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Game of Thrones TV Book Club: Nude Sand Snakes, Sansa's nightmare, and Tyrion meeting Dany? Oh my!

Everything’s different, for better or boobs.

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HBO

Welcome back to the Game of Thrones TV Book Club, a discussion space for Thrones viewers who have also read the five books (so far) of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This week, Hillary Busis and Darren Franich cover “The Gift,” an episode that puts two of Martin’s most popular characters together for the first time ever on page or screen. Be sure to check out the recap of the episode by Thrones guru James Hibberd, then join us as the venture into the narrative borderlands of A Feast for CrowsA Dance with Dragons, and beyond. (You know there’ll be spoilers for both the books and the show, right?)

HILLARY: This week’s GOTTVBC is a little late. Ostensibly, that’s due to Memorial Day (during which we remember all the Starks we’ve lost). Really, though, I think it’s just taken me a full day to digest what happened at the end of “The Gift.” No, not Cersei’s arrest—though that sequence was just as rich and satisfying as any book reader could’ve dreamed it would be. I’m speaking, of course, about five little words that quite literally could change everything: “My name is Tyrion Lannister.” That’s right: TYRION. MET. DANY. A feat his book counterpart has not yet achieved, despite tromping around Essos for the entirety of a 1,000+ page novel!

My head is still spinning. Dare-io NaFranich: Did you, like me, screech “YESS!!” aloud when this fateful meeting finally, finally, finally happened? And what impact do you think it’ll have on TV Thrones’ story—beyond simply moving things along at a faster clip than they’re going in the books?

DARREN: Here’s what I loved about that scene, Queen Hillerys: The fact that Benioff & Weiss started off by teasing us with the possibility that Tyrion might meet Dany later, at the Great Games, maybe just in time for the season finale—before cutting to Dany outside, watching an early-rounds playoff game on the advice of soon-to-be-hubby Hizdahr. Woohoo, plot concision!

Here’s what I DIDN’T love about that scene: The weird decision to turn the first meeting of two of Martin’s most popular characters—the Thrones equivalent of De Niro and Pacino grabbing coffee in Heat—into a sizzle reel for Jorah Mormont, Ultimate Gladiator. It felt a bit like a delaying tactic—a phrase I’ll be using a lot when we get to Dorne, BTW. I’m excited to see Tyrion and Dany TOGETHER together, but I wonder if they’ll be parting ways sooner than we think. My first instinct is to say that TV-Tyrion will step in for Book-Barristan—and he’ll become the de facto leader of Meereen if/when Dany pulls her dragon-assisted disappearing act. It would be a symmetrically pleasing echo of Tyrion’s days as the Hand in King’s Landing: Another city in jeopardy, another battle looming.

To be honest, though, I have no clear idea what’s ahead for Meereen—and it seems just as likely that Tyrion and Dany could become a new-wave Hound and Arya, with Drogon as their animal sidekick. Which sounds more likely to you?

HILLARY: At first, I thought the answer to that question seemed obvious: Given how few people could logically rule in Dany’s stead once she becomes Meereen’s very own Lifted Lorax, Tyrion may be the only logical substitute Barristan. (Jorah’s greyscale makes him a ticking time bomb; Missandei and Grey Worm are too decorous to seize power; Daario is too busy fighting and f–king.)

Then again: How eager do we think Benioff and Weiss are to even stay in Meereen in season 6, especially given that they may only have 20 episodes left to get Dany and her dragons in a position to kill an army of ice zombies? (They could, of course, have more time; season 7 may get an increased episode order and be split to air over the course of two years, an increasingly popular strategy for marquee prestige series these days.) Considering the showrunners’ slash and burn philosophy, I may actually be feeling your second prediction—although it WOULD be nice to see Peter Dinklage cleaned up and playing mind games with courtiers again.

I’d much prefer that to what we got in spades during Sunday’s episode. Between Sansa’s continued abuse (which does at least have book precedent), Gilly’s almost-rape (which definitely doesn’t), and that ridiculously gratuitous Sand Snake peep show in the Dornish prison (which, COME ON), I’m really starting to grow weary of how the show is handling its female characters this season. Yes yes yes, Dany and Arya and Brienne and Cersei aren’t being raped and brutalized and filmed bearing their boobs at unsuspecting sellswords—but we’ve gotten more and more evidence this year of how the TV series doubles down on unnecessary nudity and graphic violence against women, even compared to Martin’s novels (which, I know, aren’t exactly rated G.)

I’m not sure what more there is to say here, except that 1. I love Thrones and 2. I still really wish it could cut back on including these things when they do nothing to propel the story forward, or convey stuff we don’t already know. Like, Sam and Gilly’s relationship has been building for seasons now; did their first sexual encounter NEED to be precipitated by an assault?

DARREN: The Sansa storyline is such an abject bummer, and even though I want to believe we’re being set up for one of the greatest acts of well-deserved vengeance ever, I feel like we at least have to admit that the show just doesn’t have much interest in developing the Boltons into legitimate characters. Ramsay is Joffrey without the Freudian weirdness—a castratin’ rapin’ horror-movie loon. I’d love it if the show could really own the idea of him and Sansa as a perverted power couple—didn’t you love her teasing Ramsay with the notion of his trueborn little brother? But as it is, this story arc has become Theon’s Neverending Castration all over again. (Side note: Theon’s Neverending Castration is the name of my acid rock band.)

I might actually be even more bummed about the Sam-Gilly stuff than you. Which brings me to one of our least-beloved regular segments here at EW’s GoTTVBC: Darren Defends Long Plotless Road-Trip Story Arcs From Books 4 And 5. When Sam and Gilly get together in “Crows,” it’s a direct reaction to Maester Aemon’s death—they’re drunk, sad, lonely, and desperate for human connection. It’s really moving and subtle. The show gave Sam a big FanFiction-worthy hero line — “I killed a White Walker, I killed a Thenn, and I’ll TAKE MY CHANCES WITH YOU!”—which is, let’s be honest, exactly the kind of Fantasy Hero speech that “A Song of Ice and Fire” specifically avoids as a rule.

As for Tyene Sand: Is this the moment to admit that Dorne has become, like, a country populated entirely by Poochies? They’re cool, they’re rude, they have attitude: All they’re missing is a skateboard and a Hot Topic T-shirt. And there’s an unsettling meta quality to Tyene’s nude scene that I can’t really get around. In the same episode when we saw Daenerys Targaryen in bed with Daario—demurely pulling up the covers to hide her nudity—one of the newest characters on the show (played by one of the show’s newest/youngest performers) gives Bronn and the viewers a very long, seductive, impossible-to-defend-on-any-plot-level strip show.

Presumably the Sand Snakes are being set up as uneasy allies for Jaime and Bronn? Is that what’s happening? Do we care about Myrcella? What was the plan here, exactly?

HILLARY: You’ve heard the expression “Let’s get busy”? Well, this is a Sand Snake who gets “biz-zay!” Consistently and thoroughly.

I’m with you on all counts—and I think the moral of the story, really, is something we’ve discussed before: that on a molecular level, Thrones often feels more like fan fiction than an adaptation. What’s the difference? Well, it’s tricky to define, more of an “I know it when I see it” sort of thing than one with clear delineations. I do think, though, that an adaptation a) should stand on its own (i.e. a viewer doesn’t need to be familiar with the source material to understand what’s going on, and an adaptor shouldn’t feel obligated to include characters/plot points/etc. just because they appeared in said source material) and b) may engage in fan service, but only sparingly.

The issue, I think, with the stuff you laid out above is that it’s all too on the nose: “You want topless kickass babes? You’ve got topless kickass babes!” (Is Game of Thrones‘ continual reliance on rape as a plot point intended on some level to be fan service as well? If so, the implications of that are… not great.)

DARREN: I know it can sometimes feel like the purpose of this TV-Book Club has gotten a bit hazy—and I would never want this space to become just a list of changes marked with binary “Love it/Hate It” judgments. This is the most exciting season to talk about, I think, because it constantly forces me to ask myself what I loved about George R R Martin’s books when I started reading them (almost ten years ago!) and what I have enjoyed about the TV show—and how different they really are.

To me, the absolute best thing about Martin’s books—better than the dense world-building, better than the zippy dialogue, better than the devastating plot twists—is how good he is at suddenly and completely shifting your perspective on a character. Jaime in Books 1 and 2 is a malicious figure; Jaime in Book Three is the bruised soul of Westeros. Dany and Jon in Books 1-3 are lovably underdogs; in the later books, they’re toughminded authority figures making impossible decisions, and they’re not always particularly likable. Ned Stark’s a noble hero, but his death proves that he’s also a simple man—and proves that the whole idea of an honorable  Ned Stark-ian fantasy hero is helplessly naive.

The FanFiction elements that you’re talking about all circle back around to wish fulfillment. And to paraphrase Joss Whedon—another geek icon who’s had a rough go of it among fandom recently—sometimes it’s better to give people what they need than what they want. And to me, the character this season who feels most Martin-esque is Stannis Baratheon. Without ever making him a remotely likable person—credit Stephen Dillane for finding a million variations on the Mopey Face—the show has humanized him. You understand his ambition and his pride; you understand how he’s simultaneously too cerebral to be lovable and too impulsive to be safe.

This episode marked the first time that we’re really starting to see legitimate cracks form: Melisandre’s new-for-the-show Shireen bloodlust explains all the attention the show’s been paying to the greyscale’d little gal. I feel like we’re building up to the end of Stannis’ storyline—Melisandre’s premonition of walking the battlements of Winterfell could be interpreted all kinds of ways, none of them involving the presence of Stannis. Shockingly enough, I think I’d be sad to lose Stannis now—especially since newer focal characters like the High Sparrow or the Boltons feel dangerously one-note. I’d be intrigued to know, Chief Justice Busis: Were there any changes in this episode that struck you like that, as genuine adaptation vs. FanFiction?

HILLARY: I agree that the Stannis stuff is much more gripping than I expected it’d be—not least because Melisandre’s new focus on Shireen adds a cool layer of Greek tragedy to the proceedings. Beyond that, and Tyrion and Dany’s big meeting (a moment that was somehow both wish fulfillment and a smart adaptive choice at the same time), I’d also have to single out Olenna Tyrell and the High Sparrow’s brief but juicy confrontation.

The latter is a character who doesn’t really pop in A Feast for Crows, possibly because he’s competing with Caligula Cersei’s full circus of crazy. (I’m honestly surprised the show has hardly bothered illustrating any of that ghastly Roman excess—Cersei gives a handmaid to Frankenstein Qyburn! She seduces a knight so that he’ll falsely confess to schtupping Margaery, who’s still only, like 15 years old! She randomly dabbles in lesbianism, for crying out loud!)

I’m really digging The High Sparrow on the show, though, mostly because he’s so different from most of Thrones’ King’s Landing figures. He’s not a devious schemer; he’s not a wry quipster; he’s not smug or secretive or even particularly power-hungry, at least not ostensibly. Seeing him go toe-to-toe with Olenna, one of the South’s original tart-tongued tacticians, is fascinating. Clever as she is, she just can’t figure out how to beat him—maybe because she hasn’t yet realized that he’s playing a different game altogether. That is, of course, assuming his whole pious humility thing isn’t just an act—which it very well could be. But wouldn’t it be disappointing at this point to learn that it is?

DARREN: I’m sad to lose Cersei’s “Caligula” arc—the one Book 4 subplot that positively DEMANDS shameless nudity and extended M-for-Mature orgy scenes!

But I loved that scene between Olenna and the High Sparrow, because it really felt like we were witnessing a changing-of-the-guard between two very different forms of authority. Olenna plays the old-school game of thrones—the sport played by a few powerful families, with the country as their chessboard. The High Sparrow is, weirdly, the more modern figure: A man of the people, looking to bring the Great Families down to size. I’m definitely intrigued to see how the show develops him—if his humility IS an act, it would still make him one of the better schemers on a show full of them—and it gets me wondering a little bit about the Thrones endgame.

There’s a fundamental assumption that, in book and TV form, this story will end with someone new—and probably unexpected—winding up on the Iron Throne. (My money’s still on Rickon!) But maybe the story is veering in a different direction. Dany’s dabbling in progressive up-with-the-people politics is actually less aggressive than the High Sparrow, who’s looking to institute his own Robespierre-worthy Reign of Terror. Like, to enter the space of complete speculation for book and TV show: Is it possible that this story ends with the Iron Throne torn to pieces? Follow-up question: Is this the greatest double take in TV history?

HBO

HILLARY: Answering the second question first: It’s very tough to compete with this classic.

Answering the first question second: Now I’m imagining that THIS might end up being the show’s final scene.

What say we dig into a few comments?

DARREN: You got it!

KR: With their focus on Loras’ sexuality, can we all agree to call the Sparrows/Faith/whatever, the Westeros Baptist Church? Let’s make this happen people.

DARREN: This brings up something else that I find kind of intriguing about the Sparrows, and how the show has introduced them: They’re simultaneously progressive (down with the rich!) and freakishly reactionary (all “deviancy” will be punished!) Given that the TV show has removed some key figures from King’s Landing—the Spider’s gone east!—it seems entirely possible that, by the end of this season, the High Sparrow will be the most powerful man in Westeros. Certainly, Cersei’s last line to the Septa implies that we’re building to some kind of Cersei/Sparrow showdown, right?

HILLARY: Oh, certainly. But here’s the thing: I think TV Cersei is both more clever and less cold-hearted than Book Cersei. Given that, and the greater attention the series is paying to the High Sparrow, do you think it’s possible that she may have a true change of heart following her Walk of Shame? I’m not saying that I expect her to join the Silent Sisters or anything—but I wouldn’t be surprised if she emerges from that ordeal meeker, more thoughtful, and less inclined to threaten murder.

Which brings me to the comment I wanted to pull out this week:

John O’Hoolian: [quoting Hillary] “time and time again, it’s been clear that she’s the true inheritor of Tywin’s mantle, and that the realm may not have found itself in this mess in the first place if she’d been born a man.”

Huh? Not true at all. She sees herself in that way, but the books make it pretty clear that she is far from the mastermind Tywin was. She has some short term cunning, but is not a strategist. She’s playing checkers, while Tywin played chess. The plot with the High Sparrow illustrates this perfectly. She thinks she has come up with the ingenious plot to hurt the Tyrells, but has failed to see how arming the Faith Militant could hurt her in the end. This is a religious order that clearly has a thing against sexual behavior they consider immoral (which would include incest), and has a member that presumably knows about her and Jaime.

There are a lot of smart, calculating women in the show and the books, but Cersei is not one of them. A lot of the problems that led to the War of the Five Kings were directly caused by her poor decision making or ineffectual leadership. Tywin pretty much says this both when he send Tyrion back to be the Hand, and when he finally arrives at King’s Landing and brings Joffrey in line.

HILLARY: I definitely see where John is coming from, but I want to defend what I said in last week’s book club about Cersei as Tywin’s true heir—mostly because I wasn’t careful enough about how I phrased it. Here’s what I meant: In terms of raw brain material, Cersei is more like Tywin than either of her brothers—which means that had she been born a man, she’d be his logical successor. But because she had the misfortune of being born female in a world that’s not exactly Lilith Fair, society has twisted her into becoming who she is—ambitious and clever, but unable to use those gifts the same way a man might. Which is part of the reason she’s so messed up.

In conclusion: Patriarchy.

DARREN: It sounds weird to say this about a character who has redefined Bitchface for the next century, but Cersei’s problem is love. She has only ever loved one man, and she loves her children desperately. Society frowns upon the former—and the patriarchy would’ve married her off to a loathsome drunk even if she WASN’T in love with her brother. And her desperate need for her children to love her back has manifested itself in every terrible way. First, she spoiled her eldest son into insanity; now, she’s turning her young son into an angry boy, ready to start a war with the church. What makes Cersei so interesting, I think, is that she’s both a victim AND a schemer—a woman who is both a passive participant in a male-dominated society and an active aggressor in society’s breakdown. I think that comes off a little more clearer in the book—the TV show has turned her time as Regent into a faceoff with Margaery, a grudge match that’s painfully close to a catfight.

In conclusion: Ambiguity!