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A review of “High Sparrow,” the third episode of the fifth season of “Game of Thrones”

by Miodrag Zarković

Bold. What a word! “Merriam-Webster” defines it in three points: 1) not afraid of danger or difficult situations; 2) showing or needing confidence or lack of fear; 3) very confident in a way that may seem rude or foolish. Keep all three points in mind when you read the following excerpt:

“HBO’s Game of Thrones has been gradually edging away from its source material. Yet Sunday’s episode introduced what is perhaps the boldest departure yet from George R. R. Martin’s novels . . .”

It’s taken from Entertainment Weekly’s article about “High Sparrow,” the third episode of the fifth season of what was supposed to be the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series brought to screen. James Hibberd, the author of the article, actually describes the departure in question immediately after the excerpt; but before getting to that part, let’s focus for a moment on the fact he called it “perhaps the boldest” one yet. According to “Merriam-Webster,” it should mean that the said deviation required courage, fearlessness, firmness and confidence from David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the two showrunners. That is what bold means, after all.

Bold. Has a very nice ring to it. One might fall in love with the term. One might even confuse it for identity and wish to take it.

Bold, Bold, it rhymes with told.

Okay, let’s see what are we told further in the article. What is this big, bold departure the show undertook in “High Sparrow”? Turned out it’s Benioff & Weiss’ decision to have Sansa Stark, the oldest living child of Ned and Catelyn Stark, marry the son of Roose Bolton, the man who, two seasons ago, murdered the firstborn child of Ned and Catelyn Stark. That is the departure EW called “perhaps the boldest” yet.

And departure it is. In the novels, the monstrous Ramsay Bolton marries not Sansa but her best friend Jeyne Poole, who was practically a nonentity in the show, where she briefly appeared—without a spoken line and never addressed by name—only in the pilot. In the books, Jeyne is the one who gets to be the lucky bride of the biggest psychopath in the saga (which says quite a lot, really), while Sansa at this point in the story is still in the Vale and has absolutely no connection to the storyline set in the North, the coldest region of the Seven Kingdoms.

Bold, Bold, it rhymes with cold.

EW’s stance implies considerable risks were taken by Benioff and Weiss in making the decision to move their Sansa into Jeyne’s role. Risks are an absolute necessity because, as Ned Stark would say, that is the only thing a man can be bold against. However, in the same EW article, just paragraphs below, Benioff and Weiss’ trusted wingman Bryan Cogman reveals something else entirely. Here’s the excerpt:

“Besides, Cogman pointed out: ‘You have this storyline with Ramsay. Do you have one of your leading ladies—who is an incredibly talented actor who we’ve followed for five years and viewers love and adore—do it? Or do you bring in a new character to do it? To me, the question answers itself: You use the character the audience is invested in.’”

Pay attention to what Cogman, also a writer for the show, says: “The question answers itself.” That does not sit well with risks and being bold. Answering questions that answer themselves is never a sign of bravery. It is quite the contrary, in fact. Letting a question like that answer itself may be smart or stupid, wise or shortsighted, rewarding or futile, but it can never ever be bold. Cogman actually says exactly the opposite of what was stated at the beginning of the article: that the show took a safer choice. Not more challenging, but more conventional one. In effect, the showrunners avoided risks by replacing a new character (which would be new in the first place, simply because Benioff and Weiss failed to introduce Jeyne Poole properly when the time was right), with an old one.

Bold, Bold, it rhymes with old.

But enough with the EW article. Let’s put the decision itself under scrutiny. So, how does Sansa’s marriage to Ramsay fit into the bigger picture in regards to logic, themes and narrative?

It doesn’t! For a number of reasons.

First, it could never be negotiated. How could Littlefinger and Roose Bolton ever discuss the idea of such a strange alliance? It’s unfathomable! It is already established that Littlefinger made the proposal (he himself said so in the previous episode, and his exchange with Roose this week confirms that), but really, why would Bolton ever accept any such suggestion at face value and not become suspicious to the point of alerting the Iron Throne of a possible traitor that resides in the Vale? Or even more, why would Littlefinger ever expect Boltons to accept it? Remember, this is supposed to be the world in which Ned Stark lost his head for being not too careful. The world in which the Northern army was massacred because Robb didn’t keep his word. How come the same rules don’t apply to Littlefinger and Roose Bolton, people who, on top of everything, were instrumental in the downfalls of Ned and Robb, so they can’t help but know the rules, which would only make them more cautious? Both Littlefinger sending the proposal and Roose Bolton accepting it are extremely careless moves that expose those who make them to drastic possibilities. Say what you want about Littlefinger and Roose, but however ambitious, greedy or brazen they may be, neither is careless. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in their current positions.

Second, why the hell would Sansa ever go along with it? As seen last season, she’s the one who basically has control over Littlefinger now, not the other way around. She was the one who lied to save him a year ago, and one word of hers can get him killed in no time. After spending years as a prisoner of the Lannisters, she finally managed to not only escape King’s Landing, but also gain such a power over the Protector of the Vale. And now she’s going to throw all that and be the daughter-in-law of the man who can’t be anything but a nemesis and a usurper?

Third, how did Littlefinger manage to persuade Sansa so easily? She’s appalled by his idea at first, but then she accepts it a minute later. All it took to change her mind was a few badly-worded lines in which Littlefinger revealed nothing of importance nor offered any kind of assurance whatsoever. One would expect something stronger than “You’ll be running away all your life” is needed for such a radical change of heart. Actually, the entire scene of Sansa finally accepting Littlefinger’s plan was an exercise in heavy-handed, clichéd and baseless writing.

Fourth, what is Littlefinger’s plan actually? Let’s assume he hid it from Sansa (which only makes her more unbelievably stupid, though we’re well past that point anyhow), but is any viable plan by Littlefinger even detectable? Like, why would a man as ambitious and cunning as Littlefinger give away his most valuable acquisition, and to Roose Bolton of all people? In the novels, it indeed is Littlefinger who sends poor Jeyne Poole to Winterfell to pose as Arya Stark, but that in effect strengthens his grip on the Boltons, who are now ever dependent on anyone who can expose the ploy. By placing fake Arya in the hands of the Boltons, he risks not a single thing. In the show, however, Littlefinger practically gambles with literally everything. Just consider the possibility that Sansa accidentally slips who really murdered Lysa Arryn: at that moment, he, Littlefinger, would become the one who depends on the Boltons instead of the other way around. But even if nothing similar happens, Littlefinger is allying himself with the weakest ruler of the North in history, and in the process he’s giving away his main asset, who, by the way, could deliver the North to him without ever entering into any pact with the Boltons (in fact, this arrangement can only decrease Sansa’s reputation in her homeland): that’s not ambitious or brazen or unpredictable, that is outright absurd.

Fifth, once Sansa and Littlefinger reach Winterfell, it turns out Littlefinger lacks not only a plan, but also the basic information about the family he just formed a fateful treaty with. He doesn’t seem to know anything about Ramsay, a man we saw earlier being chastised by his father for allowing all the North to see what a monster he truly is. All of which means that TV Westeros is a land where the word of, say, Tywin Lannister’s death travels almost instantly, but news of Ramsay flaying lords and their families never reach the most informed guy in the realm (Varys is in another continent at the moment).

Bold, Bold, it rhymes with scold.

Yes, whoever came up with this “bold” departure from the source material deserves to be scolded and chastised over and over again, until he learns never to say Sansa is his favorite character ever again. Because he actually is saying exactly that:

“Sansa is a character we care about almost more than any other, and the Stark sisters have from the very beginning been two characters who have fascinated us the most,” Benioff was quoted in EW article.

Yeah, they love Sansa’s character so much they took her out of her arc and moved her somewhere she couldn’t belong in any meaningful way. The fact he’s saying that in the very article that deals with “perhaps the boldest departure” that actually involves Sansa, clearly proves the modern public increasingly looks as if adapted by Benioff and Weiss: who needs accountability anyway, accountability is for eight graders!

As a matter of fact, Game of Thrones may very well be the first show that doesn’t reflect the reality so much as accommodates it according to its own image. “You’re going to believe me or your lying eyes?” seems to be the order of the day at this point in the history of mankind, and nowhere is that more evident than in the case of GOT, the showrunners of which seem to have improved the catchphrase into: “What are you going to use for thinking, our interviews or your too-logical-for-its-own-good brain?”

Looks like too many choose to believe not their own eyes and minds, but Benioff and Weiss, even though the two were already caught lying in flagrante. And about the same storyline, no less. Back in Season One, when explaining why they gave book Sandor’s lines to TV Littlefinger, Cogman said it was because of the terrible weather conditions that messed up with the shooting schedule and forced them to make the switch. But in the scene itself, while Littlefinger’s telling Sansa the story of “brotherly love” between Gregor and Sandor, you can clearly see the latter standing behind, in the stands, right by Joffrey. The actor was actually there, in the scene, at disposal and very visible, and yet any number of viewers chose to believe Cogman and his ridiculous story about some weather conditions that influenced the script.

That arrogance in dealing with their own fans is the most annoying thing about the showrunners and their crew. But, one would be mistaken to confuse that arrogance with some sort of confidence. It is, in fact, the exact opposite: a calculated cockiness, aimed at leaving the impression of confidence where there is none.

Just look at the scene with the High Septon being forced naked out of the brothel. What purpose did it serve? The first part of the scene, in which the High Septon was picking whores, filled the nudity quota, of course, but the High Septon himself—no offense—certainly wasn’t disrobed for the same wisdom. He was made to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing for one reason: to make the similar scene that is coming for Cersei at the end of the season not look too controversial.

See, last year, with the now infamous sex scene in the sept and the public outcry that followed it, the HBO executives most probably demanded from Benioff and Weiss never to repeat a similar controversy. And, while their understanding of the books is questionable at best, Benioff and Weis are probably very much in touch with the readers’ reactions to particular points of Martin’s novels. Like a politician obsessed not with his legacy but with his approval ratings: it’s not about what he wants or doesn’t want to do, it’s about how people are going to react to it. Therefore, Benioff and Weiss definitely know a significant part of the readership think Cersei’s Walk of Shame was a misogynistic measure against her. And they aren’t willing to risk their show being seen in the same light. No way. Hence the scene with the naked High Septon. This way, once Lena Headey puts her bare foot on the same streets, nobody will be able to accuse Benioff and Weiss that women are more tortured than men in their world.

That’s how bold they truly are. That is the boldness that stems only from a corporate giant that paid millions of dollars for your right to play petty games with a source material that is anything but petty.

Bold, Bold, it rhymes with gold.

And yes, the games Benioff and Weiss seem to be playing with fans of the novels often appear as petty. Just look at the Janos Slynt’s death scene. Really, how hard can it be to include “Ed, fetch me a block?” It wouldn’t take more than a few seconds for Jon to change his mind and instead of hanging to outright behead Janos. But no, Benioff and Weiss probably find some mysterious joy in omitting all the iconic lines they know the most faithful book readers simply adore.

Bold, Bold, it almost rhymes with “Ollie, bring me my sword.”

It is, after all, what they managed to do even with the first of those iconic lines: Ned’s “That is the only time a man can be brave.” There is no such line in the pilot, it’s only referred to much later on, near the end of the second season, when Robb tells Talisa about his late father.

What Benioff and Weiss possibly don’t get is that those lines didn’t become iconic because fans confused them for passwords that give access to their secret nerd societies. (Before the show, actually, ASOIAF was pretty immune to the entire nerd culture.) No, those lines are so beloved precisely because they are written as important points in the development of this character or that plotline. It’s never just about Edd or fetching or a block, but also about decisions these characters make and then go on living with them. Lines like those are what makes not only dialogues in ASOIAF but also characters so damn memorable and brilliant.

Partially because of those omissions, characters in the show are often flat and/or inconsistent. The aforementioned Janos Slynt, for example. A few episodes ago, in last season’s penultimate hour, Janos was hiding in Gilly’s room during the crucial battle with the wildlings. One episode ago, during the elections Sam was openly ridiculing Janos and his cowardice in front of everyone, and Janos did nothing at all—in effect, it means he’s a way bigger craven than Sam. But now, in this episode, all of a sudden he’s all disobedient and even rebellious when the new Lord Commander gives him a direct order. One might ask, what did Benioff and Weiss turn their Janos into such a wimp for, when they eventually ended his arc the same way as in the books? Really, how hard, or bold, it is to write a side character like Janos Slynt consistently, especially when someone else already did it for you in the novels?

And in those rare instances Benioff and Weiss are consistent (sort of), it’s for the worse. Enter Tyrion, a character who, if personal opinions are allowed, I find absolutely brilliant and one of Martin’s best in the books. But I like Tyrion only with both his best and his worst parts, and his absolute worst happens in “A Dance with Dragons,” when, all the while believing he was infected by greyscale, he penetrates a poor sex slave and thus possibly exposes her to the deadly disease. In the show, however, not only that greyscale is removed from his Essos arc but Tyrion also doesn’t sleep with prostitutes anymore. Like, he would but can’t! He appears to be an even better person than he was before killing Shae and Tywin. Some call it the whitewashing of Tyrion, but I prefer to call it the dumbing down of the entire story to the point where characters are allowed only to walk the narrow beats that were chosen for them somewhere in HBO’s focus groups-dealing departments. Tyrion is recognized as a protagonist up there, and therefore he’s stripped of layers and layers of complexity that made him such a wonderful creation.

Bold, Bold, it rhymes with mold.

It is what the show does all the time with all the characters. Benioff and Weiss are frequently praised by servile TV critics for their alleged boldness in deviating from the source material (and in the first season they were actually encouraged to do so), and looks like they came to believe it really is a question of courage. But what’s really going on is exactly the opposite. The ultimate result is that each and every deviation only made the story and the world and the characters more lame and flat and dumb, but in all fairness, the show’s deviations could never be bold. Not with all the push for them coming from all directions. Not with HBO demanding them, as evidenced by the reshooting of the pilot. Not with all the money HBO’s been pouring on the media, in the name of promoting Game of Thrones. With all the resources HBO invested in this project, taking the easier, safer route every time is never bold. On the contrary.

Bold, Bold, it rhymes with sold.