One does not simply walk into my annual Game of Thrones article. A man surveys all that has been said. A girl tries to make herself useful, in this case by attempting to write what has heretofore remained unwritten. A reader reads on, expecting spoilers and insight.
In case you’ve been living under The Wall, this fifth season of Game of Thrones, which concludes Sunday, is the first to make a significant departure from George R.R. Martin’s literary source material, occasioning more internet hand-wringing and conjecture than, say, all the emails drafted last year in Malawi. The television program had never been able to capture Martin’s narrative entirety, but common consensus said they’d captured the spirit; what would happen to the spirit if they abandoned even the novels?
Well, as Littlefinger said, summing up his character as well as the season, “every ambitious move is a gamble.” As go Baelish’s schemes, so goes the show: the gamble basically worked. (Or perhaps the more relevant quote is from Tyrion: “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked in your favor.”) If they gave out Nobel Prizes for TV-show-planning, one very deserving recipient would be whoever said, “You know what we should do? Stretch Book Three out to two seasons [3 and 4], and compress Books Four and Five into one season [the current one].” That, friends, was the Valyrian steel of ideas.
I don’t expect anyone to believe this (other than my wife, who was there), but I had the same idea a couple of years back. By TV logic, there would never, ever (ever!) be a season without all three of the Lannister siblings and Dany and Jon, so the show would need to find some way to shuffle the deck of events of Books 4 and 5. Then this thought came: what events? One of the reasons that Book 3 was so effective was that Martin had the courage to kill six of his more beloved characters – Robb, Catelyn, Tywin, Joffrey, the Hound, and Ygritte. (Two of those deaths have a big asterisk, but let’s get past that.) And then in Books 4 and 5 Martin just…stopped killing people, unless we’re counting fake deaths. We’ve all known writers to fall too much in love with their writing, but this felt slightly different – a shift to too much in love with his characters. And nothing was really happening anyway, except Brienne taking a looooooooooong time to not find Arya or Sansa, and Tyrion taking a looooooong time to not meet Dany. You can’t expect people not to notice when you swing the sword like a berserker in three books and then get all mushy/vague in the next two.
The showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are wilier coyotes than Littlefinger on top of the Eyrie. They’ve killed someone semi-important in every single episode in this fifth season. And there’s something vertiginous about having had four years of carefully adapted characters and stories now venturing into unknown and somewhat uncharted territory – it almost feels like fan fiction brought to life.
As a side note, I love the entire Game of Thrones experience right down to the recaps and reddit threads. In this Netflix-led era where more and more seasons of TV shows are released all at once, I just want to offer the briefest of defenses for rewatching an episode while you’re waiting a week for the next one, and for the extra-textual, over-intellectual world that grows up around each season of Game of Thrones. All that is better even than Dornish wine combined with Cersei after too many Dornish wines. Defense over.
My friend Iain Robert Smith wrote this excellent essay about the perils of adaptation and the fact that the show, after spending its first four seasons (series = season in British parlance) in relative fealty to the source material, now boldly goes in directions that Martin can’t and won’t follow. Iain makes several good points, but I’m not certain that we can extrapolate them to anything else, ever. To me, it seems unlikely that we’re again going to have anything like a show that bases its first four seasons on the first three novels in a series, makes radical alterations to the next two novels for its fifth, and then improvises (more or less) for the final two seasons. Well, so if we know nothing, what then, Jon Snow?
How about one person’s song of ice and fealty? By which I mean, of course, one fan’s take on how this Season 5 has done in going from page to pixels?
Let’s assert the caveat that as I write, the final episode of Season 5 hasn’t aired. Then let’s ask three little questions: what if there was a top ten list that ranked, on a scale from 1 to 10, all of this season’s changes from the source material to the screen? What if they were ranked in two categories, namely fealty to the novels, and effectiveness of the changes? And what if that list was in reverse alphabetical order, just because I felt like it?
LISTICLE IS COMING
In the books, everyone’s three favorite R’s, Reek, Roose and Ramsay, do pretty much the same things, for the same reasons, as on the show. But their novel-to-show change was a true stunner: instead of marrying an Arya impostor, Ramsay is marrying the real Sansa. At first this seemed a masterstroke of show deviation, partly because the fake-Arya subplot was always convoluted, partly because Sansa is barely in Books 4 and 5, which simply wouldn’t have worked after the show had invested us so deeply in her. However, sometime around her wedding night, one had to ask: would Sansa really marry Joffrey 2.0? And do we really need more rape scenes for critics to hate? (answer: no) In terms of effectiveness this was wavering to 7 or even 6, but when Theon revealed the truth about Bran and Rickon, that jumped it back to 8. Now Sansa and Theon both have good and interesting reasons to follow the basic outlines of what happens in the book to Theon and fake-Arya. In the books, Theon is our only window into what happens with Roose and Ramsey, and the show has done well by giving us some Bolton byplay that Theon never saw. All things considered, good job, show.
Fealty score: 5 Effectiveness score: 8
2. The Wall
At first, book-readers were disappointed that Season 4 ended without all the electoral intrigue of Book 3, but then we realized it made more sense to push that to Season 5, lest Jon Snow have next-to-nothing to do. As it turned out, the show compressed at least thirty pages of election-based horse-trading into one scene anyway – where Sam nominated Jon, and the Night’s Watch shrugged and said “sure” – and it worked. Jon’s encounters with Stannis, Melisandre, Sam, Olly, and especially his beheading of Janos Slynt have all worked better on the show. Book readers know that Mance didn’t die as much as have his spirit moved to Tormund, but I doubt the show will bother with that now, and probably we don’t need it. It does seem odd that Sam and Gilly haven’t yet been shipped off to the Citadel – considering the books’ Jon took care of that even while Maester Aemon was still alive. Not a big deal, but not clear why that’s dragging out…just to give them a steadier place to have nookie? But come on, let’s get to what you’re waiting for: in the books, Jon doesn’t actually go to Hardhome, and we only learn about the battle secondhand, whereas on the show, AWESOME white walkers and wights AWESOME Valryian steel and fights AWESOME chainmail and tights AWESOME!!! So yeah, that’ll help anyone’s effectiveness score.
Fealty score: 7 Effectiveness score: 10
3. Tyrion’s J from KL to M
Or “Tyrion’s Journey from King’s Landing to Meereen.” In the books, after getting across the Narrow Sea, Tyrion gets paired off with a female dwarf, forced into a circus (well, sort of), kidnapped by Jorah, and goes on to suffer pirates, a shipwreck, and months out at sea. As importantly, the book’s Tyrion is running from everything, not running to anything in particular, except perhaps his father’s final words (in the book, when Tyrion asks where he might find his first love): “Wherever whores go.” The long and the short of it is that this short guy’s book journey was looooooooong and full of torments, and in trimming those, the show may have lost a bit of fascinating character-building for Tyrion. (Upon arrival in Meereen, despite the auction block, the show’s Tyrion seemed less like a wounded warrior and more like a scruffy backpacker, through no fault of Peter Dinklage.) My wife can confirm that I did openly root for Jorah and Tyrion to sojourn through Valyria, if only to remind us of the vanished world in their to-be-vanished world, and that worked well. Tyrion’s show chats with Jorah have been far better than any dialogue they shared in the books. But don’t give us more Varys just to throw him away.
Fealty score: 4 Effectiveness score: 7
4. Stannis’s Journey, full stop
The Baratheon army’s time at the Wall and its snowed-in march to Winterfell was all in the books, though if Episode 10 involves a siege, that will be veering into Book 6 territory. This season, the show has curiously sidelined Davos far more than any of the books’ other POV-chapter characters (e.g., characters who told us the story through their eyes); that feels like a mistake. Liam Cunningham as Davos isn’t the best actor on the show – that’s Lena Headey – but either he or Stephen Dillane, as Stannis, are the most under-used. A little of Dillane goes a long way (and it has to), but he did get to stretch his thespian legs a bit this season, thanks almost entirely to a non-book subplot about Stannis’ daughter Shireen. First Stannis confessed his love for her in unprecedented fashion, then he made a few speeches about destiny, then he sacrificed his only child to the One True God – now that’s an Arc (sorry, Joan). It’s hard to judge this on fealty, because Martin could still insert something like this near the beginning of Book 6, but I would make a tentative case for the narrative effectiveness of killing Shireen. Generally, when the show diverges from the books for non-logistical reasons, it’s to insert personal causality and consequence into the narrative, as it did with Tyrion trying to meet Dany, and as here, with Stannis sacrificing something to raise his personal stakes for the coming siege of Winterfell. I personally feel it’s clever of the show, because it was a little too easy to root for anyone fighting Team Bolton, and so now we hate Stannis…and we also want the sacrifice of Shireen to mean something. (More cynically, we might say that the show has given us reason to hate people of faith and to root against Stannis holding the Iron Throne in the show’s final episodes.) Because the show doesn’t often linger on Stannis, his expression as his daughter screamed means that he, and we, will hear those screams for a long, long time. However, because the show doesn’t often linger on Stannis, killing Shireen can’t help but feel somewhat manipulative and atonal.
Fealty score: 5 Effectiveness score: 6
To be fair to the showrunners, the book’s Meereen scenes tended to drag out like a Star Wars Senate hearing, and preserving any of that story meant preserving a lot of bloat. After a brief affair in Book 3, Daario Naharis spends most of Book 5 on various missions outside the town, and the show was wise to put him where we want him, pillow-talking with the Mother of Dragons. Speaking of love, in their few moments together Grey Worm and Missandei make a wonderful couple, potentially the Desmond-Penny of GoT, and none of that happens in the books (well, in the books she’s 11). The book version of Hizdahr zo Loraq is far more of a clever schemer, and other than time compression it’s hard to see what advantages the show has drawn by making him the weakest authority figure on TV since the President whom Kevin Spacey outwitted on House of Cards. In the books, Barristan Selmy is alive and well, though we understand why the show would kill him: to make Dany need Tyrion more. (What if Selmy had popped out from behind a column while Tyrion gave the Khaleesi that speech about knowing the Westeros houses’ strengths and weaknesses? Might have been worth seeing the look on Tyrion’s face.) And the way it happened on the page, Martin was downright cruel to keep Tyrion and Dany from each other, so the show was kind of awesome to fix that, if fan-servicing. (Or fan-fiction-servicing.) In the book, Jorah and Tyrion aren’t quite so directly involved with the re-opening of the fighting pits, and the Sons of the Harpy don’t cause mass chaos – instead, Drogon does, drawn by the smell of blood. But the result works out the same way: Drogon is attacked, Daenerys fears for his safety, and they ascend to…who knows? Vilifying the Sons and herofying (yeah, I said it) Drogon were both clever choices.
Fealty score: 4 Effectiveness score: 8
6. Littlefinger’s Journey, full of stops and starts
The books pretty much forget about Petyr Baelish after book 3; the showrunners, knowing they can rely on the ever-cleverer Aidan Gillen, have spun book lead into show gold. While books 4 and 5 plod along as though Martin is trying to keep all his options open, this season Littlefinger has set forth several Westeros-shaking gambles, and so far won them all. In the books, the fates of the Eyrie, Sansa, Joffrey, and Cersei feel like simple developments; the show has turned them into Baelish’s machinations, and that is all to the better. Most of the show’s leads were at least born into some kind of prestigious house; we like Petyr Baelish because he’s more like us, and we love it when we as king-servicers start to become king-makers (or even kings); we love saying things like “the last time the North and the Eyrie were joined, they brought down the greatest dynasty the world has ever seen.” Obviously, Petyr can’t indefinitely fabricate two different stories to Roose Bolton and Cersei Lannister, nor expect providence from circumstances (e.g. Baratheon vs. Bolton) – his comeuppance is coming as surely as winter, but at least with Gillen as our Westoratio Alger, we’re having a helluva ride getting there.
Fealty score: 3 Effectiveness score: 9
7. Lesser Westeros (Less-teros?)
Bran and Rickon and their co-travelers took a season-long hiatus, but that feels like something that will make us all the happier to see them in Season 6. They can cast a new actor for Rickon, while Bran can realistically be something of a super-warg by then. Well done, show.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this season took the meat out of the middle of the sandwich – the bread of the North and the South (South = King’s Landing and Dorne) were still there, but the various travails set in the parts between them, like the Iron Islands, Riverrun, The Twins, the Citadel, Storm’s End, the Reach, and even the Vale, were all but eliminated. If we wind up back in any of these places in Season 6, this may seem short-sighted, but we probably have too many characters to follow in any event. Good thing the show is determined to keep killing them, one way or the other.
By that I mean, hey show: thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for killing the interminable Iron Islands storylines, including way too many scenes of the impetuous Victarion raiding ships on his way to seducing Dany in Meereen. I think it was right around the end of Season 3 when the showrunners realized they probably shouldn’t have bothered to introduce Theon’s sister at all, never mind renamed her from Asha to Yara – or else why move her big Theon rescue to the middle of Season 4, and then have her get scared away by a few dogs? Asha’s book plot, where she attempts to turn the Iron “election” from a kingsmoot into a queensmoot, was feminist but never really fun, and frankly we don’t need to deal with more “what is dead will never die.”
My friend said the real title of Book 4 should have been “A Long Walk With Brienne.” It’s true that she goes through a lot of sound and fury, signifying nearly nothing – certainly she never glimpses Arya, Sansa, or any other Stark (not even a Karstark!). Instead, her and Jamie tool around a wide swath of Lessteros while readers wonder will-they-or-won’t-they? No, silly, it’s just will they meet, and they don’t even do that. On the show, on the other hand, last season’s utterly un-canonical battle with the Hound was a visceral thrill, and it’s a pity we couldn’t have had something like that surrounding the abortive meeting with Sansa. Certainly my friend’s “long walk” needed a good deal of trimming, but it would have been nice for show Brienne to have more than the one terrific heart-to-heart with Podrick. I suspect that Brienne has been busy gathering the small local armies of the North (perhaps even the Karstarks!) to serve as a bit of a cavalry for Stannis when his siege of Winterfell begins to falter. (Presumably Littlefinger’s Eyrie soldiers will show up at some point as well.) Brienne is too good a character, and an actress (Gwendolyn Christie), not to be better deployed next season.
Fealty score: 1 Effectiveness score: 8
8. King’s Landing
Highest fealty score on this list: Cersei’s promotion of the High Sparrow, his imprisonment of Loras and Margery, Lancel’s new piousness and betrayal of Cersei, Tommen’s weakness, Qyburn playing Frankenstein, the coming trials…all from the books. Sure, a few minor things were compressed, but they certainly retained the heart and soul of it, and the question becomes: should they have bothered? The answer is mostly yes. You can’t really go wrong blaming religious zealots when your story is set way before the Reformation, and Jonathan Pryce cuts a creepy cult cloth, with just enough humility that you barely see the dagger. His scene with Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell was the best swordplay between two Social-Security recipients since Sam Waterston jousted with Jane Fonda on The Newsroom. But the main reason to return to King’s Landing is to watch Lena Headey continue to make a classic villain oddly compelling – some unwanted part of you wants Cersei to win. The Queen Mother’s two scenes this season with the otherwise too-often-sidelined Natalie Dormer were perfect halves of a whole: one where Margary’s laughing girlfriends forced Cersei to swallow her stop-talking-to-Tommen speech, and the other where Cersei eventually forced an imprisoned Margery to cough up her bilious anger. Cersei walked out of that prison cell happier than we’ve ever seen her, and it’s a testament to the show that we were thrilled then, and just as thrilled when the hammer fell one scene later. The show probably preserved the best parts of the books, even if those best parts, in this case, added up to something less than, say, HARDHOME.
Fealty score: 9 Effectiveness score: 7
This show’s plot was by far the most frustrating because it seemed so well-foreshadowed by last season’s outstanding, jumped-off-the-screen performance by Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell which screamed: if that’s Dorne, show me more. And then teasers showed sisters plotting and whip-cracking…in 1990s terms, we were going to get Bad Girls meets Braveheart. And then…did the budget run out? The “battle” between the sisters and Jamie and Bronn was as anti-climactic as a sandy condom. Not that they needed to hew closely the book (Jamie and Bronn don’t go to Dorne), but you don’t replace the book’s thrilling kidnapping and chase with non-plot-advancing scenes like Jamie chatting up his daughter niece and Bronn getting seduced. If Myrcella seems a little too young-adult novel, so does this entire storyline – since when does any bad-ass woman insist (over multiple episodes) that some sellsword find them “the most beautiful woman in the world”? Way to go from feminism to femme-mincing. And the whole thing gets resolved over tea and biscuits in a Dornish living room? Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, playing a guy who won our heart after defenestrating a kid, deserved better. (Credit where credit is due: they were right to cut Quentyn Martell’s journey to Meereen, which ended in a dragon making him into BBQ.) At this point, the best you can say about the Dorne detour is that it served to insulate the show against potential charges of racism: it’s not like the savages who appear to dominate Meereen are the show’s only invocation of Arabic culture. (Note: indoor arches, certain tile patterns on walls.) The Jews wandered in a desert for 40 years. This show squandered a cool desert story in 40 show minutes.
Fealty score: 2 Effectiveness score: 2
Surprisingly close to the book, except that Arya’s worst-internship-ever wasn’t managed by everyone’s favorite Faceless Man, and after Arya becomes the Cat of the Canals, she’s blinded, apparently by the Faceless Men because she’s still clinging too hard to being Arya Stark. So we missed out on a few scenes of Arya learning the alleyways as a blind person, we missed her regaining her sight (don’t ask), and we missed her murder of a vow-breaking Night’s Watch-man. It probably makes more sense, in show terms (and book terms), for her to be obsessed with killing a person on her death list. It’s also nice for the show to bring back (and bring to Arya) the idea of the Iron Bank of Braavos calling in its chits on the Lannisters, just as a salute to so many antecedents to real-life medieval wars, even though it feels unlikely that the show/books will ever really do anything with that. The Arya story has been a little low-action this season, but that could eventually pay off with Arya becoming not just the avenger of dead Starks, but the leader that we all want her to eventually be.
Fealty score: 8 Effectiveness score: 7
All in all, the showrunners deserve the thanks of a grateful nation. For a show that seduced us by its willingness to kill off its moral compass/leading character, I can’t wait to see where it be headed.