The 'Game of Thrones' TV Book Club: On big changes afoot up North and in the Vale

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Image Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO

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 Thrones recapper extraordinaire James Hibberd — filling in for Darren Franich — talk changes at Craster’s Keep, tension between Arya and the Hound, and the Case of the Disappearing Dragons. (You know there’ll be spoilers for all the books and the show, right?)

HILLARY: Welcome to the club, James! We are a brotherhood without banners — but with tons of nerd cred. Let’s start where “First of His Name” ends: That big, bloody battle at Craster’s Keep (a.k.a. Casa del Rape), an episode invented for TV Thrones. While part of me can’t help thinking it was devised to bulk up the interlude between two of Storm of Swords‘ major tentpole scenes — Joffrey’s murder and the coming battle between the Viper and the Mountain — I’m actually happy with the way this change shook out.

In the books, Bran never gets this close to his half-brother Jon after traveling north of the wall — but the show placed the two mere feet away from each other, having Bran himself choose to forgo a reunion in favor of continuing on his mission. It’s a moment that echoes Arya’s late arrival at the Red Wedding — if she’d gotten there only a few hours sooner, she too could have been murdered by the Freys! — and carries plenty of emotional weight, the type TV Thrones sometimes conveys even more effectively than GRRM’s words. What’s your take on the incident at Craster’s Keep — one of the show’s greatest departures from ASOIAF?

JAMES: First off, I wish I had thought of “Casa del Rape” for my recap. Sounds like an utterly horrific place with potentially decent chips and salsa.

I was also totally fine with Jon Snow’s quest to kill everybody at Craster’s, which felt a bloody side mission in Grand Theft Auto: Westeros. For all the fandom outcry, I’m not sure it actually changed any of the story — Bran will continue North, and Jon will presumably go back to Castle Black. It’s a reset, but a diverting one.

That Jon and Bran got soooooooooo close to meeting and then didn’t was actually a bit annoying for me, for precisely the echo you mentioned — it just feels so much like Ayra almost getting to The Twins. Or how we were teased with Ned Stark going to meet Jon at The Wall. Or Arya going to meet Jon at the The Wall. Or how we’re being teased now with Arya meeting up with Sansa at the Vale, which I’m assuming also won’t happen. I do like that Jon killed the mutineers rather than Coldhands — but as you know, I tend to lean toward pairing down the number of fantasy elements, since I think they’re just so much tougher to pull off in this otherwise grounded-feeling TV show.

HILLARY: And now I can’t stop thinking about a mariachi version of “The Rains of Castamere.” Happy Cinco de Mayo, everybody!

Speaking of the far-flung Stark family, we should probably turn our attention to the Vale. Unsullied viewers must have been utterly shocked to learn that Westeros’s true string-puller-in-chief isn’t Tywin Lannister at all — it’s Littlefinger, a chess master gifted with the ability to predict moves years in the future. The reveal that Lysa killed Jon Arryn (on Littlefinger’s orders, with a poison I’m just now remembering is called Tears of Lys; we should have seen this one coming!) arrives earlier on the show than it did in the books, when Lysa blurts out her secret shortly before taking a long walk out the Moon Door. Benioff and Weiss also make a small but important alteration to Sansa and her aunt’s first meeting: In Storm of Swords, Littlefinger reveals Sansa’s true identity to Lysa only after he’s wed (and loudly bedded) her. On the show, Lysa knows who Sansa is from the get-go, because Littlefinger told her he was heading back to King’s Landing to get the girl. (Also, “Alayne” has been restyled as Littlefinger’s niece, not his bastard daughter — probably because that’ll make their relationship slightly less icky. Slightly.)

The difference here is crucial, because it makes TV Littlefinger seem even wilier and more omniscient than his print counterpart. I almost wonder if the show intends his character to take up some of the space Varys occupies in the books. There are so many schemers in GRRM’s world, each weaving hopelessly complicated plots; combining some of their roles would keep everything much simpler. Well, that, or painting Littlefinger as the ultimate puppet master will make Varys’ support of Aegon Targaryen even more shocking. How do you feel about Book Petyr vs. Show Petyr — and which, pound for pound, would you say is creepier? Keep in mind that Book Petyr is much less of a sexposition magnet.

JAMES: Does it sound shallow to say that I was most waiting to see if Sansa was going to change her hair color? Perhaps her ginger head is the source of her misfortune; we don’t really know. After all, Ygritte is also a redhead — and look how things turn out for her. Then again, Melisandre is doing pretty well for herself…

Anyway, your book changes are well spotted. I also like your description of Littlefinger as “wily;” it provokes an image of Petyr Baelish chasing after Sansa while wearing a jetpack and rocket roller skates. One of the recap readers likewise protested the lack of Varys this season, and I can’t help but agree that Littlefinger’s story expanding might crowd out the Spider. (Then again, Varys doesn’t have all that much to do right now.) Personally, I kinda love TV Littlefinger’s expository lectures and think the TV version of him pops more than in the books — actor Aidan Gillen could make instructions for putting together Ikea furniture sound sly, dirty and devious.

Speaking of which: Thrones kept the Littlefinger and Lysa sex scene off screen. I don’t think anybody is protesting this, but it’s an interesting decision for a show that typically puts such encounters right in front of you. Sansa overhearing them was a more interesting and evocative way of going about it.

One more interesting change which is provoking some discussion: The Hound hitting Arya after she tries to stab him. Obviously, he also hit Arya to stop her from going into the Red Wedding. But in the books this incident doesn’t happen — he catches her standing over him with a rock and he tells her if she fails to kill him, he will break her hands. Ultimately, she decides against it. Some readers were like: More added violence against women! Did that bother you? Or was he basically letting her off easy?

HILLARY: As rough as I’ve been on Thrones for the way it’s treated the ladies of Westros lately, I’m fully in favor of the Hound’s knock against Arya. Why? Because it ups the tension between them, making it clear even to the Unsullied that these two are not going to have a happy ending.

TV Hound is a lot less irredeemably monstrous than Book Hound — partly because we only really see GRRM’s version through Arya and Sansa’s eyes, partly because Rory McCann imbues the guy with gruff pathos. (Book Sansa absolutely chose correctly when she refused to leave King’s Landing with Clegane during the Battle of the Blackwater; because TV Sandor is so much more sympathetic, TV Sansa kinda looked like a dummy when she made the same decision.) On paper, he and Arya never really approach friendship or even a grudging respect; on the small screen, they’re practically Thrones’s version of the Odd Couple, if Oscar and Felix were both surly, unrepentant murders. Maybe the analogy doesn’t work.

Anyhow, I’ve heard plenty of TV-only fans talk about how much they love the pair’s dynamic — and they’re right to call it out as something special. But it’s also complicated by the fact that either could kill the other at any moment — a fact that the show hasn’t really highlighted as much as it could have.

I suppose we’ve reached the point in the chat where it’s time to ask that age-old question: Does Anyone Care About Meereen?

JAMES: I’m also in favor of his back-handed discipline against an adorable fan favorite, because, just morally, I feel like you can slap somebody who attempts to kill you. Stand Your Ground, Joff’s dog!

As for Meereen, I just wanted to cry like Season 2 Dany: “Where are her dragons!?” They’ve completely vanished since the premiere. I like how she spells out very clearly her reasons for staying in Meereen. The show’s version makes it feel less like she’s stuck in a gradual quagmire. Instead, Dany sticking around is framed in advance like a proactive decision to improve her leadership skills before moving on to Westeros. So many book readers are already exasperated with Meereen when she just got inside the city last week!

I think to some extant, these fans are transposing their frustration with the book’s story into the show. For my money: She’s running a city; she’s got a pyramid, dragons (somewhere), a love interest with a beard. This will all amount to maybe 50 minutes of storytelling by the end of the season. So for me, there’s enough in Egypt-town to keep me interested…for now.

Before we finish, I am going to shamelessly plug my interview with the Thrones showrunners, where they talk about why they’re probably not reading this column because they’ve sworn off reading online comments. And here’s a little something for you to get that song out of your head. It’s not a mariachi version, but it’s still worth listening to while your server prepares tableside guacamole:

HILLARY: That video rules. It is known.


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