As usual, spoilers through “The Pointy End” in this post. If you want to spoil beyond that in comments, please label your comment as such, but otherwise, feel free.
Arya Stark, trading a wooden blade for steel.
I feel like I’ve spend the last few episodes of Game of Thrones complaining bitterly about Ned Stark, so it’s a relief to have an episode focused on Westeros’s survivors rather than its sentimentalists. In that vein, it’s worth noting how well the casting for this series has worked out. George R.R. Martin can be a workmanlike writer, but he packs a lot of characterization behind a huge cast, and it’s hard to make sure all of those characters emerge, even in flashes, as an individual. It’s not surprising that Sean Bean would step easily back into tortured nobility, or that Peter Dinklage would take to one of the best roles ever written for a person with dwarfism. But Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, Emilia Clarke as Dany, Kit Harrington as Jon Snow, and John Bradley as Samwell Tarly (he is, hilariously, apparently starring in a lesser show about the Borgias) were all tremendous risks that have largely—and in some cases, handsomely—paid off. Even little throwaway characters like Septa Mordane are well-cast and nicely fleshed-out. With that said, on to the episode itself!
While last week’s episode was a major tipping-point for the grand strategy plot, I thought this episode was even better at showing individual characters making critical decisions that will pay off later. The first, of course, was Arya’s. She starts by taking her first step away from authority and on the long road that will lead her destiny when she obeys Syrio’s order to run away as he holds off the Lannister’s troops, answering his question “What do we say to the God of Death?” with a tentative but definite “Not today.” After that initial hesitation, she’s more decisive about her next step on that road, which happens to be her first kill. When she finally sticks another person with the pointy end of her sword, it goes in with incredible ease.
Tyrion, in the interests of survival, makes his first moves towards the destruction of the social structure that has both empowered him and belittled him. First, he sets off on the road with Bronn, declaring to him “Whatever their price, I’ll beat it. I like living.” Then, he takes up with a rough alliance of hillmen, presenting them to his father as his borrowers. Given that the show’s turned Osha into an Emo Wildling, I’m glad to see Shagga has his sense of humor intact, and that there will be something at least moderately rollicking about Tyrion Lannister’s voyage towards anarchy.
And perhaps most importantly, Dany makes her first genuinely controversial decisions and tests the limits of her power among the Dothraki. I’d be interested to see how feminist critics of the early episodes of the show feel about this moment, given that the issue she takes a stand on is rape as a weapon of war, and she takes it direct contravention of Dothraki custom, in a context where the Dothraki are already bending their traditions on her behalf. The show does a nice job of making Dany take responsibility for the plunder that she recoils from, having Jorah Mormont remind her that the Dothraki, who don’t normally plunder the lands they attack for money, reminding her that they are fulfilling her wishes, seeking “Gold to hire ships, princess. Ships to sail to Westeros.” Of all the explorations of leadership in the series, she’s the only person who goes from powerlessness to enormous power. I’m glad HBO is committed to showing her grow, and to showing us that their early decisions weren’t gratuitous, but calculated for a long-term payoff.