Despite being set in a world of complete fantasy, Game of Thrones is brutally realistic. It’s struck such a masterful balance between lush escapism and bleak nihilism that it can manufacture hope despite its very public history of hopelessness. This is the reason it can get away with murdering its most beloved characters on such a regular basis while maintaining the surprise of such show-changing events and keeping death important. Every time: we know the bad thing is going to happen and yet are made to feel that maybe this time things are different.
“The Mountain and the Viper” is about history and its various effects on people’s actions in the present. Some people dwell on the past and worry, others look back and find identity. Sometimes the past will teach people about the way the world works, other times it will leave them hopelessly puzzled. Particularly lucky schemers will find that their past has cloaked their actions from potential enemies, while one specifically unfortunate man has allowed his past to fester, making him prone to a mind-crushing lust for vengeance.
We begin with a point of regret. Gilly is just trying to make it as a single mother in Mole’s Town, working for her room and board amidst the burp-singing and debauchery of the combination brothel-tavern. She’s confronted in the laundry room by the establishment’s mother superior for failing to keep her child quiet at night.
Half-lucky for Gilly, this scene is perfectly framed to tell us from the outset that Wildlings are coming. Terrible people without names being crass and decadent in a filthy house of sin? You bet that’s a death sentence.
Announced by owl-like hooting, the wildling mini horde containing the creepy bald cannibals, Tormund Giantsbane and Ygritte cleanses the village like so much Gomorrah under God’s righteous boot.
The exgirlfriends of our favourite Night’s Watchmen cross paths as Ygritte settles their argument with the murder of the woman least likely to advance the show’s plot. She sees Gilly holding baby Sam and – true to form – shows mercy, letting the two wait out the carnage hidden away while blood seeps through the floorboards above them.
This opening scene is almost exactly why Samwell Tarly is wishing for an alternate history in which he didn’t leave the love of his life and her inbred son on death’s doorstep.
His brothers in exile lend him hope, stating that Gilly’s history will have made her strong. If any upbringing is going to build a survivor, it’s the Craster method of parent-wedding. Let’s not forget, just episodes ago her sisters opted to live in the forest beyond the wall without a shelter during a time when barbarians are amassing in multitudes and ice-necromancers are roaming the woods.
This is followed by some necessary stakes setting for next week’s big battle episode. We get a fair assessment of the odds: 102 Westeros boy scouts versus 100,000 wildings (including cannibals and giants). The boys in black make a pact that the last ones standing should burn the dead. As Eddison puts it, “Once I’m done with this world, I don’t want to come back.”
On that note, we leave Castle Black to a land where dragons are bigger threat than zombies. The free people are finally catching up with their liberated lives, figuring out what love means.
In a stream in Meereen, Grey Worm is bathing near the naked Missandei. It’s sort of a difficult scene, but the romantic notes are pulled off well here. The fun exploration is seeing these liberated adults realize that no one is going to force them into anything for the first time in their lives, giving a “coming of age across the Narrows” tone to the otherwise pretty creepy encounter.
What’s difficult is the frustration of their past. Both characters were objects and Grey Worm was mutilated. With his head bobbing barely above water, he represents a male gaze without a penis. It’s something of a development in a show that has strongly featured castrated characters though its entire run, and actually earns the scene’s nudity (which is very rare for HBO).
It’s incredibly unfortunate that this is followed immediately by a girl-talk scene. Missandae is doing Daenerys’ hair as the two wonder about the nature of his mutilation, the Mother of Dragons literally dropping the euphemism “pillar and stones.”
It’s clumsy and trivializes the lyrical bath scene, but admittedly it’s difficult to imagine any easy way to remind viewers that Grey Worm was castrated. Or, it would be if the girl-talk scene didn’t lead right into a better one that did the exact same thing while also furthering the relationship at stake.
Missandei and Grey Worm find each other near an altar and he apologizes, gaining her retroactive permission. Returning the invasive gaze, she asks about his castration, calling it a terrible thing.
It’s in Grey Worm’s response that the episode’s theme reemerges. He causally traces his mutilation to being freed and finally to meeting her. Without his painful history, Grey Worm would have no identity. This is true for most people, but for the only Unsullied we know by name it carries a greater weight. His history is his identity and his identity is his strength.
Staying on the topic of castrati, we next head up to The North where Ramsay is preparing the brainwashed Reek to convince his former countrymen to surrender.
Assuming his former identity of Theon Greyjoy, Reek enters Moat Cailin waving the white flag of parlance. The inhabitants within are dying in their own filth, and Theon presents Bolton’s offer: they can surrender and be granted safe passage home.
The commander of the garrison sees through Reek’s disguise, spitting blood in the flayed man’s face before taking a mutinous axe in the head by an underling that thinks surrender plus the promise of life equals a good deal.
Smash cut to that same poor soul flayed to the bone. This is the history of the Boltons and Ramsay summarizes the episode’s theme nicely.
“Where are we without our history, eh?” he asks rhetorically, his manservant representing the most thorough answer to that very question. Without history Theon becomes Reek.
In the Eyrie, Littlefinger is facing an investigation by the lords of the lesser houses of The Vale. His dubious reputation as a whoremonger and sneaky snake precedes him. He pushed Lady Arryn through her own moon door and his “right place at the right time” ascension to power story seems suspiciously convenient.
Lady Waynwood particularly doesn’t trust Baelish’s claim that Lysa took the plunge in an on-brand fit of melancholy. Sansa is called in immediately as a surprise witness to give her own testimony, summoned by the pseudonym she is going by while posing as Petyr’s niece.
She recounts a revisionist history of the events that brought her to The Vale, quickly revealing her true identity, but corroborating Littlefinger’s claim that Lysa committed suicide. The story, with liberal amounts of crocodile tears as lubrication, is easily swallowed by the committee who seem more happy to have found one of the Stark girls alive and well than they are sad to be down one insane acquaintance.
Having gotten away with murder, the Mockingbird quickly begins the final move to secure The Eyrie as his own by law, promising that he will send Robin out into the world to become a lord worth rallying under in opposition to the Lannisters.
Back in Meereen, Barristan is presented with an artifact from a secret history while overseeing the de-crucifixion of the city’s late masters. A little boy gives the old soldier a scroll held tight by the familiar wax seal of the Hand if the King.
Cutting to a map showing how close Meereen is to King’s Landing works excellently in changing the atmosphere around the Daenerys storyline. With the exception of the odd assassination attempt or council meeting in which old dudes debate the power rankings of dragons, the scenes from the east have mostly felt very compartmentalized. Jorah measures the distance and it’s easy to see, war is practically here.
It’s cold war at the moment, with battles being fought the Lannister way. Barristan enters with the letter, putting his honour first and confronting Jorah “man to man” as he puts it.
Jorah is brought to the throne room to answer before his queen. It doesn’t go well. He confesses to having had correspondence with Varys, saying the document is not forged, but puts the pieces together right there for Daenerys. This is Tywin tearing the command of his most powerful enemy apart from within.
The scene is heartbreaking enough in terms of content. Jorah is a character defined by his pure intentions and his history of reform. Unfortunately the history outweighs his heart, and is exiled. Tywin’s presence is felt so much here that I wanted “Rains of Castamere” to start playing.
There is a point where Jorah tries to use the fact that he stopped the Khaleesi from drinking poison wine, but she talks over him. It’s a brave directorial move, having characters mash lines together in service of showing over telling. In Meereen, people have dialogues, arguments are for King’s Landing.
Jorah rides away on a black horse.
Back in The North, Ramsay Snow presents his father with the standard of Moat Cailin and is beckoned to go for a walk. On top of a hill, Roose Bolton goes full Lion King on his bastard son, asking him what he sees.
Snow can’t really see anything, but Roose assures him, this is The North. Now, thanks to his bastard’s strange tactics, he is the Warden of this expansive kingdom.
“The North is mine,” he says to his son, asking him his name.
Like a whipped dog, the demented whelp answers correctly, hating the answer.
But he’s wrong. His father hands him a document, naming him as Ramsay Bolton, erasing the shameful Snow from his identity.
Family is about to be reunited in The Eyrie too. As Sansa and Littlefinger start to fall in power-love, Arya and The Hound make their way through to the final stop on their educational escort mission.
The coolest pair in Westeros have an important conversation about enjoying the death of one’s enemies, The Hound claiming that poison is a less satisfying way to have Joffrey die. Arya, the pragmatic little murder machine lays some knowledge down on Sandor, pointing to his pride as a weakness.
It’s appropriate foreshadowing for the episode’s final events: killing people is a rare opportunity, especially if your would-be-victim also wants your head crushed in his fists. She would have killed Joffrey with a chicken bone if she had the chance.
They finally arrive at the Bloody Gate, The Hound announcing that he is here to see Lady Arryn for a reward. The guard he speaks to mournfully informs Sandor that Lysa has died. Arya can’t take it. She laughs uncontrollably.
It is funny. Despite everything they’ve been through, Arya and The Hound somehow had themselves convinced that this time everything would work out like they expected. It’s a case study in what’s about to happen to us as viewers.
Finally taking us to King’s Landing for the main event, Tyrion and Jaime are enjoying what might be their final moments as brothers. After some morbidly cute discussion about the different names for types of murder (there’s no word for murdering your cousin), Peter Dinklage delivers a tragic monologue about trying to understand why their brain damaged cousin was obsessed with smashing beetles.
First of all, this monologue is excellently performed. Trapped in a dungeon all season, Tyrion has been stripped from his importance to the overall plot. The focus of Game of Thrones has shifted increasingly away from King’s Landing, with the board looking a lot more like it did in season one, and Tyrion has had literally nothing to do but say goodbye and make speeches all season.
That the Tyrion-centred scenes are still episode highlights speaks to Dinklage’s abilities as a performer. He can take a monologue and make it more interesting than two major plot points (Jorah’s exile and the episode’s titular fight).
He reaches the end of his story and finds no conclusion.
“What was it all about?”
Jaime can’t tell him why people keep killing either, and then the bell tolls.
Oberyn is drinking before the fight when Tyrion arrives, stating plainly, “Today is not the day I die.”
The Mountain enters the arena and he’s still unphased.
“You’re going to fight that?” Oberyn’s paramour balks.
“I’m going to kill that.”
And Oberyn is right. The Red Viper kicks The Mountain’s ass in a brilliantly choreographed fight scene. He toys with the brute, turning this trial for Tyrion into a war crimes tribunal.
As the older Clegane brother lies on the floor of the pit, dying, Oberyn tries to extract a confession. The only problem is that his pride fucks with him. History has rotted inside his heart and his thirst for justice has blinded him.
The Mountain grabs The Red Viper’s foot, tripping him. The monster then proceeds to confess as he crushes Oberyn Martell’s head in his hands (paying special attention to the eye sockets).
Once again, the showrunners have done this to us and the show’s characters. We have been fooled into believing that hope is anything more than a story we tell ourselves. There is no natural justice in Westeros, and though we will inevitably forget it again, no one is inherently safe from the brutal tolling of that bell that brought Tyrion from his cell to witness the event that will lead inevitably to his execution.
His face says it all in the final frame of the episode: wide eyed and slack, standing again on the beetle husk strewn shore of history as his father sentences him to death.
– It looks like The Hound’s bite wound from last week might be getting infected. Pride might be his tragic flaw, but it seems like his terrifying history with fire might be just as dangerous.
– Sansa’s dress when she emerges to say farewell to Robin just screams “dark side,” don’t you think? An interesting turn of events considering she might be reunited with her sister sometime within the next two episodes.
– Theon has come full circle in his absurd downward spiral of a life. Once again he is the captive of the ruling northern family. The moral of the story here is not to try and rewrite your past, you’ll just end up in the same place but worse off: bathing the bastard that mutilated you.
– Next week is the ninth episode of season four. Keeping with the theme of learning from history, we should all prepare for something even bigger than this episode’s HBO fight night. In season one, Ned lost his head; In season two we got the Battle of Blackwater Bay; In season three the Red Wedding happened. It looks like we might have another bottle-ish siege episode set at Castle Black. Think it’s about time to get worried about Jon Snow?
– It is incredibly rewarding to see Arya smile and laugh. Was this a series first?
A Dance of Dialogue:
Creative Penis Euphemism Award: “The… The pillar and the stones.” -Daenerys Stormborn, Freer of Libidos
Proverbial Spit in Face Award: “Kraken, hmmm, strong. As long as they’re in the sea. When you take them out of the water: no bones. They just collapse under their proud weights and slump into a heap of nothing.” -Ramsay Bolton
Major Understatement Award: “My aunt was a jealous lady.” -Sansa Stark
Episode Summary Award: “Better to gamble on the man you know than the strangers you don’t.” – Petyr Baelish
Really Sad in Retrospect Award: “The Red Viper of Dorne. You don’t get a name like that unless you’re deadly, right?” – Tyrion Lannister
Best Line of the Episode Award: “Who gives a dusty fuck about a bunch of beetles?” -Jaime Lannister
Inigo Montoya Award: “Elia Martell: You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.” – Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper of Dorne