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Game Of Thrones (experts): “The Mountain And The Viper”

Sophie Turner (HBO)
Sophie Turner (HBO)
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This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.

Shortly before his fate is to be decided in a trial by combat, Tyrion Lannister discusses with his brother Jaime their cousin Orson, who was injured in a fall and lost much of his mental function. The one thing that was left to Orson, it would seem, was killing beetles, in endless numbers, over and over and over again. The thought of this disturbed Tyrion so that he spent what sounds like years puzzling out the question of why Orson would be so driven to kill beetles, yet he never found an adequate answer. All through the tales of the great wars and great houses, Tyrion could hear only the sound of Orson killing beetles, and it only made him more concerned. Jaime wants to know why this was so important. Why worry about beetles when scores of human beings die every day? Tyrion doesn’t know the answer to that either, but the question continues to haunt him, even as his own death may be happening in a matter of days.


What he likely knows but can’t express is that what’s worrying him is the thought that human beings exist primarily to kill. Yes, we can love each other, and we can create great art and do great things. But down at the base of everything, we are still animals. Take away enough of our higher brain functions, and we’re still primates—primates who desperately long to cling to their territory and flaunt their superiority over anyone lesser than them. Take away even more, and we’re all still animals. And animals have only a few needs. They need to eat and drink. They need to find shelter. They need to reproduce. And they need to ensure that their genetic line will survive, even if it means killing to do so. Death isn’t just a thing that comes to all of us, or a terrible gift that we are capable of giving others. Death, just as it is for every other animal, is who we are.

A lot of Game Of Thrones is about diaspora—the way that tiny decisions have a tendency to spiral out of control and suck down peasants and kings alike in their wake, and the way that characters scatter to the winds in the wake of these moments. The seeds of so much of what happens on this show were planted when Catelyn took Tyrion hostage, or when Jaime pushed Bran out of that window, or when men gathered to overthrow a mad king. But if you go back far enough, you can find root causes for everything else. I’m not always a fan of cause and effect narratives, but I think George R.R. Martin’s version of this kind of story is particularly powerful, because he understands that the hardest thing to do in life is to resist becoming an effect of a cause. We saw this earlier in the season when Arya lay beside the fire, making her list of names to kill, and she seemed about to leave the Hound off of it, only to do so when he finally bade her to go on. Nothing is as powerful as feeling like you’re being tugged along by those primal, animal forces, by the need to avenge a death or protect your home.

“The Mountain And The Viper,” if you hadn’t already guessed, is a brutal episode, and it ends with that brutality being physicalized in the end of the fight between Gregor Clegane and Oberyn Martell. Having read the book let me know that Oberyn was almost certainly going to die before the season was up when Pedro Pascal’s casting was announced (and then the title of this episode pretty much gave away the game), but I’d like to think that even those who haven’t read the books would be on to the series’ modus operandi by now. Revenge is a worthy cause for a time, perhaps, but it tends to become all-encompassing. Oberyn’s thirst for justice in the name of his sister and her children had been growing for decades, and his desire to have it quenched ultimately killed him. Had he finished the Mountain off before getting his confession, he would have won, and Tyrion would have been freed. But that’s not how revenge or the animal brain work: Once they have you in their clutches, you’re powerless to stop yourself from playing out the story they let you pretend you’re the protagonist of.

The fight between Oberyn and Gregor is beautifully staged by director Alex Graves, mostly in wide shots, because Pascal is unlikely to be able to do all that acrobatic tumbling. (I’d be thrilled to learn it was actually him, but am not holding my breath.) What I like is how Graves plays up the clichés we know are inherent in this sort of fight: The big, monstrous man seems like he’ll be the winner, but it’s actually the smaller, more agile man who exhausts the huge guy and comes out the champion. The script by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (which follows the action from the book at least somewhat closely) undercuts this with yet another trope: the fight that seems like it’s over too soon. By now, we know that in any situation where “the good guy” seems like he has a leg up over “the bad guy” in this show will usually end poorly for the former, so both Graves and the script exploit that tension cunningly. Even as I knew what was going to come, I was shocked by the fierceness of the depiction, by the way that Gregor’s hands plunging into Oberyn’s eye sockets and crushing of his head happened with such stunning swiftness. The reversal comes quickly and brutally, because that is how it must be.


Yet the brutality extends to other aspects of the episode as well. For instance, the longest lasting character pairing on the show—Jorah and Daenerys—is torn apart in this episode, when she learns from Ser Barristan that Jorah was, at one time, spying on her for the crown of Westeros, shipping his information to Varys. The scene where she dismisses him from her service is a dark and haunting one, not least of which is because of Emilia Clarke’s choice to first go up—into a range where you think she’ll begin reading him the riot act—then pull things back down in favor of a tremulous, terrifying whisper, or because of Iain Glen’s rigidly dogmatic insistence that he is a loyal man now, even if he was not (and even as he knows that will not be enough to save his place by her side). It’s also powerful because it’s dismantling the one relationship on the show that still has a rough connection to what it was in the pilot. Other character pairings have been torn asunder and reunited—Jaime and Cersei, say—but I think the longest-lasting pairing title now falls to Sam and Jon (and, don’t forget, Jon was with the Wildlings for a fair amount of this), who have been together since episode four or five. Graves, Benioff, and Weiss give the moment the proper gravity, too, with Graves’ series of unsteady close-ups that cut in tighter and tighter on the faces of the two actors (until we’re essentially focused only on Emilia Clarke’s lips moving, thanks to the play of the light) serving to underline how massive this is for both them and the show. And then we cut to Jorah riding away from the city—to an uncertain fate both for the man and for his place within the series.

It’s that trick of cutting from the moment when someone might speak and seal their fate to the moment when they’re on to the next part of the story that gives this episode much of its power. Consider, for instance, Theon (or should I say Reek?), whose story more or less lost me at the end of season two after he was knocked out at Winterfell. Here, he’s being sent to coax some Ironborn out of the garrison they’re holding in the North, forced to once again be Theon, but aware at all times that he is playing a part, in the “service” of Ramsay. The most evocative edit in the episode, to me, is when he’s staring up at those who would give him entrance to the castle, wordless, his lip trembling, as if he’s about to talk but not quite ready. And before he can speak and say his true name for the first time in ages, we cut to the inside, where he’s steadier, but still somehow hollow. It takes a knife in the head to a stubborn commander, but he convinces the Ironborn to leave, to head for the Stony Shore, where they might return home, and for a moment, it seems like peace could be had, so long as every psychopath in Westeros were able to brainwash his very own heir to another family. And then, of course, Ramsay kills and flays the Ironborn as they leave. In Ramsay’s mind, he is the cause, and everybody else is the effect of having met him. And it’s hard to argue with his results.


This fourth season of Game Of Thrones seems much more about the evolution of these characters into some new version of themselves than the prior ones. To some degree, that’s the aftereffects of the Red and Purple Weddings, which allowed essentially everyone in Westeros to know that they were not safe. But to some degree, it’s also the inevitable result of all of this bloodshed and all of this war. The characters have adjusted to living in a state of permanent vigilance, to a world where anything could be turned to ruin at any time. I think, for instance, of Sansa standing over her little snow version of Winterfell from “Mockingbird” and recognize in Sophie Turner’s performance vestiges of the girl that lived at that place, that loved her direwolf, that went on what seemed like a grand adventure to King’s Landing. But then I see her in this episode, telling the tribunal convened to determine Littlefinger’s fate that Lysa jumped to her death, or descending the staircase dressed in darker shades to begin her trip, and it seems as if that snow castle (and its destruction by Robin) were simply the last stages of her shedding her cocoon to see what emerged next. And the look on her face as she descends is haughty and a little imperious, hardened by a world that has no love for Starks. Needless to say, I’m excited to see where this Sansa is headed.

If man’s true nature is to kill, then there’s a fair amount of it in this episode—and I haven’t even talked about the Wildlings ravaging Mole’s Town on their rampage toward the Wall. (Ygritte, whom we haven’t seen in a while, offers a quick whisper of warning to her fellow North-of-the-Wall sister, Gilly.) But there are also hints of tenderness and affection here, of the reasons that humanity might be more than its grim conclusions. There’s the teasing flirtation between Grey Worm and Missandei, which culminates in her smiling, saying he’s happy he saw her naked (even if he seems unlikely to be able to do anything about it). There’s Arya’s laugh when she finds out that Lysa is dead, an echo that rings through the Vale, horrifying but still the sound of someone who’s very much alive and very much bitterly amused by her situation. And there’s the simple moment shared between brothers before the trial by combat begins. There are still plotters and schemers, still those who would do anything necessary to take what they believe to be theirs. But there are also hints of better lives for those who dare to break the cycle across their knees and step out of the ring. They say that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but that goes for our own lives, too. Every day, we come into contact with bad choices we’ve made before and make them all over again. What does it take to look those choices in the eye and then do something else? What will it take to swear off the animal and finally give in to the human?


Stray observations:

  • Even the belch-singers of Westeros know only the two songs. There’s gotta be something else for these people to sing! Make that your first priority for season five, Benioff and Weiss.
  • Here’s a quick shoutout to Pedro Pascal, whose performance as Oberyn really enlivened a character I didn’t have a lot of use for in the books. I loved the way that his voice got progressively more shot as he shouted at Gregor to confess to his sins. It made sense of his actions, even as we knew the story momentum would carry him to his death.
  • Adaptation choices: I’m intrigued by the way the show is playing up the near misses between characters this season. Yeah, Arya and Sansa were geographically pretty close to each other at this point in the story, but the show has the two of them all but running into each other, where the book mostly leaves this to the imagination. It’s probably the fact that we can’t all flip to the inside front cover to look at the map of Westeros on the show.
  • So much of this show is shot in dim shadow that it makes the scenes that are set in bright sunlight—like the battle between Gregor and Oberyn, or the scene where Grey Worm bathes in the pool—all the more distinctive. I’d like to say there’s a rhyme and reason to this, but I suspect it’s just that some of the scenes will look better with natural sunlight.
  • Some other nice moments from Graves here: Look at how Littlefinger is the ghost behind Sansa when she’s giving her testimony. He’s out of focus and dim, but he’s there, and we have just enough visual information to make him out. Also: The shot of the two Boltons meeting atop that ridge in silhouette wasn’t all that important narratively speaking, but it was really pretty. (And it preceded a good scene where Ramsay is given what he’s always wanted, so you could make an argument it was all about stepping out of the shadows.)
  • The threat posed by the wildlings has always been more implicit than explicit. It’s a choice I get—we can’t have a raid in every other episode, and we can’t have them killing off a bunch of named characters—but it’s one I think has undercut the show in some ways, as I wasn’t really into their approach to Castle Black until they ravaged Mole’s Town, then left the episode.
  • My thanks to Myles McNutt for handling “Mockingbird,” which might have been my favorite episode of the season so far. I’ve been feeling a little down on the show lately, finding it even more scattered than usual (though much less scattered than the book), but these last two episodes have pulled it back into focus in a big way.

Here be spoilers! (Don’t read if you haven’t read the books.):

  • I actually sort of found the eventual team-up between Jorah and Tyrion in the books a bit convenient, and it was the first time that I felt like two of the characters running into each other was the author drawing them together, rather than letting them both believably end up in each other’s orbits. That said, I am so looking forward to Peter Dinklage and Iain Glen working together.
  • It will be interesting to see how the show plays the Robert Strong stuff. I assume it will continue to be a part of the story, but the series has done so much less with the Mountain than the books have, and I’m guessing that has something to do with the writers just choosing to downplay the character. I mean, are we really going to see a bunch of scenes of the guy slowly dying next season? I’m guessing not.
  • My guess for how this all plays out: The assault on Castle Black plays out for all of next week (something I’m not sure the show has done the adequate work to built to, but whatever), then the final passages of the season finale feature Tyrion killing his father and Shae, followed by Brienne coming across Lady Stoneheart. My best guess. What’s yours?

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