Holy backstory, Batman.
Like his actual narrative, the backstory George R.R. Martin provides in his books is a game of “cull the red herrings.” Martin creates a massive world because, well, he seems to feel like it, and only about half of it is stuff that’s actually relevant to the plot. So another pleasant aspect of seeing Game of Thrones get shoved through David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ story filter is finding out what bits of backstory survive. To be entirely honest, I’ve lost track of everything I read in the books, so the HBO show has been a useful heuristic for figuring out which facts and tidbits of information I actually need to exhaust mental energy caring about.
In that regard, last night’s episode, “The Sons of the Harpy,” was a doozy.
Now we know that the lynchpin of Westeros’ recent past is Rhaegar Targaryen. That would be Daenery’s older brother, who was killed by Robert Baratheon, in the rebellion he and Ned Stark waged against Aerys Targaryen, the Mad King and Rhaegar and Daenery’s father. Up until now we’ve known the Targaryen prince as the man who abducted and violated Ned’s sister Lyanna Stark, who was promised to wed Robert, effectively sparking the war that ultimately put Robert on the Iron Throne.
But last night threw that narrative until upheaval. First, there was the conversation between Littlefinger and Sansa in the crypts at Winterfell, where Littlefinger recounted the story of how Rhaegar slighted his own wife at a joust to lay a wreath of flowers in Lyanna’s lap. “Yes he chose her,” Sansa bit back coldly, flinging the conventional story back at Littlefinger’s romantic tale. “Then he kidnapped her and raped her.”
Littlefinger didn’t say anything in response, but the knowing half-smirk on his face suggested he found Sansa’s version of events less than compelling.
Then we got a long soliloquy from Barristan Selmy — the very man Rhaegar faced off against in that joust — to Daenerys on some of her late brother’s funnie habits. “Rhaegar never liked killing,” Barristan said. “But he loved to sing.” The young prince, with Barristan’s hidden protection, hard apparently been in the habit of sneaking off into the streets of Kings Landing to pose as a minstrel and entertain the everyday people with songs. Sometimes he’d donate the money he earned to the needy, and sometimes he and Barristan would just go get sloshed.
Barristan has shown himself to be a thoroughly decent sort, and you can feel his adoration for Rhaegar coming through in the story. The Prince hardly seems like the sort of fellow to snatch a woman and violate her dignity as a person by taking her against her will. In fact, he sounds like something of a well-meaning if reckless romantic.
Finally, as if all that weren’t enough. We got that moment at The Wall, when Stannis Baratheon’s wife referred to Jon Snow as the product of a licentious romp between Ned Stark and some anonymous, er, woman in a tavern somewhere. To which Stannis offhandedly replied, “Perhaps. But that was not Ned Stark’s way.”
I’ll leave it at that. I’m sure you can piece together the implications. Let’s just say if you’ve kept up with any of the conspiracy theories in the Game of Thrones world, you’re just about jumping out of your seat right now.
I also have to confess an itch of worry has started in the back of my skull. I’ve been gushing so far this season about how well Benioff and Weiss have paired Martin’s narrative down to its essentials. But I think Forbes’ Erik Kain is also on to something with his worry that things may now be preceding too fast.
On the plus side, I think the show is handling Arya, Brienne, Pod, Sansa, Jon, Stannis, and Cersei quite well. It was especially cool last night to see Cersei make her play against Margaery Tyrell by reviving the faith militant under the newly-minted High Septon (formerly the High Sparrow) and having them throw her brother Loras in the dungeon. It was also fascinating to watch Tommen’s gentle nature — such a remarkable opposite of Joffrey — run headlong into the occasional necessity of violence that comes with rule, and wilt before it. Tommen is essentially an after thought in the books, but Benioff and Weiss have made his character much more prominent, so I’ll be interested to see where this goes.
On the other hand, if you’ve read the books, we’re also losing a lot that was genuinely interesting. It looks like [POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERTS!!!] Mance Rayder really did die burning at that stake, and we won’t be getting any Lady Stoneheart — which makes you wonder what the hell the point was of introducing Arya and The Hound to Thoros of Myr. (But I’ve got some thoughts on that too.) The Sand Snakes are still here, but they look like they’ve been whittled down to bit parts, while Prince Doran’s secret gambit, which played a big role in book five, has been no where to be found so far. Four episodes in and we’ve only gotten two scenes to introduce Dorne and its characters, which are owed a far deeper dive.
Seeing new characters thrown together — Bronn and Jaime, Jorah and Tyrion — has been fun, but Tyrion’s journey in particular looks like it will be getting massively compressed. Hopefully we’ll still get the passage through the mist and passed the stone men, but it looks like Aegon Targaryen — another one of those potential red herrings — won’t be showing up. Which is a shame, because some of those red herrings are genuinely interesting, and deserve some time of their own. [END OF POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERTS]
And then there were the two maybe-deaths that last night ended on. If any two characters should get way more screen time than they’ve been afforded so far, its Barristan and Grey Worm. Losing them now makes a certain sense — it leaves a massive opening in Daenaerys’ entourage for Jorah and Tyrion to fill — but it still feels much too soon.
Like Kain, I hope HBO isn’t gunning to wrap the story up in seven seasons. Because as much as I like it, season five doesn’t feel like the beginning of the final chapter to me. It feels like the halfway point.