‘Game of Thrones’ Story Editor Bryan Cogman On the Second Season, Adapting Books He Loves, and the Show’s Secret Main Character
"‘Game of Thrones’ Story Editor Bryan Cogman On the Second Season, Adapting Books He Loves, and the Show’s Secret Main Character"
The morning after finale of the second season of Game of Thrones, I called up Bryan Cogman, the show’s story editor. We’d spoken earlier in the year about the third episode of the season, which Bryan wrote. This time, we talked about the full arc of the season, the emergence of important new characters who don’t appear in the novels, race and gender in the show, and the tension between staying true to George R.R. Martin’s sprawling series while adapting it for an entirely different medium.
I felt very vindicated by the emergence of Ros as a major character in the finale, and I wondered if you could talk about how she emerges from obscurity in the books to someone who Varys, the royal spymaster, sits down with because he sees her as a partner rather than “a collection of profitable holes.”
That’s a David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] special. She doesn’t even exist in the books. Ros was originally Red Headed Whore Number 1 in the pilot. In the very original [draft], Tyrion was in a brothel in King’s Landing as a way to introduce him and get a little download of information about Jon Arryn [the former Hand of the King who dies prior to the events fo the novel and the show]. For various budgetary reasons in the pilot, we chouldn’t shoot King’s Landing at all or have any King’s Landing sets, so what you ended up seeing where Tyrion has skipped out on the royal procession and tries to find Winterfell’s brothel…Ros the whore kind of emerged from that…
With season 2, there’s a character in the book named Alyaya, who we didn’t end up keeping. We knew that Ros would serve that function in the latter part of the season where Cersei thinks she’s caught Tyrion’s girlfriend but actually has caught Ros and doesn’t know who she is. We had that in place…it’s funny, it’s one of those things that kind of happened by accident. You’re finding different ways as you’re plotting the season to examine different traits and characters. There’s a throwaway line in the second book where Tyrion says “Oh, we should hire some whores for Joffrey, maybe that would let him calm down a bit.” And we thought, we have to see that scene. And what ended up emerging was that horrific, as horrific as anything in the show, scene where Ros and Daisy are made to abuse each other for Joffrey’s sick jollies. And then, the other thing that we sort of built into the show was the rivalry between Littlefinger and Varys…Ros seemed to be the perfect person for Varys to have an insider in Littlefinger’s company…she came to Littlefinger’s, trusted him, thought she had a rapport, and sort of had a rude awakening about who she is, and who she is in Littlefinger’s eyes.
Ros becomes this throughline in Westeros, she’s passed through not every character, but she’s had contact with most of the major players who tend to discount her as a prostitute. It’s as if she’s the secret main character and audience stand-in. She’s a focus for emotion in the show, and vulnerability and reaction, but she sees a lot more than anyone else gives her credit for.
Yes. I’m glad you see her that way. There’s a great divide in the fan community about Ros, which I think is pretty unfair to Esme [Bianco] who’s done an absolutely terrific job playing the part…In King’s Landing, for the most part, you’re seeing things through the eyes of the nobles, and Ros gives you a window into the class of people they take for granted. It was fun this season to sort of explore those people on the margins. The other whore, Daisy, also did a fantastic job. In a weird way, it’s a bizarro Sansa story. They both come to the capitol with big dreams and an idea of what it’s going to be like, a romantic vision. You see Daisy getting a little tour of the brothel and it’s as if she’s in Disneyland, she’s wide-eyed, “This is classy! This is a classy brothel, finally!’ And what she doesn’t realize is the classy brothel is probably the worst place to work. So that was kind of a sad little arc to play with.
One of the things I thought was interesting about this season is that in the novels, Tyrion’s affinity for sex workers is kind of treated as a symbol that he’s a nice guy: he identifies with women, with outsiders, with people who are considered untouchables by polite society. In this season, it’s suggested there’s a bit of naivete there. He sends Ros and Daisy in to calm Joffrey down and Joffrey ends up torturing them.
The thing that’s interesting to me about Tyrion, is Tyrion of all the Lannisters, has the most compassion, the most empathetic worldview. But he’s still a Lannister. He’s still going to keep the class below him at arm’s length…Being a Lannister, he still uses his position when he needs to, and can behave selfishly. He’s not necessarily a white knight kind of hero. I certainly think that yes, there is that kind of empathy and compassion for prostitutes, but there’s also a real distrust. He had his first wife, Tysha, who he found out was actually a whore, but he got emotionally invested in her, and had his heart ripped out. It made him want to whore all the more, but certainly, until Shae came along, he’s finding himself falling in love, deeply, all over again and it’s scaring him, because even though he feels and senses that Shae feels the same way, he doesn’t want to really believe that because of what happened in his past when his father informed him that the marriage was a sham and she was paid to love him. That scene in the finale, it’s a beautiful scene, where Tyrion breaks down with Shae, in my mind, I don’t know what Peter was thinking, that’s the moment where he accepts that Shae really does feel the same way with him. But he can’t run away.
All three of the Lannister kids are figuring out there are some limitations to their positions. I want to talk about Jamie Lannister’s scene with Brienne in the finale, where they’re on the run to King’s Landing and encounter Stark soldiers, because it was so funny, and so mean. He’s not exactly lived a sexually conforming life, but he’s trying to bring her into conformity.
If you remembered when he tried to bait Catelyn, that’s the scene in the first season, where she visits him in the prison tent, he says “If you feel bad about Ned, I could take care of you.” Knowing he’s the sexiest man in the Seven Kingdoms, he uses his position to intimidate, and to also figure out what he’s dealing with. I think that’s sort of a natural thing for him to fall back on, even though I think he’s never been with anyone but Cersei. It’s all talk, to a certain extent. He really has no idea what to make of Brienne. He’s never encountered anyone like this, and she keeps surprising him at every turn. It’s “She’s a she-male, I know how to get at her.” She’s obviously a tough nut to crack, and the third season will explore that.
They immediately work together right now. They kind of take on a Butch and the Sundance quality that I would imagine surprises them in the moment, too. And that plants the seed for their relationship going forward. It’s not really in the book, it’s a version and a combination of a few different moments in the books. But I think it’s important that these guys who did these terrible things to these tavern wenches are Stark men, because we thought it was very improtant to illustrate there’s the nastiness of war, it affects all sides.
In the novels, Brienne is something of an innocent. The things that are visited upon her almost feel like retribution for believing in the fairy tale. It hink some folks were surprised by how brutal she was. Was there a decision about amping up the level of violence she’s willing to commit?
I agree it does differ from the book. That’s a decision David and Dan made when writing the scripts…I think she still operates under a code, but it’s important to remember that a) these guys were going to botch the plan and the mission and probably kill them both, and b) they have admitted to torturing innocent women. I think in the books, Brienne’s first kill doesn’t happen until much later.
I wonder if a modern reading of purity or innocence doesn’t really include killing people? Maybe our reading of the text doesn’t include a vision where you can kill people righteously.
It’s the context of the kills, I guess. There’s more of a deep-seated anger that manifests itself in the violent moments…It’s anguished. I feel like when she has these two bursts of violence in the second season, that’s something Gwendoline [Christie] brought to it, and there’s sort of a wail, a pained kind of wail that she gives off when she’s doing this. Gwendoline is amazing.
She’s sort of the inverse of the Hound.
Absolutely. He talks about in “Blackwater,” he enjoys killing and that’s what he does. Rory’s portrayal is, I don’t want to say matter of fact, but it’s something he’s done for a long time, and he knows how to do it. It’s the thing he’s good at. And that’s where Brienne is. And I think Brienne, also, it’s the same sort of thing as Sansa and Daisy the whore, it’s this idea of how a certain thing would be. She thought she would pledge herself to this king and be a glorious knight and serve a good cause. And she’s still serving a good cause because she’s serving Lady Catelyn, but she finds herself thrust into a story where that [noble ideal] doesn’t exist.
Speaking of the fairy tale, I wanted to go back to Robb’s wedding. Let’s talk about Talisa, the nurse from Volantis, who he marries. She’s a new character in the books. She’s a romantic object for Robb. But she’s also someone from another part of the world that we haven’t seen yet. She’s sort of a short cut into telling us more about the world.
We always new we wanted to keep Robb more front and center. In the book, he’s absent except for the first chapter. He shows up in the third book married. We knew we wanted to keep Robb and Catelyn’s tenuous relationship at the forefront. We knew the portrayal of Walder Frey and the marriage to a new woman would be part of the story. Originally, it was Jeyne Westerling. In the books, Jeyne is tending his wounds, Robb gets a terrible piece of news, and they spend the night together dealing with his grief, and he marries her after that. [In the show], it isn’t just about making an honest woman out of this girl, it’s that he falls in love and chooses love over duty, which is an ongoing choice which is brought up again and again throughout the series. Maester Aemon tells Jon Snow that love is the death of duty. And I think that was something that they really wanted to explore, that it was a relationship that developed, and that we would see develop, and Robb would make the choice.
One of the things I imagine is it must be a huge challenge is that there’s all this information about the world you need to work in. Are you looking for places, when you’re talking with David and Dan and everyone else in the show, where you can work in this kind of context?
We try to. In the case of this I think it was less about that and more about the idea of Robb falling in love with the last person he would ever expect. She’s a real curveball…Now, yes, it does give us a chance to get a look at Volantis. We had just read A Dance With Dragons when we were writing it, so I’m sure that was fresh in the guys’ minds because there’s a lot of information about Volantis in particular [in the fifth book in the series]. But there are a lot of things. For instance, “The Rains of Castamere,” the Lannister song, was big in the plot at various points. That was a fun opportunity to get it in early in the second season. You find little places where you can spread that in without having it be a huge information dump and I think we’ve gotten better at that as we’ve figure dout how to write the show.
Sometimes it’s an offhand remark and that’s all you need, and sometimes we can do it with a little bit of humor. We had a lot of fun doing that with Sam this season. We basically have him giving these big speeches, but of course for Sam, that makes sense because he’s really excited about this stuff. Sam and I are kindred spirits, we could talk about the mythology all day. But he’s out there on the Fist of the First Men, and he’s going on and on and on. Those are little moments where you can pepper the story with bits of mythology. We decided early on if we had one flashback, we’d ahve to do a thousand, and you’d have another ten episodes of television. It was way too much and way too expensive.
Game of Thrones is in this interesting interim place where it has fans who haven’t read the books and will never read the books, but you have fans who are obsessive scholars of the text. I imagine you feel you can’t just please one group or another, you have to please yourself.
it is a delicate balance. We love these books. If we didn’t love these books none of us would be here. At the same time, the show has to be for everyone. It’s also not even a question of where the information is, but even adapting the story, the present-day story of the books. When you’re mapping it out for television, or even thinking of the fact that is hopefully going to be several seasons, you have to pick and choose where you want to do certain characters, where information’s going to be most effective. An offhand remark about a character in the second episode of the first season that doesn’t pay off until season five might not be the best use of that time in the second episode of the first season. That is a very tricky thing. And we’re constantly trying to figure out how best to serve all of these threads. It’s very, very challenging.
And there’s such a rich backstory and mythology, thousands of thousands of years of mythology that George has come up with. But as David put it, the show would collapse of the weight of all of that…One of the big themes of the books is the characters’ relationship with the past, and I want that to be a huge theme of the show. It’s one I think will emerge more strongly as the series goes on. But when you’re starting out of the gate, a lot of the long speeches about characters that existed in days gone by, it’s interesting, but it doesn’t make for very dramatic television. So you have to pick the moments where it’s going to affect what’s happening in the present to get that information out there. A character like Rhaegar Targaryen, it’s safe to say in the books you know more about Rhaegar than you do at this point in the show. That’s on purpose. We don’t want to load up the front end.
It seems to me, and as someone who reads these books like sacred texts, it’s an experiment in how big a world television can contain, and how much information television viewers can handle.
That’s a huge part of every discusison we have about every storyline. The audience can handle a lot and I frankly have been very pleasantly surprised by how much they can handle. I didn’t necessarily think it would appeal to people like my mom who don’t normally read this kind of stuff, but they get it, and they’re following it, and that’s very gratifying. But it’s a huge concern.
We try different things with different characters. A character like Stannis, and his relationships with Davos and Melisandre, this season we trusted that the audience would go with it, and we didn’t load those early scenes up with a lot of backstory. If anything there was a bit of mystery this season. We didn’t really get the full story of how Davos met Stannis and why he’s serving him until the eighth episode…That was very much on purpose to feed the backstory over the season and trust that the audience would understand their dynamic enough to be invested in them. And of course a lot of it is Stephen [Dillane] and Liam [Cunningham], too. They don’t get a lot of screen time, but they both have this incredible presence and a deep understanding of what makes these guys tick, so that even though they were on the scene for comparatively few minutes compared to other characters, they made an impression.
It sounds like you’re relying on the strength of the performances to let the audience know there’s emotional weight there, even if you’re not spelling out the backstory.
I think so. And that was important this season because we had a lot of new characters to introduce.
Well that’s not going to stop, either!
Every year, we’re like, ‘maybe we won’t have that many.’ And I counted up the characters in season three and went, ‘Oh, God.’ We moved half the characters you meet in Book 2, the Reeds, who we’re going to meet in season three. We’re going to meet Catelyn’s family, her brother and her uncle, who were introduced in the first book, we’ve saved them until now. It’s when will they be the most useful to the story as a television series…
I think the touchstones of the story are all there, but some of the little details in the middle we have a little fun with and play up for various reasons. Some of them are budgetary, some of them are creative. The death of Ser Rodrick is one example. He does die in book two, but he dies at the hands of a completely different character. [A similarly brutal beheading] happened in the book, it just happened to another one of Winterfell’s denizens. We did a little bit of blending there, and I think it resulted in one of the most powerful scenes this season. And that’s the kind of stuff that was probably originally done for economy of storytelling, but it ended up being such an amazing moment for Theon, and one of Alfie’s strongest moments as an actor when he essentially has to kill his football coach.
We’ve seen some minor characters like wildling Osha, like pirate Sallador Saan, like merchant prince Xaro Xhoan Daxos get more play. How much of that is emotional inflection, how much it is narrative economy, and with Salladhor and Xaro, given how white the show is, how much of it is a desire to play up the role of characters of color?
I think it’s a testament to what a terrific performer Lucian, who plays Salladhor, is. Salladhor only has one scene in the second book…it’s a way of showing right off the bat what Davos does for Stannis, why Stannis values him so much. He’s a character on the margins. What’s great about Davos is he thought he never would be in this kind of company. Stannis is smart enough to use his particular skills. In terms of [Salladhor’s] race, in the books, he’s Lyseni, and we made him an expat from the Summer Isles. I don’t remember if it was a conscious thing when we were writing it that he would be an actor of color or just that the best actor got the role…Certainly when he was cast, we made the decision that he was from the Summer Isles. But I don’t know if we just saw black actors or not.
In terms of Xaro, Xaro in the series is very different from the Xaro of the books. Dany’s storyline in Qarth was beautifully written in the books, but it’s not really plot-driven. We needed more for her to be up against in this season before she gets to the House of the Undying, so [we added] the conspiracy between Xaro and Pyat Pree…We made the decision to make [Xaro] an outsider, and that was a very conscious decision that he would not be from Qarth, so he could identify with her right off the bat and she would trust him, because she figures “He’s not of this crowd, either.”…I think it’s more about the story and what serves it best.
Having said that, I think it was a good thing in the second season to see these characters interacting with those from the outside world more. I like that the East and the West collided a bit more, and you’ll see more of that as the series goes on. It made the dynamic in the Thirteen kind of interesting. You have the Spice King, about as posh as you can get, bumping up against Xaro.
As a reader, my relationship to the text of these books has changed over time as I started watching the show and I imagine that’s even more true of you.
In a way, it makes me a little sad. I couldn’t enjoy A Dance With Dragons, unfortunately. Of course, I enjoyed it, but it was the first of the books I read as a writer on Game of Thrones, so all I could do is think “we’re going to have to shift that, we won’t be able to afford that, or that’s a great scene.” I couldn’t just escape and enjoy. I’m fine, I’m doing fine, I’ll be okay. But it’s definitely a different reading experience.
That’s been something that’s been sort of publicized in the fan community, for beter or for worse, I was known as Keeper of the Mythos. That was not a title I loved because now, if anything’s changed, they’re going to blame me.
You have to be Marwyn the Mage, the rogue Maester of the Citadel!
It is something that has definitely evolved for me. In the pilot of the first season, I was the one sounding the alarms more when things were changed. Part of my job at the beginning was to read the books over and over. There was a view of “that can’t happen because that doesn’t happen in the book.” And I learned as we were writing season one, and working with David and Dan in adapting this thing, that they have to be two separate universes. And of course these books are the Bible. If you go back and look at season two from beginning to end, it’s essentially the second book. There were a lot of detours on, and things that were cut and shifted around. But it follows if not all of, most of the story beats and emotional beats of the second book. We saved things for later. Certain things had to be cut. Certain things had to be shifted. But we’re pretty much going into the third season where you are when you finish the second book. It’s not like True Blood or The Walking Dead, which completely veered off course, which I’m not necessarily saying is a bad thing or a good thing.
But I had to learn that too, I had to learn that as we were working on it. It’s okay if Jojen and Meera [Reed] don’t appear in the second season because we needed to, for a lot of reasons, slow Bran’s awareness of what’s happening to him down…[Arya], in the books, she’s at this point much more of a killer, her body count’s a lot higher than it is in the series. We’re slowing that journey down a little bit because we’re thinking of several years of a TV series. I think, while it works great in the books, it would have been very strange in my episode, in that final battle, for her to be killing those Lannister guys who are fully armored. In the context of our show, it wouldn’t have made sense. In the book, the way the scene is staged, it does make sense.
When I’m talking about changes, it’s never ‘our version was better in the book, or this didn’t work in the book.’ I would never say that. But if you’re watching our show, that moment wouldn’t have been earned by that point, so we’re delaying it.
But like a lot of book fans who are watching the show, I have to get my mind around it. I still am. I love these books as much as anyone could. I have to. I read them constantly. If I didn’t [love them], I would be miserable…This is the best job in the world. It’s the most incredible set of toys you could play with. And I love that people have such strong feelings about it and are so passionate about it. Those are the kinds of stories that are worth telling…I’m really looking forward, now that the show has found its audience and is doing well for HBO, the idea that we might really be able to tell this whole story for television, from beginning to end, is such an exciting thing. I really hope we do get to. When it was me and David and Dan in a room plotting out the first season before we left for Belfast for the pilot, the idea that we would be getting to adapt some of the scenes that we’ve just now adapted for season three, that we’ve gotten that far, is astonishing. There was a lot stacked against us. Nothing’s ever been attempted on this level, in this genre before, on this scale for TV. And I’m so gratified that it’s found an audience that’s at least for the time being that’s going to allow us to tell these stories.