“Stick them with the pointy end”
– Arya Stark
“The madness of mercy”
– Eddard Stark
Whereas the last episode was tied together by the exploration of the twin themes of ‘winning’ and ‘death’, this episode is connected through a recurring visual motif: characters coming face to face with the ‘pointy end’. It seems almost obvious to say but the characters that find themselves at the sharp end of another’s weapon are being put through a trial of sorts at times and it is during these moments that we discover more about our protagonists. These scenes account for roughly half of our screentime in this episode. The other half is devoted to the concept of mercy and the difficulties that being merciful can entail. This crops up several times and provides some real food for thought. But I’ll get round to that.
The title is a callback to a conversation between Jon and Arya that occurred earlier in the season. Jon presents his younger half-sister with her sword, Needle, and asks her if she knows the first thing about sword fighting. She replies “you stick them with the pointy end” and Jon giggles and we all have a good laugh. Not so funny for the stable boy that Arya skewers as we get to see our first glimpse of Needle in action. While we don’t get to see the fate of the stable-boy kebab, it could well be that this is a real watershed moment for Arya Stark: her first kill. It has already been established in a conversation between King Robert/ Barristan Selmy/ Jaime Lannister that making your first kill is a rite of passage amongst the men of Westeros with Robert duly noting that you “always remember you first”. This well could be that moment for Arya and it indicates her full initiation into the world of men. This is particularly significant given what is about to occur – she’s about to lose her father and the strongest male influence in her life. And yet, she faces this initiation alone and comes out of it the other side in one piece. She’s a tough independent little cookie, is our Arya.
All of this has come after Arya had found herself on the opposite end of the side of the ‘pointy end’ spectrum as her ‘dancing’ lesson with Syrio Forel is interrupted by Lannister men coming to take her captive. Before they arrive though, Syrio says some interesting things that I think might come into play a little later on. We join his lesson as he is engaging with Arya, feigns to go left and then strikes from the right. Arya kicks up a fuss because he deceived her. Syrio’s response is an intriguing one. He says that his “tongue lied, [his] eyes shouted the truth” and asserts that “the true seeing is the heart of swordplay”. Deception and misdirection are integral parts of how the world of Westeros works [and the show itself] and as such it is vital that Arya comes to terms with this is she is to prosper. However the emphasis that Syrio’s words place on appearances, coupled with her ability to effectively disguise herself as a boy, seems to foreshadow her interactions with the Faceless Man at Harrenhal [and beyond? Seems nailed on for me].
Quick sidenote to point out how much I love the start of this episode. It’s so atmospheric and builds and establishes a frantic nervous energy [most evident in following the Stark girls] that is almost palpable. This is largely achieved through a tense, busy score and quick, choppy cuts between scenes. Good visual storytelling that really brings a depth to proceedings.
After the call to the banners, we get to see a meeting of the leaders of the noble Houses of the North as they discuss the plan to go to war with the Lannisters. With his sigil looming in the background, Greatjon Umber raspingly proclaims that he will lead the vanguard. Robb insists that Galbert Glover will lead the van. The big man takes exception to this [“The bloody wall will melt before an Umber marches behind a Glover”], threatening to march home. As a signal of his intent, Robb tells Umber in no uncertain terms that if he does not fall into line he’ll have his revenge on the Umbers for breaking their oath. Things boil over [” I’ll not sit here and swallow insults from a boy so green he pisses grass”] and Greatjon goes to draw his weapon against Robb. Greywind leaps up and bounds down the table and has a chew on Umber’s fingers. Robb gets to then have his second majorly badass moment of the episode with “My lord father taught me it was death to bear steel against your liege lord. Doubtless, the Greatjon only meant to cut my meat for me”.
The whole sequence is great and serves to highlight a couple of key points to Robb’s character. First of all, it shows that he belies his youth and inexperience by being willing to stand up to the more battle-hardened members of his banners. Robb is a man with a clearly defined plan and isn’t afraid to impose it. He also isn’t afraid to enact justice on his own followers in the name of what he thinks is right [see Rickard Karstark]. What also seems interesting is the value that Robb seems to place on oaths and the consequences of breaking them. He threatens to root the Umbers out of their keep if they break their sworn words to the Starks. This reads onto the later actions in Robb’s narrative and seems to simultaneously paint the Young Wolf as a hypocrite and a tragic figure. Robb breaks his oath to Walder Frey by not marrying her daughter but then is victim to Frey breaking the oath of Guest Right. It is therefore both deeply sad, and a little frustrating to see Robb barking on about breaking oaths.
Bron and Tyrion’s adventures in the Vale result in Tyrion being held at axe-point. The unlikely couple discuss the nature of their newly-found partnership while the Imp whistles a tune: “If I’m going to die, it might as well be with a song in my heart”. At this point their relationship is a mutually beneficial one: Tyrion gains from Bron’s “facility with murder” [brilliant] and Bron is promised to be financially rewarded for his facility, with Tyrion ensuring him that “if the day ever comes when you’re tempted to sell me out, remember this: Whatever their price; I’ll beat it.”. They’re awoken in the middle of their night by a sneak assault from the people of the Hill Tribes and Tyrion finds himself at the pointy end of Shagga’s weapon. He asks Tyrions how he’d like to die and without missing a beat Tyrion responds: “In my own bed at the age of eighty with a belly full of wine and a girl’s mouth around my cock.” Tyrions reveals his cunning and proficiency with words as he bargains his way out of what could have been a disastrous position by once again relying on the riches of his family. He promises the Hill Tribes the Vale of Arryn if they escort him back to the Lannister camp. When faced with the pointy end we see Tyrion’s ability to negotiate and bargain. Additionally, we see yet another relationship of his that is defined as a transaction. Given the glimpse we get into his childhood in the next episode, perhaps it is unsurprising that he is someone who defines relationships as an exchange of services.
Khal Drogo is faced with cleaning up a potential mess that his Queen has made for him. One of his Khalasar draws a weapon on him and shows him the ‘pointy end’. What follows is a display of brute force and absolute authority from the Khal as he almost effortlessly rips out the tongue and throat of the dissenting party. Although Drogo dispatches the unruly member of the Horde with consummate ease, he sustains the injury that will prove to be his undoing. Despite warnings to the contrary, Daenerys insists on utilising the healer that she saved in the previous scene. Big mistake lady.
Jon draws his blade against Allister Thorn after he declares Jon a “rare sight. Not just a bastard but a traitor’s bastard.” before ominously delivering one of those lines that seems true to ideas the whole series is exploring: “blood will always tell”. Jon’s then confined to his room before Ghost alerts him to something going awry. He then encounters the reanimated corpse of one of the men that they retrieved from beyond the Wall when Samwell and Jon took their oaths. In a scene that mirror’s Arya’s with Needle at the beginning of the episode, Jon finds himself impaling the White through the stomach in the same manner his sister had earlier. Additionally, similar to Arya, I’m pretty sure that this is Jon’s first kill. It’s a real coming of age episode for the Stark children. Also, it’s time for Samwell Tarly to blow that horn four times [the fourth time is for wild speculation on the horizon] as there’s a little something at the end of this scene that perhaps sheds some light on a popular fan theory. I won’t outline this in its entirety but notice that Jon grunts in pain when he grabs the torch for the Lord Commander and has to get his hand seen to by Maester Aemon. Make of that what you will.
While not literally faced with the ‘pointy end’ like all of the characters above are, Sansa’s interrogation by Cersei and the boys bears more than a slight connection to the other examples. This is emotional manipulation at its finest. Sansa gets played like a fiddle by Pycelle and Littlefinger’s good cop, bad cop routine and she eventually succumbs and writes to her family begging them to pledge fealty to Joffers. In the midst of this, however, she says something that is pregnant with meaning [pun intended]. Pycelle points out that while she may be innocent now, who knows what sort of treason she will try to hatch in ten years time. Sansa pleadingly replies “No i’m not, I’ll be a good wife to him. You’ll see. I’ll be a queen just like you, I promise. I won’t hatch anything.” Boom. I urge you to cast your minds forward to the final episode of the season to see why this is significant. Sansa positions herself as not a threat by promising not to hatch anything, whereas the inverse is certainly true for other fledgling mother hen. Further reckless speculation here from me: is this going to turn out to be foreshadowing the fact that Sansa is unable to have children? Tywin’s plan of marrying Tyrion to Sansa is predicated on the Stark girl bearing him a grandson. Would throw a real spanner in the works if she was unable to do this.
There’s also a throughline of the concept of mercy throughout this episode. Varys tells Ned how his mercy for Robert/ Cersei’s children killed Robert, himself and the Stark kids. Varys asks Ned what madness possessed him to tell Cersei that he was onto her. The Lord of Winterfell replies that it was “the madness of mercy.” And there you have it. Mercy = madness in a world that punishes those who are not utterly ruthless. The Spider then goes on to tell Ned that it was his mercy that killed Robert and you have to say that you can see where he’s coming from. Vary’s declaration that he truly serves the realm seems highly suspect. You’re not fooling anybody here, Eunuch.
Ultimately Dany’s mercy causes the death of her husband and her son. She commits the cardinal sin but not respecting the customs of the Dothraki people which is frustrating to watch given that she has watched her foolhardy elder brother pay the highest of prices for making the same mistake. She dismisses Jorah’s assessment of her having a ‘gentle heart’ and tries to assert her position as Khaleesi in stopping the Dothraki men from taking the spoils of war. This of course leads to the showdown for Khal Drogo that results in him sustaining the wound that kills him, and a cruel twist of fate leads to one of the women freed by Dany cursing Drogo. Once again, mercy has come at a high personal cost for merciful characters.
In a nice little mercy book end to the episode, Sansa begs for mercy for her father from her husband-to-be. She implores Joffrey to take pity on her father if he bends the knee and acknowledges Jaime’s bastard as the legitimate heir. There’s even the suggestion that Joffrey is genuinely moved by her “sweet words” and will be true to his word, making his reneging all the more painful after this glimmer of hope.
The cumulative effect of all of this paints a fairly bleak worldview. Characters who stand by their principles and show mercy and compassion to others are punished for not being as callous as the world in which they exist.
I think that is the theme that ties together all of these visually similar themes: characters who find themselves at the end of another’s blade are facing some sort of initiation or are put through a personal trial of sorts. They all come out of it richer for the experience.
Fun little tidbits:
- Undercurrent of xenophobia in this episode. Syrio is called a “foreign bastard” by the Lannister men and Dany is called a “foreign whore” by Mago. Hints at some underlying hostility between the people of Westeros and Essos. Again, this comes more to the surface with the introduction of Melisandre. There’ve been a few things in the background such as the change of Baelish sigil from the head of the Titan of Braavos to the Mockingbird in order to mask the fact he is descended from the Free Cities.
- “Why is it no one ever trusts the Eunuch?” Probably because you’re a lying little bastard Varys.
- In the same exchange Ned says that Varys “watched his men being slaughtered and did nothing.” I wonder if the same will be said of the rest of Westeros post Red Wedding?
- This episode is chock-full of great moments for Robb Stark. The smirk that slowly, subtly grows across Maester Lewin’s face [as well as Theon’s shit-eating grin] as Robb calls the banners is enough to make my heart swell with pride.
- From that moment to heartbreak as Robb tells Bran that “there must always be a Stark in Winterfell.Until I return, that will be you.” He’s pretty much sealed his own doom by saying that he will return. Yet another permanent farewell without knowing it. =[.
- He then gets to tell the Lannister spy to go back to his camp and tell Tywin Lannister that “Winter is coming for him. Twenty thousand Northeners marching South to find out if he really does shit gold.” Fuck yeah!
- Greatjon Umber gets some pearls as well, cementing himself as one of my favourite characters that I’d totally forgotten about. Telling Theon to get out of the tent [“You too Greyjoy, are you bloody deaf”] and then “You old devil Rodrik… You’re not wasting away, are ya?” is a great moment of comic relief.
- Bit of a moment between Lysa and Catelyn where they discuss the importance of family, in line with their house words; “Family. Honour. Duty..” Cat incorporates Lysa into her definition of family whereas Lysa includes just herself and her son. The Vale is not joining the Northmen in marching South.which is a blow.
- The forced retirement for Ser Barristan Selmy is a kick in the teeth and bloody condescending. He sees right through it and it outraged that he has been given a “hall to die in and men to bury” him too. Joffrey saying that “he’s too old to protect anyone”. We’ll see about that, shall we? Think you’ve had one there, Joff…
- There’s much more of this in the next episode but there’s somesignposting of what is to come regarding Walder Frey. “They call him the Late Lord Frey… Some men take their oaths more seriously than others” Ominous.
- Osha tells Bran that the Old Gods are the only gods North of the wall and that Robb Stark is marching his men the wrong way to fight the real enemy. And we finally get a look at the biggest ‘pointy end’ of the whole hour…