Heart-Shaped Hole: Game of Thrones Season 4 and the Death of Reader Certainty


Season 4 and the Death of Reader Certainty

June 15, 2014

Here at Cultural Learnings, I’ve been writing Game of Thrones reviews intended to be read by both those who have and haven’t read the books, but they’re unavoidably written from the perspective as someone who has. For the most part, this hasn’t been a big problem, as I’ve never been one to be too concerned with the series deviates from the books.

I remain mostly nonplussed by changes, but they’re tougher to avoid after a fourth season that has shot the books full of holes on numerous occasions. Although the season by and large ended without an outright cliffhanger in “The Children” (which I reviewed in full here), it nonetheless has left book readers in limbo when it comes to at least one major development. It’s an important turning point for the series as an adaptation, and one that will test whether or not those book readers are willing to embrace an environment where the books are no longer a reliable indicator for the story about to unfold, and where their position as arbiters of knowledge is in question.

[Warning: I’m speaking to Book Readers here, so unless you want to risk spoilers for future seasons, stay away if you haven’t read the books.]

This began before the finale: whether in the scenes of the White Walkers setting up the series’ larger mythology, or in the changes to Daario’s storyline, or in the entirely new story for Jon, this has been a season of major deviations from the timeline of the books. In these cases, though, I would argue that the changes felt like practical changes. It makes sense to set up the mythology earlier to give viewers a sense of scale and remind them of the threat north of the Wall, given how much it drives that storyline moving forward. It makes sense to change Daario’s storyline, given that the Dany material is one of the weaker points in the later books and could use more structure that a more complex relationship between Dany and Daario would offer. And they needed Jon’s attack on Craster’s Keep both to establish his prowess as a military leader and to kill time before they would get to the bigger battle at a later point in the season.

StoneheartIn other words, they were choices that still felt designed to work towards eventual events that happen in the books, or ideas that book readers know are important later. However, the choice to leave out Lady Stoneheart is one of the first choices that feels like a conscious creative choice driven less by practical concerns. Lady Stoneheart would serve the themes of the series. Lady Stoneheart is tied to the Lord of Light, and to the religious themes therein. And Lady Stoneheart is quite literally the dead Catelyn Stark brought back to life to seek vengeance for those who wronged her, a pretty major part of the series’ mythology for many book readers. And many people thought that there would be no better ending to this season than her reveal, given that it serves as A Storm of Swords’ epilogue and seems the very definition of a “WTF” television moment, and given that Lena Headey seemed to tease the reveal on Instagram. And so her absence feels purposeful, as though the writers simply chose not to include her for reasons we could only—and will—speculate to.

Now, to be clear, it’s still possible that Lady Stoneheart could still appear. Brienne is on a completely different story path at this point, so it’s plausible she’ll head out into the world and stumble across Lady Stoneheart next season (who will be extra pissed given that she was in both Sansa and Arya’s presence and let them each slip away). But given how logical it would have been to reveal her at the end of this season, and given how much that choice knowingly creates this speculation (and thus risks spoiling a future appearance for non-readers, and thus taking the surprise off the table), I would wager that the series will be leaving out Lady Stoneheart entirely, having decided she is not crucial to endgame of the series.

Regardless, though, the show has created a cliffhanger for book readers. Lady Stoneheart becomes the symbol for the sanctity of Martin’s novels, the first major omission that lacks a clearcut, practical justification other than “Because the writers chose not to include her.” This finale was full of lots of smaller changes, like the absence of Tysha within Tyrion and Tywin’s final showdown. But given that the lack of internal monologue has meant Tysha has fallen out of memory by this point in the series, and how returning to that character would work against the weight of Shae’s death (which feels more pronounced in the show given the increased role for the character), I can pretty quickly work my way into the logic behind that decision. I understand how others might feel differently, but the change does not rest on the writers’ personal interpretations of the series in the way that Lady Stoneheart’s absence would.

This season has demonstrated the weight of expectation on book readers. I was among those surprised last week’s episode didn’t end where the finale began, with Stannis riding in to take out Mance’s forces. Many readers felt the same, to the point where one emailed a critic who hasn’t read the books to complain about how it didn’t happen, thus spoiling that it did (although it likely wouldn’t register as a huge surprise regardless). One has to imagine that ending the season without Lady Stoneheart will do the same, as book readers flock to comment sections to ask why the series isn’t doing what they expect it to. It’s even a big enough point of conversation that Entertainment Weekly—likely tipped off to her absence—has an extended feature discussing her absence, knowing that it’s going to be one of the main points of conversation and wanting to draw the page views tied to that.

I don’t have an opinion on Lady Stoneheart, one way or the other. I like what it says thematically about how the dead live on, and I would’ve liked to see how they would have imagined her visually, but I can equally see it as one of too many ideas Martin is working with in the fourth and fifth novels, and don’t necessarily feel the show and its characters have nowhere to go without it.

However, I will be happy if Lady Stoneheart doesn’t appear in the series provided that it serves as the stage at which book readers officially let go of any clear expectations of what is about to happen next on the series. This is not to say that book readers must like the choices being made, or that they are not allowed to anticipate what’s about to happen next—rage on, book readers of the world. However, Lady Stoneheart’s absence feels like the biggest moment the show has avoided, and a clear statement that no one who has read the books has a crystal clear understanding of what’s about to happen next. Book readers may have a distinct perspective on the events to follow that has more authority than non-readers, but they are no longer able to speak with certainty about what is to come in the seasons ahead.

I consider this to be a good thing, and hope—perhaps naively—that readers will come to terms with this new reality. I’ve enjoyed seeing how readers and non-readers alike have responded to the series, but I’ve also wished for an environment where the two sides could come together, and where the willful spoiling of non-readers would feel a bit less like readers refusing to let the series be experienced on its own terms—I know this doesn’t apply to all book readers, but it applies to too many, and has been a blight on the series. There will always be spoilers, and there will also be story beats that match up with the books, but there is no longer a close enough relationship that book readers are governors of truth as opposed to speculation, and that is no clearer than in the potential absence of Lady Stoneheart from the adaptation.

We will be debating these changes long after the series concludes its run. There will be more A.V. Club Inventories, and Buzzfeed lists, and other resources that viewers can use to look back and think about how different the show might have been if Lady Stoneheart had appeared. It also remains possible that we’ll see entries about how Lady Stoneheart’s appearance was simply delayed, moved to another part of the series to have a different effect. Regardless, though, the next nine months of speculation will be a crucial discursive space for readers to understand their relationship to the series, and my one hope is that we collectively come out the other side with an understanding of our shared ignorance with non-readers as to how a good percentage of next season—and the two seasons likely beyond that one—is going to unfold.

I say this both because I don’t like to see non-readers getting spoiled (given how much I’m against the idea of forcing spoilers on someone against their will), and because I personally think the transition from inevitability to uncertainty is exciting. I like not having a clear sense of what’s about to happen next: even though casting sides have revealed that we’re getting Dorne next season, it’s unclear how much we’ll get, or how they intend on connecting it to ongoing story developments. I like that I couldn’t tell you what the big Episode 9 climax of next season is going to be, and that the patterns the adaptation has established to this point are not just easily transferring over to my knowledge of the books. I like the idea of a stoneheart-sized hole in next season if only because it will be filled by something else, either entirely new or plucked from the rest of the narrative and developed accordingly.

And, if I’m being frank, I dislike the idea of the discourse around the series being entirely understood based on the divide among the show’s viewership. There will always be space for book-to-series comparisons. Every viewer will have their opinions on which is superior, and on the value of particular changes. But I think the show and its viewers would all be in a better place if we collectively acknowledged that there is a more basic response we all share to the series that feels—given recent events—to be a necessary one for readers and non-readers alike to engage with beyond simply comparing the two stories.


Filed under Game of Thrones

24 responses to “Heart-Shaped Hole: Game of Thrones Season 4 and the Death of Reader Certainty

  1. MrFerder

    Very interesting post. It’s great to read commentary from someone who’s actually read the books.

    About Lady Stone Heart’s absence, I’m thinking it might be chocked up to the fact that since Michelle Fairley was a lead previously on the show (name in the opening credits) they might not have been able to draw up a contract for her to appear in only one episode. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any examples where a lead GOT actor has appeared in a season for only a cameo role. Only examples I can think of are for minor characters like Hot Pie.

  2. belinda

    I was disappointed not to see Lady Stoneheart (in an episode called The Children, I did think it would be a fitting reveal) and I do think the omission of Tysha lightened a lot of the weight of the murder of Tywin by Tyrion, but I’m more worried with how because of that, Tyrion and Jaime left each other in entirely different circumstances. They still have their brotherly love (and even with the murder of Tywin I don’t see that changing) and Jaime never questioned Tyrion’s innocence in the murder of his child – so I’m not sure that would make sense in future seasons.

    Another big one was the reunion of Jaime and Cersei, which is a pretty huge departure from the books, especially in light of how they decided to depict the crypt incident in the show. In the books it wasn’t as definitively rape, but the aftermath of it – the split of Jaime and Cersei, where they did not reunite – certainly suggests that there was a breach of trust that neither could recover from. I’m not sure how this new angle would be taken in future seasons, and how it would change the motivations of the characters in the arcs they will be in.

  3. I may be inviting the wrath of other readers here, but–based on what we’ve seen in the books to date–at this point I could do without the Lady Stoneheart storyline. Her surprise introduction is a great holy-s— moment, yes, but over the hundreds of pages following, what does this story contribute? Theoretically, there’s great emotional power in Cat returning for vengeance; theoretically, it ties into the books’ Lord of Light mythology; but practically, as actually told on the page? Granted, it depends partly, like so many things, on whether GRRM plans some payoff here that makes the plot turn worth it. Maybe, and maybe it’s one of those dead ends that I’d be glad to see the series improve on. But at minimum, there’s so little in the LS story BEYOND the surprise that I’d see little harm in putting it off another year. The more I think about it though, the more I agree with Myles that it’s possible they’re ditching LS altogether–if not, it will certainly change her encounter with Brienne if B knows that Arya is alive and has seen her, no?

  4. Phoe

    As much as I was disappointed by the lack of Lady Stoneheart (being one of the few Catlyn fans) I can understand that not everything is to be included in the show. Also if she had been introduced, what will they do after? She would have appeared in the finale and then disappeared because we don’t know much of what happens or what she’s supposed to do.

    As a book reader I’m glad they held back (I don’t believe they will exclude her entirely) so they won’t have to spoil the upcoming book. If TWOW comes out in the next few months (a man can dream) then it will most likely tell us the fate of Jaime and Brienne and LS. There has to be something out of the storyline being related to Jaime and his atonement when he meets her.

    • keithzg

      The way book publishing works, we’ll probably know about a half-year ahead of time when TWOW is going to be released.

  5. Jack

    Is it possible the showrunners are just delaying the Stoneheart reveal until later next season because they don’t feel there is enough material to sustain that storyline throughout the series? If they reveal her now they need to come up with something for her to do for the next two seasons, otherwise people will be wondering what she’s doing off screen when they don’t see her for several episodes at a time and the whole schtick could start to wear a bit thin. It probably works better as a plot device if they delay it a little, give other characters in the Riverlands time to allude to it ominously like they do in the books, then introduce her later when she will have a real impact. Here’s hoping she’s not another Coldhands

    • Phoe

      I don’t think Coldhands and Stoneheart are the same thing. The former is just a bodyguard for Bran during his journey which fans decided is Benjen although we have nothing to substantiate the theory. Stoneheart is a driving force for both Brienne and Jaime (although it seems he will be doing a detour next season before getting to the Riverlands).

      • keithzg

        Coldhands is an interesting divergence in two ways, because in the books he makes Sam swear not to tell Jon about Bran, whereas in the show Sam *does* tell Jon. I’m not sure if that implies that there wasn’t a reason really for him not to tell (because of some as-yet-unknown aspect in the books that isn’t going to be/matter in the series) of if it’s just the inevitable result of Sam having no reason otherwise *not* to tell Jon. Maybe a bit of both, although I’m leaning towards the latter.

        Personally I wouldn’t be surprised (call it 50/50) if Coldhands shows up next season, since they’ll need *something* to happen in the far north with Bran’s story.

  6. Brandon Butler

    I definitely think they’re going to do Lady Stoneheart, but it just won’t be this season. I think the story for season 5 is probably looking a little thin, so they’ve pushed both Jon’s election to Lord Commander and the Lady Stoneheart reveal to next season.

    In fact, I would wager that Stoneheart will occur somewhere mid-way in Season 5, and be the last thing from ASOS making its way into the narrative. They need to give Brienne things to do, and Lady Stoneheart is the end set-piece of that journey. She doesn’t really do anything in particular until her AFFC material. I think it made sense to push her out a season.

    • keithzg

      Yeah, I’d slightly disagree and claim there’s a lot of things just waiting to be told in Season 5, but most of them are with characters we haven’t even met yet in the show (or have spent very little time with). So from that perspective, holding over two major events in regards to characters we started off with in the first episode makes perfect sense.

  7. emster26

    The way I look at it – after a night of sleep following some serious disappointment – it makes sense that Brienne wouldn’t see Lady Stoneheart yet. I mean, she is not in the Riverlands where LS is based.

    It also makes sense of a cheesy scene earlier in the journey. Was Brienne and Pod’s decision to turn left at the fork a metaphor for the adapters’ decision to deliberately deviate from the books? I hope not, and that we her once Brienne gets where she needs to go and Michelle Fairly isn’t heavily recurring on 24 and Suits.

  8. kelly

    Everyone seems so surprised by the Lady S omission. I’m not a TV critic and won’t pretend to be but here’s what I think. There were a few big twists in this episode, a lot going on that has had a whole season or more building to it. As much as I’ve been reading about book lovers wanting Lady S to appear, I was hoping she wouldn’t. I think the shock of the Tywin murder stands for itself and is a great place to end the season. Throwing in Lady S like an epilogue would have made book readers happy but would have 1. been super confusing for non-reading viewers and 2. detracted from the drama of Tywin’s death. There was absolutely no lead up to the Lady S reveal – no rumours about her no interactions where you wonder who she is, we haven’t even seen the BWB in over a season. Myles I remember you wrote last week that the battle at the wall expected us to pull too much from S3 because we haven’t seen much from Jon and Ygrette this season – including Lady S here would be even more extream. I mean I don’t love the character or that plot in the books, but I do think it would make a great shocking reveal in the show – but it needs the appropriate build up. If they do it next season they have lots of time build in a way that makes the reveal both shocking and relevant for viewers.

  9. keithzg

    Hmm, I think you’re being too optimistic. I suspect the vocal crowd that harps upon the differences between the books and the series will, rather than quiet down, become far more vocal now.

    • keithzg

      My original comment was more in-depth, but WordPress ate it saying that it couldn’t be posted—the above was the quick summary I posted to test if it would still let me. Huh.

      The TL;DR was that even I myself now find myself questioning the adaptation choices, whereas previously I was mostly quite happy to treat the two series as different entities. The obvious divergences and the omission of entire characters calls into question the conception of the respective worlds; I do think, if Lady Stoneheart never shows up, it is related to how Coldhands never has. In the books, it seems like the more cosmic forces at work are to a large degree involved with resurrection, tying together the general themes of what people leave behind as legacies when they die, and the callous indifference with which the lords and larger forces doom the commonfolk to squalor, despair and death. That GRRM seems to be combining a realistic(ish) medieval setting with grander fantasy, which both grounds and makes grander the fantasy in question, and that’s extremely compelling to me. Too many fantasy tales take themselves insufferable seriously without being able to give the stories weight and realism enough to hit the highs of the fantasy—I don’t buy it if you have a super powerful wizard and he just does whatever some randomly birthed King asks him to! It’s the coherent characters and detailed worldbuilding that makes the fantastic so fantastic rather than eye-rolling.

      What I’m saying is, bringing the themes of the stories of various folks on the ground up to the level of the broader, fantasy forces at play is a perfect approach if pulled off, and in the books I feel like for the most part GRRM has been doing so. Without (all but one of) the apparent resurrections, I feel like the show is leaving behind many of the thematic parallels between the broader background epic and the more realistic human struggles, which to me seems that D&D must have a different conception of what overall story they’re trying to tell than what I got from GRRM’s books. And that makes me much *more* likely to focus on differences in the future, not less.

      And if I am so inclined, despite being generally laid-back about such things and certainly moreso than the rabid commenters whose voices constitute a disproportionate portion of the online chatter, I think that at very least those already predisposed to loudly disapproving of any and all divergences from the source material will become louder and shriller now.

  10. Great post. I watch the series with my husband who hasn’t read the books and I initially would point out to him where the series differed from the books. We watched all of season one before I said anything and then he wanted to know every single difference. I stopped telling him in the end because it takes away from the weight of the scene we are watching, i.e. Brienne never fought The Hound in the book, but it was an amazing scene and would have been demoted by my husband to ‘irrelevant’ if I said it wasn’t in the books. I mostly put away my love of the books (I originally picked up the first in a bargain bin just before the third came out) and enjoy the series as a complement to the books, for example Dany locking her dragons away in the books had little effect of me, but seeing it in the series was heart wrenching. I heard an interesting interview with George R R Martin where he has said that the series has influenced his writing. The directors have also been let in on how major plot lines are set to finish (I heard), which could also mean small changes in the series now could have big implication in the books conclusions. Two two are therefore inexplicably entwined and highly complimentary – especially as we see these final books released.

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  12. Phoe

    More interviews and pieces are popping up that seem to say that LS is not happening, Alex Graves said in an interview that they wouldn’t bring back Michelle Fairley for such a small role. Also EW went ahead and published a story with the spoilers about LS in the header with an image and I guess they wouldn’t do that without getting some sort of confirmation from the show runners (otherwise it’s just a bizarre shitty thing).

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  14. I didn’t even consider it to be an omission until I noticed lots of people on the internet being concerned. I just assumed it was going to be kept back until next year.

    After all, some parts of Season Four’s storyline were from mid-book three, others were from fairly late in book five. The Lady Stoneheart reveal happens to be at the end of Book Three, but she didn’t interact with any major characters in that epilogue, so even in book world,, it could easily have taken place much later.

    Despite the changes (some necessary,. some irritating) I think that this has actually been one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve seen, so I’d be surprised if this plot was entirely left out. Where things have been left out, it’s got me wondering – is the series going in a different direction, or are things that fans think are going to be crucial to the plot not actually that important in the scheme of things in Martin’s mind,

  15. Skipjack

    I think LS is significant plot-wise because she gives the Brotherhood something to do and engineers moral compromise for Brienne, who is clearly going to have to choose between her feelings for Jaime and her sense of duty. We don’t see much of LS yet in the books, and I would be content with deferring her appearance, but I think the biggest concern for many book readers isn’t about purity but characterization.

    What drives the characters matters if the show makes substitutions, like making Tyrion kill Tywin over Shae instead of Tysha. So far these kind of changes have not been richer. So what is going to make Jaime break from Cersei? Him releasing Tyrion? Just a reveal of Lancel and her? While I don’t miss the Kettleblacks I do miss a more predatory Cersei. It would be strange if she does her walk of shame for something from the first season, and we haven’t seen Lancel’s actor since the Battle of the Blackwater.

    To answer the question Myles raises, much as I have enjoyed the show I’m not in love with it and I don’t think I’ll stick around if watching the show makes the books weaker when they come out. I think I’ll have a dilemma next season, especially considering they have caught up with Sansa and Bran. I could see them put Bran in some Jedi training holding pattern, but I think book spoilers are coming for Sansa and Littlefinger.

  16. Mindy

    I wasn’t caring too much about the book-to-show changes in the first three seasons. Truly, there are many changes from season 4 which I don’t mind, either. However, I, like a couple other commenters, am starting to get suspicious that D&D do not have the same thematic conception of this series as I do. I feel they have hugely botched the stories of Stannis and Jon, and they are doing a very poor job with Bran. And I can’t help feeling like these are actually very important stories in the overall scheme of things. D&D are seriously underplaying the level of fantasy in the story. I feel we are seeing the trickle down effect of this in the Jon/Stannis/Wildlings scenes and the Bran scenes. This becomes problematic to me because while the political games at King’s Landing are fun, they are clearly less important than what’s happening in the north.

    The showrunners trying to downplay all the fantasy elements is clearly the reason for the omission of Lady Stoneheart, as detailed in that linked EW article. In truth, I don’t care too much about LS. In reality, I feel a bit relieved that perhaps Brienne, Pod and even Jaime will get better storylines now. And I’d hate for all those characters to die because some zombie Catelyn wants revenge on people who weren’t even responsible for the fates of any her children. (Excepting Bran’s paralysis, I guess.)

    I sincerely hope that D&D use season 5 to get the Jon/Stannis and Bran stories back on track.

    Oh, and the change that has me the MOST worried is the rumor that Arianne Martell is going to be cut and replaced with an aged up Trystane. I will be furious if the show omits a female character with genuine power and replaces her with a male character. Especially in Dorne, a place which boasts about its equal treatment of women. And especially considering this show’s history of problematic depictions of women.

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  18. Food rates, in particular, could drop dramatically through

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