Game of Thrones, Season 4, Episode 8, “The Mountain and The Viper”
June 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
Note: I have read all of the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and therefore am capable of having discussions about things that will happen down the road in this series. I will NOT be doing that in the body of these reviews, and any time I make reference to a future event in the series, it will come at the very end of The Roundup, and be clearly marked with a SPOILER warning.
The death of Oberyn Martell is one of those huge, landmark moments in A Song of Ice and Fire, the sort of thing that fans of the books think back on as one of the best portions of the series as a whole (it may not be quite as momentous as the Red Wedding, but in many ways, I actually preferred the duel between The Red Viper and The Mountain on the page for its gallantry, its verve in ripping off The Princess Bride, and its heady combination of scope and focus). That sequence ends “The Mountain and the Viper,” and while it is a very strong fight scene, it feels rushed and truncated. Everything in the episode leads up to this moment, like the show was checking off various character boxes until it could get to the real action, but by the time it got there, the episode didn’t have time to give that final confrontation the weight it deserved.
Oberyn Martell never got the treatment he deserved from Game of Thrones (nonreaders will have to take my word for it, but he is one of my favorite characters in the books), but “The Mountain and The Viper” gives us another excellent Tyrion Lannister monologue, as he and Jaime discuss their cousin Orson, and Tyrion reveals the way the poor, disabled Orson’s obsession with crushing beetles, endlessly and mindlessly destroying life, has haunted Tyrion for decades. Tyrion doesn’t know why Orson killed the beetles, nor why it got under his skin as much as it did, seeping into his head and effecting his world view. He only knows that he has been followed throughout his life by the sound of mindless death, of meaningless violence and atrocities. What has his life meant, if he is killed for the death of Joffrey, if he leaves this world as the villain he has been made out to be? Tyrion of House Lannister would be little more than just another beetle crushed by the system of power in Westeros.
A sense of history and its import ../../../../css/ng man that changed the course of Westeros forever. Ramsay Bolton _because tonight he is legitimized_0s8peqim4k66kzbfo0w4iz.css) clings to the past he has been shut out of, flaying the Iron Born at Moat Cailin in some sick celebration of the Bolton’s past practices. Oberyn Martell lived in the shadow of the vengeance he sought until, finally, it killed him. We are all forged in the fires of our choices, making ourselves each and every day through decisions large and small. But history has its pull. Our pasts weigh us down; sometimes they even break us. Oberyn won the fight, but he just kept pushing. He had to hear what he had known for so long. He had to break The Mountain to avenge his sister and her children. He made his final choice, but at what level was it a choice at all? Oberyn had become that spear point he drove into Gregor Clegane. He had become his mission, and he died in furtherance of it. Oberyn’s revenge devoured him until there was nothing left.
“The Mountain and The Viper” is a brutal episode of television, full of people shrinking from and marveling at the cruelty of the world they live in, featuring men promised their lives being flayed instead and a good man getting his head crushed for his efforts to avenge his long dead sister. We watch as Arya laughs in the face of the guard who tells her she has reached The Eyrie just three days after her aunt has died (the second time, remember, she made it to her family just after they had been killed). We see Jorah and Dany’s relationship viciously severed when his former status as a spy for Robert Baratheon is finally revealed. Jorah leaves the city with his life—and with next to nothing else. Everything he fought for, everything he killed for, all of the things he tried to become a better man for are taken away from him, pulled by the tides of history out of his grasp. We make our own beds, and then, eventually, we rot in them.
But maybe not today. Littlefinger knows better than most how to dance just a few steps ahead of whatever axe is looking to lob off his head, and with Sansa’s help he manages to avoid culpability for Lysa’s death and cement his control as Lord Protector of the Vale. In addition to that fancy new title, he has Sansa (who he believes to be the last living Stark and thus the true heir to the North) and Robin Arryn, future Lord of the Vale, right under his thumb. Robin is easy to mold, and Sansa has learned that her best place is at Petyr’s side. Over the course of this season, she has finally shed her timidity and learned that to live in this world, she has to get her hands dirty. If Sansa Stark wants to stop losing, she’s going to have to play the game of thrones.
History has a way of repeating itself (or at least, as the old adage goes, rhyming), whether it is the titanic waves of nation’s making and unmaking themselves, or the small ripples in our daily lives, the little mistakes we let ourselves make just one more time, the better decisions we never quite bring ourselves to make. “The Mountain and The Viper” is a bleak episode of television, but within it lies a kernel of hope. The dead can’t change a thing, and those of us who can’t or won’t escape those negative cycles are headed that way. Those of us who can might find a way in this cold, uncaring world, at least for a little while longer. We’ll paint ourselves into a corner eventually, or live long enough to drop the brush. But until then, there’s always a choice to take a different path, to cast off the weight of our regrets and recriminations and walk forth unburdened by all the wrongs we’ve done. It’s either that our watch our heads cave in under the weight of our mistakes.
- -“Traditions are important. Where are we without our history, eh?”
- -“I have protected you, fought for you, killed for you. I have loved you.”
- -“Don’t worry about your death. Worry about your life. Take charge of your life for as long as it lasts. That is what it means to be Lord of the Vale.”
- -“Wine always helps.”
- -“You raped my sister. You murdered her. You killed her children.”
- SPOILERS: Boy, the show is really burning through Theon’s plotline right now. We are well into his chapters in A Dance with Dragons, and seeing as the show likes to keep Alfie Allen around pretty much weekly, it will be interesting to see what they do with him over the next several seasons. We all know Jorah is headed off to meet up with Tyrion, which will be amazing to watch, but which is also one of those “wait and see” plotlines Martin has traded in more and more as the series progresses. Next week, we’ll have the assault on the Wall, which the show has really not done the requisite plotting or character work to prepare us for, and the finale should bring us the deaths of Tywin and Shae and the reveal of Lady Stoneheart. I am a bit disheartened by how tonight played out, but hopefully the next two episodes will get things right.
“The Mountain and The Viper” is a bleak episode of television, but within it lies a kernel of hope.