It was a rewarding season, to be sure, one that spelled good news for the show itself and the uphill route it appeared to be taking. Unfortunately, though, the sixth season's highly anticipated premiere, The Red Woman, drops the momentum that the previous season left it with, instead opting for a slower, more controlled burn and a lighter, quicker pace. Granted, the show usually stumbles a bit before finding its legs, but this episode steps off into strange far more often than this critic would've liked. It absolutely contains moments where it shines with a radiance that rivals some of the previous season's brightest, most brilliant achievements, but there are a number of pervasive problems present that may end up undercutting what the show has spent years building.
Jon Snow is (insert prediction here). While the Night's Watch deals with the latest wrinkle with their well-meaning Lord Commander, a weaponless Theon Greyjoy and a half-weeping, half-shivering Sansa Stark run through a wintry woodland with Ramsay Bolton's hounds hot on their heels. Across the Narrow Sea, Daario Naharis, and Jorah Mormont pick at grass (and leads) as they search for their missing queen. Arya continues to be blind, and the Lannister’s plan to strike back against Dorne. Just another day in Westeros, right?
Unlike much of what came before it, this perplexing season opener struggles with maintaining a consistent tone. A handful of intense, impactful scenes are swiftly followed by poorly-timed jokes that aim high but hit low, raising eyebrows (and concerns) as they add levity to sequences that don't benefit from a lighter mood. The showrunners have never used this jocular approach before; that's not to say the show is bereft of humour, but it is to say that it should never be the centrepiece around which a scene revolves.
The premiere's faults could be blamed on the fact that Benioff and Weiss can no longer rely on the narrative cushioning that George R. R. Martin's shamelessly long-winded but undeniably brilliant A Song of Ice and Fire books provided for nearly half a decade. Up until now, even when the show suffered, it had Martin's strong, searing prose to add meat to its leaner approach. It had a foundation to build from and lean on when necessary. Now, though, the show has sped ahead of its source material, leaving the showrunners to their own devices for the first time since it debuted in April 2011. This may prove to be a bane rather than a boon, but even that remains to be seen.
Despite its shortcomings, The Red Woman starts off on such a strong note that it almost pulls itself out of mediocrity and back into the quality we've come to expect from the show. There's plenty to like here, even if our personal feelings toward some of the episode's happenings are lukewarm at best. It's not the weakest premiere the show has ever had (that title still belongs to the Season Three premiere, Valar Dohaeris), and it certainly isn't the weakest entry in the show's short but illustrious history.
The Red Woman may be what we call ‘marginally good’, but it leaves plenty of room for improvement and lays groundwork for some truly compelling storylines.
The next episode, titled Home, will air next Monday on Sky Atlantic.