choice of who will kill him, and he picks Nymeria, but (see rules number two and three) it ends with a brutally botched nose job, courtesy of Obara. Total nightmare fuel.
So Dorne is coming for the Lannisters now. They may not be out for the throne, but they are out for blood. After the assassination of Myrcella, war was inevitable, and it was end game between Ellaria and Doran, and…well, she played more aggressively. That said, I think we’ll be taking a break from the Doran side-plot for a little while. And that suits me just fine.
Dorne was a downer, but the sequences in Meereen and environs were by far the weakest. Yet, with all the botched strategies afoot, it was at least satisfying to see Varys and Tyrion banter and show actual perspicuity. Based on the coordination of the attacks by the Sons of the Harpy, they reason that the assassins have a central leadership, and Varys is seeking them out. Danaerys is losing popularity in her absence, but it at least seems that the Red Priests may be effective evangelists for her rule until she returns. Alas, my optimistic predictions for her having a fleet and a Dothraki horde at her command suffered their first blow, however, when Varys and Tyrion discover that the fleet has been set ablaze.
Out on the plains, Daario and Jorah are looking for Dany and having less interesting banter about wanting to see see the world after she conquers it. For Jorah, that’s just not gonna happen; that Grayscale infection is getting worse. It’s only a matter of time before he goes out, I suspect, in a blaze of glory, seeking a final reconciliation with the woman he loves. They know one thing for certain: A Dothraki horde has her.
When we check in on her, the writers don’t miss the opportunity to lay the crude misogyny of the horde on thick. A lot of the dialog is crude commentary on her pubic hair and how she will be raped, but in the end all of that is taken off the table…but so are her aspirations to return to Meereen. The Khal (Khal Moro) orders her to be taken, as expected, to Vaes Dothrak to live among the widows of Khals in the Dosh Khaleen. End scene (just not soon enough).
And we haven’t forgotten about Arya Stark, though she gets the least screen time. She’s begging on the streets and already not having the best day when The Waif from the House of Black and White comes and throws a staff into her lap and then beats her around in plain view of everyone. Things aren’t going to get easier, either; the Waif announces she will be back the next day for what seems to be a daily delivery of whoop-ass.
But out of everyone who made it through alive, it seems like the episode’s titular character is having the worst day of all.
Poor Melisandre is having a total crisis of faith, which is pretty extraordinary, given that she has made her magic work countless times. It has been hinted that she is much, much older than she appears, and the episode’s final twist is that she is older than anyone might have guessed. In her private quarters at Castle Black, she removes her robe and her ruby amulet. The light seems to fade from the jewel, and—boom, she is suddenly an ancient crone, looking almost akin to the White Walkers themselves.
This is why we have Juvederm.
There is no doubt in my mind that Melisandre is going to get her groove back, and that Davos is not wrong in his belief that her powers will deliver him and Jon Snow’s allies from the likes of Thorne, but it is revealing of just how powerful she is and R’hllor is, and yet how despite all this there is a question even in her mind as to what the fate of this world is to be.
She makes an interesting foil for Cersei in this case: Melisandre, once so sure of the victorious prophecies revealed directly to her, is now at a loss, while Cersei, who has lived with ominous threat of her family’s extinction presses on with a vengeance. And yet, I still submit, all of them are just tools in bringing about the necessary final clash between Fire and Ice—including Snow, who seems destined to be the champion of the former. I thought perhaps, we might see him get resurrected sooner than later, but this episode took its time (and we still haven’t even seen what’s happening beyond the wall), so we may have to wait awhile. Patience.