Game of Thrones season two exceeded our already high expectations and defied our fears. As George R.R. Martin's source material becomes more and more challenging to adapt, the TV show managed to stick remarkably close to Martin's storylines while making some elegant adjustments. Now that the second season is over, we can see just how well it paid off.
So here are 10 excellent liberties the TV show made with Martin's A Clash of Kings.
Spoiler alert: We're assuming you've seen all of season two, and read A Clash of Kings. No knowledge of the later books is needed, and we'll do our best to keep the comments free of spoilers for A Storm of Swords and beyond.
Not all of the changes in season two were excellent — the Daenerys storyline was nicely streamlined but the stuff in Qarth became way too incoherent. And Tyrion's tactical genius was way more in evidence in the book, both before and during the Battle of Blackwater. And so on — there were a few other changes that made us a bit sad.
10. No Big Walder and Little Walder
Winterfell was a lot more crowded in the book, in general — and there were a lot more meetings in which Bran tried to be the Stark in Winterfell. The TV show wisely trimmed a lot of that stuff out, and also deleted the two Frey boys who are visiting Winterfell. On the one hand, Big Walder and Little Walder are colorful characters, and Little Walder's sudden change of allegiance when Theon takes the castle is pretty horrible. But still, they don't add all that much to the story, and they distract from Bran's main arc this time around: trying to be a Lord, and then losing everything. (More debatable is whether the show should have kept Jojen and Meera this time around, or simply added them in season three, which is apparently what's going to happen.)
9. No Ser Cortnay
In the book, Stannis doesn't head straight for King's Landing after the death of his brother/rival Renly. Instead, Stannis is putting siege to Storm's End, a castle held by Ser Cortnay Penrose. (He's already besieging Storm's End when he has his fateful encounter with Renly, but the siege goes on a long time after that.) Stannis is laying siege to Storm's End because Melisandre, the Red Priestess, has foreseen that Stannis needs to have Edric Storm (one of King Robert's bastards) to win the war. Ser Cortnay won't hand Edric over, and eventually Melisandre kills Ser Cortnay with another one of her shadow monsters. This is sort of redundant, since she already kills Renly that way. And it saps a lot of the urgency out of Stannis' story to have him hang around a minor castle instead of attacking King's Landing, once he has the troops. Also, there were some really nice moments here and there for Ser Davos Seaworth that weren't in the books, at least not in the same way.
8. The Odyssey of Ros
Actually, I have profoundly mixed feelings about this one — a lot of the brutality that befalls random women in the book all winds up falling on Ros, the sex worker who moved to King's Landing from the North early on in season one. She's pretty much a new character in the TV show, and we see her witnessing a baby's murder, getting threatened with unspeakable abuse by Littlefinger, participating in Joffrey's sadistic games, and then getting beaten to a pulp by Cersei's men. It's a lot of torture happening to one woman — but the notion that she's going to become Lord Varys' spy, as introduced in the season finale, holds a lot of promise. And for a show that features so much insane brutality towards women and sex work, having one woman who's a focal point for that theme — and (hopefully) gets to strike back, could be a major plus. In any case, at least with Ros in the mix, these things form an arc, rather than just a series of isolated nasty incidents.
7. Cersei's Realization
Cersei has a pretty neat storyline in the book, including scheming to spread rumors that Stannis' daughter is actually the illegitimate spawn of his court fool Patchface. But her arc on television is even more fascinating in a lot of ways — she dares to slap Joffrey early on in one episode, and he threatens her with death. And after she witnesses some of his crazy recklessness, like ordering the deaths of all of King Robert's bastards, she obviously starts to have misgivings about her own son. This leads to a couple of scenes, especially between her and Tyrion, where she basically admits that Joffrey is insane as a result of her incest, and a terrible King. But she still loves him, because — as she tells Sansa — you have no choice but to love your children. Her scenes with Sansa have this amazing mixture of sadism and pity. Cersei has a few extra layers on television, at least partly thanks to Lena Headey's amazing performance.
6. No Reek Switcheroo
The business with Ramsay Snow, Roose Bolton's bastard, and his obnoxious servant Reek, is really complicated and would have been a nightmare to do justice to on screen. In the book, Ramsay hardly appears, but he's talked about a lot — he kidnaps Lady Donella Hornwood, forces her to marry him, and then imprisons her. And when Ser Rodrik Cassel shows up to deal with him, he changes clothes with his servant Reek, so as to escape. Later, still pretending to be the servant Reek, Ramsay Snow joins up with Theon, and it's "Reek" who comes up with the plan to kill the miller's sons and pass them off as Bran and Rickon. Eventually, Theon sends "Reek" to get help, and Ramsay returns with a small army. He pretends to join forces with Ser Rodrik, then betrays him. And later, once he's rejoined Theon, he betrays Theon as well. It's a very complicated story that's mostly told second hand, and the notion of having a character we've never met in disguise as another character we've never met could have been impossible to portray on screen. Given that Ramsay is mentioned often but not seen in season two, there's no doubt we'll meet him in season three.
5. More for Jaime to do
Of all the characters who are sidelined the most in Clash of Kings, Jaime Lannister may suffer the most — this man of action is kept prisoner for the entire book, with almost nothing to do. Season two of Game of Thrones makes a few clever tweaks to keep Jaime front and center — for one thing, Robb Stark brings Jaime along instead of leaving him locked up at Riverrun castle. That means some more great Robb-Jaime interactions. And then there's the fantastically weird scene where Jaime bonds with and then murders his cousin Alton, before mounting an escape attempt. And finally, moving a big chunk of Brienne escorting Jaime from book three to season two is a great move — it gives Brienne a chance to shine, but also lets us see more of Jaime being a total assbag as he taunts his escort over and over.
4. Arya Stark and Tywin Lannister
This was one of the all-time great pairings on this show — every scene between Maisie Williams and Charles Dance is a marvel, as Arya becomes Tywin Lannister's cup-bearer. He figures out pretty quickly that she's not whom she appears, but never realizes she's a Stark — and they form a pretty intense bond, even as she contemplates killing him once or twice. Tywin opens up to her and shares a lot of stuff about his childhood, and it's a weird counterpart to the scenes of Cersei giving advice to Arya's sister Sansa. Also: Sansa gets Shae as her handmaiden, which doesn't happen in Clash of Kings, and this leads to some great Sansa/Shae scenes, including Shae telling Sansa to flee Maegor's Holdfast in episode nine.
3. Margaery Tyrell, pragmatist in a low-cut dress
Margaery Tyrell is sort of a cipher in Clash of Kings, even after she's set up to marry Joffrey. Her brother is the Knight of Flowers, and she's briefly married to Renly Baratheon, but we see remarkably little of her. In the TV version, though, Renly becomes a semi-open gay man and Margaery's brother is his lover — which sets up one of the more fascinating love triangles on the show. Margaery is a total pragmatist who doesn't care if her husband loves her or desires her — but she knows she has to get pregnant with Renly's baby, or it's all over. She even offers to have a threesome with Renly and her brother, to get the job done. And Renly's corpse is still warm when she starts plotting to marry Joffrey, because she just wants to be Queen. Now that Margaery is in King's Landing, things are going to get very interesting indeed.
2. Robb Stark's love story
Robb Stark is another character who sort of vanishes during Clash of Kings — even though some important stuff is going on with him. The TV show gives him a brand new love interest, Talisa, and shows Robb struggling with the decision over whether to break his betrothal to Lord Walder Frey's daughter. It's pretty easy to see why Robb loves Talisa, since she's fiery and smart and challenges him — and she reminds him of his mother, who deeply disapproves of the whole thing. Seeing Robb actually struggle with breaking his honor and making Ned Stark roll over in his grave is way better than just being told that it happened, and Talisa makes a huge improvement. Plus the "foot amputation as meet-cute" thing is kind of amazing.
1. Theon Greyjoy's inner turmoil
No question — Theon Greyjoy benefits the most of anybody from the TV show's changes. He has roughly the same arc as in the books — Robb Stark foolishly sends his "brother" home to Pyke, to enlist the aid of Lord Balon Greyjoy, only to learn the hard way that Theon is going to need to prove he's a Greyjoy, not a Stark. The difference is the TV show goes out of its way to make Theon seem more sympathetic — and more pathetic, really — by showing how he struggles with his situation. He actually calls out his father on the fact that his dad chose to give him away to Ned Stark, and his father did actually bend the knee to the Starks — so it's not fair to put it all on Theon now. Theon actually writes a letter to warn Robb Stark about his family's plans, but then burns it. And later, Theon is constantly balking at doing things like killing Ser Rodrik Cassel, only to be goaded into more and more atrocities by his right-hand man Dagmer Cleftjaw. (The loss of "Reek" in this season means that Dagmer, not Reek, is goading Theon into being more evil — which ties in with Theon's need to prove he's a real Ironborn. It actually makes more sense on some level than Theon being manipulated by a random "servant.")
All in all, there were some flaws in season two — and definitely there were bits of the book that we were sad to lose — but it's pretty amazing how some characters benefited from a greatly increased or transformed role. And it seems pretty likely that season two's beefed-up roles for Margaery, Theon, Robb, Ros, Tywin and others will pay off massively in season three.