Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Game of Thrones Ep 8: The Pointy End

Welcome to week 8... only two more weeks left! As always, I'm joined by my readerly compatriot, Christopher Lockett, who helps illuminate the episodes from a bookish perspective, while I look at them as a viewer who hasn't read the books. So let's go!

Nikki: WOW, what an episode!! I think this show just gets better and better. This is the first episode actually written by George RR Martin, and it showed. He managed to cover a ton of ground in under an hour, moving us to the final two episodes. The attack on the Starks at the beginning, that amazing swordfight, Tyrion and Tywin together, King Joffrey (excuse me... I feel sick to my stomach again), Dany trying to soften Drogo, the walking dead attacking Snow... all that AND watching a direwolf take two fingers off a guy. Can a gal ask for more in an hour of television??

I want to start with the swordfight, because my husband and I were whooping and gasping aloud. It was BRILLIANTLY choreographed, and an astounding way to move us from Arya’s “dancing” lessons into the real world of swordfights. Ned certainly didn’t skimp when it came to finding the best teacher for her... he was incredible to watch, taking down most of an army with a wooden sword. And the repetition of his mantra from earlier – “What do we say to Death?” “Not today” – was wonderful and heartbreaking. We didn’t see what happened when Arya ran out of the room... I’d like to think he did a quick somersault and grabbed one of the dead men’s swords to take out the leader. My husband thinks he’s such a fantastic character they wouldn’t kill him off. But I wonder if he was, like King Robert, a catalyst to take Arya from one level to the next. I won’t ask you to spoil it, Chris, since we’ll probably find out soon, but I thought that scene was just absolutely stunning.

But of course, it would be easily overlooked with so much else happening in this episode! The scene where Drogo’s men try to rape and pillage the people as Dany looks on was shocking, and what happened afterwards really moved those characters forward. How did that scene compare to the book?

Chris: I think the scene of rape and pillage is one of those instances where seeing it rendered that well on the screen is more affecting than reading it—mainly because it removes whatever defence mechanisms we have when we read to make it more palatable. It basically followed the book exactly, except that the part where Drogo’s man challenges him and they fight is new. And ... wow. More than one person I have talked to has admitted that the climax of that fight was an uneasy conflation of icky and sexy. And Drogo continues to come into his own as a character—he’s been rocking the house for the past two episodes.

I will admit, I sqeed a little as Syrio took out the Lannister men. That was yet another scene that was perfectly done, and deeply satisfying to see Syrio in action. The ending is of course sad ... and I will say nothing spoilery about Syrio’s fate.

The closer we get to the end of the season, the more each episode becomes a total geek-fest for me as I watch how they’ve brought all GRRM’s goodness to the screen. I was especially excited about this episode, because I knew we would see the wights for the first time. It sort of makes me regret not having made a point of giving these posts an episode-specific title, if for no other reason than this week’s could have been “The Ice Zombies Cometh.”

You once asked me before if I ever wish I could watch this without having read the novels; at this point, not so much, because it is at least as great a pleasure to see how that adapt it. And to imagine how people such as yourself, who haven’t read the books, will react to seeing such moments as Ned’s betrayal by Littlefinger, the true prowess of Syrio, Arya using Needle for real for the first time, Robb coming into his own as a commander, Tyrion’s alliance with the Mountain Clans ...

That last element was something I quite enjoyed. They have Tyrion acting more hesitant in the series than in the book, but the payoff is when they’re looking down at the Lannister camp and Shagga warns Tyrion that if “if the Halfman cheats us, Shagga will cut off his manhood ...” and Tyrion impatiently finishes, “And feed it to the goats, yes.” Shagga is constantly threatening to cut off people’s manhoods and feed them to the goats in the book; in that brief moment of Peter Dinklage’s superb indifference, this repetition is communicated beautifully.

But back to the ice zombies. I always must remind myself that this novel was first published in 1996, before the walking dead hit critical mass on film and television. What was your reaction to their appearance here?

Nikki: Fantastic. I loved the scene prior where Sam points out that the men don’t smell. (I’ve just started following the actor who plays Sam, @johnbradleywest on Twitter, and he’s hilarious.) Perhaps Sam’s strength won’t be in his fighting skills, but in his brains. But back to the scene itself, it was terrifying. You can’t kill the dead who won’t be killed, and it offered a real supernatural element to the show. It’s something that the series opened with, when we saw the massacre out in the woods, and I thought the show would have several supernatural elements. Instead, it hints at them – there used to be dragons, Dany can’t be burned, the white (wight?) walkers are the dead come back to life, the direwolves have an attachment to their owners – but it’s not overt. But now it is. I knew something bad had to be going on if it freaked out a direwolf. It was scarier than The Walking Dead, to be honest, because on that show you expect the zombies. You don’t expect them here.

I’d mentioned last week that I wondered if Tyrion would give as good as he got when he met his father, or if his dad could be the one person who disarmed him. In the scene we got, it was a bit of both. There was the hesitation on the hill (and you are bang-on with your observation about the way Dinklage says the line – not having read the books, I didn’t realize Shagga had repeated that line over and over, and yet just assumed he had by the way Tyrion responded to him) and you can see Tyrion is nervous when he goes to his father, but he walks into the tent without hesitation, and introduces his men. You can tell there’s no love lost between Tywin and Tyrion (I’m surprised that Tywin would have given his dwarf son the name that sounds most like his, while his other son has a completely different name... perhaps because Tyrion came first?) and when Tywin said that rumour had it Tyrion was dead, there’s a sound in his voice like he’s disappointed that isn’t actually the case. You can tell by Tyrion’s face that he picks up on it, too, but he’s also used to being treated like that, and it doesn’t surprise him.

You asked a couple of weeks ago if I’d trust Varys or Littlefinger, and neither one of them seems particularly trustworthy. Now we have Littlefinger having betrayed Stark, but Varys is the one sneaking water down to the dungeon. I wonder if his caring is genuine, though, or if Varys and Littlefinger are smart enough to know Ned’s important to keep alive. I did love the dialogue between them, though, especially at the end: Ned: “Tell me, Varys, who do you truly serve?” Varys: “The Realm, sir. Someone must.”

Chris: The trope in a lot of contemporary fantasy is this “post-magical” world. I think it was set up in part by the sense of a waning culture in The Lord of the Rings, which of course ends with the elves passing into the West and the rise of the Age of Man. With novels like those of GRRM, we get a sense of a world in which magic remains, but only in traces, a shadow of the power it once had.

The relationship between Tyrion and his father is pretty fraught—Tywin resents his dwarf son (remember Tyrion’s comment to Jon Snow in episode one: “In the eyes of their fathers, all dwarfs are bastards”), doubly so because Tyrion’s mother died giving him birth. But he also has to acknowledge him as a Lannister. The cruel irony of it all is that Tyrion is more his father’s son than is Jaime, at least in terms of his shrewd intellect. We see Tywin’s own shrewdness at work when he flatters the representatives of the hill tribes into joining his army, recognizing them as a potential asset. It wouldn’t have occurred to Jaime to ally himself with them as Tyrion does—he would more likely have fought to the death when they came upon him in the forest.

And just to clarify: Tyrion is the third of Tywin’s children, with the twins Jaime and Cersei being born several years before him.

It was at this point in the novel that Varys really sort of became interesting to me—because we finally start to get a sense of the depth of his machinations, but also a sense of what may or may not be their altruism. Of course, you never know—and when he tells Ned he serves the Realm, the big question is: what is the Realm? Does he mean whatever the most peaceful path is? Whoever the anointed king is? Or does he plot to bring back the Targaryen dynasty?

Nikki: Interesting you should say that, because my husband and I were talking about Ned when he was in chains, and I wondered... is it possible that Ned could get away and align himself with the Targaryens? Now THAT would be an interesting combination.

The game of thrones certainly shifts in this episode, where you begin to see how people could switch sides. Catelyn goes to her sister (HONESTLY, watching Robyn pull at his mother’s cape ties while moaning that he’s hungry just made me hope there aren’t any pregnant women watching, because they’ll be put off breastfeeding forever...) to plead for her help to go up against the Lannisters, her sister refuses and says her job is to keep her idiot-boy son safe, rather than align herself with Catelyn. Catelyn rejoins part of her clan, and you can see the pressure building on both sides: Starks vs. Lannisters. The Lannisters also want to destroy the Targaryens, but Ned defended Dany and her unborn child. Hm...

Two questions I have for you this week that I hope can be answered without spoilage: I seem to have missed who the guy was who stood up against the one Stark son and ended up losing two fingers. Is he the head of his army? And secondly, have we gotten an explanation for why there are certain trees with faces on them that appear to be crying blood? Are they carved that way? Or do the followers believe the trees suddenly appeared and what they see is a sign from their higher power? (And if this is an explanation to come later, we can leave it for now.)

Chris: Happily, I can answer both questions without a whiff or hint of spoilage.

Robb’s antagonist is Jon Umber—called the Greatjon—one of Ned Stark’s bannermen. What needs to be understood is how GRRM establishes the seven kingdoms as explicitly feudal: which means that being a lord entails responsibility to the people who live on your lands, and fealty to the more powerful lord to whom you are sworn. Each of the seven kingdoms (plus the Riverlands) has their liege lord—Ned Stark, for example, is the lord of the North. All of the lords beneath him are sworn to his service. All of these most powerful lords, in turn, are sworn to obey the king. But as the new king’s legitimacy is challenged, we see the seven kingdoms beginning to splinter.

So what Robb did when he ordered Maester Luwin to “call the banners” was to order all the lords sworn to House Stark to raise arms and follow him. Now, in the feudal system, the land-bearing lords would all be knights, or at least mounted heavy cavalry, having been raised in castles and trained by men-at-arms—remember how Jon Snow so easily handed everyone else’s asses to them in the practice yard? That was because he’d been trained since he was a child. Each of the lords then presses their commonfolk into service—they make up the footsoldiers of the assembled army.

So basically, the Greatjon is one of Robb Stark’s most senior lords, and what he was basically arguing about was his right to lead the army’s vanguard—a place of honour. That Robb had given that honour to another led him to challenge Robb’s authority, and Robb’s response (before siccing his direwolf on him) was to warn him that if he took his men and left, his life would be forfeit as an oathbreaker.

Sorry, slipped into lecture mode there for a moment. ;-)

To answer the second question in a less long-winded manner: the trees with faces are weirwoods, believed by those who follow the Old Gods to be those gods’ vessels. I’ve never quite been certain whether the faces are naturally-occurring or carved into them, but they appear to cry blood because their sap is red.

Well. That was quite the episode this week, and apparently it was the highest-rated one so far. The show seems to be gaining momentum in terms of its audience, and was nominated for a Critics Choice Award in the category of Best Drama. That no one on the show was nominated in any of the acting categories is at once a scandal and (big sigh) completely unsurprising to those of us who watch SF or fantasy-based TV. I suppose you could make the argument that, in terms of who you’d nominate—where’d you begin? But that Sean Bean didn’t even get a nod is just frustrating and annoying.

Next week: remember the moments of “OMFG!” in this episode and the last? You ain’t seen nothing yet.


ChristinaB said...

Chris, you're doing an AMAZING job, keeping your posts spoiler-free while providing great insight. I don't think I could do that after having read the books!

But to correct you slightly, the faces on the weirwoods were carved by the Children of the Forest who first came to Westeros and followed the Old Gods that the Starks now follow. :)

Chris in NF said...


Yeah, I just got taken to task on that one on my blog as well. Sometimes it's hard to keep all of GRRM's details in the head at once. ;-)

The Question Mark said...

I don't know if HBO shows are allowed to win Emmys or if they're a category unto themselves, but GoT needs to win as many awards as possible. Personally, I think the title sequence alone has enough work put into it to merit some kind of trophy!

I wouldn't trust Varys as far as I could throw him, but I think whatever it is he's plotting is for the good of Westeros, and not solely for his own benefit. I can't recall what his clandestine meeting in the dungeons was about (when Arya overheard him scheming with the villain from "Speed Racer"), but I have a feeling the Spider is up to no good, albeit with good intentions.
Littlefinger, on the other hand, I think he's strictly looking out for numero uno...unless that's just what he WANTS us to think!

Now Chris, I've heard that each season of the show is going to encompass one book in the series. Since we're almost at the end, would you say that you think the plot of the book feels rushed (i.e. a lot was lost in translation when condensing a 700-page book into 10 hours of TV)? Or would you say that they've adapted everything well?
I only ask because I know a lot of people's feathers were a bit ruffled by how rushed some of the Harry Potter movies felt, especially since those books had a LOT going on in terms of small details.

The Question Mark said...

Personally, I would have been totally cool with it if every Harry Potter movie was, like, 4 hours long. :P Rowling's world is just so rich that it was a shame to let those details become simply filler.

Glen said...

What a killer episode. Great commentary and worth the wait- thanks to both of you!

Nikki -
You are so right the Syrio fight scene was just a masterpiece, a ballet of blades, and frightened little Arya running away repeating "not today" was a fantastic and moving counterpoint.

I'm with you in that Syrio was a catalyst or, as someone more learned than me put it: the mentor-archetype, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, who passes on knowledge and then dies. The last shot of him standing there with the broken sword did remind me a bit of Obi-Wan standing in front of Vader with his light saber switched off.

I took Syrio telling Arya "the First Sword does not run" and then the breaking of his sword as cues from the writers that he's a goner and this is his go-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory scene. I figure they kept his death off-screen so as not to pour cold water on the exhilaration of the fight. His demise makes sense if you think that with the Lannister takeover/butchering of Stark household there'll be no more lessons for Arya so no longer any use for his character and GoT does not seem to be shy about killing off significant characters.

I was in a debate in another forum on why he didn't pick up a sword from the floor and my take is that the only reason he didn't is that the writers wouldn't let him- the only fitting end for the best swordsman in the land is for him to sacrifice himself saving someone else and go out fighting impossible odds with a wooden sword. It wasn't his skill that failed him in the end, it was the sword.

On Varys: I was thinking, he is after all the one with connections across the narrow sea, I wouldn't be surprised if he "served the realm" up to Khal Drogo & Danaerys for breakfast by instigating the Stark-Lannister civil war just before an invasion. I'm sure he has a self-serving reason for his attention to Ned in the dungeon, this could be explained by a desire for a Ned-Dothraki alliance. Or he could simply be hedging his bets in case Ned's side comes back into power.

Chris -
That big knight Syrio was fighting at the end, was that Gregor Clegane or someone we don't know yet? By the way he was acting I got the impression he was someone of very respectable abilities- first standing back like it was beneath him to join in the lopsided fight, then the disparaging comment to the other guards as he drew his own blade- calling them oafs or something as if he meant "Can't you oafs take out one guy with a wooden sword? Do I have to do everything myself?" Other viewers claim they saw him later in the throne room scene, can you confirm this? Also if you can do it without spoiling Syrio's fate I'd be very interested to know how what we saw compares to the book.

I have to think this episode marks a major turning point for Arya- father imprisoned, loses her sword instructor and draws her first blood or even kill as it looked. She's growing up fast, it will be interesting to see what she does next.

Sansa on the other hand strikes me as the opposite image of Arya- idealistic and naive, total pawn in the game of thrones, her only ambitions to save her father and wed Joffrey and we saw those deftly used to manipulate her in this episode.

Thanks for the background on the trees and the feudal system that was very helpful.

Jeremy said...

Glen, the Kingsguard knight (identified by their gold and white armor and white cloaks) that Syrio fought is Ser Meryn Trant. I think the only members of the 7-person Kingsguard named in the show so far are Ser Jaime Lannister and (now former) Lord Commander Barristan Selmy.

Jeremy said...

The men defeated by Syrio were househould guards of House Lannister. They are identified by their red armor, in contrast to the gold cloaks of the City Watch (police).

Last we heard Gregor Clegane is off raiding the Riverlands.

The White Walkers are the quick, ice-bladed, shadowy creatures seen in the show's prologue north of the Wall. If you rewatch the prologue and listen VERY carefully after the White Walkers show up, you can hear what sounds like ice cracking. That is mentioned in the book's prologue as their method of communication.

The undead Night's Watch brother Othor defeated by Jon Snow by fire is a zombie/wight somehow created by the White Walkers, which were unseen in this episode. The wights are identified in the show by their bold blue eyes.

Gisela said...

I don't know if I remember it correctly but wasn't Syrio in the book fighting with a real sword in that scene and not with a wooden one?

Chris in NF said...


Nope, he was fighting with one of the practice swords. Meryn Trant cut it in half just as he did in the series. :-(

EsDee said...

Nikki and Chris - These reviews have been just awesome, thanks so much! I am learning a lot.

Jeremy - Thanks for the White Walkers and wights description/explanation ... I was confused as to whether they were one in the same or different beings.

Lostie said...

Do u know what year or century this show is based on??? Thanks :-)

Chris in NF said...


Lots of 'em. ;-) By which I mean, it's a bit of an amalgam. Westeros is very obviously based on feudal Europe, probably between the thirteenth and fifteenth century (plate armour like the knights are wearing in the series is a late-medieval thing).

The Dothraki make it a bit more difficult to pin down, as they're something of a combination of American plains Indians and the Mongol hordes -- which is a much broader swath of time, as "barbarian horsemen" were plaguing Europe from about the fall of the Roman Empire. But if Drogo is meant to evoke Genghis Khan, Khan lived 1162-1227.

Batcabbage said...

Notes from the Game of Thrones exile...

Have taken vow not to watch GoT until I have all ten episodes. A great marathon in the offing. Have just this minute finished A Game Of Thrones, the first novel. Utterly blown away. Have not read posts or comments. Have just popped in to let you know I'm still here. Anyone watching this show who has not read the books - I urge you to get them now. Read them. Be amazed. Be moved. Be completely spellbound. I haven't been this captivated by a series of novels since Clavell's Asian saga. Get them now. Read them. Become their slave. That is all...

VW: grammi - the music award on The Fast Show's Channel 9. Schminki pinki, Boutros Boutros Ghali.

Anonymous said...

Great job covering the series you two, keep it up!
I was a little disappointed they have changed some of the sequence of events around from the book to the show. But more on that after the next episode. ;) I have to say it makes it more palatable to a TV audience this way.

EsDee said...

Batcabbage: I actually started the 1st book and had planned to "read along" with the TV series, but I have fallen behind (just busy, not because the book isn't excellent) and I decided to just hold off until the TV series is over for this season. I agree with your assessment though, so far the book is just fantastic.

I had to look up Clavell and the Asian rang a bell, but I couldn't remember if I had read them. Wow. Blast from the past. I must have read the first 4 books when I was in high school....but I don't think I ever read the last two! More to add to the reading list, I suppose, although it has been so long since I read the others, I may as well start over!

Batcabbage said...

@EsDee: Glad you think the book is fantastic so far! I've gone the opposite road to you, reading the book first and then watching the rest of the series after. I'm 356 pages (I see as I look down) into book 2 now, and still loving it. I'm weird like that, though. I find a book that fascinates me, and I'm like a dog with a bone.

I'm also glad that you're going to read the Asian saga (again). I would recommend reading them in chronological order, IE the order the occur in the Clavell universe, not the order they were published. I read them that way at least once a year, and have just two weeks ago (when I got my GoT box set) completed my Asian saga collection again for the fourth time (I'm one of those sick people who read books over and over - the spines break, pages come out, and you need nice, new copies :). I'm assuming by the 'last two' you mean Gai-jin and Whirlwind. Gai-jin is good, but not my favourite, and is hard going, but stick with it, it's rewarding. Whirlwind is great, and a departure for Clavell, as it only tangentially impacts the Noble House. Still, a fantastic read, and a great close to the Asian saga. Clavell died before I discovered his books, and I've always been sad that there would be no more Asian saga. I guess that's why I read them over and over. Happy reading! :)