Airdate: June 1, 2014
Directed by: Alex Graves
Written by: George R.R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire” by), David Benioff (creator), D.B. Weiss (creator), David Benioff (written for television by), D.B. Weiss (written for television by)
Two weeks after the last episode of Game of Thrones, we finally enter into the final stretch run. Sadly, we have only two more episodes to go after tonight’s, but if they are anything like “The Mountain and the Viper,” we’ll be in for a real treat. There was major movement on three key storylines tonight, as well as not a few resolutions to ongoing questions. The biggest, of course, involves the trial by combat we’ve been waiting to see since Episode 406, three weeks ago. And it most certainly did not disappoint.
<<Spoiler Alert: This article is a review and complete recap of Game of Thrones S04E08 – “The Mountain and the Viper” – it will discuss major plot points and events in detail, and may contain strong language based on dialogue from the episode; read further at your own risk!>>
We follow six different storylines tonight, but none of them feel as though they’re getting short shrift. In fact, what with some resolutions, and at least two storylines appearing to converge, the episode felt surprisingly tight for the fact that it was covering so much ground. We travel North, both to the Boltons and to the Wall; east, to the Vale; to Meereen, where we get less Dany and more Missandei; and end on King’s Landing. The major focus is the duel between Clegane and Prince Oberyn, and I’ll discuss that after visiting each of the other stories first.
At the Wall, we begin in Mole’s Town. Gilly and her baby have been secreted by Sam in an inn, working as a washerwoman/cook/cleaner. She’s being bullied by one of the tavern wenches, who complains about the baby’s crying waking her. She threatens the baby – “Get it to stop, or I will” – when Gilly tells her to shut-up. She’s heard an owl hooting, but knows it’s a Wildling signal. She hides, as Tormund, Ygritte, and the Thenn move through Mole Town and into the tavern. Ygritte guts the tavern wench, and then hears a baby cry, muffled. She pulls aside a curtain to see Gilly and her son – but instead of killing them, she shushes them quietly, and moves on.
Cut to Sam, and he’s in full-blown self-recrimination mode. The other Night’s Watchmen tell him she’s come through worse – including facing a White Walker – and this mollifies him somewhat. The Crows are worried – Jon figures Mance’s army must be close, and with the three Watchmen killed in Mole’s Town, that leaves 102 of them to face Mance’s army of 100,000. Not good odds. Dolorous Edd raises his glass and speaks: “Whoever dies last, be a good lad and burn the rest of us. Once I’m done with this world, I don’t want to come back.” At least he keeps his sense of humor when facing impossible odds.
A bit further south (about 700 miles, according to Roose Bolton), Ramsay unleashes his pet Reek on Moat Cailin. While Theon/Reek is truly but a shell of what he once was, and he’s literally twitching and blinking his way through the keep’s courtyard, he is able to convince a pretty sickly and desperate group of Ironborn that they should take Ramsay’s offer of fair treatment. The leader of the group holding the castle can smell the corruption in Reek, and begins to call him out – when one of his own men slams him in the head with an axe. We see this man’s reward, however, when Ramsay has his eyes taken out and his skin flayed from his body. As a reward, Ramsay is given his father’s name – he is now no longer Ramsay Snow, but Ramsay Bolton, heir to the Warden of the North. Roose is at his oily best, and it serves him right to be elevating such a psychopath to a position of power. If he could truly read people, he’d know that a) there is no way the other Stark bannermen will support his wardenship, especially due to his participation in the Red Wedding; and b) it’s got to be only a matter of time before Ramsay slits his father’s throat – the power is far too seductive to his perverse mind.
In the Vale, Littlefinger is facing a tribunal led by the strongest of the House Arryn bannermen, Lord Royce. They express disbelief at Baelish’s story that Lysa committed suicide, and bring in his “niece” to tell what she saw. She begins by revealing who she is – their shock at having Sansa Stark there is palpable. Royce in particular is moved, as he tells her about hunting with her father when he was a boy. She is, in fact, playing them, however. She’s very convincing – this is the best I’ve seen Sansa playing at the game – and she does so by sticking primarily to the truth. She deviates first when she describes the kiss – claiming it was a peck on the cheek – but then is completely honest about Lysa’s murderous intent, when she tried to push Sansa through the Moon Door. She then deviates once more, and more significantly, when she describes her aunt’s death. She states that Baelish first talked Lysa out of killing Sansa, and then tried to talk her out of committing suicide. She tells them that he did everything he could, but that Lysa struck him and then leapt to her death. Her tears and her apparent honesty convince them.
As she speaks, it’s interesting to watch Baelish’s reaction. His eyes are downcast, but as Sansa tells her tale, he steals glances up from under his brows. As she deviates, there is the slightest of smiles on his lips, but more in his eyes. He doesn’t speak through this, but his level of communication is masterful. Some of the best acting in this series is when the characters aren’t even speaking, and we see this from Daenerys tonight, as well, which I’ll talk about briefly. Once the tribunal has finished sitting, we see Baelish slipping back into his best Littlefinger mode, approaching Sansa to find out why she protected him (she does it to protect herself, which will do nothing but endear her more to the self-serving Baelish), and then to begin his manipulations of the young Lord of the Vale, Lord Robin. For this job, we find out the angle he’s going to take – Sansa appears at the top of a set of stairs, enshrouded in a halo of sunlight, as though an angel approaching. They’re going to work together to dominate the already malleable Robin – the kid doesn’t stand a chance.
But there is one more story coming to a head in the Vale, as Arya and the Hound approach the Bloody Gate. He tells the Keeper of the Gate who Arya is, and that he’s brought her to her aunt for ransom. The Keeper informs them that Lysa has been dead three days, and Arya bursts into a fit of laughter. In the moment, I imagine it’s a better reaction than breaking fully apart at the irony and injustice that keeps getting heaped upon her, but the Keeper and the other guards are taken aback to say the least. Even the Hound looks uncomfortable – he doesn’t know what to make of the burgeoning sociopath beside him. Another thing happened in their interaction – the Hound touched the wound on his neck received at the teeth of Biter – and Arya tells him he should have let her burn it. The wound is festering, and even the strongest knight can be taken down by slight wounds.
There are two stories being told in Meereen. The first is Grey Worm’s apparent affection for Missandei. He sees her bathing, and stares at her naked body openly, showing a desire that is certainly odd in a castrati. She tells Dany about the encounter, and she affirms that he seemed interested in her – Dany muses over whether the slavers took everything, the “pillar and the stones,” in the best metaphor of the season so far. Later, Grey Worm approaches Missandei to apologize. Although his situation means they can never be together in the way he so obviously wants, he tells her that he regrets nothing that has happened to him – else he never would have met her. This was actually very touching, Grey Worm in his broken language, Missandei standing proudly with a tear in her eye. With all of the overt sexuality and lust throughout the series, it was nice to see a moment of touching emotion like this, untouched by any kind of power politics.
The second story is Ser Jorah’s. Ser Barristan receives a scroll with the seal of the Hand on it. I expected this to be the letter we saw Tywin writing a couple of episodes ago, and it may very well be – but inside was a pardon ostensibly signed by King Robert Baratheon for Ser Jorah. Barriston does Jorah the courtesy of speaking to him before taking it to Dany, but he won’t let him approach her alone. Jorah comes to the throne room, and the atmosphere is decidedly chilly. Here is where the other bit of non-vocal acting comes into play, as the conflicting emotions racing over both Ser Jorah’s and Dany’s faces accentuates and, at least in Dany’s case, betrays what they are saying. She tells him he is to go, exiled from her presence, that she will have him “neither living nor dead in her city.” He tries calling her Khaleesi a couple of times, but she cuts him off. He protests that although he did spy on her, he loved her as well, and has been true to her. She’ll none of it, and orders him out of the city by dusk. The whole time, she fights to look stoic, looking in the air over his shoulder, her eyes larger than I have ever seen them as she fights back the emotion – yes, a reaction to his betrayal, but there is a sense of something more, that she may have, on some level, loved Ser Jorah as well. We see him riding alone out of the city.
Thus, we turn now to the meat of the episode, which is in King’s Landing as it has been for most of this season. And again, the Imp is near center stage – but not at the center itself, this time. No, instead it is Prince Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell’s turn to shine in the waning summer sun. Before the fight, we see Jaime bring Tyrion some wine in his cell as they wait. Their encounter is highlighted by an extended family story about their cousin, Orson Lannister, who was dropped on his head as a baby and grew up disabled. All day, he’d sit in the family garden, crushing beetles with a rock. Tyrion tells Jaime that his fascinated him to distraction. He watched his cousin for days, weeks, asked him and Maesters why he did it, but there was never an answer. As he speaks, Tyrion picks up a wood louse and lets it crawl over his hand. As he discusses the unfathomable nature of human cruelty, he gently places the bug back down on his cell floor. It is an extended metaphor – Orson represents the noble Houses playing the game of thrones, the beetles the people that are routinely crushed and destroyed by their actions. Tyrion has always been the one holding the stone, even if he chose not to crush with it; now, he’s the beetle, and this realization, that things are finally and completely beyond his control, is sobering. Jaime, sadly, doesn’t seem to get it entirely, although he shows sympathy for his brother. Tyrion asks him, “So what do you think? Why did he do it? Was it all about…” his words drift off. Jaime replies, “I don’t know.” The bell tolls, and the fight begins. The bell itself is symbolic in this moment, ending their mutual reverie, and tolling the death, or deaths, to come.
Tyrion is taken to Oberyn’s side, where he is drinking wine and smiling with Ellaria. Tyrion asks him not to drink, but Oberyn tells him he always drinks before fighting. The Mountain arrives, and Ellaria is shocked. “You’re going to fight that?” she asks, incredulous. “I’m going to kill that,” Oberyn clarifies. We get the best line of the night when Oberyn reassures Ellaria that “Size doesn’t matter when you’re on your back,” and Tyrion says in an aside, “Thank the gods.” Pycelle goes through the forms, but Tywin tires of it and waves him away. Oberyn enters the arena, spinning with his long-hafted spear and rolling it over his body, under his arms and over his back, whirling it about in blinding fashion – he is one with the weapon. The Mountain takes his great sword, easily two-handed for any smaller men, and lunges at the Viper.
The fight is beautifully orchestrated, both men circling, with Oberyn’s speed and agility keeping just out of the reach of the much larger man. As they spar, Oberyn taunts his opponent. He tells him why he’s come to King’s Landing – to exact revenge for his sister’s murder. He tells Clegane, “I’m going to hear you confess, before you die.” He almost chants, “You raped her. You killed her. You murdered her children,” repeating it several times, almost hypnotically. This was an interesting moment of deja vu for me, and likely for anyone around my age who is a fan of all things swords and sorcery related. In particular, it resonated with Inigo Montoya [Mandy Patinkin]’s mantra from The Princess Bride, which he chanted when facing his archenemy: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” (If you’re interested in reading about the movie, you can check out my review here.)
This was not the only resonance/homage to a genre film in this scene. Oberyn’s dance reminded me of Sting as Feyd-Rautha in 1984’s Dune, as he fought a knife duel with Paul Atreides. And the scene at the end…but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Oberyn’s speed works to his advantage, as he sticks Clegane on several occasions with his spear, despite having it cut in half and knocked out of his hands at one point – fortunately his second is there to toss him another spear. Sensing he has the advantage, he demands not only a confession, but to know who gave the order to kill his sister Elia and her children. He pierces Clegane’s gut, then hooks it’s end on the back of the Mountain’s leg, slicing his Achilles tendon. The giant falls to his knees, then splays out on his back. He looks done, but Oberyn gets angry, telling him he can’t die without confessing. And here, ladies and gentleman, Oberyn falls victim to his hubris. Thinking he has Clegane done, he walks too close, and the Mountain grabs his leg, pulling him down and on top of him. He rolls over, and gives the Viper the confession he demanded – gives it to him as he plunges his thumbs into Oberyn’s eye sockets. He finishes by crushing Oberyn’s skull in his bare hands, then falls over, apparently dead as well. Sadly for Tyrion, Oberyn clearly dies first.
This is the third moment of genre resonance, as the method of death – the thumbs in the eye sockets – is exactly the way that Roy Baty murders his creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell in Ridley Scott’s excellent Blade Runner (also 1984). He grips his head in both hands, squeezes, and then presses his thumbs through Tyrell’s glasses and into his eye sockets. This is actually pretty cheeky on the part of Benioff and Weiss. This is not how the scene is played out in the books – yes, Oberyn’s teeth are knocked out, and yes, his head is pulverized – but they added the eye socket aspect. And there is no question why they did this: note that one of the members of the Small Council, and a spectator to the duel, is Mace Tyrell, Eldon’s namesake. Whether they wrote it to resonate with Blade Runner on purpose or not, whether it is a nod to the name conjunction between the two or not, resonate it does. And on an interesting aside: Tyrell was not the name of the character in the book: it was Eldon Rosen. So here we have a case where a character name was changed from the book to the movie (from Rosen to Tyrell), so his name ends up reflecting a character present during the duel (Mace Tyrell), the outcome of which is also changed from its source book, reflecting the movie death of Rosen/Tyrell. And House Tyrell’s sigil? A rose – which, to stretch a bit, further makes one think of Rosen’s name. Cheeky and clever both. Or completely serendipitous – but I prefer to think that Beniof and Weiss had all of this in mind.
The end toll of the trial by combat, then, is three deaths: Prince Oberyn’s, the Mountain’s, and the ordered execution of Tyrion. Tywin stands and pronounces sentence, as the crowd sits in stunned silence after witnessing Oberyn’s sudden dispatch. Cut to black.
This was a particularly satisfying episode. We saw some resolution in the north – the Ironborn are largely driven out with the loss of Moat Cailin; we saw some very interesting character development in the Eyrie, as Sansa seems to be coming into her own as a player in the game of thrones, putting Baelish clearly in her debt; Arya showed that she can disturb even the Hound when she laughs at the irony of her aunt’s death; Ser Jorah was exposed twice over, both for his betrayal of Daenerys, and in admitting his love for her; even Grey Worm got a moment to shine in a more human way, showing that he is not a passionless being, despite being castrated. The only real soft piece was the scene with the Night’s Watch at Castle Black. We didn’t really need this, unless it was to remind us that Jon Snow and Sam Tarly are still around; the scene in Mole’s Town did everything for the Wall storyline that needed doing tonight.
But as I said earlier, the meat of this episode occurs at King’s Landing. Though understated, Tyrion and Jaime’s conversation about their cousin Orson was illuminating, showing that Tyrion has long been aware of how the world works, the differences between the rocks of Westeros and the beetles. Becoming a beetle was certainly not something he expected, but something for which he appears to be psychologically prepared. Then, during the fight, the look of unexpected happiness on his face, followed by desolation as Oberyn first seemed to be winning, then was suddenly overcome, was another fine bit of physical acting by the always excellent Dinklage. But his wasn’t the only face with changing emotions. Jaime, rooting silently for his brother, looked jubilant and then deflated, Cersei mirroring him in the exact opposite manner. The most interesting, however, was Tywin. As Oberyn demanded to know who ordered the death of Elia, he pointed directly at the head of House Lannister, and if Tywin could have sunk into his chair in that moment, he surely would have. This moment will have far-reaching implications for the Lannisters; it says that the Martell’s know who was behind the atrocities, and that they expect a price to be paid. The Red Viper may have been the most overt in his actions, but his brother, the Prince of Dorne, is not a weak man; nor are Oberyn’s eight bastard daughters, known collectively as the Sand Snakes – four by Ellaria alone. Look for them to react poorly to their father’s death in the future. If you thought Oberyn was an amazing fighter, imagine eight of him, only faster and angrier.
The homages to various genre films in this episode gave me a warm glow of recognition as I was watching. Genre buffs love to see connections between the things they enjoy, and Benioff and Weiss took this into account in preparing this episode. The multi-level connections between this and Blade Runner are especially well played out, and I don’t believe that the resonance with Inigo Montoya (also using a Spanish accent, although Oberyn’s is natural – the actor, Pedro Pascal, is from Chile) is accidental. I may, however, be stretching a bit on the Feyd-Rautha fight connection. Maybe a better cognate would be Evelyn/Nefertiti [Rachel Weisz]’s fight with Meela/Anck-Su-Namun [Patricia Velasquez] in The Mummy Returns – but Dune, though not great, was the superior genre film of these two, so I’ll go with Sting over Weisz.
Steve’s Grade: A
Although we had one short throwaway scene with the Night’s Watch and Jon Snow, growth and movement for several primary and secondary characters (Sansa, Grey Worm, Melisandre, Ser Jorah, Arya), conclusions to a couple of major storylines (Tyrion’s trial; the results of Baelish’s act in the Eyrie), and an epic battle between the Viper and the Mountain meant that this was one of the strongest episodes of an already strong season. And frankly, the fact that, all of a sudden, Sansa is an interesting character, is almost miraculous.
Notes, Errata, and Addenda: My friend Ramona reminded me that Oberyn’s eyes do, in fact, play a role in his death in the books, as they are knocked out by Clegane. I guess the Tyrell/Tyrell connection, conscious or subconscious, was Martin’s, not Benioff and Weiss’s. She also pointed out an interesting fact: the dress that Sansa wears when she goes to Petyr and young Lord Robin? One of Lysa’s – potential major ick factor developing in that quarter!