Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

It’s with heavy hearts that we welcome you back to the Game of Thrones TV Book Club, a discussion space for Thrones viewers who have also read the five books (so far) of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This week, Hillary Busis and James Hibberd mourn the show’s most harrowing loss since the Red Wedding, muse about Sansa’s slow transition into a fairy-tale villain, and ponder the small but important changes that made “The Mountain and the Viper” tick. Check out EW’s full recap of the episode, then join us as we venture into the narrative borderlands of A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance With Dragons. (You know there’ll be spoilers for the books and the show, right?)

HILLARY: Oh, James! I woke up this morning feeling as shattered as poor Oberyn’s skull. (Sorry, too soon?) But as much as it hurts, we may as well kick things off by starting at the episode’s end — that marquee Mountain v. Viper brawl to the death. As I watched the fight through the slits between my fingers, I couldn’t help having the same hope you articulated in your recap — that maybe, just maybe, this time around we’d get a different ending. Alas, Tyrion said it all in that first season 4 trailer: “If you want justice, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

There’s no doubt that the Prince of Dorne’s nasty, brutal murder is one of the most viscerally horrifying things ever depicted on Thrones. When I went back to A Storm of Swords, though, I was sort of surprised to re-discover that GRRM describes the Viper’s end almost as repulsively: Gregor “thrust his free hand into Oberyn’s unprotected face, pushing steel fingers into his eyes…Clegane slammed his fist into the Dornishman’s mouth, making splinters of his teeth.” So while the onscreen fight does elide some of the stuff that’s in the book (there’s very little talking beyond Oberyn’s Inigo Montoya spiel; there’s no Oberyn temporarily blinding the Mountain with his shield), it’s actually one of this season’s closest book-to-screen adaptations. Knowing that, why was the skull-crushing so much harder to watch than it was to read about? There’s an obvious answer here (horrible things are always harder to watch than read about), as well as a less obvious one: Pedro Pascal’s take on Oberyn is more interesting than GRRM’s take on Oberyn. Would you agree with that?

JAMES: I’m messed up. I yelled out on my couch, and turned away like a little girl watching a horror movie. My viewing companion laughed and was all, “Didn’t you know this was coming?” Of course I did — but the execution, so to speak, of that moment was the most horrible thing I’ve seen on this show. (Which is really saying something for a series that demonstrated what a motivated rat can do to a man’s stomach and inspired me to coin the term “womb shanking.”) Later, while writing the recap, I struggled to think of a way to criticize how the kill was handled, and I realized I actually couldn’t. It’s not like the producers did anything wrong — and intellectually, I firmly believe that murder should be horrible to witness. Yet I hated the way that moment made me feel, and it left me with this lingering bitter resentment toward the show that I’ve never had before.

One thing that did seem lost to me was Gregor’s confession itself, which rang through so clearly on the page. The Mountain’s guttural, accented delivery, combined with the horrifying action, made me zero in completely on the scene’s visuals — as though I were an animal having a fight-or-flight response where my senses attended only to what was most important. And yes, TV Oberyn > Book Oberyn. On the page, Oberyn was like a cool fighter jock. But the Thrones writers and Pedro Pascal gave him this increased layer of empathy, particularly toward Tyrion, and particularly last week during that scene in the cell. They really made us love him.

In the books, there was also a subtle hint of Oberyn poisoning his spear before the fight — Tyrion sees him putting some mysterious liquid on it — but it makes sense the show would hold off on that reveal. You know we also need to talk about Sansa, and her sudden extreme makeover into teenage Maleficent. What did you think of the way that was played?

HILLARY: Man, I am into Darth Sansa. In the books, her character is a lot like Book Littlefinger: subtler, sneakier. You get the impression that she’s growing up to be a shadowy string-puller, not a bold force who schemes and seizes power right in the open. Once she becomes Petyr’s “natural daughter” Alayne Stone, we mostly see her wheedling terrible Robin, manipulating him with an appropriately delicate touch. All that seems as though it’ll go out the Moon Door on the show — which makes sense, since TV Sansa is learning the tricks of her devious trade from TV Littlefinger, who’d be twirling his mustache if it were long enough to wrap around his index finger.

And you know what? I’m fine with that. Sansa’s been through so much that I want to see her start taking charge of her own destiny in a more forceful way, even if it does bother the purist in me that the show has decided to almost completely ignore the whole Alayne thing. Do Show Sansa and Show Littlefinger really think that they can trust the lords of the Vale to keep her identity a secret? Wouldn’t they, of all people, understand that literally nobody ever can be trusted under any circumstances, full stop? I wonder if their lack of secrecy might blow up in their faces somewhere along the line, which might give the Sansa storyline some necessary momentum. At this point, we’ve got very little book material left for her, especially since I’m not sure whether the whole convoluted Harry the Heir thing will even make it into the show; including it would mean throwing in a few very talky scenes, and even though Littlefinger is practically the show’s Master of Exposition, it may be tough even for him to make the whole plan sound interesting.

While we’re in the Vale, let’s cast our eyes downward at Lil’ Arya Stark, who’s probably still laughing about the cruel joke that is her life. Her journey thisclose to Sansa is the episode’s biggest adaptive change — were you in favor? Or does this moment feel too similar to Bran and Jon’s near miss in the woods to truly have an impact?

JAMES: First, back to the Sansa switch: It was so abrupt, and seemed to verge into fairy tale territory. I half expected her to bust into the chorus of “Let It Go” and start magically building an ice castle version of Winterfell. (The cold never bothered her anyway, Hillary!) Plus, the whole Catelyn resemblance — coming down those stairs in a black dress, with dark, pulled back hair — was so strong and, I have to assume, intentional. She’s basically trying to look like her mom to wrap Littlefinger around her little finger, right? Which is smart and dangerous and creepy. And I do like how the producers still had Sansa dye her hair — but instead of doing it just to conceal her identity, like in the book, here it seemed designed to make her hair look more like her mother’s darker red. And her flirting — that sort of parted lips thing she did at Littlefinger, not once but twice at the conclusion of scenes with him. I’m just having some character-growth whiplash here, since my mental image of Sansa is still as the type of girl who sleeps with stuffed animals. And yes, she’s totally taking notes from the Book of Baelish — and since we have so little ASOS material left, I’m really wondering how far they’re going to take this relationship.

We haven’t talked about the absence of Marillion, the singer Littlefinger blamed for Lysa’s death in the book. But I didn’t miss him at all, and thought this version of the story played much more neatly. (Suicide? Of course!) As for Arya arriving on the scene, I’m totally in favor, mostly because of Arya’s amazing laugh-fit reaction to the latest practical joke played on her by the Seven Gods. (The near miss by Bran and Jon Snow, however, seemed more contrived and frustrating). Plus, I’m not so sure Arya joining up with Sansa is the best idea for her right now anyway; I’m not feeling that same level of annoyance that she doesn’t go further here.

There were other little twists: Tywin being responsible for Dany finding out about Ser Jorah, Jaime’s powwow with Tyrion before the fight, the Wildling slaughter at Mole’s Town and the budding romance between Missandei and Grey Worm. All pretty much felt like understandable and not hugely surprising changes, though I am starting to feel pretty cold toward assassin Ygritte. Doesn’t Thrones showing her killing all these innocent people this season leave you less interested in whether she survives next week’s battle?

HILLARY: I’m biased, because I love Ygritte — and specifically, Rose Leslie’s Ygritte, who’s much more fully-formed than the book’s version of the character — but I’d actually argue that seeing Jon’s ex give Gilly a surprising show of mercy (right before and after she kills a bunch of innocents, no less) makes her even more sympathetic. I predict that there won’t be a dry eye in any House when poor Ygritte bites it during next week’s big, climactic battle scene.

That said: While Ygritte’s death is sure to pack an emotional punch on par with Oberyn’s (if one that’s not as viscerally disturbing — please, please don’t let her death be that disturbing), I’m not sure if the show has really done enough to build up the Battle of Castle Black. It’s getting the primo Episode 9 slot, meaning that Benioff and Weiss intend this to be season 4’s biggest showcase moment — but while Ned’s execution, the Battle of the Blackwater, and especially the Red Wedding were gradually foreshadowed with escalating action that created a sense of mounting dread, this season’s Wall scenes have left me fairly… cold.

The trip to Craster’s Keep played like the stalling tactic that it was; the scenes of Jon arguing with his enemies in the Night’s Watch always have more than a whiff of déjà vu about them. There are stakes to Ygritte and Jon’s relationship, but fewer stakes when it comes to the battle itself — maybe because Mance Rayder is such a nonentity on Thrones, unlike the books, or because that scary scene introducing the cannibalistic Thenn feels like it happened light years ago. I don’t doubt that Thrones will be able to pull off another impressive battle sequence, but I do wish that the show had worked harder to establish just what a big deal this battle is going to be. (I’m also hoping that the show doesn’t pull another Blackwater and devote all of next week’s action to Castle Black, for all the reasons listed above.)

I know you’ve got to get on your way, James, so perhaps it’s best for us to wrap up this week’s Book Club with a series of discussion questions:

1. Missandei and Grey Worm: Potential power couple, or unnecessary Meereenese distraction?

2. How do you think the show will get Arya and the Hound away from the Vale without Sansa and Littlefinger learning of their presence — and considering they’ve already faced Polliver, will there be another fight sequence before the Hound is felled by his festering wound?

3. Who else felt a little thrill when Tyrion tossed off all those words for kin-killing: “Matricide, patricide…”?

4. Speaking of, what did Tyrion and Jaime’s chat about their simple cousin (and his beetle-killing quest), a TV invention, add to the episode? It certainly contributed to the sense of existential dread “The Mountain and the Viper” left in its wake.

5. And finally, last night’s episode showed Daenerys discovering Jorah Mormont’s treachery — which happens in the book right after she learns Ser Barristan’s true identity. (Did you completely forget that? Because I completely forgot that.) How do you think the moment played onscreen — and are you, like me, positively tingling with anticipation at seeing Jorah and Tyrion meet up in season 5?

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Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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