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

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, Pedro Pascal
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This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and email toddvdw at gmail dot com or contact Todd on Twitter at tvoti, and hell take care of them as soon as possible. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss whats coming? Thats what our experts reviews are for.


The Mountain just cracked open Oberyn Martell’s head like a coconut. Or, in more thematically appropriate terms, he smashed it like his hands were rocks and Oberyn’s head was a beetle. It was certainly the most horrific sight you’ll see on TV all week—edging past the newly minted Ramsay Bolton and his “This is my design” work on the Ironborn—made all the more horrific by the fact that it spelled doom for not one, but two beloved Game Of Thrones characters.

But forget all of that for a second, because I think Sansa Stark deserves the lede on this one.

Not to sound disingenuous, mind you: Sophie Turner descending those Eyrie stairs—with a badass composure that would made Angelina Jolie proclaim “Know what, Maleficent is a passion project of mine, but maybe I’ve been miscast”—is as much a turning point as Oberyn’s grisly defeat. “The Mountain And The Viper” hinges on the one property that is more unstoppable than Ser Gregor Clegane, the property that touches Ramsay’s new surname, Ser Jorah’s dismissal, and Tyrion Lannister’s death sentence: change. Change is inevitable, change is coming, change is the horde of wildlings charging through Mole’s Town this week and on to The Wall the next. We’re all Arya Stark right now, laughing our asses off because of our inability to stay ahead of the rate of progress in this world.

And maybe it’s because she’s been in the thick of things while her little sister roamed greater Westeros, but Sansa gets it. After suffering for so long, she’s in a position to get out ahead, and she’s taking it, even if that means allying herself with an opportunistic sleaze who bears a torch for her dead mother. “Lord Baelish has told many lies to protect me,” Sansa tells the council accusing her protector (there’s that word again) in aiding Lysa’s trip through the Moon Door. And now Sansa’s returned the favor, savvy enough to preserve the one safe haven she’s had for ages, fully aware that favors are the only currency truly respected by this former master of coin. Her transformation—from the frightened child cornered in her Eyrie quarters to the baddest new puppetmaster at the Westerosi debutante’s ball—happens swiftly, but time is of the essence here. (Also, next week’s episode looks to be to Castle Black what “Blackwater” was to King’s Landing, and this isn’t a transition that would have as much impact in a season finale.)


Next week’s episode will stand out because of the break from format; if season four’s flair for endings is any indication, the season finale ought to leave the audience collectively without its breath. And yet I don’t think either hour will end up topping “The Mountain And The Viper.” Everything’s top-notch Game Of Thrones here: acting (Turner’s my pick for episode MVP, but Peter Dinklage does series-best work in the dungeon), direction (Alex Graves gets ambitious at the top of the episode with that long take through the tavern), and writing (so many layers of interpretation in that beetle monologue) alike. Some will look upon the episode’s grand finale as shock for shock’s sake, but whatever sent Tyrion Lannister to the chopping block needed to prompt a bigger gasp than Joffrey’s death. I’m guessing that the last minute twist will be seen by some as evidence of Game Of Thrones increasingly toying with the viewers’ emotions—with Maisie Williams cackling at her character’s misfortune presented as exhibit B. But there’s another way to look at it: the show laying the groundwork for monumental, irreversible change.

Think of all the characters who’ve been lost in the last four seasons; consider the forces commanded by Mance Rayder, prepared to knock at the doors of Castle Black. Season four began with a consideration of how much the landscape in Westeros has changed since the death of Jon Arryn, and the episodes that followed have cemented that change. In “The Mountain And The Viper,” there’s a reminder of how many different men have held the Iron Throne in that time, with Jorah’s banishment prompted by a sealed pardon from the late King Robert. Kings and those claiming to be kings are dead, and corpses produced by their war lie putrified outside the garrison claimed for the Boltons in “The Mountain And The Viper.” It’s worth noting how many of these developments are predicated on ink and parchment: Jorah and Ramsay each receive news via scroll, while Theon delivers scrawled conditions of surrender Lord Bolton never intended to uphold. The catch is in that third example: Just because it’s written doesn’t mean those words are worth a damn. Minds change as easily as fates, and paper can be torn up, carried away, or engulfed in flame. What is dead may never die, but what is changed can always be unchanged.


And as Game Of Thrones changes into a show on which Grey Worm and Missandei can command a side story with real emotional stakes and a degree of tenderness, so it must be a show that can let go of Tyrion. “The Mountain And The Viper” is a collection of centerpiece sequences, to the point that it could hold the biggest of those sequences to the final 10 minutes and avoid all accusations of building roadblocks to the fireworks factory. In an episode that doesn’t end with The Mountain performing a manual Scanners routine, Tyrion’s tale of rocks, bugs, and the unwitting forces that bring them together would be the biggest moment—not that anything else in “The Mountain And The Viper” steals its resonance. If anything, the trial by combat underlines the monologue’s importance: This is Tyrion speaking of his own existence, as an insect that fate knows only to smash. The metaphorical hand bears the name Lannister for obvious reasons, but this is more than a parable about Tyrion and Tywin. It’s about all of these characters, so many of them seemingly introduced for the sole purpose of suffering. The hand goes by many names (Ramsay Bolton, Joffrey, the maesters), its beetles spread across the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. In the end, Tyrion’s only crime may have been that he was more invested in decoding these cruelties and less invested in putting a stop to them. “Certainly I had the wherewithal to unravel the mysteries that lay at the heart of a moron,” he tells Jaime, slyly nodding toward whichever lunkheaded gods make the people of Westeros fear the giant rock.

The push forward is important, especially on a show like Game Of Thrones, on which we tend to learn so much more about the characters in reveals of backstory like Tyrion and Jaime’s dungeon dialogue. Though Oberyn undoubtedly pushes for progress, he’s undone by dwelling in the past, and his zeal for an Inigo Montoya moment exposes a vulnerability The Mountain is too happy to exploit. He’s ground into dust by the old world; those advancing toward the new world are marked by some curious framing choices on the part of Alex Graves and cinematographer Anette Haellmigk. Eschewing standard close-up conventions, Daenerys, Grey Worm, and Sansa, are at separate times photographed as if they’re preparing to burst out of frame:


These characters can’t stop the rock from falling, but they can at least move quick enough to get out of its path. And getting out of that path is the first step toward achieving real change in Westeros.

Stray observations:

  • While watching Game Of Thrones this closely should dissuade wedding attendance at all costs, I have some family nuptials to attend next week that will keep me from fulfilling my regular reviewing duties. I leave you in the capable hands of Brandon Nowalk, who’ll re-introduce you to “The Watchers On The Wall” (and “Blackwater” director Neil Marshall).

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