Season 5 of Game of Thrones has been tumultuous, to say the least. Much of the early and mid-season were rife with criticism and controversy while the most recent episodes, ‘Hardhome’ and ‘The Dance of Dragons’ have been argued to be the best episodes of the season, if not the series. I wouldn’t agree with the latter but there has been a noticeable rise in quality towards the end of the season. Much of the earlier season’s storylines were in flux, changing under the new interest and direction of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
The previous presumption that season 5 wouldn’t see much change storyline wise because there was still plenty of material to be adapted from A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons proved to be unfounded. Instead of waiting until they were completely out of material, Benioff and Weiss appear to have decided to cut their losses and already started making significant changes to storylines. Many fans were pleased because it means that readers of the novels could no longer lord their superior knowledge over the fans of the show. Whilst I agree that literary elitism is silly, because not all writing translates well visually and different people identify with different mediums, there is something to be said for storytelling and character development. Changes to the novels which add to story are good but many of the changes made by Benioff and Weiss have been nothing but gratuitous and superficial.
One of the biggest victims is Barristan Selmy. In the novels, Daenarys Targaryen disappears on the back of Drogon as seen in ‘The Dance of Dragons’ and Mereen is left in chaos. Selmy, still being alive at this point, names himself Hand of the Queen and sets about maintaining order both in and and around the city. For this, he becomes a POV character. Thus Barristan Selmy’s role is expanded and his personality explored. In season 5 of the show, as we see in ‘Sons of the Harpy’, Selmy is killed in a skirmish between the Unsullied and and the Sons of the Harpy. It appears that the role of tending for the city will fall to Tyrion Lannister and Jorah Mormont, because obviously they’re characters in most need of more screen time and character development.
It’s not even that I’m sad that Barristan Selmy is dead. I am, but he shouldn’t be. And not because the books say so but because in a straight up fight between the Sons of the Harpy and the Unsullied, the Sons of the Harpy should get slaughtered. Killing Unsullied soldiers through underhanded and shadowy means makes sense but the Unsullied were trained from childhood to fight and kill. The Sons of the Harpy are noble Ghiscari officers who previously commanded the Unsullied. That means they probably did very little fighting themselves and yet now we are to believe that they can kill an entire squadron of Unsullied Soldiers and a famous Knight? I’m all for change but it has to be logical within the confines of the world they’re writing in.
Similar unreasonable changes are made to Cersei Lannister. In the novels, Cersei reintroduces the faith militant in order to settle the crown’s debt with the Faith. In the show however, Cersei arms the Faith merely as a means to dealing with Margaery Tyrell. The watering down of Cersei’s reasoning means that her character appears very shortsighted. The character has never given much thought to consequence but she is known for her cunning and scheming. In the novel she’s killing two birds with one stone but here, she’s placing a lot of power in unreliable hands for little gain. It’s not like the crown’s debt isn’t mentioned in the show. It is but only in regards to the Iron Bank of Braavos. All would have taken is one line in order to give Cersei a more concrete reason for re-activiating the Faith Militant.
Part of the problem seems to stem, not from new stories, but rather cutting characters. Entire stories relating to the Iron Islands, the kingsmoot, Euron’s raids of the North, Asha’s capture by Stannis and reunion with Theon and Victarion’s voyage to Mereen are completely removed, replaced with depictions of Stannis immolating his daughter (who, for the record, never left Castle Black). Aegon Targaryen, a possible nephew of Daenarys, is also gone. Prince Doran’s other children, Quentyn and Arianne, are no where to be seen which means that Doran’s secret allegiance to the Targaryen’s is completely unsustainable. Arianne in particular is the one who replaced Oberyn on the Small Council in the books. It’s absurd that the show expects the teenaged Trystane to take that place instead.
Of course, we can’t talk about cut characters without talking about Jeyne Poole. A fairly minor character who is friends with Sansa Stark but is later named Arya and married to Ramsey Bolton. In the show, this actually is Sansa Stark, who is raped and humiliated. The rape itself is just degrading Sansa’s character after much character development in the first four seasons, and the choice to focus on Theon’s grief is a failure to recognise whose pain is greater. Ignoring how badly the rape scene is treated, it’s ridiculous for Sansa to even be there. Revealing Sansa’s real identity and marrying her to the Bolton’s puts her right in the middle of the war for the Seven Kingdoms. Petyr Baelish, who is obviously keeping Sansa close for something, would never have done that and never allowed Sansa to do it. He would keep to the sidelines, bidding his time and letting everyone else place their bets first. The rape is shock value but the reasons behind it are just as baffling.
This is really not a ‘the books are brilliant, they changed it and it sucks now’ rant. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m all for change. It just has to be meaningful change and the alterations we’ve seen in season 5 are anything but meaningful. Some of the episodes have been great and I’m really enjoying how Benioff and Weiss are handling the White Walker situation. But so much of the rest of the show is just frustrating when characters make such random decisions. My hope is that this season is Benioff and Weiss finding their footing in this new dynamic of not relying on the source material so much. Either way, whatever lies ahead is a mystery, to readers and viewers alike.