HBO’s fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones doesn’t just live by the idea “show, don’t tell,” the series takes it to the extreme. It’s a not-subtle show based on a not-subtle series of books, which come stuffed with so much information that anything approaching a comprehensive adaptation of the source material would be impossible to process. So, what they pick to repeat, or what they choose to return to, takes on an increased importance. If the series takes the time to show you something — a character, a place, a stone man (or a boob, right guys?!) — they’ll come back to it every time, because they don’t have time to just toss in spare elements. They have to, or this show would be absolutely inaccessible.
Take the famous case of Beric Dondarrion — we last saw him in Season 3 when Sandor Clegane and Dondarrian tussled at the latter’s encampment. Clegane overpowers Dondarrian, but is shocked to observe that Dondarrian heals himself magically, via the Lord of Light, the same god that our beloved Red Priestess Melisandre worships. After watching the season 5 finale, many instantaneously made the connection that Melisandre’s arrival at the Wall around the same time when Jon Snow was getting shanked was a rather convenient development. The show wanted you to make that connection, or else they would have never shown you the whole Beric Dondarrion thing. This is the Game of Thrones way, and I fully expect that they will keep viewers chasing the bait until the show is over.
The upcoming sixth season, though, is exploring new territory, which makes me question what narrative tricks the showrunners will be able to employ. Season 6 is the first season to leave the narrative of the books in its wake — franchise inventor George R.R. Martin, who also works and writes on the show, couldn’t write new editions of the series fast enough for production. For the first time, the show will move on without any kind of source material outside of the general trajectories that Martin provided the showrunners years ago. (As far as we know, anyway).
While the books, which I have read, are no literary marvels — they’re not particularly well-written or spotlessly executed, though the universe that Martin has created is engrossing — they have, historically, served as a kind of baseline for the series. Without this standard, it’s possible that HBO could lose the lifeline to what gave the series its charm in the first place. They’ve had an off-season to monitor how the audience responded to season 5’s cliffhanger; I imagine the show’s response, falling short of full-on fan service, will take fans’ theories and reactions into account more than ever before.
The most memorable part of Season 1 mirrored the most memorable part of A Game of Thrones, the first book of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: the beheading of Eddard Stark, the patriarch of the family that both the books and the series had posed as its chief protagonists. The other great and “Oh shiiiiiiiiit” moments from the series — the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, Tyrion killing Tywin — were all lynchpins of their respective installments, to the point where I find it easier to remember that the Red Wedding happened in A Storm of Swords than on which season its television version aired. (S3E9, but I had to check). This is anecdotal, sure, but the big changes from the books into the TV series have been more of a mixed bag. Shireen’s sacrifice scene made for an intense scene that improved the series, and the Ramsay/Sansa plotline has consolidated threads of more nebulous plots. (In the books Ramsay marries someone pretending to be Arya, and that’s by far the most outlandish. Some things, though — like whatever the fuck is going on in Dorne — have just added to the show’s general chaos in a destructive way. With Season 6, we’re staring at a blank page, and anything could happen on a show that prides itself on being provocative.
Martin ceded control to showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, and there’s no doubt that much of the results from that power transfer have been positive; it’s a better television series than it is a fantasy series, mostly on the strength of the overwhelmingly detailed and spectacular visual product HBO has given us the past five years. (A Dance of Dragons, Martin’s latest literary literary installment, is nominally half a book’s worth of plot but at twice the normal length of the previous books. Tight!) However, moving entirely away from the books allows the showrunners more wavelength, and given that the modern TV landscape is more of an echo chamber than ever, I can’t fathom them resisting the urge to make big changes. I haven’t seen a second of Season 6, but I suspect that, if this is going to be a problem, we’ll know soon enough.
While I haven’t made much of a case for the books, A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the most popular and rich-in-detail fantasy series; Martin’s chronicle is the closest thing we have to Tolkien in 2016. So, it follows that one of the most popular recurring posts on Reddit is a user outlining useful context from the books that serves as a companion to the shows. While I could see the popularity of these posts being interpreted as an example of how lazy show watchers don’t want to dive into these 1000+ page fantasy novels, I think it’s less about that and more about the depth of the lore that Martin has packaged around these stories. In the right places, it’s interesting! Martin has created entire arcs for every character, no matter how minor, and that kind of depth has enriched the experience of following the show. Now, as the show marches ahead without it, it may be missing the invisible thread that makes all the nonsense something moderately cohesive.
Is a dragon going to eat Khaleeshi (for the Vine)? Is Jon Snow going to dab? Probably not. There’s plenty of reason to be concerned about the new season of Game of Thrones. The books’ central appeal is that the difference between good and evil, between power and a lifetime of subservience is thin, random and unfailingly unfair. In a TV climate that pines for resolution, “valar morghulis” might as well mean “all fans must be happy.”