Spoilers for Game of Thrones follow.
If you’re dying to find out whether or not Jon Snow is really dead, don’t bother asking your friends who read the books. They don’t know.
During the last season of the HBO fantasy drama, the stories of fan-favorite characters like Jon, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Sansa Stark finally caught up to the glacially-slow-to-arrive book series by George R. R. Martin, and even started to creep ahead of them. The next novel in the series, The Winds of Winter, is slated for next year, though it’s highly unlikely that it will reach readers before the sixth season of the show begins in the spring.
Now that nearly all of the show’s plotlines are headed into all-new territory, fans of the Game of Thrones novels face a fascinating dilemma: Do they continue watching the show even if it “spoils” the books? And which version of the story is the “real” one, anyway?
Of course, even once the next season airs, viewers won’t always know whether or not the new episodes are truly spoiling the books. The HBO show has already made some major departures from the established tale over the last year—Jaime took an unscheduled trip to Dorne, Sansa and Brienne were transported from their narrative purgatory in the south and put into the excitement in Winterfell—so keeping the two aligned is already out the door. And there’s no rule saying Martin has to accommodate HBO’s changes in his future stories, even if it seems like the show and books are trying to stay on the same page.
One of the most horrifying moments in the recent season was Stannis Baratheon’s decision to burn his daughter Shireen at the stake as a sacrifice to the Red God, believing that it would ensure his victory against the Boltons. In a post-show interview following the episode, showrunner David Benioff suggested that this plot point that came from Martin himself, a seemingly strong indicator that it would one day appear in the books: “When George first told us about this, it was one of those moments when… I was like, ‘Ugh, it’s so horrible, and so good in a story sense because it all comes together,’” he said.
But if you’ve read A Dance with Dragons, however, you know that Shireen stayed behind at Castle Black when Stannis marched on Winterfell, so it seems highly unlikely that Stannis would have a chance to sacrifice her. Of course, there’s always a chance that Melisandre could still burn her back at the Wall to aid Stannis, or for some other nefarious purpose, but it still wouldn’t go down the way it did on HBO.
So is her death a spoiler or not? Is it canon? We have no way of knowing until The Winds of Winter is finally published, an event that has perpetually receded into the distance year after year, and even then it won’t be clear what the “true” story is.
Going Beyond the Wall
Although Game of Thrones fans (and perhaps the showrunners themselves) had once hoped the books could catch up with HBO’s speeding train, the infamously slow writing pace of George “Railroad” Martin has rendered it impossible. Over four years have elapsed since A Dance with Dragons, and with two more planned novels to go and no concrete publication dates in sight, fans began this season by admitting what almost everyone knew: the books were headed into the rear-view mirror and they could either wait and binge-watch the show after the books arrived, or give in.
Although it’s rare for an adaptation to outpace its source material, it’s not unprecedented. This has happened numerous times in the world of anime—notably with the popular Dragon Ball series—where television adaptations of manga series have surged ahead of the comics. These series usually respond in one of two ways: by shifting the adaptation into an alternate timeline no longer bound to the original stories, or treading water with filler episodes until the creator can catch up.
Game of Thrones isn’t really taking either path; instead, the showrunners are working with Martin to make sure that the show aligns with the overall arc of the two unpublished books, while making many of their own alterations in small but sometimes significant ways.
Most of the significant changes were wisely aimed at corralling more of the show’s main characters in a smaller number of places, rather than letting them wander off into the slightly aimless diaspora of Martin’s later books. At times this has turned the show into the ruthless editor that the books always needed, and yielded thrilling but non-canonical scenes like Brienne’s battle with the Hound or Theon’s redemptive rescue of Sansa from last Sunday’s episode. Other times, it has proven dissonant and pointless, like the side trips to Dorne and Craster’s Keep that seemed manufactured solely to give important characters something to do as other stories unfolded.
Regardless, these changes will cover the future of the show in a narrative fog of war; all the events that play out on the small screen will exist in a quantum state of literary meaning, where they are both spoiler and not spoiler until proven otherwise.
Spoilers are a very heated topic in the complex world of Game of Thrones fandom, in part because foreknowledge of the source material has always divided fans into two groups: those who read the books, and those who don’t. If you’re a rabid fan of the show who hasn’t touched the novels, the floor of the Internet is a bit like lava, and getting from one end of the season to the other without getting burned by spoilers means stepping very carefully around Twitter, Wikipedia, and the Facebook walls of your less than thoughtful friends.
This schism also provides fertile ground for those reaction videoswhere book readers capture non-reader friends losing their minds over shocking deaths. The entire reason they exist is because book fans knew exactly what was coming and laid in wait with their smartphones, ready to capture the anguished responses of unsuspecting pals.
Now that the narrative runway of the books has run out, everyone is finally on equal footing, and nobody really knows what’s coming next. While readers might have more backstory in their pocket that could help them make educated guesses, in the end all they’ll really have are the sort of elaborate theories that have populated online forums for years.
While this doesn’t mean viewers won’t have plenty of things to get upset about—including the inevitable rape scenes, time-shifted Twitter revelations, and tragic deaths—one of the most persistent burrs in the saddle of Game of Thrones has finally been laid to rest.
The Game of Thrones spoiler is dead. Long live the Game of Thrones spoiler.