Do second chances exist? For Jon Snow, that question remains unanswered. The biggest mystery in all of "Game of Thrones" received no clear resolution in last night's season six premiere. But "The Red Woman," which included one shocking revelation, did establish second chances (or, at least a fresh set of obstacles) for a handful of other key characters. From Sansa and Theon in the North, Jaime and Cersei in King's Landing and Daenerys and Arya overseas, many of the core members of our story find themselves at the start of a new endeavor, rather than at the end of an old one.
I enjoyed last night's season premiere partly because I had no idea what to expect - the days of me smugly lording my book knowledge over fellow show watchers has sadly come to an end - and partly because it set in motion the major story lines of season six.
"Game of Thrones" is a bit notorious for having slow openers, what with the mountains of plot and sprawling collection of characters this show has to prop up. But "The Red Woman" was movement-heavy, tapping into the inertia propelled by last season's finale. "Thrones," when at its best, flows as smoothly from episode to episode as the river Theon and Sansa cross.
The only problem is that this episode's movement, while entertaining and exciting, didn't really lead anywhere. The season premiere wasn't all smooth sailing, as the Mereenese fleet can attest to. Still, the episode was as rich with thematic detail as the Lannisters are with gold.
"Lord Commander Snow did what he thought was right, no doubt about it," Ser Alliser Thorne says when addressing the Night's Watch. "And what he thought would be right would be the end of us. He thrust a terrible choice upon us and we made it."
At every turn, "Thrones" has always been about the options open to us and the courses of action we decide to take. In this world, what is easy and what is right have always stood on opposite ends of the spectrum. Those that have chosen the former path have typically come out on top while those that tried to remain honorable have lost their heads (R.I.P. Ned Stark, Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark...Man, the Starks really get screwed in this show).
As we lunge forward into a new season, we've already begun to see some of the choices these characters are making. Jaime and Cersei are hellbent on vengeance following the murder of their daughter Myrcella (kudos to Lena Headey who so perfectly breaks piece by piece as she realizes what's happened). Cersei remembers her mother's funeral and, ew, rotting corpse (likely around the same time Cersei's soul started to rot), and her conviction for revenge is palpable. Arya is continuing with her training, though now humbled, blind and begging on the street. The Sand Snakes are taking matters into their own hands. Etc.
But as each character is forced to strike out on a certain path, so too should the show itself begin to make the right choices and not just what is easy.
"Game of Thrones" is the most ambitious television series of all time, with filming locations on several continents and a budget that would make Donald Trump start accepting donations. But the show seems intent to continually stall major developments while allotting valuable screen time to sub-par plot lines.
Daenerys being taken to Vaes Dothrak to become the ultimate spinster while the Sons of the Harpy burn her ships back in Mereen. Both are major letdowns. "We won't be sailing to Westeros anytime soon," Tyrion rightly points out to the groans of millions of viewers worldwide. Did "Thrones" learn nothing from the "Star Wars" prequels? We don't need a deep dive into the minutia of foreign politics. If we want Westeros' version of "The West Wing," we'll stick to King's Landing. "I want to see what the world looks like when she's done conquering it," Daario says. So do the rest of us, and yet this five-year tease remains on the backburner as the show insists on pausing and delaying.
Wouldn't "Thrones" be better served by exorcising momentum-halting stories like this and the haphazardly thrown-together situation in Dorne? The Dorne plot line is so lazy in its buildup and so careless in its execution that it's hard to believe the season premiere spent so much time on it while only giving us a passing glance of Tyrion and Varys. The problem with "Thrones'" grand scope is that it squeezes screen time for our favorite pairings.
Why waste time distancing Dany, arguably the show's top draw with Jon Snow dead (for now), from the central story and showcasing Dorne while shortchanging the emerging Sansa?
In the highlight of the night, Brienne and Podrick rescue Sansa and Theon as the former pair lay waste to some Bolton soldiers in a brutal scene that would put to shame any praise of Netflix's "Daredevil" as being TV's most entertainingly violent offering. Brinne and Sansa's oaths to one another are beautiful and a reminder that honor still exists in the Seven Kingdoms. However, it's also a reminder that these noble traditions and beliefs are quickly eroding. White Walkers and Dragons mark the return of dark magic, long thought dead in this world, as basic humanity continues to go out the window like Bran in season one. At least this gathering represents a last glimmer of hope in the otherwise dark and grim world of "Thrones."
And again, that world is built on choices, and Melisandre has made some bad ones. From backing Stannis to burning his daughter Shireen, the Red Woman has repeatedly made the wrong call. As she stares into the mirror at the episode's end, it's hard to guess what she's thinking. Does she see her countless failures and unreasonable cruelty? Does she see herself as the fraud many believe her to be?
I think it's a little bit of both, and I think that's what leads to her big reveal. My best guess is that at this point, after all the pain and suffering and death she has wrought, she is choosing to take advantage of her second chance and pass her life force on to Jon, and that's how we get our main hero back. Or perhaps she is humbling herself in the eyes of the Lord of Light in a moment of genuine self-reflection and this reveal only hints at further magical developments to come.
Or maybe she's just getting ready for Castle Black's famous early bird special. Hopefully, we find out next week.
Some other thoughts...
-Brienne's scene was by far my favorite in the episode, but it seemed to me more like a bench guy going off for 30 points in a game. Sure, it's great to see. But wouldn't you rather have your star players shining? In this episode, we didn't get any star power, which is OK, but it's not why we buy a ticket, you know?
-The premiere had a lot of unexpected humor. From Davos' demand for mutton to the Dothraki's vulgar yet entertaining conversations, there were more laughs than I expected last night.
-Margaery's situation is looking pretty grim. Realistically, it's hard to envision a scenario where she makes it out of this alive.
-No update on Bran? Disappointing.
Follow Brandon Katz at @Great_Katzby