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Game of Thrones delivers drama, more cliffhangers in season 6 opener

NOTE: the following story contains spoilers about the season six premiere of Game of Thrones

And now, our wait has ended. 10 months after season five finale of Game of Thrones left the viewers with excruciating cliffhangers, including the fate of fan favourite Jon Snow, the HBO fantasy series is back in action again. Except this time, without the guiding script of George RR Martin: last night's episode was the first one to outpace the American author's series A Song of Fire and Ice. 

Directed by Canadian Jeremy Podeswa, who gained notoriety last year for helming one of the series' most controversial episodes (Sansa Stark's rape), the episode delivered the thrills we've come to expect from Game of Thrones, but in its writing and structure, also showed some divergence from the show's previous patterns. 

Jon Snow is dead (for now)

The sad howl of Jon's dire wolf Ghost might as well have been the wail of his many fans as the episode opened, centred around Jon's motionless body, surrounded by a pool of his own blood.  His eyes are lifeless, snow covers him. That's how Ser Davos discovers him, and immediately gathers Jon's closest allies to carry his body to a room and guard it there, hatching plans on how to avenge him. That's when the Red Woman walks in.

In rallying around Jon's cause, Davos and Melisandre, who spent much of the last five seasons squabbling around Stannis's affections, are forced into an uneasy alliance. She, too, is now missing a leader to pin her hopes upon, and--in what could potentially be crucial information--she reveals to Davos that she saw Jon in the flames, fighting a battle at Winterfell.  Davos dismisses it with the evidence that Jon is, indeed, dead, so perhaps she's wrong once again. But as the rest of the episode reveals, we shouldn't dismiss Melisandre's powers just yet. 

Sansa and Theon's Escape

We learn that Sansa and Theon have survived their jump from a high Winterfell wall, and equally importantly, that watching Sansa's suffering has jolted Theon out of his "Reek" subjugation into a more noble and courageous character. The two even share a touching hug, reminding us that they basically grew up as brother and sister.  But the brief moment of familial sweetness is broken up by Ramsey Bolton's soldiers and hounds, who have caught up with them. We think all is lost for Theon and Sansa when Brienne finally shows up and dispatches Bolton's men with the usual aplomb. This was a very satisfying scene.  Brienne, a fan favourite, spent much of season five waiting around in the snow for one Stark or another to request her help, and she's now finally being given a chance to be the hero we know she is.  Scene ends with Sansa finally, wisely, accepting Brienne's plea to be her protector. 

Lannisters, Sparrows and Snakes

Barely recovered from her Walk of Shame, Cersei greets Jaime from his Dornish excursion and learns their daughter Myrcella is dead.  What proceeds is a beautiful bit of acting by Lena Headey, who plays Cersei, as the conniving queen reveals some more human aspects of herself. We learn about Cersei's morbid mind, as she punishes herself with thoughts of her loved ones decomposing after their death. We learn that she, too, thinks she's a terrible person, as she speaks of her surprise at Myrcella's sweetness of nature. This monologue seems particularly well thought out, and hints at the new primacy the show-runners and writers have in character development. Cersei is almost resigned, when Jaime rouses her from her thoughts and promises revenge on all their enemies.

And of those, there is no shortage. First in their cross-hairs are presumably the religious fanatics who have taken over King's Landing: the Sparrows. This episode finds the High Sparrow talking to Margaery, still in her dirty prison cell, and trying to get her to confess.  

Beyond the Sparrows, the Lannisters' real problem may well be the Sand Snakes. Having learned their plan to kill Myrcella was successful, Ellaria Sand and her daughters go on to brutally murder the pacifist Dornish leader King Doran and his heir, Trystane.  

Daenerys in Danger

In Meereen, Daenerys' provisional government, Tyrion and Varys, are walking about and trading their usual witticisms. Not the most exciting bit of the episode, except we learn that the Lord of Light is popular with the poor folks there and that their priests see Daenerys as his representative. Also, Sons of the Harpy (or someone else? Angry dragons?) have set fire to what appears to be most of Meereen's ships.

Meanwhile, Jorah and Dario are searching for their queen, and sharing some "bromance" moments as they realize they're both in love with the woman they can't quite have (Jorah's predicament worsened by his spreading grey scale).

Dany is, of course, not exactly a damsel in distress. Having been taken captive by the Dothraki people, she withstands many threats of rape, until she impresses the Khal of this group with her feistiness and reveals her true identity. He is respectful once he learns she's Drogo's widow, but then informs her he'll take her to the place where nice old Khaleesi widows live out their days. Dany is not impressed.

A note: this is another spot where you can tell the show is no longer based on the books.  As Khal Moro proclaims there's nothing more exhilarating than seeing a beautiful woman naked for the first time, his henchmen keep interrupting, pointing out to other things the Dothraki find exciting. What proceeds is an absurd Princess Bride-style comedic bit where the Khal's dramatic point is continuously undercut by his underlings. Not only is humour in Game of Thrones reserved only for certain characters (Tyrion, Varys), but the comedic undertone to what's clearly a threatening scene for a major character like Daenerys seemed incongruous in this context.  This seemed like growing pains for the show's writers.

Arya, fighting blind

Speaking of pains, Arya's continue. She's now blind and still continually beaten with a stick by that Waif who may or may not be Jaqen wearing a different face. It really seems high time for her story line to somehow advance.

Red Woman Reveal

But at least one story line advanced in a major way last night. We knew nothing (Jon Snow-style) about the Red Woman so far.  In the episode's last and most shocking scene, we see her looking sad and presumably doubting her visions as she's getting ready for bed. She takes off her necklace and--lo and behold--the beautiful Melisandre is a very, very old woman, perhaps hundreds of years old.  As she gets into bed and covers herself, it's a sad and human moment for a character who has had few. But it also helps develop other story lines. If Melisandre is that old, and perhaps immortal, could she bestow immortality on others?  Jon Snow may be dead, but the speculation of his resurrection lives on. 

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