Game of Thrones Season Two: What Went Wrong

Although Game of Thrones season two had many excellent moments, it also brought many disappointments. Occasionally, these could be blamed on the difficulties of converting such an immersive novel to screen. More often, however, it involved unnecessary changes to characterization and plot that simplified a morally-complex world into tropes that are more palatable for the supposed average viewer. Those planning to read A Clash of Kings might want to avert their eyes, since this post contains explicit and detailed comparisons of book vs. TV plot.

Robb and Catelyn never learn of Bran and Rickon's "deaths"

In the books:

We first learn about the "deaths" of Bran and Rickon when Catelyn receives a raven from Winterfell. Her grief is moving and all-consuming, and she releases Jaime Lannister in a desperate attempt to save the only other children she has left. Robb, meanwhile, hears about his brothers' deaths and is "comforted" by Jeyne Westerling.

In the show:

Robb and Catelyn never hear that Theon even pretended to kill the two boys. They explicitly state that he would never hurt them, and they never waiver in that belief. In a show that is often about emotional twists and shocking the audience, it's surprising that they brushed this twist under the metaphorical rug, making it pretty clear, from the very beginning, that the Stark boys were not actually dead and never allowing Catelyn to take center stage as the heart-broken, grieving mother. Catelyn's grief in the books is all the more moving because it is misplaced -- because, if only she had some way of learning the truth, she would have no need to grieve (or at least, not for these children). Without this grief, her release of Jaime Lannister becomes rather arbitrary, the frivolous whim of a woman who does not understand that strategy comes before the freedom of worthless girls. Meanwhile, the Word of God tells us that Robb sleeps with Talisa (the show's Jeyne Westerling replacement) because he was angry with his mother, turning another sympathetic story of grief into one where the King in the North seems like kind of a brat.

Speaking of which...

Robb marries Talisa for true love

In the books:

Robb marries Jeyne Westerling because it is the honorable thing to do. He pits his duty to keep his promise to the Freys against the fact that Jeyne's life may be ruined forever if he does not marry her, and chooses to do the more-immediately-seeming noble thing.

In the show:

Robb marries Talisa because he loves her. The story is lacking straight-up love stories without a disturbing twist (the next best thing might be Jaime and Brienne, and they're hardly conventional), so it does make sense that the writers would like to turn Robb into the story's romantic hero. However, the way that he brushes aside Catelyn's advice only adds to the bratty persona, while the show's attempt to pit the "beautiful" and "exotic" Talisa against the plain and mundane Frey girl (who we never even see) creates a concerning plotline about what a woman must be like to be worthy of the King. She has bewitched him in spite of himself, and so he will throw all strategy away, ignore all advice, to marry her for their love. It replaces a tale of grief and conflicting honor, another piece in the tangled morality of this world, with one that makes Robb look like a selfish fool.

Jaime never swears a vow to Catelyn

In the books:

Catelyn forces Jaime Lannister to swear a vow before she releases him. He promises to return her daughters to her unharmed, and vows never to raise a sword against a Tully or a Stark again. Even though Catelyn believes Jaime's vows are worthless, she decides it is better than nothing, and the fact that he makes this vow plays an important role in his plotline and character development moving forwards.

In the show:

Catelyn does have Brienne bring out her sword while in Jaime's cage (suggesting the possibility of a vow), but none is seen on screen or mentioned by any character. Hopefully this will be fixed in future episodes, but for now, it leaves a hole in Jaime's plot and takes away one of the most important moments in the narrative of many characters. Thematically, in my opinion, Jaime must make this vow. He has "broken every vow he ever took," but he must make this one. I hope its absence does not bode ill for his characterization in future seasons.

Sansa does not ally with Ser Dontos

In the books:

Sansa saves the drunken knight, Ser Dontos, from Joffrey by suggesting that Joffrey turns him into a fool. In gratitude, Ser Dontos vows to protect Sansa and help her to escape from King's Landing. She meets him frequently in the Godswood, and he compares himself to the legendary romantic knight/fool Florian to win her trust.

In the show:

Sansa saves Ser Dontos by turning him into a fool. They never meet again. Technically, her plotline this season could stand losing Ser Dontos. However, he plays a major role in her emotional growth, and in the thematic growth of her storyline, as she continues to play with the hope that life will be like a song, and continues to be disillusioned. Sansa received a lot less screentime in this season than in the book, and the cutting of Ser Dontos, and of most of her struggles to adapt to the harsh realities of King's Landing, is responsible for at least part of that. This might be a cynical perspective, but I believe the screenwriters found this plotline unnecessary, because it is all about romance and songs (and their unrealistic nature), about the loss of innocence (and the struggle to maintain it), and Sansa's ever fluctuating states of hope and fear. Why include all that, when you can simply portray her as the occasionally snarky victim instead? Sansa's characterization in the show was generally excellent... but I wish they had included more.

Brienne kills without a thought

In the books:

Brienne is a skilled fighter, but she has never seen a battle, and she has never killed anyone. For all her ability with a sword, she is quite naive and romantic, completely believes in all the codes of honor that Sansa also holds dear, and would avoid killing someone if at all possible.

In the show:

Brienne is very matter-of-fact about killing. She kills several men in Renly's tent to defend herself, and later kills the Stark men who attack her, even giving one of them a particularly painful death in revenge. The new, tougher, unflappable Brienne is an interesting character, but she's also a simplified one. She is everything you would expect from a "tough lady knight" figure, while book!Brienne subverts those tropes and expectations to suggest that a woman can be both tough and romantic, strong and naive, Arya and Sansa, all at the same time. She's a complex, fascinating and compelling character, and she's lost that in the show's interpretation of her this season.

Arya is NOT a killer

In the books: 

Arya is getting more and more vicious. As well as asking Jaqen to kill two men (one for bragging about rape, one for hitting her), she is involved in a plot where several men are murdered and turned into soup, and personally kills the guards in cold blood as she escapes from Harrenhal.

In the show:

Arya asks Jaqen to kill two men: the torturer and a man who plans to reveal her spying to Tywin Lannister. When she escapes, Jaqen kills the guards and clears the way for her. In contrast to the case of Brienne, the show seems uncomfortable with a little girl as a killer, and so scalea back Arya's actions into the more traditional realm of "tomboy with a sword." Although she recites her list of people she wants to kill, she is not a murderer herself this season, taking away a key part of both her thematic and plot arc. Although she says the words "Valar Morghulis," "all must die," she is not embracing them in her attitude. She's not the Arya of the books: a traumatized little girl who learns that her own survival is often the result of the deaths of others, who views death coldly, and who believes vehemently in personal vengeance. She's a softer Arya, and the longterm consequences of that are as-yet unclear.

Daenerys does not hear any prophecies

In the books: 

Daenerys goes into the House of the Undying for answers about where she should go next. While wandering through the House, she sees many visions of events past and future, including a bloody wedding, the birth of a young boy declared "the Prince who was Promised," a crazed king declaring that a rival could be "the king of ashes," and a blue flower growing out of a wall of ice. She also hears the whispered voices of the inhabitants of the house, telling her that "the dragon has three heads," calling her the "mother of death," and repeating that "three treasons you will know."

In the show: 

Daenerys goes into the House of the Undying to find her dragons. She sees a vision of Drogo and their son, but moves on from them when she realizes they are an illusion. She also sees the Iron Throne, covered in snow and ice, before being captured and using her dragons to free herself. The House of the Undying is one of the highlight's of Daenery's plot, and one of the creepiest and most memorable scenes in A Clash of Kings (or even in the series as a whole). The show simply did not do it justice. Yet the problems run further than that. The prophecies in the House of the Undying fuel Daenery's doubt and paranoia about the traitors that she will face, the allies she must find, and whether her actions and choices are truly for the good of her people. They directly contradict Daenery's book mantra that "if I look back, I am lost," by including past events which are vital to understanding the present and the future. They suggest that everything is interconnected. And they're freaking cool.