An emotionally brutal episode, "'The Mountain and the Viper' has an upsetting fight climax, while Sansa takes a shocking dark turn

By James Hibberd
June 01, 2014 at 10:10 PM EDT
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After an endless two-week break, tonight’s return of HBO’s Game of Thrones has the rumble-in-the-capitol title bout we’ve been waiting for. In one corner, there’s Prince Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell, the revenge-seeking, spear-wielding, Dornish polyamorous defender of his family’s honor. In the other, there’s Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, the raping, torturing, murdering, brother-face-burning war crime stooge for the Lannister clan.

The potential impact of this trial by combat is pretty major. Tyrion, whom one could argue has been the star of the show since Ned Stark lost his head, will be executed if Oberyn loses. Plus, Oberyn or The Mountain will presumably die in this fight. And there’s also the other Lannisters to consider — particularly Cersei, who is hugely vested in wanting her little brother dead. And let’s not forget Oberyn’s lover Ellaria Sand is on the scene as well

Yet the fight is only one section of tonight’s episode, and naturally Thrones will make us wait through most of the hour until we get the main event. There are undercard scenes with Littlefinger, Arya, Gilly, Dany and Theon (separately, of course, not together — though that would be wild, if they all just suddenly happened to run into each other).

So let’s get out the foam fingers and sunspear flags in anticipation of cheering on the Prince of Dorne.

Molestown: Skanky tavern-dwellers have belching contests that replicate various Westeros hit songs. One local who could really use some Valtrex gives Gilly a hard time for her baby, virginity and lack of skin blemishes. Earlier this season we saw Sam tuck Gilly away in the one place he knew she would safe from sexual assault (a brothel!?) — but now it’s under attack from the advance Wildling commando team. The Wildlings swam the village and Terminator Ygritte kills innocent people left and right.

Ygritte is the one who finds Gilly and her baby (yes, an Unexpected Character Pairing — and not the last of this season, either). The redhead finds a nugget of empathy in her frosty Snow-hardened heart and spares them.

At Castle Black, Samwell is devastated with guilt. His brothers point out that Gilly is a survivor, and not to give up hope.

Meereen: Bathing scene. Lots of abs. Comely Missandei is washing herself when Grey Worm spots her and stares and stares and stares. Later, she has some girl-chat with Dany, who wonders if the Unsullied men lost “the pillar and the stones” when they were castrated. Dany is also doing Missandei’s hair, which is pretty nice, since she’s the queen and all.

Missandei then tells Grey Worm she doesn’t mind that he saw her. Grey Worm explains he’s not bitter about being castrated because it would have set him on a different path. Could this be the start of a new romance? Or will their love be, uh, cut short? Maybe Theon, Varys and Grey Worm can meet for drinks and form a support group.

NEXT: Meet enchanted evil queen Sansa

Moat Cailin: Theon has to pretend to be, well, himself in order to get Moat Cailin — an important Northern stronghold — for his evil master.

Theon talks his way in, then convinces the troops to open the castle and surrender to Ramsay in exchange for their lives. Ramsay betrays them and not only kills the men, but also tortures and flays them. Theon has had plenty of dark moments, but this is his darkest. He should just change his House name to Stockholm.

Later, Ramsay gets the biggest reward possible for this prize — his father’s name. He’s now a Bolton instead of a Snow, making that rare leap from bastard to nobility. It couldn’t have happened to a worse person. Ramsay now stands to inherit the North — not Robb, not Jon, not any of the Starks. So unfair. And if I were Roose Bolton, I’d feel a tad uneasy about making a sadistic psychopath my heir.

Ramsay tells Reek, “I’ll be needing a bath.” I don’t want to know what Reek’s tub duties are.

The Eyrie: Tyrion was saved from being judged by a jury, but Littlefinger now has to face one of sorts. Book fans wondered last week how Littlefinger was going to explain Lysa’s death, since in A Storm of Swords there’s another character present that he falsely accuses of murdering her. The show’s method to get Littlefinger off the hook is rather brilliantly simple, and I forehead-smacked when I heard it: The crazy lady killed herself.

They call Sansa as a witness. She’s introduced under a false name. She apologizes to Littlefinger, and makes us think she’s going to betray him. Then she reveals her true identity and starts to tell the story of her arrival and stay at the Vale — before twisting her tale into a lie backing up his suicide claim. It takes a lot to impress Littlefinger, and this does.

The old Sansa might have crumpled under questioning, sold out Littlfinger for the promise of a few lemon cakes, or perhaps lied merely out of misplaced loyalty to Littlefinger for saving her from Lysa’s push. But not only did Sansa make the right decision, she made the right decision for the right reason. She’s thinking ahead to which action will benefit her down the line. Not only is she better off with Petyr for the moment, but in turning on Littlefinger there’s no guarantee that he wouldn’t still find a way to slip away — and then he would be an extremely dangerous enemy to have.

“I know what you want,” Sansa says, and that lingers between them.

Last week The Hound told Arya, “You’re learning.” It could be a theme of the season for all the Stark kids: Sansa learning to lie and manipulate. Arya learning to kill people and stop hoping for anything good to happen, ever. Jon Snow learning to lead men and fight dirty. Bran learning, uh, to keep going north.

Later, Littlefinger talks to Lord Robin, revealing he’s going to send him out into the world, presumably to prevent him from making any decisions about how The Eyrie should be managed. I’m sure Littlefinger is tempted to tell Robin: “If you jump out the Moon Door too you can still catch your mom.” Strangely, Robin doesn’t seem too upset that he now has to use formula.

Then down the stairs comes…

Whoa. Sansa makeover. Black outfit. Confident strut. She dyed her hair! She looks like a young Catelyn. Is she flirting with Littlefinger? She was doing this sultry weird lip-parting thing earlier that I tried to ignore, but now I can’t. It’s like Sansa spent her vacation on the set of ABC’s Once Upon a Time, where she ate a poisoned apple — and now she’s a totally different person.

Looking back, Sansa has been trying to figure out Littlefinger’s motivation since she set foot on his boat, always asking him why. Between his kiss and his kiss-off statement to Lysa about loving Catelyn, she’s figured it out — “I know what you want,” she told him while sewing that black dress. So then she walked down the stairs looking like her mom. It might help to get “call me Petyr” under her thumb, but (a) that’s so twisted and (b) how far is she willing to go?

NEXT: Arya is so sick of this damn show

Outside, The Hound and Arya reach The Eyrie and we lean forward. Sansa is there! She’s right… way, all the way, up there! Are they going to reunite? Of course not. This show will never allow that to happen, because it would apparently cause some sort of cross-the-streams space-time chain-reaction narrative fusion explosion. And I suspect if it ever does happen, the two Starks will enter the same room, see each other — and then the scene will quickly cut to Stannis fuming at his giant wooden table.

Arya learns Aunt Lysa has just died. Arya… laughs. What else can she do? At this point in the story, she has every right to turn into gibbering asylum patient. It’s like the only thing the Seven Gods are doing all day long is finding new ways to mess with Arya Stark.

Littlefinger would gladly pay The Hound’s ransom for Arya — two Stark girls who are heirs to the North? Even better! He can dress them up in doll outfits and make them sing “The Rains of Castamere,” or whatever fantasies run through in his mind. It’s actually tough to even know which outcome to cheer for: Arya to go on her not-so-merry way with The Hound, or to gate-crash the Littlefinger/Sansa perv-fest.

Meereen: Remember when Tywin asked Mace to write a letter a few episodes back, when he was fretting about Dany? This is the result of that. The scroll indirectly reveals that Ser Jorah was once on the crown’s payroll as a spy. Ser Barristan is nice enough to give Ser Jorah a heads up about the letter, but won’t let him tell Dany alone: “You’ll never be alone with her again.”

Ser Jorah begs Dany for forgiveness. “I have loved you,” he says.

“I do not want you in my city dead or alive,” she says. “Don’t ever presume to touch me again or speak my name.”

It’s like a devastating break-up scene between a couple who were together in every way but the physical. Because Dany is wrong — she’s wrong! She is playing right into Tywin’s hands, and he’s stripping her of one of her most valuable advisers. Yet at the same time, her decision is totally understandable — how could she trust Jorah after learning he kept such a life-threatening betrayal from her? And poor Ser Jorah. All he ever wanted was to serve his Khaleesi. (Okay, that’s not all he wanted, but it’s a big part of it.) What’s he going to do now?

King’s Landing: A friend of mine once confessed she was one of those people who went to see the movie Titanic a couple dozen times when she was a kid. I asked why she felt so compelled to watch Leonardo DiCaprio die over and over again, just because Kate Winslet didn’t want to share her floating door-raft, and she replied, “Because I kept thinking the next time might have a different ending.”

Watching tonight’s Game of Thrones, I kept hoping, like my friend, that ‘The Mountain and the Viper” might have a different ending than the climactic fight in the George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, even though I knew it wouldn’t. Prince Oberyn was doomed from the moment he swaggered into the season premiere.

First, Tyrion and Jaime have some pre-combat bonding. Tyrion obsesses over a simple cousin’s beetle-crushing fetish. It’s a story, I suppose, about Tyrion’s empathy for the senseless suffering of the world, and perhaps the evil of The Mountain in particular. Jaime points out that men, women and children die everywhere, but sometimes it’s the events that are smaller and closer to home that really bug you existentially… so to speak.

Then we start the main event. At first glance, the arena itself seems small, but that’s probably the Thrones production ethos at work. Sure, they could computer generate a huge arena scene. But how realistic would that look on their budget? Conversely, to make such a huge crowd scene realistic, what special effects would they have to sacrifice in the rest of the season? The producers have to, if you’ll pardon the pun, pick their battles. Ultimately, the only crowd reactions we really care about are the witnesses we already know, and this still feels like a big step up from season one’s tournament (which reduced the Super Bowl of Westeros to a backyard party).

Like the best fight scenes, Mountain vs. Oberyn not just about swinging swords. There’s a character-driven story that unfolds within the action, with its own twists and turns. You go into this scene thinking the scene will end with either Oberyn killing The Mountain or The Mountain killing Oberyn. Instead, we get something else.

Tyrion is worried about Oberyn drinking before the battle. “Today is not the day I die,” Oberyn assures. We start to get a little worried.

NEXT: Coup de grâce faux pas

The fight begins. Like Bronn during Tyrion’s last trial by combat, Oberyn is fighting hulking brawn with speed, agility and stamina. But Oberyn’s movements are also entertainingly acrobatic and graceful.

Oberyn repeatedly baits The Mountain: “You raped my sister. You murdered her. You killed her children.” At this point, that similarity between Oberyn and the vengeance-seeking Spaniard Inigo Montoya from Princess Bride leaps intrusively to mind — but we’re too riveted to think too much about it.

After plenty of action, cocky Oberyn stabs The Mountain, gets him clean through. He then slices him again, and again. The Mountain topples. Oberyn’s got him, and presses again for his confession.

And then… and then…oh no…

Oberyn circles The Mountain over and over, getting closer to his enemy’s outstretched hands. We see Tyrion start to get worried. Oberyn is distracted by a smile from Ellaria. It’s the only opening The Mountain needs, and the last beautiful thing he sees. Ser Gregor grabs Oberyn’s leg, throws him off balance, quickly gets on top of him — no, no, no, no — and The Mountain confesses to his crimes and Oberyn screams as–

Honestly, I couldn’t even watch it. I think I yelled out. It was the most awful and sickening thing I’ve seen on this show. That scream. I don’t have The Mountain’s exact confession quote for this recap because I’m not replaying it. I suspect many viewers won’t even realize what The Mountain was saying because they were too busy freaking out. There was something particularly horrible about seeing a character we like that much being so shocked and terrified by his own gruesome demise.

Cersei is grimly satisfied.

Tyrion looks completely stunned — I am so screwed.

And Tywin sentences his son to death.

So Oberyn is dead. The Mountain, presumably, will die too. That’s a Game of Thrones gladiator fight for you — who wins? Nobody! They both die horribly; now go to bed and contemplate the futility of your existence. When we saw that the Thrones season 4 marketing tagline was “All Men Must Die,” we didn’t realize it was this literal.

And yet, saying the two fighters are both losers is inaccurate. You could even say Oberyn is the victor. He had three goals going into this: Get a confession, kill The Mountain, and stay alive. On Thrones, success always comes with a price. Two out of three ain’t bad. But we sure are going to miss him.

As showrunner Dan Weiss points out in the link below, Oberyn has a classic tragic flaw — the single character defect that leads to the downfall of a hero. Oberyn fearlessly antagonized the Lannisters all season, poking at the lion, always speaking his mind, stubbornly chasing his confession. He could have simply won the fight, but winning wasn’t enough. Here’s a question: What is Dany’s tragic flaw, if any? With her dismissal of Ser Jorah, could it be her insistence on absolute loyalty? As for Tyrion, is his pride his tragic flaw (remember him rejecting his father’s offer to go to The Wall?)? I expect your essays on my desk by the end of the period.

Overall, this was an emotionally brutal episode. Not just the fight scene — there was also Dany dumping Ser Jorah, Sansa’s dark turn, Arya’s bad news and Theon’s betrayal. It was one squashed beetle after another.

Next week: The biggest battle in the Thrones‘ history, the Battle of Castle Black.

Check out my exit interview with Prince Oberyn himself, Pedro Pascal, where he talks about shooting the fight scene and his last day on the set. Plus there’s also a brief interview with Emilia Clarke discussing her break-up with Ser Jorah. Update: Our TV Book Club discussion of Mountain vs. Viper is up. Update 2: We got Maisie Williams explaining that laugh (and it wasn’t for the reason I assumed above).

I think this meme with a familiar face is particularly appropriate …

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