This post contains spoilers for season 4 of Game of Thrones, as well as the books A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons.
With the fourth season of Game of Thrones coming to an end on Sunday, there’s still one big question looming over the Seven Kingdoms. No, not the fate of Tyrion Lannister or whether Jon Snow will be able to hold off the second Wildling invasion. It’s the issue of whether or not the show will be able to maintain its current momentum as it runs out of source material to draw from. It’s a topic that both the showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and author George R.R. Martin have discussed many times in the past, but the fifth season is when the question becomes less hypothetical and much more real.
Thus far, Martin has published five out of the seven planned novels in the series, with Book 4 – A Feast For Crows – and Book 5 – A Dance with Dragons – covering the same period of time from different characters’ perspectives. The show, meanwhile, has just finished adapting the third book, having split the content of A Storm of Swords into two seasons. At the moment, the plan is for Benioff and Weiss to adapt books four and five together, so that the storylines run concurrently on screen. However, while they can easily get two or three more seasons out of those novels, the writers are still faced with the issue of pacing, seeing as they’ve already run through the source material for several characters already. Over the course of the last season, Sansa Stark has managed to escape from King’s Landing, been taken by Petyr Baelish to her aunt in the Vale, dealt with her aunt’s jealousy, witnessed her murder, helped cover up that murder, and is now fully disguised as Alayne Stone and set to accompany her cousin Robin and Lord Baelish on a tour of the Eyrie. While it’s been exciting to watch the way her character has changed and adapted over the course of the year, there’s one glaring issue with where the show left off with her: there’s no more plot to draw from the books for her.
Sansa’s story in A Storm of Swords ends with Lysa Arryn being sent through the moon door, but because the show moved that event to the middle of the fourth season, the writers needed to draw on A Feast For Crows in order to find enough material to resolve her plot. Most of her storyline in that novel covers the time after Lysa’s death and the reveal of Lord Baelish’s plan to disguise her as Alayne Stone until she can claim Winterfell and ally her home with the Vale. While the events of Season 4 diverge slightly from the text, it still leaves us at the same place that we are now, with Sansa willing to play along in order to get back to Winterfell. Season 5 gives the writers the option to take Sansa’s story in any direction they wish, now that they’ve covered almost all of her source material. Though Benioff and Weiss have revealed that Martin has told them where the books are headed so that they can all write towards the same ending, they are free to interpret the major plot events however they choose. Using up all of Sansa’s material in A Feast For Crows early means that they now have to decide how closely her story on the show will align with the events of the novels.
It’s not just Sansa who is affected by the differing paces that the writers are taking with the various storylines; almost all of the main characters are at different points in the novels. There’s still a great deal left of Tyrion’s story from A Storm of Swords which hasn’t been covered yet, and depending on how much the writers decide to pack into the finale, they could soon find themselves at the end of his plot as well. It’s going to be difficult for the show to drag out Daenerys’ storyline into two seasons, let alone three, as A Dance with Dragons focuses on her rule of Mereen. Meanwhile, Bran’s still journeying to find the Three-Eyed Crow, and considering how infrequently he’s appeared in Season 4, the writers are going to have their work cut out for them attempting to get three seasons worth of material from his plot. And if the show is working towards on particular twist, as Lena Headey’s Instagram account has been hinting, they’re going to need to hurry Brienne along in her quest, because she’s still nowhere near where she needs to be in order for everything to fall into place.
Though this past season has seen the show diverge significantly from the novels, it’s really the fifth season that marks a significant turning point for Game of Thrones. With so many storylines matching up with various markers in the novels, Benioff and Weiss have more freedom to put their mark on Westeros than they ever have before, which means that even fans who have read the books may soon have no idea what’s coming for their favorite characters. The choices that they make in Season 5 will determine how closely the show will hew to the book for its last few years, or whether they will throw out the novels altogether, and create a universe of their own.
Until we see the finale on Sunday, it’s hard to predict which direction Denioff and Weiss will take, but there are a few things we can guess about the next few years of Game of Thrones. For one thing, there’s still tons of material for Stannis, Davos and Melisandre left to cover, and so we’ll probably spend a lot more time with the King of Dragonstone next year. The Greyjoys are in a similar position, as is Ramsay Bolton and there’s an important journey for Arya to go on. All of those stories are likely going to play a major role in the next season or two in order for Benioff and Weiss to set the characters up for the sixth and seventh novels. Though the long period of time that Martin takes in between each novel has become a joke among fans, it’s going to have a major impact on the show very soon. The end of the fourth season will leave the writers with several important decisions to make, which will affect the show for the rest of its run, and while Sunday’s episode will no doubt end with a cliffhanger of some sort, next season will have to answer a lot more questions than one episode could possibly raise.