As it enters its final three episodes, Game of Thrones' fifth season has reached an unusual point.
There are many stories here that very nearly compare with their book versions. Cersei's arrest by the Faith Militant, for instance, is pretty similar to what happens to her in George R.R. Martin's book A Feast for Crows. Olenna hanging out around King's Landing is an invention of the show, for instance, but Cersei's downfall plays out very similarly to how it does on the page, and it's almost as satisfying here as it is there. There are differences here and there, but if you described the plot to book readers, they would mostly nod in recognition.
Then there are plots that have mostly faithfully adapted a story from the books, but pasted characters we're more familiar with over said story. This is what's going on with Sansa right now (and part of why so many people are angry about that particular storyline). Finally, we have stories that have either left behind the books entirely (as with Jaime's adventures in Dorne) or rocketed past them (as with Tyrion and Jorah's journey).
And it's impossible to say which of these things the show is best at right now. There are strong and weak storylines of all three types. Let's take a look at the five most interesting changes the show has made this week.
1) Tyrion Lannister? Meet Daenerys Targaryen!
Here's the show's most obvious break with the page. In the books, Tyrion and Jorah have yet to get near Dany. (Indeed, in the sample chapters from the sixth novel that Martin has released, the characters are still outside of Meereen.) Here, however, Jorah finds his way into the fighting pits, proves the victor of the bloody struggle, and ends up standing before his Khaleesi, who wants him dismissed. And then Tyrion strides out to introduce himself, and everything shifts.
For the most part, season five has been outright collapsing plots from the corresponding books that amount to up and backs — stories where the characters travel to a place, then return to roughly where they started, both physically and psychologically. Tyrion and Jorah's voyages in Essos are a great example of this, as the show has simply cut out whole swaths of what they go through. (If adapted faithfully, for instance, their time with the slavers would have taken up at least two episodes, if not more.) Andrew has spoken about this at length in previous weeks, so I won't belabor his points here.
But the simple fact of the matter is that Dany and Tyrion, two of the show's most dynamic, interesting characters, are now in the same location at the same time. The safe bet is that they'll have lots to catch up on, and we'll have a good time watching them do so.
2) Sansa's situation goes from bad to worse
What's going on with Sansa right now amounts to a cover version of something from the books, and the choice of the show to transpose the awful things that happen there to Jeyne Poole, a minor character, onto a fairly major figure is really, really weird. The series seemed as if it had been setting Sansa up for one arc — in which she gets revenge, finally, for what happened to her family — only to reveal that, just kidding, she was going to see just as much misfortune as every other Stark.
Yet in "The Gift," it's easier to see what the show's writers are going for here. Instead of a minor character suffering Ramsay's monstrous behavior, Sansa is, and that gives viewers more of an investment in both the story and what happens to her. Instead of just being a shot at Theon redeeming himself and a way of turning the North against the Boltons (as it is in the book), the show gives us a chance to show a Sansa who's fighting back the only way she knows how — by striking at Ramsay's pride. (She's also stolen a sharp, pointy object, but we don't yet know how she plans to use it.)
Again, in theory, there's something there, but this is still an episode where Sansa is locked in a tower and raped repeatedly and most of the actual story momentum lies with Theon. (The best Sansa can do is snipe from the sidelines.) It's hard to see the show finding a way out of this story corner that is at once true to the characters, satisfying for the audience, and not a complete cop out. But maybe the series will find one!
In other news, the North plotline is slowly turning into a bunch of characters who aren't at Winterfell in the books converging on Winterfell. Sansa's already there, Brienne is just outside, and Stannis is on his way. It will be interesting to see when and how all of these characters collide, since it will have to be almost a complete invention on the series' part.
3) Melisandre wants Shireen dead
In A Feast for Crows, Melisandre wants to sacrifice a child to power her magic. It's just the son of Mance Rayder, a character whose importance to the books is much greater than it is to the show. Thus, she instead suggests to Stannis that Shireen needs to die if he's going to be ultimately successful in his attempt to take Winterfell. This amounts to the other shoe dropping on that scene from earlier in the season where Stannis was being such a good dad to his daughter.
Martin often talks about the butterfly effect when trying to describe why he thinks the show and his books are such different things, even though the adaptations are incredibly faithful for cinematic adaptations of books. What he means is that relatively minor changes made in earlier seasons necessitate much larger changes in later ones. And the elevation of Shireen as the child Melisandre wants to kill is one of these changes.
Because Mance just isn't as important to the show, the fate of his child (who doesn't even exist on TV) isn't going to be of much interest to viewers. As such, a character who's more familiar to the audience makes a better choice for this story. Plus since Shireen is a little girl, not a baby, the show can give her actual scenes to play that will theoretically make us care more about her. That seems to be most of the reasoning behind this change.
4) Sam and Gilly hook up in slightly different fashion
Sam and Gilly do have sex in the books, and it is after the death of Aemon. But in the books, the characters are in another location, as they make their way to Oldtown for a plot line that the show seems to have cut out entirely, in favor of keeping the characters consolidated in a handful of locations.
The main difference here is that Sam now confronts a couple of his Night's Watch brothers when they threaten to sexually assault Gilly. It would be inappropriate to say he saves the day, as the scene is ultimately broken up by the direwolf Ghost arriving to scare off the would-be perpetrators. But he does get a chance to stand up and show what he's made of (in an episode filled with scenes dealing with codes of masculinity). After all, he says, he killed a White Walker and a Thenn. What are two humans compared with that?
The notable thing is that this is a case of the show completely cutting out a plot line but keeping the incidents that matter from it, like Aemon's death and Gilly and Sam's coupling. The series is doing more and more of this, and it's surprising it works as often as it does.
5) Essos feels like it's the size of Connecticut
This is a thing that's been bothering me all season, and even if there are a bunch of other things I could put in this slot, I'm going to talk about this.
Take a look at this map of the world of Game of Thrones.
That United Kingdom-ish landmass over to the west is Westeros, the place many of the characters on the show are located. Meanwhile, that gigantic landmass over to the east (the one that looks kinda like Asia) is Essos, where more and more characters are having adventures. Arya's over there, for instance, as are Tyrion and Jorah. Dany, of course, is freeing many of the cities around Slaver's Bay.
One of the problems Martin has had telling stories on this continent is just how big it is, meaning that characters have to do a lot of wandering before they get anywhere. The show has mostly gotten rid of this by having Essos become, conservatively, 200 square miles.
I'm exaggerating, of course. The distance between where Jorah and Tyrion first met up and Meereen, where Dany rules, isn't that far. But it still feels like everybody's navigating Essos like they have access to, at the very least, steam-powered locomotives, if not automobiles. Part of what makes Essos such a fascinating place in the books is how vast it is. The show has done a poor job of conveying that.
At least Arya's still half a continent away. If she drops in on everybody else next week, there will be words.
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