'Game of Thrones' TV Book Club: Did 'Sons of the Harpy' just confirm a huge fan theory?
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 talk about major changes in “Sons of the Harpy,” as well as the philosophical question on every Sullied viewer’s mind: Should we be worried about Thrones “spoiling” A Song of Ice and Fire? 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, A Dance With Dragons, and beyond. (You know there’ll be spoilers for both the books and the show, right?)
DARREN: Loras: Captured! Sansa: Wardeness of the North! Melisandre: All up on Jon Snow! JaBronn: Heisting a princess! Ser Barristan: NOOOOOOOOO! My brain: Exploded.
The Season of Changes continued this week, Hilltown, and I don’t even know where to begin. On the scale of 1 to Brienne Fighting The Hound, how did you feel about this week’s Benioff & Weiss remix?
HILLARY: I feel like we’re on slightly steadier ground than we were last week, actually, and that’s because this week’s episode seemed to take special pains to address one of the book series’ longest-standing unsolved mysteries: the question of Jon Snow’s parentage. (I’m not sure if discussing a fan theory so entrenched that it’s practically guaranteed to be canon counts as potentially spoiling ASOIAF, but just in case… spoiler alert, if you don’t know what L + R = J means!)
Exhibit A: Selyse Baratheon sniffs that Jon is nothing more than some tavern wench’s bastard; Stannis thoughtfully replies, “But that wasn’t Ned Stark’s way.” Exhibit B: Littlefinger tells Sansa about the Tourney at Harrenhal, a vital piece of backstory that the show hasn’t thought necessary to dispense until this precise moment. Sansa repeats the conventional wisdom that Rhaegar kidnapped and raped her aunt; Littlefinger thoughtfully says nothing. Exhibit C: Ser Barristan thoughtfully tells Dany how her brother loved to sing for the people of King’s Landing, painting him as a kind, sensitive monarch; he sure doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who’d kidnap and rape anybody.
All of which is to say: The show pretty much just came out and told us that Lyanna and Rhaegar’s affair was consensual, and that Jon is their illegitimate son. Right?
DARREN: As if all that WASN’T enough, the show is once again deploying Melisandre and her magical ability to sense royal blood. She’s like a police dog for Great-House Bastards. In the courtyard of Castle Black, Stannis asks her what it is, precisely, that Melisandre needs. “To serve my Lord,” she says vaguely. CUT TO: Jon Snow sword-training, Melisandre watching him in the background. A couple scenes later, Melisandre’s engaging Jon with some exciting non-book nudity. I have some qualms with the scene itself—not sure we needed ripe lines like “Our joining is power”—but it probably makes sense for the show to accelerate whatever ultimate reveal is awaiting Jon Snow.
But I want to talk about the other broody warrior-lord in the North. On a purely structural level, I thought this episode continued the show’s savvy redeployment of Stannis Baratheon. This is a character who’s spent two seasons moping in the shadows, but we’re starting to see another side of him. The scene between Stannis and Shireen—which I believe is entirely TV-original, including the detail about the wooden doll—went a long way toward demonstrating that Stannis can be more than an emotionless droid. And the show even employed a high-powered hype man: Stannis is “the finest military commander in Westeros,” according to Littlefinger, who is secretly plotting a Baratheon-Stark alliance. How do you feel about all the plot thickening up North?
HILLARY: The plot thickening up North is good and necessary, considering how tough it can be to get invested in Jon’s story in this post-Ygritte world. (Though I, too, could have gone without that MelisandJon scene, which included some of the show’s most gratuitous nudity to date: “No visions. No magic. Just boobs.”) And I agree that Stannis’s show-invented Shireen speech was one of the hour’s highlights, a scene that almost single-handedly gave the grumpiest Baratheon another dimension; I certainly like his TV self more than I like his book self at this point. All this talk about Jon Snow’s origins and Stannis marching on Winterfell, though, has me wrestling with a bigger question: Is now the time we should start getting worried about Thrones spoiling ASOIAF?
There’s the whole L + R issue, of course. Here’s another: According to a letter that Ramsay writes to Jon in A Dance with Dragons, Stannis is killed during the siege of Winterfell—a big, climactic sequence I’m guessing will take up the bulk of episode 9 this season. We haven’t learned yet, though, whether Stannis is truly dead, or whether Ramsay was simply deceiving Jon.
I’m guessing the show will be a little less ambiguous about that fact, as it generally tends to be—but there’ll be no way to know whether Book Stannis’s fate aligns with Show Stannis’s until The Winds of Winter is released sometime in 2025. So: If the show declares Stannis alive or dead, should we assume it’s a) doing what it wants regardless of the books or b) ruining a reveal the books have yet to make? And more importantly, what can we read into Show Thrones‘ decision to excise subplots and characters who seem like they could play an important role in ASOIAF’s endgame—people like Arianne, and Young Griff/Aegon, and all those Greyjoys? Does their elision in the TV series mean that the TV series will end differently than the books… or does it mean that none of those characters are really going to matter when we finally get to A Dream of Spring, sometime in 3025?
DARREN: You’re asking some complicated, nigh-existential questions, Hillibuster. I wonder if there are some book readers who feel, like, vaguely betrayed by Game of Thrones. Like, weren’t we the ones who loved Westeros before it was cool? Didn’t we roll hard for Jaime Lannister back when Unsullied viewers thought he was just another pretty face? And now, for all our troubles, we’ll learn the HIDDEN TRUTH ABOUT JON SNOW with two books still left to go?
Personally, I don’t think I really care? However similar show and book were in the first half of their shared story—and I think you can argue that Thrones has always been a different animal from Ice and Fire—they are clearly approaching the history of Westeros post-Tywin Lannister very differently. For GRRM, the post-Tywin era is basically anarchy: Fake Stark daughters in the North, stealth Targaryens in the east, Greyjoys all about. To my eyes, Thrones is setting up a simpler tale. Stannis is up North, preparing to march South; Dorne is upset, and the Sand Snakes dream of marching North; sooner or later, Dany must come from the East.
On a micro-level, I guess that means some character journeys might be “spoiled.” (Presumably, we’ll see at least a couple major characters die per season from here on out.) But maybe I have faith that GRRM will throw in a few zig-zags. I dunno. I guess that, as someone who has always preferred the books, I’m enjoying watching this season because it feels a bit like an alternate Thrones reality. Have I talked myself into some kind of optimistic fugue state?
HILLARY: If there’s anything GRRM knows how to do, it’s zig (by shifting focus to a new country filled with entirely new characters and problems) when we expect him to zag (by just goddamn telling us what is going on with Arya already). I agree that even if the show resolves things still left open-ended in the books, I won’t be any less excited to read The Winds of Winter—mostly because, as you said, the two are fairly different animals.
As much as I enjoy both, though, deep within my nerdiest heart of hearts, I can’t help wishing that the book series had been completed before the show began shooting. GRRM is deeply involved in Thrones‘ production—and as different as the show is from the novels, you’ve got to imagine that Benioff and Weiss’s choices and casting have had an effect on what Martin writes from here on out. No work of art is ever composed in a vacuum, of course—but as long as we’re talking about alternate universes, I wish there were a way for us to read books 6 and 7 as they’ll exist in our world, and books 6 and 7 as they’d exist in a world where HBO had never heard of ASIOAF. How would they differ?
Whoops; this is getting so digressive that I’m starting to feel a bit like GRRM himself. (Where did this newsboy cap come from?) Maybe we should circle back to the episode, which also featured an arrival I’ve been yearning to see for over a year: THE SAND SNAKES! Do you think their introduction did Oberyn’s bastard daughters justice?
DARREN: I have a confession to make. I know everyone loves Dorne. (How can you not? As Bronn pointed out, the Dornish motto is “fight and f—, f— and fight!”) But on my first read-through of A Feast for Crows, the Sand Snakes didn’t really pop for me. They almost seem like a spinoff unto themselves—and in book form, I kinda lost them a bit in a haze of Greyjoys. (A Haze of Greyjoys is the working title for Book 8.) So I dug their introduction here, mainly because Benioff & Weiss are basically assuming that the Sand Snakes are the Westerosi version of Kill Bill‘s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.
I’m kind of hoping that the rest of this season is just Jaime Lannister having long fight scenes with every Sand Snake. I’d play that video game! But you’re the Sand Snake superfan, Hillmatic: How’d you feel about their debut appearance?
HILLARY: Ummm, what’s not to love about a cabal of beautiful, deadly, ambiguously accented femmes fatale—kickass broads so cool that Prince Doran has to imprison them in a tower for being too awesome?
That said, I do see where you’re coming from. The Sand Snakes were basically created in a lab to be fan favorites—and that’s even clearer once we actually meet them in person, shooting smoldering gazes and giving monologues about how tough they are and favoring weapons that helpfully telegraph their personalities. (The brutal one has a spear! The sexy one has a whip! The other one has a bikini top!) I read something on Screen Rant that compared the Sand Snakes to the Ninja Turtles, and I think the analogy is unfortunately accurate. You can’t judge three new characters entirely on one short scene, of course, but the whole thing was so cheesy (“you must choose: Doran’s way and peace, or my way… and war;” seriously, Ellaria?) that I’m not holding my breath for Obara, Nym, and Tyene to break out the same way Oberyn did. The whole thing felt a little too syndicated ’90s fantasy series for me—and while I’m all for Xena, I don’t like mixing her with my Game of Thrones, you know?
I am, however, fully on board with our new favorite odd couple’s entry into Dorne, especially a fight scene that proves it is possible to beat a skilled swordsman single-handedly (yuk yuk yuk). I’m not sure whether this diversion from ASOIAF will teach us anything new about Jaime or Bronn, but it does seem like it’ll be a lot of fun. Agreed?
DARREN: Agreed on all counts! And I sometimes feel like Thrones at its best is Thrones at its most indulgent. I mean this as a huge compliment. Season 5 of Game of Thrones might turn out to be one of the single greatest works of fanfiction—fanfic by good writers performed by good actors, and fanfic that gives us all the Sand Snake vs. Jaime Lannister showdown that we didn’t realize we wanted.
So yes, you’re absolutely right about JaBronn, Hillary. I’m not sure if their pairing is “important,” per se. But I do enjoy seeing them together. Which leads me to a larger question: Now that we’re four episodes deep, are there any characters this season who are really popping for you—specifically, characters you DIDN’T care much about on the page?
For me, season 5’s breakout is unquestionably Tommen Baratheon. I love how the show is putting him in a classic sitcom predicament—Wife hates mom! Mom hates wife! What’s a fella to do?—but I also like how Thrones has reimagined Tommen as a complete character. Like, on one hand, he’s the nicest King we’ve yet seen: A kid who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, who is so endearingly innocent that he can’t begin to understand the resentments and petty jealousies surrounding him. On the other hand: Is being a “nice King” the same as being a Good King? Should he have killed all those Sparrows as a demonstration of his power? It feels like the show is forcing Tommen into an interesting corner. He might be dumb, but he’s basically a good kid; does he need to become a little more evil to hold onto his throne?
So, macro-question, Hillary: Is there anybody you like much more in TV-form? Followed by a micro-question: Do we need to talk about Mereen?
HILLARY: You know, I think we do need to talk about Meereen—namely because this week’s trip to Slaver’s Bay ended with a death that may have great repercussions. Book readers know that Barristan Selmy survives A Dance with Dragons, and truly devoted ASOIAF fans can tell you that he’s apparently still a POV character in The Winds of Winter—meaning Sullied viewers came into this season fairly confident that the Hand of the Queen would make it to the end of the year unscathed. (Evidently, that’s what actor Ian McElhinney —a book reader himself—believed.) Unfortunately, “Sons of the Harpy” had other ideas.
His death, of course, is a strategic one; Dany is more vulnerable than ever after losing her two most trusted advisors, which will make her (presumed) season-ending dragon ride that much more effective and thrilling. Killing off Barristan also means one fewer storyline tying us to Meereen; I expect that the show doesn’t have any desire to linger there after Dany herself peaces out. And finally, as much as book readers might love Barristan, I suspect Unsullied viewers aren’t quite as taken by him—largely because they don’t know as much backstory as we do—making him someone whose death will mean a lot to the show’s characters, but won’t make viewers fly into a rage. Considering all that, I’m almost surprised it took four episodes to ax the guy.
That said, I’ll miss Barristan—though I am cheered by know that getting rid of characters like him (folks who have more to do in the books) allows the show to focus more on expanding the roles of characters like Tommen and Shireen, whose show-selves are much richer than their literary counterparts. (I’ve also got high hopes for what Thrones will do with Lancel Lannister, especially once he starts targeting his sinful cousin/former lover.)
DARREN: I will also miss Barristan, although that might just be because he’s Davos Seaworth with a sword. It definitely feels like we’re in the house-cleaning phase of the Meereen arc. It’s funny: As book-readers, we’ve been hanging off the Meereen cliff for years now, waiting for a Big Showdown (the second siege of Meereen!) and a Big Meeting (Dany and Tyrion, at last!) I suspect that the show is building up to the latter as a climactic moment for season 5; I wonder if the show will skip the former entirely.
Which I understand. Like, assuming the show has the budget for maybe two more Neil Marshall battle episodes—and assuming one of those episodes will be some as-yet-unimagined season 7 circus of Dragons, White Walkers, Sand Snakes, remaining Stark children, and maybe even a Greyjoy ship—I understand skipping a battle scene featuring People We Barely Know versus People We Hardly Care About.
Let’s quickly dig into the comments from last week’s EWGoTTVBC, shall we?
Bruce Frier: One of the most powerful plot elements in Martin’s novels is the gradual revival of the power of magic, most vividly, perhaps, in the return from the dead of Lady Stoneheart. The HBO version started out with this theme, and the references back to the murder of Renly still seem to evoke it; but the idea has gradually fallen away, even as to Melisandre. As a consequence, the HBO version is coming to seem more like an elaborate take on Dallas or Dynasty. (Admittedly, with dragons.)
DARREN: A Song of Ice and Fire backed into its fantasy elements very, very gradually. Heck, you wouldn’t be wrong to describe A Game of Thrones as the anti-fantasy Fantasy Novel. When we first arrive in Westeros, everybody treats all the usual elements of fantasy literature—magic and mystical creatures—as stuff that only existed in the past. In hindsight, it was always GRRM’s plan to reincorporate those elements into the story—and I know plenty of people who DON’T like all the magic stuff.
I’m kind of half-half on it—I love Lady Stoneheart, say, whereas all the stuff with the Children feels dangerously close to FernGully —but I do like how the books are ever-so-gradually platforming us from a vaguely realistic world into a full-on fantastical world. As Bruce points out, the show is apparently deciding to downplay the magic stuff. To me this feels faintly snobbish—kind of like how Christopher Nolan would only use “realistic” characters in his Dark Knight movies—but I suspect most people would prefer Thrones remain a warg-free zone?
HILLARY: Wait a sec—the show downplaying the magic stuff? Did you miss all those TV digressions into White Walkerton? If anything, I feel like magic has been more front-and-center on GoT from the beginning than it was in the books, which I agree reads initially like fantasy for people who don’t like what a former colleague of ours once described as “wizards and shit.” If nothing else, the continued presence of the dragons themselves ensure that this show is more than a medieval soap—though really, isn’t every serialized drama kind of a soap opera when you think about it?
Sure, cutting out Lady Stoneheart, Coldhands, and Bran (from this year’s episodes, at least) mean the show’s stepping away from some of the book series’ fantastical elements. But between Meereen, Arya’s Faceless Man training, and Melisandre, not to mention the White Walkers (whom I think we may see again before the season is done), I’m not ready to ask where the magic went just yet. I’d argue that the show isn’t downplaying magic, exactly; it’s just not going quite as all-in as ASOIAF. The difference is that while ASOIAF introduced magic gradually, it’s gotten more and more important to the series in each successive book. GoT, by contrast, featured fantastical elements from its very inception, but the presence of those elements hasn’t increased the same way it has in the books. In other words, ASOIAF went from a magical 3 to a magical 7; GoT has always been around a 5.
One more comment for the road:
vfv: Why I’m excited for Samsay:
1. Better than having her betrothed to some random dude from the Vale. We have enough new characters as it is this season to get to know, all of them more interesting.
2. It’s more believable to have Reek/Theon risk everything for Sansa (if they’re still going to do this), who was like a sister to him, than Jeyne, just some girl he sort of recognized.
3. I can buy Littlefinger would go for it, given that he doesn’t know Ramsay’s reputation and Winterfell really is Sansa’s home. (Plus, it’s advantageous to him, and we all know he’s looking out for number one at the end of the day.)
4. I’m really looking forward to the completion of Sansa’s evolution from being a pawn to being a player. If she manipulates/kills Ramsay, she can join Margery and Cersei and the Queen of Thorns in the ranks of women who’ve managed to make this ridiculous system work for them.
Why I’m worried about Samsay:
1. Just, really, really, really not in the mood to see more of her suffering endlessly at the hands of psychopaths. If she doesn’t twist this situation to her advantage and she’s just tortured for half a season until someone else comes to rescue her, it’s a total disservice to her character. I hope D&D know better.
HILLARY: Couldn’t have said it better myself—that’s an excellent defense of the show’s decision to pair Sansa with Ramsay, and one particularly good reason we should be nervous about it. Namely: If Sansa’s wedding night is anything like “Arya”‘s, my heart may very well break into a billion pieces. Haven’t the Starks suffered enough?! (The answer, of course, is always “apparently not!”)