Last night's Game of Thrones begins with the sightless gaze of Jon Snow, right where we left him last year. But the most striking moments of the episode — including its final shocker — involve the gazes of women, usually without any words at all. There weren't any dragons or zombies, and only a couple glimpses of a direwolf, but the main special effect last night was medium close-ups of women's shifting facial expressions.
If I hadn't already read on the cover of Entertainment Weekly that this season was about the ladies ("Dame of Thrones! Women on Top!"), I would have figured it out from the strong focus on the female gaze in this season opener. It's a testament to the powerful talent among the cast of this show (both male and female) that so much information and storytelling comes to us via facial expressions.
And those expressions are not just emotive, but complex. We see these characters dealing with the fallout from their mistakes, trying to figure out if they're doomed to a fate someone else has chosen for them, and above all (because this is Game of Thrones) calculating and scheming. Even if the choice to focus mostly on the female MVPs may have been driven in part by a desire to respond to the backlash over sexual violence, it was a good choice — because the female cast is amazing, and because their situations bring up an endless succession of useful metaphors for choice, destiny and self-determination.
Melisandre's in almost as bad shape as Jon Snow
It all leads up to that final shot of the episode, in which Melisandre drops her glamour. We're all pretty much expecting Melisandre to show up and resurrect Jon Snow in the first five minutes of the episode. And instead, she just seems totally at a loss. All her promises to Stannis were a waste, and now she's faced with the corpse of Jon Snow — and the flames showed her that he would be fighting at Winterfell.
Instead of just going, "Oh wait, this other priest of R'hllor showed me a handy ritual to raise the dead, let's try that," Melisandre is knocked for a loop. And that's when we see this startling vision of the "real" Melisandre, once she takes off her necklace:
It's not clear if Melisandre drops her illusion every time she gets ready for bed, or if she's letting go of the Jessica Rabbit image because she's just giving up at this point. The Lord of Light led her astray — she convinced Stannis to burn his daughter alive, and then Stannis was screwed. What's interesting in that shot of her looking at her reflection is how Melisandre herself looks bitter and miserable, but then there's a smirk on the face of her reflection, like her mirror-self is going, "Uh huh. You shoulda known, girl."
The blink-and-you'll-miss it moment of direwolf badassery Meanwhile, Castle Black is gripped by kind of a power vacuum — and power vacuums are kind of a theme in this episode, what with leaders dying and disappearing all over the place. Ser Davos kind of steps up and takes charge of Dolorous Edd and the handful of other crows who remain loyal to the late Jon Snow. It's Davos who talks them out of a futile suicide attack on the treacherous Ser Alliser Thorne. Davos also suggests they fetch the direwolf, Ghost, and that Edd go to the Wildlings for help taking Thorne down.
And Davos is the one who gets in one of the episode's few funny bits, when he asks Thorne for some lunch to go with the free pass out of dodge that Thorne is offering:
And I wouldn't say no to a salami sandwich. Thorne, meanwhile, tries to assert himself as the de facto leader now that Jon Snow really does know nothing. Thorne has a somewhat compelling argument as to how he reconciled his duty of loyalty and obedience to his Lord Commander with his fealty to the Night's Watch as a whole.
To hear Thorne tell it, Jon Snow's decision to bring the surviving Wildlings through the Wall to safety would have led to the destruction of the Night's Watch. (Since that decision was already implemented, it's not clear how Jon Snow's leadership represented an ongoing threat, though. But it does seem as though the Wildlings, in addition to wanting to avenge their friend Jon Snow, might want to take out Thorne before he tries to come up with some scheme to get rid of them all.
The whole situation seems to be set up for a massive bloodbath, unless Melisandre does something. She's pretty much the only hope anyone has of avoiding a Massacre at Castle Black. Too bad she just slipped into something more comfortable.
Brienne is pretty much the only heroic badass left
Here's the stand-out moment of last night's episode, the long lingering gazes between Brienne of Tarth and her new liege, Sansa Stark:
All of the Brienne/Sansa fic that's going to come out of that moment. I can only imagine.
Brienne is, at this point, the most heroic character in Game of Thrones who actually gets things done. She killed the Hound and Stannis. She found Arya and Sansa, after a relatively short time looking for them, and now she's finally managed to convince Sansa to accept her service and protection. And she's motivated pretty much entirely by the desire to be honorable and find someone worthy to protect. She has no ambitions of her own, no greed, no selfish agenda.
Honestly, I could stare at the facial expressions between Sansa and Brienne all day.
What's great is that Sansa (who's just been chased by hounds, nearly frozen to death in a snowy river, and almost gotten dragged back to Ramsay by armed thugs) sort of stammeringly finds her way back to being Lady Sansa. When Brienne kneels in front of her, Sansa stops cowering, stands tall, and says the formal language you're supposed to say (with a little help from Pod.)
Her destiny was to be Lady Bolton (as one of the thugs calls her) and have Ramsay's babies, but Brienne gives back to her a different identity and destiny. (And Theon completes a bit more of his redemption arc, sacrificing himself to Ramsay's hounds in a bid to help Sansa escape.)
Sansa's escape is preceded by a crazy vignette, in which Ramsay mourns over another corpse, that of Myranda the kennel-keeper's daughter. Myranda was special, he says, because she wasn't afraid of him, and he seems genuinely tender towards her — before he tells the maester to feed her dead body to the hounds. Then Ramsay has another one of his uncomfortable chats with his father, who reminds him just how precarious their situation is. They flipped off the Lannisters to marry Sansa, and they can't enlist the aid of the North to fight off a Lannister army without Sansa by their side.
Ruh roh. And then Roose Bolton twists the knife (one of his favourite maneuvers): He points out that Ramsay's own legitimacy as his son and heir depends on Sansa, too. No Sansa, no grandson. And if Ramsay can't produce a grandson, then there's always Roose's brand new son, via Walda Frey. We've seen plenty of situations on this show where female characters' standing depends on men — but this is the opposite. Ramsay's propensity to "play his games" with Sansa and Theon may have finally bitten him in the arse, since if he'd just played nice with Sansa in particular, he'd be in way better shape right now.
What does it mean to defy prophecy?
Lena Headey's facial expressions as Cersei Lannister was paraded naked through the streets of King's Landing were a standout moment of season five. And she reminds us again just what she's capable with a long wordless sequence where she watches the boat that's bringing her long lost daughter home:
You can see the exact moment when she realises that her daughter isn't coming home alive.
The big surprise here is that Cersei doesn't launch into one of her tirades, blaming Jaime for his latest screwup (which she totally could have.) Instead, she seems fatalistic, because she's remembering the helplessness of having a dead mother (when she was little) and also that witch's prophecy (from the season five opener). Cersei is realising that everything that Maggy the Frog told her is coming true, including the deaths of all three of her children.
Jaime is the one who tells Cersei to snap out of it, because "fuck prophecy." Fuck, even, Jaime's own prediction that their enemies would try to take everything away from them. Because Jaime and Cersei are going to stick together now, and they're going to take back everything that they have lost, and more.
How they're going to do this is unclear — their main asset seems to be Ser Strong, the zombie guard who's following Cersei around everywhere now. But if Cersei's right and all three of her children are doomed, then it's game over. As soon as Tommen dies, Cersei is no longer Queen Regent or the Queen Mother, she's just another scheming noble. Her last shreds of power depend entirely on her one surviving son. (Her son, whom she's already undermined fatally by confessing to adultery before her naked march of penance.)
The spear through the face was pretty funny, though. Meanwhile, Dorne continues to be the absolute worst. News of Myrcella's death reaches Prince Doran Martell, and he's dead before he can even react to it. The deaths of Doran and his son Trystane provide a moment of badassery for Ellaria Sand and her daughters, the Sand Snakes, but they also leave me even more uncertain what the heck is going in Dorne, anyway.
So Ellaria was right all along, and all the Dornish people despise Doran because he didn't take revenge after his sister Elia was raped and murdered by the Mountain during Robert's Rebellion? The last time we saw Doran, he seemed to be ruling with an iron grip, and people seemed to fear him, sort of. Now he's powdered toast, and none of the extras standing around seem to care. The message I take from all of this is that I, too, should not care overmuch about Doran or Trystane. They had a grand total of 10 minutes' screentime. I'm sure Dorne will do just fine without the Martells.
No, not that Dorn. Although I bet he won't miss Dr. Bashir, either. But in an episode that seemed engineered to be a showcase for complicated women hoping in spite of fatalism, the Sand Snakes stood out as uniquely just kind of whatever. Their "victory" was so easy, I didn't care.
Our chief weapons are fear and surprise, and cool beards
Meanwhile, Daenerys is back with the Dothraki, in a storyline that gives you exactly what you want — a tough, experienced female character standing up to rape threats — only to remind us to be careful what we wish for.
The Dothraki lead Daenerys back to her camp, while she refuses to respond to their taunts, harassment and random speculation about just why her hair is white. And then she's face to face with Khal Moro, who's definitely no Drogo. He gets caught up in a kind of Spanish Inquisition sketch about how seeing a beautiful woman naked for the first time is the greatest thing in life — well, one of the four or five greatest things, anyway.
And then Daenerys finally reveals who she is, in one of Emilia Clarke's steeliest performances (made all the more intense because she does show fear and uncertainty, especially when Moro laughs at her at first.) Her claims to all her fancy titles and identities don't impress Moro at all, but what finally saves her from being a sexual plaything is when she reveals that she used to be married to Drogo.
It's sort of the companion piece to the scene with Sansa, where she casts off the person she's become recently and returns to being Sansa Stark. Daenerys is forced back into the box she was in, back in season one. And it's been so long, she's forgotten what's supposed to happen to the widows of dead Khals — they get shipped off to Vaes Dothrak to live in the temple with all the other widows, forever. It's not a happy fun time.
Of course, Jorah and Daario are looking for her, and they have found the clue she left. They have a weird bonding conversation over their shared love for Daenerys — and Jorah sort of admits that his love is futile and pointless. The best bit is when Daario says he wants to live to be old, so he can see what the world looks like after Daenerys is done conquering it. Awww. And then Jorah furtively examines his slow-spreading case of grayscale:
Where's Drogon, though? After depositing Daenerys in the middle of Dothraki-town, he seems to have buggered off somewhere.
Meanwhile, back to the theme of power vacuums. Tyrion and Varys take a tour of Meereen, which looks like a ghost town, and we start to get some actual hints about Meereenese politics. The former slaves are being preached to by one of those Red Priests (like Melisandre), and urged to take drastic action. But there's also a sign claiming that Daenerys is as bad as the slave-masters she unseated.
And someone has set fire to the entire Meereenese fleet. Oops.
The most interesting bit is probably when Varys mentions that his "little birds" are flying around in search of the secret of who's behind the Sons of the Harpy, that counter-insurgency that nearly killed Daenerys. And Tyrion is convinced their leader is someone powerful, since the attack at the arena was so well planned. So either the leader of the Harpies is someone we know (Daario?) or else it's those krazy guys from Qarth, finally getting off their Qartheen butts. (My money's sort of on the latter, since Qarth is a huge loose end. Do you even remember Qarth? Quick reminder: A criminally underutilized Nonso Anozie, and "Where are my dragons?".)
And someone is watching Tyrion right when he mentions that Meereen is the town where everybody wants to kill somebody Anyway, I guess Daenerys' precarious hold on Meereen is not unlike Doran Martell's, minus Doran's hereditary position and decades of leadership. So it's up to Tyrion to work some of his statecraft magic. Good luck!
And finally, Arya and Margaery
The other two women who are driving this episode are more or less gazing at nothing.
Arya is blinded in Braavos, where she's been left out on the street to beg (and listen to passers-by.) Arya hears a snatch of someone mentioning the "dead kingsguard," aka Meryn Trant, whom she killed at the end of season five. But she doesn't pick up much. And then she's attacked by her fellow novice assassin and gets her arse handed to her. The lesson seems to be that Arya, deprived of her sight, should listen more. Both for information-gathering, and to figure out where the blows are going to come from. And presumably, this will lead to her getting her Daredevil on.
Meanwhile, Margaery is still stuck in the Sparrows' cell, and we see her looking up at the Septa who's reading holy texts to her. Margaery is still trying to play for sympathy, or assert her authority, but nothing works. We've already seen Cersei go through this process, only to wind up giving in and confessing — but the High Sparrow hints that they might go easier on Margaery because she's married, and marriage is also sacred.
Margaery says she has nothing to confess, but the High Sparrow insists that she can't be entirely without sin. So... does she get to just confess to petty sins like envy and gluttony? Or does she have to throw her brother under the bus? I'm betting on the latter. And Margaery seems tempted.
This whole episode has a thread running through it of people discovering that their pre-ordained fate isn't as simple as it first appeared. Melisandre is literally undone by the failure of her prophecies about Stannis and Jon Snow, but Cersei seems almost relieved to admit that Maggy the Frog was right — until Jaime convinces her to keep fighting. Daenerys offers up her boastful world-conquering claims, only to find that she's stuck with the fate she narrowly escaped at the end of season one. And Brienne finally attains the status that she's been seeking for as long as we've known her.
All of which makes Brienne look like the ultimate badass on Game of Thrones. Which probably means she'll be maimed next week. Let's hope not, though!