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Game of Thrones: Learning to use “The Pointy End”

[ 52 ] November 19, 2012 |

As I noted in my first post about this course, one of the signal elements of high fantasy as a genre is the presence of a coming-of-age narrative, and Game of Thrones is clearly no exception. “The Pointy End,” in fact, delivers three distinct moments in which a character is provided an opportunity to take a significant step in his or her maturation process. (It actually contains more than three, but only three of the characters take advantage of the opportunity provided and I want to focus on them.) We’ll begin with Arya Stark, who as the episode opens is literally practicing at life:

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The balanced long shot employed by director Daniel Minihan has the effect of bringing a sense of calm to this fencing lesson. Arya and her instructor, Syrio Forel, are playing at combat in a manner as elegant as this shot is composed. Note that Arya moves between the third arch from frame-left, while Syrio strikes at her from the third arch from frame-right. If this is fighting, it is unlike the brutal art being performed outside this very room at this very point in time:

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This violence is sloppily composed, with the elements of the background functioning as mere backdrop to the slaughter before them. The characters rush into and out of focus as jagged edits push and pull the viewer from one point in the mise-en-scene to another seemingly without reason. I say “seemingly” because the disorientation is clearly the point. Not being able to tell who is and isn’t on “the pointy end” is why Minihan cuts from the above to

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Here only after this skirmish concludes. The Lannister guards have a dispatched a man who lies helpless, dying if not already dead, and Minihan makes his suffering seem insignificant by shooting it from a high angle with canted framing. The canted framing is important because it keeps the shot uncomfortable even after the initial confusion is resolved. (“So that is who was on the pointy end.”) The deliberately awkward composition of the previous two frames and the frantic editing that transitioned one to the next leads to a clash not just between characters in the show but the formal elements of its direction. When the Lannister guards confront Syrio and Arya, the shot maintains most of its initial balance:

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It is slightly altered because the circumstances of the characters it had framed has altered. The fight that follows, then, will be between both the characters and their attendent compositions. Here, it seems as if Syrio and Arya have the upper hand: they occupy the center of the frame and the slightly low angle of framing makes them appear slightly more dominant than the figures in the background. (Who are the same height, relative to the frame, as Arya at this point.) This is Arya’s moment—the point in her coming-of-age narrative in which she puts her training into practice—or it would be if not for the fact that

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…you killed his father. Prepare to die. He obviously doesn’t say that, but this clearly is his moment, the one he for which he has prepared his entire life: he will take on multiple armed and armored guards with a wooden practice sword. How does he fare?

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Quite well. Note that unlike the earlier scenes with the guards, which employed quick edits and canted angles, here Minihan uses a tracking shot to follow Syrio as he dances his way through the fight. In terms of composition, so long as Syrio retains the upper hand the pans will be gentle and the takes long. Whoever commands the scene dictates how it will be shot. Which makes its final long shot especially poignant:

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The composition suggests that no matter how this fight ends—and given that it ends off-frame the outcome, however strongly implied, remains unknown—Syrio’s composure will allow him to win the moral victory. Cold comfort, obviously, but it’s what he’s imparted to Arya during these lessons. When her moment finally comes, she will decide with the same steadiness of mind and control of body as Syrio displays here.

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Or not. Arya’s first kill is shot through with the same chaotic editing that characterized those of the Lannister guards. Minihan begins with a close-up of Arya yelling and thrusting, cuts to a medium long shot of her still yelling and stabbing, then reverses to a medium shot of her slipping the knife in his belly, then reverses to a medium close-up on Arya’s face as she finishes yelling and realizes what she’s done, then reverses one last time to the boy’s face before panning down to his belly. All in less than three seconds. The grace that accompanied Syrio to his likely end is nowhere evident in this moment, meaning that whatever she did here, she didn’t put in practice what Syrio had taught her.

So what did she learn here? What significant development in her coming-of-age narrative did she achieve? I’m not entirely sure. She killed someone, which is surely a moment for sour reflection. She learned that running in the face of death is sometimes better than dying with honor, but she also learned that there’s honor in dying with dignity, and while those lessons aren’t contradictory, they certainly aren’t complementary. What I appreciate about the way these scenes were set up is that they clearly mark important moments in her development, but decline to provide the audience with a pat moral statement of what exactly was developed. (The most extreme cases of which being the once ubiquitous “very special episodes” of sitcoms which weren’t “special,” much less “very.”) In other words, Minihan’s provided us with a moment of precise ambiguity, in which we know that something momentous has happened but can’t easily decipher what exactly it was.

Tomorrow I’ll continue to channel my inner New Critic by doing readings of Robb Stark and Dany’s similarly ambiguous developmental milestones.

Comments (52)

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  1. Ian says:

    My overall sense of Arya’s storyline in the novels is that GRRM is generally working hard to avoid having it provide the generic consolations that we (well, I) crave. She’s the most sympathetic of the Stark children (with the possible exception of Bran), and I keep wanting her to somehow triumph over the forces of darkness and have her revenge on the whole pack of them, so that all the suffering and trauma of her nomadic existence will have been worth it, but instead, things just keep getting…stranger. More ambiguous, as you suggest. (Actually, the same thing is true of Bran. Neither have ended up anywhere like where I thought they would at this point in the story.)

  2. ajay says:

    The composition suggests that no matter how this fight ends—and given that it ends off-frame the outcome, however strongly implied, remains unknown—Syrio’s composure will allow him to win the moral victory.

    Five books later, indeed, it’s still unknown how the fight ended.

    And, come on, surely you know that when a courageous master swordsman with a stick faces off against a fully-armoured thug with a sword, there’s only one way it can possibly end. This is like Rule One of Ancient Oriental Martial Arts: “Never act incautiously when challenged by little wrinkled smiling old men.”

    • leinad says:

      The First Sword of Braavos does not run.

      Meryn Trant is alive. Syrio isn’t.

      • Kryten says:

        Hmm, good point. Damn.

      • ajay says:

        It’s still possible that the fight ended with, for example, Trant being rendered unconscious, or Syrio being incapacitated and captured.

        • leinad says:

          I deal with 1) below.

          As for 2) the Lannisters killed Septa Mordane, why are they going to keep a guy who did away with four of theirs alive? He’s a fencing instructor, not a noble or a big wheel round Braavos way.

      • djanglermust says:

        The First Sword doesn’t say anything about walking out calmly after you’ve knocked the other guy’s shit out.

        • leinad says:

          No, but he’s from a culture where young men stab each other to death over street altercations, just butchered four Lannister Redshirts and ordered Arya to run because he couldn’t protect her any more.

          Not only that, but what kind of story is that? Martin sets up a great, heroic exit for a minor character and then, what, has him walk in the Winds of Winter to correct deficiences that have crept into Arya’s sword technique?

      • JazzBumpa says:

        Trant being alive is suggestive, but proves nothing. Maybe he is the one who ran.

        Syrio is from Braavos. We don’t know that he isn’t either Jaqen H’ghar or the Kindly Man at the House of Black and White.

        Or possibly both.

        Among other possibilities.

        • leinad says:

          1) Jaqen is in the Black Cells when the fight takes place.

          2) There is zero evidence Syrio is any kind of Faceless Man. He’s from Braavos, is about all anyone can come up with.

    • chris says:

      And, come on, surely you know that when a courageous master swordsman with a stick faces off against a fully-armoured thug with a sword, there’s only one way it can possibly end.

      Eh, I wouldn’t put it past Martin to subvert the usual trope just to prove how brutal and gritty his world is.

      • thusbloggedanderson says:

        IIRC, Martin did a lot of work writing for TV, which supports your idea that he very consciously twists the conventions.

        It also affects his plotting style, and adds a recursive dimention: SEK is studying a TV adaptation of a novel by a TV writer.

      • Leeds man says:

        He subverts reality and internal consistency from the get-go, so what’s a few conventions and tropes?

        I’ve yet to hear a plausible way in which arbitrary season length can be realized.

        Also, the conceit that Houses (Starks, Lannisters, etc) can last for thousands of years is just crap. The story is about dynastic fragility.

        • Whispers says:

          “Also, the conceit that Houses (Starks, Lannisters, etc) can last for thousands of years is just crap. ”

          This is a very weak point of the series. But I’m sure Martin could spell out the entire history if he were forced to. He even knows, for example, that the Manderleys were transplants from the Reach. He’s had houses that have died out. For example, the “Seven Kingdoms” includes the Kingdom of the Reach, which was inherited (so to speak) by the Tyrells, who descended from the stewards of House Gardenere, whose last king was toasted by one of Aegon’s dragons.

          But I digress. There are plenty of ASOIAF websites.

        • djanglermust says:

          The more asoiaf subverts conventions the more it reads like a lesson in why the conventions are there.

        • Part of it is his mistake with math – just like GRRM realized that a Wall 700 feet tall robs his narrative of necessary drama, 8,000 years of history really puts a kink in his story.

          However, you’re all forgetting cadet branches of families. There’s a reason we still have Hapsburgs running around.

      • JazzBumpa says:

        Eh, I wouldn’t put it past Martin to subvert the usual trope just to prove how brutal and gritty his world is.

        As if these things were ever in doubt.

    • I disagree. I think it’s a subversion of that whole idea that righteousness and pluck will win out over brute force because it ought to.

      In real life, the little wrinkled smiling old men get butchered when they go up against the heavily armored swordsmen, and we tell stories where they triumph because it shouldn’t be that way.

      As for Syrio, I’ve never understood why people want to take his death away from him. This is his big scene, the moment where he asserts the principle of honor and craft over brutishness, and chooses to die fighting rather than be party to any harm to children. To survive this fight is to rob his choice of its moral weight.

      • JazzBumpa says:

        To survive this fight is to rob his choice of its moral weight.

        And thus a perfect way to skewer the trope.

        • Eh. I think GRRM’s been pretty clear on this one.

        • leinad says:

          Not really skewering it though, because in averting it you play into the aforemention, far less subversive Righteousness Wins Out Over Superior Arms trope, not exactly the theme of A Song of Ice and Fire so far.

          • Charrua says:

            I couldn’t watch the show, but I’ve got a few questions ¿How do several heavily armored guys manage to approach a house without being noticed by anybody? (they are not exactly discrete, you know?)
            ¿Why do they use swords light enough to be handled with only one hand and then forget to use their other hand for something useful like a shield or a knife(since their armor isn’t good enough to make a shield superfluous)?

  3. rea says:

    Miyamoto Musashi vs. Sasaki Kojiro . . . the guy with the stick sometimes wins, even in the real world.

  4. firefall says:

    She learned that running in the face of death is sometimes better than dying with honor, but she also learned that there’s honor in dying with dignity, and while those lessons aren’t contradictory, they certainly aren’t complementary.

    Really? I thought they were quite complementary – choose your death well.

  5. DBrown says:

    Great series yo uare posting.

    No one ever escapes death – at best it can be delayed but even then, sometimes, only at terrible cost. Dying on one’s own terms is about all one can hope for in life.

  6. Another bit I love, because of the deconstructionist work that GRRM is doing here. This is the classic Joseph Campbell moment (possibly Crossing of the Threshold or Belly of the Whale, depending on how you look at it), a nearly exact replica of Ben Kanobi going down against Darth Vader so that Luke can get away. But this isn’t the moment where Arya’s training begins to transform her into an independent hero – it’s just the beginning of a whole conga line of torment. Arya’s mantra isn’t the redemptive Inigo Montoya line, it’s the abomination of a child with a hit list focussing all of her pain and helplessness into a murderous rage. And when she gets to her Dagobah, it’s screaming at her that this is a bad idea that’s only going to leave her more of a headcase who can only deal with her problems through murder.

    In this way, Arya’s character arc is a deconstructionist look at the fantasy protagonist with a gendered twist, where pluck is no defense against the trauma of war, just as her sister’s arc is a deconstruction of the Disney princess protagonist.

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