Game of Thrones: “You Win or You Die” and “The Pointy End”
Posted by therebelprince on March 5, 2012
After introducing us to all the pieces, Game of Thrones‘ seventh and eight instalments spend most of their time pushing them into place for the events of the finale (and, really, beyond…)
07. You Win or You Die
“All you needed to do was climb the steps yourself … such a sad mistake.”
I commented last week that episode six – A Golden Crown – while very strong in the Dothraki storyline, felt like the other storylines were only brief moments, rather than feeling coherent. I suspect this is a problem we’ll face further in the future, as the plot becomes even more fragmented. So far, the most blatant example must be Robert’s death. We saw him on the hunt last week, in a scene divorced from anything around it, and now he’s back and dying from a boar wound. It’s all a bit sudden, as if the series just wants to get through this last stumbling block on the way to the war between Ned and Cersei. Robert’s death is a catalyst for much of the action to follow in the next two seasons, and the series had done such a good job of not treating it like a foregone conclusion… until now.
The central plot of Ned slowly feeling out how his key advisors feel regarding Joffrey is quite well done, with Littlefinger, Varys, and Renly all going into damage control. (Renly and Robert’s brother, Stannis, is mentioned here as a key claimant to the throne – we’ll meet him at the start of season 2.) To fight with, or make peace with, the Lannisters? It’s a crucial question given that we now know none of the heirs to the throne are Baratheons. Instead, they’re the incestuous spawn of Jaime and Cersei. This is confirmed in a stunning, quiet confrontation sequence where Cersei openly admits that she loved Robert once, but drifted back to her twin. Even now, Cersei is trying to get Ned out without resorting to bloodshed, but his damned honour gets in the way. In some ways, of course, it seems ridiculous: can blood really be important for a king? But, in other ways, it’s vitally important: the Lannisters have clearly had this plot going for some time, even if no-one but Cersei and Jaime know the truth about their spawn.
Of course, at the last minute, really none of this planning matters. Ned marches in the throne room with Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter) and his men, to deliver the King’s written deathbed words. Cersei simply tears up the paper. Lena Headey comes into her own here with a quiet confidence: I’m really enjoying this portrayal of the Queen wherein she’s not eager to shed blood, and would rather get things done as discreetly as possible. But having that power is vitally important, and she’s not about to give it up now.
You Win or You Die is not quite as staggered as A Golden Crown, but the importance of most scenes remains vague. We’re introduced to the Lannister patriarch, Tywin (Charles Dance) in a powerful scene where he and Jaime debate the merits of the brewing Lannister/Stark war. Is the implication of this scene that he was preparing for Robert’s death for some time to come? In the books, I’d always assumed Cersei got scared of Ned’s foraging, but the series has made her a much calmer figure. Either way, Tywin’s introduction is a great scene, but it feels a bit disconnected, as we won’t really see the payoff until next episode.
Equally discombobulating is the largely unnecessary Winterfell business. Theon broke his exposition record last week, but he’s back in full force now, chatting to Osha. Seriously, given how little time we’ve spent at the Wall in recent weeks, why do we need this every week? I’m all for Theon Greyjoy as a character in future seasons, but most characters have been well developed in half as many scenes as we’ve had with this character, who has so far done absolutely nothing.
Now, I’ve been largely complimentary to Game of Thrones‘ first season, because I really do love this series and the source books. But – and I’ll get into this more next week – the Wall storyline just hasn’t been a soaring success this year. Part of that, I’ll concede, is the book. More and more, this begins to feel like a weird version of Hogwarts, with the fat kid making good, the inexplicably evil children and teachers, and Jon learning to find his place in the world. This impression isn’t helped by how little time we’ve spent with the Wallies this season, as we see them getting sworn in this week (and Jon, of course, being consigned to the worst possible job because of the machinations of the disparately allied teachers). The Wall certainly looks wonderful, and I anticipate this storyline paying back the investment in droves as we go further down the line. But the series has really cemented for me the stereotypical elements of this storyline that I was perhaps denying to myself. (Having said that, I love Brian Fortune‘s warmth as the Stewart, Bowen Marsh).
In other controversies, Littlefinger gets perhaps the season’s most controversial scene, as he soliloquises to two whores he is training in the arts of lovemaking. Anyone looking to criticise the series for gratuitous sexuality could find plenty of grist for their mill here. I actually don’t mind the scene. It’s part of a long line of HBO monologues, and not the only time Game of Thrones has – or will – characterised someone through such a scene. Beyond this, prostitution is an overarching theme of the series – literally, as with upcoming characters like Shae, and fascinating presumed dead characters we’re soon to hear about, and metaphorically, as the series will continue to explore the role of women and outcasts in this world. I think it’s fine if you don’t enjoy two women playing with each other’s rear ends (nor do I), but it’s no less or more acceptable than people having their body parts gouged out or swearing like drunken sailors, surely? It’s HBO’s world, we just live in it.
Finally, the episode takes us back to the Dothraki “sea”, where Dany’s two men both prove their commitment. This storyline could easily have felt disconnected from the so-called main plot, but the writers have done a great job of tying Daenerys’ rise to Robert’s fall. Khal Drogo’s lack of interest in conquering Westeros becomes clear this week. After all, he has no interest in ruling. Even if they won the Seven Kingdoms, would his people really leave their lifestyles for the austerity of the Iron Throne? Either way, Drogo changes his mind after a beady-eyed wineseller (wonderfully played by Simon Lowe) tries to poison the Khaleesi, at the behest of Robert Baratheon, King of the Andals. (The scene also allows Mormont to ultimately choose his growing love for Daenerys over returning to his home, and Iain Glen – unsurprisingly – plays it well.) This is perhaps Jason Momoa’s best episode of the season, as he determines that his son will mount the world. Momoa is both terrifying and awe-inspiring in the amazing moment where he announces his plan to rule the Kingdoms, and take his people beyond the known world. Of course, for those of us who’ve seen the rest of the season, we know this is about Daenerys, as she continues her transition from forgotten girl to Khaleesi, and from Khaleesi to potential Queen and conqueress.
08. The Pointy End
“What do we say to the God of death?”
– Syrio Forel and Arya Stark
… and then all hell breaks loose. The Pointy End was written by George R.R. Martin, author of the novels. It’s possibly the plot-heaviest episode of the season (ending a run of plot-heavy episodes), so it was probably a good idea to give it to the writer who best knows the characters, and who has a wealth of television writing experience. It’s still a bit of a jumpy experience (as I’ll outline below), but it’s a return to form after two episodes that sometimes felt like we were just popping in on stories that other people were watching.
What makes it work is that – even though the timing of the episode is massively confusing – this is the episode where seven hours’ worth of prologue material comes together. King Robert is dead, and Ned’s imprisonment and the rise of Joffrey have connected everyone: the Baratheons, Lannisters, Starks, Greyjoys, Targaryens, men in black, etc. Sean Bean sits out most of the episode, but he’s not missed, given how much is going on.
In King’s Landing, Septa Mordane and Syrio Forel go to their deaths protecting their respective charges (well, we don’t see either death – although Mordane’s will be confirmed later – so “Syrio Lives!” conspiracy theorists can go wild). As she flees the guards, Arya kills her first person – a young stablehand. The killing is a huge moment in the books, which will reflect upon Arya’s character arc for years to come. It’s still treated seriously here, but quite quickly, in the rush to get all the pieces into place. Sansa, meanwhile, is deposed by Cersei and her lackeys, in a scene that is wonderfully faithful to the book. Sansa’s point-of-view is one of my favourite of Martin’s conceits (even if she occasionally gets too breathy and girlish for my liking). The books allow the reader to savour the political strife even as Sansa fails to recognise it. Here, Cersei, Varys, Littlefinger, and Maester Pycelle put on a big show to convince the girl to write a letter to her brother-turned-warrior. Pycelle is the key figure here, I think. He’s another character who remains in the background of the books even as he has a major impact on the series. Seeing him fleshed out, Pycelle seems to truly believe that Sansa is a weed who should be removed from proximity to the King. I can’t wait to see where the series takes Pycelle, and his marvellous actor Julian Glover, given his role in future books.
We stop by the Vale briefly for a wonderful confrontation between Cat and Lysa. Kate Dickie continues to disturb with her portrayal of the slightly demented Tully sister, while Michelle Fairley – who had to deal with a cipher of a character for several episodes – has finally been given the writing she deserves, and will be a highlight for the remainder of the season. Elsewhere, Tyrion and Bran face off against some mountain clans, ultimately forming an alliance with the gruff Shagga (Mark Lewis Jones).
Tyrion’s triumphant return from his capture is cheekily played by Dinklage, and there’s a great dynamic between him, Charles Dance, and a longtime favourite of mine, Ian Gelder, as Tyrion’s uncle Ser Kevan Lannister. Lord Tywin is yet another character who has such power in the books – being, after all, the psychological source of three major characters – but is never seen on his own, so it’s nice to see how committed he is to rescuing his son, even if it’s largely about the family honour. So much of Tyrion’s resentment in life – as we’ll find out next week – stems from his father and, to a lesser extent, brother, so seeing Tywin’s perspective is cleverly done.
The non-episodic structure of the series is something I’ve griped about before, and The Pointy End continues to leave the Wall storyline trailing behind. Sure, this is a big moment: the Wallies turn against Jon (whose uncle has gone missing beyond the Wall), until he saves the Lord Commander from an attack by a zombie (hereafter known as a wight). I like the point of this sequence: finally some of our main characters know that the dark mysteries beyond the Wall are threatening to encroach into the Seven Kingdoms. But the scenes are so brief that they rely too much on a kind of narrative shorthand: we know a selection of vaguely unpleasant Wallies hate Jon, so we can skip the character development and just show him suddenly disliked this week, and praised next week. It’s the only storyline I’ve really had any qualms about (well, except Theon “Mr. Storyteller” Greyjoy), so here’s hoping things will improve in season 2.
Across the Narrow Sea, Drogo and his men take slaves from a herding tribe, which begins the second act of Dany’s story. This is well-written, ladies and germs. Unlike the folks at the Wall, Game of Thrones has done a stellar job of characterising the supporting players here, from bloodriders Rakharo and Qotho (Dar Salim, who is also quite fine), to handmaidens Irri and Jhiqui (Sarita Piotrowski). Dany has less scenes in book 2, I recall, so I hope that the wealth of characters can beef up that storyline. Meanwhile, Martin’s script quickly and painlessly shows us the conflict between the Dothraki and the ‘lamb people’ without going into details. We don’t need to know that; tribal warfare is tribal warfare. And I appreciate how it’s made clear that Dany is partly responsible for the slavery she abhors. Where else are the Dothraki going to get the gold to buy ships, and sail to Westeros? The crucial scene this week again belongs to Jason Momoa, as Drogo faces a Dothraki challenger in a beautifully choreographed fight that ends with him ripping the man’s tongue out. It’s… unsettling. It’s Momoa’s last big scene of the season, given he’s mostly sidelined for the last two episodes, and he brings his A-Game.
That’s not all, folks! Robb leaves Winterfell after news reaches him of Ned’s arrest. It’s particularly interesting to note, given Martin wrote this script, how much emphasis is put on the fact that there must be a Stark in Winterfell. We – and some of the characters – have always assumed this to just be a tradition, but perhaps it ties into something far more ancient and important than we know? While plotting at Winterfell has been slow (in keeping with the books), I can’t praise everyone involved enough. Both Isaac Hempstead-Wright and Art Parkinson (as Bran and Rickon) really sell the emotion of their very short interchange, when Rickon predicts that none of the Starks who’ve left will ever come back. It’s Rickon’s first heavy appearance of the season, and young Parkinson is utterly convincing. Hempstead-Wright is equally natural in his interactions with Hodor, who pops up naked in the Godswood (and Osha can’t be wrong when she says he’s “half-giant”, if you know what I mean). But the designers deserve even more credit. The Godswood is simply stunning. I hope we spend lots of time here next season, as Bran and Rickon struggle to deal with being the Starks in Winterfell.
Meanwhile, I’m gonna need a calendar next season, because this episode must transpire over months!. From planning his flight to setting up a base camp and an army, Robb Stark develops into a proto-general overnight, and Catelyn has time to join him. (In the novel, I believe she takes a boat from White Harbour to avoid the terror of the Vale. It wasn’t an option on arrival due to the discretion they were taking.) Robb’s transition to convincing lord will take the rest of the season (and be done well), but here it’s again told in shorthand, as he wins over the Greatjohn (Clive Mantle) in yet another “anger turning to laughter” sequence. Robert already exhausted my patience with this trope, so here’s hoping Robb has some other tricks up his sleeve in future.
* Barristan Selmy is removed as the head of the Kingsguard. I hope Ian McElhinney returns to the series, because it was a great scene, and he’s a great actor in the role of the long-time warrior, suddenly tossed aside by an uncaring King and Queen.
* Perhaps unsurprisingly, Martin utilises the direwolves more than any other writer this season.
* Oh look, it’s Mirri Maz Duur (Mia Soteriou)! Dany saves this healer from slavery and prostitution. I wonder if she’ll play any role in the season’s climax…
Next week: Ned is called to trial in “Baelor”.