This post contains spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 6, Episode 1, titled “The Red Woman.” See where we left off with our Season 5 finale recap.

“Game of Thrones” has never been afraid of spilling blood, and the Season 6 premiere is no exception — even as Jon Snow lies dead in the courtyard of Castle Black, at the other end of Westeros the Sand Snakes are living up to their deadly legacy, with Ellaria Sand and the daughters of Prince Oberyn quickly dispatching the last of the Martells, murdering Prince Doran and his heir Trystane to assume power in Dorne for themselves.

The Dorne storyline often felt like an excuse for narrative wheel-spinning last season, with Jaime and Bronn’s expedition to retrieve Myrcella proving to be one of the rare deviations from George R. R. Martin’s books that didn’t quite land, so choosing to trim the fat from that plot seems like a savvy choice on David Benioff and Dan Weiss’ part, shifting the focus back to the potentially fascinating Sand Snakes and Ellaria, since the women still have an ax to grind against the Lannisters following the death of Oberyn.

In King’s Landing, one of the Sand Snakes’ other victims — Cersei and Jaime’s daughter, Myrcella — has been brought back home by her father, and it’s heartbreaking to see Cersei’s eagerness to see her daughter turn to despair when she realizes that she’s lost another child — bringing her one step closer to fulfilling the prophecy she received from fortuneteller Maggy the Frog as a child: that she will have three children and all will die (“gold will be their crowns, and gold their shrouds”). Cersei shares this portent of doom with Jaime, who dismisses the superstition and vows that from now on, they’ll stick together, as they should’ve from the beginning — and anyone who isn’t a Lannister had better beware. It’s certainly true that the family’s fortunes have reversed while Jaime has been away, and after her humiliation at the hands of the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant last season, Cersei may be more dangerous than ever, since she’s arguably already hit rock bottom. At least she’s out of custody following her walk of atonement, which is more than can be said for Margaery Tyrell, who’s still locked up with a particularly determined Septa who’s trying to guilt trip her, despite her pleas for news of her brother, Loras.

Back at the Wall, the betrayal of Jon has divided the Night’s Watch, and it’s clear that Castle Black is on the brink of chaos, with the few men still loyal to Jon — including Ser Davos Seaworth — preparing to fight the rest of the crows to the death, as Alliser Thorne tries to seize power for himself. Although we don’t see the wildlings in the premiere, this power vacuum will no doubt leave the free folk in a dangerous position, as Kristofer Hivju (who plays Tormund Giansbane) tells Variety: “We’re not welcome [at the Wall] — even though one person was nice to us, and then was killed, we have threats from the Night’s Watch and threats from the Boltons, nobody likes us — we’ve been seen as the biggest threat since the dawn of time.”

For better or worse, there’s now a much more pressing threat for the wildlings, Boltons and Night’s Watch members alike — the White Walkers, led by the terrifying Night’s King. After the attack at Hardhome, Hivju says the wildlings “know what the real danger is firsthand, and people in Westeros are fighting each other when the real danger is outside, so I think Tormund knows that nothing is over.”

Close by, the Boltons are scrambling to recover Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy, after the two managed to escape Winterfell in the Season 5 finale.

“At the start of Season 5, we said we were going to change our tactic and marriage was the best way forward to solidify our hold on the North — and having a child would make us pretty popular guys in the North, as we’re not,” says Michael McElhatton, who plays Roose Bolton. “So losing [Sansa] is absolutely huge, and the Starks are so revered and loved in the North that if she gets out and starts talking… it is a major problem, and the Boltons hit the ground running trying to get her back.”

After the Season 5 finale, Ramsay has lost his wife, Sansa; his favorite toy, Theon; and his lover, Myranda, in one fell swoop; and his father has another potential heir on the way thanks to Roose’s marriage to Walda Frey, which will put a lot of pressure on the sadistic son this season, says actor Iwan Rheon. “He’s deflated because all that bravado and his own tactics and the way he operated are a major cause of why this has happened. And having the threat of another potential heir is not good for him, because in order to be fully legitimized — which is his life ambition — he needs to have an heir, politically, in order to do that. So losing Sansa is huge to him. His whole world has been turned upside down and the reality is seeping in.”

Thankfully, Sansa and Theon manage to avoid the Boltons’ clutches thanks to the well-timed arrival of Brienne of Tarth, who shows up with Podrick Payne to save the day in spectacular fashion. This leads to a long overdue reunion between Sansa and Brienne, as the eldest surviving Stark finally accepts Brienne’s offer of protection in a faltering but heartfelt pledge of loyalty.

“It was great to finally have that, because everyone’s been rooting for Brienne to get to Sansa and it’s almost like if she asks politely, she’s not going to get what she wants, but if she comes in full force, [Sansa can’t ignore her],” Sophie Turner says of her character’s decision to trust Brienne. “With so many people trying to get to her, there are only a few people in this world who really want to do good by Sansa — it’s really only been Tyrion and her family. For someone to fight for her like that and show her how much they want to protect her and be with her, it’s a rarity for Sansa, and it definitely changes her perspective.”

Luckily, Turner says, “Brienne is the first step,” in Sansa’s quest for independence this season. “Brienne is the first person she has on her side who is really fighting for her. It’s the beginning of a few.”

Alfie Allen, who plays Theon, recalls how excited he was to get to work with Gwendoline Christie for Brienne’s dramatic arrival, and agrees that the warrior’s appearance in Sansa and Theon’s lives will mark a big turning point for all three of them. “It’s great; it’s appropriate for the Sansa and Theon storyline because they both set out from Winterfell with these delusions of grandeur; she was going to be Queen of Westeros, he was going to be Prince of the Salt Throne. Gwendoline’s character is also out trying to atone for her misgivings in protecting Renly, so we’re all on our own journeys.” Of the icy fight scene between them and the Bolton soldiers, Allen reveals, “It was definitely interesting to film, because it was actually summer when we were filming that, so it was sunny. That shot of us going through the snow and that frozen ice waterfall — that wasn’t there. It’s amazing when you get on set and they’ve created that for your scene.”

Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys is still in the clutches of a Dothraki horde, and the riders waste no time objectifying and disrespecting her — until their leader, Khal Moro, discovers that she is the widow of Khal Drogo, which earns Dany their respect, but not her freedom. As the wife of a Khal, no other man can lie with her (phew!), but she’ll still have to spend the rest of her days with the widows of the other Khals back at Vaes Dothrak, whether she likes it or not. The Dothraki’s casual misogyny may induce a few eyerolls, but the scene with Khal Moro is also unexpectedly hilarious, and it’s nice to see Benioff and Weiss leaning into the show’s capacity for humor. We’ve always counted on Tyrion and Varys for snark before, but “The Red Woman” deftly balances some cracking one-liners with the episode’s more dramatic beats.

Back in Meereen, Tyrion and Varys are debating the best plan of action in Dany’s absence, since the Sons of the Harpy are still terrorizing the city, while Jorah and Daario trek through the hills in search of their missing queen, finding the ring that she cleverly dropped and realizing that she’s back in the hands of the Dothraki.

Despite several seasons of criticism that the show is over-reliant on raping and objectifying its female characters, it’s impossible to deny that “Thrones” has always excelled at portraying an array of complex, compelling and well-defined women in its central cast (perhaps more than any other show on TV), many of them even more cunning, power-hungry and resourceful than the male characters. While good characterization doesn’t excuse the show’s tendency to use rape as a narrative shortcut to prove how “evil” and “dangerous” a character is, it’s nonetheless a step in the right direction to see so many female characters with agency and a clear sense of purpose in this premiere. We may not relish seeing Dany once again at the mercy of a misogynistic Khal, but unlike her first introduction to Dothraki culture, this time she refuses to be cowed or intimidated — she’s no longer content to be obedient chattel passed from her brother to her husband for political gain; she has returned to them as a queen, and even if the Dothraki don’t realize it yet, the audience is well aware that they underestimate her at their peril.

Likewise, Arya is in an unenviable position — blind and begging on the street after her selfish acts last season — but while she may be presented as vulnerable and victimized at the hands of the Waif (who seems to take far too much pleasure in beating her), you get the sense that her journey is only just beginning. Jaqen H’ghar and the Faceless Men clearly have big plans for her, as Tom Wlaschiha tells Variety: “He wants her to become the perfect Faceless Man. Her training’s going to continue; he’ll do anything to make her the best weapon she can be.”

Fans may have worried that the show might suffer by straying from Martin’s source material, but judging by the confidence of the premiere, those fears appear to be unfounded — whether the producers feel liberated by the chance to go off book a little more or by their record Emmy haul, “Thrones” certainly seems to have found its swagger in this dense, decisive hour.

While Sansa and Brienne’s meeting is undoubtedly the crowd-pleasing moment of the premiere, the episode also features another jaw-dropper in its final moments. Melisandre has now lost both Stannis Baratheon and Jon Snow — the two men she had placed her hopes in because of visions from the Lord of Light — and as she prepares to bed, we finally see just how broken and defeated she is following this latest loss. As she appraises herself in a mirror before bed, we see her reflection change from that of a young woman to one who’s old and wrinkled, revealing that she apparently has the power to mask her true appearance. The cast has their own opinions on the shocking final scene and what it could mean, with Liam Cunningham (who plays Ser Davos) noting, “That old woman getting into bed and grabbing the duvet and we leave her to go to sleep… it’s remarkable because for the past five seasons, everything you’ve known about Melisandre is now a lie, so you’re never going to be able to look at her the same way again.”

Does that mean she also has the power to resurrect Jon? What will the Sands do now that they have no one to oppose their plans in Dorne? Who will Sansa seek revenge on first, now that she has Brienne on her side? Share your theories in the comments, and let us know what you thought of the “Game of Thrones” Season 6 premiere.

“Game of Thrones” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.