‘Game of Thrones’ Story Editor Bryan Cogman on Brienne of Tarth, Sexposition, and Women In Fantasy

Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, “What Is Dead May Never Die,” was my favorite of the show’s run so far, full of marvelous character development and deep attention to questions of fealty, faith, sexual identity, and courage. Bryan Cogman, who wrote the episode, and serves as story editor and keeper of the Game of Thrones mythology, was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions about “What Is Dead May Never Die,” and about sexposition, his relationship to the Game of Thrones fan community, the awesomeness of getting to introduce Brienne of Tarth, and the crazy suggestions that women don’t like fantasy.

I’d be curious to know how much the decisions to diverge from characterization—or to bring a character who doesn’t have a point of view perspective to the fore as is the case with Margaery—are driven by the simple demands of narrative economy, and how much they’re driven by the capacities of the actors involved?

In a few cases, there’s a kind of energy a certain actor possesses that inevitably informs how we write the character. For example, John Bradley’s Samwell Tarly is arguably funnier and maybe a bit more self-assured (at least amongst Jon and his friends) than his book counterpart. Or there’s Theon Greyjoy—his storyline has remained more or less the same but the characterization is quite different as a result of us de-aging the character when Alfie Allen was cast. This immediately changed the dynamic between him and Robb—they became contemporaries—and a more brotherly relationship developed between them over the course of Season One. This makes his decision to betray the Starks in Season Two markedly different than it was in the books.

In the case of Margaery Tyrell, this is an example of us taking advantage of the fact that we don’t have to adhere to the book’s strict POV structure. Margaery is pivotal to the plot of the novels, but she doesn’t really come front and center until the fourth book and, even then, you don’t know a whole lot about her. That’s fun in its own way but we decided when plotting out the current season that it would serve the show better to give the character a stronger presence earlier on. It gave us the opportunity to examine a key part of the game (the arranged marriage) up close. And once Natalie Dormer was cast, her persona certainly influenced the writing of the character.

Those are just a few examples… but there are plenty of characters on the show that seem like they leaped from the pages of the books onto the screen, unchanged — Gwendoline Christie’s Brienne and Conleth Hill’s Varys are examples of this, I think. So I think we have a healthy mix.

I’m sure you’ve heard the suggestion that Game of Thrones relies on sexposition, scenes where someone lays out an idea while unrelated sex is taking place somewhere in the frame. This week’s scenes between Loras and Renly and Renly and Margaery were the exact opposite of sexposition—the nudity and sexual contact between the characters were absolutely critical to our growing understanding of the characters—but I’m curious how you approached writing that scene given the larger conversation about sex and the series.

I appreciate that you don’t consider the scenes in my episode to be “sexpository”. Frankly, I think the term has been overused when talking about the current season and, in most cases, used incorrectly. From my point of view, there has been exactly one Season Two “sexposition” scene so far, between Theon and the Captain’s Daughter, and that was taken directly from George’s book, thank you very much! Sure, there’s still plenty of sex on the show — but far less “sexposition” than last year.

And I guess I take exception to the idea that we “relied” on sexposition last year. There were several scenes in Season One where backstory and mythology were peppered into dialogue that didn’t involve a sexual act. Robert’s “war story” scene with Ser Barristan and Jaime is one example, Theon’s encounter with Tyrion in my own Season One episode is another. Of course, there were plenty of exposition scenes that did feature sex (hence the term) but I also take exception with the idea that the sex is unrelated to what’s being discussed… but that’s a whole other conversation.

Anyway, back to Season Two. It was an exciting challenge to get to tackle the sexual gamesmanship of the Renly/Loras/Margaery triangle, which doesn’t really exist in the books. And I particularly enjoyed pulling the curtain back on Renly. The strength and swagger on display at the beginning of the episode is nowhere to be found at the end, after he’s gone a couple of rounds with brother and sister Tyrell. But I don’t think I approached the writing of these scenes any differently than I would the others. I’m certainly not thinking about the larger discussion of sex on the show — we can’t let those kind of discussions influence how we tell our story. And, make no mistake, sex is a big part of this world, as it is in George’s books, as it has been throughout history, and as it is in the lives of every human being, whether they admit it to themselves or not. [Note: Bryan emailed me to say he should add that he loved Saturday Night Live’s Game of Thrones and sex skit, in which Andy Samberg plays a horny 13-year-old who consults on the episodes]

One thing we see in this episode—and that gives the episode its title—is a baptism, and Jon Snow also gets something of a theology lesson. Given your role as keeper of Game of Thrones mythology, what role do you think religion plays in the franchise? And do you think there are particular challenges in bringing religions where gods are active in the world, and fealty, which is a similar emotion to worship, to a modern audience?

George’s exploration of religion is, without question, one of my favorite aspects of his story. It plays an increasingly significant role as the series goes on, not only in the lives of the various characters but in the “game” itself. Last season, faith was largely depicted in a personal way — Ned’s quiet vigil under the weirwood tree, Cat’s homemade shrine to the Seven, etc. This season, we begin to see how religious faith is used in the pursuit of power, specifically with Stannis and Melisandre. And while the various religions in our story (the Seven, the Lord of Light, the Drowned God) were born out of George’s imagination and are somewhat fantastical, I think modern audiences can definitely relate while watching. I would say that “gods” are very “active” in our own world, especially when it comes to those in the pursuit of power — you need only examine some of the rhetoric from the candidates in the current presidential race to find examples of that.

Brienne of Tarth is a huge fan favorite, so writing her introduction into the series must have been a lot of fun. And it gets at an issue I’ve been wondering about—how do you manage your relationship to Game of Thrones’ fan base? Are there things you keep yourself from reading to stay sane? Things you get out of engaging with fans?

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I realized I was going to get to introduce Brienne on the TV show. She’s one of my favorite characters in the series. I think I’m drawn to the outcasts of the story—Brienne, Samwell, Theon, as well as the more vulnerable characters like Sansa and Bran—I find it easier to write for them than, say, Robb or Dany. Not sure why.

As far as engaging with fans… it’s a tricky thing. I enjoy seeing the feedback on Twitter, etc. It’s probably the actor in me. I come from the theater where the response to your work is immediate and I suppose there’s a part of me that still craves that. As much as I tell myself I’m not going to look at the message boards, I occasionally give in to my curiosity about how the show is being received — especially this past week when my episode aired. That said, it’s probably better for me to scale back on that and focus on the work. Of course I want fans to enjoy the show and I’m gratified by the (mostly) positive feedback I’ve received… but it’s a dangerous game. I never want to get to a place where it’s making me second guess myself as I write — “Oh, so-so on won’t like this change”. That’s not helpful. You’re never going to be able to please everybody and, in the end, it’s my job to help D&D execute their vision.

There’s been a very weird strain of criticism that assumes that women don’t watch or read fantasy, but this is an episode where to me, the series begins tilting towards its female characters. Arya’s left to carry Yoren’s teaching forward, Brienne steps up to Renly’s Kingsguard, we get to see Cersei as grieving mother as well as monster, Gilly becomes an anchor for Sam, and Margaery emerges as a high-level strategist. Do you think there ways that fantasy (and science fiction) open up space for new kinds of female characters? And if that’s true, does that say something about the kinds of female characters both men and women are hungry for?

Well, first off, I’m baffled by the suggestion that women don’t watch or read fantasy. That’s just… absurd. As far as my episode goes, yes, I suppose it does highlight some of our strong female characters, but really, this whole season does. And that’s not something I’m conscious of when I’m writing. I just strive to honor George’s creations, be they male or female. That said, of course I’m proud to work on a show that gives so many wonderful female actors such rich characters to sink their teeth into. That is a rare thing, no matter what genre you’re working in.

As for the women in fantasy question… I don’t really know how to answer that because I don’t think about terms like “fantasy” or “science fiction” while writing the show and I think it’s safe to say David, Dan, and Vanessa don’t either. For me, the show (like the books) resonates because it’s an intensely human story that, at its core, could work even if there weren’t any of the fantasy trappings. So my job is help tell that story honestly and entertainingly.