Depending on how far along you are with Game of Thrones you may not know that Theon Greyjoy’s storyline in season 3 doesn’t actually occur in A Storm of Swords, the Song of Ice and Fire book that seasons 3 and 4 of the shows are based upon.
[Note: This article will be referencing events from Game of Thrones season 4 and the ensuing books. Spoilers ahead for the whole series, basically.]
Once his taking of Winterfell goes awry at the end of A Clash of Kings, Theon (well, most of Theon) is shoved off-page in the ensuing books. It would be more than ten years in real-time until he re-emerged in the latest Song of Ice and Fire novel as Reek. And while his disappearance works well through the medium of the book, which can afford to build suspense over the years-long wait between books, it represents a problem that will continue to arise in a variety of ways as the Game of Thrones television adaptation matures.
Show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss could have adhered strictly to the book and kept actor Alfie Allen offscreen for two seasons. They might have even done so if Allen hadn’t proven to be such a break-out actor in his depiction of Theon during the second season of Game of Thrones. No television show can afford to let go of an actor or character that proves to be so charismatic, especially when his fate is essentially left hanging after the events of season two. Plus, on a more practical level you can’t ask an actor to forego any job they might be taking in three years time unless they’re offering them a role that will consistently last past that span of time.
As Game of Thrones season 4 gears up to close out its depiction of A Storm of Swords, it’s going to have to figure out how to deal with the absence, or diminished presence, of a lot of its characters afterwards. The most notable of these sidelined characters is Daenerys, who is as central to the show as Ned Stark was back in the first season, and that in turn begs the open question of how the TV show will deal with the absence of characters that occurs throughout A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons.
Daenerys’ plotline in season 3 was a stunning display unto itself, chronicling the growth of a woman who finally appeared capable of taking Westeros by force. Season 4 will focus on how Daenerys can transition from a conquerer into an effective ruler, ostensibly moving some of her plotline forward from the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons.
But what happens after that? From season 5 onward, does Daenerys simply pop up every now and then to declare “Ruling Meereen kind of sucks”? Swap that statement with “Where are my dragons?” and you essentially have the same wheel-spinning Daenerys we saw in season 2. Except back then the wheel-spinning was crucial to having her character learn how to truly attain her goals. Now that season 5 is hinting at the same stalled momentum, how do you keep Daenerys central without repeating the wheel-spinning of season 2 or the ruling-conquered-peoples lessons of season 4?
When faced with this situation in regards to Theon and Alfie Allen, the show producers at least knew what blanks they could fill in his story in order to avoid his disappearance from television screens. Do they have that same escape hatch here? The show runners began tackling this issue during a brainstorming session with George R. R. Martin in 2013 where the author laid out the broad strokes of every character’s story. Will the show runners concoct new scenes leading up to her run-in with the khalasar just to keep her onscreen? Or will the show be forced to move up their depiction of Dany’s chapters from The Winds of Winter before the book has even been published? (Presuming that Dany is present in that book, that is.)
This is all presuming that Daenerys isn’t meant to disappear from the books and/or show. (Dragons: “Where is our Dany?!?”) This was certainly a feature of her storyline in A Dance With Dragons and when we do finally catch up with her at the end of that book, she’s in pretty bad shape. This is presumably a plot development we wouldn’t find out about until season 6 of the show, though, or the publication of the sixth book, whichever comes first.
Maybe the show runners’ answer to the question of how to deal with the absence of charismatic characters is...don’t do anything. If Daenerys disappears, then she disappears, and you hang your storyline on what happens in her absence. Same goes for Sansa, or Arya, or Brienne, or Bran and Hodor, or Margaery, and so on... They’re not totally gone, and there’s a lot of new characters and burgeoning magical threats to keep the television series plenty busy in season 5 and onwards.
Really, there’s the distinct possibility that this might only be a “problem” for readers (like me) who have always comfortably known how the television show will roll out. Now that we’re close to facing some real unknowns, now that it’s possible for us to be shocked by Ned Starks and Red Weddings again, perhaps that manifests in a worry over how the show will remain the amazing rollercoaster that it has been thus far.
Does one solve the problem by ceasing to consider it a problem?