“The Mountain and the Viper”
June 1, 2014
“Traditions are important – what are we without our history?”
One of the perils of being a book reader watching Game of Thrones has been the fact that so many of the biggest moments have been “surprises” in the context of the narrative. We look to events like the Red Wedding, or the Purple Wedding, or Ned Stark’s fate on the Steps of Baelor as key events in the narrative, but we can’t necessarily share the anticipation of those events with viewers who have no idea they’re coming.
This is why “The Mountain and the Viper” is such a fun episode as a reader writing about the show. For once, the show has built in its own hype machine, setting up the trial by combat and building suspense for it over the past two episodes. The week off for Memorial Day could have negatively affected momentum, but it’s worked nicely to give them another week to set up the stakes of this conflict. As readers, we may have the benefit of knowing how the battle between Gregor Clegane and Oberyn Martell ends, but at least our anticipation for seeing how the battle plays out onscreen is something that we can share with non-readers.
Just as we can both share the slight impatience created by an episode that waits until the bitter end to get to its eponymous showdown.
This isn’t surprising – it makes perfect sense that we would wait until the end of the episode to see Oberyn seek vengeance against the Mountain. But as the “Previously On” sequence with its six different storylines made clear, the show has a lot of other work to do in order to put pieces into place. The show needed to deal with the fallout from Lysa’s death, clarify the stakes at the Wall, exile Jorah Mormont from Meereen, further explore the romantic potential of an Unsullied, give Ramsay his name, and then finally give Tyrion the trial he requested. Whereas other major events in the series and this season have taken over large swaths of an episode, Oberyn and the Mountain’s battle was comparatively small, and comes at a time in the season where lots of storylines needed serving.
Those storylines were all generally well done, I thought. The episode got a lot of mileage out of the parallel between Theon and Sansa, each put in a position to prove themselves to those who would seek to control them under the guise of friendship and support. In Theon’s case, the ultimate test of his transformation into Reek is his ability to willfully pose as his former self and doom his brethren to death and flaying at the hands of the Bolton forces. He is there under duress, doing as he has been told in an effort to survive his forced captivity. Alfie Allen again does a nice job in a storyline that, while never transcending its inherent ugliness, has at least been useful for drawing out themes of family and survival as the season’s gone on.
It pops up again when the story shifts to Sansa, who is asked to testify to validate Littlefinger’s story about Lysa Arryn committing suicide out the Moon Door. When she comes into the room, she is calculated and clear, apologizing that she must tell the truth and then laying out her true identity and positioning Petyr as her savior from the awful Lannisters. She reinforces the claims of Lysa as a madwoman, hell-bent and jealous to the point she would dive from the Moon Door willfully. It’s a tremendous piece of work from Sophie Turner, particularly because it leaves ambiguous the implications of her claims. Is she, like Theon, there performing a script given to her by her master? Or is she exhibiting her own agency in order to ensure her survival? The episode later confirms it is the latter, but it was already there in Turner’s performance, displaying a confidence and sense of purpose that Sansa has often lacked. In the same way that we could look at many of Arya’s experiences as hardening her to her fate in this turbulent world, this is one of the first instances where Sansa has experienced something traumatic but been in a position where she could willfully act in response.
In other cases, characters don’t need to have agency to serve their purpose. Gilly staying in Mole’s Town was a change from the books (where she remained at Castle Black during this period), and it seemed like an odd choice given that it places Sam in a position of forcing her into a hostile environment unnecessarily. However, here it’s clear that Gilly was put in Mole’s Town so we would have a window into the Wildlings attack, and so that its stakes could resonate more emotionally for Sam than if it had simply been their whoring brothers. Again, the Wall sequences are suffering from their constant function as exposition dumps to remind us things are about to happen there, a buildup to an inevitable battle that all signs would suggest is finally coming down the pipe with next week’s hour directed by “Blackwater” helmer Neil Marshall (given that the preview, without spoiling what it shows precisely, was entirely focused on the Wall).
The show has turned the attack on the Wall into its Fireworks Factory of sorts, but there are times when the long game can work to its advantage. The exile of Jorah Mormont has been in motion since the show’s first season, but had been largely forgotten since Jorah had abandoned his pardon and chosen to stay with Dany. I wonder if, without the “Previously On” sequence ahead of the episode, some viewers would have remembered he had ever been spying for Varys in the first place. As it plays out in the episode, it’s the very definition of a sudden and inevitable betrayal: it’s sudden for Daenerys, who is destroyed by the news, but it’s inevitable for the audience. It’s tough to make something so spread out across seasons feel weighty, but Emilia Clarke and Iain Glen throw their energy into the confrontation and make it work. The result is Daenerys feeling the weight of the betrayal, and another free agent roaming the lands across the narrow sea, and thus another window into their culture.
At the risk of echoing the episode’s delay of its climax, I remain very interested in the choice to play with romance between Grey Worm and Missandei. It feels like a conscious effort to explore the marginal figures in Daenery’s story, even in this case creating a scene of Dany braiding Missandei’s hair, a rare case in which Dany is the supporting player in a scene much more about Missandei than it is about her. That it is also a case where two racial minorities share a scene together engages in the politics of race surrounding Dany’s liberation narrative, while its investigation of the capacity for castrated men to feel love is an interesting question of sexual politics. It’s a rare relationship that doesn’t feel driven by plot in any way, content to isolate ideas and questions in a relatively stable area of the story for the purpose of posing those ideas and questions. There isn’t the same kind of exciting buildup to a conclusion as there might be in other storylines, but I like it as an added dimension, and as a space where the writers can explore ideas in and around Meereen that may not emerge in council meetings.
This finally brings us to the meeting of the Viper and the Mountain, which was well-executed. I was pleased to see the show’s budget was high enough to use CGI to keep Pedro Pascal’s fighting gymnastics double from looking like a stunt double, and I was equally pleased to see that they completely committed to the graphic violence of the Mountain’s victory. It was a moment that delivered almost exactly what was in the book, and brought that to life exactly as they needed to: Pascal nailed Oberyn’s anger and rage, the various reaction shots sold the emotional rollercoaster of Oberyn’s near victory, and the gruesome nature of his death simultaneously killed a swashbuckling fan favorite and doomed Tyrion Lannister.
And yet I imagine it could be an anti-climax for readers and non-readers both. For readers, who know what happens next, the choice to end right as Tyrion is sentenced to death by his father means we have no idea how the aftermath is going to play out. Meanwhile, while non-readers have plenty of uncertainty, there is also something tremendously deflating about two heroes dying or being sentenced to death by a single decision. The Red Wedding was a bloodbath, and Ned’s death was a tragedy, but this is a case where two likable characters are doomed by one event, with no silver lining to be found. It’s not a climax so much as it is a punch in the gut, with the promise of another punch to follow.
So, how do we react to tragedy? Do we laugh like Arya Stark, when she learns that her Aunt has died? Her laugh, one of the highlights of the episode and a great bit of levity for Maisie Williams that showcases her off-screen sense of humor nicely, is great because it’s a reminder that there’s a point where you just can’t take any more, and where you look around and wonder if this isn’t all some cruel design. For Arya, Lysa’s death is so poorly-timed that it’s the funniest thing imaginable, and you could imagine viewers still reeling from the Red Wedding feeling the same when Oberyn dies and threatens to take Tyrion with him. It’s a case of the discourse around the books—with numerous jokes about Martin’s willful slaughter of his characters—bleeding into the show, Arya’s reaction a manifestation of how some readers may have reacted when they first read of Oberyn’s tragic hubris, or when they read another death later in the novels (I can think of a death in A Dance with Dragons that caused a similar reaction).
Whether viewers at home reacted the same will have to be determined by Internet comments and any secretly-filmed reaction videos that show up on YouTube; how Arya, and those viewers, move on from their tragedies to live another day will have to wait until the final two episodes of the season.
- I need someone to make me a YouTube video of Jorah walking away from Meereen and build it into a supercut of Jorah scenes done in the style of the Littlest Hobo credit sequence. Thanks, Internet!
- Another week, another appearance by Braavos in the credit sequence despite zero characters being in Braavos. Consider me curious.
- Lots of artful shots from Alex Graves in the attack on Mole’s Town: the reflection in the well, the shot of Gilly where we can’t see who she’s speaking to but are instead seeing her from the direction of the Wildlings’ owl call, and then of course the blood dripping from the ceiling.
- I also appreciated that they left in the wind noise—or added less obnoxious wind noise, at least—during Roose and Ramsay’s scene on the moors as they marched on Winterfell (which justifies its continued presence in the credits by reemerging here).
- “I’m glad you saw me”—The show has become increasingly interested in the gaze as it manifests within the story, which is making scenes like Grey Worm watching Missandei into not just a chance for viewers to ogle, but to think about the meanings of that gaze and their relationship. It’s still nudity, but it’s purposeful, and that’s now two episodes in a row of very similar shots of rear nudity with the gazer in focus.
- Tyrion’s monologue about Orson Lannister and his smashing of beetles is—to my recollection—entirely new for the series, and read as the kind of monologue you’d see in a play where they don’t have the ability to actually stage the trial by combat that would come after it. Given that Dinklage is so well-tuned to the theatrical side of the series, it was a nice piece of work, and will impress any Emmy voters who watch more than the episode he submits for consideration (which will likely be his trial).