‘Game of Thrones’ Breakdown: “The Mountain and the Viper”

WARNING: For the words are dark and full of spoilers…

Season Four, Episode Eight: “The Mountain and the Viper”

Written by David Benioff & D.B.Weiss; Directed by Alex Graves

Oh. My. God.

This week’s episode showed no mercy. It’s a painful spiral down the ladder of chaos — we watch as another village gets destroyed at the hands of the Wildling horde, Ramsay Snow gets a touching moment with his father that he’s earned but doesn’t deserve, and the long-anticipated battle from Tyrion’s trial by combat concludes in a way that is easy to appreciate but very, very difficult to enjoy.

Quick Breakdown

The buzzword of the week is justice. It’s the central theme of “The Mountain and the Viper,” and, as we continue to learn in Game of Thrones (though not quickly enough), there isn’t much of it to go around in Westeros. For every small victory we get, there’s a larger defeat. This week, that defeat came at the hands of Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain, who took the collective hopes of Tyrion Lannister, Oberyn Martell, and every show-watcher around the world — all of whom sought justice — and crushed them. Literally. Now Oberyn is dead, Tyrion is guilty (though only by technicality), and the rest of us are left alone, staring at our screens with mouths wide and chests aching. It isn’t fair; it’s Game of Thrones. Let’s start from the beginning:

We open in a familiar (though only slightly) location: Mole’s Town. Last time we were here, Sam was dropping Gilly and her baby off in a genuine-but-genuinely-misguided effort to keep her out of harm’s way. Trouble is, it didn’t seem all that safe then, and it sure as hell isn’t now. The village is raided by Tormund and his crew of Wildings — including Ygritte, who is busy slashing throats and taking names right up until the moment she discovers Gilly and Sam Jr. hiding behind what looks like a shower curtain. Suddenly, she’s stricken with guilt and spares their lives, even though she’s spent the last 15 minutes dicing up an entire village of men and women, most of whom probably had children too. (Side note: Why is Gilly, of all characters, exempt from getting slaughtered? Nobody cares if she dies.)

News of the massacre reaches Castle Black, and the brothers aren’t happy. Worst of them all is Sam, who feels responsible for Gilly’s presumed death (but don’t worry, pal; she’s obviously too important to kill off). The rest of the Night’s Watch spend their screentime moping around, trying to comfort Sam in his grief, or chugging wine. They’re facing a grim reality — the fall of Mole’s Town means that they’re next on the list, and they aren’t likely to fare much better. “Whoever dies last, be a good lad and burn the rest of us,” Edd tells the group as he pours more wine. “Once I’m done with this world, I don’t wanna come back.”

This cheerful scene pretty much sets the tone and the table for the remaining episodes. Yes, we’ve got a few loose ends to tie up across the Known World before the end of the season, but a lot of what’s left (including pretty much the entirety of next week’s episode) should take place up North, near the Wall and beyond. The Wildling’s inevitable assault on Castle Black has been building for two seasons now, and it has finally reached its apex. There’s no stopping this train.

Far East, a few Unsullied and some others from Team Daenerys bathe in a river. Among them are Grey Worm and Missandei, who manage lock eyes and exchange awkward once-overs from a few yards away. Missandei takes offense and quickly covers herself with folded arms, and Grey Worm, embarrassed, sinks below the water surface.

They catch up later, when both of them are fully clothed. Grey Worm apologizes for his wandering eyes and impresses Missandei with his knowledge of the Common Tongue, which he uses to express his thankfulness for being castrated as an infant. (I promise it makes sense in context.) “If the masters never cut me, I never am Unsullied,” he says. “I never stand in the Plaza of Pride when Daenerys Stormborn orders us to kill the masters. I never am chosen to lead the Unsullied. I never meet Missandei, from the island of Naath.” Grey Worm’s words move her. She accepts his apology, and reveals that she was glad he saw her bathing. “So am I,” he tells her. In a world where people marry each other for money, or for peace, or just because they have to, the authentic connection between these two is as rare as it is refreshing.

Later, Ser Barristan oversees a group of Unsullied as they remove the crucified bodies of the masters outside Meereen. He’s approached by a young boy carrying a letter that’s been sealed by the Hand of the King. It turns out to be a royal pardon for Ser Jorah Mormont, signed by Robert Baratheon back in season one when Jorah served as an informant to the king.

He’s brought before Daenerys, revealing that he used to send letters to the late king, keeping him updated on Dany’s day-to-day activities. He told him when Dany and her brother arrived in Pentos, when she wed Khal Drogo, when her brother died, and when she became pregnant with Drogo’s child, among other things. This doesn’t make her happy. “Any other man, and I would have you executed,” she spits. “But you — I do not want you in my city dead or alive.” Jorah’s life is spared for all he’s done since, but his betrayal can’t be forgiven; he’s exiled from Meereen. The scene closes as he rides away from the city on horseback, alone.

Here’s another one of those situations, which happen occasionally, where the show reaches the same conclusion as the novels, but through different means. (WARNING: Some book spoilers to follow. If you want to be surprised by show/book discrepancies, skip this paragraph.) In the books, Ser Barristan knows from the beginning that Jorah is a spy for King Robert, as he’s part of the Kingsguard and is present in the small council meetings when it’s discussed. Instead of revealing it immediately, though, he keeps both this bit of information and his true identity a secret from Dany and her group right up until she captures Meereen. He serves her for a while under the name “Arstan Whitebeard”. Ser Barristan reveals who he really is at the same time that he reveals Jorah’s secret, and she’s actually pretty pissed at them both. In the end, though, book-Barristan responds to Dany’s criticism with humility and servitude (not unlike show-Jorah’s response), and book-Jorah makes a bunch of excuses for his mistakes. That’s what inevitably gets him exiled from Meereen. But I digress…

In the North, Ramsay Snow is coaching up his pet Reek as he prepares to approach the Ironborn army holed up in Moat Cailin. He’s disguised as Theon Greyjoy, and his goal is to persuade the soldiers there to surrender. Turns out, Reek is convincing in his role as Theon (I’m guessing he’s had some practice), and, with only one minor anxiety attack, he manages to coax the troops into waving their white flag by promising safe passage back home to the Iron Islands. Ramsay rewards that Ironborn surrender with a painful death, and he rewards Reek’s hard work with yet another opportunity to bathe his beloved master. He’s such a generous psychopath. As Ramsay stands with Reek beside the flayed corpse of an Ironborn soldier, he speaks on the importance of tradition. “Where are we without our history?” he asks.

Later, Ramsay meets with his father, Roose, to tell him the good news. He presents the Greyjoy banner that was flying over Moat Cailin as a token of victory. In return, Roose hands his son a sealed letter — a decree declaring that Ramsay has been legitimized as a Bolton. He won’t be called Snow anymore. In Westeros, this is a big deal. Honored, Ramsay drops to his knees. “I will be worthy of you, father,” he swears.

In this moment — and this moment only — Ramsay becomes a somewhat sympathetic character. To see a boy who seeks his father’s approval finally obtain it is uplifting, even if that boy gets himself going off the torture and suffering of others. But for all this scene means to Ramsay and his father, it means more symbolically. Four seasons ago, Ned Stark was the Warden of the North. He’s got a bastard of his own, Jon Snow, who we all would have loved to see earn his father’s name. Instead, Ned was beheaded, Jon was sent to the Wall, and the title of Warden of the North was given to Roose Bolton after Robb Stark’s death in season three. Seeing Ramsay humanized after gaining his father’s respect was interesting, but it means more knowing that Jon will never receive that same honor.

In the Vale, Petyr Baelish is questioned before a council after Lysa’s death. As always, Littlefinger seems to have all the answers, claiming the death was actually a suicide, though the council is still suspicious of Petyr’s involvement. They call on the testimony of Petyr’s “niece” — named “Alayne” — who begins her deposition with, “I’m sorry Lord Baelish — I have to tell the truth.” Littlefinger looks hopeless.

“Alayne” reveals that her name is actually Sansa Stark, and that she’s the eldest daughter of Eddard Stark. She reveals that she has been a prisoner in King’s Landing for nearly three seasons of television, and that Petyr Baelish rescued her from captivity. She reveals that Littlefinger kissed her — though only on the cheek, she says — and that Lysa was filled with jealousy when she saw it. She reveals that her aunt died by falling through the moon door, but she does not reveal that Littlefinger pushed her. Her confession is mostly true, save for a few fudges in the details (murder, suicide — same thing), but it has big ramifications.

Littlefinger is declared innocent (totally isn’t) and Lysa’s death is ruled a suicide (totally wasn’t). Afterwards, Petyr visits Sansa in her chambers to ask her why she helped him. She tells him that she made a calculated decision, one to put her trust into the man she understands (Littlefinger), instead of the ones she doesn’t (everyone else). “I know what you want,” she assures him. Sansa is developing into a worthy player in the Game of Thrones.

Later, Littlefinger convinces some members of the council that Lysa’s son Robin, who is now Lord of the Vale, needs to get out of the house more often. They make plans for him to train in sword fighting and horseback riding, and to visit all the castles in the Vale. This is all framed as benefiting both Robin and the Vale, but it’s obvious Baelish has something else up his sleeve. Every move he makes is to advance himself further in the Seven Kingdoms. “Time for Robin to leave the nest,” he tells them. Knowing Littlefinger, he intends this departure to be permanent.

In King’s Landing, Jaime sits with Tyrion in the dungeon, just before his trial by combat. They reminisce about their cousin, Orson Lannister, who suffered a head injury as a baby that left him simple-minded. Orson spent most of his time in the gardens, picking up and smashing beetles with a rock. This routine fascinated Tyrion, who assumed there must be some reason Orson had for all the cruelty. He asked, but got no answer. Tyrion became obsessed with the idea, thinking of it even during his history lessons and in his dreams. The mystery, however, remains unsolved. Orson was later killed when a mule kicked him in the chest. Tyrion and Jaime go back and forth about it for a while until the bells toll, signifying the beginning of the trial.

The story of Orson Lannister, which doesn’t appear at all in the novels, is so compelling because of its symbolism. It could be argued that the conversation means so many things — even that the smashing in the story foreshadows Oberyn’s impending death — but what it symbolizes most, the bigger picture, is the state of life in the Known World. Game of Thrones isn’t a fairy tale — men and women die, the strong prey upon the weak, and bad things happen to okay people. Sometimes it’s for good reasons, sometimes it’s for selfish reasons, or sometimes, like in Tyrion’s story, it’s for no reason at all. Attempting to change it or understand it is a fruitless endeavor. In Westeros, you’re either Orson, the rock, or you’re the beetle, and you don’t always get a choice in the matter.

Then, finally, the trial. I’ve talked already about the outcome — and frankly, I’m still pretty shaken up by it — so I’ll make this part brief: Oberyn, after several minutes of toying with and eventually severely wounding the Mountain, lets his guard down. He’s blinded by rage and his desire for a confession, shouting over and over, “You raped her! You killed her! You murdered her children!” When Oberyn looks away, the Mountain sweeps him off his feet, hoists him in the air and — with one punch to the jaw — sends teeth and blood across the arena. He clutches Oberyn’s head with his thumbs in his eye sockets, and, as he confesses to the rape and murder of Elia Martell and her children, crushes his skull in his hands.

It is, without question, the most brutal death in the show thus far, and it happens to one of the more compelling characters this season. Oberyn, although new, was easy to like: He was charming, tolerant, and he had a love of life’s pleasures that none, not even Tyrion, could match. His quest for justice — to see the man and the family responsible for his sister’s death pay for their actions — was understandable and something you could identify with. He wasn’t a hero. But, surrounded by people looking to lie, steal, and kill their way to the top of the amassing heap of corpses — only to be the king of the pile — his actions made sense.

The fight was beautifully choreographed. Both Oberyn (Pedro Pascal) and the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) were brought to life through incredible performances that truly capture the spirit of the source material. It’s a scene that’s easy to appreciate. But it isn’t easy to watch. Oberyn’s death means more than just losing a likeable character — it’s losing a battle we’ve been fighting for Ned Stark since season one. Again. It’s almost routine. As sure as Orson Lannister’s rock THUDs loudly against the sod in his garden, people will die, the strong will crush the weak, and justice will go unserved. At least for now.

Rating

A+

After two weeks of high anticipation, episode eight checked all the right boxes. It laid the foundation for the final two episodes, introduced new dynamics to some familiar characters, and pissed me off with its conclusion in exactly the way it was meant to. There were no dull moments.

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