At this point, about the only thing I can see clearly at the spot on the map where next season of Game of Thrones lies is “Here there be dragons”. That’s what they used to write on nautical charts in the old days when the waters were uncharted, and that’s pretty much where I stand with this adaptation. But I’m pretty sure there actually will be dragons.
It really is the case that it would take me less time to list the things in this episode that were the same as A Song of Ice and Fire than it would to list all the changes. It’s just a mass of changes, and that leaves me either having to warn anyone who hasn’t read the books off reading any farther, or having to use a month’s supply of HTML for all the spoiler tags. I don’t really feel like doing either one, so I’ll just say read at your own risk – and I’ll try not to spoil anything from the books too grievously.
A friend of mine who hasn’t read ASoIaF commented to me after “Watchers on the Wall” that he figured nothing much was going to happen in the finale. You have no idea how hard it was not to laugh, but even as much as I know big events were coming, there was a lot of stuff here that I didn’t expect (and a bunch of stuff I did expect that didn’t happen). As regards the latter we’re at the point now where we have to wonder if those events and characters (two in particular whose initials are L.S. and C.H. come to mind) are going to be a part of GoT at all, or simply be cut out altogether.
The big news up at the Wall was, of course, the arrival of Stannis and his retinue on the scene. In its way this was Stannis’ finest hour in the books, a surprising and dashing entrance and an immediate stamp of relevancy for his character. It’s really a brilliant stratagem on the part of Davos – he’s made Stannis and his vastly-reduced forces a big fish in a small pond, and potentially a folk hero to all of Westeros once the news gets out (especially in the North) and happens to have performed a great service to the realm in the process. Did that sense survive the adaptation? I don’t know – it all seemed to happen pretty quickly, much more so than in the novels. I hope so, because it’s really the first time I felt Stannis got a decent slice of the pie.
What absolutely did work for me was the scene where Jon went to see Mance Rayder (which happened several days earlier than in the book, but was otherwise roughly similar). Mance is another character whose impact and screen time has been sharply curtailed in GoT, and Ciaran Hinds is a fantastic actor so it’s always a welcome thing when Mance gets to shine. Here we see him as Martin wrote him – an honorable and practical if ruthless man. He treats Jon better, frankly, than Jon had any right to expect to be treated. And he makes his case in unambiguous terms – he’s not there to conquer the Wall, but to cower behind it. Stannis’ arrival on the scene moots the discussion (note that Mance surrenders quickly before more of his people can die needlessly) and Jon returns the favor by effectively invoking his father’s name to ask for leniency from Stannis – who agrees. This is a scene that reflects well on all three men involved in it, and as such something of a rarity in GoT.
For a change, Danerys’ arc was among the more interesting this week. I won’t lie – I take a certain glee in anything that forces her to confront the hypocrisy of the fantasy world she’s constructed around herself. The constant reminders of how much more complicated her noble goal of “ending slavery” is than she’d like are one thing, but having the charred corpse of a three-year old child dumped at her feet somewhat more visceral. This is the reality of the noble legacy she wants to reinstate – she is the “Mother of Dragons” who kill and eat children. One of them, Drogon, remains at-large, but Danerys at least has the decency to chain the other two up underground. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for her here, but the scene itself is beautifully done.
As for Bran’s arc, well – it sort of ends up in kind of a slightly similar place to where it did in ASoIaF, but there’s not much here that’s recognizable. So much is skipped on the way – including one of those very important characters I now suspect we’ll never see (which would render certain events of the first season pointless) as we sort of leapfrog most of his journey and end up at the great Weirwood tree of his dreams. This is a pretty out-there scene by GoT standards anyway – this is a fantasy but it’s often easy to forget that, and it’s rarely the sort of story where skeletons emerge from he ground wielding rusty blades and tree nymphs hurl balls of lightning before fleeing into caves protected by magic force fields. There’s another death that isn’t a death in the books here – Jojen – and as with the earlier ones I’m left to wonder if there’s going to be a reason that becomes more obvious later. In its way, Bran’s arc is like Danerys’ in providing a bookend to the story – in geographical and thematic terms, each feels quite removed from the rest of it. And I think we’re learning that’s harder to pull off in a TV serial than in a series of novels.
And then we have Arya and The Hound, which is another arc where changes outnumber similarities but the bastards didn’t change the one thing I was hoping they would (I still mourn you, Oberyn-sama). It now seems for all the world as if Arya and Sandor were brought together with Brienne and Podrick for no other reason than to reinforce what a fucking tragedy this story is and give us a fight. It is a helluva fight, don’t get me wrong – nasty, brutal, gory – and it’s impossible to escape the notion that all of this is completely unnecessary. I think at this point in the story both Sandor and Brienne actually want the same thing – to protect Arya. And the truth is, I think Sandor is closer to the truth than Brienne is in the way he proposes going on about it.
So, maybe that alone is reason enough to engineer a meeting that’s completely TV-original – everyone can decide for themselves. But for the record – and this is not a spoiler because, well – obviously – the final scene between Arya and The Hound is materially exactly the same in both versions. I think I get why Martin wrote it the way he did – I think he was trying to show us how cold and ruthless Arya has become. I get that, but it’s a wholly unsatisfying end to Arya and Sandor’s story even by Martin’s unsentimental standard. I hated seeing The Hound left that way, abandoned by Arya to die slowly and alone, because in the context of this story he deserves better. At best I suppose one might say he’s luckier than his brother (we’ll see how GoT pursues that angle) but it’s a hollow conclusion. As for Arya, she’s closing this chapter in her life – with Sandor’s silver in pocket she tries to book passage to the Wall and Jon, but it’s Jaqen H’Ghar’s iron that wins her a cabin, and in the other direction.
If Arya’s departure ended the episode in literal terms, it was surely the events in King’s Landing that will be most talked-about (again). Here’s yet another area where the changes are so comprehensive that I hardly know what to talk about and what to skip over. I think, at least, that we see that the fallout from the disastrous Jaimie-Cersei rape scene is still very much with us. Everything between them feels wrong and disjointed (and not just in the way it’s supposed to feel wrong). I don’t think this wound is reparable – that part of the story is likely permanently fucked. But things between Jaime and Tyrion are also left in a completely different place than Martin leaves them, and an entire conversation – one I would have ranked as one of the eight or ten most important in the entire series – is left out. I can’t speak to why – I don’t know. It’s been alluded to at various points over the first four seasons (though not this one, if I remember correctly). It’s important to Tyrion’s past, and to his future. I’m in the dark – I’ll wait and see what happens.
In Tyrion’s actual escape, there are some elements that are the same – but many more that are different, in ways that are pretty much impossible to discuss without completely spoiling the books. in ASoIaF events play out in such a way as to make one question how much of what happens was planned, and how much an accident. Are we supposed to have the same doubts here? I honestly have no idea. What we see in both places is Tyrion killing people – first Shae, then his father. I would imagine it difficult not to empathize with him here, after what he’s been through. But there can be no denying that this is a watershed moment for Tyrion – there’s no going back from the road he’s undertaken, in more ways than one.
Of Varys I won’t speak much – far too dangerous (is he shipping Tyrion out in the same box he had the sorcerer who castrated him shipped in?). While Varys is usually out of sight in GoT, he should rarely be out of mind. Of Tywin I will speak, because this is another death that emotionally cuts both ways. Tywin is, of course, the original GoT magnificent bastard. I don’t deny for a moment he richly deserved to be run through with crossbow bolts while taking a shit, or that Tyrion should have been the one to do it. But what a fascinating, complicated man he was – and in a series full of brilliant performances by brilliant actors, Charles Dance stands out as one of the very best examples of both. Tywin was a man of astonishing cunning and breath of vision, yet capable of being blind to the brilliance of the one child who inherited those qualities because of his birth and his body, and of almost being able to blind himself (but not quite) to the scandalous acts committed by his other children because… Well, because he simply couldn’t bring himself to admit they were true. There’s no one like Tywin and no one like Charles Dance, and I’m going to miss them both.
In practical terms, Tywin’s death is just one more reason to believe that the state of affairs in Westeros is serious chaos. Even if we weren’t seeing the Butterfly Effect rampaging out of control it would be hard to say just where Game of Thrones is going from here, because we’re at a point in the books where the narrative structure becomes quite unorthodox and seemingly unfilmable in anything like its native form. And in truth, we don’t even really know how close Martin is to finishing the story – there are at least two more novels due, talk of more, and no notion of when the next one will see the light of day. Yet the program has been officially declared by HBO as its most popular ever (over The Sopranos), and there’s talk of all sorts of possible directions in which they might take it – big-screen releases, prequels (how I long to see a proper adaptation of the “Dunk and Egg” stories) and Martin himself has opined that longer seasons for the main series would be a huge boon. I’m assuming we’re looking at another year-long hiatus between seasons, but apart from that I have little more idea of what’s coming than anyone else. Here there be dragons…