Game of Thrones — Season 5 is the Terminal Cancer of Narratives

written by Steve Kochems

Allow me to preface with a paragraph about me to ensure that all those who proceed with this article are clear on my background. I graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s of Art in Creative Writing and Cinema and Screen Studies. I received the Georgia Barnes Award in 2010 and was a finalist for the Hollywood Screenwriting Competition in 2012. In the last three years, I’ve taken a slight hiatus in that realm as I have a family now and a job that occupies much of my time, however I find myself always drawn to intriguing narratives, strong characters, and clever criticisms found in fiction that hold relevance in our world today.

For three seasons, the Game of Thrones television show was the pinnacle of a gravitating narrative filled with flawed but resolute characters who would inevitably clash. George RR Martin’s world was never about good vs. evil, but good vs. good, evil vs. evil, and all the grey in between. And HBO did this while covering an unadaptable series in only ten hours per 1,000 pages of book. In 2012, the show was recommended to me. I remember watching the first episode and while very little movement occurs, narratively speaking, the depth in which the characters were motivated hooked me. I flew through seasons 1 & 2 and had four months until season 3. Impatient as I was, I purchased all 5 of the novels and even though I knew the outcome of books 1 & 2, started at the beginning. Before season 3 was over, I had read all five books and confirmed what I had already known: this was a show worth watching. It was worth annually paying for HBO for these ten hours. Without any doubt.

(I shall now insert the complimentary spoiler warning for seasons 1-4 and books 1-3. The titular list will contain an additional warning.)

Game of Thrones

Season 4 came along and the divergence from the novels grew wider. While the natural process of adaptation was present in seasons 1-3, the adjustments could be easily explained and understood. For example, removing Barristan Selmy from the small council so you could emphasize the gap between Robert and his small council of Yes Men vs. Ned Stark as the lone voice of reason regarding assassinating a child was a necessity for the medium of film (and even more so television). In season 2, forcing Theon Greyjoy to decide between who he was and who the Iron Born demands be actually exceeds the scope of his story in the book. His brutal and botched execution of Roderick Cassel is one of the more troubling moments in the series, but anyone who’d watched up until that point knew why Theon did it and what it meant for his character going forward; He’d made his choice.

Now, I could write an entire article on why the finale in season 3 is patient zero for the calamity we now see before us, but I shan’t ramble too long. Season 4, the gap grew wider and became harder and harder to explain. It still contained what I’d argue are three of the five best scenes in the entire series, but like most cancers it is a slow process of turning your own body against you. Season 5 promised major deviations. Sansa had reached her end point of book 5 in the season 4 finale, as had Bran (who fortunately was benched this season). The show cut out huge chunks of an Iron Born storyline that even book readers may groan about (potentially punting to season 6) and very nearly cut the Dornish storyline as well. A prominent duo of characters by the name of Griff and Young Griff were also removed, despite the prospect of their inclusion resulting in significantly more screen time for the show’s lead, Peter Dinklage. But with four seasons of deviations in the bank and forty entertaining hours behind us, it would be unreasonable to not give the show the benefit of the doubt.

Alas, in a season full of perverse, shocking, and mind-boggling changes to a book series that is currently available to everyone, I find myself utterly bamboozled. The finale is yet to air, but generally if a chef undercooks my chicken, burns my pasta, and includes a turd in my salad, I don’t find much desire for dessert.

(Your final warning… Below contains spoilers for, well.. everything)

Lest I be labeled an unreasonable pessimist, allow me to first list the five best deviations from the book to this season:

Honorable Mentions:
Brothel Characters – Mother of Dragons
It’s a minor mention in an otherwise convoluted scene, but the idea that a prostitute would change her image to play another character on the show makes that individual all the more real. Imitation of Dany as a character by another character is not only clever, but an imitation of our world.

Sailing through Valyria
In one of the more beautifully shot sequences, Tyrion and Jorah’s banter against the backdrop of a ruined Valyria is one of the better translation of words to film.

Lieutenant Mace Tyrell, Police Squad
From his introduction, Mace Tyrell is everything the head of a noble house in Westeros should be, minus the ability to lie. This bumblefuck is played so well and convincing that it almost undermines the cleverness of every other Tyrell. It’s clear why that more than any other house is consider a matriarchy, because the men are either not interested in marriage to a woman, crippled, or oblivious.

Janos Slynt’s Execution
One of the great scenes in the book is added to by season 5. Having Slynt appeal to Jon’s greatest weakness adds drama to an already intense scene. And unlike Jon’s choice in season 3 to NOT kill the innocent farmer, he does what is necessary by finishing off Lord Janos.

The Departure of Mance
While I’ll miss the late King Beyond the Wall, the book narrative often felt cheap. If Mance had to go out, show Mance did it perfectly. And while the reason for which he was executed is flawed (more on this below), the character was put into circumstances and held his convictions over his life, something the character always swore he’d do if the time came.

Ramsay Bolton
Yes, below you will read his most dastardly act as one of the low points, however I consistently see show Ramsay with more depth and humanity than book Ramsay. His desire for acceptance and fear of his position within House Bolton, along with his anger as his only vessel through which to express that, creates a fully flawed, terrifyingly human character. Book Ramsay is seen as little more than a brutish psychopath, mainly because we only see him through the enslaved eyes of Reek and, unlike the show, were not present for how Ramsay broke Theon. His ability to turn charm on and off with menacing plans hidden behind big blue eyes makes show Ramsay far more interesting.

At number one on this list, Jon never goes to Hardhome in the book. Other issues come up and you hear only a few raven scrolls of detail regarding what may have happened. But giving Jon and Tormund a chance to fight the dead together let’s Jon prove himself to the wildlings, uncover something new about how to defeat the Walkers, and makes for a damn entertaining scene. It also makes use of it’s medium on a level the book likely could never attain (The Battle of Blackwater gave me the same feeling).

Got you feeling better about this season? Good, now here’s my five reasons Season 5 is the terminal cancer of Game of Thrones:

Dishonorable Mentions:
Jaqen Ha’gar – The Last Faceless Man
Unless the finale reveals that the man we’ve seen this season is another faceless man who’s taken the name and face of Jaqen (assuming these assassins allow rotations), you mean to tell me he left Arya at the end of season 2 and was just hanging out in Braavos? He just happens to open the door with another face (and body)? Alright clever fellow, then tell me why he was in Westeros and the black cells to begin with?

The Sand Snakes, by Michael Bay
Nipple breast plates. Hardened women who show tits and fight. Tell me 5 things about them as people. I’ll wait.

Barristan Selmy Bounced from the Club
The greatest fighter and most noble character in the book’s history is killed in an alley way by masked terrorists. I know Dany has a similar line about the way in which he died being less than he deserved, but be honest with us. Dany’s entourage in the book is like 7 or 8 people, which had been reasonably cut to 3 or 4 in the show, but if Selmy is around then there was no room to move Tyrion or Jorah in. Call it what it is, show Selmy is simply not as important of a character.

Sons of the Harpy – Please don’t take off our masks
Daario and Greyworm find one of them hiding earlier in the season, but all these dead men should provide some connection, right? Ask your new husband Hizdar if he knows them. Fuck lady, it’s better than evidence, these are the terrorists! Try to connect the dots or show us there is no logical connection!

The Major Players Major Failures
When did Varys decide Dany should be on the throne, before or after he followed King Robert’s order to have her assassinated?
How does Littlefinger know nothing of Ramsay Bolton? Didn’t he just have the flayed bodies of two Northern lords hanging up in Winterfell?
Like Dany’s investigation into who leads the Sons of the Harpy, the audience shouldn’t be screaming options at the television when characters act so foolishly.

Lannister Love – Not Enough Crossbows
Once again, patient zero of the show’s cancer is episode 30. Jaime and Brienne need an arc, so they return to King’s Landing and Jaime learns things have changed. In the book, Jaime returns right after Joffrey is poisoned and Cersei gives herself to him right there (it’s not a rape scene in the book). Also, Jaime is the POV and he sees, along with the reader, all the reasons Cersei is awful that he never saw before. This, along with the influence of Brienne, pushes him to leave so he can help end the war peacefully.

Now, I actually don’t mind Jaime going to Dorne as it’s a nice way to introduce the Dornish and keep a staple character active. And it’s also true that the Dornish storyline is a relatively isolated one for the majority of book 4. Bringing Bronn is a huge plus, too. But season 5 lays out a convoluted redemption arc for Jaime from the guilt he feels toward what happened to Tywin and never being a father to his bastard children. Plus, if he had a royal decree to return Myrcella to King’s Landing, why not just walk in with it?

There are larger issues that land with Cersei’s decisions but I’ll give the show it’s due and agree they explain these away. The real issue will be going forward with Jaime and Cersei’s relationship. There is a pivotal moment in book 5 that I shan’t spoil should it be recycled into season 6, but it’s liberating moment for Jaime. And we’ll never be able to truly believe that moment when/if it happens because Jaime is the rejected lover, not Cersei.

A Journey to Essos – A long drive for someone with no where to be
Speaking of Lannister’s, most will agree that any storyline adding Tyrion Lannister will be better for it. He’s a dynamic character, a witty underdog in a world of brutish violence. And while his arc for book 3 / season 4 arc was diminished, it’s his season 5 arc that is truly lacking. Just to recap, he departs Westeros in a box with Varys and arrives in Pentos at the palace of Illyrio Mopitas (no picture available). Varys lays out his plan to put someone worthy of it on the Iron Throne.

I’ll just briefly mention two things from the book. First, Tyrion arrives in Pentos and speaks with Illyio Mopatis (the man who arranged Dany’s marriage in season 1), who reveals a good deal of what is considered the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy. Varys vanishes after book 3 for some time. Second, Illyrio sends Tyrion with Griff to Volantis. This makes Tyrion’s abduction by Jorah Mormont important because his destination changes. He’s not just gone from advisor to prisoner, but he makes a conscious choice to no longer be a pawn in the Game of Thrones.

In the end Tyrion makes it to Mereen anyway with minimal struggles and will help Jorah fill the void left by killing Barristan Selmy. So instead of having a conflicted, noble knight having to sort out the mess left behind in Mereen, it’ll be a pragmatic dwarf, a sellsword, and an old bear with greyscale on his hand. All men with nothing to lose and minimal reputation to uphold, which restricts the conflict to how to beat the Sons of the Harpy instead of at what cost will you defeat them. Now I ask you, which is more intriguing?

The Curious Case of Doran Martell
As I mentioned before, they nearly didn’t include the Dornish storyline. Instead, they severed it with character cuts (two of Doran’s children) and backfilled with Jaime and Bronn to help bridge the gap. In hindsight, I’m not sure which I would’ve preferred, to be honest. The Dornish storyline from start to finish has been a complete mess. Can anyone tell me what we’ve learned from it?

Dorne (or Sunspear, as that’s the name of the capital city despite what the opening credits would have you believe) seemingly has no guards except for Areo Hotah and his two dozen men. There are people in the city who cry out for vengeance and war, yet we never see them. Ellaria Sand demands vengeance for Oberyn’s death and means to dismember Myrcella despite knowing Oberyn’s view on innocent girls. And has anyone come up with five details about the Sand Snakes as people yet? Hell, how many of you know their names?

But the biggest disappointment (thus far) in Dorne has been the head of House Martell. Since his other two children aren’t part of the show, I’ll stick to the narrative presented in Season 5. In episode 9, Doran decides to let Jaime go and take Myrcella back to King’s Landing because King Tommen demands it. Additionally, he sends her betrothed, his only son Trystane, to King’s Landing with them to take Oberyn’s seat on the small council. In the Stark/Lannister conflict, a major part of the leverage was Robb held Jaime and Cersei held Sansa. Neither wanted to see their family killed.

For Doran to not only give up his leverage and insurance over House Lannister, but include his only son and heir leaves me baffled beyond words. Maybe he could send Areo Hotah, his trusted advisor? Or now that Ellaria has dropped her vendetta, maybe her or one of her daughters would be a sufficient replacement? In either choice, Cersei gains little leverage over House Martell. What qualifies Trystane to represent the interests of Dorne? Dr. Bashir is pretty loose and is taking a high risk / low reward choice with his son’s life, something his character is very cautious about when it comes to the lives of other children. If only he had some plan, like a grand conspiracy or something.

The Narrative Fighting Pits:  Violence as Fireworks
One of the most unique elements of Game of Thrones has always been it’s willingness, or even eagerness, to use graphic violence and sexuality within the narrative. It’s a vessel through which they move plot or character. A simple example is Theon’s castration and torture. His character is dramatically different as a result. Dany is “married” to Khal Drogo in the pilot episode and Drogo “consummates” the marriage. From this, Dany learns if she wants to be more than a pawn she needs to gain some control over her husband. She does this by starting in the bedroom. There is character movement either initiated by or as a result of the violence.

Another important example of this is Joffrey’s violence toward Sansa in season 2. It’s difficult to watch and reprehensible, but what do we as an audience gain from viewing it? Well, Sansa, like Theon to some extent in season 3, has her preconceived notions of chivalry shattered. It’s no mistake that her two greatest allies in King’s Landing are Sandor Clegane and Tyrion Lannister, neither of which are knights, while Meryn Trant and Mandon Moore beat her in public. It’s a criticism on traditional stories of knights and princesses while also developing Sansa, the Hound, and Tyrion as characters (as well as Joffrey to some degree, though he learned little in 32 episodes).

In episode 6 we endure Ramsay “consummating” his marriage to Sansa. Sansa learns she’s married a monster, something she feared would be the case. She also learns Theon is a complete thrall to Ramsay. She realizes she’s in a very dangerous and vulnerable position now, something her previous screen time in season 5 had been spent discussing (mainly about not being a bystander). Theon learns Ramsay is a monster, which he knew. And Ramsay continues to be Ramsay. What have we as an audience learned? It’s an awful scene that is difficult to watch, but for what reason?

What do we learn by seeing the Sand Snakes execute a helpless merchant, who by the way, helps them? What do we learn from Sam protecting Gilly from his brother’s who want to rape her? While not specifically violent, how much does the plot progress with the two minutes spent in the Dornish dungeons between Bronn and the Sand Snakes? I know: blood and tits. Is that why you watch the show? Violence and sexuality without plot or character progression is little more than fireworks or masturbation.

This is exactly, and ironically, what Dany opposes about the fighting pits. To have it so embedded into a storyline yet be disregarded by the show runners would be ironic if the violence portrayed wasn’t so horrible. And to be fair this isn’t really a narrative cancer that cannot be repaired, it’s actually more sinister considering these are show created scenes. If this is the mode through which they carry the show forward, without a thorough blueprint available, season 6 and beyond will be more of the same.

Stannis the Fanatic
Number one here would be how Stannis Baratheon embodies the ethical gray area. His rigidity and strict adherence to the law is something he’s violated once in his life, when he chose Robert over the rightful, yet mad king. He burns his brother by law for refusing an order. He uses Melisandre’s magic to murder his brother Renly Baratheon, as he illegally proclaimed himself king over Stannis. And he smashed Mance Rayder at the Wall to protect the realm he’d fought so hard to rule.

His drive toward the throne, unlike Renly’s, was not out of a desire to rule but what he felt was his obligation. He tells Ser Davos in season 3 that he never asked to be king, but his nature is as such that he cannot step aside from what he feels is his duty. He feels so strongly about this that despite Tyrion’s wildfire burning most of his fleet, he continues his assault on King’s Landing. He rides to save the wall from forces that far outnumber him (and even more so in the book: the show has him down 10-1, book is more like 250-1). And later, as the show eventually came around to, he trudges through the snows on to Winterfell, where is he again outnumbered. All things he’s done are driven by him fulfilling his duty as King, which includes preparing for the invading White Walkers, but are done within the confines of the law.

However, in season 5, Stannis Baratheon starts by coercing Jon Snow to convince the King-Beyond-The-Wall to bend the knee and join his army. When Mance refuses, Stannis will execute him by immolation. It’s well within his right as king to execute someone, but in the domain of the Nights Watch there are few justifications to warrant it. One that is universal to the Watch and Westeros is deserters of the Watch are executed. This is never brought up in season 5 as justification for executing Mance Rayder and in its place Stannis attempts to coerce a member of the Watch to do his bidding, therefore potentially violating the oath of the Watch.

While I understand the slow burning plot of the books would never fully translate to the show, having him quickly move from Castle Black out into terrain he knows little of with a foreign army seems tactically foolish. Book Stannis brings plans before Jon Snow, putting Jon in a position to consider his own oath, to discuss with someone from the land how best to liberate it from the remaining Greyjoy invaders and the treacherous Bolton’s. This builds conflict for Jon internally and shows Stannis’s strategic expertise. He ends up outside Winterfell at the end of book 5 with little more than a skeleton force and a plan. He has no magic (Mel is at Castle Black), he has little more than his will and wits. That’s Stannis fucking Baratheon.

Instead in episode 59, Stannis decides he must burn his daughter to appease Melisandre’s god to melt the snows so they can move forward to Winterfell. I understand the common laws of Westeros would not result in Shireen as his official heir, but she is all he has in terms of an heir. I understand that whoever rules over the dead matters little, but Stannis isn’t so foolish to disregard that part of conquest includes marriage and alliances. It’s cutting off your nose to spite your own face. It also asserts that over the past four episodes he’s gone from a touching reveal of himself as a father (as emotional as you’ll ever see him) to spurning Melisandre for even suggesting such an idea, to accepting it because Ramsay burned much of his supplies and logistics. Remember, this is the same man who held Storms End under siege for months with no hope in sight. He made book fucking soup for his family to live on! And this guy feels these snows put his army under such distress that he needs to burn his daughter alive?

This is the fundamental issue with this season. There are plot points HBO knows they need to hit for the show to continue on George RR Martin’s trajectory, however they haven’t spent the time to correctly develop the characters intentions. It’s not the “what” that I take issue with, it’s the “why” and the why is everything in fiction. What good is Brody’s need to kill the shark in Jaws without seeing the carnage it’s causes first? In A New Hope, what reason does Luke Skywalker really have to take on the Empire if they hadn’t murdered his family? No matter how interesting a story, without character motivation made clear it’s only as good as fireworks.

By the Monday morning, they will have exhausted 98% of Martin’s available text. And while they know the general outline of how he’ll proceed in books 6 and 7, HBO is proving to have inept writers without a thorough outline from Martin’s hand. But, the show will remain a smash hit and rake in millions. We’ll remain in denial about it’s quality because of it’s past success and continued attempts to reassure us it is the same quality it always was with violence and sexuality while lacking the narrative structure atop which it’s built. Like a crumbling home or cancerous body, we won’t know the extent of the illness until it’s too late.

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2 Responses to Game of Thrones — Season 5 is the Terminal Cancer of Narratives

  1. Kath says:

    Wonderful article

  2. Pingback: Game of Thrones – Season 5: A Finale Review | Radpocalypse

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