Game of Thrones has now, officially, taken the first bold step beyond the books of George RR Martin. While this is a fact we already knew, there are definite signs in this first episode of season 6 that show the TV show has been let off the leash. And not in a bad way. It's early days, but I think those worried about the scriptwriters 'fumbling' the series in the absence of a novel to draw from will certainly be placated. It's actually one of the stronger opening episodes of any season. Ok, there are spoilers below - you have been warned.
The big talking point of the week is that Melisandre, the frequently sexualised Fire Priestess and former manipulator of Stannis Baratheon is... well, she's a crone. The scene at the end of the episode is incredibly cleverly done, using classic Game of Thrones 'bait and switch' to surprise the viewer, but in a new way that smartly sets out the tone and intent of this 'TV-first' series. And it's all down to boobs. Yup, I went there. When Melisandre starts to disrobe at the conclusion of the episode, we expect there to be some full frontal and a bit of symbolism. That's what Thrones does. Of course the bright, red jewel in her necklace has dimmed - she's failed Stannis and lost her faith in the Lord of Light. Now would she please just hurry up and resurrect Jon Snow so we can all move on.
What most didn't expect was to see her a shrivelled crone, still naked, but hideous and worn-out. This scene gives us immediate background about her character - she's a witch, she's more ancient than we knew, the necklace is clearly the source of her power. However, it also cleverly undermines one of the features Game of Thrones initially sold itself on. Frequent nudity (of good looking characters, both male and female) has always been a reason to tune in - please don't act like you don't enjoy that. But right at the start of season 6, the show has turned this appeal on its audience. The beauty has turned ugly. Few were expecting it, and even fewer can predict what it means for Melisandre's continuing narrative.
It also makes a more subtle point - which is more boldly displayed in other plot-lines - that the Game of Thrones women are finally becoming a genuine force to be reckoned with. They're not just objects to be sexualised, or princesses to be rescued. It follows a most welcome trend already firmly championed by other entertainment behemoths Star Wars and The Hunger Games. Previous series have given us strong women, sure, but this first episode of season 6 really wants you to know the show is taking its female characters seriously. Brienne finally rescues a Stark girl, Sansa stands proudly to welcome her into her service, Daenerys shows strength in her first ever episode away from her male minders (in fact Jorah and Dario look decidedly lost, poking around at burnt ram corpses, as they attempt to track her down), and Elyria Sand - former lover of Prince Oberyn - stages a full on royal assassination because she won't let Dorne accept another insult from the bullies in King's Landing. And am I reading too much into the fact that the Sand Snakes kill Prince Trystane of Dorne by penetrating him from behind with a spear? Yeah, maybe, let's move on shall we?
The episode is perhaps a little too forceful in shouting its message that 'season 6 will finally give us better female characters' - but I love the way the writers have embraced the control they now have over the franchise; I like the way they're thinking about the world and the characters within it. Provided the themes shift and change with each show, this could be one of the smartest, most fist-pumpingly watchable seasons to date.
What about the rest of the episode? Well, Arya's scene is too short to tell us much, but it feels like the Braavos plot has already run out of steam. Yeah, she's going to get beaten senseless until she learns how to fight back, she may not even have been blind, she's now a better assassin because she follows her brain rather than her eyes. A girl sees etc etc. Tyrion and Varys will likely wander round Mareem for a few episodes as the city starts to fall into anarchy. One interesting thread that was started in this episode is the idea of the leader of the Sons of the Harpy. Who is it? How will that impact on the rest of the show?
Jamie has returned to King's Landing with a corpse, sparking the inevitable blood-letting between both the Lannisters and the Martells, and the King’s Guard and the Sparrows. This is perhaps the most intriguing plot of all - the reclaiming of King's Landing will be brutal, bloody, and will likely either kill off Cersei or Margaery. Place your bets now, because the Lannisters will no longer tolerate their enemies.
Finally, who can forget poor Jon Snow, laid up on a slab with his direwolf - and Ser Davos - dutifully guarding his corpse. Look, I've already weighed in on the 'is he / isn't he dead' debate and my opinion hasn't shifted. Jon Snow is coming back - it's just a question of how and when. One thing I do appreciate is how HBO isn't rushing him back to life. The writers have teased Snow fans for another agonising episode, and shown us that his widely-believed saviour - Melisandre - isn't who we thought she was.
Then again, it's their show now... they can do what the hell they like. And I have a feeling we're going to enjoy the results.