[WARNING: contains spoilers for all seasons of Game of Thrones and all volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, including The Winds of Winter]
The story set in Winterfell in Season 5 was always going to be tough to crack. It’s one of, if not the best parts of A Dance With Dragons but it is largely un-adaptable due to the large cast of characters, extravagant plotting and meticulously-arranged storytelling. Rather than try and adapt it, D&D instead rewrote almost the entire story with only a passing resemblance to the original arc. For purposes of the word count I’m gonna leave out the ‘What Happened?’ segment this time around, so let’s get cracking.
Performances are always a highlight on Game of Thrones. Sophie Turner did well with what she had to work with and showcased a newfound independence to Sansa, showing that she can play both a timid young girl and a pragmatic, strong woman. Michael McElhatton was chilling as always as Roose Bolton, and Iwan Rheon was just as sadistic and hatable as ever as Ramsay. Gwendoline Christie pulled in a range of emotions to Brienne; we pitied her in her failures and admired her conviction. Stephen Dillane shined in possibly his best season yet, where he finally got to embrace the true Stannis – for a time – and show some warmth to the character. Liam Cunningham and Carice van Houten were also very good as always. However, the true standout was Alfie Allen was Theon/Reek, who in some ways has the most difficult job on the show. Make no mistake: the transformation from Reek to Theon in A Dance With Dragons was beautiful and challenging to read, and Theon is George R.R. Martin’s masterpiece. However, much of that is internal monologue which you can’t really adapt well for television, and as the nature of the character means he doesn’t speak an awful lot, we have to rely on his facial expressions and movement to understand how he’s feeling. Allen does incredibly well with what he has and it’s a massive shame that he doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition he deserves.
This is a difficult section to write, because the North storyline was filled with things which worked for some of the season and then didn’t for the rest, or things which are good ideas that were only occasionally well executed. An example of that would be the decision to have Sansa Stark marry Ramsay. On paper, it works. The outrage against her rape was catastrophic; imagine if instead of it being a well-known character, the writers introduced a new female character who spent the season being physically, mentally and sexually abused by Ramsay, only to be rescued by the male lead at the end of the season to serve his redemption arc.
That isn’t a knock against Theon’s book story – if you don’t know, Ramsay marries “Arya Stark” (aka Sansa’s childhood friend Jeyne Poole) in the novels rather than an actual Stark. It works there because we know Jeyne from A Game of Thrones and already have an emotional connection to her. Because she wasn’t in the first season aside from a background cameo D&D couldn’t do the same; Sansa was really their only option. With a few little tweaks her storyline this season could have been great, but I stand by the decision to send her to Winterfell because it could work.
Obviously, Sansa’s rape drew a huge backlash from fans everywhere because by-and-large, it was unnecessary (more on that later). What drew even more anger was the fact that this didn’t seem to affect her whatsoever and she continued on her “independence” arc, however I would argue that this actually makes some sense. Now, I’m a young white male – I’m not going to pretend that I know anything about what it must be like to be a rape victim, so my points come from my knowledge of her character. She has grown up in some pretty fucked up situations, having to deal with Joffrey for years. She was a victim of abuse, but she’s a Stark. I would say it was her marriage to Tyrion and relationship with the Hound that made her realise how badly she was treated, but rather than further her idealistic world view it completely shattered it, giving her some pragmatism. She isn’t going to let herself become a victim again and knows that she needs to get the fuck out of Winterfell, regardless of whether she’s being raped or not. We also know that she does lash back at people if they treat her badly sometimes; she dropped a snide remark at Joffrey more than once. Now that she’s in the North and away from King’s Landing that whole retaliation side of her blows up, especially when she’s treated like shit.
With Tywin gone and the Lannisters pretty much deserted, the show needed some new chief villains and it makes sense to have the Boltons fulfil those roles. Y’know, they were actually pretty good (aside from Ramsay’s plot armour) this year with my favourite scenes being the family dynamics in Kill the Boy. We don’t get Roose’s “don’t make me rue the day I raped your mother” line but what we got instead was so close to the mark it didn’t really matter; that and the interactions between the family members at the dinner table help to give viewers an insight into their warped mindsets, but it also makes them feel incredibly isolated, which I suppose was director Jeremy Podwesa’s intention. Ramsay at least is a fucking psychopath, but in the three years he’s been on the show all we really saw of him was just that – a crazy, evil psycho. It hasn’t been until now that viewers were able to understand just why he turned out the way he did. D&D unfortunately didn’t elaborate too much on it, deciding not to go into the whole killing-Roose’s-son-backstory, but I think what we got was good enough to have a grasp on him.
Visually and directing-wise, the Northern scenes have always been stunning. Podwesa may not be the best action director however Sansa’s wedding was beautiful to watch, with the mood lighting in the godswood and the framing certainly setting the tone. That goes the same for the “consummation” scene, too. No doubt difficult to watch but that was all down to the way it was filmed and lit; dark yet hazily orange, reflecting this sense of hope slowly slipping away. The decision to direct our attention to Reek was also smart; not only does it save us from having to endure Ramsay forcing himself on Sansa but it cements the idea that it isn’t just punishment for her but also punishment for him (well, she got the worse deal). He sees first-hand another person going through what he went through and while he can’t help immediately it certainly propels him to do so. The problem with that is it just goes back to how it was in the books which can’t work on the TV sho- no! This is the ‘good’ section!
As much as I hate to admit it, Shireen’s burning was done well. I mean, the decision to do so was ridiculous – I’ll get to that in a bit – but it was definitely challenging to watch. You got the sense that Stannis believed he needed to do this for the greater good and you wanted nothing more than for Selyse to punch the fuck out of Melisandre and take her daughter down from the pyre. It was just an overall horrific scene – the worst since Theon’s torture and the Red Wedding.
I don’t like bitching about Game of Thrones. Sure, it may seem like it, because I’m a book reader and Season 5 had a lot of crap (I haven’t exactly been kind to it in these editorials) but I would much prefer it if I could pile praise on the show – I just can’t.
Adapting the Northern storyline from A Dance With Dragons was always going to be a difficult job. It requires an intricate level of planning and ropes in characters from stories at the Wall and the Iron Islands, as well as featuring an immense cast of new characters. Rather than try to condense it, what we got on the show was almost entirely new, and it unfortunately didn’t work.
Sansa in Winterfell is both a good and bad quality because it’s a good idea and it can work but it is executed poorly. It was a great opportunity to grow her as a character, and while she did the development wasn’t natural; it was the evolution we expected given the plot and where we know she is headed but it didn’t feel natural because of the events. She is told by Littlefinger that this is the way to get revenge against the Boltons and destroy them from the inside, but she does none of that. Instead she is isolated for the majority of the season and if it weren’t for Sophie Turner’s assertive performance then it wouldn’t feel like the character had any control or power. With my examination of why it made sense for Sansa to act the way she did after her rape, it’s all stuff that I can infer and guess because I know everything about this story back-to-front. To the majority of show watchers, they’re going to be confused as to why a character who has been repeatedly raped and abused by her sadistic husband is going to assert herself and fight back against him – especially because that’s largely been her role in the show so far. It’s important not to beat audiences over the head with this stuff but at the same time we need to be able to follow the motivations.
However, the worst part about Sansa in Winterfell is it completely pushes Theon to the sidelines. This is his story. His big redemption arc. It’s through him that we see the Boltons’ slow demise (in the books, anyway). By introducing a much larger character to the story and making her a focal point, Theon’s importance immediately drops and the plot isn’t his anymore. I’ve said that he is GRRM’s masterpiece and it’s a fucking tragedy that that doesn’t quite hold up on Game of Thrones. If D&D tried then the characters could have been equals this year, but instead he got a half-assed redemption and little attention aside from when it involved Sansa. All they needed to do was throw in his godswood scene and it would have been a million times better, but I can’t think of one good reason for why we wouldn’t get that. I recognise the difficulty of adapting his character because of the amount of internal monologue but it made his ultimate Return of the Jedi-esque killing of Myranda feel cheap and unwarranted.
Brienne… well, Brienne really didn’t go anywhere for much of the season. She was on two missions; 1) get Sansa, 2) kill Stannis. However, given where her character is at this point in the story it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense for her to suddenly have a desire to kill him. She made the decision to focus on honour and duty in going after Sansa but suddenly she wants to kill Stannis again, something motivated entirely by personal vengeance. In the end this stops her from actually carrying out what she was supposed to do. I wouldn’t have minded if this sub-plot came into play later in the season once she realises that she’s going to cross paths with him so she could then actually display some conflict about which path to take rather than setting it up right at the beginning of the season. It remains to be seen whether her actions will have any repercussions further than their escape but it should do so as to further her character.
Fans had speculated for a long time what the show was gonna do with Brienne, since her book-story was all but thrown out the window at the end of last season and she doesn’t have an awful lot to do. Once she arrived outside Winterfell her plot just stagnated. She literally did nothing for half the season. There must have been a way to get her more action and make the overall plot a lot more exciting; it started out with tons of promise and then it just turned dry (the whole Winterfell arc, that is).
Also – “we’ll go around Moat Cailin”. Seriously?
Like I said, the Boltons’ transition to chief villains this year was a good idea; they’re recognisable and perhaps more villainous than the Lannisters were. However, they missed a grand opportunity with these characters and this storyline – make them fallible.
In the books, there is a sense of impending doom around Winterfell as Stannis closes in and tensions rise between the Boltons and the rest of the North from within the castle walls. In the show, there isn’t any of that. There’s the odd mention of Stannis’ attack and Winterfell is pretty much empty. Sure, this could convey “Sansa’s emotions” and “the state of the North” etc but it just pales in comparison to how GRRM did it. Because the castle is severely lacking in the northern lords department there’s nobody save Sansa to challenge Roose and Ramsay and she doesn’t do an awful lot of that. We’re left with the impression that the rest of the North is perfectly happy with Bolton rule, an impression which makes no sense whatsoever. It’s as if we’re supposed to get that Roose murdered Robb Stark at the Red Wedding, how he helped to bring his entire family down and how Ramsay spent an entire season torturing and abusing Theon Greyjoy. Yes, they couldn’t afford to wholely adapt the plot but considering the amount of money they probably blew on the dragons, they would have most likely been able to pay for at least one guy who could be Wyman Manderly.
Ha-ha! Book references!
Not only does this cheapen the story but it makes the show more depressing. Nobody wants to watch a show where the bad guys always win; a show with no sense of hope or optimism, which is what Game of Thrones feels like now. This is not a story about evil triumping over good – it’s about realism, which is what D&D don’t seem to understand. In the books this season adapted there are multiple different running plotlines which give readers hope that the guys who have cheated, bullied and schemed their way to the top will get their due comeupance. The Brotherhood Without Banners are hanging Freys, Stannis is closing in to kill the Boltons, the Starks are gonna be re-instated, Cersei is facing justice for her crimes – I would argue that these last two books are the most optimistic in the entire series, yet Season 5 managed to be the most depressing. The Brotherhood got cut, Stannis was ruined, only two of the Stark children appeared and Cersei’s downfall was the only one adapted properly (although it was hard not to feel some sympathy during her walk). For reasons motivated by advancing the plot, Ramsay has fended off a group of savage Ironborn soldiers whilst flailing some knives around shirtless, completely destroyed Stannis’ camp with his twenty good fucking men (even though Ramsay has never been in any military situation before and would most likely get caught and killed instantly, not manage to burn the food stores and a dozen tents all at once) and slaughtered his army outside Winterfell. This is no longer a show which prides itself on its realistic storytelling – it’s all about letting the bad guys win even if the means is nonsensical.
That leads me to the big one. The plot point I’ve been both and excited and filled with dread to write about. You of course know who I’m talking about.
D&D don’t like Stannis. While they haven’t explicitly stated it, it’s so evident from the show itself and their comments on him that they don’t need to.
The point about not caring for the Westerosi people is fairly invalid.
“Yes, I should have come sooner. If not for my hand, I might not have come at all. Lord Seaworth is a man of humble birth, but he reminded me of my duty, when all I could think of was my rights. I had the cart before the horse, Davos said. I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne.”
That’s a quote from after Stannis decides to head north to help the Night’s Watch. It is literally there in writing that his new plan is to win over Westeros so that he can sit the Iron Throne and that’s the character who D&D were supposed to start adapting in Season 3. There are so many quotes from him and others which directly contradict their beliefs that it’s hard to justify their treatment of Stannis. Is he perfect? No. He involuntarily (which they also forgot about) helped to kill Renly (they bitch about that but Renly would have killed him anyway) and become a kinslayer and he’s burned so many people alive on Dragonstone, but that doesn’t make him evil (“a good act…”). After the Battle of Blackwater Bay he becomes incredibly reclusive and dependent on Melisandre, but once they arrive at the Wall he starts to get his groove back and become a kinder person I think. We see this shine through on the march to Winterfell regarding Shireen.
“It may be that we shall lose this battle,” the king said grimly. “In Braavos you may hear that I am dead. It may even be true. You shall find my sellswords nonetheless.” The knight hesitated. “Your Grace, if you are dead — “
” — you will avenge my death, and seat my daughter on the Iron Throne. Or die in the attempt.”
This comes from Theon I in The Winds of Winter, where Stannis instructs Ser Justin Massey to hire sellswords in Braavos. If this isn’t proof that he’s not just doing it for himself or for Westeros, but for Shireen, then I don’t know what is.
That is why it made literally no sense for Stannis to agree and go through with the decision to burn her alive – for the sake of a fucking snowstorm. It doesn’t even make sense from D&D’s show-Stannis, as just two episodes prior he made it very clear that there would be no burnings of princesses under any circumstances. In Sons of the Harpy he delivered a rousing speech to her about how she is his daughter and he loves her, showcasing more emotion and true character than he had done in all his appearances put together. This is the man who held Storm’s End for an entire year and resorted to eating rats and didn’t break, yet here he broke as soon as he was hit with a bit of snow.
Their justification of his decision was broken down into two parts: A) D&D believe that Stannis will do anything for what he believes is right/just/whatever, and B) because it happens in the books. Both points are just as aggravating but it’s that second one which really gets me. When book readers watched The Dance of Dragons we weren’t pissed because Shireen was burned because we had guessed that it would happen in the books anyway. No, we were pissed because it was Stannis who did the deed. For those of you who don’t know, in the books Selyse, Melisandre and Shireen are left behind at the Wall rather than going to Winterfell. The Red Priestess is interested in Jon Snow there too, so the fan theory is that she’ll sacrifice Shireen in order to resurrect Jon. This is a scenario which does make a lot of sense, because she’s shown many times before that she won’t stop at anything to serve R’hllor, plus Shireen always seemed like a goner. It raises some interesting implications because it results in Jon Snow being back – yay! – but it leaves Stannis as the only surviving Baratheon heir and would destroy him, as well as affect Jon because he’ll see what price had to be paid for him to come back.
After Season 4 ended, it felt like (from both the show and interviews) that the next few seasons would simply be hitting targets. Characters were cut, edited, moved around, and that extended to events as well. D&D know that Shireen will be burned in the books but it won’t be at Stannis’ hand – that’s incredibly unlikely both character-wise and logistically – and they want to hit that destination sooner. Because they dislike and misunderstand Stannis, the motivations behind the event change so the blame falls to him, which then changes the whole event. They cannot see the sense of morality, justice and honour that he does possess, so in their mind he would totally burn Shireen alive. They are of course entitled to their opinions however their job is to adapt the books, not take characters from the books and write them how they wish. Not everything is going to be adapted perfectly as that is the nature of an adaptation but that really only extends to plot and event limitations, not character growth.
Stannis decided to burn Shireen because D&D wanted to throw in some shock factor for episode 9 and they needed something which could serve as a way to get rid of Stannis and that whole plotline in one swoop, and they sure as hell did it.
I think the worst part about all of this was how much promise Stannis had at the beginning. Right up until the end he actually felt like the character we know and love; he was firm, just, caring and badass (“Fewer”). Even last year at Comic-Con D&D were saying how they would start to make use of Stephen Dillane and the character, which now sems like some sort of cruel joke. I like to think I’m not one of those crazy fans who proclaim that D&D are embodiments of the Antichrist and purposefully want to fuck up this show but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made a lot of stupid decisions this time around.
WHAT I WOULD HAVE DONE
Much like last time, I’m not going to do a thorough outline of the plot but rather make several suggestions and points. First off, Sansa in Winterfell – again. Early in the season there needs to be a conversation between Sansa and Littlefinger about Ramsay (and yes – of course he knows what Ramsay is like) where SANSA says she knows she will have to “please him”. It’s important that this happens – and that it comes from her – because this establishes how she knows exactly what she’s getting herself into but is going to brave it anyway, which sets a remarkable change from where she was a few years ago. This is basically Sansa saying “yeah, I’m going to go marry another Joffrey, but this time he’s way worse.” She’s accepting that she has to put herself through harm for the greater good.
But if Littlefinger knows what Ramsay is like then why is he sending his most valuable asset to him? Because he also knows that if he harms her, he’s fucked.
To further show her agency, she needs to be able to hold her own against him – not just Myranda. We need to see her conspiring within the walls of Winterfell and gaining the favour of the smallfolk; Ned was loved by his people and you certainly can’t say that for Roose. Have scenes where Sansa is talking with them, eating with them, laughing with them; she may be growing more pragmatic as a character however I like to believe that there’s still kindness in her heart. Through this we establish that she can win people’s loyalty which is an important trait in leadership, she pisses off Ramsay because they like her more than him and they’re being turned against he and Roose. Make the people realise how much better it is when the Starks are running things. Moreover, she needs to establish control over Ramsay – particularly in the bedroom department.
Rather than being pushed down, having her clothing torn off and raped, Sansa should be the one in charge. Ramsay should try to rape her because that’s completely in his character, but she needs to stop and seduce him instead, like Daenerys and Khal Drogo way back in Season 1. After this, there needs to be little signs from him to show that he’s ever so slightly feeling her control (and then taking it out on Reek). This then furthers his arc because he can see she is in the same position as him but has gotten herself out of it, which will in turn inspire him to remember his name. In the books, Jeyne is a damsel in distress waiting to be resuced by Theon; that doesn’t work at all for Sansa on Game of Thrones, so you need to figure out a way to rework the story but get to the same destination and have it make sense. We would actually see Theon learning from Sansa which can then develop into some kind of mutual respect, all leading up to ‘the jump’. Sansa is now no longer a damsel but instead an inspiring heroine, and Theon grows from believing that he could accomplish things that he had no chance of into learning to accept help from other people and become more humble.
With just a few small adjustments, we have:
- Furthered Sansa so that she is willing to put herself into sticky situations
- Provided a way to both develop her character and sow the seeds for the Bolton’s slow demise (befriending the smallfolk)
- Given a real reason for Reek to turn back into Theon which ties into where his character was originally and move him forward from that, rather than giving everything to Sansa and having Reek tag along
- Given Sansa some on-screen agency against Ramsay
Sticking with the Winterfell theme, let’s address the “empty” concern. All of the Northern lords and everything to do with them was cut. We know they will be appearing in Season 6, however it works much better if its in Season 5 because it gels with Sansa’s arrival and her arc. In the books, the main Northern figurehead is Wyman Manderly, giving his famous “the North Remembers” speech. As much as I would love to see him on screen, it works better for audiences if a character like that is someone who they know and recognise. I propose Greatjon Umber; admittedly he was last seen in Season 1, however he made such a big impact that viewers would probably remember him if he showed up. He’s loud, brash and entertaining which can lead to some exciting comic relief and “fuck yeah” moments, and the Umbers are mentioned frequently on the show so it wouldn’t be coming out of nowhere. It’s also been two years since the Red Wedding; come on, people want to see some justice served.
Just one lord and a bunch of extras would have done the trick. It gives Sansa somebody else to talk to, a character whom audiences can root for against the Boltons and cements the fact that the rest of the North is not happy with how things are going. That’s what Season 5 desperately needed, but instead everything was hunky-dory and the grand “North Remembers” speech was given to a random old lady. It was literally the definition of disappointment.
Oh, and keep the Freys at Winterfell because we all want to hate on some more Freys.
One thing to note in Season 5 is the amount of mirroring between storylines. Three major characters become rulers in their own right – Jon, Daenerys and Cersei – and two of those queens have to deal with political insurgent groups that risk jeapordizing their cities – the Sons of the Harpy and the Faith Militiant. Why not throw Winterfell in there, too? In the books there is an ongoing ‘Hooded Man’ storyline, wherein murders take place inside the castle by a mysterious figure. Some fans theorize that this is Theon himself in some kind of Tyler Durden-twist while others think it’s Benjen Stark. It has this murder mystery feel to it which is something the show has never really explored before and would be a great way to illustrate the growing tensions within Winterfell, as House blames House and in-fighting breaks out.
In case you didn’t already gather from the rest of this article, I didn’t like the majority of Stannis’ storyline this season. While there was certainly a sense of hopelessness, rather than remind the audience that this guy is supposed to be the North’s only hope the show just makes people hate him. Throw in some scenes with Davos where they talk about how Westeros needs to be saved, the nature of honour and duty etc etc so that you actually feel for these characters and root for them. Also, leave Selyse, Shireen and Melisandre back at the Wall – because no logical-minded person would bring their wife and heir into a warzone, right??!?!
Mel is a little fishier since the last time he went to battle and she wasn’t with him, he lost. In the books she stays behind because he doesn’t want her pissing off the Northerners in his army which makes sense, but to show Stannis’ development he should leave her behind because he’s, as I said, getting his groove back and don’t need no Red Priestess.
Sansa and Theon should make their jump earlier – around the eighth episode or so – which would prompt Ramsay to go out looking for them. This is also timed with Stannis’ impending arrival, so you can keep the whole “twenty good men” idea but change it to the size of a small army. He and Roose know that they will likely be headed for Stannis, so he can kill two birds with one stone; slaughter the army and capture his wife and his Reek back. This mirrors the plot at the end of A Dance With Dragons which has Frey and Manderly forces going out to attack Stannis. In this version it can be Boltons/Umbers (and sure – the Freys too) and then the Umbers can plan to turncloak and kill the Boltons so they can all march on Winterfell together. BUT – where does Brienne fit into all of this?
I like the idea that she would be forced to choose between protecting Sansa and killing Stannis, so she should be presented with that dilemma by stumbling upon his camp. This could be in the midst of battle where she accidentally bumps into the Mannis and acts on impulse, killing him. This basically fucks everything up. Now there’s Baratheons, Umbers and Boltons along with Sansa, Theon, Brienne and Podrick all about a day’s ride from Winterfell in one hot mess. Do the Umbers still turncloak and take on Roose and Ramsay themselves? Does Ramsay live? Does Davos take charge of the army? Will Brienne make a quick getaway with Sansa and Theon? Tons of different story possibilities that could arise from a situation like this.
In the previous edition, I noted that there should have been some form of the Pink Letter involved in the show, but this time written by Sansa. Before Ramsay heads off with his “twenty good men,” there should be an exchange between the characters where he reveals that once he’s done with Stannis, he’s going after the Night’s Watch because of their “treason” in helping him. This prompts her to write a letter to Jon (because Ramsay will boast about how he’s going to kill her bastard brother or whatever) warning him, and then he can be all like “we’re off to Winterfell boys!” This makes Sansa indirectly responsible for Jon’s murder and links the two storylines in a key way. Plus, if Ramsay ends up dead from the battle then it would have all been for nothing.
Season 5 ended with all of the blame on Stannis and every other related character getting off free. My version would have seen Stannis as a tragic hero and Brienne and Sansa indirectly causing shit. That probably seems like favouritism on my part however in order to keep the story interesting then characters need to do things which move the plot along but also encourage discussion, rather than making everything very black and white.
And thus, another edition of this series comes to a close. The Northern storyline started off with great promise but then everything kinda went downhill extremely quickly, which is just a bummer. When you’re a creative you can get burned out real quickly, especially when writing and producing something like Game of Thrones year-in-year-out. It would take a huge mental toll, and speaking from experience from just working on my own smaller projects you can start to lose the plot on what works for a story and what doesn’t. D&D are not crazy megalomaniacs who want to sabotage their own product, and even though they hate Stannis they will have believed in the choices they made. Perhaps in hindsight they would have done some things differently but we’ll never know. I hope that they manage to, as has been said repeatedly here, ‘get their groove back’ and take things a little slower now that they’ve been given eight seasons rather than seven. Lord knows this show needs it.
Next time (whenever that will be), I’ll be taking a look at a particular city – and entire region, actually – which is fairly far-removed from the tales of Westeros…