(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first book in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read that book and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fourth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the second, third, and fourth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven't read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments.)
What’s really amazing to me about Game Of Thrones at this point is the simple fact that it keeps making it seem like the worst is just around the corner, only to saw out the bottom from under you at every turn. I’ve read the book. I have a pretty general idea of where all of this is going. But I’m still amazed that things just keep getting worse. After every episode of the show, I think to myself, OK, that was a lot of setup, but the story is also really getting going. And then with every new episode, even more stuff gets set up, and even more stuff goes horribly, horribly wrong. Even as I know what’s coming, I keep hoping we’ve finally hit bottom, keep hoping that all of this build-up won’t lead to more blood than is necessary, to the deaths of some of my favorite characters. On some level, that’s got to be the mark of a good adaptation: It makes you stop thinking about the work it’s adapted from.
“The Pointy End,” the show’s best episode since its fifth and probably its best so far, was the first episode of the show that created that never once made me think, “Eh, I preferred that in the book.” Sure, there are bits that worked better on the page as I think about them, but this was one impressively paced episode of television. Lots of stuff happened, but the characters also got room to breathe, to share their thoughts and feelings and goals. This was the first episode to incorporate every single location in the show’s world (and then some) and do so in a fashion that was wholly successful, and it did so in a completely organic fashion. You’re never once left wondering where you are or why you aren’t somewhere else. Part of that’s the build-up to this point, but part of it is just a show that is increasingly moving with confidence. In the offseason, as the producers of the show are considering what did and didn’t work about season one, I hope they’ll look closely at this episode as an example of something that DID work.
The episode, of course, was written by novel author George R.R. Martin. I don’t want to ascribe too much credit to him. All TV shows are collaborative by their very nature, and the show’s other writers, its director, and the actors all surely had plenty to do with why this episode worked so well. (Plenty of others are deserving of praise as well, but let me particularly credit the cinematographer, who completely sold the dank loneliness of Ned’s prison cell with a few spare beams of light.) But there’s also a definite sense of Martin’s hand at work here. Characters that have never quite worked onscreen—like Sansa—suddenly feel much more alive. Characters that have been working—like Tyrion and Arya—get lots of fun stuff to play that never once feels labored. And finally, the tragic heft of the whole thing is snapping into place. This is a story about families that come to war and trample those who follow them into the muck, and Martin’s story makes clear that war in this world won’t be glorious, and it won’t be “noble.” It will simply be a thing that happens, and in its wake, it will leave lots of blood.
This is all driven home by a scene that could have seemed inconsequential. The Dothraki are taking out another tribe (of “lamb people”) after Drogo’s promise to Dany that he will claim the Iron Throne for their unborn son. As Dany wanders through the aftermath, you can see the calculation on her face. She knew that this was all going to happen. She knew the offshoot of her requests would lead to bloodshed. But she didn’t expect the bloodshed to start here, with lowly tribesmen who are mostly just the most convenient targets to make slaves, slaves that will fetch gold that will hire ships that will bring the Dothraki across the Narrow Sea. When she sees the Dothraki preparing to rape some of the tribe’s women, she puts an end to it, even though Jorah warns her it won’t be something the Dothraki warriors much like. Still, she has to try, so she takes the women on as a part of her ever-growing retinue.
Naturally, of course, one of the warriors DOESN’T much like it, but when he defames Dany as a foreign whore, Drogo takes him out (via cutting his neck and ripping out his tongue, which, uh, goes on the list of unpleasant ways to die), making clear his allegiances lie with his wife and unborn child, no matter what crazy ideas she gets in her head. It’s all a way to advance, yet again, the way that Dany’s presence is both driving the Dothraki’s changes as a society and the way that she and Drogo’s relationship has grown ever closer, but it’s also a scene that underscores a constant theme of Martin’s books that has been hit-and-miss in the series so far: War and battle and honor are rarely as glorious as the old songs would have it. For the most part, they’re ugly, bloody things (particularly in a Middle Ages-style world), and those who end up trapped in them often lose anything worth hanging onto if they don’t lose their lives. Dany’s look of disgust as she observes what’s happening in her name is nice and all, but it doesn’t change the fact that in her desire to regain power—at least for her son—she’s signed off on a thousand different versions of this very thing, especially if the Dothraki make it to Westeros.
But despite how ugly all of this is, everybody’s moving toward war as the episode goes on. We’d like to believe that diplomacy could work in most situations, but in this situation, it clearly cannot. On one end of Westeros, an army of zombies is apparently about to descend upon the country at any fucking second, and on the other end, a power-mad family has finally laid down its final cards in seizing absolute control. Now that Ned Stark’s in prison, is there anything that can stop the Lannisters, short of outright warfare? Not if Tywin and Cersei have anything to say about it. (Tyrion and Jaime seem significantly less enthralled by this prospect, but they’ll do what their father says.) The Lannister name must last for thousands of years. And if that means wiping the other houses from the map until they’ll swear fealty, well, that’s what they’ll do. The only response to that is warfare, and that’s what turns Robb Stark into a reluctant boy general, leading the men of the North into battle. (If I have a quibble here, it’s that Robb’s character arc has been a bit muddied, so the payoff where he becomes the leader of men doesn’t have quite the resonance it might.)
And yet the episode makes clear at pretty much every juncture that if you’re not a Lannister, you’re fucked. Dany’s stuck across the Narrow Sea, having to improvise a way across it (though at least she’s got a mighty horde on horseback). Robb’s army is dwarfed and outnumbered by the Lannister numbers, not to mention the fact that there’s plenty of dissension in the ranks and people ready to question the wisdom of a teenager (at least I think he’s still a teenager in the series) who sends a Lannister spy back to the enemy forces with very specific details about his plans. (Though, of course, this could be a double cross; here’s a plot point I don’t remember at all.) Arya’s on the run, having seen Syrio give his life to allow her to live (in an absolutely gut-wrenching scene). Sansa’s all but a prisoner of the Lannisters, who keep pushing her toward more unfavorable views of her family (if Pycelle doesn’t get his way and simply have her bumped off). And Ned’s in a dungeon, his wife having let Tyrion get away, thus removing the only bargaining chip the Starks might have possibly had.
As mentioned, what’s impressive is just how thoroughly the show lets you know both that much of this was avoidable (if Ned were just a tiny bit more cunning or a tiny bit more evil) and that there’s nothing in life that can’t get even worse. Even as it seems like everything’s finally hit bottom for the Starks, we can be pretty damn certain, from how the show has trained us, that the shit has only begun to hit the fan. The major theme of Game Of Thrones we’ve talked about—whether being noble is at all a good way to respond to the fact that many in the world simply will not be—increasingly hones in on another point of view, one that seems like an inversion of an old, old saying: The only thing necessary for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing evil. Ned had his chances, but he didn’t realize the others around him were willing to do whatever it took to get what they wanted. And now he’s stuck in prison, his only friend Varys, who comes by with flasks of water to keep him from dying of thirst, then openly, merrily suggests Ned’s death is a pretty good idea in the throne room. (I love the way the show depicts all of the King’s Landing supporting cast racing to support Joffrey once it’s clear which way the winds have blown.) Sean Bean’s performance is so wonderfully broken here, that I’m tempted to suggest this should be his Emmy submission, but for the fact that he’s on screen for all of five minutes.
Another nice thing about Martin’s direct involvement in the episode is that he truly “gets” these characters. He truly understands what drives and motivates them, and where previous episodes might have made some of these people inscrutable—or even outright bad guys—this episode restores a sense of equilibrium. Cersei has seemed at times to be a bit of an enigma or someone whose pursuit of power for her family has gradually warped her into someone unforgivable (give or take a few beautifully written scenes where she lets her guard down). But here, even as she’s carefully maneuvering her father into the position of Hand and Jaime into the head of the Kingsguard, you can see the relief on her face as she plays the final few pieces of her plan and the brief realization (quickly quashed) on Joffrey’s face that he has very little power here. A lot of this is attributable to Lena Headey’s performance (which really snaps into place here), but just as much is attributable to how she’s written: She’s no longer a simple, cunning bitter woman, driven to acts of viciousness by years of an unloving marriage. She’s now someone who’s finally won the game and can take just a moment to relax, to let her son decide the ultimate fate of Ned.
Or can she? One of the ingenious things about this series is the fact that we know that everybody in Westeros faces two huge, existential threats, ones that could wipe them from existence. We’ve already dropped in on Dany and the Dothraki, but let’s head up to the Wall, where Jon continues to feel absolutely useless, thanks to the fact that his family is off going to war and he’s stuck here, busy not having sex and helping prepare food for the kitchen. When he strikes back at Ser Alliser, he’s sent to his chambers, where he and Ghost are passing time, when Ghost suddenly begins barking and growling. Someone’s in the castle, and only Jon’s aware. When he finally tracks the culprit to the chambers of the commander, he discovers that it’s one of our blue-eyed zombie friends from the series’ prologue. The sequence where he battles with the man is thrilling and scary, and the moment when the man re-animates, stands up from the ground, and Jon realizes what he’s dealing with is even better. Suddenly, all of those entreaties to stay at the Wall don’t seem so much like people stomping on his rescue mission to get Arya back. Now, he realizes the true threats facing the kingdom are far greater than a bunch of people squabbling over a chair.
But that chair does tend to dominate proceedings, doesn’t it? Look at that final shot. Sansa, just having gotten done pleading with her fiancé for the life of her father, has heard him proclaim that Ned will not be killed if he proclaims Joffrey the king. Sansa’s sure he will. We’re pretty sure he won’t—it IS Ned, after all. And as Sansa says he will, the camera cuts to behind the throne, behind where Joffrey sits, tilting down, until the swords at the top of the throne start to edge up the sides of the frame, then grow to crowd everything else out, until there’s only darkness and the credits begin. It’s just, as Drogo would note, a chair. But that chair has a tendency to make everybody else lose sight of anything else whenever they think about it, doesn’t it?
- Oh, right. Tyrion’s in this episode, and his arc from the book seems greatly compressed. No sooner does he meet his new friends the Hill People than he’s delivering them to his father’s side, and they’re insisting that he fight alongside them in the battle that’s coming soon. Still, it’s fun to watch both this character and Peter Dinklage playing him. Both seem to be the only ones having even the slightest bit of amusement at everything that’s going on.
- On the other hand, I do really think the pacing of this episode is one thing that makes it work. It barely pauses to take a breath, and things that likely took weeks or days—like that Raven being sent from King’s Landing to the North—are dispatched with in a quick cut. Granted, the series has done a pretty poor job of indicating JUST HOW MUCH time has passed throughout its run (this is something TV series often have problems with), but the breakneck pace of this episode is really something that works to its advantage.
- After last week’s prominent female nudity, HBO tosses in somethin’ for the ladies with Big, Naked Hodor, which is just what America was calling out for.
- I was sad to have Arya disappear from the episode so quickly, but that scene where Syrio fights off those who would apprehend her—with a wooden sword!—was gut-wrenching. A fine exit for a fine character.
- Michelle Fairley earned her keep in this episode, particularly in that scene where she sees her son as a commander for the first time, and that brief instant of emotion—where you can tell she obviously never wanted this for him—plays across her face before being subsumed by respect. Really good stuff.
- Drogo provides great advice for all of us with friends who refuse to leave clearly self-destructive significant others: “Go stick your cock in something else!”
- There are a few recurring themes and motifs from the books that the series has struggled to depict, but perhaps none has suffered so much as the depiction of the various religions of Westeros. This is too bad, as that scene between Bran and the Wildling could have been even more powerful if we really understood the significance of the Old Gods.
Here Be Spoilers:
- That “minor cut” Drogo got will, of course, be the thing that ultimately does him in. It’s a wonderfully ironic way to kill a character like Drogo, and I like the way it really does look like just a flesh wound.
- Also, readers of the books will realize that after eight episodes, Jon’s arc is finally getting started, what with him about to head off into the wilds and all.
- I’m guessing this is the last episode we’ll get to spend significant time with Ned. Poor Ned. We knew ye when.