A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as there's a word for cousin-killing…
“Don't worry about your death. Worry about your life. Take charge of your life, for as long as it lasts.” -Littlefinger
When you have an episode called “The Mountain and the Viper,” and you go in knowing the promise and the stakes of that title, and then the episode waits until the last five minutes or so to give you the match in question – and waits until only five minutes before that to provide a glimpse of the character we love whose future rides on the match's outcome – it can feel in a way like a championship fight with an extremely long undercard, where the promoter has placed every bum, tomato can and loser in his stable into the lineup because he knows the crowd will suffer through them in order to get to the main event.
Benioff and Weiss have very strategically inserted each of Ramsay Snow/Bolton's appearance so far this season, for instance, into episodes where they knew that all anyone would be talking about was the climax (first the wedding/assassination, then Tyrion's trial, and now the trial by combat), so of course we got more of his mind games with Theon/Reek, more blood and flaying, and all of House Bolton heading for the ruins of Winterfell to try to make it cozy in spite of the thorough job Ramsay did trashing it two seasons ago. And we get other assorted bits of lower-level business, like Arya and the Hound finally making it to the Vale (albeit perhaps three days too late to do much good), the wildlings getting ever-closer to Castle Black, and Grey Worm flirting with Missandei despite missing his stones (and possibly his pillar), along with slightly bigger plot developments like Dany exiling Jorah for spying on her back in season 1, and Sansa throwing in her lot with Littlefinger, and against the likely doomed Robin Arryn. I'm frankly stunned Benioff and Weiss didn't try giving us another Stannis monologue about the pain of being denied his birthright, simply because they knew we'd sit through virtually anything to get to that fight.
But I'll let it slide, for a couple of reasons:
First, while the undercard had some duds, it also offered plenty of terrific entertainment in its own right, particularly whenever one of the Stark sisters was involved.
And second? The fight was really worth the wait.
We'll hit the other action in the bullet points, but the episode kicked into a higher gear as soon as it got to King's Landing, first with Tyrion's story about their slow-witted cousin, then with the duel itself. The scene between the brothers was excellent, as any Tyrion-Jaime conversation tends to be, and specifically fascinating because of the seeming randomness of the cousin story. The tale is a reminder not only that Tyrion is no saint – he mocked the poor kid just so he could feel normal for once, and still laughs now as he imitates his brain-damaged speech – but that he is a very different creature from the rest of his family for reasons that go well beyond his stature. Jaime is baffled that Tyrion would be so obsessed with the ritualistic slaughter of beetles in a world where so many humans are brutally killed each and every day, but Tyrion doesn't think like Jaime, or Cersei, or Tywin, or anyone else. To him, the beetles weren't simply a measure of his cousin's madness, but a puzzle to be unlocked – and, in the process, explaining not only something practical that young Tyrion witnessed every day, but some larger mystery of the universe into which he was born so cruelly, and from which so many of those people his brother mentions exit so violently. It means nothing, and yet the randomness of it – and the fact that Tyrion knows he will go to his grave, whether in days or in many years, not knowing the answer – feels like exactly what would be occupying his mind as he waits for his life to be decided by the skill and wisdom of other men. That he cared so much about the beetles isn't a reason Tyrion Lannister should live or die, but the show's universe is vastly more interesting with such a man in it…
…which is why I assumed without any real hesitation that Oberyn would score the huge upset victory over the Mountain and secure Tyrion's life and freedom to the dismay of his father and sister. And for a while, that's exactly how the fight played out, with the big bully unprepared for the quickness, acrobatics and sheer ruthlessness of his smaller opponent. But then the Viper got a little too caught up in his Inigo Montoya routine, repeating his sister's name over and over, dancing around and taking pleasure in prolonging his foe's agony rather than delivering the killing blow. This was, of course, a fatal mistake – and a pretty gruesome one, too, as the Mountain crushed Oberyn's skull with his bare hands (and let's give all the Emmys in the world to both the sound and makeup teams for the job in bringing that moment to stomach-churning life), putting smiles back on Tywin and Cersei's faces and crushing the hopes of both Tyrion and his fans in the process.
It's a savage turn of events, and yet not an unfair one. Though Pedro Pascal's done well with his opportunities this season, Oberyn ultimately never developed into an important enough character to really justify him saving Tyrion's life in this way; his victory wouldn't have felt like a deus ex machina, but nor would it have felt entirely organic to the story, especially after Tyrion was already saved once by a previously obscure combatant. If Tyrion is somehow going to survive his current dire circumstances, I would hope it would be in a different way – and/or with him playing a more active role in his own salvation. And if he has run out of chances due to the Viper's preening? Well… I got over Ned Stark, though I was feeling much less affectionate towards him and his stupid head than I am to Tyrion at this point.
We'll see what fate has in store for the Imp. As for the Viper, it's his own fault for dancing around and not finishing the job. That was tough to watch, but also exciting as hell.
Some other thoughts:
* Arya's maniacal laughter at realizing that they've once again arrived at a potential safe haven right after one of her relatives has died was a thing of beauty by Maisie Williams, and the only reaction that seems reasonable in light of all she's been through over the last few years. I do wonder if they'll even bother going inside the Vale to investigate further (and therefore possibly learn of Sansa's existence, even if she's still traveling under a fake name), or simply go looking for some other port in this never-ending storm.
* Williams was matched by her on-screen sister Sophie Turner, who nearly convinced me of Sansa's version of Lady Arryn's death – and I had watched Littlefinger shove her out the Moon Door two weeks ago! Even though we know that Littlefinger's a snake, I also completely understand Sansa siding with the devil she knows over the many she doesn't. It could go horribly awry, but it's the first time in the life of the series she's really seized control of her destiny, and the very adult gown she wore when going to escort poor Robin on his tour of the Vale (a tour seemingly designed to end up with him dead or out of the way by the end of it) seemed appropriate. She's not the girl who was once smitten with Joffrey simply because he was a prince; this ordeal has aged her at least as much as it's aged the sister who's standing outside the gates of the Vale.
* The episode ends with the fate of the Mountain seemingly up in the air, but back when I assumed he was a goner for sure, I thought about his brother's comment to Arya about the pleasure of being there to watch the loop be closed, and figured he would be just as disappointed as she was at not getting to witness Joffrey's murder. Now? We'll see whether Ser Gregor still breathes – and, if so, whether the Hound still has the opportunity to see (or, better, cause) his death at a later date.
* Jorah's former treachery against his Khaleesi is a shoe the writers have waited a very long time to drop, and the way Emilia Clarke plays the scene, it's clear that the unforgivable sin isn't the spying itself, but specifically that he told Varys about her unborn child. That Jorah saved her from the assassination attempt and has fought by her side ever since is of no consequence to the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Reader of “Garfield,” and he becomes a new wildcard in the story.
* Director Alex Graves and his team did a nice job conveying the chaos of the wildling attack on the town near Castle Black, and the shot of the blood dripping from the ceiling right after Ygritte spared Gilly's life neatly conveyed just how lucky Gilly and baby Sam were to once again survive overwhelming odds.
* Again, I loathe pretty much every minute spent with Ramsay or Ramsay-adjacent characters – it's the one part of the show that seems to wallow in the misery and sadism that's so prevalent throughout the rest – but credit where it's due to Alfie Allen for his work playing Reek “pretending” to be Theon, before falling apart under the rightly-skeptical gaze of the Ironborn commander of Moat Cailin.
* Speaking of which, Moat Cailin gets a spot in the opening credits map (taking the place that Dreadfort has held for much of the season), but the Eyrie has yet to return to the title sequence, and we once again see Braavos despite no time spent there.
* Though the series' plot is very loosely based on England's War of the Roses, Littlefinger's line to the elders of the Vale about how everyone in Westeros came from somewhere else was more of an American idiom than an English one.
And as you know, the comments are back, albeit in moderated form. So you submit your comments, and someone else from Team HitFix will be periodically going through, approving the ones that don't give away things from the books, and punting the ones that do. It'll slow down the flow of discussion from what we had previously (or what we have on other shows), but it'll also prevent people from obnoxiously trying to spoil things.
As a reminder, we are here to discuss “Game of Thrones” AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. Therefore, here's the only rule you should remember: if your comment contains the phrase “the books” without it being immediately preceded by “I haven't read” – whether it's revealing upcoming plot, a motivation that hasn't been entirely clarified in the show yet but was explained in detail by George R.R. Martin, discussing the differences between a scene in the books versus on the show, etc. – then you should probably delete what you've written and start over. Anything even vaguely questionable will not be approved.
Also, along similar lines, let me remind you of the other anti-spoiler rules for the blog: even if you haven't read the books, things that have yet to air are off-limits, whether that's previews for the next episode, interviews that actors or producers give, or even episode titles.
But with all that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com