Game of Divergences – Why reviewing “Game of Thrones” has become more daunting than ever.
For the last four seasons, watching “Game of Thrones” has been a great experience.
It still is a great experience, but it’s different now. As a book-reader, I’d been anticipating these big, shocking moments (Red wedding! Joffrey gets poisoned! Tyrion murders his father!) for quite some time, and that “waiting to see” factor kept me very engaged in the show. What I liked most was when the show’s version of an event eclipsed anything I’d envisioned while reading the books. Take, for example, the spectacle that became Joffrey’s wedding: the huge outdoor set, the massive cast, and the outstanding directing really transformed the scene into a climactic event, where in the books it felt more subtle and contained. Or take the smart changes made with Tywin interacting with Arya in Harrenhal, or the fight between the Hound and Brienne. All well-executed changes, but none that would cause any huge ripple effects.
Now, though, the show has begun to seriously diverge from the books. What I’m finding difficult while trying to write these reviews is distinguishing these two thoughts: “this is not as great as I’ve come to expect from the show” and “this is a divergence from the book that is not doing the show any favors“. I figured I could get some thoughts out now, as we’re about mid-season, and probably write out another review at the end of the season judging it as a whole. I’m curious to know if my opinion of the season will change, depending on which direction the show takes certain story-lines. However, the truth of it is (and I hate to say it): we’re six episodes into the fifth season of Game of Thrones, and I think it’s my least favorite season yet.
The biggest and most obvious misfire this season is the unfortunate plot that has befallen Jaime Lannister. I can understand that the writers would want to capitalize on Oberyn Martell’s popularity, and I see that this is why they chose Dorne as the survivor of the “cut-the-plot” game (losers include the Iron Island’s kingsmoot and Jon Connington.) However, the adaptation of this plot cannot in any capacity be considered a success. The Sand Snakes, walking and talking cliches, are essentially introduced as one character, doing disservice to all three. Cutting Arianne and Quentyn Martell has now given Indira Varma more to do as Ellaria Sand, however this has drastically changed her character’s essential beliefs. Where in the books Ellaria states that enough blood has been shed, in the show she has become a token for revenge.
This is where I find one of my struggles: “Do I not like this this change because I don’t like changes?” or “Do I not like this change because it weakens the show?” The answer here, I think, is clear: this plot is weakening the show. The writing for these characters and the contrived coincidences that led to the shockingly bad climax fight in the sixth episode cannot be dismissed. However, I will continue to reserve judgement on the characterization of Doran Martell, the only possible glimmer of hope from Dorne, until his monologue moment that will certainly be coming later this season.
And that’s it. As I began writing this I really thought I would have a longer list of “things I’m not really liking” this season. There have been some minor quibbles (Arya hasn’t been doing too much, the King’s Landing situation is a slow-burn), but otherwise, it seems the Dorne story-line is enough to put some serious tarnish on my thoughts of the show.
I’ll take some time here to mention the happenings in the North and at the Wall. Personally, I’m fascinated by the changes made with Sansa Stark returning the Winterfell. Marrying her off to Ramsay Bolton makes for an intriguing and disturbing pairing, and having Theon Greyjoy skulking around only makes it worse. I can’t say I was necessarily pleased with how the show portrayed their wedding night, brutal as I’d expected it to be. Perhaps it’s that these kinds of shocking moments don’t shock so much in Thrones anymore, perhaps it’s that it just felt like a gratuitous way to end the episode, or perhaps it was that the moment lingered too hard on Theon when it should have been about Sansa. I’d have hoped that maybe Sansa would take a more active stance during their wedding night, glimpses of which we’ve seen of her book-counterpart in the sample The Winds of Winter chapter released. Regardless, I look forward to seeing what becomes of the Winterfell plot with the added factors of Brienne and Podrick circling about and Stannis marching south.
Speaking of Stannis, his arrival at the Wall has benefited all of the characters involved. Where the writing for Stannis in the past seemed to be a bit weak, under-selling him as a character, this season has seen him blossom as he takes a more active stance in the political battles in the North. Though the scenes at the Wall have been very “talk-heavy,” there’s an impending sense of doom around them, as Stannis reveals he is both aware of the larger threat and still very interested in the war to the south. In last week’s episode, Jon and Tormund come to an agreement that they will head north to Hardhome (also the title of the eighth episode), and this promises to be one of the larger set-pieces of the season.
These scenes at the Wall have also served well to develop characters we’d already spent much time with in newer, interesting ways: Jon becoming more of a leader, Stannis revealing his love for his daughter, and Melisandre throwing sexually-fueled intrigue around it all. We’ve also spent significant with Shireen, which makes me both curious and afraid. One reason for her increased screen-time was revealed last week, as Jorah Mormont became infected with the same greyscale that scarred her face. Still though, it always seems like the show builds up characters only to hand them a crushing death.
I mentioned that King’s Landing is going through a slow-burn. Although The Wall’s story is similar in that not much has yet happened, the plot in King’s Landing differs from lack of characters, not newly-interacting characters. With so many out of city (or murdered), the show’s scenes here lack the strong protagonist they used to have, whether it was Sansa, Tyrion, Brienne, or even Jaime. Now, we’re left with the bubbling tension between Cersei and the Tyrells, which, while interesting, has yet to really become the fascination it was when viewed from Cersei’s point-of-view in the novels as she descends into madness. However, the Queen of Thorns’ return to the city is welcomed. It’s always a pleasure to hear her one-liners, so I’m expecting everything to be kicked up a notch, especially now that both Margaery and Loras are in custody.
Meanwhile, Meereen is going through the same type of slow-burn. It almost seems to be biding its time until Tyrion and Jorah arrive, throwing in an unexpected death to keep things interesting. I won’t comment more on Ser Barristan Selmy’s death beyond saying that it was not handled properly and was not a worthy death for such a great character. Regardless, things in Meereen seem to be headed in more-or-less the same direction as they are in the novels – Daenerys getting prepared to wed Hizdahr and the upcoming events surrounding the re-opening of the Fighting Pits.
That leaves us with Arya Stark, whose story, as most others, is going at a really slow pace. For those that are unaware, her kill list has been reduced to four names: Queen Cersei, The Mountain, Walder Frey, and Ser Meryn Trant. And to spoon-feed you a bit more, we know that Ser Meryn Trant is headed to Braavos with Mace Tyrell. I’m expecting some kind of interaction to occur here, as it will likely take the place of the “Mercy” chapter that George R.R. Martin released one year ago. (In truth that chapter had parts taken and added to the first episode of the fourth season as Arya reclaimed Needle from Polliver.) If Arya killing Meryn Trant is to be the conclusion of her arc this season, I will certainly be disappointed. However, in terms of book material, she doesn’t really have much else to do, leading this to be yet another story that could go in a dozen directions, and I’m very interested to see what the writers decide to do.
As a whole (and I may change my mind on this), this season has been difficult to review critically. Game of Thrones is a television show, it’s not the novels, and I can understand that it should be viewed as such. This means cutting plots, changing things, tweaking characters. But this doesn’t mean that changing things always leads to the best outcome. The show is attempting its biggest swing yet with the Sansa plot, and I’m still curious to see how it turns out. The second big batter is the Dorne plot, and while throwing Jaime and Bronn into the mix added some emotional resonance, it seems like this one is going to sizzle out, as cliche and uninteresting as it began.
The question remains: What kind of show will Game of Thrones become, once all the source material has been exhausted? Are we looking at more rushed and contrived sequences like Yara Greyjoy’s pathetic rescue attempt in season four? Or are we looking at the more well-regarded changes, like Tywin and Arya, or the aged and developed Margaery Tyrell? Regardless of whether or not the changes start to become more appreciated, I will continue to watch. I will continue to cringe through the contrived parts. I will continue to think that I know what’s going to happen, only to have it ripped out from under me as the writers tear apart what I thought I knew.