Viewers of Game of Thrones might have forgotten Samwell Tarly was even in season 5, which had its season finale this past Sunday, since his presence had little to no relevance on the show. Below I analyze what went wrong with Sam’s plot this season. WARNING: This contains book and possible season 6 spoilers.
Wanted: Sam’s Plot in Season 5
By Giselda Aguiar
When I read in A Feast for Crows that Sam was being sent away from the Wall and his sworn brothers, I thought, “Whoa, that’s possible?” It was the same reaction I had when I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: “Harry away from Hogwarts? I never knew that was even a possibility!” In both cases, I went with it and ended up loving that my expectations were challenged. It meant different settings, people, and problems.
Needless to say, I eagerly awaited to see Sam’s story play out in season 5 of Game of Thrones. Viewers would just have to wait for Jon to be elected Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch—thanks to Sam scheming behind Jon’s back—before Sam’s adventures could start. Then, let the awesomeness commence!
I knew changes were bound to occur because on the show Mance Rayder doesn’t have a baby, so there wouldn’t be a baby swap,[*] and I was okay with that. I also figured Dareon[†] wouldn’t make an appearance. I was okay with that, too, at least when it pertains to Sam’s story, because the complications he creates for Sam & Co. could be replaced with something else or be removed to speed up the story’s pacing. (Dareon is more important to Arya’s plot, but even then he could be replaced and was with Meryn Trant.) So, okay, two changes, all right, fine. What I did not anticipate was the utter lack of plot surrounding Sam in season 5. The show’s writers could’ve removed him from the season entirely, like they did with Bran, and there wouldn’t have been a difference.
For those who haven’t read A Feast for Crows or have forgotten, let me explain Sam’s plot in the book. (For a refresher on what is plot and how the “so” list works, read “The Halfman’s Halfplot: Tyrion’s Plot Reduction.”)
Jon orders Sam to (1) go to the Citadel and train to be a maester to replace Aemon and (2) take Gilly, the baby, and Aemon along->SO the four set off and meet up with Dareon at Eastwatch and they journey to Braavos->BUT en route Aemon’s health starts to deteriorate->SO Sam spends their limited money on rooms and a healer for Aemon in Braavos->BUT Aemon isn’t getting better and they miss their ship to Oldtown->SO they stay behind and Aemon sends Sam to find more information about the rumors of Daenerys and her dragons->SO Sam goes looking for Dareon, who’d originally told them of these rumors->BUT en route Sam is confronted by two bravos->BUT Sam is rescued by Arya, who tells him Dareon is at a brothel->SO Sam finds Dareon at the Happy Port->BUT Dareon wants nothing to do with the Night’s Watch anymore->SO Sam punches Dareon->SO Sam is thrown out and into a canal->BUT Xhondo, a mate on the Cinnamon Wind who knows about Daenerys, rescues him and grants Sam, Aemon, Gilly, and the baby passage on the ship->SO they sail on the Cinnamon Wind and Aemon finds out about Daenerys, giving him new energy->BUT Aemon dies anyway->SO Sam and Gilly have sex to celebrate life, a way Summer Islanders honor the dead,[‡] and they continue sailing toward Oldtown->BUT they have to evade some raiding Ironmen on ships->BUT they make it into the harbor and Sam goes to the Citadel
What a cool story! With so much going on and with complication after complication, Sam really has to struggle to reach his goal. How satisfying it is when he finally makes it to Oldtown.
Like I said, some of those things were going to change, quite understandably, but there are some other neat details not mentioned above that could’ve easily made up for the lack of baby swapping and singing recruiter: Jon’s motives for sending Maester Aemon away, Sam’s reluctance to do what he once wanted to do—become a maester—because he’s still trying to please his father, learning more about Aemon’s past and family, seeing Aemon’s reaction to the news of Daenerys and her dragons, visiting a new place (Oldtown), and many other things besides. Maybe I’m biased toward fun, exciting, heartbreaking, funny stories, but all this sounds great to me. I didn’t know how far the story would go in this season that ended, but with the character eliminations already mentioned, I thought if Sam sets off on his quest in episode 2, he might reach Oldtown by episode 10. No problem. But the problem ended up being that Sam never sailed south and did absolutely nothing.
Perhaps that’s harsh and (slightly) untrue, so let’s review what did happen with Sam in season 5.
Alliser Thorne is up for Lord Commander and he’s not a good choice because he’s mean->SO Sam nominates Jon->SO Jon wins
This so-called plot was over almost as soon as it began and there were zero complications. Sure, there was a tie and Maester Aemon, who suddenly has the Vice Presidential powers of breaking a tie in the Senate, casts the deciding vote, but did anyone think for a second he would vote for Alliser? This subsection of several, larger plots, including one dealing with Jon trying to assert himself as leader and another being Sam overcoming his paralyzing cowardice (remember, plots are like spider webs, one thread leading in many directions), is in A Storm of Swords, and it’s much more complex and lasts longer than it takes to have a vote. Here’s what happens in the book:
Janos Slynt and others are up for Lord Commander (LC)->BUT the Watch is taking too long to decide on which one to pick->SO Stannis threatens them to make a decision soon because he has business to discuss with the LC->BUT Sam doesn’t want Janos as LC because he’s corrupt and asks Maester Aemon if he (Aemon) can do something->BUT Aemon says he can’t look as though he’s favoring anyone->SO Sam interprets that to mean he (Sam) can do something and goes to speak to Cotter Pyke, a contender for LC and commander of Eastwatch, implying Aemon favors Denys Mallister, another LC contender and commander of the Shadow Tower->BUT Pyke hates Mallister and will not support him->SO Sam goes to Mallister to plea he withdraw in favor of Pyke->BUT Mallister refuses->SO Sam suggests Jon as LC->BUT Mallister will not commit->SO Sam lies and says Stannis will support Pyke if a decision isn’t made that night->SO Mallister says he’ll think it over and Sam goes back to Pyke to suggest stepping aside for Jon->BUT Pyke laughs it off->SO Sam lies and says Stannis will force Mallister on them as LC, and later Sam has Dolorous Edd put Jon’s name forth before that night’s vote->SO Mallister, Pyke, and Othell Yarwyck withdraw in support of Jon->SO Jon wins
While a pity viewers didn’t get to see this, and I so foolishly had a hope we would, why it was so significantly reduced in the adaptation is understandable and to be expected: some of these characters haven’t been introduced and there isn’t enough time in the season to do that or show Sam as a political-savvy BFF. Fine, whatever, this isn’t part of Sam’s adventures away from the Wall and we get the same result: Jon is now Lord Commander. I can deal with the sacrifice.
But other viewers and I were not rewarded for our acceptance.
Let’s look at what else happened with Sam this past season.
The Wall needs more people to man it->SO Sam has Jon sign some letters.
Yes, one of them was to Roose Bolton, which Jon did not want to sign for about a second, but he does anyway—thanks to Sam who basically says, “Just do it.” In the books this obstacle has nothing to do with Sam, and, in any case, it’s dealt differently: Jon convinces Stannis, Tormund Gaintsbane, and the Watch to let hundreds of wildlings settle on the Gift and reopens several castles so a mix of brothers of the Night’s Watch and wildlings can defend the Wall. A break in tradition going back thousands of years vs. signing some papers? Hmmm.
Plot 3—or rather, the plot device of (almost) rape
Two men of the Night’s Watch want to rape Gilly->BUT Sam interferes->SO he’s beaten->BUT Ghost interferes and the men leave
That’s in the POV of the potential rapists. They had a few complications there and, unluckily for them, they were eventually thwarted and did not accomplish what they wanted to do. Let’s see if from Sam’s POV he had as many difficulties:
Gilly is being threatened with rape->SO Sam interferes->BUT he’s beaten->SO Ghost interferes and the men leave
Putting aside the fact this almost-assault doesn’t happen anywhere in A Song of Ice and Fire and, therefore, cannot be compared to a plot in the books, we do see Sam take significant action by trying to protect Gilly. However, deus ex machina—only acceptable in Ancient Greek drama—is used here when Ghost suddenly appears and resolves Sam’s and Gilly’s problems. Ghost’s presence brings up an issue many online commented on: what in Seven Hells is Ghost doing at Castle Black? By this point in episode 7, Jon had gone north of the Wall, so why wasn’t Ghost with Jon? What reason could Jon have to not bring him along? Not only did Sam not solve his own problem, the way it was done brought up too many questions after a viewer’s initial reaction of “Oh! Thank the gods Ghost was there! Wait …” Plus, the whole scenario brings up other issues of logic. Sam would’ve been sentenced to death if he killed any of his brothers, so it’s irrational to even suppose Sam would threaten to do so, especially being outnumbered and unarmed. (He kills Small Paul in the books, but Paul was a wight by then and was choking Sam to death.) He’s smart enough to realize that if he kills one or both of Gilly’s attackers, he’ll die, too, and then what will happen to Gilly? Sam would be dead, Jon’s still not there, and Ghost would be put down, too, if he’d killed a black brother or helped Sam in anyway. A brother slaying a brother is a crime, and Sam takes his oath and duties seriously, going so far as to refuse sleeping with Gilly until he’s practically pressured into it (in the books). He has to convince himself to lie to Cotter Pyke and Denys Mallister, so he’s not going to execute a more heinous crime like homicide. The only time Sam gets into an altercation with one of his brothers, which involved punching and no killing, is when Dareon breaks his vows by abandoning the Watch. Sam is not about to commit murder, especially if the other person hasn’t yet committed a crime.
Other than the instances highlighted here, Sam hardly took any action this past season; and when he did, there were little to no complications or consequences. The only real significant act he took that will and has affected the rest of the show was when he nominated Jon for Lord Commander, but someone else could’ve done that, such as Dolorous Edd, who, in fact, is the one who nominates Jon in the books. The season 5 finale did (finally) set up Sam, Gilly, and baby for their journey south, but the show might return to Sam’s story once he reaches Oldtown since most of the complications he encountered on the way there have been removed with character deaths and eliminations. But who knows? Maybe he’ll have some obstacles on his way there to make it more interesting, but there is no reason to delay his arrival now. The fact Sam is going south for season 6 does not do away with the glaring fact that he still did nothing throughout season 5.
Sam spent the season in the background reading on the White Walkers, supposedly, and yet he seems to have read more and related more information in A Song of Ice and Fire than on the show.[§] He served no purpose this season, which is a shame since the writers could’ve gone in so many different routes derived from Sam’s book-plot, but they ignored it completely. For the few episodes Jon was gone from the Wall, we could’ve gotten from Sam’s POV some of the Wall’s politics or how the Watch is preparing against the Others, but we didn’t. Instead we got the rape as a plot device that served no purpose other than reinforce what the viewers already knew: some of the black brothers are horny, some are criminals, and yet others are both. Oh, and that women have a shitty existence in Westeros, especially Gilly who was raped by her own father and almost had her baby taken by a White Walker.
This isn’t about how the show failed to faithfully adhere to the books. Let’s forget A Song of Ice and Fire even exists, as hard as that is to book readers. The real issue is the fact the show gave no story or purpose to Sam at all. That is bad writing. Period. Had this happened in the books, Sam would’ve been cut out of the adaptation without hesitation. Many characters and stories were removed completely from this season (and from the show forever, in some cases): Arianne, the Greyjoys, Aegon, and Quentyn, to name a few. Sam’s story was left out and yet he was left in. Why? Because he’s a fan favorite? Because he’s Jon’s friend? I love Sam (in the books, and less and less on the show), but he was superfluous in season 5. If his plot was sacrificed for the sake of other plots, why not just give him the Bran treatment by removing him and investing the time that would’ve been wasted on him, in which he does nothing to advance his or anyone else’s storyline, on the remaining stories? Or he could’ve gotten the Varys treatment: is only there in the first few episodes and then reappears in the final episode. No boring stuff in-between. But no, that time was invested and wasted on Sam, even though he added nothing to the overall story or his own. The other characters’ stories were not perfect, so some added room and time could’ve helped them and rid us of the nuisance Sam became. It was painful to see him do nothing. Show-Sam kept reminding viewers that he killed a White Walker and a Thenn, as though shoveling in our faces the fact that he once had a plot and a purpose and took action. Sam’s lack of plot was a mockery to book readers, to show-only watchers, and, most of all, to Sam’s character.
[*] Jon forces Gilly to leave her son behind and take Rayder and Dalla’s son—passing him off as her own—in order to save the latter child from Melisandre’s flames, should she want to burn someone with king’s blood.
[†] Dareon, a singer, is a brother of the Night’s Watch at Eastwatch who is made a recruiter and accompanies Sam & Co.
[‡] The crewmembers on the Cinnamon Wind are Summer Islanders.
[§] In the books, Sam discusses with Jon the idea that perhaps “dragonsteel,” which can be used to fight the Others, is Valyrian steel.