(Major Game of Thrones episode spoilers throughout.)
Melisandre wears the red robes of her order. She has come full circle, surrounded by men who will ignore her if she’s lucky and hurt her if she’s not. A woman for whom power is just a dream. Seeing her stare at Jon’s dead body and lament the lies about him that her fire supplied is genuinely sorrowful (though pleasingly close to a reverse fridging). It’s testament to both the writing and Carice van Houten that a character who has spent so much time burning people – burning children – alive, assassinating through the deployment of shadow babies, and placing leeches on the boners of unsuspecting teenagers can engender so much sympathy. Especially when there’s a strong case to be made that it’s her own arrogance that has brought her to this. After four years of telling Stannis he was destined to rule, the absolute best we can say about the middle Baratheon brother right now is that his corpse might still have its skin on. The idea that Melisandre’s powers might never have been real is good news for fans of Balon Greyjoy, but should be pretty concerning for everyone else.
So generating empathy for Melisandre is an impressive trick. It’s also a vital one, because the only thing that prevents Jon Snow from being resurrected, or at least preventing us knowing whether he will be resurrected, is Melisandre’s crisis of faith stopping her trying Thoros’ trick from season three. It’s not certain that would work, admittedly, but if it doesn’t, the show is certainly setting it up as a red herring. After all, Davos barricading himself a single room with no escape route makes absolutely no sense from a survival standpoint. He and the remaining loyalists should absolutely be running with Edd to make contact with what must surely be Tormund’s forces. Staying in hostile territory with no escape route only makes sense if it is critical Jon’s body be secured so that Melisandre has time to get back into the god-groove.
In other words, a major plot point is being held back from us through a character’s refusal to do what obviously needs doing, or at least trying. That’s a recipe for frustration rather than entertainment, so again, kudos to all involved for making the gap in play seem earned and interesting. Even if it is essentially the most obvious thing they could have done with this storyline.
(There are other scenes at Castle Black. Two of them, uniquely for this episode, don’t involve a woman at all, though since they’re dealing with the fallout of killing a major character as a cliffhanger, I’m prepared to cut them some slack. Note though that once Dolorous Edd has gone, all Davos wants to talk about is how they don’t have the Red Woman. Even when she isn’t there, she’s there. I love how Davos says her title, by the way. Not “The Red Woman”, but “The Redwoman”. A proper noun; once a curse, now an invocation.)
Sansa Stark wears the red of her hair outside of a prison for the first time in years. She has come full circle, at long last home again, without some letch or sadist dominating her movements and her life. But more has returned than her freedom. Every trace of the cunning and courage she sifted from the ruins of the last few years seems to have been swept away, a regression that leaves her careering between passive and panicking.
There’s an infamous scene in the 1964 Doctor Who story “The Reign of Terror” in which Barbara and Susan are locked up whilst their captors oil the guillotine. Barbara conjures up an escape plan, but Susan refuses to even leave the cell because she’s seen a rat and needs to lie down. I thought of that scene when Sansa was refusing to wade through a river whilst literally being hunted by hounds that will either kill her or help deliver her back to a violent rapist. Yes, the fear of death by hypothermia is a rather more understandable reason to refuse freedom than is a rodent phobia, but the result is the same: Sansa stops being a participant in the story and instead becomes a drag factor. And I mean that literally; Theon has to drag her along during her own rescue.
Obviously, this is aggravating as all hell. After the grotesque cluster-cuss that was last year’s Sansa arc, the writers promised us they had learned their lesson from a backlash powerful enough to break the Titan of Braavos’ jaw. Well, apparently they meant “conditional on narrative laziness, obvs”. The decision to have Theon rescue Sansa from an evil lord who literally kept her locked in a tower was one of the most catastrophically poor and aggravating calls the show ever made, taking a character designed to undermine the fantasy princess trope and using her to uncritically regurgitate that trope. If Game of Thrones really does want to just be a fairy tale with tits and dragons it deserves every sneer Lovejoy wants to send its way. And even that understates how awful the ending of Sansa’s storyline last year was, because at least Hans Christian Andersen could claim he didn’t have the internet or third-wave feminism to steer him right. To respond to omni-directional outraged criticism by having Sansa require Theon to not only get her out of Winterfell, but to persuade her not to surrender and give his approval for her to accept Brienne’s service, is less twisting the knife than sellotaping it to a drill-bit and carving out my sternum.
Seven Hells, at this point she can’t even get through a standard oath-swearing without needing a man to help her (and perennial whipping-boy Pod, at that). This is exactly what Sansa is supposed to be good at; a mastery of Westerosi societal norms, instilled in her by her mother. So now she’s actually less impressive than she was in the pilot, back when she was presented as utterly useless in order to wrong-foot us. Bravo, Game of Thrones, you’ve somehow found a new way to get worse at handling your female characters. I guess you could argue that Sansa’s now near-total inability to function is a consequence of the horrors she suffered last season, but that line immediately leads to problems. First of all there’s the fact that there was no need for her to go through any of that in the first place. Second, when your consecutive plot arcs for a female character are that she’s first raped and then becomes a nervous wreck who needs men to keep her going, you might want to ask yourself why you’ve signed up to adapt a story that delights in inverting cliche in the first place.
Brienne of Tarth wears red Bolton blood on Oathkeeper. She has come full circle, leaving behind a slaughtered Baratheon to swear herself to Lady Stark. Hoping she has found a cause she is worthy of. There’s no small irony that after three and a half seasons of being accused of murdering Robert Baratheon’s younger brother she’s finally done exactly that. Regardless, with vengeance now secured, Brienne has a unity of purpose we’ve not seen in her since Renly’s murder. And Gwendoline Christie sells the hell out of Brienne’s resultant resolve, while seasoning it just enough with unspoken guilt over the death of Catelyn. It’s wonderful to watch, but as with Van Houten earlier, it really had to be in order to paper over the underlying plot issues. Sansa needing to be saved first by Theon and then by Brienne, is once again the most obvious way imaginable for this plot to develop. For all the successes Beniof and Weiss have had making tweaks – sometimes quite major ones – to the source material, there’s always been a sense that whenever they go completely off-piste they suffer from a sudden onset of cynical, bloodstained laziness. Naturally, we will talk more about that when we head south to Dorne.
(There are other scenes in the North. All Roose Bolton wants to talk about though is how they don’t have Sansa. Even when she isn’t there, she’s there. Meanwhile all Ramsay Bolton wants to talk about is how he doesn’t have Myranda. This week the show has done exceptionally well in deliberately and repeatedly failing the reverse-Bechdel test, which is a nice thing to say given Game of Thrones’ long-running gender politics issues.)
Cersei Lannister wears a red dress, in honour of her house. She has come full circle; with all obvious external dangers dealt with, she is once again ostensibly secure. The War of Five Kings is over, she’s back in the impregnable Red Keep whilst Margaery is still stewing in a dungeon, and she is at last reunited with her brother. Speaking of Jaime, the twin’s interplay is the closest it has been to its original form since Jaime fought Eddard Stark and fled King’s Landing. But the parallels between this scene and the one five years ago in which Cersei frets about the future and Jaime calms her by promising to murder everyone in the world just drive home how little joy Cersei has ever had, how every temporary victory is a gateway to a permanent paranoia. Ultimately this latest rise to power has given her no more delight or satisfaction than did her last rise to power as young bride of the ruler of a continent. Every new height just becomes a more lofty vantage point to stare in terror at every possible enemy.
The self-destructive nature of this approach is a topic the show has covered in-depth. But Myrcella’s death is something different, something for which Cersei is utterly blameless. Indeed, it’s sobering to realise that Cersei was right all along; Tyrion shipped Myrcella off to Dorne to die (so it’s bleakly amusing that Joffrey is the poisoned child of Cersei everyone thinks he had a hand in killing). And not for anything the princess herself did, nor even her mother. This goes all the way back to Tywin. Each of the Lannister children practice their own form of self-destruction, but as with so much else, that’s something they were forced to learn from their father.
And learn it they did, which should make anyone with Lannister sympathies more than a little nervous. Cersei has lost the respect of the people she once ruled through fear, and Jaime can no longer win the fights he seems congenitally incapable of not picking. The High Sparrow is still going to want his trial. Meanwhile, each of our twins has had one of their children die in their arms, and have only one left to protect, a lovesick young boy whose beautiful wife is being held prisoner by the greatest threat to the monarchy since Aegon’s invasion. Cersei and Jaime have always displayed an uncanny ability to take a situation and make it worse. If they revert to type here, “worse” is going to mean very, very bad indeed.
Margaery Tyrell wears her red around her eyes; it is almost the only colour she is allowed. She has come full circle, marrying a king to find it brought her nothing but disaster. Living in terror over the fate of her headstrong brother. Last time it was Littlefinger who dug her out of the hole, but this time he threw her into it instead. We only visit her cell briefly, so there isn’t a lot to say, but the job of jolting our memories has been done: Margaery is still under arrest, and the Faith Militant aren’t going anywhere.
Ellaria Sand has red blood on her hands, and her pale blue dress. She has come full circle. The black-clad grieving malcontent of last season is gone, and the sun is once more shining inside her. I don’t even think it’s an act; not really. It’s much easier to get along with those you’ve clashed with once you know they’ll be leaving soon. When you know you’re about to get what you want.
There aren’t many characters on this show that frustrate me more than Ellaria Sand. Not because she’s badly written – though Gods know everyone else in Dorne is – but because she’s so well-realised an example of a type of person I despise: the warmongering hypocrite. The sheer deranged unpleasantness of insisting that the murder of an innocent woman is so grotesque, but that justice requires an innocent woman be murdered is stomach-churning. Of course, Ellaria would insist no such hypocrisy exists. She’s plugged the wide gap between those positions with simple hatred: there are no innocent Lannisters. But that just pushes her hypocrisy into multiple dimensions. Any viewpoint that assigns families collective responsibility for individual actions makes Ellaria’s betrayal and murder of her de facto brother-in-law and nephew even more appalling than it already was. The vagaries of Dornish and Westerosi law might mean Ellaria hasn’t technically committed kin-slaying or treason here, but she’s come damn close, and adding in the idea that this is somehow about family dynasties manages to make her actions even more horrendous.
Even if you don’t approach things from that angle, though, Ellaria has still just murdered the only two people left in the world to share Oberyn’s surname. She’s so desperate to avenge the Martells she’s extinguished them as a line. She’s so desperate to avenge Dornish deaths that she’s about to go to war at a cost of thousands of Dornish lives. All of which will then need to be avenged. It’s the saddest, most familiar cycle of history: war by induction. And for what? She knows Tywin is dead. She knows the Mountain is dead – her time with Oberyn and her own skill with poison makes it impossible to believe she doesn’t know Gregor Clegane was doomed the moment Oberyn first drew blood in their duel. Oberyn got everything he wanted, and though it cost him his life, his murderer had little time to enjoy his victory, or anything else ever. There is nothing left to avenge. But there’s always someone left to hate, and left to kill. The War of Five Kings is over, but the War of Zero Princesses is about to kick off.
Or is it? It’s just as likely that taking out the Prince of Dorne will spark a civil war within the kingdom, or at least it would if Beniof and Weiss had any interest in actually presenting Dorne as it is in the books, or really as any state in the history of anything ever. But we know they don’t. Season five’s treatment of Westeros’ southernmost kingdom was infamously awful. Dorne in the books is a semi-independent country of some half a million square miles in size. There are three distinct ethnicities, a mixture of Rhoynish and Andal cultural markers, and a long-standing rivalry between the Martells and their bannermen the Yronwoods at the opposite end of the kingdom, making any political maneuvering in Sunspear something that has to be done exceptionally carefully (so no, you haven’t taken Dorne in a coup just because you’ve turned the guards in the Water Gardens). Yet the show couldn’t even be bothered to name or show Sunspear in the opening sequence, suggesting instead the whole of Dorne could be summed up by a single cheap knock-off of Skeletor’s Snake Mountain. In the books Doran’s seeming passivity was a front for the fact he and Oberyn had put together a truly astonishingly intricate plan for vengeance. The show has taken Doran’s front of pacifism and presented it as the whole of his character, leading to him needing to be murdered just to move the plot along.
And really, given how horrendous this whole storyline has been, maybe that’s for the best. The show managed to piss away the ferociously watchable Alexander Siddig and reduce the Sand Snakes to bickering ineffectiveness and unnecessary tits. A fun-filled summer holiday for Jaime and Bronn. An opportunity for a TV show that’s generated some of the best dialogue ever seen in fantasy television to deploy the phrase “bad pussy”. Drawing a line under all that and moving on might be the best – the only – option. Even so, though, to return to a now-familiar argument, the brutal betrayal and murder of the Martells is, once again, the most obvious move the show could’ve made. Rather than trying to fix its mistakes, it’s tossing them overboard into a sea of blood. There’s no surprise here. This isn’t the steps of Baelor, or even the Red Wedding, itself ultimately another example of the show shearing events of context and hoping they will still work if they stuff in more murders. This is exactly what the show does in its later years, base itself around a series of astonishingly cynical plot beats poorly strung together. The Dorne coup is neither as monstrous or as utterly unnecessary as Sansa’s rape last season, but they do share narrative DNA. They’re both moments of ugliness that don’t stem from character interaction but as a horrendously lazy alternative to it, and don’t make sense to boot. I mean, sure, it’s not hard to imagine Nymeria and Obara jumping on a faster ship than Trystane’s to beat him to King’s Landing. But the total lack of interest in stringing together what the show thinks are marquee moments (which is its own problem, of course) is becoming ever more of an issue.
Still, at least in this case the grimdark serves as a full stop, something we can move on from. And at least no-one got raped. These, astonishingly, are the kind of things that constitute forward progress from last season’s sprinkling of tyre fires. Plus, if nothing else, I’ll grant that watching House Martell’s only son be speared in the head is probably the best and darkest sight gag television will offer up this year.
Daenerys Targaryen wears a red stripe down her back; the wounds of the slave. She has come full circle, finding herself presented by misogynist scum to a Khal for approval. More so than with any other storyline in the episode, though, Dany’s really underlines just how far these characters have come. Yes, she’s more or less in the same position she was in the pilot episode – worse, really, because she got to meet Khal Drogo without someone whipping her into staggering across the Great Grass Sea – but her reaction could not be any more different. The submissive, bewildered Dany is utterly gone. Which isn’t a surprise, of course, but it’s still nice to see that after almost five full years of her having at least some people to follow her commands, utterly removing her from any kind of authority makes not one ounce of difference. Daenerys is still Daenerys. It’s a reminder that her confidence didn’t grow with her power, but vice versa.
And yes, I suppose it’s true that it isn’t until Dany mentions her famous husband that she makes any headway with this new Khal (who no-one expected to paraphrase the Spanish Inquisition). But she’s dealt with the Dothraki before, she surely recognises her marital history is her trump card. And yet she refuses to lead with it, just as she refuses to reveal her ability to speak Dothraki until what she feels she has to. She makes the conscious decision to lead with her own CV. Because by all the Gods, she has earned that right, whether Khal Moro admits or realises that or not. It’s only once she’s insisted on listing her own achievements that she mentions her dead husband. And even that isn’t a get-out-of-Khalasar-free card. Name-dropping Drogo has bought her some time, but to buy her freedom, she’s going to have to dig herself out of this one. Is there anyone out there foolish enough to bet against her?
(There are other scenes in Essos. But all Tyrion and Varys, and Daario and Jorah want to talk about is how they don’t have Dany, in one way or another. Even when she isn’t there, she’s there. That’s two more reverse Bechdel flubs, for those counting.)
Arya Stark wears the red of anger, and of pain; with the House of Black and White having stolen her sight, these are the only colours left to her. She has come full circle, abandoned by every friend, utterly unable to defend herself. Even in the days immediately following the sack of the Tower of the Hand in season one she was less vulnerable than she is now. As with Margaery’s scene earlier, there’s not really enough material here to spin out anything profound. But hey, it’s never a bad thing to see Maisie Williams in action, or indeed local-girl-done-good Faye Marsay. I guess I can point out that like Melisandre’s crisis of faith, Arya’s blindness could without context be seen as plot impediment rather than plot development. But just as with Van Houten, Williams has sufficient talent and charisma to make treading water seem like the most fascinating thing you could possibly watch. Whenever the writing on this show stumbles, I remind myself that it has one of the best casts assembled this century. I can’t wait for them to actually start doing things again.
Melisandre wears nothing but a red ruby inside a choker. She has come full circle; all alone in a night that is dark and full of terrors. No wonder she feels old, and exhausted. No wonder this is the moment when the glamour finally drops. Really, though, magical accessories notwithstanding, it’s rather less interesting to think of Melisandre’s forms as “real” and “fake” than it is to see them as both just as true. The passion and certainty of youth, the fatalism of old age. The latter is in the ascendancy right now, but if we’re to have Jon back – if we are to have any hope of winning – we need to see this not as a state of rest, but the furthest extent of an oscillation; the moment the pendulum pauses before swinging back. Melisandre demonstrates exactly what Martin has always excelled at: the human heart at war with itself. We need the war to continue, obviously. But we also need the right side to win.
You could apply the same reasoning to the show as a whole, in fact. Is it cutting-edge television cloaked in the trappings of things long past? Or is it an outdated assemblage of grimdark cynicism dragged into the modern landscape via sumptuous production values and near-flawless on-screen talent? I wouldn’t blame you for not being sure, since the show-runners don’t seem to have decided either. Or perhaps, like Melisandre, it is neither and it is both.
I guess for now it doesn’t matter. Game of Thrones is back. Not back to its best, no. But then it wasn’t at its best when it began, either. Perhaps we’ve come full circle. Perhaps the only way is forwards.
That’d be nice, wouldn’t it?
Reviewer: Ric Crossma