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State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Eddard Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark
Direwolves of the Eyrie: Catelyn Stark
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister
Dragons of the Dothraki Sea: Daenerys Targaryen
Bears of the Dothraki Sea: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Winterfell: Robb Stark, Bran Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
And the Lion of the Eyrie, Tyrion Lannister
The episode is in thirteen parts. The first runs eight minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The opening shot is of Arya and Syrio sparring. It features the death of most of the Starks’ guard, killed by the Gold Cloaks, Septa Mordane, killed by the Gold Cloaks, an unknown stableboy, stabbed by Needle, and presumably Syrio Forrell, killed by Meryn Traint. The cliffhanger is resolved five minutes in when Varys visits Ned Stark in his cell.
The second runs three minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by family, from Ned Stark to Jon Snow.
The third runs two minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by family and dialogue, from Jon Snow talking about his sisters to Sansa.
The fourth runs two minutes and is set in Winterfell; the transition is by family and causality, from Sansa beginning to write a letter to Robb to Robb reading the letter.
The fifth runs six minutes and is set in the Eyrie. It is in two sections. The first is two minutes long; the transition is by family and image, from Robb reacting to the news of what has happened to Catelyn doing the same. The second is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Catelyn to Tyrion.
The sixth part runs three minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion to Jon and other men of the Night’s Watch preparing a meal.
The seventh runs six minutes and is set in the Dothraki Sea; the transition is by family and image, from Jon Snow setting a wight aflame to the fires as the Dothraki sack a village before Daenerys’s eyes. It features the death of Mago, killed by Khal Drogo in combat. At the episode’s halfway point, Daenerys is being called to explain her actions in preventing the rape of the captured women.
The eighth runs six minutes and is set in Winterfell; the transition is by hard cut, from Mirri tending to Khal Drogo’s wound to the bannermen in Winterfell.
The ninth runs one minute and is set on the Wall; the transition is by dialogue, from Osha talking about the coming White Walkers to the burning of the wight.
The tenth runs four minutes and is set in the North; the transition is by image, from the Wall to a smaller keep as Catelyn arrives at Robb’s camp.
The eleventh runs four minutes and is set in the Lannister camp in the Riverlands; the transition is by dialogue, from Catelyn and Robb talking about the Lannisters to the camp.
The twelfth runs three minutes and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands; the transition is by dialogue, from Tywin talking about the Stark army to the Starks.
The thirteenth runs six minutes and is set in King’s Landing. It is in two sections. The first section is seconds long; the transition is by family, from Robb and Catelyn Stark to Ned. The other is six minutes long; the transition is by family, from Ned to Sansa. The final shot is of the Iron Throne eclipsing Sansa as she promises that her father will say “Mornington Crescent.”
In a structural sense, “The Pointy End” continues the work of “You Win or You Die” in presenting the game as one that does not need to focus exclusively or even primarily on Ned Stark. Where “You Win or You Die” did this by revealing a new point at which power is anchored, “The Pointy End” does it in an altogether more straightforward way, namely by only having Ned Stark in the episode for about three minutes. Beyond that, it has the shortest amount of time in King’s Landing to date, at just sixteen minutes. But unlike “A Golden Crown,” this isn’t made up at the Dothraki Sea, which gets only six minutes. Instead the area to really get bulked out is Winterfell and Robb’s army, which gets fifteen minutes. (Athough given that Catelyn appears in two locations in the course of the story, one can fairly count it as slightly more under alternate scoring systems.)
This fact also highlights one of the most fundamental changes between the books and television show, which is the way in which the plot surrounding the Northern army unfolds. One of the odder facts about the books is that Robb Stark is never a viewpoint character. He is instead essentially shown entirely through Bran’s eyes for the bulk of the first book, and subsequently through Catelyn’s. The result of this is that, without ever saying so in as many words, the books repeatedly communicate the fact that Robb is not the hero of this narrative. And it is clear that in crafting the show, the writers intended to give a comparable effect. Perhaps most obviously, in a decision that really only makes a lick of sense if you’ve read the books, Robb appears in eight episodes of the first season, whereas Theon, a character who, at the end of the first season, still has not strictly speaking had anything that could be called a plot, appears in nine, including several scenes focused entirely on developing his character, a luxury Robb essentially never gets.
But it is in many ways impossible to actually create the same effect on television. Robb is there on the screen, as visibly a major character as Catelyn. And without the ability to highlight characters’ importance by giving them viewpoint chapters, there’s no way for the series to effectively fight against the instinctive narrative weight that Robb has by virtue of being Ned Stark’s firstborn son and heir. And so as Robb emerges as a structurally powerful character by dint of his leading a massive army in rebellion against the Iron Throne the subtle efforts to downplay his importance start to unravel, beginning a process that will culminate in him being moved ahead of Catelyn in the credit sequence for Season Three.
“The Pointy End” ends up existing at a strange midpoint between these two drives, with Robb visibly becoming important (without ever having received any character development), but with major scenes still putting the emphasis in places other than Robb. Instead of a scene of Robb marching off to war, there is a scene of him saying goodbye to Bran, with the subsequent cut between scenes following Bran, not Robb. And while Robb gets a big scene of ordering Maester Luwin to call the banners, the scene focuses heavily on Theon as well – most obviously, after Robb actually gives the order to call them, the camera cuts to Theon’s reaction, and Theon is given just as much overall weight in the sequence as Robb.
“The Pointy End” also marks a point where it is impossible not to focus heavily on the specific creative personnel behind the episode. This is because the writer of the episode is George R.R. Martin himself, who penned one episode for each of the first four seasons. Much of the significance of this comes down to the peculiar politics of fandom, with Martin coming out of a very orthodox sort of American sci-fi/fantasy fandom and having numerous readers who belong to the same culture. For many such readers/viewers, Martin’s presence as a screenwriter for the television adaptation served as an important warrant of the adaptation’s underlying fidelity to the work. And there are ways in which this fact subtly informs the particulars of gameplay.
For one thing, it is worth noting that there are several regards in which Martin’s script does not quite match the style of the others in the season. The books are much less structured around clean transitions between chapters, and this shows in Martin’s script, which is very heavy on hard cuts and not particularly carefully shaped beyond its choices of emphasis. Also atypical is the entire first part of the episode, which jumps freely around King’s Landing in the aftermath of Ned’s arrest, switching amongst Arya, Sansa, and scenes of Stark men getting cut down, in marked contrast to the show’s usual tendency to play through one set of characters and then move on to the next. It’s not an unreasonable choice for the circumstances – indeed, for a chaotic sequence of events that are unfolding in multiple parts of the capital at once, it’s a strong storytelling decision. But it is, once again, slightly out of keeping with the show’s usual technique.
There’s also an odd bit of chronology early in the episode whereby it cuts to news of Ned’s arrest reaching the Wall, then back to King’s Landing to have Sansa coerced into writing a letter to Winterfell, then to Winterfell getting the news, a sequence of cuts that must move back and forth across a couple of days, as there’s no way Sansa’s sending of the letter to Winterfell would have postdated news arriving at the Wall. Both book and show regularly engage in fungible timelines, but rarely do they explicitly move backwards like this. The problem arises almost entirely because Martin follows the sequence of locations from the books almost exactly, where events are told from Ned’s perspective up to the point where Littlefinger betrays him, then does an Arya chapter consisting of her escape, then a Sansa chapter picking up with her already arrested and ending with her agreeing to send the Queen’s messages, then to Jon Snow, and finally to Bran, with Bran’s chapter beginning well after Robb has heard the news. Martin makes the sensible decision to add a scene of Robb hearing the news, just as he adds Sansa’s capture, but doesn’t change the sequence from King’s Landing-Wall-Winterfell accordingly.
Finally, it is worth pointing out Arya’s plot, not least because it gives the episode it’s title despite taking up a fairly small portion of it. We ought pay fleeting lip service to the largely discredited theory that Syrio Forel survives his fight with Meryn Trant and gets taken to the black cells, although it seems rather unlikely given that Meryn Trant survives the fight. But considerably more important is simply the fact that Arya makes her first kill here, stabbing a stableboy in the course of her retreat. This is played with a strikingly understated tone – Arya has a momentary look of horror on her face before she runs, but no time is spent, here or elsewhere, on her psychological state after killing someone. This is in marked contrast to the books, where it is explicitly “the stableboy’s accusing eyes” that causes her to flee the stables, and she is described as “still and frightened in the face of death.” The show also cuts Arya’s story off as she flees, where the book continues with her terrified flight through the capital at some length. The result is that Arya’s weaponization is accelerated, such that her deviation from the “plucky children’s lit heroine” role she initially seems to be created for is a sharp swerve as opposed to a more gradual drift. This, in turn, highlights the fact that the Starks, although they may originate as clear-cut examples of specific genre tropes, are very much able to deviate from that course, a fact that will become tremendously important very shortly.