Game of Thrones Season Five

As a fan of George R. R. Martin’s novels, the fifth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones was in many ways the most interesting to date: it was the first in which the show truly diverged from the books in a major way, and the first in which the story progressed chronologically beyond them.  It’s well known at this point that Martin informed the show’s creators (D.B. Weiss and David Benioff) of the major plot developments and endings for the main characters, but what isn’t known is which parts of the show represent the showrunners’ inventions and which represent revelations from Martin himself.

Season Five saw a lot of major plot developments, including (apparent) endings for a number of characters, so the question of who influenced these events is particularly interesting.  Spoilers abound for the books and the show, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading here.

A Dance with Dragons was a frustrating read for me.  It was better than its predecessor, A Feast for Crows, but it suffered for having to solve the problems created by that book.  It did contain some dramatic, powerful moments, but ultimately they got lost in a morass of subplots that were often boring, repetitive, or both.

I’ve loved Game of Thrones since its premiere, and am one of the (seemingly) comparatively few viewers who have also read the novels that thinks the show has improved upon the books in many ways.

Certainly, there are many points where the books will always take priority for me: the time, effort, and detail that Martin is able to put into building his world and building up to certain major events (particularly the deaths) makes those moments more powerful in print.  Reading Robb Stark’s death at the Red Wedding will always be one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had reading fantasy, if only for the sheer shock of it (if I’m being honest, I didn’t see it coming the first time).  Likewise, Jon Snow’s betrayal and apparent death at the Wall benefit from a longer, more dramatic build-up and seem all the more impactful for their sudden occurrence.  (Then again, maybe I think that because the books were the first time I experienced the story.  Perhaps if I saw the show first, I’d find the novels unnecessarily slow.)

Nevertheless, the show has excelled at telling Martin’s story in a concise, powerful, and visually beautiful way.  Where it has really shone, for me, however, is when it has taken the dreary parts of the novels and condensed or changed them.

The show has dramatically improved Daenerys’ story in Season Five.  In the novels, from the time Daenerys reached Meereen (the subject of Martin’s infamous “Meereenese Knot,” which delayed the release of A Dance with Dragons for so many years), her chapters became a slog.  Martin was clearly biding time with the Mother of Dragons, waiting for other characters’ arcs to catch up, and the result was a slow, dull progression of chapters about the difficulties of ruling a city and the complex politics of various factions represented by too many minor, interchangeable characters (all of whom had strange names that were, ironically, as forgettable as they were complex).  The main motivation of Daenerys’ character–her quest for the Iron Throne–had stalled.  She was stagnant.  It took hundreds of pages to reach the same point that the show did in a few episodes.

I’m an enormous fan of The Wertzone, Adam Whitehead’s SF&F blog.  Adam is an established, respected authority on the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire universe–he’s moderated panels on the subject and is a forum moderator at asoiaf.westeros.org–and I generally agree with most of his reviews and criticisms.  Here’s what he has to say about the Meereen sequences in Season Five:

The Meereen story is simplified from the books, which might be a good thing, with less interchangeable characters, less factions and less politics involving minor tertiary characters. However, the TV series fails to replace these elements with anything more interesting. Instead we have repeated (and redundant) scenes of the Sons of the Harpy slaughtering curiously ineffectual Unsullied by the dozen and repeated (and redundant) scenes of Daenerys musing on opening the fighting pits or not. There are some golden moments here, such as Tyrion and Daenerys finally meeting and the final, epic showdown in the Great Pit, but otherwise it’s a story left spinning its wheels for too long.

Tyrion finally meet Daenerys was a high point, and I agree that the scenes in Meereen as a whole are some of the less interesting of the Daenerys storyline, but that’s a fault I attribute more to Martin’s plot problems than to the show’s depiction of it.  Martin complicated his decision to leave Daenerys stationary in Meereen by focusing on the subject of court politics and the ethics of being a good ruler–both of which can be fascinating when used as an accompaniment but rarely thrill as a centerpiece.  Dany in Meereen was just never meant to be interesting, and Benioff and Weiss were right to condense it.  The invention of entirely new plot elements might have improved the situation, but that would have involved a vast departure from the books, invoking the ire of fans and complicating future events.

Adam’s right about the Dorne sequences, though: the show might have been better off leaving Dorne out entirely.  The scenes set in Dorne in Season Five bear no resemblance to the Dorne plot in the books.  I can only presume the writers simply needed to give Jaime something to do during Cersei’s imprisonment (what he did in the books, accepting Riverrun’s surrender before being lured into an apparent trap by Brienne, doesn’t fit with the direction the show has taken).  I don’t blame for keeping Bronn involved in the story–I love him as much as the next person–but it does seem like fan service more than anything else.  With the decision to remove the Aegon plotline (at least at this point in the story, and hopefully for good) from the TV show, Dorne’s relevance to the story as a whole is questionable at best.  Outside of Jaime’s sudden fatherly concern for a daughter he never openly acknowledged (which didn’t scan for me), there’s absolutely no reason for Jaime to be in Dorne.  The revenge subplot featuring Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes, while entertaining, occupies running time that could have been better used fleshing out the events leading up to Jon Snow’s apparent assassination.

On the other hand, I think they nailed Stannis Baratheon.  Others have commented that they felt his actions in Season Five, particularly in regard to his daughter, are out of character, but in both the books and the show Stannis’ supposed values of justice and reason were outweighed for me by the religious fervor boiling right beneath the surface.  A religious fervor, it should be noted, that always seemed to be a shoddy cover for a deep-seated resentment and desire for power.  Stannis isn’t a good guy.  He’s a deeply flawed, narcissistic human being who is really only interested in a just result for himself: the throne.  Sheereen’s death struck me as soon as I watched it as something that Martin had planned all along, simply because it does fit so well.  In the end, it was good to see the “rightful king” get what was coming to him.

I much preferred the show’s depiction of Arya’s time in Braavos to the novels’ drawn out account of “Cat of the Canals”; while there was some good storytelling in there, the thrust of Arya’s core revenge story tends to get lost in it, and the writers of the show were right to simplify it for television.

I was also happy to see the White Walkers and the army of the dead featured in the last episodes: Jon Snow’s actions are heavily based on the knowledge that the entirety of Westeros is under threat from the Walkers, and it was good to see that threat in person.  It underscored the choices he made.

Sansa’s story also made a lot more sense to me and felt more complete in the show as well; rather than wasting away at the Aerie, she makes it back home, only to find herself married off to a sociopath.  This allows Theon a chance to redeem himself, which was more satisfying that his rescue of Jeyne Poole in the novel.

The outrage at Sansa’s rape seemed hollow to me: given the decision to marry her to Ramsay Bolton, it would have been far more unrealistic that she come out of the situation unscathed.  Of course he raped her; what else would a sadist like Ramsay do in that situation?  The rape itself happens mostly off camera, the camera instead focusing on Reek’s agony in being forced to watch.  It was a powerful scene, and a believable motivation for both Sansa and Reek’s decision to flee.

The season-ending fate of Jon Snow’s character, though, was rushed.  Going back to The Wertzone’s excellent analysis:

In A Dance with Dragons, Jon gradually sends away his most experienced men to man the other castles on the Wall, inadvertently removing the Night’s Watch officers who were at the Fist of the First Men and fought the White Walkers there. This leaves behind a cabal of men who haven’t seen the true threat from the north and whom it feels convincing would turn on and betray their commander. In the TV series this does not happen, and Castle Black is stuffed full of rangers who have just seen thousands of corpses rise from the dead and the White Walkers themselves in the full terrible majesty of their power. The notion that the Watch would betray Jon under such circumstances is laughable, not helped by the climactic Caesar moment being staged in a manner more befitting Monty Python (with the assassins neatly lined up in a row to each stab Jon and utter their catchphrase, and he politely doesn’t keel over until they’re all done). Poor stuff.

I agree in principle if not degree.  I do think it’s believable that a small cabal of rangers (some of whom had not seen the White Walkers) would try assassinate the Lord Commander for betraying the Watch and for power, but I do doubt it could happen as easily and openly as it did given the circumstances the show set up.  The novel’s account made a lot more sense and, in the end, was both more shocking and more inevitable: Martin cleverly showed the development of Jon’s fate through a series of decisions that alienated certain members of the watch while simultaneously divesting him of his most ardent supporters, leading to an (in hindsight, at least) obvious opportunity for such a plot.  And it was all a bit Monty Python: the “traitor” sign, the fact that they did it in a random area of the yard in such a formal, repetitive way.  In A Dance with Dragons, we saw Jon’s fate from his point of view, and it came (whether it should have or not) as a complete surprise to him: the blades stuck in suddenly, quickly, and devastatingly, and then it was over.  He didn’t really even see who did it.  He was too focused on the sudden cold of death.  Way better.

But overall I loved watching Season Five, and seeing the story finally begin to move beyond what we’ve seen in the books was exciting and felt right.  Tyrion and Jorah’s moments together sailing through the ruins of Valyria were incredibly beautiful, and made me remember what I love so much about fantasy.  I can’t wait for Season Six.

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