Through most of these reviews I’ve discussed the adaptation issues between book to screen, but that isn’t the only external expectation that Game Of Thrones was saddled with. The show was also airing on HBO, which creates its own expectation. From the end of The Sopranos in 2007, the network was searching for a new flagship show. Both their critical and popular acclaim was being swiped by upstarts like AMC (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, the start of The Walking Dead) and even FX (who launched Terriers, Archer, and Justified in the year before GOT, as well as keeping Sons Of Anarchy on). HBO had the popular but rarely acclaimed True Blood…and not much else. Across roughly a year’s span, they launched three shows aimed at critical and popular acclaim while maintaining the network’s brand: GOT, as well as Boardwalk Empire and Treme.
What comprises the HBO brand is always going to be a subject of some debate for critics, but these three shows were tied together in two different ways. First, they were prestigious in ways befitting a prestige cable drama—they had big names attached both in front of the camera (Sean Bean, Steve Buscemi) and behind it (Terrence Winter, David Simon, George R.R. Martin, and Martin Scorcese directing the Boardwalk pilot). That also included trying to capture authenticity, with Treme’s attempts at depicting post-Katrina New Orleans, Boardwalk’s expensive sets, and Thrones’ expensive…everything.
But it’s the HBO form that’s most relevant to how “The Pointy End” is constructed. HBO seasonal structures, embedded by The Sopranos and hammered home by The Wire, have tended to be constructed around several episodes of build-up, then the penultimate episode with the shocking usually-violent climax, and finally the season finale’s (sometimes even more dramatic, sometimes less) emotional response to that climax.
This formal constraint is, essentially, the explanation for why “The Pointy End” is so formless….
Compare last week’s structure of slowly escalating bad decisions ending in betrayal, with this week’s resolution of that betrayal and…a bunch of pieces moving into place. Or contrast the effectiveness the final image of “You Win Or You Die” when Littlefinger grabs Ned and breaks (or keeps) his promises with this week’s Sansa supplication in the same location. One builds tension, the other seems to release it—for perhaps the only time in the season with a final scene.
One issue with the lack of tension is something that Game Of Thrones has struggled throughout its entire run, and I feel this episode may be the first example of: its particular brand of “dramatic irony.” This term is usually used to mean information that the audience possesses that the characters don’t, and that’s true here, but it’s only part of the audience that doesn’t get it. Readers (and re-watchers) know that Joffrey’s professing of mercy is a total lie, but that’s not the entirety of who the show is aimed at. For anyone who’s new to the series, it seems a deliberate cruelty. (This isn’t the worst example of this—the Jon-Ygritte relationship is filled with moments that seem deliberately designed to make readers smirk at romantically-included Unsullied viewers.)
Another odd thing about this episode is that it starts at the point of highest drama and lets that slowly dissipate over the course of the episode. Both of the Stark girls are forced to sacrifice their teachers thanks to the Lannister coup. Syrio Forel’s end is more physically impressive, thanks to the dancing instructor’s physical prowess and connection to the more charismatic (at this point) Arya Stark. But Susan Brown, whose role as Septa Mordane wasn’t given as much depth on the show as in the novels, gave a fast, emotionally powerful performance as she set herself and walked out the doors to her death.
This is followed by one of the most important scenes from the novels, Arya’s first kill. And….I don’t know, this might be my least favorite important scene adaptation of the entire first season. In the novels the moment is filled with import, the sign that the story has spun out of control and forced even the children into violence. On the show, it just…kind of happens. I wish I had a stronger critique than that, because it remains a disappointment to me, but I don’t other than to say that the show makes it seem inconsequential.
Rather than pile on the adaptation too much, or act like I actually dislike this episode instead of merely being slightly frustrated by it, I think Game Of Thrones improves on the source material in two other major storylines in this episode. First, the khalasar’s attack on the Lamb People and the introduction of Mirri Maz Duur is an oddly regressive piece of storytelling, where Drogo’s riders warn him of the potential treachery of their captives and Dany’s naivete. “Gold to hire ships, princess. Ships to sail to Westeros.” The thing is, they’re totally right—the women are being untrustworthy or foolish in totally stereotypical ways, and they’re not good people to have be the truth-tellers. As a “teachable moment” for Dany, learning to combine her power and her ideals, it works, but it still feels cynical, in a way uncommented-upon by the characters.
The show improves the sequence, though, by relying once again on Jason Momoa’s physical charisma. Drogo and his riders are all villains here by almost any measure, but the pride on Momoa’s face as Daenerys makes her claim, and then his cocky-as-hell dispatching of his rider makes him, if not sympathetic, then at least a character I enjoy seeing on-screen.
The second major improvement is this episode’s somewhat odd focus character: Robb Stark. Another issue with “The Pointy End” is, I think, that the show is a little unsure how it wants to treat the Boy Wolf. In the novels he’s not a point-of-view character, and though he’s incredibly important politically, he’s not “on-screen” as often as you might expect. (“Though the boy does have a certain belligerence. You’d like him.”) His relative lack of presence in the season so far is part of this. He’s there, he’s responsible (if impatient) and appears to be a worthy heir. But he’s never driven the story.
In this episode, Richard Madden takes Robb Stark, and he drives the story with his portrayal. The cool way that Robb stares down the Greatjon (“The Greatjon only meant to cut my meat for me!” “Your meat….is bloody tough!”) both before and after the wolf attack illustrate the character’s strength, and his scene with his reunification of his mother illustrates his vulnerability. Both these scenes are almost straight from the books, yes, but Madden invests Robb Stark with a humanity that the more symbolic character from the novels didn’t always possess. “Well that makes it simple, then.”
“The Pointy End” also contains one of the most explicitly stated themes of the entire story. Even as the plot positions Robb as a fairly traditional hero, the wildling Osha describes what may be his, and everyone’s fatal flaw. “I tried telling your brother he’s marching the wrong way. He and all these swords should be marching north. North, boy, not south.” The political struggles of the Seven Kingdoms are almost all petty and pointless, by her perspective, even if honor and family make them seem worthwhile and create heroes out of Robb Stark. But it’s Jon Snow, slayer of the White Walker, who actually seems to be on the right track. Jon doesn’t necessarily see the big picture in the way that Game Of Thrones as a series seems to want to portray—but unlike almost everyone else, when he catches a glimpse of it, he doesn’t ignore it.
Notes and quotes:
- “When you look at me do you see a hero?” asks Varys, when Ned wants to know why his help is so minor. Another good thematic jab.
- The scene with Sansa interrogated by the Small Council, one face at a time, shot from her sitting position, is really well done. “What will happen to him?” “Well that depends.” “On what?” “On your brother. And on you.”
- “I’m not your toadie and I’m not your friend.” That’s not what I’ve heard, Bronn.
- I didn’t mention him much in the qualitative part of the review, but jeez is this a great Tyrion one-liner episode. “In my own bed, at the age of 80, with a belly full of wine and a girl’s mouth around my cock.”
- Rickon has another of the themes down as well. “They’ll be back soon. Robb will get father, and they’ll come back with mother.” “No they won’t.”
- “Have no fear, lady, we’ll shove our swords up Lord Tywin’s bunghole, and then it’s off to the Red Keep to free Ned.”
- “If the Halfman betrays us Shagga son of Dolf will” “cut off his manhood and feed it to the goats, yes.”
- “And here we have Bronn, son of…” “You wouldn’t know him.”
- Cersei smirking when she tells Barristan he’s fired is just the worst. “A hall to die in, and men to bury me.”
Let’s turn the speculation, second-guessing, and alternate history into a tradition, shall we? This week: Lysa’s rejection of Catelyn’s pitch for an alliance. Given Lysa’s characterization–and what we now know about her Littlefinger-inspired motives–it was always unlikely she’d chose to join the war. But what if she had? Does adding the Vale forces let Robb win the war? Or do the Lannisters sue for peace, and the moderating effect of more non-Northerners mean Robb never declares independence? Or does little change at all, with Tywin more directly adopting a defensive posture?