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The ‘Game of Thrones’ Book Symposium: A Spoiler-Filled Discussion of Season 5, Changes From the Text, and All Things George R.R. Martin

Our resident ‘GoT’ world experts debate the shocking, sometimes downright terrible deviations from the books in Season 5 of HBO’s landmark series.

Spoiler alert: If you have not read at least the five main books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, then do not read this. Do not even let your eyes wander idly over your computer screen while this page is up. Quickly, as in right now, click on something else.

The Maester: I think we’ve waited long enough. The furtive emails on Sunday evenings, post-Thrones, will no longer cut it. Mallory, oh, Mother of Dragons, you insane person, I must know, bookie-to-bookie, spoilers-be-damned, what you think of this dramatically divergent season of Game of Thrones.

Mother of Dragons: Ser Jason of House Concepcion! Grand Maester of our hearts! Thank the gods that you’re here to counsel me through this moment of grief! Shireen is gone. Kind, gentle, literate Shireen. Burned at the stake on her father’s command — killed by the man beholden to his warped sense of purpose and by the showrunners hell-bent on testing our patience and understanding.

You went deep on this in Tuesday’s “Ask the Maester” column, so I won’t dwell on it too long here, but it wouldn’t feel right to kick off a book-reader discussion with anything else. Season 5 has been rife with divergences from The Text, including two previous decisions to kill characters on the show who are still alive in the book: Mance1 and Ser Barristan. And while I find all plot tweaks difficult to stomach — because I fear change and have thus quietly rebelled against all accelerations, omissions, or additions — the show’s decision to ax Shireen is the toughest. (And before anyone asks: The showrunners’ decision to point fingers and say “GEORGE WAS GUNNA ANYWAY!” makes me feel worse, not better! In addition to altering the plot we already know and love, they’re also spoiling the stuff that’s yet to come. Rude.) What has Shireen ever done other than teach Davos and Gilly to read, hug her frigid father, and play with wooden sailboats? It’s not her fault that she contracted greyscale as a child or that she has Baratheon blood in her veins. The violence on the show is easier to stomach when it’s just, necessary, or consensual. But this was cruel, elective, and starkly one-sided.


1.

Unless the show, like the book, is playing the long game here.

And as you said on Tuesday, it was also illogical: Stannis, who’s lived his life to the letter of the law, can’t possibly believe that the Westerosi people will support a man who killed his own daughter. But here’s what I really don’t get: Why did the showrunners spend time humanizing Stannis if this was the plan? Why engender sympathy and affection by showing viewers how kind Stannis was to Shireen, how accepting, how devoted? Was it just to toy with us? There’s a difference between attempting to demonstrate that this is a dark world where dark things happen and asking viewers to invest in a character who would burn his child and heir for his own personal gain. Blood magic is part of the genre, and hard truths are part of the story — but this was plain evil. And it was uncharacteristic for a show that spends so much time in the shadows, which only come when there’s both darkness and light.

But enough about that ugliness! What book-to-show change has been weighing as heavily on you as your Maester’s chain?

The Maester: My biggest gripe about this season is the Dorne arc, which is just a mess. Prince Doran, in the books, is a richly nuanced character whose seemingly tepid response to the murder of multiple family members masks the fact that he’s been working for years behind the scenes to engineer the downfall of the Lannisters.

Martin, of course, loves to play with characters who appear to be weak but who actually have hidden strengths and/or traits that aren’t properly valued by Westerosi society. It’s a defining stylistic trait of ASoIaF. Samwell’s father, one of the best soldiers in the realm, rejects him because he has no martial ability. There is no word in the common tongue for nerd, but Sam has a talent for books and research — talents Jon puts to great use, and Sam discovers the White Walkers’ weakness to dragonglass. Tyrion is a dwarf, deemed cursed by the Seven, but he’s got the sharpest political mind in Westeros. And Jaime’s character only developed a soul when he lost his sword hand.

But by pivoting to the so-far-very-underwhelming but oh-so-very-premium-cable-naked Sand Snakes, the show has retconned Prince Doran into a character who is weak and ineffectual. A guy who really sits in his gouty wheelchair doing nothing instead of merely appearing to do nothing. Maybe there’s still a Doran long game reveal for the finale. And maybe this is just overthinking it — but, to me, the watering down of Prince Doran is the most influential of the changes to the Dorne story line. Turning Princess Arianne into Ellaria, the whatever-it-is-they’re-doing-with–Quentyn Martell thing, even the flat-out bad depiction of the Sand Snakes (who, to be fair, weren’t exactly Ms. Personalities in the books) — all of those things flow from what Doran does. If he’s working covertly while appearing placid to hold Dorne together, then the Snakes are misguided insurgents. If he is actually doing nothing all of these years, then the Snakes are right.

What about you, Mal?

Game of Thrones box set 7 copies(1)

Mother of Dragons: YOU MEAN OTHER THAN BESMIRCHING JORAH’S BEAUTIFUL MAN FLESH WITH GREYSCALE?!

This is a tough call, but I guess the alterations to Sansa’s story line have thrown me the most. At first, I was willing to play along, because Sansa’s arc in A Feast for Crows isn’t the most enthralling. Like, no offense to Harrold Hardyng, who has a dope nickname and sounds pretty hot, but I got why the showrunners thought it made more sense to have Littlefinger sell Sansa off to an established TV character instead. I also understood why Sers Benioff and Weiss opted against going the Jeyne Poole/Fake Arya route; that kind of layered plot works beautifully on the printed page, but would have felt convoluted onscreen.

But they took my trust and flayed it to the bone, buddy. The idea of watching Sansa learn the finer points of subterfuge from Littlefinger while remaining in hiding as Alayne Stone sounds pretty darn good compared to what we’ve gotten, which has been an increasingly deep pit of pain, misery, and despair. I wasn’t surprised by the Ramsay-Sansa rape scene, because once the showrunners decided to betroth her to a monster, things were only going to end one way; but I was still incredibly disappointed. Hasn’t Sansa suffered enough? She lost her parents; spent an unpleasant amount of time as Joffrey’s plaything; got married off to another Lannister;2 and nearly had her own aunt push her through the Moon Door. The idea that she needed to learn another “lesson” about how life’s not fair is complete and total bullshit. Show Sansa has matured just like book Sansa, gaining agency and learning to fight for dignity and survival. But the show has doused her path to progress in wildfire, and as we both know, that stuff can blow up in a hurry.


2.

The best Lannister, sure, but nonetheless a member of the family hunting hers.

And now what? Where will she go after Theon has told her that Bran and Rickon are alive? If the Sansa-for-Fake-Arya substitution holds, Theon and Sansa will flee, fall into the hands of yet another foe, and wind up as prisoners in Stannis’s camp. But can it hold? Doesn’t Sansa have to try to find her brothers now that she knows they’re out there? And won’t Brienne and Podrick intervene long before Mors Umber or anyone else can claim Sansa and Reek as a prize?

Speaking of Brienne: The other real bummer about Sansa’s Season 5 arc is that so many other characters are drowning in this bowl of brown. Brienne is one of the most interesting and engaging characters in the book, and she’s been relegated to sitting on her ass drinking ale and staring out a window waiting for a candle. Littlefinger, one of the most clearly defined and deliberate characters, has become impossible to predict or understand. The Boltons are in way more danger with Real Sansa in tow than they ever were with Fake Arya wailing from her bedchamber. And presumably Bran should spot Sansa praying in the Godswood one of these days, right?

George R.R. Martin’s ability to turn Sansa from a spoiled, culpable child into a sensible, sympathetic adult is one of The Text’s true achievements. The show has turned her from a young, frightened prisoner into an older, bolder prisoner, but a prisoner nonetheless.

But hey: Before we do too much shredding, let’s say something nice! What change have you actually enjoyed?

The Maester: I quite enjoyed Jon’s addition to the Hardhome expedition. The scene in which Jon argues for a wildling-Watch détente underscores his incredible character growth from callow, isolated bastard to true inspirational warrior-leader. Whether or not R + L = J, he’s already a revolutionary figure in Westerosi history. And, from a show-business perspective, deploying the show’s best action star for a set-piece battle — which, not incidentally, finally reveals (after four seasons and change) the story’s true apocalyptic stakes — is just a sound decision. Unfortunately, all of this sets the stage for what, at least from this reader’s perspective, seems like the worst foreshadowed shock “death” in the show’s history. Does Olly really need to explain how wildlings killed his parents EVERY time he appears in a scene? I think his sworn brothers, of which there are probably fewer than 100, know how he got there. We get it, dude.

But we’re being positive now!

OK. I’m pro-anything that gets Dany’s ass up and out of Meereen as quickly as possible. Therefore, I’m a fan of Tyrion’s truncated journey to the court of the Khaleesi. This change goes some of the way toward loosening the infamous Meereenese knot that ends up strangling so much of the momentum of A Dance With Dragons. Some of the knot is simply a byproduct of the structure; building a novel on first-person POV’s makes timing tricky, as evidenced by Martin’s attempted-then-abandoned five-year time jump. Still, reading the books, I never understood why Dany didn’t use her time in Meereen more efficiently. Dragon-riding should be her no. 1 priority. Why didn’t she have people scouring the ruins of Valyria and libraries near and far for any and all information pertaining to how the hell to control her dragons? Also, I think I detect a subtle retcon of Dany’s relationship with Drogon from the last scene of the episode. In the books, Drogon was ostensibly drawn to the pits by the fighting and blood. Once he’s there, Dany courageously brings him to heel with a whip. They fly away together, but Dany isn’t in control. The show seems to suggest that Drogon came because he sensed she was in danger.

What about you? What changes, if any, does Mallory “I Fear Change” Rubin view in a positive light?

Mother of Dragons: YOU MEAN OTHER THAN THE MERCIFUL DECISION NOT TO BESMIRCH JORAH’S BEAUTIFUL VISAGE WITH A SLAVE TATTOO? (Are you noticing a pattern, Ser Jason?)

My vote also goes to the Tyrion-Dany meet-cute, but for the sake of variety, I’ll offer up two other show tweaks that have gone down as smoothly as the best Arbor vintage.

First, I’d like to bend the knee to the Jaime/Bronn bromance. While I agree with everything you said about the Dorne plot and have no earthly idea what possessed the showrunners to send Jaime to the Water Gardens, I can’t complain about the Kingslayer’s choice of travel companion. Even on a show with a long history of delightful odd-couple pairings, the interplay between Bronn and Jaime has been a downright joy, particularly in a season otherwise light on comic relief. Ilyn Payne made a fine sparring partner as Book Jaime learned to fight with his left hand, but the King’s Justice definitely couldn’t deliver a rousing rendition of “The Dornishman’s Wife.” I have no idea how word of Cersei’s boudoir betrayal will reach Jaime in Dorne or how he’ll cope with Myrcella’s disfigurement, especially if that happens on his watch, but I’m more excited to find out than I thought I’d be.

And my other vote goes to Jaime’s better half, Cersei the Worsti. At first, I felt cheated out of the Kettleblack experience, but I’ve come around to these simpler times — and timelines. Cersei ruined Lancel’s life. She corrupted him, turning a perfectly innocent Ken Doll Lite into a practitioner of incest and regicide. There’s something poetic about Lancel, rather than the Kettleblacks, being the one to arm the High Sparrow with the weapons that His Holiness needs to use against the Dowager Queen; something fitting about family, the one thing that Cersei claims to love and cherish despite actions that frequently indicate otherwise, coming back to bite her in the soon-to-be-bare ass.

But enough about the characters we’re seeing nearly every Sunday night, Slayer. At this point, it seems like we’re going to have to let go of our Lady Stoneheart dreams, but which book character’s absence is wearing on your soul like the ground on a Poor Fellow’s feet?

FRANCE-US-LITERATURE-TELEVISIONPHILIPPE MERLE/AFP/Getty Images

The Maester: My top three most missed characters:

1. Wyman Manderly. The morbidly obese Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse was one of the best parts of A Dance With Dragons. He provided a window into Northern resentment against Bolton rule, pointed Davos in the direction of our long-lost Rickon, and cooked the Freys into a pie and served the pies at the Ramsay-“Arya” wedding.

2. Various Freys. Where are the Freys? Will we ever get to see them paid back in kind?

3. Euron Greyjoy. Although, if the Season 6 casting call is to be believed, we will see him. (More on this next time!)

How about you?

Mother of Dragons: Great list! I can’t believe that you waited 2,000 words to talk about Your Man Wyman Manderly. Admirable restraint.

While you’re busy thirsting after Euron and his horn, I’m craving Victarion and his mangled arm. I miss the Greyjoy plots way more than I thought I would and am now secretly hoping that the Iron Islands gets its own spinoff. (If only on this website — you in, Cocreator Concepcion?) I also really miss Quentyn and Arianne and feel sure that the Martell plot would be vastly more fulfilling if these characters were in play. But there’s no contest who I’m missing most: YOUNG GRIFF, WHERE ARE YOU?

I think we should save most of the Aegon talk for next week’s post-finale book club edition, because at that point I’ll have moved on from mourning Shireen and will be ready to theorize in full about Season 6. So let’s bring this home: We can’t know for sure what Season 5’s conclusion will bring, but we have a few pretty good ideas. Is there one event that you’re anticipating the most?

The Maester: Oh, you know, only the world melting under a chorus of screams as Jon Snow sinks limply to the ground with knives sticking out of his back, his Direwolf locked up in a closet somewhere.

Mother of Dragons: Hey, don’t be such a downer! Maybe people might be too busy gawking at Cersei during her naked march of contrition to notice Jon’s blood soaking the snow below the Wall!

We’ll be back next week, folks. Enjoy the finale!