Review: ‘Game of Thrones’ sets the season 6 table with ‘The Red Woman’

Game of Thrones is back for a new season, and I've got a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I demand some mutton…

“Seeing a beautiful woman naked for the first time, what is better than that?” -Khal Moro

Someone may need to slip Khal Moro their HBO NOW login to see if his feelings on this issue have changed after watching all of “The Red Woman,” which ends with us truly seeing its title character naked for the first time.

The revelation that Melisandre isn't nearly as youthful or lovely as she appears was a great shock – and, because the episode first presented us with the better-preserved nude version, a case of the show getting to have its sexy cake and eat it, too – at the end of a premiere that, by design, didn't have room for many other surprises.

Other than Brienne and Podrick turning up to (with a bit of help from Theon) kill the entire Bolton hunting party, pretty much everything that happened in the hour could have been predicted based on how season 5 ended. Jon Snow is still dead (as are Myranda, Myrcella, Stannis, and everyone else who seemed unambiguously deceased when we saw “Mother's Mercy”), Dany is still a captive of the Dothraki (albeit in a more protected position than before), Arya is still blind, the Sparrow and his henchwoman are still insufferable (as is Ser Alliser Thorne), Cersei is still plotting vengeance, etc.

But surprise has its place, and isn't mandatory in a table-setting episode like this, which did its best to catch us up on most of the characters (while skipping over the likes of Littlefinger, Sam, and Hot Pie) and show us where their stories may be headed after all that went down at the end of last season.

Even Brienne and Pod's rescue of Sansa and Theon was less surprising than it was deeply satisfying, since we knew both of them were in the area, and since the alternative was for the two runaways to be delivered back into Ramsay's sadistic clutches. After seemingly failing in one oath (protect Catelyn's daughter) while pursuing another (avenge Renly), it felt great to see Brienne manage to do both, and for Podrick to demonstrate the fruits of the lessons she's been giving him. Last season was pretty dire for Sansa, and for viewers tired of seeing heinous things happen to the Starks: seeing her pull herself together to (with a bit of helpful prompting from Pod) respond correctly to Brienne's offer of service was a powerful moment.

Similarly, while the Jon Snow resurrection we're all banking on has yet to happen, the scenes of Davos and the handful of loyal Rangers trying to figure out their next course of action were sufficiently tense to keep it from feeling (entirely) like a stall. Dolorous Edd's proclamation that, “If you were planning to see tomorrow, you picked the wrong room” is now my go-to phrase whenever I find myself in a seemingly doomed situation (whether the stakes are life or death or just a poor choice of lunch), and the show has put enough time into establishing Davos as a sympathetic hero figure (if not always the most capable one) that he can carry that corner of the show while we wait for magic to restore Jon Snow's life and help him fulfill Melisandre's vision.

Dany being taken against her will to Vaes Dothrak is one of the show's less elegant delaying tactics, especially when paired with the burning of the Meereen fleet. (Tyrion's exasperation at seeing this mirrored that of every GoT fan who has grown tired of Dany's endless rambling through Essos.) We've been down this particular road before, even if her circumstances are slightly different this time. On the plus side, the Tyrion/Varys comedy duo may be enough to finally make the Meereen corner of the show watchable, and there was even a welcome lightness to the Dothraki scenes, like the way Khal Moro's question quickly devolved into the most famous line from Conan the Barbarian by way of the Spanish Inquisition sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus.

For a show that's always been about the balance of power, and the means people will go to in order to mass more power for themselves, we're at a very interesting moment, where no one's control is anywhere close to absolute. Cersei and Jaime have somehow become underdogs, even though the Sparrow's own influence isn't limitless. Tyrion and Varys barely have control of things in Meereen, Dany is a prisoner again, Ser Alliser's coup could be undone at any moment by either Melisandre's magic or the return of Edd and the wildlings, the Boltons' control of Winterfell depends on the return of Sansa, and we'll see how much Ellaria is able to accomplish as Dorne's new ruler after she and the Sand Snakes have pulled off their own coup. (I'll settle for not needing to audibly groan every time the story returns to Dorne, frankly.)

We've been heading this way for a while, though. Most of the traditional heroes are long dead, while the villains have suffered in so many ways that none seems capable of wiping out their opposition. Everyone is so off balance individually that the world as a whole is oddly in balance – at least until the next big move.

We'll get to the big moves soon, since that's the way Game of Thrones seasons tend to play out once the initial exposition's taken care of. “The Red Woman” suggested a bunch of players who could upend the board very soon, particularly Melisandre herself, however old she really is, and however she looks when the magic isn't flowing fully.

Some other thoughts:

* No new locations for the opening credits map this time out – nor did the show fulfill my request to update the Meereen animation to include the toppling of the Harpy statue – but all six locations glimpsed appeared in the episode, which isn't always the case for the show. (I got some explanations for this last season from one of the show's producers.) Depending on how long Dany winds up traveling with the Dothraki, we might just get to see the return of the Vaes Dothrak map for the first time in many seasons.

* Time on the show is always complicated to track, because the stories aren't moving at the same pace. The Winterfell and Castle Black stories pick up the morning after the season 5 finale, while a decent amount of time has passed in King's Landing (Cersei's hair has grown back a bit, Jaime has made it all the way home from Dorne) and Meereen (Dany's absence has become a source of gossip).

* Sophie Turner's eyes become so pale in the harsh snow of a scene like the one in the woods that Sansa winds up looking as blind as her sister. And neither sister is entirely alone at the moment: while Arya may be reduced to begging in the streets, Jaqen's sidekick is still turning up to teach her how to fight, even when sightless. (It's a shame Scott Glenn is otherwise employed by a different HBO show, since we know he's good at training blind warrior types.)

* I like that even Benioff and Weiss never try to push humanizing moments for Ramsay too far, here following up his emotional soliloquy about Myranda with him ordering her body to be fed to the hounds, because she's still good meat.

* It has now been 11 episodes since we have seen Hodor. That is all. Also? Hodor.

Finally, even though the show has now passed the books, the goal here is still to talk about this as a TV show, and not as an endless series of comparisons to the novels. Now that book spoilers are largely off the table, I'm going to be less of a stickler about this, but if the point you're about to make depends on information that's only available in the books, try to find something else to discuss.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at