TV discussion

TV Rewind… Game of Thrones 1×08 – ‘The Pointy End’

One of the interesting aspects of ‘You Win or You Die’, which I failed to mention in my analysis of that episode, was how the children were completely eliminated from view, at least the younger children who will prove so crucial to the central narrative of Game of Thrones. ‘The Pointy End’ redresses this balance by re-framing the episode from the perspective of a future generation who will shape the future of Westeros, so it is perhaps quite appropriate this is the first script to be written by George R. R. Martin.

Martin almost certainly would have had his pick of episodes to write in the first season, adapting A Game of Thrones, so his choice of ‘The Pointy End’ is really rather interesting. It comes off the back of an important episode which significantly changes the goal posts for the first season and sets up the climactic run at the final three episodes, making ‘The Pointy End’ something of a ‘beginning of the end’ episode; it has to continue threads left dangling at the end of ‘You Win or You Die’ and edge these characters closer toward where the season wants to leave them, but it can’t conclude anything either. Perhaps Martin chose ‘The Pointy End’ because it feels like rich narrative territory on the cusp of major events in the story. Or he chose it because of the aforementioned children.

For a start, ‘The Pointy End’ begins a long, varied and fascinating journey for Arya, both in literal terms across Westeros and beyond, and as she grows into a very different young woman. Arya spends more time absent and detached from any of her family or the places she grew up in than anyone else in Game of Thrones, and her subsequent transformation is one of the most skilfully played, thanks to some rewarding, carefully-established writing and a chameleonic, career-defining performance by Maisie Williams. Here, however, Arya is first and foremost a terrified young girl—though not without pluck—who has to get out of dodge before she can be either murdered or become an eternal political prisoner under a bloodthirsty new regime.

If Arya manages to evade capture, the same very much cannot be said for her father Ned Stark, already quite a weak, disconsolate, resigned figure in the dungeons of King’s Landing. Visited by Varys (in disguise no less), the point is made to Ned that I discussed previously – his loose tongue about the truth concerning Robert’s children, which Ned characterises as “mercy” trying to protect the children, almost certainly got Robert killed before he could learn the truth and banish the Lannister’s from anywhere near the Iron Throne. Truthfully, these plans were almost certainly in place before Ned realised the truth; its likely Cersei knew Jon Arryn had figured it out, and its possible Varys himself would have been in on the plot on some level. When Ned openly questions why Varys did nothing when the Lannister’s slaughtered his men, Varys replies: “When you look at me, do you see a hero?”.

Interestingly, Ned pointedly asks a question which the show will return to at points concerning Varys, which speaks to the broader political and philosophical ideas behind Game of Thrones, when he asks who Varys really serves. “The Realm, my Lord,”Varys replies.“Someone must”. Though Varys openly doesn’t characterise himself as a ‘hero’ in the sense it would be celebrated in Westerosi terms—valiant Knights on horseback saving Kingdoms from Mad Kings—he almost certainly, quietly considers himself in those terms on more of a metaphorical plane. Varys is the Machiavellian protector of society, as opposed to a house or King or leader. He believes his actions, whether plotting or doing nothing if the outcome goes a certain way, serve a bigger picture and bigger *idea*. It’s a level of thinking way beyond a man like Ned, who lives with his honour and nobility.

Thus far, Robb Stark has lost out when it comes to characterisation in Game of Thrones. We’ve had more development and establishment of Theon Greyjoy than even Robb, and that’s perhaps because Robb often feels more like a necessary functional aspect for narrative purposes than a truly interesting character in his own right. Jon has the brooding angst, Theon the naive level of ego, even Bran the haunted aspect of prophecy tied up with the depression of disability, but what defines Robb as a character? ‘The Pointy End’ goes some way to try and shade in some of those aspects.

Robb is, honestly, scared. He has the weight of expectation on his shoulders to try and *be* Ned in a way none of his brothers have. It’s also why Theon, clearly jealous of his position, sees Robb’s hand shaking, sees his fear:“Good. It means you’re not stupid.”he comments. Theon’s own naivety is in believing he sees the world more clearly than the Starks he has come to secretly, quietly despise.

These aspects become even more apparent in Season 2 when Ned is dead and Robb has assumed his place as heir to the North, but the seeds are finally being sown with Robb here in a way the season hasn’t yet, up to this point, had the opportunity to do. It’s through Robb that Martin is also able to flesh out more of the distaff houses of the North who will play a role in the coming War of the Five Kings, and later the battle to free the North from Bolton tyranny; Clive Mantle is on delightfully gregarious form as Greatjohn Umber, with a broad Northern accent and rough disdain of the South: “We’ll stick our swords up Tywin Lannister’s bumhole!” he broadly declares, with complete confidence in the power and solidarity of the North. Robb seems much less convinced.

His brother (or should that be cousin?) Jon Snow also has an instinctual, noble response to news that Ned is imprisoned and his family are at risk once Lord Commander Mormont makes him aware – to run off in their defence, but he’s swiftly reminded of the oath he has just taken to the Night’s Watch. It’s no longer as simple as him racing off like a noble Knight to defend his family, indeed it’s never been that simple for Jon given his status as a bastard, an outcast. What helps Jon in many ways in the realisation of a much greater and more disturbing threat beyond the Wall, with events which begin to set up exploring the territory beyond where the Watch guard in the next season: the threat of the White Walkers, which begins to more sharply edge into focus.

We get some nice suggestions of Sam Tarly’s eventual journey toward become a learned Maester in training, as he makes some acute observations about Benjen Stark’s dead team – how they don’t smell of rot, suggesting they haven’t long been dead. After they rise as undead Wights within Castle Black, Sam is the one who talks about knowledge he gathered from the library of wise, super old Maester Aemon, about how the Walkers supposedly have“slept under the ice for thousands of years”and when they wake up, like these Wights woke up who Jon was forced to battle, they’re all in trouble. It tracks, in all honesty, with what Osha is warning Bran about at Winterfell, voicing how the armies marching to war are going the wrong way: “the cold winds are rising”.

Self-importance, meanwhile, continues to be a defining aspect of the Lannister family, even with their most likeable sibling, Tyrion. He’s made a season out of talking himself out of sticky situations, be it execution at the hand of Lysa Arryn and her sickly heir Robyn, or here savage murder at the hands of the Stone Crows – yet another band of ‘savages’ who rub up against Tyrion’s ‘civilised’ promises of gold and weapons. He gets the line of the episode when asked how he would like to die: “In my own bed, aged 80, with a belly full of wine and a girl’s mouth around my cock”, but it also speaks to his own self-awareness about the unlikelihood of this in a world such as the Seven Kingdoms. Tyrion has made a lifetime out of self-preservation through the skills of his wit and mind – it’s clearly something Bronn recognises, hence why he elects to throw in with the Lannister’s.

When Tyrion brings Bronn to the Lannister vanguard, it feels a little like Prince Charles bringing vagrants into Buckingham Palace. “And here we have Bronn, son of…”“You wouldn’t know him”is Bronn’s response in the face of Tywin Lannister’s visible snobbery. We will discuss Bronn is more detail later as he begins to assert himself as one of Game of Thrones’ most enjoyable supporting characters, but even this quick exchange says much about Bronn position as a child of low birth, in contrast to Tyrion’s privilege, and how Bronn’s meteoric rise to a level of nobility is more about his cunning and intelligence, not to mention being as mercurial with his loyalties as they come, than any level of birthright. He will prove even more of a fun foil alongside Jaime Lannister in seasons to come, but his dynamic with Tyrion is loaded with the kind of cheeky dialogue Martin clearly has fun getting down on paper.

For Tyrion, of course, this is quite a big moment – the first time we see him engage with his father Tywin. The head of the Lannister family has already been established as complicated ‘villain’ of sorts, and the show will delve into the difficult and strained relationship between father and son much more down the line, but Tyrion is immediately made to feel inferior to the unseen Jaime, off winning victories in Tywin’s eyes just to underscore how inferior Tyrion is seen to be. Tywin does cast off the threat of Robb fairly quickly:“The wolf runs into the lion’s jaws”he declares on hearing of a tactical Stark move, again mythologising both sides of the conflict through their symbolic crests, but Tyrion has learned perhaps thanks to his sojourn North not to underestimate the Starks.

While it is quite sad to see Bran lament the fact all of his close family are gone, Robb’s assertion he must stay because“there must always be a Stark in Winterfell”touches on that level of symbolic reasoning in the Seven Kingdoms. A disabled child and a token force of guards cannot hope to truly defend Winterfell, as we will see with Theon’s betrayal next season, but there is a sense that a Stark being present represents more than actual, literal defence – that perhaps without the symbol of the Starks visible, their power base way swiftly crumble. This proves to be quite prophetic in later seasons but it remains a powerful symbolic concept. It doesn’t look like the Starks will be returning to Winterfell any time soon, including Sansa.

Behaviour is a concern for Daenerys in a very different part of the world, as following Drogo’s call to arms and fresh determination to storm the Seven Kingdoms, the Dothraki begin raping and pillaging innocent villages in order to capture innocents they can sell to slavers for gold and weapons they can then use to hire ships that will sail Dany to her Restoration. ‘The Pointy End’ is quite a significant episode in this regard as it begins to show Dany what the Dothraki are like with some of the radicalised blinkers off, and instigates the first stirrings within her of the crusade she undertakes to free entire cities and populations from the chains of slavery and servitude. Martin writes the first seeds of how Daenerys will approach being a ruler.

What Daenerys tries to suggest is more a level of equality, with Mago adopting one of these women as a wife, but Mago suggests taking a “lamb” is beneath him. “The dragon feeds on horse and lamb alike” Daenerys counters, and she believes this; that the inherent Targaryen power she inherited makes her essentially ‘better’ than the Dothraki savages, and they should be careful not to disrespect that power. Dany will of course eventually literalise that once the dragons are born but right now, perhaps given her growing confidence as the Khaleesi following Viserys’ demise, her belief the Restoration will be hers to lead, and mystical aspects such as being immune to fire, she is imbued with a self-belief of strength and purpose men like Mago should respect.

‘The Pointy End’, therefore, is another important episode in establishing Game of Thrones as a mythological power house which can balance theme, world-building, narrative momentum and character development in a seamless package. George R.R. Martin understands how to convert the style of his prose into screenplay format, further bringing to life his characters off the page onto the screen, and there continues to grow a confidence in the storytelling Game of Thronesemploys, and will become a TV phenomenon for – balancing the creation of an entire in-show universe while never losing sight of the Song of Ice and Fire.

While the children and their fate are crucial to this episode, we are about to learn Game of Thrones is a show that will refuse to hold to the traditional rules of television storytelling about the fate of main characters. It is not just Winter that is coming, but significant change…

Are you a fan of Game of Thrones? Let us know what you think of this episode. This is an abridged version of a longer review on the Cultural Conversation blog which you can read here.

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