Crunch time in Game Of Thrones [s4e8]
Kevin McFarland reviews the latest episode of G.R.R. Martin's merciless fantasy epic. For Tyrion and his champion, the squeeze is on.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series quickly gained a reputation for zigging when other high fantasy stories would zag, particularly when it came to mercilessly killing off beloved (or simply just familiar) characters. Ned Stark gets beheaded when he appears to be the hero crusading for justice. The Lannisters defeat Stannis with Tyrion’s choice to employ Wildfire as a weapon in Blackwater Bay, preserving his famiy’s power in King’s Landing. The rest of the major Stark players die at the Red Wedding. Martin originally intended these kinds of choices to destabilize the expectation that A Song Of Ice And Fire would follow fantasy genre conventions when it came to a triumphant hero arcs. But even in trying to buck those familiar patterns, Martin’s story uses new, compelling scenarios to reach the same ends: a big, boistrous death scene.
Since this is an episode that doesn’t have one focus but moves around in scattershot fashion to more locations on the map than usual, I’ll zero in on three key moments that still feel resonant a few days later. Look, in the immediate aftermath, everyone focuses on the big-ticket scene at the end of the episode, which has become Game Of Thrones’ calling card ability as televised entertainment. Pick a few weeks during each season, and watch Twitter during the final five minutes of an episode’s debut—that’s where it has the most significant cultural impact as water-cooler television.
But it’s the moment before that pivotal showdown that gives “The Mountain And The Viper” its name that I want to focus on first, with Tyrion whiling away the moments until the march to uncertain doom begins in his cell with his brother Jamie, his only defender left in King’s Landing. It is quite possibly the most bald-faced existential moment of the series so far, perfectly encapsulating the dread of watching Martin flip coins over whether characters live or die. (Obviously he’s not doing that, but scores of fans probably feel that way.)
Tyrion, faced with a second trial-by-combat, this time with a hulking Mountain of a Clegane as an opponent, worries Oberyn will fail, that he will be executed—and then the scene shifts into the blackest comedy. The Kingslayer Brothers muse about different words for killing—regicide, fratricide, patricide, and how there isn’t one for killing a cousin—before Tyrion turns to his memory of a Lannister cousin. Orson, dropped on his head as a baby, was left simple, passing time each day smashing beetles in a garden. But as the story turns, from revealing the one time in his youth Tyrion felt like everyone else (cruelly laughing at another’s misery) to his fascination with why Orson continued killing beetles indiscriminately. It haunted the fiercely intelligent young man, as the incomprehensible violence swirling around Westeros sometimes torments Game Of Thrones fans.
In the end, Tyrion gets no satisfactory resolution from contemplating the reason for so many dead beetles. Jamie offers the obvious issue of scale, “Every day around the world men, women, and children are murdered by the score. Who gives a dusty fuck about a bunch of beetles?” But Tyrion is able to focus, and in doing so, extrapolate his fascination with a simpleton smashing bugs to the way we feel watching Martin crush his beloved creation. (“How many countless living things smashed, dried out, and returned to the dirt?”) Orson Lannister died suddenly, with no warning, and for no reason, kicked in the chest by a mule. “What is it all about?” Tyrion wonders, but he already has the answer: Chaos reigns supreme.
This story echoes across all the other plotlines in the episode, perhaps most plainly when Ramsay Snow (later legitimized as Roose Bolton’s son) orders Theon Greyjoy to enter Moat Cailin and convince the rebel soldiers garrisoned there to surrender. Offering a promise that the men will be allowed to retreat if they lay down weapons, the soldiers kill their proud leader and give up. But after one of the cruelest cuts in the history of the show, Ramsay’s predilection for torture shows chaos has emerged victorious again. The Wildlings move ever closer to the Wall, sacking the town where Sam stashed Gilly and her child in hope that they’d be safe. Sansa turns into a frighteningly effective storyteller as she spins a yarn to the Lords of the Vale in order to protect Littlefinger, trusting the man she thinks she knows over the strangers she doesn’t trust. Arya and The Hound arrive at the entrance to the Vale to discover who they believe Arya’s last remaining relative died three days previous, ruining the Hound’s plan and plaguing the younger Stark daughter with terrible laughter. The world bends toward chaos.
And years late, a royal pardon signed by long-dead King Robert Baratheon arrives for Jorah—but Barristen Selmy sees it first, revealing the espionage that initially brought Jorah into Daenerys’ orbit. Perhaps this moment should carry some dramatic weight, especially after Daenerys offered Jorah praise last week for changing her mind about slaughtering all the masters taking over cities she previously conquered. But because Game Of Thrones as a series is so scattered that even the leading characters jockey for enough screen time to make a dent, it’s even more difficult with someone like Jorah, who in the first season had second thoughts and thwarted an assassination attempt against Daenerys and has proven too loyal at time due to his love. But without much fanfare, he’s cast out.
The impact of Jorah’s departure contrasts with the second moment that merits highlighting, between two characters even further on the fringes. Grey Worm sees Missandei bathing, and it turns into an intimate moment for the both of them. This season has portrayed their development as growing to understand just how much had been kept from them. These are two people who had their lives destroyed by circumstance in a slave-based society, now exploring new territory in what freedom allows. It would be easy to dismiss this as tokenism, but I felt genuine affection for Missandei and Grey Worm working to find each other and forge a connection—even though the show heavily skews toward crediting Daenerys as the engineer of that possibility through freedom.
But Grey Worm’s steely realism boils down to the classic idea that “everything happens for a reason.” And I choose to believe that Grey Worm’s sentiment isn’t so much opposed to Tyrion’s chaotic, existential musings, but rather complements it. Nothing in Martin’s world could be accused of being predictable—except for the television show punctuating episodes with major deaths and adeptly using cliffhangers—but it’s not entirely directionless either. That’s the true appeal of Game Of Thrones.
Still, all of that shuffling in an episode that sprints all over the map to catch up with a wide web of characters—still missing Stannis and Bran’s respective contingents, as well as Brienne and Podrick—will most likely be overshadowed by the visually shocking final minutes. By now, every reader of the George R.R. Martin book series and devoted television viewer knows this pattern: grow attached to a character, and inevitably they die in the most gruesome way possible.
What’s so tense about the trial-by-combat between The Mountain and Oberyn Martell is that Oberyn achieves everything he wants right as any enjoyment of that vengeance gets obliterated. He orchestrated a moment so perfect for his vengeful purpose, and evokes a confession for his sister’s rape and murder from the culprit. But ultimately, he’s a terrible choice as champion for Tyrion—because Oberyn is so singularly focused not just on killing the Mountain but on obtaining that confession, so his thirst for vengeance overshadows the goal of the battle with respect to the Lannister on trial.
Plus there’s the whole thing where the Mountain gouges out Oberyn’s eyes and pops his skull like a grape. That right there is what made the internet go “pop”—and the sound designers who had to get that moment right deserve an Emmy nomination right alongside Hannibal, because it’s grisly and indelible in its horror. But there’s a chance Oberyn still gets the ultimate revenge even in death. Since the missing gem from Sansa’s necklace at the Purple Wedding—another instance of heightened detail that careful viewers could use to predict future revelations—there’s a moment where Oberyn’s squire appears to be cleaning a blade, which now looms significant. The Mountain may be enormous and monstrously strong, but I think he’ll be felled by season’s end.
Of all the new characters introduced on Game Of Thrones this season, Oberyn was clearly the most fascinating, with his own motives worthy of investigation (that scene with Varys still looms large). Hopefully, this leads to more of Dorne showing up in the series, because his family seems to offer a strong counterpoint to the machinations of the Lannisters. His flair for the dramatic made him an instant favorite at the beginning of the season, and even in his blood-soaked demise gave this year of Game Of Thrones another unforgettable moment.
• Tyrion’s pleading advice to Oberyn before the battle begins: “You could at least wear a helmet.” Oh, how prescient.
• Ygritte, showing that she’s not as savage as her brethren, finds Gilly as the Wildlings attack, but lets her live. There’s a big battle on the horizon here, but with so much of the focus this season on the Lannisters in King’s Landing, I’m not sure it’s going to land with the appropriate significance.
• Tywin doesn’t care to hear a prayer to each and every god, as he commands the trial-by-combat to begin by interrupting Maester Pycelle.
• Alfie Allen doesn’t get enough credit for his performance, which is now among the most pitiful on television. The extra layer of Theon-as-Reek-as-Theon is utterly heartbreaking.
• Lest you think that after the head-squeezing gore of that ending Pedro Pascal and Julius Bjornsson couldn’t still be friends, Pascal posted this picture to his Instagram. Behind-the-scenes photos from this show make it look like so much fun.
• This is the first Alex Graves-directed episode since “Breaker Of Chains,” better known as the one where Jamie rapes Cersei. In the wake of that episode, the conversation hinged on a lot of the creative forces behind the show not getting that the scene plainly depicted rape. But “The Mountain And The Viper doesn’t court controversy in that vein at all—and that final fight scene is one of the best-directed moments of the season, as was the opening long take in the brothel.
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