GAME OF THRONES: “The Mountain and the Viper”

The Fight of the Century builds to a surprising conclus–AHH I CAN’T DO IT. OH MY GOD.

Don’t worry about your death — worry about your life. Take charge of your life, for as long as it lasts.

–Littlefinger

I just… oh my God.

Even for a show that — unfettered by typical network restrictions — has excelled at the visceral pleasures of battlefield gore, the closing moments of “The Mountain and the Viper” were without a doubt the most distressing since the Red Wedding, and the most flat-out disgusting since ever. The brutal, squishy death of Oberyn Martell — not to mention the now near-certain death of Tyrion — is once again a giant middle finger from George R. R. Martin to anyone who believes in justice or tends to, I guess, become attached to likable characters.

And, because of course, we were led to believe the opposite. The Red Viper had Clegane on his back, a victim of multiple spear wounds, thanks to an acrobatic display of whirling dervish stabby-stabby; Tywin and Cersei were royally ticked, while Jamie wasn’t even hiding his pleasure; Oberyn had done his very best Inigo Montoya impression, chanting “You raped my sister, you murdered her, you killed her children” with rising intensity (and Spanish flair) until his voice cracked. There were mere seconds left on the clock. They were roping off the court for the trophy presentation. It was over. It was beautiful.

And then… well, I’ll come back to this. The script, from showrunners Benioff & Weiss, was impeccably constructed; they knew full well that anticipation for the climactic bout would be at a fever pitch, so they did what any self-respecting boxing promoter would do and stacked the first 50 minutes with a bevy of “undercard” matches, while delaying the turn toward King’s Landing as long as possible. Initially frustrating? Sure, but also kind of brilliant — and, come on, there was no other image to end the episode on than that closeup of Tyrion’s pale face, sentenced to death and trying not to vomit. So let’s do this recap the same way:

Bout 1: Sam Tarly vs. Impending Doom

The entire episode was directed with flair by Alex Graves (the guy who had taken a lot of heat a few weeks back for the was-it-rape? scene back in “Breaker of Chains”), but the opening sequence, a long unbroken take into and around the Mole’s Town tavern, was among the most impressive. We begin by checking in on Gilly, who is getting an earful from the Madam about the racket her newborn son is making while the other girls are trying to, you know, work. (And play belching games — does anyone know any songs besides “Rains of Castamere” and “Bear and the Maiden Fair?”)

But it’s only moments before the Wildlings come — the Tormund/Ygritte and Thenn platoons — and slaughter some more innocents, including all the poor Crows that happened to be there illegally. But Ygritte, who finds Gilly and her son cowering in a closet, spares her, putting a finger to her lips and exits…leaving only the drip drip drip of blood coming through the ceiling. (Reminding us that Ygritte, who just killed a whole bunch of unarmed people and still hates Jon Snow, also has a line.)

Word immediately reaches Castle Black of the attack, and Sam is despondent — Gilly was supposed to be safe there, darn it — but Jon and the rest of his Merry Men try to buck up his spirits. She’s already survived Craster, the march back to the Wall, and a friggin’ WHITE WALKER, so she could have escaped this, too. Sam clings to this shred of hope like a drowning man, but attention quickly turns to the matter at hand: Mance Rayder’s army is close, and the Night’s Watch is outnumbered by a count of 100,000 to 102. It does not look good for the home team, as Dolorous Edd quips: “Whoever dies last, be a good lad and burn the rest of us.” Next week, we’ll be getting a “Blackwater”-scaled battle episode at the Wall. But can anything save them?

Bout 2: Theon Greyjoy vs. Himself

Theon is sent by Ramsay to the gates of Moat Cailin under a white flag, to treat with the Ironborn that currently hold the fort. He’s been tasked to put on a performance — to say that he’s the long-lost Theon Greyjoy, when he knows that he’s really Reek, who is lower than the dogs. “Remember what you are, and what you’re not,” Ramsay warns. But he regains some of that Theon swagger, showing a confidence and clarity of speech not seen since he tried to take Winterfell. The Ironborn commander doesn’t want to believe him (and certainly not that the Boltons will just let the invaders leave with their lives if they’ll surrender the fort), spitting blood in Theon’s face: “Only a whipped dog would speak this way.” And maybe it’s the mention of the word dog, but Theon immediately starts to quiver and shake.

Is the jig up? Not quite, as that commander takes an ax in the head from one of his underlings, who immediately surrenders Moat Cailin in exchange for his life. But as they are dealing with Ramsay, they all get flayed anyway, in the second-most-gruesome image of the night. STOP IT, RAMSAY. “Traditions are important,” he tells Theon (who immediately switches back to Reek in Ramsay’s presence, which again begs the question: is Theon a better actor than we thought?) And Ramsay gets a stunning reward from proud papa Roose, in a beautifully-filmed scene out on the moors: the North stretches as far as the eye can see, the largest kingdom by far, and Roose is its Warden — a position that requires a proper heir. Congratulations, Ramsay Snow: you are now officially Ramsay Bolton! A trueborn son! It’d be a heartwarming moment of father-son bonding, if either of them had hearts. (Wait, are these two the only loving father-son relationship left on this show? THEY ARE?)

And by the way, is it inspiring to ride under those ghastly red Xs? Is House Bolton the biker gang of Westeros, all blood and skulls and short fuses? If I’m just a regular guy who happens to be pledged to Roose, I’m looking for a trade to another market. That can’t be fun. At least the knuckleheads who are ride or die for the Mountain choose to be there.

Bout 3: Jorah Mormont vs. The Past

It was only a matter of time before Jorah’s spying days caught up to him, and now it happens at the worst possible time (though, probably, any time would have been a horrible time) — when he’s already on shaky ground with his Khaleesi, having been thoroughly Friend-Zoned for weeks. Barristan, who is handed the incriminating royal pardon (signed by King Robert Baratheon — wow, slowest postal service ever), at least has the decency to go give Jorah a heads-up, man to man, that he is deeply, deeply screwed, and nothing Mormont can say will do any good. He demands to speak to Dany in private, but is told “You’ll never be alone with her again.” So Jorah must face his Queen, his unrequited crush, and fess up to his crimes in front of everyone: yes, he spied on her for the King, reported her movements, even (in what is clearly the worst offense) that she was pregnant with Khal Drogo’s baby.

It doesn’t matter that he stopped seasons ago when she became the Mother of Dragons; it doesn’t matter that he saved her life from the poison; it definitely doesn’t matter that he is madly in love with her. Don’t call her “Khaleesi” anymore; Dany’s hurt, and fury, are absolute: Jorah must leave Meereen, immediately, or find his head in the bay. “I do not want you in my city dead or alive,” she seethes, the camera cutting between withering closeups. So leave he does, into an uncertain future. Will he make his way back across the sea, thanks to that pardon, or will he hover around the edges, looking for a way back into Dany’s good graces?

Lest everything this week be terrible, we at least get another chapter of “will they/won’t they” with Grey Worm and Missandei (clearly the Bates/Anna to Daenerys’s Lady Mary), as our fighting eunuch accidentally sees Missandei bathing, and holds his gaze too long for comfort. Despite burning questions about whether he’s missing his “pillar or stones” (my new favorite euphemism), he goes to her later and sweetly apologizes in the Common Tongue. She accepts it with grace, and asks if he remembers his childhood, or being cut by the Masters; he does not, but he knows one thing: “If the Master never cut me, I am never Unsullied…I never meet Missandei.” D’aww. Those crazy kids. Love isn’t dead! (Not yet, anyway. Give GRRM time.)

Bout 4: Sansa vs. Littlefinger

Baelish is in big trouble, called before the other lords at the Vale (including a man named Royce), to give testimony on just what happened to Lady Lysa. No one seems to like Littlefinger very much (fair), and they’re ready to pass judgement against him, despite his claims that his new wife jumped out the moon door of her own accord. Did Littlefinger, who schemed the War of Five Kings into existence and has had backup plans on top of backup plans, really not have an exit strategy when he tossed her? The testimony of his niece, the only other witness, should seal his fate, but Sansa surprisingly has other ideas. For starters, she’s not really “Alayne,” but Sansa Stark (woah!). Yes, Lysa was jealous because Littlefinger kissed her, but it was just a harmless peck on the cheek (what?), and most importantly, King’s Landing is awful and she had no friends there except Littlefinger, who got her out, and did not kill Lysa, so this is all just a misunderstanding (wow!).

I’m not really doing justice to Sophie Turner’s performance in the scene, easily her best yet on the show, and burying her lies under just enough layers of truth — plus some highly persuasive crying — to save Baelish’s hide. I also loved how that scene was shot, with Littlefinger lurking behind Sansa’s shoulder, out of focus, like a ghost. He’s very impressed by Sansa’s performance; he totally lucked into this one, and he knows it. But why, he later asks, did she do it? Was she paying back the favor? “If they had executed you,” she responds, “what would they have done with me?” Littlefinger: “Better to gamble on the man you know than the strangers you don’t? Do you know me?” Sansa plays coy. “I know what you want.” Then she looks into his eyes, and smirks.

Onto Phase 2 of Littlefinger’s plan, which involves Robin Arryn learning how to become a man, and — as he puts it — “leave the nest.” Sword training, tours of the Vale, no more breast milk, etc. He admonishes the other lords for not choosing a side in the war, but says they can put all their might behind Robin now. And then, as he prepares to leave with the idiot boy, Sansa comes down the steps, dressed like a goth Queen and carrying herself for the first time like a full-grown woman. But Littlefinger sees only the likeness of his lost love Catelyn, not the quickly-sharpening mind inside. Sansa is finally playing the Game.

Meanwhile, Arya and the Hound have finally reached the Bloody Gate, after a journey to reunite the girl with someone in her family that has lasted almost three full seasons. But guess what? Lady Lysa is dead! Three days ago! You juuuust missed it. Again. The Hound, who at this rate will never get his reward, is dumbstruck, but Arya just bursts out laughing — great moment for Maisie Williams — which is probably the only thing you can do. Yet another member of her family is dead? Of course they are! The gods are playing quite the practical joke on her, as no one at the gate yet knows that Sansa is actually Sansa, and Sansa might not learn her sister is there until Arya is already gone. Another near-miss? Boy, I hope not.

FINAL BOUT: The Red Keep Rumble

On the dawn of Tyrion’s trial by combat, he shares another brilliant scene with Jamie (I swear, half of the best scenes this season have been Peter Dinklage just monologuing in his cell), swapping stories like a couple of teenagers who have pulled an all-nighter and drank too much soda. No one really knows how Oberyn will fare, as neither have seen him fight, but he’s called “The Red Viper” for a reason, right? And in between pre-gaming and remarking on the different words for familial murder (there’s nothing for cousin-killing, as it turns out), the accused has one more story to tell.

He and Jamie had a cousin once, Orsen, who qualified as “special needs” and spent his days smashing beetles out in the garden: kung, kung, kung. Tyrion made it his mission to study Orsen — “I was the smartest person I knew, surely I had the wherewithal to unravel the mysteries that lay at the heart of a moron,” he remarks. But as the weeks and months crawl by, Tyrion comes no closer to learning just why Orsen acts that way. What is there to learn about human nature, or the way the world works, from a kid who just likes to smash beetles? The question remains unanswered as Tyrion tells the story, and the bells ring for his judgement. Perhaps, it’s simply just that some morons want to smash. The world is cruel.

But for a moment, as Oberyn showboats for the crowd — light armor, no helmet, moderate drinking — and dances around the Mountain, taking the occasional tumble but ultimately drawing first blood, we’re led to think that maybe, just once, the hero will win, that everything will work out, and Lucy will let us kick that football. But Oberyn isn’t doing this for Tyrion. He never was. He was doing it for revenge, volunteering to serve as Tyrion’s champion simply for the opportunity to fight Gregor Clegane. His priority is not striking the killing blow at first opportunity, but in drawing a confession — to achieve justice not for Tyrion Lannister, but for his sister. And that’s what does him in.

Because when he lets his guard down, spiking the ball before he reaches the end zone, rubbing his impending victory in Tywin Lannister’s face, the Mountain — though mortally wounded — counters. He grabs Oberyn’s head and crushes it like a watermelon, the single-most sickening image I’ve ever seen on a television screen (or heard — UGGH). The Red Viper goes from the thrill of victory to screaming in agony in mere moments, and all because he insisted on having everything play out according to his plan: it wasn’t enough to simply best Clegane in combat. He had to humiliate him. A fatal mistake. He does get his confession, right before Rock meets Beetle: kung, kung, kung. (Pedro Pascal, who made such an impact so quickly, will be dearly missed. He brought a magnetic energy to a role that didn’t quite leap off the page in the original novel.)

It’s enough to make many viewers wonder why they continue to tune in to this horrorshow, a punishingly bleak exercise in rug-pulling where hopes are routinely demolished and all the cool characters get killed off in increasingly disturbing ways. How many times must we let ourselves get sucker-punched before we become numb to it, or revolt against the storytellers in droves? Yet I maintain that GRRM is not a nihlist, but a realist; this is how the world works, in his mind, and though every small victory in one plot thread is answered by a crushing defeat in another, all is not yet lost. Even if Tyrion is about to lose his head — and that’s the key word, about to. Take a lesson from the late Red Viper: first, wear a helmet; second, it ain’t over until the clock reads zero. Get those ropes out of here.

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