The Game of Thrones premiere left one big question unanswered
Jon Snow is dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. After nearly a year of feverish speculation about the Lord Commander's ultimate fate, Game of Thrones' sixth season attempts to shout down any remaining skeptics by opening with a long, slow pan over his cold body, lying in a massive puddle of blood while his direwolf howls nearby. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Jon Snow is as dead as a door-nail.
Of course, the cold fact that Jon Snow is absolutely dead right now doesn't mean he'll stay that way. This is Game of Thrones, where a man like Berric Dondarrion can be killed and resurrected again and again; where the "extinct" dragons literally came roaring back to life; where Cersei Lannister is being guarded by a mute soldier that is almost definitely the revived corpse of Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane; and where the greatest threat to Westeros is an ever-growing army of walking corpses, into which any person killed by a White Walker is drafted.
So yes, Game of Thrones has plenty of deaths, and the season six premiere was no exception — but "are they or aren't they dead?" is rarely the most interesting or relevant question. What really matters is what the dead person's absence means for everyone else, and what those survivors decide to do about it.
Let's start, as this week's "The Red Woman" did, with Jon Snow. The Night's Watch is a strictly regimented group, and murdering the Lord Commander doesn't just leave a void at the top; it splinters everyone below, resulting in some hastily drawn lines between the rival factions. In one corner, we have Davos Seaworth, the outsider relying on a few Jon Snow loyalists to protect the body while he figures out his next move. In the other, we have Alliser Thorne, who openly admits to the murder while arguing that it was all for the good of the Night's Watch.
Regardless of which side you take — an academic question, though one with plenty of real-world consequences — there's a more immediate problem "The Red Woman" never quite manages to address. One thing both sides seem to agree on: Jon Snow is dead. We've seen what happens to dead people in the north. In fact, we learned it from Jon Snow, who saved the previous Lord Commander when a corpse suddenly rose from the dead and tried to kill him. The White Walkers are perilously near. Whether you love Jon Snow or hate him, why not burn the body and let him rest for good? The end of the episode offers a veiled clue. Given Davos' fraught history with Melisandre and her supernatural powers, it's clear that he suspects she might be able to do something about Jon Snow's death. (And given the various essential Jon Snow-related threads that Game of Thrones has yet to resolve, it's a safe bet that he's right.)
Unfortunately, not every Game of Thrones death can be undone so easily. In Winterfell, we get a surprisingly humanizing glimpse of Ramsay Bolton, mourning the death of Myranda. ("She was fierce. There was nothing she wouldn't do," he recalls fondly — a sociopath grieving another sociopath.) But unlike Jon Snow, the kennel master's daughter has no grand prophetic fate to be filled. Ramsay doesn't call a red priestess in an effort to bring her back; he just feeds her corpse to the hounds.
And then there's the latest tragedy at King's Landing, which has been steeped in blood since Joffrey had Ned Stark's head lopped off. It's been a particularly rough year for Cersei Lannister, who has weathered the murders of her son, father, and daughter in rapid succession. Those deaths weren't just violent; they were (and remain) un-avenged, which must be a constant sting for a person as fundamentally vengeance-prone as Cersei. That same instinct leads her to reflect, painfully, on the first dead body she ever saw: that of her mother, who died giving birth to Tyrion, which set a lifelong hatred in motion. Cersei recalls obsessing over the physical state of her mother's decaying body: the bloat, the blackening skin, the gums pulling away from the teeth. Jaime — a man who's responsible for his own fair share of dead bodies — takes a more philosophical approach to the death of their daughter Myrcella. "She's not suffering," he tells Cersei. "She's gone. No one can hurt her anymore."
Jaime isn't wrong, but he's also missing the point. The dead can't be hurt, but that's only because they don't feel anything. A death leaves a void: for the person who dies, for the people who loved them, and — in this particularly brutal political landscape — in the kingdom, where the murder of Myrcella doubles as a declaration of war from Dorne, in the midst of its own bloody and dramatic political upheaval.
How do you grieve a loved one, when the loss must be felt as both a human being and a queen? It's a question Daenerys Targaryen has also faced since the end of Game of Thrones' first season, when she walked onto the funeral pyre of her beloved Khal Drogo, then emerged from the fire unscathed. Daenerys, like Cersei, is a devout believer in a prophecy; in her case, the assertion that she'll never bear another child. Since Khal Drogo's death, she has drawn new allies, taken a new lover, conquered cities, and raised a trio of dragons — but that death can't be outrun so easily. When she confronts Khal Moro, the Dothraki leader whose khalasar surrounded her in the grassland outside Mereen, he treats her with the deference customary to the widow of a fellow khal. But that respect also comes with the expectation that she adheres to a strict Dothraki custom: retiring to spend the rest of her life in solitude with the rest of the widows in the capitol city of Vaes Dothrak.
It's here that grief, however pure, becomes a trap. Daenerys knows her full potential; there's a reason she can rattle off her insanely long list of titles and make it sound like each one has meaning and purpose. Will it benefit anyone if she spends the rest of her life mourning the life she could have had with Khal Drogo and their son? Or should she liberate herself from that void of grief by refusing to be defined by it?
It's no accident that "The Red Woman" ends by giving us a startling glimpse of a person bogged down by the full weight of the past. As Melisandre grieves her own losses, Stannis Baratheon and Jon Snow, she strips down — first into nudity, and then into her true skin. As she morphs into an old, tired woman, face and body wracked with pain, it's clear that her confident youthfulness has been an act all along.
We don't know what this revelation means in the greater context of Game of Thrones, but we can make some guesses. Melisandre is clearly hundreds of years old, which means she's had firsthand experiences during hundreds of years of Westerosi history. Politically, that makes her decision to support Stannis Baratheon bolder and riskier; after all, she almost certainly remembers a time when the Targaryen dynasty had a seemingly ironclad grip on the Iron Throne. But the personal side is even more intriguing. Melisandre has been a mystery from the moment she was introduced, and years later, we still know practically nothing about her past. But for all its fantastical trappings, Game of Thrones is a series about human beings. With so much grief and loss in the average character's lifetime, how much more pain must she have endured?
But there is a way to channel grief without being consumed or defined by it. In the episode's one unqualified moment of triumph, Brienne of Tarth rescues Sansa Stark from Ramsay Bolton's men, and offers her undying loyalty. It's a moment rich with tradition, as the knight and the lady share the customary words that cement their bond. But it's also a moment built on an intensely personal history: a vow, long ago, that Brienne would find and protect the Stark girls. It's a vow she made to Catelyn Stark, now long dead. But that's the surest way for the living to honor their debts to the dead: acknowledge the void, then start trying to fill it.