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.