Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by culture writer Kelsey McKinney and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for more entries.
It's these characters whose respective plotlines were by far the most popular among readers of Martin's controversial fifth book, A Dance With Dragons — a book the show is just now beginning to adapt. And it's those characters who have been ill-served by adaptation choices the series has made.
George R. R. Martin's third book, A Storm of Swords, was so stuffed with dramatic events that it made sense to stretch it out over seasons three and four. But Stannis's plotline was a notable casualty of this decision — rather than moping around for two-thirds of a book after his failure to conquer King's Landing, he does so for nearly two full seasons. Now, finally, show watchers are getting a glimpse of the compelling and decisive Stannis Baratheon of the books.
Theon's material has also tried viewers' patience, since he was continuously tortured and eventually castrated by a mystery man over the course of season three. The fact that his tormenter was Ramsay Bolton had to be obscured from viewers, because Ramsay's father, Roose, hadn't yet betrayed the Starks at the Red Wedding.
The problem was that without that understanding, this resulted in a frustrating season-long plotline of watching a guy be tortured without understanding why. (Alan Sepinwall memorably nicknamed it "the Passion of the Greyjoy.") The poor handling of this made me appreciate Martin's decision, in the books, to keep the worst of Theon's torture off the page — he is reintroduced as "Reek," a broken man, several books later, and that's when things get interesting.
This episode makes it clear that these respective plotlines are on a collision course. We don't see Theon or the Boltons, but they are on Stannis's mind — and he makes sure they're on Jon Snow's mind, too. Stannis points out to Jon that the man who put a dagger in his brother's heart is now in charge of Winterfell — the Stark family castle — and is ruling over the whole North. It's a temptation for Jon, who was supposed to give up his family when he joined the Night's Watch — but now might be thinking about getting revenge for his brother's murder.
As impressive as Stannis is, however, we shouldn't forget about whom he chooses to ally himself with — an unscrupulous religious fanatic with a remarkably simplistic worldview. In previous seasons, Melisandre has burned heretics and magically murdered Stannis's brother Renly, all for the supposed greater good of putting Stannis on the throne so he can save the world, or something. Where would she stop? Why did she tell Stannis's wife, last season, that their daughter Shireen had to come to the wall because the Lord of Light needs her? And what are her plans for Jon Snow, in whom she seems to have taken quite an interest?
"We all must choose," Melisandre says, as she prepares to burn Mance Rayder alive in the premiere. "We choose light, or we choose darkness. We choose good, or we choose evil. We choose the true god, or the false."
Despite the red witch's Manichean certainty, though, there's one person who notably disagrees with her — George R. R. Martin. "I prefer to paint with shades of gray," Martin has said. "I think it's more true to life." And as long as the show is still somewhat following his books, his characters will be presented with all sorts of challenging, difficult, gray choices in the coming weeks.
Read the recap, and come back Monday as we discuss a new episode.
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