'Game of Thrones' Season Premiere Recap: No Country for Old Women

A shocking revelation marks the smash hit's return — but it's not the one you think

Joe Naufahu and Emilia Clarke in the Season Six premiere of 'Game of Thrones.' Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

If Game of Thrones were a Netflix show, there isn't a man or woman in all Seven Kingdoms who wouldn't have plowed right into episode two after watching tonight's Season Six premiere. So many of the big storytelling beats went unresolved that the inability to binge-watch the next hour (or more) is an almost Ramsay Bolton–level torment.

We don't get to witness the final showdown between Ser Davos and Ser Alliser. We don't see the triumphant return of Dolorous Edd leading an army of wildlings (with or without a giant or two in tow) to his black brothers' rescue. Neither of Cersei Lannister's most loyal knights, her incestuous brother Jaime and her Frankensteinian bodyguard Ser Robert Strong (aka an undead Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane), face off against the fanatical forces of the High Sparrow. Tyrion Lannister and his buddy-comedy advisor Varys don't free the dragons chained up in the basement of their Meereenese palace. Daenerys Targaryen's dragon, the black beast called Drogon, doesn't swoop in to save her from the clutches of Khal Moro and his Dothraki horde. Bran Stark, his wizardly mentor the Three-Eyed Raven, his M.I.A. kid brother Rickon, schemer par excellence Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish and the ne'er-do-well rulers of the Iron Islands from House Greyjoy don't show up at all. Most importantly, to paraphrase Chevy Chase, Jon Snow is still dead — if his psychic baby bro, his telepathically connected direwolf Ghost or the apparently ancient sorceress Melisandre are going to bring him back from beyond, we'll have to tune in next week, same Stark time, same Stark channel.

Shit, we might not even get to find out then.

So how come "The Red Woman," tonight's long-anticipated comeback ep, felt so satisfying regardless? It certainly helped that the storylines that did get resolved did so as cathartically as humanly possible. At the top of the list? Sansa Stark and her unlikely ally Theon Greyjoy made their escape from Ramsay and his even more sinister father Roose with a little help from their friends, Brienne of Tarth and her sidekick Podrick Payne. Sure, you could see the towering warrior's last-minute save of Lady Stark and the artist formerly known as Reek coming from a mile away, but who cares? Not since Stannis Baratheon saved the Night's Watch's collective bacon from the wildling army two seasons ago has the show served up such a "fuck yeah!" here-comes-the-cavalry moment.

Following in the custom of the show at its best, director Jeremy Podeswa let the visuals do the talking as much as the dialogue: All you really needed to do to understand the emotional heft of this sequence was see the shivering Stark cling to Theon beneath the roots of a fallen tree, watch him leap out of hiding in a vain attempt to throw their pursuers off her trail, bear witness to Brienne laying the sword with which she just killed a Bolton scouting party at the feet of her new liege and look at the eyes of the two women — Sansa's going from uncertain to steely, Brienne's welling with tears of joy. This union of two of the series' most complex, misunderstood and ultimately rewarding characters is unlikely to happen in George R.R. Martin's source novels, which have taken them in very different directions; here, it's an unmitigated delight. (Book readers in particular will also no doubt be tickled by the possibilities of a Reek/Pod team-up.)

Far to the south, developments in Dorne are equally dramatic, and just as far afield from Martin's text. Rather than stand cowed by Prince Doran Martell as he attempts to maneuver the unpredictable currents of geopolitics, Ellaria Sand and her lethal daughters take matters into their own hands, slaying the ruler, his bodyguard Areo Hotah and his heir Prince Trystane in shockingly summary fashion. In a weird way, the relative two-dimensionality of the Dornish material to this point suits the sequence: Having the fall of the House of Martell take place not as a grand tragedy over the course of a season but as a black-comedy splatsick farce over within five minutes works well for the Cliffs Notes version of this kingdom the show has delivered.

That's not to say the Dornish coup was without its problems, dramatically speaking. Ellaria's offspring are distinguishable primarily by their weapons, making the so-called Sand Snakes more like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but without even enough individual personality to determine which one's cool but rude and which one's the party dude. Nevertheless, the storyline's grim sense of humor — if you didn't guffaw in spite of yourself when that spear exploded out of poor Prince Trystane's face, please watch Evil Dead 2 five times and get back to us—is enough to go on for now.

Humor, in fact, emerged as the episode's chief weapon. At the very least it was amongst its weaponry, as Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketch might put it — said sketch undoubtedly inspiring the exchange in which Khal Moro's minions list the many things in life better than seeing a beautiful woman, in this case the Mother of Dragons, naked for the first time. It takes a lot to get a laugh line out of the subtitles for an imaginary language, but damn if they didn't pull it off. A similar comedy of linguistic errors was a highlight of Tyrion and Varys' fact-finding mission in the streets of Meereen: When the Imp offers a poor woman money so that her baby can eat, the Spider informs him that thanks to his poor language skills, he's just told her he's offering money to eat her baby. Even the anonymous Night's Watch members holed out with Ser Davos and Lord Snow's corpse get a decent joke out at the expense of their perpetually pessimistic would-be rescuer: "It's a sad fuckin' statement if Dolorous Edd is our only chance."

And frustrating though the delayed gratification of so many storylines may be, their resolution is expertly teased. Will Dany be able to make believers out of the Dosh Khaleen, the forcibly sequestered widows of various dead khals to whom she's being sent by her captors? Will her own would-be resucers Daario Naharis and Jorah Mormont find her a prisoner or a leader (and will Mormont spread his greyscale infection to them all either way)? When will all three dragons roar back into action? Over in Braavos, is Arya Stark truly going to learn how to fight blind, Daredevil-style? Can Margaery Tyrell successfully convince the High Sparrow she's seen the error of her ways, in time to mount a counteroffensive against whatever the Lannisters surely have planned for her — and will her husband King Tommen intervene on her side or his mother's?

Last but certainly not least, what of the episode's title character? Melisandre is touted by Davos as a secret weapon he and the rest of Jon Snow's loyalists can use against his betrayers. But in the episode's striking final scene, she removes her glowing ruby necklace to reveal the body of an extremely old woman, who hobbles into bed and pulls the covers over her like any sad, scared, isolated elderly person might do. The contrast of bodies at play here — actor Carice Van Houten's stunning form juxtaposed with that of the sort of crones who populate legends of witchcraft — is intense, but it may be best to think of it as meaning the exact opposite of what it appears to indicate at first glance. She may be old — ancient, even, or at the very least aged beyond a normal lifespan thanks to her magical abilities — but the Red Woman has nonetheless steered the fates of kings and kingdoms while pulling the wool over the whole world's eyes. Revealing her true form makes her even more formidable, not less. There's a power in her unadorned body now that her many nude scenes and sex scenes only hinted at before. How much power? See you next week!

Find out our top 10 'Game of Thrones' characters of all time.