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'Game of Thrones' TV Book Club: Dissecting season 5's change-filled premiere

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Macall B. Polay/HBO

Welcome back to the Game of Thrones TV Book Club, a discussion space forThrones viewers who have also read the five books (so far) of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This week, Darren Franich and Hillary Busis dive into season 5’s highly-anticipated premiere, a scene-setting hour that may mark the point when TV Thrones decisively moves away from ASOIAF. Check out James Hibberd’s full recap of the episode, then join us as we venture into the narrative borderlands of A Feast for Crows (and beyond). (You know there’ll be spoilers for both the books and the show, right?)

HILLARY: Welcome back to the TV Book Club, Darren of House OverThinkingIt!

I want to begin where this season does: with the tale of Lil’ Cersei and Maggy the Frog, a story that’s alluded to early in A Feast for Crows but not actually depicted until the second half of the book—when the world the queen has built is crumbling at her feet. The scene we see in Cersei’s dream is recreated faithfully by TV Thrones, Maggy’s upgraded appearance notwithstanding. (George R.R. Martin’s Maggy is “short, squat, and warty, with pebbly greenish jowls. Her teeth were gone and her dugs hung down to her knees.” Benioff and Weiss’s Maggy looks like Jessa from Girls starring as Abigail Williams in The Crucible.)

Cersei goes to the witch seeking her fortune; she’s told that she’ll marry Robert Baratheon, that she’ll be queen until another, hotter queen (Margaery? Daenerys?) usurps her, and that she’ll have three blond kids who will also get stylish gold funeral shrouds. Left out on the show is the bit about how Cersei’s life will end at the hands of “the valonqar,” High Valyrian for “little brother.”

That last part notwithstanding, this is the most direct translation of A Feast for Crows we’ll see in the premiere—and throughout all of season 5’s first four episodes, frankly. (Semi-spoiler alert?) It’s also a scene I know you weren’t a fan of. Why was that? Could it be that, in your mind, Thrones is now best when it’s purposefully not trying to emulate Martin’s work word-by-word?

DARREN: I welcome you in return, Hillary of House Quentyn-Skeptic, Queen-Beyond-the-Wall! I look forward to two months of talking about how this season clearly could’ve used more Greyjoy.

For purely personal and possibly ridiculous reasons, I get antsy about two things in TV shows hitting middle age: prophecies, and childhood flashbacks. The former brings up bad memories from (shows I otherwise loved!) Lost and Battlestar Galactica. The latter trends inexorably toward Dick Whitman’s Bordello Boy BluesSeason 5’s opening scene was a childhood flashback prophecy, and I’m not sure it was totally necessary—but I respect the attempt. Every adult character in A Song of Ice and Fire is haunted by the past, but in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, GRRM devotes a huge chunk of his huge books to characters inner-monologuing their past regrets. (In my memory, half of Tyrion’s arc in Dance with Dragons is inner-monologue repetitions of the phrase “where do whores go?”) 

Thrones doesn’t do inner monologues, but this flashback did (awkwardly) reposition our perspective on Cersei. And I dig that. This is going to be Cersei’s showcase season—Lena Headey’s Season 5 = Nikola Coster-Waldau’s Season 3 = Peter Dinklage’s Season 2 = every scene Charles Dance was ever in. The start of this season should be a triumphant moment for her: She’s in charge! But kicking things off with that flashback makes her arc Greek-tragic. It’s like she knows that she’s going to fail—a subtle shift from Feast for Crows, where Cersei takes control with bull-in-a-china-shop aggression.

But maybe we should stop talking about A Feast for Crows. Heck, maybe we need to rethink the whole notion of a TV Book club. Because to my eyes, the vast majority of events in “The Wars to Come” were mostly or entirely new.

For four years, book readers have talked about/prophesied/feared/awaited-with-bated-breath the moment when Game of Thrones would move decisively and completely away from A Song of Ice and Fire. Some people think it already happened—when they nixed Lady Stoneheart, or when they banished Jeyne Westerling to the Lands of Always Winter. For me, the singularity came in this episode, when the Spider gave Tyrion the Big Pitch for Game of Thrones’ endgame. “Westeros needs to be saved from itself,” he says, in a lengthy speech which draws much of its spirit from the very last scene of A Dance with Dragons. What did you think about Thrones’ new dynamic duo, Tyrion and Varys? And were there any other major changes that leaped out at you, for good or ill?

HILLARY: So here’s the thing: I get that in some ways, the show has become its own, independent, full-grown dragon. (But the moment that really marks its departure doesn’t happen this week. And that’s all I’ll say about that.) Even so, I think it’s misleading to consider Thrones as an entity that’s “decisively and completely” separate from its source material. Things this season will happen differently from the way they did in books 4 and 5, to be sure—but almost all the changes I’ve seen so far come in the form of excising book storylines entirely (bye bye, Euron and, sniff, Lady Stoneheart!) or combining threads and characters that were separate entities in the books. Arianne Martell, for example, won’t appear in the series; Ellaria Sand will serve as her stand-in.

The point, then, seems to be concision rather than alteration. The series is trying to cut away bloat and stay relatively focused on a core stable of series regulars so that Thrones can maybe, possibly be resolved in 7 seasons. I don’t think Benioff and Weiss seem themselves as switching things up in order to improve upon Martin’s work; I think they’re just trying to keep this train moving before winter actually comes.

Back to the question you actually asked: It’s gratifying to watch Varys step into the spotlight and take credit for all his string-pulling from the get-go, rather than retreating into the shadows until Martin needs him to pull off a trademark Big Ending (as he does in Dragons). The show’s foregrounding of The Spider encapsulates the biggest tonal differences between Thrones and ASOIAF: In both versions, Varys holds the title of Master of Whispers, but he’s never been particularly quiet on the series. He and Show Tyrion aren’t quite as well-matched as Show Hound and Show Arya, but there are ways in which their dynamic mirrors that earlier, largely successful pairing: Varys is the omniscient expert, Tyrion is the good-hearted younger cynic who knows a lot less than he thinks he does. I’m hoping we’ll get a lot more banter between the two… and I’m also hoping that in this version of the story, Tyrion actually gets to meet Daenerys, dammit.

Speaking of: Is it time yet to ask everybody’s favorite running question, Does Anyone Care About Mereen? (I was also going to call out the scene where a eunuch gets murdered in a brothel as the most deliciously, ridiculously, gratuitously Thrones-y thing the show has ever done… until I looked it up and realized, yup, that actually happens in A Dance With Dragons as well.)

DARREN: Excellent points all around, learned Maestress! (In my vaguely Unitarian version of the Faith of the Seven, septas can be Maesters, too. Oh, don’t pretend you haven’t occasionally spent the long years between books and season constructing your own liberalized versions of Westerosi religions!)

Martin has always talked about the renegade freedom of the written word—how, after years and years of working in the low-budget world of television, he could make “A Song of Ice and Fire” as expansive as he wanted to be. I suspect those of us who enjoy both the book and the TV show will spend this season confronting some hard truths about that expansiveness. =

Thrones is, by some metrics, the most expensive show ever—but you’re right to bring up “concision” as the subtext of this season. Personally, I groove onto the size of Crows and Dragons—but I also understand how frustrating it is for people that Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister collectively have less to do than Asha Greyjoy. 

So even though I’m a bit more skeptical than you of the Varys-Tyrion pairing, I totally get the decision to keep the focus on already-introduced characters. For instance, allow me to blow your mind, Hillary: I care about Mereen! Well, one small part of Mereen. Maybe it’s just the residual buzz from Nathalie Emmanuel playing Sandra Bullock-in-The-Net in Furious Seven, but the Missandei romance subplot has (grey) wormed its way into my heart.

That Unsullied death scene was a bit goofy—it’s not TV, it’s Full Frontal: The Series!—but I loved the moment afterwards, when Missandei asked her favorite eunuch why an Unsullied would visit a bordello. I dig the low-stakes gravity of their doomed kinda-romance—they’re like Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in Remains of the Day, except hotter and more repressed.

Here’s what I’m less sure about: Everything else happening in Mereen.  The show has accelerated the Daenerys-Daario romance. In Dance With Dragons, it simmered; on the show, they’re basically married co-workers, talking shop post-coitus. “A dragon queen with no dragons is not a queen,” advises naked Daario. Hubba hubba? There’s a Hall of Fame moment coming up for Daenerys—“take me, take me, FLY!”—and I’m sort of hoping the show skips ahead to that moment, ASAP. Or does anything with Daenerys, at all.

Cards on the table: I wasn’t totally sold on this episode, mainly because it felt mostly like it was moving all the chesspieces into alignment. That’s true of Sansa and Littlefinger, who are definitely going somewhere to do something. (Don’t you love how, in the off-season, Dark Sansa has practically become a fan-favorite character?)

But we really need to talk about that awesome scene that ended the episode. Like, Mance is dead, right? Dead-dead, not Rattleshirt-dead? What do you think about the happenings up North? Is the Stannis-Snow alliance, ahem, lighting your fire?

HILLARY: In the name of the Seven, who will apparently be more important this season than they have been to the show’s universe thus far—do Unsullied viewers actually get how Westerosi religion works, by the way? Do they know what septons and septas are? Do they understand what a shame it is that they apparently won’t be meeting Septa Lemore, who doesn’t seem like she’s made it into Show World?—I present you with seven concluding thoughts:

1. I am all for more Nathalie Emmanuel/Missandei, provided the show doesn’t have her stand in for the deceased Irri in a weird Dany/handmaiden love scene a la Storm of Swords.

2. You’re reminding me that despite how much “screen” time Daenerys gets in A Dance with Dragons, not a whole lot actually happens to her until she marries Hizzoner zo Lorax, or whatever that dude’s name is. (I KNOW WHAT IT ACTUALLY IS, GUYS.) The endgame of her Dragons storyline is, indeed, awesome, and I’m with you in hoping that the show manages to get to it sooner rather than later. Because otherwise, what’s Dany going to do for the next nine episodes—sit around and eat possibly poisoned locusts?

3. You’re acting as though the chess-piece-arranging episode isn’t a storied Game of Thrones tradition, as engrained in the show’s DNA as The Big Thing That Happens in Episode 9 or sexposition. I’m less bothered by this aspect of the premiere than you are, mostly because I’m expecting those chess pieces to start screwing and murdering each other pretty soon.

4. As a semi-professional feminist killjoy, it gives me great pleasure to see how the fandom has embraced Darth Sansa in GoT’s off-season. (Also, to see how much deeper Sophie Turner’s voice seems to have gotten in the time that elapsed between seasons 4 and 5. Hearing her talk in the premiere reminded me of the first moment Ron speaks in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.) I can say without hesitation that Sansa’s storyline is the one I was most interested in prior to watching any of season 5, partly because we’ve basically reached the end of her book-self’s journey and partly because I’m fascinated by the psychosexual Darth Sansa/Littlefinger dynamic. And after watching as much as I have… well, let’s just say this is going to be a very good season for Sansa as well as Cersei.

5. The Wall stuff isn’t leaving me—ahem—cold, though I do think Mance’s death had much less impact on the show than it should’ve. (Reminder: Mance has appeared on a whopping five of Thrones‘ 41 episodes to date. Given that, it’s tough to care much about his fate.) At first, I wasn’t sure that he was really most sincerely dead; then I read James Hibberd’s interview with Ciaran Hinds, which removed all doubt. But this true death bothers me less than Catelyn’s. If it’s necessary for future storylines, Benioff and Weiss can probably find a way to have other, more established characters perform the same role that Mance plays in the books; they’ve never been as invested in him as a character as GRRM is.

6. BRIENNNNE. Care to speculate about what the show may have in store for her, considering its Brienne storyline is already into totally uncharted territory?

7. Did you miss Arya in this episode? I’m sort of surprised by how little I noticed her absence.

DARREN: You’re totally right that loving Thrones means loving the gradual movement of the beautiful, F-bomb-dropping chesspieces. And talking to Thrones Uber-Maester Hibberd got me extremely excited about where this season is going. (Dorne!) But Brienne might be the chesspiece I’m most excited about. I feel like she’s the show’s wild card now—someone who’s not really attached to any of the various forces which currently plague Westeros. I kinda hope she becomes Thrones‘ version of Yojimbo, this wandering ronin who doesn’t really have anything left to believe in. (Tough to be a good knight when you keep losing your masters.)

I badly missed Arya and the Hound; I feel like their back-and-forth became such a central part of the show. But I think it was smart for the series to push her storyline just a bit. Arya is about to experience what amounts to a complete character reboot—new setting, new ‘tude, NEW CLOTHES. We’re hitting the territory where the books start to wander far afield from the original Stark family focus, and the show isn’t even trying to feature Bran this season. Assuming they roughly follow the books’ trajectory, Arya will pretty much be starring in her own origin story—A Portrait of the Assassin as a Young Ninja. Gotta give that time to breathe!

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