Season 5 of Game of Thrones was always going to be an uphill struggle. To start with, you’re adapting the last two books of George RR Martin’s continually sprawling A Song of Ice and Fire series, often dismissed as full of unnecessarily convoluted and incoherent material – Martin could have gotten the characters in the positions he wanted in a book half the length of one, and maybe we would have The Winds of Winter by now. Game of Thrones collapses under the weight of its bloated source material a little bit, doing its best to streamline plots, eliminating new characters and palming their stories off to existing characters. Game of Thrones has always had to work with an extensive saga, but the doling out of dialogue and story to its continually growing cast felt particularly piecemeal this season. Some plotlines such as Tyrion’s and Daenaerys’s stories are interesting, as are new characters such as The High Sparrow and the Sand Snakes but aren’t allowed space to breathe. I’ve never understood why Game of Thrones is allotted ten episodes a season, when some of its problems would be alleviated by a more standard thirteen.
The outstripping of the show’s story to the books is another source of some of the weaknesses. I don’t care about the show deviating from the books; it’s its own beast at this point, and some of the best moments in the past and indeed in this season, such as the heart-pounding conclusion of Hardhorne, are not present in the books. But as the show starts to enter ‘TV writer territory’, it makes some choices that are difficult to defend. The most notable of these is the decision to have Ramsay Bolton rape Sansa. Leaving aside the debate around the treatment of female characters, the scene undoes a lot of the development of Sansa’s character. I’m not complaining about the maliciousness of the act – if that bothered me, I probably have no business watching Game of Thrones – but the aftermath feels kind of boring and repetitive. We’ve already seen Sansa trapped and helpless, and Littlefinger seeming to help Sansa to regain some agency was an interesting development that this act cuts loose. On top of that, the scene doesn’t tell us anything new; we know how terrible Sansa’s situation is, and seeing ‘the act’, as well as seeing Theon seeing ‘the act’, just seems like a cheap shock, and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Another example of a bizarre deviation is the death of Ser Barristan. Since his introduction, we are constantly told by other characters how one of the greatest fighters in the Seven Kingdoms. The show never lets Ser Barristan prove himself, and he is cut down by the Sons of the Harpy. Having a character unexpectedly die is of course not new to Game of Thrones, but the characterization of Ser Barristan as ‘a painter who only used red’ becomes pointless, especially as the show which cannot afford to waste a line of dialogue, turns his death into an anti-climax. The Dorne subplot was another disappointment; the Sand Snakes come across as silly and the death of Myrcella is preditable from the moment Ellaria Sand, who has no business kissing her, kisses her.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love the show. These are minor niggles in what has been one of the most dense, engaging, well-written shows of the century. The set pieces such as the cinematic battle in Hardhorne and Cersei’s walk of shame crackle with intensity, the dialogue is as clever and darkly funny as ever and some of the storylines, such as Arya’s adventures in the House of Black and White, are taking very odd, intriguing turns. It’s the same mixture of calculated, psychological warfare and strategy with bursts of shocking, visually exciting conflict, but I don’t think any fan of the show would have it any other way. I hope my complaints are only specific to this season, but the show breaking free from the chains of the source material may be liberating or it may be harmful. Time will tell.
Dir: Michael Slovis, Mark Mylod, Jeremy Podeswa, Michael Sapochnik, David Nutter
Scr: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Dave Hill, Bryan Cogman
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Natalie Dormer, Maisie Williams, Jonathan Pryce, Alexander Siddig
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Number of Episodes: 10
Episode Run time: 60mins
Game of Thrones: The Complete Fifth Season is out on DVD and Blu-Ray 14th March.