Review of When The Viper Met The Mountain.
Spoilers through Season 4 of ‘Game of Thrones’ and the corresponding books follow.
Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones was one of the best yet in HBO’s fantasy drama.
I say this as both a viewer and a reader of the books by George R. R. Martin, as a consumer of both these stories. Because, as tonight’s episode once again proves, the books and the TV show are two very distinct beasts.
The big moment in tonight’s episode, The Mountain and the Viper, comes at its end—when the Prince of Dorne, Oberyn Martell, fights Gregor Clegane, the Hound’s older brother, in a trial by combat for Tyrion Lannister.
We’ll get to that scene in a moment. What interested me most about this episode took place elsewhere, in the Vale.
As a reader of the books, the events that took place tonight between Sansa, Petyr Baelish, and the lords of the Vale were fascinating—moments I’ve been waiting to glimpse for nearly 15 years.
In the books, following Lysa Arryn’s death, we’re essentially left not knowing what happens to the elder Stark sister, let alone Littlefinger. We’re left with the worst possible cliff-hanger: an unresolved one.
In tonight’s episode, we see an entirely new side of Sansa Stark—one at least I find both welcome and unsurprising. Sansa was always the idealist. She believed in valiant knights and fairy tale endings. She was a princess in her mind, and she was off to wed her handsome prince.
Of course, Joffrey was anything but that. The boy king was a monster, and Sansa’s illusions were shattered one by one, as she looked on as first her father and then practically every other member of her family was killed (or presumed dead.) She could either break entirely or find strength somewhere.
Is it any wonder that she sees in Petyr a valuable ally? Or that she’d look to the friend she knows rather than the strangers she doesn’t, as he puts it. Whether or not she trusts him (and she isn’t aware of his betrayal of her father) she can use him, just as he uses her.
When she emerges later in the episode, her red haired dyed black, it’s not to disguise who she is (she dyes her hair in the books for that reason) but as a symbol of some form of rebirth. Here we have a new Sansa entirely, black hair against a black, feathered dress. For the first time she appears queenly, regal…and dangerous.
I’m curious to see where she and Petyr end up.
Arya and the Hound also arrive at the Vale, finally, only to discover that Lysa Arryn is dead. This irony—that each time she reaches family, they end up dead—isn’t lost on Arya, who responds to the news with hysterical laughter. (Proving that even the briefest moments spent with this pair remain among the best in the show.)
Elsewhere, we have more of the dreaded Ramsay Snow, only this time he’s legitimized by his father, Roose Bolton and becomes Ramsay Bolton, proper heir though no less mad for it.
There’s something admirable about these cruel men. Ramsay may be absolutely insane, but Roose is calculating and precise. He’s overthrown the Starks, taken over the North (mostly) and done it all without taking any losses. The Lannisters are in worse shape than the Bolton’s at this point.
While the Starks floundered in the game of thrones, the Boltons thrived. Which is terrifying of course. Ramsay’s use of Theon/Reek to take the fortress in tonight’s episode illustrated at once just how deranged Theon has become, and that there’s still some of his old self locked away in that shell.
We also get a glimpse of the Wildling assault on Mole’s Town, and the Crows’ collective inability to do anything about it. I’m still not sure I buy the reasoning here. There’s a giant, magical ice wall standing between the rest of the Wildling horde and Castle Black. The Night’s Watchmen keep asking “How can 100 men stop 100,000″ and the answer continues to be: The Wall.
Surely a couple dozen rangers could set out and at least do something about these invaders. More to the point, I’m starting to wonder about these Northerners. Surely someone other than the Night’s Watch would have prepared a defense. The villages and forts and other inhabited locales have able-bodied fighters in them. They’ve heard that a pack of Wildlings is about. Why is nobody acting like it?
Isn’t the North supposed to be filled with stoic, stone-cold killers?
In the East, we have yet another major event, which is nice because Dany’s story has been—predictably—dragging.
We’ve known for some time that Jorah Mormont was a spy, sending news to Robert Baratheon by way of the Spider, Varys. In the books, Barristan Selmy reveals Mormont’s duplicity, and does so ages ago. The show has played out Jorah and Dany’s relationship quite a bit more, and saved this revelation for much later.
In some ways, for the show at least, it works quite well. We have plenty of time to establish Jorah’s devotion to his khaleesi. We don’t question his sincerity. We even sympathize with him, to a degree, since he’s no longer spying on her. There are far, far worse traitors, liars, and knaves in Westeros.
But she casts him out nonetheless. And where one love is lost, another is gained. The show’s addition of an awkward, but surprisingly touching, romance of sorts between Unsullied chief Grey Worm and Dany’s translator, Missandei, was played out in alarming detail tonight.
At first I thought it was just an excuse for the show to have more nudity, but the scene between the two in the throne room was actually pretty captivating. I’m not a huge fan of adding totally new storylines since I’m a bit leery of the show getting as bogged down as the books in terms of extraneous cast, but this seems to be working. And perhaps it’s building toward something…tragic.
At last we come to the main attraction. The fight between the Red Viper and the Mountain. This is one of the biggest, most crushingly horrifying and surprising scenes in any of Martin’s books, and it remains that way in the show—perhaps even more so.
One thing HBO has done so well this season, is give us a full portrait of the Prince of Dorne. He is much more, and somehow also less, than a legend here. He is a renowned lover, eloquent and honest, unflinching in the face of his enemies. We admire and respect and root for Oberyn.
And then he dies. When all seems won, the Mountain rises. It’s awful to watch. Not necessarily harder than it was to find this out for the first time reading, but almost more terrible since Oberyn is so excellent in the show. His revenge is so sincere. You want him to have his justice, just like you want Robb Stark to beat the Lannisters in a decisive victory, and you want Ned Stark to arrest Cersei and Joffrey when he had the chance.
Justice isn’t in the cards, and Oberyn dies a grisly and terrible death, while Tyrion faces the axman’s block. I was worried about this episode, worried that they wouldn’t pull it off, that the drama of the book would be hard to convey on TV. But as Oberyn circled his downed enemy, repeating over and over again Clegane’s crimes, I was drawn in. I was, once again, hoping that they’d just change the book. Does every good man really need to die this way? Why is war such hell?
While I’m still no fan of the actor chosen for the Mountain (who looks far younger than his younger brother Sandor, and lacks the menace I attribute to him) I thought the fight itself was fantastic.
All told yet another terrific episode in what is shaping up to be the best one yet.
There was an attention to detail and a style on display in The Mountain and the Viper that rivals anything we’ve seen in Game of Thrones thus far. The camera lingers just long enough on each character’s face. Jorah’s grief is carved out in front of us. Grey Worm’s curiosity and lust. Theon’s torment. Director Alex Graves (who also directed the Purple Wedding episode) treats us to one surprising, evocative scene after another. This is Game of Thrones at its finest.