The main selling point of Game of Thrones season 5 is the departure from the A Song of Ice and Fire source material. The HBO show is rapidly approaching the threshold where all five of George R.R. Martin’s book are adapted. Rather than distilling the secrets of the plot from Martin, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have elected to fill in the blanks themselves, creating a sort of alternate universe, similar to when Biff took the Almanac back to 1955. This, coupled with Martin’s confession that he has no power over who lives and dies in the show, and we have a season that promises to be fresh and exciting for readers and non-readers alike.
That promise is a long way away in the season 5 opener, “The Wars to Come”. Very little of the episode is original. Dialogue sees the most change but much of what is depicted is the same. The fallout of Tyrion Lannister’s murder of his father, Tywin, dictates the episode, whether it be Cersei cursing Jaime for freeing him or Varys’ attempts to coerce the Imp into helping Daenarys Targaryen ascend to the throne. Readers of the books will recognise much of what happens and what it’s leading to.
To say that season 5 is the season where the show will split from the books is misleading. The show has often changed details for dramatic or visual purposes. An early change was that Robb Stark did not wed Jeyne Westerling, but instead falls for a woman named Talisa Maegyr. This is important because the Westerling family are Lords of The Crag in the Westerlands, making them sworn to the Warden of the West, Tywin Lannister. Thus Robb’s marriage to Jeyne is not just disrespectful to Walder Frey but is also a betrayal of the Westerlings against Tywin Lannister. By naming the girl Maegar, this aspect of the marriage was removed. Furthermore, Robb didn’t bring Jeyne to the Red Wedding so she actually survives whereas Talisa Maegar was killed.
Another change, though somewhat less major, was the encounter between the Hound and Brienne of Tarth. That fight, as awesome as it was, never happens in the novels. Brienne never came that close to finding Arya, with the Hound dying from a wound he received much earlier. Purists might reject the change but the scene was very enjoyable. The only problem is that a change like that has consequences. Arya refuses to go with Brienne, causing the latter to lament her efforts in the season 5 opener. Brienne is essentially directionless now. Perhaps she can go looking for Sansa but that will involve rewriting a lof material that does exist. Brienne’s story continues in the novels but much of it concerns her search of Arya and the Hound. That’s not really something she can do now that Arya she knows Arya doesn’t want her help.
So viewers haven’t had to wait five season to see original stories. Changes have been made here and there. Perhaps they mean wholly original and not scene or character changes. But even if that is true, there’s still plenty of material to work through. The only character whose story will really start to diverge this season is Bran’s. The crippled Stark boy was last seen, in both book and screen, beyond the wall, conversing with a greenseer. What’s next for him is entirely up to Benioff and Weiss.
That doesn’t mean, however, that this season will be similar to seasons past. From here onwards, there is a geographical shift out of Westeros. With Arya, Tyrion and Daenerys now all in Essos, there will be more stories to tell on the exotic, eastern continent. The culture is different there and the tone of the scenes set there reflects that. It’s much less dark ags, medieval fantasy and more intrigue and politics. Dany remarks that she’s a Queen, not a politician, but she might be on the wrong continent if that’s how she plans to rule.
Even back on Westeros, the story is becoming much less centralised to King’s Landing. This season will see focus turned on Dorne and the Iron Islands, both of which we’ve seen little of thus far. Neither appeared in the opener, but that’s a case of catching up with the old guard before introducing fresh blood. Basically, if you enjoyed the antics of Oberyn Martell last season, there is plenty more where that came from. Viewers with good long term memory (or those who recently rewatched season one) will also remember that Cersei’s daughter Myrcella was shipped off to Dorne to ensure the Martell’s support. In season five, Dorne is the place to be.
In many ways, “The Wars to Come” was the perfect name for the opening episode. It might not have been the most exciting or eventful premiere in the history of television but what it did was set up new storylines. Tywin Lannister’s death has caused a great shift in dynamic. Characters who were once loyal to each other, such as Jaime and Cersei are now at odds. It’s been building for a while but Tywin’s death was the final straw. Even as far out as The Wall, Stannis can be heard proclaiming that the Iron Throne will be his now that Tywin isn’t alive to hold the kingdom together.
“The Wars to Come” was a strong episode but it was a quiet strength. Some viewers might have found it dull but looking ahead to the second episode tonight, or the end of the season even, I suspect that this might be looked back upon as a necessary evil. The leak of the first four episodes didn’t hurt the premiere, which accumulated a record rating. But with an appetite whetting first episode, will audiences have been able to wait the whole week to watch Arya in “The House of Black and White” or have they succumb to online temptation? My guess? Game of Thrones is headed towards being the most illegally downloaded television programme for a fourth year running.