This Game of Thrones article contains major spoilers from George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.
In case there was any lingering doubt with the final look of fear in Mance Rayder’s eye during the season five premiere execution, all reservations about Game of Thrones going its own way were put to rest last night. For the past four seasons, creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have mostly stayed upon the well-marked King’s Road that George R.R. Martin paved for them with his novels A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords (though ever increasingly toward the margins). But in “The House of Black and White,” Game of Thrones most certainly detoured somewhere around the time that Brienne of Tarth and Sansa Stark walked into a bar.
And so far, this is not such a bad thing.
As a genuine fan of George R.R. Martin’s world and its already formidable legacy, which is the most significant in the fantasy genre’s last half century, the truth of the matter is that the priorities of making a good television series would never fully align with Martin’s more recent “A Song of Ice and Fire” contributions, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. Whereas the first three novels moved with a rapid and irresistible forward momentum beginning at Jon Arryn’s assassination and culminating with Tyrion’s kinslaying of Tywin Lannister, the latter two novels took a more deliberate route just as the story seemed to be accelerating.
As we have discussed before, Game of Thrones season five faced the unenviable task of adapting Crows and Dragons simultaneously in its fifth year, because Martin made the quizzical choice to divide his singular narrative into two novels (published six years apart) where the Southron characters primarily were the focus of one book (Crows), and the characters in the North and Meereen dominated the other (Dragons). Inevitably, both were to be combined for season five. However, the greater problem with the text is why we are now at this point of divergence.
Essentially, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are about two thousand pages of setting the stage for what is hopefully the final movement in Martin’s story. Another way to put it is if Martin is to be viewed as a gardener (which is how he describes himself), then the fourth and fifth books were akin to planting many, many seeds for next autumn’s harvest. It has proven to be a controversial choice amongst the literary fans, but it would have been absolutely fatal to a series that is meant to propel viewers toward a massive climax of ice and fire (presumably during the still-approaching winter). There could not be one or two seasons of wandering, which sums up many of the problems with the more recent books.
For instance, the first immediate change revealed last night occurred when Brienne of Tarth runs into Sansa Stark at an inn. As I wrote in my review, the actual likelihood of these two characters bumping into one another by happenstance is weak and potentially foreboding for the television series’ future. Yet, the actual consequences of the event give the series a genuine spark that would have been all too welcome in A Feast for Crows.
Other than Cersei Lannister, Brienne of Tarth has the most point-of-view pages devoted to her in the fourth novel, and indeed may be the reason why that novel is the least loved of the five yet published book (well that and a Kingsmoot). This is not to suggest that Brienne is a poor character. Indeed, she is one of my absolute favorites in the cast of thousands making up “A Song of Ice and Fire.” But the point remains that she spends the entire fourth book vainly searching for Sansa Stark and (spoiler) never finds her. The reason is she follows one wild goose chase after another up the stony shores and well into the Riverlands, often on the verge of screaming at the sky due to her frustration—and we as the readers are allowed to track every misstep she is making in painfully real time since we know that Sansa Stark is in the Vale. Where she was at the end of A Storm of Swords. In fact, all that changes for Sansa in an entire book is a rather uneventful elevator ride and horse gallop down the mountain from the Eyrie. Meanwhile, Brienne is never allowed to even come within a dozen miles of her quest’s goal.
There is something to be said about the futility of living your life by codes and oaths, but this bit of mundane reality is not what propels the narrative of “A Song of Ice and Fire” or Game of Thrones, nor is Martin Samuel Beckett. There is no point in reading about Brienne Waiting for Sansa.
By contrast, Sansa is moving along the King’s Road with a very specific destination. While it has yet to be revealed, one need only watch this Game of Thrones trailer to notice that Sansa Stark is actually heading to the crypts of Winterfell. If a book fan were to hazard a guess, they could easily deduce that Sansa Stark will in some capacity take on the character duties of Jeyne Poole in the Winterfell-set chapters of A Dance with Dragons.
This is an exciting change. While I have long been one of the defenders of Sansa Stark’s chapters in the books—as I understand that a helpless teenage girl should not be punished for thinking a boy was handsome or for not turning into a dead-inside killer like her sister—I have also been aware that Martin is building to her becoming a game player. Ever since she survived the Blackwater by watching Cersei, and even learning to manipulate Joffrey to a small extent, Sansa has been on the road to growing up all the wiser and bitterer.
But as of the ending to A Dance with Dragons, it has not occurred yet. Benioff and Weiss, meanwhile, are clearly pushing that narrative to its next stage. I cannot know the full extent of Martin’s intentions for the character (who is still pretending to be Littlefinger’s bastard daughter in the Vale), but I do know that we will not spend the entire fifth season with the character accomplishing nothing. On the simple merits of entertainment, giving Sansa’s storyline anything and offering Brienne of Tarth a narrative arc that the viewer does not already know will inevitably end in failure is a vast improvement for the standalone quality of a television series.
A more conceivably controversial change, however, could be construed with the revelation of where Jaime Lannister’s storyline leads this season….in Dorne.
In “The House of Black and White,” Jaime Lannister makes not only the decision to rescue Myrcella Baratheon from the Dornish, but he enlists the aide of Bronn of the Blackwater, taking him far, far away from his literary counterpart’s triumphs in the Riverlands during A Feast for Crows. And ultimately, this leaves me a bit wearier since unlike the Brienne and Sansa POV chapters from the fourth book, Jaime’s messy reach toward redemption by partially repaying his debt to Catelyn Stark was a virtue to the text. His bloodless capture of Riverrun and one of the Tully bannermen castles proved Jaime actually is becoming the honorable knight he always wanted to be. And he isn’t doing it for Cersei or the Lannister family; he’s doing it out of respect or even regret to a fallen Stark enemy.
This is further underscored when Brienne finally intersects with Jaime’s narrative once more, taking him to Lady Stoneheart (if you don’t read the books, I won’t spoil this possible surprise that could reemerge down the road). The crucial development in these chapters is that Jaime is finally becoming a “good knight,” and that he even has grown completely intolerant of Cersei, choosing to help Brienne of Tarth over aiding his sister back in King’s Landing.
I do not consider much of what I wrote above a spoiler for Game of Thrones season five since we know that Edmure Tullly and the Blackfish are being skipped (again) this year on the series, and Jaime being in Dorne while Brienne is headed North all but abandons any hope of a reunion this year. Still, there is an elegance in conflating all the narrative strands that were overwhelming even on the much less time-constrained page.
Being introduced to many of the Martells in the fourth book while deducing the freshly created Arianne Martell is a major player takes time, while on a series positively strapped for such a resource, the return of Ellaria Sand immediately establishes motivation, as well as position since she was treated as both the paramour and essential wife to Oberyn Martell last season. Similarly, Jaime Lannister being the Kingsguard that heads to Dorne—as opposed to a thinly sketched background character who television fans will not even recognize—creates a sense of urgency to their mission.
And if for nothing else, it offers the chance for Bronn of Blackwater to return to the series, and his sardonic wit will be sorely needed with how dour Jaime and Tyrion have become as of late.
With all of this said, book changes are obviously risky. Quite frankly, many of Jaime Lannister’s worst missteps as a character were strictly contrived for the series. Jaime’s arc in the novels was never muddled by the murder of a cousin, an abominable act before the eyes of gods and men in Westeros, nor did he ever rape or force his sister into “consent.” And similarly, valuable margin space was not wasted by Martin to up the action quota in the books like the tedious trip Beyond the Wall to Craster’s Keep where Jon Snow slaughtered characters even book fans had already forgotten existed.
Aye, there have been poor changes made to the series to date. And one only needs to look at the last four or five seasons of True Blood to know what wintry hands wait in poorly plotted TV deviations. It is a cold, desolate fate, summer child.
Nonetheless, by virtue of how Martin plotted and belabored the narrative points in his two most recent novels, changes would have been made. And of the four major changes to the characters or arcs of Sansa, Brienne, and Ellaria last night, not one felt like a waste of talent or time. Granted, this could all go sideways if the series is not careful, and I am keeping weary eye on the horizon for Jaime Lannister’s arc. But if change is going to happen, let it change into something worth watching. The first real step in that direction last night proved incredibly watchable.
Plus, the series brought back Jaqen H’ghar. Who doesn’t love Jaqen H’ghar?
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