For the second time this season,1 Game of Thrones offed a character who is still alive in George RR Martin’s books. Ser Barristan Selmy met his grisly end in the alleys of Mereen, succumbing to a horde of insurgents known as the “Sons of the Harpy.” Selmy’s premature death was a change that, in all likelyhood, doesn’t alter the narrative of the series — it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Ser Barristan was bumped off in a similar manner within the first 100 pages of Martin’s next novel. However, the way Selmy was ultimately handled as a character, completely independent of the books, does mark one of the show’s larger missteps.
As a show, Game of Thrones has never realistically been able to spend the time fleshing out character backgrounds the way Martin has in his novels. If anything, the show has been surprisingly resourceful in finding ways to work important backstory details in without getting bogged down.2 World-building to the extent of Martin’s novels is, for better or worse, an impossibility on television. It would follow then, that none of the expository details the showrunners decide to to include should go to waste — which makes the handling of Barristan Selmy so baffling.
Ser Barristan Selmy is established in Martin’s novels as having been on the short list for the title of “greatest knight in Westerosi history.” Had the show elected to gloss over this reputation and just characterized Ser Barristan as an aging, honorable member of the Kingsguard, his death Sunday night would have not felt out of place. However, the show actually did spend time establishing the legend of “Ser Berristan the Bold.”
The past four seasons of Game of Thrones have been littered with references to Barristan’s fame. Ned Stark remarks that his father viewed Ser Barristan as “the best he’d ever seen.” Jamie Lannister calls Selmy “a painter who only used red.” When Selmy suddently appears to save Daenerys from an assassination attempt, Jorah Mormont tells her that Ser Barristan is “one of the greatest fighters the Seven Kingdoms has ever seen.” Barristan himself lets his brothers of the Kingsguard know that he could cut through them “like carving a cake” when Cersei attempts to force his early retirement. Even more acknowledgements of Selmy’s fame are scattered throughout the first four seasons of the show, but you get the point — Barristan Selmy has been thoroughly established on Game of Thrones as worthy of carrying Jules Winnfield’s wallet.
Game of Thrones as a show has been a separate entity from Martin’s novels for some time now and deserves to be evaluated on its own merits. However, given that Selmy’s fate on the show is already sealed, it’s worth mentioning that Martin delivered a payoff for all the hype surrounding Ser Barristan’s prowess at combat. Due to circumstances I won’t get into as to avoid any potential threat of spoilers, in A Dance of Dragons Ser Barristan finds himself facing off against the most famous (and deadly) fighter from the Mereenese fighting pits (which came up again in this week’s episode). The aged knight handily dispatches his foe in a manner that pays off everything that had been said about Selmy up to that point.
The lack of such a payoff on the show does deserve to be criticized because the show actually invested in building the myth of Barristan Selmy. Game of Thrones has received plenty of praise for its willingness to shun typical narrative conventions and kill off characters we don’t expect, but at the end of the day it still is a story.
Barristan the Bold never got his moment to shine on Game of Thrones. While the showrunners deserve plenty of praise for the way they’ve streamlined the meandering narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire’s 4th and 5th books, the mishandling of Selmy’s arc does merit criticism.