This article contains major spoilers from Game of Thrones: “The Mountain and the Viper.”
Sweet Ingio tap-dancing Montoya, that was horrific!
Whether you have read the book or haven’t read the book, Oberyn Martell, aka the Red Viper, died hard. So many viewers tuned in thinking they were going to get a battle in the capital worthy of Don King, First of His Name. But instead of entering The Princess Bride, we stumbled into the third act of Braveheart, minus that warm-fuzzy ghost apparition softening the image of the hero getting disemboweled and slaughtered in a supremely grisly fashion. Hell, he went out just like his wronged sister: screaming with the Mountain’s hands around his skull.
It is at this point that viewers should come to understand a truth about our relationship with Game of Thrones on the whole and George R.R. Martin in the particular: it is a perpetual cycle of abuse with Martin trolling readers—and by extension viewers a decade later—with the kind of glee usually reserved for sociopaths on imdb message boards and YouTube comment sections.
Aye, the Red Viper is the most perfect example yet, viciously ripped from unsuspecting fans’ hearts like a new toy being snatched from an ever gullible babe. Modeled after 1980s circa Mandy Patinkin, he was the kind of badass that liberal-minded HBO subscribers adore. He’s a bisexual scoundrel with a sly wink and a smirk, not to mention an instant audience-winning taste for Lannister blood. Add in a couple of smug public jokes at Tywin Lannister’s expense and an unending well of sympathy for Tyrion Lannister, and you are left with the Season 4 MVP who rose to the top of the heap in eight episodes like a dragon.
A hero sent to save us from the nastiest of Lannisters who also happens to protect the sole lovable one? He was too good to be true, and ultimately appears to be Martin’s attempt to yet again offer audiences hope that this is a story where justice can ever so rarely prevail, before shattering that dream once more. And on its own, it is truly a wonderfully executed con that all season played like a charm with Pedro Pascal seducing every viewer who hasn’t read the book into believing his badassery. I even knew that it was coming and still hoped that I was wrong and he could somehow live—my already written Oberyn Martell Obituary be damned!—yet, here remains a lesson about finishing what you start and never getting cocky. And it also may be the final lesson that if you want justice, then you have come to the wrong place. Unfortunately, on the other hand, it might also be the moment where cynicism and despair tips over the show’s many exhilarations if creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are not more careful in the coming seasons…
Of course, there was more that happened in this episode too. So, before we dissect the Red Viper’s fate some more (and we will!) first, let’s consider the other major revelations.
The initial big scene to come out of Meereen was nothing more than excuse to see Nathalie Emmanuel nude (explaining the confirmation of her promotion to regular next season), however at least Grey Worm has something to dream about besides the master’s whip and hot knife. Still, more importantly, the hammer finally fell on Jorah Mormont’s long love struck head.
As any passive viewer could have guessed, Tywin Lannister announcing to the Small Council that he requires a pen and paper after asking of Varys’ reach toward Meereen meant doom and gloom for Daenerys Targaryen, but it came not entirely by Tywin’s hand. Indeed, Jorah’s fate has been one of his own making from before the series began.
In a revelation that likely required a memory jog all the way back to early Season 1 for the less studious HBO subscribers, Jorah was originally a little bird for King’s Landing’s greatest spider, and he reported on Daenerys Targaryen’s earliest movements, including her wedding to Khal Drogo and the conception of their child. These early betrayals led to Dany nearly sipping the a poisoned cup of wine, as well as Jorah’s rapid permanent placement in her inner-circle when he had a change of heart and saved her life at the expense of Varys’ assassin’s.
However, the dragons have came home to roost tonight when Tywin sent the letter to the most honorable and duty-bound bloke in all of Meereen. Selmy Barristan took a special sort of pride in twisting the knife in Jorah’s side by telling him that he is about to destroy his totally platonic friendship with the Mother of Dragons. Indeed, it flamed out faster than any slaver when Dany summoned Jorah into her throne room. He pleaded for mercy, but she offered him only banishment, which all things considered is probably a mercy from a woman who crucified a random selection of 163 other “enemies” upon arriving in this city.
As a friend who learned of a long-ranging betrayal, Daenerys is entirely in the right to be horrified by this revelation, and she tempered her anger with at least the mildest of acknowledgement that it has been year(s) since he betrayed her. Aye, Jorah Mormont gave almost the last drop for her in the Red Waste, in the madness of Qarth, and in the battlefields of Astapor and Yunkai. But hell has no fury like a woman betrayed by a man who she was knowingly keeping warmed up in the friend zone dugout.
It probably helps that Iain Glen makes Jorah a much more charismatic and sympathetic character than the bear-of-a-man in the book, but I pitied Jorah’s fate in the show. He has proven himself a true friend to her in the passing months even if he creepily stares a little too long. However, more importantly, beyond the lyrical pop exposition in Glen’s line-readings is the sad truth that he is the only counselor worth a damn in Dany’s orbit. Selmy for all his righteousness, courage, and strength at arms is too earnest and forthright to play politics in Meereen. Seven Hells, he tried for decades in King’s Landing and had two kings murdered under his watch before being surprise sacked by the third! Meanwhile, Daario only cares about bedding Dany, and the rest of her newfound home base city is comprised of people who want her dead. Jorah was the only one who she gave credence to that also had a taste for the treacheries of others, perhaps because he could be so treacherous himself. And thus, it was a bloody well played move on the ever-unflappable Tywin Lannister’s part.
And just as Dany makes a justifiable personal decision, another character who takes everything personally has finally discovered the board for the bigger game at hand. In the Eyrie, Sansa Stark makes her first move, and it is a striking one.
When called to sit in at Lord Petyr Baelish’s trial for the suspicious death of Lysa Arryn, Sansa without any seeming prompting by Littlefinger, reveals her name is not Alayne Stone, but Sansa Stark of Winterfell, a northern castle of true legend that she is by rights heir to (so long as Bran and Rickon remain missing at least). Further, Littlefinger concealed this fact, because he wished to protect her, hence spiriting the girl to Lysa. In the arms of her caring aunt, Sansa saw how deeply Lysa loved her new husband…to death. Her own. In a fit of jealous rage and unpredictable suicide. Right?
The most telling thing about this sequence is how much of it is based on truth. Save for calling Tyrion simply “the Imp” and the fact that Littlefinger pushed Lysa through the Moon Door, every thing Sansa says is as pristine as the cold mountain air that Lysa sailed through like a shooting star. And what better way to convince everyone that Littlefinger is innocent than to admit that Lysa was a jealous nutjob who probably should have gone through the Moon Door years ago?
It is a brilliant sequence that reveals Sansa can play the game that Petyr has laid out for her. And when he asks does she know what he wants, her silent consent allows every audience member to shout at their TV screens, “YOU!” But Sansa knows that too given her makeover in the next scene, which times nicely with Petyr’s own as the new Lord Regent of the Vale—the sole kingdom that has now not shed a single ounce of blood in the power vortex left by Robert Baratheon’s death. It is so chillingly delicious that the only thing that could make it better is if Arya meets Sansa face-to-face now. Perhaps in a few weeks when we return to the youngest Stark girl sitting outside of the Vale’s gate, having the best laugh of the night? After all, Sansa’s admission of her heritage is also not in the book either…
There were some other nice moments tonight, such as Reek proving he’s a little sneak, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to the Mountain and the Viper.
The build-up to the fight curiously begins not on either titular warrior, but inside Tyrion Lannister’s cell. Honestly, it continues to be a revelation that in the season where Tyrion is predominantly grounded, Peter Dinklage has done some of his finest acting. It is in this room that Tyrion broke our hearts with Oberyn’s tear-inducing confession of Cersei’s earliest cruelties, and it is now where he shares another tour de force moment with Jaime. The curious question of why their “simple” cousin pounded beetles could be a summation of why any wishes to subjugate other beings to their brutal might—the core of this show and perhaps human history itself—yet, it is just another nice moment in a string of them between Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The two have conveyed so much in the last several episodes, usually wordlessly in only their eyes. Even a rambling anecdote about a forgotten cousin is heartbreaking with the amount of warmth these two of displayed for each other this season.
Nevertheless, true heartbreak came in the battlefield for Tyrion’s life when the Viper bit the Mountain, and all it seemed to accomplish was a rockslide.
In another life, Benioff and Weiss must have been fight promoters, because the two-week gap leading into this duel had all the anticipation of any heavyweight contest. In fact, I received my second flashback in a season to one of Benioff’s previous scripts, the 2004 ham and sandals epic, Troy. While that rather liberal reimagining of Homer proved to be a mixed bag in many respects, none of those were in the fight between Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Hector (Eric Bana). Just like tonight, it feels like a climax borne from hours of tension, and once again the nobler and more charismatic party was left skewered on the ground while viewers squirmed in their seats with disappointment at who ended up wetting the newly crimson sand.
To be sure, Oberyn went out like a boss by more or less winning the fight, wielding his spears as rhythmic dancers utilize ribbons. He even got his own Inigo Montoya moment. “You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.” If he hadn’t needed to hear the Mountain utter the words, he would have lived to spit more venom into Tywin’s face. But on this day he wanted a confession for who gave the order, and he ultimately died in nearly the same exact manner as dear Elia did oh so many years ago.
This show losing Pedro Pascal—despite only appearing in eight episodes (and if you noticed, Benioff and Weiss made sure he appeared in every last one of them to build up a fanbase)—is very painful, since Game of Thrones viewers are once more deprived of a true hero left to slaughter the Lannisters. However, the thespian of the night was Indira Varma as the Viper’s paramour, Ellaria Sand. Sadly, the Rome star has been painfully underused since her casting was first announced, but she makes far more use of the reaction shots to the fights than even Tyrion himself. While Cersei grimaces, Tywin scowls, and Jaime dares to dream of victory, each moment of the fight is brought alive by Varma’s pained and breathless cutaways. The look of cautious hope on her face and agonizing defeat in Obeyrn’s final moments helps sell this brief character’s demise more than any popping eyeball effect. Pascal’s screams coupled with their prelude pleads from Ellaria of “please don’t leave me alone in this world” earned far more tears than the actual death.
Nevertheless, the Red Viper is good and dead. And while I can assure the most anguished that tonight’s events will have a long-lasting effect that goes beyond just the immediate cliffhanger (Tyrion is guilty!), it still demonstrates a growing problem in this saga and Martin’s overall writing style: diminished returns for punishing readers.
At this point, we have all been paying too much attention and know that there is no happy ending in this series’ horizon. But there is a difference between subverting fans’ expectations and humiliating them for daring to ever like a character who doesn’t murder babies or skin men alive. In this same episode, Ramsay Snow was rewarded for his astounding cruelty toward Theon Greyjoy and every living soul that he’s ever met when Roose Bolton (the guy who stabbed Robb Stark in the heart for those not keeping track) bestowed upon him a king’s recommendation that Ramsay become an official Bolton. Meanwhile, Tyrion has been convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, and the one man who stood up for him had his brains quite literally bashed in on sun-baked stones.
It is another epic moment of television, but I cannot help but ponder about the road not taken. A pardoned Tyrion going to Dorne with the Red Viper where Cersei’s eldest child, Myrcella “Baratheon,” rests blessedly free from her mother or grandfather’s influence is a tantalizing story thread. Instead, the Mountain is victorious, even if it is a pyrrhic victory with the wounds he has sustained.
It is a wonderful moment of television expectations being thwarted again. But at this point, viewers should consider this the expectation going forward, which lessens the magic of this show more than any CGI budget constraints…