[WARNING – This article contains SPOILERS for Game of Thrones season 6, episode 1, as well as open discussion of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels.]
Last season of Game of Thrones made it abundantly clear it would not let itself be constrained or delayed by its source material - George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Though the HBO series began as quite the faithful adaptation, over the course of five seasons the show has begun straying from the books, and in some cases surpassing the novels' published narratives altogether.
It was this slow departure from the books that led to last year's Book to Screen Spoiler Discussions, where we invited book readers to discuss how the changes on the show would affect the course of the story. We're continuing these discussions with season 6 as there are still a few plot developments left in the novels that the show has yet to address. But, unlike last season, these discussions must also compare where book readers have been speculating the story will go and where Game of Thrones is actually taking it, as it's becoming apparent the two may not always be one in the same.
The season 6 premiere, 'The Red Woman', begins with one of those plots where everyone is on the same page - the fate of Jon Snow. The recently murdered Lord Commander and the few remaining loyal Crows hold up with Ser Davos, planning their next possible move, all while Ser Alliser Thorne and mutineers congratulate themselves on an assassination well done. The Boltons, having defeated Stannis' army - much as we eventually expect them to in the novels - begin their search for Sansa.
In King's Landing, Jaime returns from his off-book, Dornish excursion with his murdered daughter/niece, Myrcella, who in the novels fared much better, having only lost an ear, not her life. Margaery is still imprisoned by The Faith, though she's actually freed before Cersei is in the novels and to far less fanfare. Across the Narrow Sea, Tyrion is managing Meereen in place of Ser Barristan, which is presumably where Tyrion will find himself in book six (once it's published). Daenerys, too, is beginning what we imagine will be her Winds of Winter adventures with the Dothraki, while in Braavos, Arya still needs to finish some of her training before she ventures into material we've only read in Martin's book 6 preview chapters.
An Oath Finally Sworn
Early on in 'The Red Woman' there's a scene which feels a long time coming, though it still hasn't happened in the books - Brienne rescues Sansa and the two swear an oath of fealty. It's easily the happiest beat of the episode, delivering a respite for a character who has endured unimaginable cruelty since first setting off in season 1. It's also the partly the culmination of a quest Brienne began as far back as season 2, where she promised Lady Catelyn to return her daughters. Obviously, much has happened in the time since then, but seeing Sansa and Brienne recreate the moment (with a little help from Podrick) where Catelyn took Brienne into her service is a touching one, bringing that arc full circle.
Equally as touching was Theon and Sansa's embrace in the moments before the Bolton men find them. The episode doesn't imply what will happen to Theon now that Sansa is under Brienne's care, but surely Sansa won't abandon the closest person to family she has left.
However, having Sansa and Brienne together does pose more than a few questions about what happens next. Sansa's marriage to Ramsey was a departure from the books, as was having Brienne tail her all the way north. There's an implication the two will travel to Castle Black, seeking protection from Jon - but as that certainly won't work out for them, it seems all the more likely Brienne will convince Sansa to find safety among Northern lords still loyal to the Starks. It seems doubtful Brienne will return Sansa to the Vale - which is where she remains as of book 5 - but then again, Brienne herself is expected to turn up in the Riverlands this season.
Just where they go may not matter, as long as they're together. But having them together, and having Brienne at least partially fulfill her oath to Catelyn seems to have put to rest those Lady Stoneheart rumors once and for all. David Benioff and Dan Weiss have been very clear they've cut Stoneheart from the show, and this development seems to confirm that. So without a threat from Stoneheart, why does Brienne travel to Riverrun? Could it be to deliver Sansa to her closest blood relatives, the remaining Tullys?
The Mess In Dorne
It's been widely acknowledged that Game of Thrones' depiction of A Song Of Ice And Fire's Dorne plot has been a huge mess. However, were someone unfamiliar with the machinations of Prince Doran - as anyone who has only watched the show would be - then his shocking assassination at the hands of Ellaria Sand is a welcome turn of events. On Game of Thrones, Dorne only became interesting once Ellaria and the Sand Snakes started killing people, so seeing this continue in the premiere has definitely upped the stakes.
Still, those of us who've read the books are surely upset over the treatment these characters received. (Areo Hotah, especially, didn't deserve to die like a putz.) Though Martin does take his sweet time revealing the role Doran intends to play, once his true Targaryen allegiance is revealed it becomes clear that Dorne seeks to side with Daenerys were she to invade Westeros. Even in the books Dany is nowhere near that point - though she's aware of Doran's intentions thanks to his son, Quentyn's pathetic attempts at wooing - but by the end of book 5 there's another Targaryen who turns up in Westeros, and Doran is clearly intrigued by him, too.
By now it seems certain there will be no miraculous return of Aegon Targaryen on the show, which does appear to imply that in the novels Aegon is either an impostor or is killed before he can make an attempt at the throne. And though it's a shame to lose a clever Doran who's been scheming behind everyone's back for years, the whole introduction of a second Targaryen - and one who would have a stronger claim to the throne than Dany - is a very convoluted development that seemingly comes out of nowhere.
But with Doran dead, no sign of Aegon, and Daenerys totally unaware Dorne could be her ally, just what part the southern kingdom has to play is a total mystery. Book readers have speculated Ellaria would fill the role of Arrianne Martell - Doran's daughter who at first rebels before allying with her father when he reveals the full scope of his plans - but the premiere just destroyed that theory. Now it appears as if Ellaria herself will seize control in Dorne, seeking revenge against the Crown for both Elia and Oberyn's murders. Two of the Sand Snakes, Obara and Nymeria, are on their way to King's Landing, which is all a part of Doran's deception in the books, but it doesn't appear Ellaria is interested in the long con the same way Doran was. Maybe they turn the ship around, maybe they continue on to raise hell in the capital? Either way, Dorne is now as about off book as it could be - something that has quickly turned the worst plot of season 5 into the most fascinating of season 6.
Melisandre's True Form
Though Game of Thrones' season 6 premiere was titled 'The Red Woman', not until the final minutes of the episode was the nature of the title revealed, when Melisandre stripped down to bare her true form - a centuries old woman, withered by age. Needless to say, this is news to absolutely everyone - book reader or not - but it isn't necessarily a shocking surprise. Since introduced, Melisandre has given the impression she knows a lot more than she's letting on, even inferring back in season 2 she's been at war against the darkness longer than anyone.
That's now been confirmed, but the twist of Melisandre removing her glamour is that it also cements the authenticity of her magic. Though we've seen her red god accomplish some amazing things, like season 2's murderous shadow baby, Melisandre's belief that Stannis was Azor Ahai has been proven false. Having failed Stannis, Melisandre's faith is shaken, which is why (as is explained by Benioff and Weiss in this week's Inside the Episode) she needs to look upon her true self, to remind herself how long she's been fighting and to not yet give up.
Presumably, this reveal of the true Melisandre will eventually happen in the books, but in the show it takes the place of something the books have been telling us since she arrived at Castle Black - that her powers are stronger near the wall. Why, exactly, is unclear, but it may have something to do with a certain bastard she keeps seeing in the flames whenever she asks R'hllor to show her Azor Ahai.
That Melisandre will resurrect Jon remains the strongest theory surrounding his fate, and though the premiere assured us Jon is well and truly dead, it did nothing to refute the possibility it's Melisandre who brings him back. If anything, revealing that Melisandre is centuries old and capable of powerful magic has only made it all the more likely she's the key to his return. Does this mean that Melisandre has finally found her savior, the true Azor Ahai? Maybe, but don't forget there are others red priests and priestesses across the sea who are convinced it's Daenerys who is the 'prince that was promised.' They can't both be Azor Ahai - or can they? The dragon is said to have three heads after all...
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with ‘Home’ @9pm on HBO.