Last year, Game of Thrones put hardcore fans of the novels from which it is adapted on notice: In the Season 4 finale, the show killed an important character who had not yet died in the books. It had been one thing, of course, to detour from the particulars of George R. R. Martin’s story, which the show has done from the start. TV and literature are very different mediums, and a truly faithful adaptation of Martin’s book wouldn’t have served any fans of his work, new or old. It also would have been deadly boring.
But with last year’s finale, and now with several plots in its current season, Game of Thrones has done something bolder: It’s leapt past the point in the story where Martin’s most recent Song of Ice and Fire novel ends, and begun to move into the territory of his two as-yet-unpublished novels in the series. When discussing Game of Thrones, the phrase “spoiler alert” used to mean very different things to different viewers. Not anymore.
So where did Game of Thrones stick to Martin’s story in Episode 8 of Season 5, where has it gone a different direction, and where has it left it in the dust? Expect spoilers, obviously.
With last week’s meeting of Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, Games of Thrones made its hugest leap yet past GRRM’s story. At the end of A Dance With Dragons, Tyrion and Jorah Mormont have joined up with a band of sellswords, hoping to ally them with Daenerys and Meereen, the slaver city she has liberated and now rules. Game of Thrones is still working through Daenerys’ already-published plot, but it’s now put Daenerys and Tyrion in the same room, which hasn’t (yet) happened in the books—and it seems she has taken him into her service, even though it was his family that sealed the end of her father’s rule of Westeros. (His retort to that point: “I am the greatest Lannister killer of all time.”) But not only does Tyrion talk himself into a new big advising the Queen of Dragons—he counsels her to spare the life of Jorah (who once betrayed her and now seeks to regain her trust) but cast him out of Meereen yet again. That seems like it might be it—until Jorah (who is afflicted by grayscale, a condition suffered by a different Dance With Dragons character who was cut from the show) sells himself back into slavery so he can battle in Meereen’s fighting pits. Seven hells!
In King’s Landing
Cersei’s been jailed by the Faith of the Seven on charges of adultery, incest, murder, and other fun things—a plot that more or less tracks with the novels. One big difference: In the books, it’s her affair with a minor nobleman (who’s been cut from the show, presumably for simplicity’s sake) that leads to her undoing. On the show, her cousin and former lover Lansel Lannister has spilled his guts to the High Sparrow, leading to Cersei’s arrest.
Just like in the books, Arya Stark’s training with Faceless Men requires her to pose as a seafood-peddler and prepare to assassinate a crooked seller of maritime insurance. Missing: the part, earlier in her training, in which she temporarily loses her sight as part of said training—so that she can learn to fight without it. Bummer, but then again, we already had Daredevil this spring.
None of this happened in the books. Sansa isn’t a prisoner at Winterfell. She doesn’t learn from Theon that her brother Bran and Rickon could still be alive. Instead she’s off in the Vale with Littlefinger and Robin Arryn, still living under an assumed name. Meanwhile, the Boltons do spend this part of the story preparing for the siege—although whatever Ramsay is planning when he says he needs 20 men to take on Stannis’ approaching army is new to the show.
At Fort Black
There is no Gilly tending to Sam’s wounds in the books, because in the books Sam and Gilly are en route to Oldtown so that Sam can train as a maester. But there’s a good reason for this scene, in which Sam explains to a young brother of the Night’s Watch the hard choice Jon Snow has to make: He has calculated that the Night’s Watch must move past its conflict with the Wildings, and let them through the Wall, so that they can fight the White Walkers together.
Speaking of which. This week’s centerpiece is a brutal, lengthy, and altogether thrilling showdown between the Night’s Watch and the White Walkers, the spectral baddies who, presumably, want to create a vast army of the dead and complete the work they didn’t finish 8,000 years ago during what was known as the Long Night, when they were defeated with weapons made of dragonglass.
While in the books the Night’s Watch does send an expedition to Hardhome, a Wilding settlement in the very far north, the action happens off the page. Instead of traveling to Hardhome himself, Jon sends one of his deputies to sail there and rescue a large group of stranded Wildlings before they are killed by the White Walkers and turned into Wights. When that expedition goes bad—wrecked ships, Wildlings eating their dead—Jon sends Tormund Giantsbane to lead a party by land to Hardhome. Scary, but not too exciting.
The show faces a different problem. While the White Walkers barely appear in the book, a fact that manages to heighten their menace, they would likely begin to seem like a remote threat if the TV program didn’t actually show them every once in a while. And boy did it show them. After Jon, Tormund, and his party of Night’s Watch brothers arrive at Hardhome and convince some of the Wildlings to return with them to the Wall, the White Walker’s undead army floods the encampment, almost as fluidly as the flood-like masses of zombies in World War Z. In the melee, Jon loses a bag of dragonglass weapons (Night’s Watch 0, White Walkers 1), and he goes blade to blade with a White Walker, shattering it into glass-like shards (1,1). Seemingly hundreds of Wildings perish in the fight (1,2), but Jon, Tormund, and others make it back to the ships (2,2), but not before Night’s King—the apparent leader of the Walkers, whom you’ll remember from a Season 3 cameo—stares Jon down and transforms the slain Wildings into Wights in one spooky, very drawn out gesture. (Night’s Watch 2, White Walkers 87.)
None of this happens in the books, but here it functions as a prelude to action presumably to follow: A final showdown between the men of Westeros and the White Walkers. Whatever you think of the narrative liberties on Game of Thrones—many of which have been fumbles!—last night’s concluding sequence was a masterstroke of terror, suspense, and stage-setting. Finally, it meant to tell us in a way the books never quite do, winter has come.