Defending Dead Direwolves: Part 5 of 5

Posted: September 23, 2018 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
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This is the final post in a series talking about the direwolves on Game of Thrones (with some references to their analogous narratives in the books of A Song of Ice and Fire.) For more info on what this post is about, you can check out Part One. I tried to constrain myself to a five-part series, but part four was split up among two separates posts, because I was too verbose.

Nymeria hates verbosity as much as she hates Lannisters.

If you’ve wandered here without having read any of the previous essays talking about the direwolves, here’s the Too Long; Didn’t Read summation.

The direwolves on Game of Thrones appear to be an endangered species, and though it might not be correct to say that I’m okay with that, it is entirely fair to say that I’m not not okay with that. If there’s weakness in the adaptation of the direwolves’ narrative (which is hard to say definitively since there are more of the books to come out) then that weakness is probably on par with the other shortcuts taken in adapting A Song of Ice and Fire.

When George RR Martin set out to write A Game of Thrones, he specifically chose not to worry if what he was going to create would be filmable. And so he dove in on things that were spectacular: an immense structure of ice that was taller than it needed to be, sky hugging castles, armies that numbered in tens of thousands, mysterious alchemical potions that behave like medieval weapons of mass destruction. And dragons (a different type of fantasy WMD.)

Those are some of the examples that GRRM regarded as unfilmable, but in my opinion – those were elements of the books that were relatively straightforward to translate to the screen. (Even if I question the execution of some of those things. *cough cough* The Eyrie *cough cough*)

I think the more difficult elements to properly translate from page to screen are the things that are less overtly spectacular. The complex workings of the characters’ inner dialogues. The regional politics. The subtleties of magic that are so subtle that in some cases – they might only exist in the thousands and thousands of fan analyses on the topic.

GRRM: It would be foolish of me to either confirm or deny.

So when the show takes shortcuts, either for narrative reasons or because a more faithful adaptation would not be satisfyingly cinematic, it’s these subtler areas that take the hit.

The direwolves are the Starks aren’t entirely subtle. Biting off fingers, unjustly sacrificed to Cersei’s bloodlust, and being huge and adorable are pretty great and make for good television. But the more nuanced elements of the direwolves and their warging bond with all of the Stark children (and Jon) – some of that, like Bran and Summer, plays well and was included in the show. But some of it was set aside. Although it’s a bummer, I don’t think it’s a tragedy.

For example: if it’s true as is speculated that Ghost contributes to Jon’s resurrection (or will do so in the upcoming The Winds of Winter) why not signal that on the show? What’s to be gained in committed the production to having Ghost in the room when Jon revives, but not make it clear that he had been warged into by Jon?

Melisandre: After they stabbed you, where did you go? What did you see?
Jon: I was totally looking out of Ghost’s eyes the whole time. You smell like cinnamon, by the way.
Melisandre: Well, I do believe in fancy baths.
Jon: I mean, you smell like cinnamon to Ghost. He’s got a great sense of smell, even if he personally smells like shellfish.

Last post, I mentioned that I had some thoughts on why the show might be underplaying Ghost’s role. Time to lay those cards on the table.

A Time For Wolves

Season Five was a somewhat atypical season for Game of Thrones. The character of Bran Stark (along with Summer, Hodor, and Meera) were given the season off, after making their way to the cave of the Three Eyed Raven.

Jaime Lannister and Sansa Stark had their book-narratives greatly re-engineered, taking Jaime uncanonically to Dorne, and having Sansa Stark regretfully taking on the role of her childhood friend Jeyne Poole as the bride in the Grey Wedding.

But Jon Snow’s storyline was reasonably faithful to his tenure as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch from A Dance With Dragons, though with many missing supporting characters and his non-canonical adventures at Hardhome. (The rule of cool is “show – don’t tell” so the television version of Hardhome quite honestly kicks ass over the war correspondence Jon was reading about Hardhome from Cotter Pyke.) This led to Jon’s fatal encounter with the rebellious elements among his brothers, syncing up Jon’s story on the show with his final chapter in the last published book.

I remember how so many people kept trying to make that blood spilling out of Jon into some kind of prophetic image. Like a medieval Rorschach test.

This took place in 2015, which marked not the publication of The Winds of Winter as many hoped, but of this end-of-the-year message from George RR Martin.

THE WINDS OF WINTER is not finished.

Believe me, it gave me no pleasure to type those words. You’re disappointed, and you’re not alone. My editors and publishers are disappointed, HBO is disappointed, my agents and foreign publishers and translators are disappointed… but no one could possibly be more disappointed than me. For months now I have wanted nothing so much as to be able to say, “I have completed and delivered THE WINDS OF WINTER” on or before the last day of 2015.

But the book’s not done.
— GRRM, Not A Blog from January 2, 2016

(Okay, I said that was an end of 2015 message, but it was really a beginning of 2016 message. Let’s not split hairs.)

The sixth season brought a host of revelations. Jon Snow was not permanently dead (as if anyone believed that, despite the showrunners leaning into it), the tragic backstory of Hodor crushed the audience emotionally, and Bran Stark’s time-traveling visions showed not only the battle at the Tower of Joy, but also the aftermath that established what (most) book readers knew in their hearts – that Jon Snow was not Eddard Stark’s son, but Lyanna Stark’s baby boy.

Throughout the season, I’d hear these kind of statements:

“I bet GRRM would have liked to have shown Jon’s resurrection, and not have it spoiled by the show.”

“George just said that the Hodor reveal on the show was basically what he has in store in the books. I bet he would have liked to have been the one to reveal it.”

“It’s too bad George wasn’t given the chance to be the first one to present the big R + L = J twist.”

Okay, I bet that George would have liked to have been ahead of the show on these things. I suppose the showrunners would have liked that too, since they’re still hoping The Winds of Winter will exonerate them for Shireen’s burning.

GRRM: Hmmm, it’s not too late to arrange for Shireen to end up on the Iron Throne, with Rickon Stark as her consort.
Benioff and Weiss: George, we’re begging you. No.
GRRM: Don’t blame me, blame the garden…

But despite everyone’s hopes, the book did not materialize in 2015. Or 2016. Or 2017. And probably won’t in 2018.

So the show has to forge ahead without a clear roadmap.

But what does this have to do with Ghost resurrecting Jon, and the show keeping that incredibly under the radar?

Well, the show is getting heat for spoiling the unpublished books. There’s no help for that. But – in my incredibly charitable take on behalf of the showrunners – I feel they’re leaving some ground uncovered for George to explore with his readers.

In the Season Six, there was very little hope not to spoil the Hodor reveal. Benioff and Weiss had already skipped a season with Bran, a character whose show story had been criticized as not all that compelling. (And a character who should be still a child, and not the super-tall young man that the actor has become.) Bran’s story in the sixth season had to have some big payoffs. So, Hodor held that door.

But some of Bran’s perspective got dialed down. Lyanna telling Ned Jon’s true name – Aegon – gets muted in Season Six, I assume to kick the can down the street for another year in case George got a book written and that he could drop that name.

When Season Seven rolled around, there was no slack left in the story to keep the audience from knowing that Dany was hooking up not only with her nephew, but with the likely true-claimant to the Iron Throne.

So I feel that the showrunners were giving George what chances they could to make these reveals. Until they couldn’t.

Which leads us to Jon’s resurrection. They couldn’t not have Jon come back. But they could dial down the nuanced mechanism of Ghost being Jon’s warging partner. And so I feel that they did.

And it’s not like that info can’t be communicated later on the show if it becomes essential.

Jon: Bran! It’s so good to see you!
Bran: I heard you were dead.
Jon: Yeah. This red witch brought me back to life. It was weird.
Bran: Well, actually, you’re a warg like me, and you warged into Ghost who kept your soul from eroding, and that’s why you’re not a fire wight like Beric Dondarrion or my mother in a different version of this story.
Jon: What?
Bran: Oh, and you’re boning your aunt. NICE.

Now, I’ll admit once again that this is a very charitable read that I am extending on behalf of Benioff and Weiss. This is probably way more benefit of the doubt than they deserve, but I think some charity can be extended as a counterpoint to when the opposite happens.

This entire series of posts has been centered on the direwolves in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, and there’s a reason I’m using the wolves to make observations and draw conclusions about the showrunners’ intentions.

Early this year, I attended the second Con of Thrones, held in Dallas, Texas. It was a great convention with engaged fans, an accommodating hotel, and too many excellent panels. (I say ‘too many’ because painful choices had to be made all day on what panel to miss out on.)

One of the panels was simply focused on the direwolves – full disclosure, I largely attended because my wife Lisa was one of the panelists and I wanted to support her. It was a good panel! If I get a chance to upload the audio to YouTube or find that someone else has, I’ll share it here on the blog. But there were some comments in regards to the presentation of the direwolves that stuck with me.

  • The lack of direwolves, specifically the lack of the warging bond with the Stark children indicated a fundamental lack of understanding or interest from the showrunners.
  • The complexity and expense of having live-action but digitally enhanced wolves as direwolves is just an excuse, because the show is complex and expensive in other ways.
  • The offhand references to the direwolves (like Sansa mentioning that the North won’t patiently wait for Jon the way Ghost does) are essentially Fuck Yous to the fans who want to see the direwolves.

Okay, I’m paraphrasing a bit here, and I believe the panelists and the audience members were all sincere that they love the show and that their criticisms should be taken in good faith. But these points are particularly uncharitable in regards to the showrunners and their ability to adapt GRRM’s unfilmable epic.

Also, I want to remind everyone that these guys signed on to adapt the books. I always want to extend them some baseline credit that they’ve been more or less forced into a very different situation in regards to helming the show to a satisfying conclusion, or at least a conclusion, without the finished books as a guide.

I’d like to address the above bullet points in reverse order.

Offhand References? [EXPLETIVE] You!

I’ll agree that the rule of cool is “show, don’t tell” – but it seems a bit narcissistic to take a personal slight when that rule is broken. And George doesn’t always show, he sometimes tells. It certainly would have been much more satisfying to actually see Ghost brooding around Winterfell, than hear Sansa mention it. But if someone gets overly upset about that, I don’t know if any kind of meaningful discussion can be had.

And I don’t necessarily know what would be gained if we got a brief glimpse of Ghost.

Sansa: The North won’t wait patiently for Jon to return, like Ghost.
*Ghost seen in background – his ears perk up adorably*
Fan: IS THAT ALL WE’RE GOING TO SEE OF GHOST THIS SEASON? WHAT A ‘FUCK YOU’ TO ME!
Benioff and Weiss: We can save some money and just not produce these shots of Ghost, and honestly the abuse towards us will be approximately the same.

But don’t worry guys. My image-editing skills can save the day.

Flawless. And in no way an insult to anyone wanting to see more shots of Ghost in Winterfell.

Or is it?

Expense and Excuses

There seems to be some kind of logic in saying that the showrunners obviously have a big budget to work with, and are already handling the incredible complexity of multiple crews working with very complicated shooting schedules and demanding production requirements. Dragons are expensive CGI elements. Sets have to be constructed, on time, and look good. Action scenes choreographed. Hundreds of extras to be costumed, fed, paid, and otherwise not killed during shooting.

To say that the show can’t handle the complexity of filming with wolves in Canada, based on their schedule, and digitally enlarging the wolves for insertion with live action actors seems like a small thing compared to the rest of Game of Thrones.

It’s the same logic where the person in the office who has the most on their plate gets more work added on. Because they’re already doing so much, they must be able to get things done. Or the idea that someone can just do more with less, because they have to.

First off, to say that these things are “just excuses” is kind of a weird thing. Since it’s implying that they’re not really excuses. I guess? I mean, as a parent I can tell you that there’s a world of difference in an excused absence from school and an unexcused absence from school.

The production from Game of Thrones has a finite amount of money, time, resources, personnel. Committing some of those assets to specific production elements means there are less assets for other production elements. That’s not hard to understand. But maybe hard to accept.

And we as an audience do see more and more of that money being utilized on the show.

The first season’s Tourney of the Hand pretty much looked like a Renaissance Festival level of production, instead of the amazing panoply and gala that stunned a delighted Sansa Stark. And I’m not talking Maryland Renaissance Festival level production, I’m talking Fredericksburg, Virginia Renaissance Faire level production. (Shots fired, Virginia!) Compare the tourney to the fighting pits in Meereen, which required an enormous construction effort. Perhaps the least impressive aspects of the Meereenese location were the shots of Daenerys on her dragon, flying away.

I AM DROGON! I LOOK FABULOUS!

The show has gotten better presenting humans and dragons interacting, but not at that moment. But it’s not like the show could have omitted Dany and Drogon’s escape from the Sons of the Harpy, and substitute in some dialog.

Tyrion: Well, that was an exciting sporting event. It’s not every day you see a dragon roast a bunch of people and then fly off with a rider, let alone a queen.
Grey Worm: Grey Worm has seen dragons roasting people. Not that big a deal.
Missandei: The dragon-riding is a new thing.
Daario: Did I tell you that I’ve been riding the dragon? Let me explain…
Ser Jorah: No. Don’t.

There’s a difference between investing in seeing the direwolves, and investing in seeing the dragons. Although the direwolves are important to the story of the Starks, the dragons are essential to Daenerys Targaryen’s story. And even the dragons were victims of cost-cutting measures early on.

Qartheen: Hey, we of the Thirteen would be happy to allow you to enter Qarth, the greatest city that ever was or ever will be, and not die in the wasteland outside the city. But it would be awfully cool if we could see your dragons first. Just a peek?
Daenerys: How dare you ask to see my dragons! Rude.
Ser Jorah: There really isn’t a budget for it, you see. But you can take my word for it, that the Khaleesi’s dragons are magnificent.
Daenerys: Uhh…
Stannis: Seeing the dragons now would cut in on other special effects items like wildfire explosions. I demand you expose your dragons now!

Somehow, Daenerys keeping her babies covered up didn’t get the fans complaining of the show insulting them.

Benioff and Weiss – Like Jon Snow, They Know Nothing

The final bullet point to address is the suggestion that the underplaying of the direwolves indicates that the showrunners either don’t understand the subtleties of the story they’re adapting, or they don’t care to get to the real meat of the story. Or whatever.

I kind of touched on this in the very first post – the showrunners have way more information about where the books might be going than we do. I also assume that George RR Martin has indicated what’s critical in his mind, and if they’ve strayed from any of those points, they’ve had their reasons. GRRM did accept that he was going to make his series unfilmable, after all.

I can’t speak to the showrunners’ interest in adapting George’s epic with fidelity and good faith, but I don’t think I even want to. The suggestion that they’re not trying to tell a good story is one that raises my hackles, because it screams of fan entitlement. And the past year, with the release of the latest Star Wars movie The Last Jedi has perhaps made me very sensitive to the idea of fans feeling they know better than the creators of entertainment that they’re invested in. And then being asses about it.

There are many aspects of A Song of Ice and Fire that are not getting translated accurately to the show, and there are many reasons for that. But the direwolves in particular seem to bring out a higher level of personal reaction from fans. I understand that, I’m not trying to scold the fans for feeling how they feel. I mean, I like Tyrion’s chain, and I miss it from the Battle of the Blackwater, but I LOVE me those direwolves.

If someone tells me that they consider Ghost a close and personal friend, I’m not going to tell them that this fictional direwolf doesn’t know who they are. Their feelings are real, even if the animal in question is not. But I can’t get too on board with them trying to push their emotional expectations on the show, and their getting upset when those expectations are not realized.

Benioff and Weiss: We had no idea that “Only Cat” was a thing.
Me: I think it’s fine that you didn’t know, guys. Stay off Reddit.

Looking to the Future

Okay, it is time to finally put this post and this series to bed. I appreciate everyone who read and enjoyed it. (Or at least, told me that they enjoyed it.) But since I’ve been justifying direwolf deaths or predicting deaths for the remaining ones (mostly I was suggesting that Ghost might be a ghost at the end of the show) – I’d like to end on a more positive note.

The story begins with six direwolf pups being found, assigned to the Stark children (and Jon.) Okay, the story actually begins with some Night’s Watch guys being slaughtered by an inhuman threat, but lets hand wave that a bit.

The pups are certainly important, and their children are important to the story. But it’s arguable if the Starks are more important than the Lannisters or the Targaryens (I’m stressing the plural there for a reason) in the overall story. But since we started the story more closely following the Starks as protagonists, it seems correct that the story bookends with them.

Although things have been rough on the initial batch of direwolves, I expect at least one of them to live, and I expect more direwolves in the future.

Theon Greyjoy said, “There’s not been a direwolf sighted south of the Wall in two hundred years.”
A Game of Thrones, Bran I

The Wall is currently breached, and evil things are coming from the north into the kingdom of the North. But if we presume that direwolves are still native to the haunted forests that had been home to the wildlings beyond the Wall, some might come south through the breach.

And come to Winterfell.

The direwolf pups were carried to near Winterfell by their pregnant mother. Maybe it was only a coincidence, maybe Bloodraven warged this wolf south (which doesn’t explain how long Bloodraven had been trying to find a direwolf pregnant with a litter of six pups whose genders matched the children of Catelyn and Ned Stark – and also Jon – or why he was doing this) or maybe it was the Old Gods themselves, acting in mysterious ways. (You guys, it was GRRM. Don’t get too spun on this.)

So, similar mysterious forces might take a hand after the Others are defeated, to bring more direwolves, the symbols of the Starks, to Winterfell. Either Old Gods, or Bran acting as the Three Eyed Raven, or GRRM acting as simply destiny.

Maybe to replace those wolves who were lost but not forgotten. But maybe to be companions to the grandchildren of Ned Stark, and the grandchildren of Lyanna Stark.

I’m not necessarily on board with the idea that A Song of Ice and Fire is so heavily about the subtle warging bond between the Stark children and the direwolves (despite what some people might say.) But I do believe that looking forward to the future is an important theme. We see that in Tywin Lannister’s obsession on legacy, we see it in Doran Martell’s patience and fearing sacrificing the future victory in service of a hollow pursuit in the present. But I see a focus on the future most heavily in the words of the most forward-looking house in the series.

Winter is Coming.

And with winter, wolves.


(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)

Most images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.) 

If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2018 Some Rights Reserved

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