This article contains Game of Thrones book spoilers through book 5, A Dance with Dragons. Tread carefully.
Game of Thrones season 4 episode 4, titled “Oathkeeper” very likely jumped ahead in the plot of the long-running series by George R.R. Martin, which isn’t completely unprecedented for the show. Now that the season has run its course, we’re actually all over books four and five with regard to the plot; some characters are further in than others, which is leading to a lot of speculation amongst book-readers about how far HBO will go beyond where George R.R. Martin’s readership can follow.
But “Oathkeeper,” well, they went beyond the books altogether. Until 4×04, fans who had read the books were free from possible spoilers, unlike their non-reading fellow viewers. But in the final moments of the episode we were taken far beyond the wall to
the Icecrown Citadel in Northrend The Land of Always Winter (What!? They look the same!) and were introduced to the Night’s King–who, until this point in the books, has only existed in myths and stories. He took one of Craster’s sacrificial babies, touched his face with a single, twisted finger, and transformed the child, a change shown in the baby’s eyes, which became the same icy blue that we’ve seen in all the White Walkers above the wall.
The day after HBO showed this episode, the internet was abuzz with chatter–had they just spoiled the book-readers for something GRRM has yet to give us in the books? Did we just get a glimpse into the Winds of Winter? Was it fair of HBO to do this?
My answer to that last question is a resounding yes. Yes, it was fair. It has long been speculated that GRRM would not be able to keep up and get the rest of the series published before HBO caught up and surpassed the already-existing books. Even in splitting up the larger ones into two seasons each, he’s running out of time. HBO is already on season 4, and they’ve wrapped up the storylines through book 3; some are already in books 4 and 5. Furthermore, with the nature of books 4 and 5 being that they run concurrently, we’re not just going “well, HBO’s got to get to the end of book 4 and then into book 5.” It’s “HBO is running through books 4 and 5 simultaneously.”
There is enough material there to cover two seasons, maybe a third if they stretch creatively, but the fact is that GRRM will run out of time and HBO will have to move ahead without him. Foreshadowing is an integral part of storytelling, as well–HBO cannot simply remain in the existing books without risking an adverse effect on their overall storyline.
I’m a big believer in adaptations being able to stand alone from their source material, and taking liberties to tighten up and sometimes change storylines to better suit them for television. HBO has done a great job (for the most part) doing this with the TV series; when they gave Danaerys an extra bit of stuff to do in season 2, it saved the viewer a full season of watching her suffer slowly through the desert (I will admit hearing “Where are my dragons?” got a little old, though). Inventing Ros to stand in for the myriad random women that did many of the things she did in season 1 saved viewership the task of keeping track of an abundance of tertiary characters in an already enormous cast. The change in Robb Stark’s wife was likely their biggest misstep, in terms of changing upcoming plots, and they don’t appear to be handling Jaime Lannister terribly well in my opinion, but the only storyline that I would feel legitimate rage over missing is one that they still have time to include: Lady Stoneheart.
It’s been well advertised that GRRM has told the HBO showrunners how he intends this show to go on, should they get ahead of him (or should something happen to him). I believe that the showrunners have a plan when they make changes; I also believe that since he is working so closely with the showrunners that GRRM has been consulted in most changes to the storyline. My hope is that HBO does right by the overall story. If that means spoiling us because GRRM can’t keep up with them, then by all means: Spoil Away.