I want to start off by saying that despite any quibbles I may express, I have the utmost respect for showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. I don’t think fans quite realize the immense amount of pressure put upon them or the sheer volume of work they put in every year. They have basically been living and breathing Game of Thrones for the past five years, spending half the year writing ten episodes and then the other half shooting, editing and promoting it. It must be exhausting.
As an aspiring writer, I often think about the difficulty of adapting A Song of Ice and Fire to a visual medium, and so I can forgive missteps because the Ds have such an enormous task set before them. But as an aspiring writer, I can’t help but think of ways I would do things differently. After four episodes, I can finally see past the veil of my fandom and agree with show watchers that this season is moving too slowly. At first I didn’t notice—the first three episodes were a lot of set-up, and knowing what’s coming next made that exciting.
But “The Sons of the Harpy,” despite some great action scenes, moved the plot forward at a snail’s pace, and added unnecessary and boring filler while cutting subplots from the books. I am reminded of the third season, which despite the Red Wedding, still remains the weakest year in my opinion (others say it’s season two). In that season, certain subplots, namely the Brotherhood Without Banners, were cut or trimmed, in service of simplifying the often overly-complex story and moving it along faster. But it actually did the opposite because while those subplots were just that—sub—they were also plots. When you cut them what you get instead is scene after scene of Lady Olenna arguing with Tywin over how much money to spend on the Royal Wedding. No one wants to see that.
The are complicated but engrossing subplots in A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons that have been cut and replaced with nothing. Once you cut those stories, everything changes. I’ve mentioned Lady Stoneheart before—I think that was the biggest misstep the show ever took. It’s one of the coolest twists in the books, the kind of twist show fans hunger for. There could be behind the scenes reasons for its omission—the actor who plays LSH might simply have been unavailable—but now that she’s cut, Brienne and Jaime’s plots suffer for it. Brienne is now just following Sansa around and doing nothing, and doesn’t even appear in “Sons of the Harpy.” I enjoyed her telling of the “Brienne the Beauty” story from episode 3 and the growing bond between her and Pod, but the plot wasn’t advanced in that scene and it illustrates another issue I’ve been having this year: characters telling other characters stories.
A Song of Ice and Fire is an exposition-heavy series and a lot of said exposition goes on inside the minds of the POV characters. You do have scenes where characters tell other characters stories—Dany is constantly asking Barristan about her brother Rhaegar, for example—but the show can’t tell you what’s going on in someone’s head. Their easiest fix is just having one character relate exposition to another character. In the early days the show did a lot of “sexposition”—dialogue-heavy exposition scenes made interesting via titties—but nowadays characters are more likely to sit around a fire and just talk about shit, with mixed results.
For me, it depends on the character, actor and what the story they’re telling, for me to decide if it works or not. The stories about Rhaegar worked—this is something I’ve wanted the show to do for a while, and it’s doing a good job of replicating what the book does: giving you varying takes on who Rhaegar was. Brienne’s story also worked because Gwendoline Christie is such a good actor.
But then we meet the Sand Snakes and we have to listen to Obara drone on about why she’s a badass when she could’ve just thrown her spear into the guy’s face and be done with it—the audience would’ve understood that she doesn’t take no one’s shit. Instead she goes on and on about a story I don’t care about, a story that perfectly encapsulates who she is as a person, and a story that her sisters would probably have already heard. Spread out, these sorts of storytelling scenes work, but when you line them up one after the other like they were in “The High Sparrow” and “Sons of the Harpy,” it becomes very noticeable to the point of being distracting. It’s cheesy and unbelievable. Even in a fantasy universe people don’t talk like that. If you asked me to retell a story that sums up my personality I wouldn’t know where the fuck to begin, but every character in the Game of Thrones universe seems to have one at the ready at all times.
Dorne is a good example of the story moving too slowly. It’s four weeks in and we’ve only had two scenes with Dornish characters, neither of which advanced the plot much. Doran isn’t a hothead like Oberyn and doesn’t want to murder little girls. Ellaria wants to murder little girls and gets the Sand Snakes on her side. That’s it. That’s all that’s happened.
Now, that would be fine if there wasn’t so much filler. An example of filler is the Tyrion/Jorah scene on the River Rhoyne, a poorly-written scene and the worst of “Sons of the Harpy.” It goes on and on— it must be almost a five page scene— and it doesn’t further the plot or even develop either character at all. All it is is Tyrion figuring out who Jorah is and then imparting that information to the audience. But we already know all of that. Even show watchers who can’t tell the difference between a Bronn and a Bran know who Jorah is and why he was banished—WE FUCKING SAW IT HAPPEN LAST YEAR. But Tyrion goes on and on, telling us what we already know, until Jorah mercifully knocks him out. I get that we need to “check in with the characters” but only when they’re doing something.
Tyrion has had one of the weakest arcs this season and it’s sad because he’s ostensibly the main character now and has a great plotline in the books. In episode 2 we have another pointless scene where he just complains to Varys inside a carriage. You could have cut that out and not shown Tyrion and Varys that week, then just had the scene in episode 3 where they arrive in Volantis. Even the scene between Tryion and the whore, while nicely written, is kind of pointless, not as much as the others as it does develop Tyrion’s character a bit, but is too a long a scene for what it does.
If you cut out all that kind of nonsense, you could spend more time developing the Dornish characters or include some of the cool subplots for the books, such as the Griff/Young Griff story or the Ironborn and their Kingsmoot. I know the Greyjoys aren’t the most popular characters, but they have an awesome plotline that’s being snubbed for “simplification,” but has been replaced with nothing but filler. And frankly, it really bugs me that Balon is still kicking. I don’t even consider that a spoiler because show people probably don’t even know who the fuck Balon is. But I hate when TV shows set stuff up and then forget about it (looking at you, Lindelof). That is one of the most grievous sins in storytelling. If you set something up, YOU HAVE TO PAY IT OFF, even if down the line you decide you’re not interested in that plotline anymore. If Stannis throws leeches in a fire for Robb, Joffrey and Balon and the first two die, then so should Balon. But it’s a story that’s been forgotten, and for no discernible reason.
I have theories on why this season has been so slow, beyond just the Ds’ weird conception of what is and isn’t important from the books. Part of it is budgetary, I think. I feel the last few episodes of the season will be an awesome payoff, with lots of crazy set pieces that look like a million bucks. When you’re saving up for that, you gotta kill time till you reach the money shots. But there are choices the showrunners make that have me scratching my head. In “The High Sparrow,” Stannis says he’s heading south to Winterfell. My subconscious TV viewer brain tells me that in the next episode, he will already be on the road. But he isn’t, and while he got one of the best scenes in “Sons of the Harpy,” in which it’s revealed he accidentally gave his daughter Greyscale, a source of immense guilt, one feels he should already be halfway to Winterfell by now. He does things in the books. He rallies the Mountain Clans of the North to his side and faces hardships on his journey. On the show he hangs around Winterfell forever.
The Melisandre/Jon scene is another example of boring filler which they attempted to make more interesting via titties. I like that we see Jon is still grieving for Ygritte, but other than that what was the point of that scene, and why did it go on for so long? It’s just weird that there are so many scenes in each episode that reiterate the same point over and over. Jon is conflicted between being a Stark and Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. You only need one scene to convey that, but every dialogue scene with Jon hammers that point over the audience’s head.
That being said, the Castle Black and King’s Landing’s plots remain the show’s strongest. I also like Daenerys in Meereen but can see how that was too slow for show watchers until last night’s final scene. I don’t want to give the impression that I think season five is all bad or that I’m not enjoying it; I’m merely observing the writers making the same mistakes they made in season 3. Season 3 was also great—no season or episode of this show is ever truly “bad” in my opinion, but these first four of season five do not rank highly for me. Even when the show frustrates me there is an awesome moment or a great action scene or some cool dialogue or special effect to make up for it, and “Sons of the Harpy” was by far the most action-packed episode of the season thus far.
The Jaime/Bronn/Dornishmen skirmish illustrates how adept Game of Thrones has become at staging fight scenes. The tension as Bronn and Jaime try to talk their way out of being arrested is palpable, and with all the changes from the books, you never know who’s going to die—everyone is always in peril now. The moment where Jaime catches a killing blow in his golden hand is great; the show is still capable of creating inventive action moments. But I still have issues with this Jaime/Bronn story. Jaime’s motivation is starting to come more in line with his superior book version, which is nice. He says he’s trying to “avoid a war” which is what he’s trying to do in A Feast For Crows, except with the Riverlands, not Dorne. And while he and Tyrion might have left on good terms, now that Tyrion has killed their father, Jaime has vowed to kill him, also in line with the books.
But this particular storyline is still riddled with plot holes. Jaime saying “it has to be me” really bugs me, since as Bronn points out, it really should be anyone else. Within the course of the same episode his plan is completely undone when the Sand Snakes learn that he has come for Myrcella. You could argue that even if it was Bronn and another sellsword, the Dornish could torture the truth out of them, but if Jaime Lannister is in Dorne there’s only one reason why. It doesn’t make sense if his aim is truly to “avoid a war.” But it’s exciting, so I’m willing to reserve judgment until I see where this all goes.
The final Meereen scenes were the best. I have always appreciated Barristan’s presence as he recalls more archetypal fantasy characters from stories like King Arthur and Lord of the Rings. I have mixed feelings about killing him off. I’m glad he finally got to fight and went out like such a badass. When he enters the room and faces off against the Sons of the Harpy I got chills. His fighting style was awesome and I loved watching him hack guys apart while a mournful version of Daenerys’ theme played in the background. I even liked Grey Worm in this scene and was rooting for him not to die. I think when he’s fighting he’s likable.
I’m sure Barristan’s death will have repercussions and motivate Dany to take a harder stance against the Sons of the Harpy. I have minor criticisms—as a book reader, it’s a little hard for me to buy that some masked shmucks with knives could kill a whole battalion of Unsullied and Barristan the Bold—but I like the correlation to the Iraq War and the similar hit-and-run tactics of the Meereenese insurgency.
I think I’ll need to see where Dany’s story goes from here to give a ruling on Barristan’s demise but as a book fan I am a tad disappointed. Barristan is one of my favorite characters and as is too often the case on TV, wasn’t given a chance to shine until right before he died. He represents this chivalric ideal that the show sorely lacks in a post-Ned/Robb world, and I always liked how he is still kicking in the books when so many other noble men have died. It’s nice to have a fantasy story where at least one noble knight can kick ass and survive, and when you kill him off the tone of the show starts to feel like that of The Walking Dead, where anyone who is nice or happy dies because there can be no goodness in a zombie apocalypse. Some people complain that all the deaths on Game of Thrones start to lessen their effects and I can see that with Barristan. Being too hopeful and uplifting like say, The Lord of the Rings is as unrealistic as what The Walking Dead does, where normal people turn into animals at the turn of a hat. What I love about A Song of Ice and Fire is how realistic it all feels despite its fantasy setting. People don’t die because the plot calls for it, they die because they die, same as in real life. Good doesn’t always prevail and neither does evil, and most people don’t fall under one end of the spectrum. But when you start killing people off willy-nilly, some of that realism is diminished.
As I predicted, Cersei’s story remains the strongest. I love how the show is putting her plan in motion without explaining it out loud—if you’re paying attention you can see the pieces beginning to fall in place, and see how Cersei’s poor decisions will come back to haunt her. The Faith Militant montage was even stronger than the Sons of the Harpy attack, a wonderful sequence that moved the story forward faster than any other scene so far. Cersei arms the Faith Militant and we immediately cut to a montage where they completely take over King’s Landing. I’ve even grown to like Olyvar, who’s more or less become the voice of gay men on the show. But I still don’t like Olly. Fuck that kid. Dolorous Edd should be Jon’s steward. Fuck Olly.
Despite the slow pace, the weird choices and the diversions from the book, there is still a lot to love in Game of Thrones season 5. The world is as rich and lush as it ever was, and there is so much attention to detail. I loved the shot of the Long Bridge of Volantis, an impressive piece of effects work that was more realistic than anything from any of The Hobbit films. It looked to be a live action shot of an actual bridge in Croatia, extended and given additions via CG, that then segues into a motion-controlled crane shot of Varys and Tyrion walking around a Volantis set. It was really eye-catching and more impressive than any of the Tyrion/Varys dialogue scenes.
I’ve also enjoyed the ways the show has been harkening back to old episodes. In “The High Sparrow,” Jon beheads Janos Slynt in much the same way Robb beheaded Rickard Karstark and their father beheaded the Night’s Watch deserter in the pilot. Jon even rests his hands on Longclaw’s hilt when he asks Slynt if he has any last words, just like Ned did. In that same episode, Tyrion pees off the Long Bridge in a shot that recalls him “pissing off the edge of the world” while visiting the Wall in season 1. Nudity is still a contentious issue for people on the show, but I thought the High Septon’s fetish scene was hilarious as was the Daenerys whore in Volantis.
The show will definitely ramp up its pace as it gets closer to the finale, and at the very least it will keep book readers guessing. I always figured that the Ds would manage to compress A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons to make them more exciting, but I can honestly say that so far, despite their length and weird structure, both books are far more interesting than their adaptation.