“The Pointy End”
June 5th, 2011
“Written by George R.R. Martin”
The credits for Game of Thrones has always read “Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss,” but the question of authorship has always been considerably more complicated. The fact is that this is very clearly George R.R. Martin’s world, and George R.R. Martin’s characters, and even George R.R. Martin’s story – while we can certainly argue that Benioff and Weiss have taken certain liberties, adding scenes and shifting character allegiances, it has not utterly transformed Martin’s vision. And yet, at the same time, we can’t say that this is Martin’s show, as he was ancillary to the myriad of decisions which move beyond the initial creation to the execution and design. A Song of Ice and Fire may be his story, but Game of Thrones is not his television show, and there’s an odd shared ownership of Westeros that has been evident throughout the season.
I say evident, mind you, and not problematic. The scenes that have been added have been strong, and the decisions made have been mostly logical if not necessarily ideal in every instance (or for every fan). However, here you have an instance where the person doing the adaptation is Martin himself, given a chance to return to key moments and characters and tell the same story all over again. And yet, he’s now working within someone else’s show even when he’s working within his own story, an intriguing scenario that I thought going in might make for an intriguing case study.
However, there’s honestly nothing to really see here: while this is a very strong outing, and maintains the momentum from last week’s episode quite brilliantly even as it hits the fast forward button on the narrative action (and thus risks missing key pieces of the puzzle), I don’t think we see some sort of crisis of authorship. Martin’s return coincides with the period where exposition goes out the window, and where major story events are starting to take shape. It is a period where characters are making decisions instead of pondering them, and where key themes are beginning to filter throughout the storylines at a rapid pace, and so any authorship is swallowed up by the sheer presence of the realm and those outside its borders who threaten it.
In other words, it’s just as Martin intended it, and thus as Benioff and Weiss intended it as well.
There are some really enjoyable introductions in this episode, introductions that successfully capture the humor of what is otherwise a very dark time. The introduction of the Mountain clans is not particularly dominant, but Shagga has been lovingly brought to the screen, and that cutaway to “Timmett Son of Timmett” lands even better on screen than it did in the book (or maybe I’m the only one who just loves how the repetition mirrors the brutish nature of the clans). Similarly, Greatjon Umber is a larger than life figure whose presence is first antagonistic and then protectionist, and even in a condensed form we get a sense for what it is that he respects and how he approaches the nature of this conflict. It’s nothing particularly fancy, but as a fan of the books there was an instant smile on my face when I pieced together who these characters were and the role that they will play in the future. Martin knows that role better than anyone, which is perhaps why the introductions felt so concise and yet so effective.
Indeed, the episode is filled with moments where much is done with very little. We don’t really spend a sustained period in any one location, with only brief scenes possible to establish some pretty substantial story developments. It’s as though each scene is part of a larger chapter, with various combinations of the beginning, middle and end of larger stories absent. For example, we see Catelyn confront Lysa about the letter from King’s Landing, but we don’t see her receive the letter or her departure from the Eyrie. Similarly, we see Robb meet with his bannermen and say goodbye to Bran, but our perspective shifts to the latter once Robb heads off, meaning we don’t actually see the late night departure. The story never follows one character past a certain point, always shifting to a new perspective as the pieces are moved around on the map.
That the episode still succeeds speaks to Martin’s understanding of what needs to be shown and what doesn’t. Are there details missing here? Absolutely. But the scenes we get all seem to stand out, varying in tone but never feeling as though they are more or less important than any other. There are threads that tie together storylines, with Ned’s discussion of mercy as his weakness filtering through to both Dany (who saves a village’s women from being raped and tortured) and Robb (who honors his father by showing mercy to a Lannister messenger), but the smaller scenes always feel like they acknowledge the absence of the rest of the story. Dany walks into the Dothraki assault on the village in the middle, but pieces together the beginning and puts a stop to the logical end; Sansa is offered a chance to write her own end to her family’s suffering by trying to convince her brother to forget the beginning and swear fealty to King Joffrey. This episode is the collective moment where we are on the verge of something in just about every storyline, and Martin beautifully captures the way that both the past and the future resonate when you are aware of how vital the present truly is.
Nothing in the episode seems to be happening in a vacuum, even if a lot of time seems to pass for Catelyn to meet up with Robb, for Robb to be that far South, and for Tyrion to return to his father’s host with the Mountain Clans in tow. Ravens seem to fly almost obnoxiously fast the way the focus keeps shifting, and I would say that there are a few moments where it seemed as though time had been twisted just a bit too far. However, at the same time, there’s this sense that the passage of time is outside of their control: just look at Catelyn and Robb, finally reunited, but the former weary of just how much the latter has been forced to grow in her absence. Although that transformation is not quite as marked as it was in the books, since the character is now roughly four years older, there’s still the sense of speed working for Catelyn’s belief that her son should remain in Winterfell. It’s not so much that it’s a 14-year old leading an army, but rather that she has missed so much time in his life that he has changed before her very eyes.
Really, the episode is filled with moment that Martin always had to contend with in the books: how do you indicate that time has passed? With Martin’s point-of-view chapters, there’s always the matter of trying to fill in how much time has passed, and what events we might have missed in the interim. The same goes for what we see here: we don’t know how Tyrion connected with Timmett and Chela, for example, and there are probably some questions related to that. However, we can extrapolate from Tyrion’s earlier address to Shagga that his words and moxie have become somewhat respected, and so their presence is an extension of previous events (and doesn’t necessarily need to be seen to become known). Indeed, Syrio early on explains that “watching is not seeing,” and I think we can see what happened without necessarily even watching it, their presence speaking volumes (or as many volumes as it needs to when the narrative is moving this quickly).
On some level, it seems like this was the first episode that really embraced the sense of “point-of-view,” just through a slightly different lens than the books. The shifts in perspective seemed more pointed, the cuts from one location to another both more stylized (from the fire of the Wight to the fires of the Dothraki raid, for example) and more meaningful (like letting Syrio’s last stand be left offscreen, our final moments with the character the same as Arya’s as he stands bravely to protect her while she runs). That scene with Septa Mordane and the Lannister Guards ends precisely where it needs to: we know what’s about to happen, and the gravity of the scene is in what we don’t see as much as what we do. The episode has plenty of gaps, but every time we return to those characters we feel the weight of what happened during that period. Sansa, walking down those steps into a hall of people staring at her as a traitor’s daughter, commands all of our attention in that scene, as our minds rush to what she must have struggled with between her meeting with the Small Council and that moment standing begging Joffrey to give her father the mercy that he tried to show Joffrey and which now has him suffering in the dungeons.
I will not argue that there are no consequences to moving this quickly: Ned, suffering in the dungeons, feels particularly slighted by the speed, never offered a private moment to contemplate his situation (which was perhaps too conveniently defined during his visit with Varys). I also felt that the material at the Wall and across the Narrow Sea couldn’t help but feel removed from the other storylines more than usual, and seemed to be paced so radically differently that the seemingly long passage of time in the main storyline never quite meshed with the others (which seemed to represent single days, unless I’m mistaken). However, is this really a problem? Part of the argument that Osha makes to Bran is that they’ve got it all wrong: instead of worrying about marching South, Robb should be marching North, and we could extend this to say that instead of worrying about the treasonous Starks the Lannisters should be looking to the East.
There is value in our attention being challenged, drawn in different directions and moving at different speeds. It forces us to consider what separates these stories, and the reasons why Jon can’t simply fly off to participate in the war effort and why the Dothraki can’t just hop in some boats and cross the Narrow Sea. The speed at which “The Pointy End” travels leaves people behind, like Arya, but that seems to be the point: Catelyn’s observation that Arya has gone unmentioned by Sansa calls her absence to our attention as well, and raises questions that have some of us guessing and some of us anticipating. The sum of the episode’s efforts is the beginning of a war, but Martin takes care to give us moments like Bran trying to comfort Rickon, or Bran by the heart tree, or even Sansa kneeling before the throne. While war seems inevitable, the machine readying itself for a bloody battle, the episode never lost focus on how those preparations risk swallowing our characters whole – just as the consequences of her birthright being reclaimed are shown to Dany as she witnesses the destruction of innocent civilians, the consequences of the oncoming war are shown to the audience as we head into the season’s final two episodes.
- Some very strong material for ancillary characters: Greatjon and Shagga I already mentioned, but Ser Barristan Selmy’s forced retirement really landed hard. I’ve argued from the beginning that the relative vagueness of the Kingsguard would be something that could be gradually changed, and I think this was a nice moment to clarify some of the meaning behind the position and to properly contextualize the action being undertaken to undermine the ranks under Cersei’s rule. Also, Ian McElhinney was really quite great in that scene, bringing true fire to an important moment for overall atmosphere if not outright “plot.”
- Similarly, just to be clear, the entire opening scene was really beautifully handled, especially Syrio’s final moments. The show has been nailing the big moments, and coming out of last week’s cliffhanger they really kept a consistent vision for how the takeover went down. The one thing that was perhaps missing was any time spent with Littlefinger, given his instrumental role, but I guess that’s part of the character: shifts into the story when he sees fit, and then quickly steps out so as to avoid implicating himself too seriously.
- In terms of book changes, it does seem the show is moving away from Sansa having had some role in Cersei’s initial wrestling of power (having, if memory serves me right, sort of tipped her off in the books, although we don’t learn this until after it happens). Here, Sansa seems entirely ignorant of any of that, which both makes Cersei’s boldness in rejecting Ned’s claim more badass and makes Sansa’s behavior a little bit more innocent (a word that got thrown around quite a lot). Of course, this could change in time, but seems a subtle shift for book readers to take into account.
- Plenty of direwolf action this week – still odd that Summer was missing in action, perhaps, but Grey Wind and Ghost were busy.
- I like that Martin kept naked Hodor in that Weirwood scene – it’s a small detail, and certainly not a necessary one, but I think it really captures the character’s lack of understanding regarding social norms and adds some nice levity to what is a dark scene (one well handled by both Hempstead-Wright and Tena).
- And speaking of Winterfell, RICKON LIVES.
- A bit of a dangerous move, ending the episode on such a quiet note compared to last week, but I like the shift: a fast episode that ends slowly may seem a bit odd, but it’s a nice moment to let us breathe and take it all into consideration.
- This is the first screenerless week, but we’ll be in the same boat for the final two episodes as well, so hope the two hour delay wasn’t too terrible!