Game of Thrones often uses its season premieres as brief pauses in the action, a chance for the audience to get re-situated in the midst of the series' gigantic world and enormous cast of characters.
It often knits together these episodes via a common theme that applies to everybody in the show's world, as in, say, the second season's opening, which featured a giant comet burning through the sky for all the characters to see, allowing them to reflect on how doomed they all were.
Such an episode was "The Red Woman." In the wake of season five's ever-tightening spiral of chaos, the sixth season opened with a firm focus on the idea that maybe the patriarchal structures of the show's world were part of the problem, and the best thing for women to do would be to kill all of the men they saw.
I'm exaggerating slightly, but outside of a scene with Tyrion and Varys striding around Meereen (in which a beggar woman is prominently featured), every other storyline in the episode was either directly centered on a woman who stood up to have her revenge or tangentially about that.
So were women the winners of this week's Game of Thrones episode? Not so fast. Here are three winners and seven losers from the season six premiere. (There are always more losers.)
Winner 1: Ladies
Brienne takes out a small squadron of Boltons while Pod, Theon, and Sansa pretty much watch her do so. Sansa summarily proves to be the good and kind ruler she's been looking for (and I can't wait to see these two wandering the wintry wastes and knocking heads together).
The Sand Snakes, meanwhile, executed their plan to take over the Dornish system of government, which went off (so far as I can tell) without a hitch, as both the current ruler and next in the line of succession were murdered brutally, one with a spear through his head (hooray?).
And in the episode's greatest reveal, Melisandre turned out to be hundreds upon hundreds of years old, in a scene that all but stuck a thumb in the eye of the portion of the audience that just watches for the naked bits. The implication was clear: If anybody is going to keep themselves alive for centuries, it's probably a super-proficient woman.
And, yes, Dany is being held captive by the Dothraki, and Arya is struggling with her blindness, and Cersei is at her lowest ebb. But the implication of the episode is clear: The old systems, which devalued women, have failed. Maybe it's time for the show's women to stop putting up with them and start stabbing them in the face.
Game of Thrones' greatest theme has always been systems of good governance, the idea that the monarchy that existed throughout Westeros was broken long ago, but nobody quite knew how to replace it. "The Red Woman" is an all-out celebration of the idea that if your champion is dead, the only person who might be able to bring him back is a woman.
Winner 2: Hard-line anti-immigration policy
For the time being, Alliser Thorne has completely taken over the Night's Watch and remade it in his image. And his image continues to be a hard-line stance on whether wildlings should be let south of the Wall. (Spoilers: He's against it.)
Game of Thrones rarely comments directly on modern politics (largely because it's set centuries ago in a fantasy kingdom), but it wasn't hard to read too much into Alliser's speech about how if the wildlings are let south of the Wall, they'll start killing and raping everything they see. (The camera lurks below him, looking up at his visage, here in his moment of greatest power.) And, indeed, when this episode was being written and produced, the Syrian refugee crisis was frequently in the news.
Granted, this anti-wildling stance from most of the Night's Watch members is straight out of the books. But throughout the series, George R. R. Martin suggests that to embrace prejudice is ultimately self-defeating. This would dovetail nicely with that.
Winner 3: Death
In some way, death is the biggest winner of every Game of Thrones episode. But "The Red Woman" was particularly full of it, what with Brienne's battle with the Bolton men, and the Sand Snakes' systematic dismantling of the Dornish power structure.
But what I was most impressed by was the way the episode acknowledged the weary sway so much death would hold over these characters after all this time. The very first two stories check in on a Davos who's horrified to find the corpse of Jon, then a Ramsay who seems more broken up by the death of Myranda than you would have expected. Both scenes allow for some tiny, ruminative moments, ones that give the actors something to play and that underscore how hard it would be to live in a world coursing with such brutality.
Of course, then Ramsay suggests that Myranda's corpse is made of fine meat and should be fed to the hounds, so this only goes so far.
Loser 1: Also ladies
For as much as the episode attempts to make you think that women have finally gotten the upper hand in, say, snowbound battles with comically inept soldiers, it also pairs all of those moments of feminine triumph with moments of comically gross sexism. Case in point: Before Brienne kills all of those dudes, one of them yelps, "A woman?!" as if the thought of this is too much for him to bear.
Game of Thrones, save for a few exceptions, has always been pretty good at portraying a landscape where women can expect a lifetime of implied/outright sexual violence directed at them. (Whether that's the sort of thing you want to watch every week is another thing entirely.) The reason this aspect of the show doesn't become unbearable is because it's good at balancing it out with scenes featuring some good, old-fashioned "kill all men" action.
But make no mistake: This is still a world where Dany, a legitimate queen, has to listen to a couple of guys talk about how she's an imbecile who's only good as a sex object. It's still a world where Sansa is valued mostly as a womb that will produce an heir. And it's still a world where Melisandre has to hide away her true form. Women have won this battle, but they're still struggling in a hugely destructive war.
Loser 2: Jon Snow
He's still dead!
That said, one suspects the producers didn't just pay Kit Harington to come back and appear as a corpse for several episodes. And because Davos seems pretty intent on getting Melisandre and Jon in the same place, most fans will have a pretty good idea of where all of this is heading.
So while Jon is still dead right now, the thought of a Jon with Davos to advise him and Melisandre to perform magic that will help him mow down his enemies is an enticing proposition. As a longtime Jon Snow skeptic, I can't believe I actually want to see this happen.
Loser 3: Arya Stark
Meanwhile in Braavos, the blinded Arya is continuing her training, which now consists of begging for spare coinage and occasionally being accosted by those who work for the Faceless Men.
The Waif (this is, apparently, her official character name) goads Arya into a fight while the girl is sitting and trying to win the pity of those who pass her by. Since Arya's blind, this fight doesn't seem entirely fair, but that's probably part of the point. If she can learn how to fight without her sight, she'll be even more deadly, and that seems like something that might be useful in the very immediate future.
For now, though, Arya must feel like she's trapped at the bottom of the ladder, all over again. She's unable or unwilling to let go of her past to advance in her Faceless Man training, and now they're picking on her, seemingly arbitrarily. You can see where this is going; that doesn't make it any less painful to watch.
Loser 4: Tyrion Lannister
Really, Tyrion is in stasis. Without Dany, Meereen threatens to teeter over into chaos, but he's trying to figure out just what's happening in the city before it completely falls apart. Plus, he has the help of Varys, who's exactly the guy you might want to have on you side when the dystopian future begins to erupt all around you.
But he's still forced to watch as Dany's entire fleet is burned, in a plot stall so blatant that Peter Dinklage has to say, "I guess we're not going to Westeros any time soon." (And if you think I'm paraphrasing, that is almost exactly the line of dialogue.) He also accidentally implies to a poor woman that he wants to eat her baby, when he really just wants to give her a little money to make sure the baby is fed (in a moment that's a nice reminder of how funny this show can be).
Mostly, though, Tyrion is waiting out the chaos, hoping to figure out whatever's next. But he's in an even more precarious position than he's usually been. He can't even go undercover, because, as Varys says, he walks like a rich man. Hang in there, Tyrion.
Loser 5: Prophecy (fuck it!)
Do I expect Jaime and Cersei to prove victorious in the long run? Nah. Do I expect them to even prove victorious in the short run? Probably not.
But damned if I wasn't entirely on board when Jaime told his twin (and lover) to "fuck prophecy," because the only thing that mattered was the two of them, together forever, blazing against anyone who would try to hold them back, until they either win or die. Jaime and Cersei as a fantasy Bonnie and Clyde, riding roughshod over the Westerosi countryside, is something that could be fun, sure.
But mostly, these scenes were a tremendous reminder of how Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey have taken an element of the books that was mostly played up for its "ew, gross!" factor and turned it into one of the show's tragic, beating hearts. It's kind of remarkable, really.
Loser 6: People who thought the Dorne storyline was maybe over
The TV show's Dornish storyline was easily the worst thing it's ever done. At the end of season five, it was easy to think the show would cut its losses and never speak of it again. Instead, it's doubling down, with the Sand Snakes taking over and presumably further intrigue to follow. This is not an encouraging sign.
Loser 7: Book readers
If the show wanted to rub it in to book readers that they're mostly behind the times, it could have picked far worse ways to do so. (Hey, fellow readers! We're still ahead of show viewers on the Arya storyline, sort of!)
But this was still an episode that obliterated a bunch of favorite fan theories, particularly as they pertain to Dornish ruler Doran, who seems a lot more important in the books than he turned out to be here.
Now, on the one hand, this is probably good. Having everybody on the same page could mean that everything that's to come will play with an extra frisson of excitement and adventure. Reportedly, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have some idea of where Martin is going in the books, and they're going to loosely play around with those story points, as they head toward the series' ultimate conclusion.
But this also means they're slowly but surely ruling out certain theories fans have had, based on the books. They have some idea of what Martin values, and that means various ideas and notions fans have held dear are being cast aside.
Now, Martin might change his mind. Indeed, the books' finale will probably be substantially different from the show's finale. But we're still in uncharted territory, and for a bunch of fans who previously prided themselves on knowing roughly what was coming, that has to sting, at least a little.
Agree? Disagree? Join me at noon Eastern on Monday, April 25, to chat about this episode and culture in general.
Head down to comments. I'll be here for 90 minutes to answer your questions and/or argue about the episode. And answer my question for you: What's the best season premiere you've ever seen? A good season premiere is very hard to do well!