In one of the most anticipated episodes of the season, aptly titled “The Mountain and the Viper,”Game of Thrones takes another look at the power of families. “Family, honor, all that horseshit. It’s all you lords and ladies ever talk about,” the Hound says to Arya. What he doesn’t acknowledge is the overwhelming affect that families have– not only on the course of events in Westeros, but also over the individuals within.
For starters, Gilly’s very life is spared because Ygritte finds her with baby Sam in her arms and takes pity. Grey Worm and Missandei, who never had an opportunity to really know their own families, are beginning to cultivate a relationship and find comfort in each other. For Ramsay Snow, the bastard of Roose Bolton, it means so much to be officially acknowledged as a Bolton: heir to the North, but more importantly, a legitimate member of the family. Theon uses his family name to invade and influence the otherwise-impregnable Moat Cailin and the immovable Greyjoy forces stationed within. Sansa reveals her family name in order to gain the confidence and compassion of the powerful lords of the Vale, but later sheds the Stark name in order to take on a new identity that is all her own. Tyrion and Jaime bond as brothers right before the trial by combat, and Oberyn Martell fights bravely because he demands justice– not for Tyrion, but for his sister. In the game of thrones, family is an important, ever-present source of power.
We open in Mole’s Town, a dark and muddy place whose inhabitants are as disgusting as the streets. This charming place is where Sam dropped Gilly off in a misguided attempt to “protect” her from his brothers (more like to protect himself from desiring her, despite his pledge to chastity). It is best known as a place where members of the Night’s Watch can pop off to break their vows of celibacy. It is the closest village to Castle Black, so the wildlings’ invasion of Mole’s Town signals that the attack on the fortress is imminent (and looks to be the sole focus of next week’s episode).
It is tough to watch Ygritte participate in this gruesome violence as she goes around slaughtering innocents with her Thenn counterparts. However, it’s easy to forget that Ygritte is a wildling fighting for a separate cause than what we’ve been presented with all along. It’s difficult to see her perspective because the wildlings have been framed as outsiders and barbarians. Though they are violently invading Westeros, it is not entirely a selfish play for more territory. Instead, the leader of the wildlings (Mance Rayder) is trying to put his people beyond the Wall so that they may be protected from the Others and their wights. He knows that the Night’s Watch and the people of the North would not tolerate the peaceful relocation of hundreds of thousands of unwanted people, so an attack is necessary. Their strategy is to have Ygritte and her band surround Castle Black from the south as the rest of the wildlings come over the Wall to attack from the north.
There are justifications for atrocities on both sides in battle, but it does not make it easier to watch a tough and capable Ygritte slaying people alongside the bald and cruel Thenns. Luckily, she spares Gilly and the baby Sam with a flash of something in her face (regret?) before she runs off to finish the job at Mole’s Town.
Sam is distraught that his bad decision might have put Gilly in harm’s way. He assumes that she is dead, though his brothers try to reassure him that she’s survived much worse and might have managed to survive this, as well. They drink together, dreading the impending attack, as a hundred thousand wildlings march on their disjointed band of one-hundred.
In Meereen, Grey Worm is caught staring at Missandei as she’s bathing. The attention makes her self-conscious, and she covers herself. When she confides this in her queen, Daenerys chides her, saying that her time in the Dothraki camp taught her that there was no shame in the naked body or even in public love making. Daenerys is focused on the sexual nature of Grey Worm and Missandei’s interest in one another; after all, she has only had one romantic love (Khal Drogo), and that affection evolved directly from sex.
However, the two former slaves are discovering their feelings in a much more innocent, and refreshingly romantic, fashion. Their relationship is evolving from a place of mutual respect and kindness, something that is virtually unseen in George R.R. Martin’s universe. Though their scenes always feel a bit out of place in the context of the greater storyline, it’s refreshing at least to see some love and affection in an episode that otherwise featured flayed bodies and crushed skulls.
Elsewhere, Ser Barristan Selmy receives a scroll with a seal marking the Hand of the King. On it, he reads the pardon that Ser Jorah Mormont was offered in exchange for spying on Daenerys. Jorah was originally exiled from Westeros when he was caught selling poachers into slavery (which is surprisingly illegal on the otherwise violent continent). The man who taught Grey Worm the word “precious” (likely in reference to his own love and affection for Daenerys) is brought before his queen shamed and terrified of losing her.
Jorah makes a point about how he saved her from the plot to assassinate her, though she counters by saying that he was only able to do that because he knew it was coming. Even though he has long ago cut off all contact with Westeros, Daenerys will not hear his defense or even look at him when he sinks to his knees and professes his love for her. She herself is fighting many strong emotions, since she cared deeply for him, if not loved him. But, superseding it all is a vengeful anger over the fact that Jorah worked closely with the man she feels was responsible for her family’s violent overthrowing. In the end, Jorah is seen riding out of the city in full armor.
In the North, Ramsay Snow finally proved to his father that he was worthy of the Bolton name. Since Roose has no legitimate children, declaring Ramsay as his son and heir to the North is a huge vote of confidence, and Ramsay is elated with the news. Wild and unruly though he may be, Ramsay only ever wants to prove himself to his father. He obsesses over his family’s history, hoping that his unyielding devotion to the image on their banners will prove that he is no bastard but a true Bolton, proud and vengeful.
Ramsay is able to secure his father’s approval at last by using Reek (née Theon Greyjoy) to try to broker a deal with the Greyjoy forces holed up at Moat Cailin. For large amounts of troops, the route around the fortress is the only passable road through the bogs and swampland that separate the North from the South. The Greyjoy men have been there for some time, since Theon’s father, Balon, sent his troops there as a choke point. This trapped Robb Stark and his men outside of their lands. Among those men was Roose Bolton, who has been trying to get his forces north ever since he was granted the land in exchange for his treason.
Roose’s plan is to send Theon in to negotiate with his countrymen. He anticipates that they will take a deal to return to their lands by the sea. After all, as Ramsay notes after regarding the Greyjoy sigil on Theon’s chestplate, “Kraken [are] strong, as long as they’re in the sea. When you take them out of the water: no bones. They collapse under their proud weight and slump into a heap of nothing.”
The Greyjoy troops have indeed been suffering after managing to secure the fortress. Theon enters the castle to find the men rife with disease and huger. Even their commander is spitting blood, though he is too proud to surrender as Theon wishes. He is of the Old Way, which is the traditional culture of the ironborn (those born on the Iron Islands off the west coast of Westeros). According to this tradition, they are supposed to pay the “iron price” for goods (seize everything by force), and never farm or work the land (“We Do Not Sow” is the house motto of the Greyjoys). Along with this tradition comes a deep sense of masculine pride, and the commander will be damned before he surrenders or admits defeat.
The ironborn were likely to have died from hunger or disease under this commander, never to have seen the ocean again. Therefore, one man, clearly not of the Old Way, kills his leader in order to ensure that the deal with Theon and the Boltons goes through. Many of the ironborn feel they are nothing without the sea, and these men want to be sure to set out on those salty tides if it is the last thing they do.
Unfortunately for them, the Boltons are as good at keeping their word as primary candidates. In a brilliant, but gruesome transition, we see the same man who surrendered Moat Cailin flayed and displayed in the fortress. “Traditions are important. Where are we without our history?” Ramsay muses to Reek, the very creature he broke by robbing him of his own history. Ramsay is accepted into the Bolton family at last by whole-heartedly embracing their traditions down to every grisly detail.
At the Eyrie, Littlefinger has to answer to three of the most powerful vassals of the Vale. He is being investigated by Lord Yohn Royce, Lady Anya Waynwood, and Ser Vance Corbray, who are all deeply suspicious of outsiders (as all families of the Vale are wont to be). They are from a long line of ancient families who have intentionally stayed out of the War of Five Kings due in large part to the fact that they have a hard time looking outside themselves. They are therefore incredibly wary of this outsider with Braavosi blood, who now effectively rules over the Vale after the suspicious death of Lysa Arryn.
This tribunal gives Littlefinger a run for his money, surprising him with an interrogation of Sansa Stark before he has had the chance to coach her. He attempts to convince them that this is a bad idea by echoing a sentiment that many viewers still hold: “A girl with no learning and scattered wits. I assure you she’d be of no help.”
However, Sansa proves both Littlefinger and the skeptical viewers wrong by adeptly manipulating everyone in that room. She cleverly blends the truth with important bits of lies. She admits that she’s a Stark, not Littlefinger’s niece, in order to gain their confidence and trust in her family’s good name. Then, to get their sympathy, she recounts her abuse in King’s Landing and the misery she suffered until Littlefinger “rescued” her. Up until the part where she lies about the kiss Littlefinger gave her and the nature of Lysa’s fall, all of what she says is true, and her quaking emotions are easier to summon as a result.
Sansa gains their sympathy and buys Littlefinger their trust. As Lady Waynwood embraces her, (“It’s not your fault, sweet girl.”), Sansa looks over her shoulder at Lord Baelish, her eyes suddenly cool and her expression almost proud. She has just auditioned for the role of Littlefinger’s accomplice, and Lord Baelish could not be more pleasantly surprised.
When he goes to Sansa in her room, he declares proudly that she is “not a child any longer.” She manages to impress him even further by making clear that she helped him not out of affection or gratitude, as she seemed to imply during the tribunal; rather, she helped him only out of self-preservation. This probably excites Littlefinger more than if she had said that she saved him out of a love or even lust. “Better to gamble on the man you know than the strangers you don’t. And you think you know me?” Sansa says matter-of-factly, “I know what you want,” and continues sewing what will later appear as a symbol of her transformation.
Petyr Baleish orchestrates a deal with the lords of the Vale to support Robin Arryn as a potential candidate for King, and they are rightly skeptical (though not nearly skeptical enough). He sets it up so that Robin will go out into the world and get some much-needed life experience. Conveniently, he himself will play the largest role in Robin’s potential ascension, guiding him on the path to greatness (surely, to snatch it out from under him when the time is right).
Joining them from the shadows is a raven-haired woman dressed in a maturely-cut dress. In a physical manifestation of the changes she has undergone over time, Sansa no longer appears as a sunshine-colored girl but as a darkly mysterious woman named Alayne Stone– a “bastard” without a true family, save her uncle Petyr. She attempts to appeal to Littlefinger’s sensibilities by using his own imagery in her creation: accenting her revealing dress with feathers, not unlike his sigil of choice: the mockingbird. It is even more symbolic that Sansa sewed this dress, as she has managed to transform herself largely on her own. Unlike Arya, who has had several explicit mentors along the way to becoming a lethal assassin, Sansa has crafted herself into a manipulator mostly through her own trial and error, and by observing the manipulators around her (like Littlefinger, Cersei, and Margaery).
The hints were there long ago. Back in Season 2, Tyrion asked Sansa if she really wanted to marry Joffrey. Sansa replied about her supposed loyalty to King Joffrey, which was an obvious fib in Tyrion’s eyes, but he acknowledged it as a good instinct, especially in such a hostile court. “Lady Stark, you may survive us yet,” he complimented her at the time– a sentiment that may end up being a sage foretelling.
While Sansa could not survive on the road like Arya, Arya could not survive in the court. The two sisters have learned to adapt to their surroundings in pretty astonishing ways. Both have been forcibly orphaned, their family destroyed, but they have been able to endure by learning to be different than the child they once were.
As it turns out, Arya and the Hound are actually right outside the Eyrie. Once again we are treated to a frustratingly close, failed attempt to unite the Stark family. When they find out that Lysa is dead, Arya bursts into uncontrollable laughter. Nothing is funnier than the luck that the Stark family has had, or the luck that the two of them have met on the road. Unable to catch a break, Arya lets it all go and just laughs.
On the way in, the odd couple chatted about how nothing makes Arya happy except getting vengeance on those who have done her and her family wrong. They talked about Joffrey’s death, and how she is upset that she wasn’t there to kill him herself. When the Hound expressed regret that Joffrey was poisoned instead of killed another way (“Poison’s a woman’s weapon. Men kill with steel.”), Arya gave him a good lesson on his boneheaded misogyny: “That’s your stupid pride talking. It’s why you’ll never be a good killer. I’d have killed Joffrey with a chicken bone if I had to.” Perhaps both Stark girls will survive everyone yet.
Finally, the episode closes on the sequence that everyone was waiting for: the Mountain versus the Viper. Before we get to the actual trial by combat, we visit with the accused one more time. Jaime brings Tyrion a wineskin and they reminisce about their youth. During this scene, Tyrion recites a monologue about a cousin, Orson Lannister, who used to be singularly obsessed with crushing beetles.
This speech, though not the most well-written in the show’s long and proud tradition of character monologues, is full of meaning and foreshadowing. I interpreted it in a number of different ways.
For one, Orson could represent the gods, and the beetles, humanity. “Deciding a man’s guilt or innocence in the eyes of the gods by having two other men hack each other to pieces tells you something about the gods,” Tyrion says just before recounting Orson’s tale. The gods of Westeros have meted out harsh punishments over the years, stamping out lives old and young in gleefully gruesome ways, much like the “simple” Orson and his beetles. “The Lord of Light wants his enemies burnt. The Drowned God wants his enemies drowned. Why are all the gods such vicious cunts?” Tyrion once wondered before the Battle of Blackwater.
In a similar way, Orson could also represent George R.R. Martin himself. The creator of this brutal series, in which literally none of your “favorite” characters are safe, crushes characters under his thumb; perhaps this scene is a reminder to us all as an audience what Martin is capable of, and foretells what’s to come in the next scene. Just when you think everything is going Oberyn’s way, and you’re just about ready to cheer with excitement, his head is literally smashed like a beetle.
Additionally, Tyrion’s futile obsession with figuring out why Orson delights in killing beetles is akin to the futility in searching for meaning in life, particularly in a world like we see in Game of Thrones. Tyrion may despair for the beetles, but more so he despairs for the fact that as the smartest person he knows, he cannot figure out the mystery of Orson– the mystery of life. “What was it all about?” he pleads to Jaime as he ponders the meaning of life and death in the moment before the bells toll for his trial.
As we head into the trial by combat, everything about Tyrion and Jaime signals their lack of optimism. Oberyn, on the contrary, is excessively confident. “Today is not the day I die.” His lover, Ellaria Sand, is not so sure once she sees the Mountain for the first time. “You’re going to fight that?”
“I’m going to kill that.”
The Red Viper of Dorne (“You don’t get a name like that unless you are deadly, right?” Tyrion pleads Jaime) is light on his feet and strikes quick like the venomous snakes for which he is named. The actor, Pedro Pascal, learned all of his moves, which are of the Wushu martial arts tradition. This eastern technique is in stark contrast to the slow power of the Mountain, who fights in full armor with a giant broadsword. Though Clegane’s reach is great due to his size, Oberyn’s long spear closes the distance between them (the spear is also a part of the Martell House sigil). He fights so impressively that even Jaime and Tyrion give way to hope.
All the while, Oberyn shouts at Gregor Clegane to admit the crime he committed against Martell’s sister, Elia. “You raped her, you murdered her, you killed her children! Say it!” In Oberyn’s mind this is not a trial simply to prove Tyrion’s innocence, but also to prove the Mountain and Tywin Lannister’s guilt in crimes against his family. He grows increasingly more agitated as he lands several successful blows and leaves the Mountain lying prone on his back. When the accused still will not admit to his crimes, Oberyn gets far too close, assuming that the Mountain is dying without giving his confession. Gregor takes the chance to knock Oberyn off his feet. He handles the smaller man like a rag doll, knocks out all of his teeth in a single punch, and smashes his skull in as he finally admits that he killed, raped, and crushed Elia’s own head.
Ellaria, Tyrion, and Jaime look on in horror and heartbreak. Tywin, without missing a beat, stands to declare Tyrion guilty. In the end, two men– potentially three, depending on how the Mountain heals from his many wounds– will die for a crime none of them committed. It is as brutal a scene as we’ve ever seen in Game of Thrones, and that’s saying something.
Other thoughts on “The Mountain and the Viper”:
- Ellaria and Oberyn’s relationship was fun to watch and totally heartbreaking in the end. The acting in this show continues to be outstanding. It was crushing to watch Ellaria go from worry, to quiet optimism and pride, to total horror throughout the course of the fight. “Don’t leave me alone in this world.”
- When Sansa came down the steps with her hair dyed, I had two reactions. One, utter dismay; she had the best red hair! Two, I couldn’t help but recall the scene from She’s All That when Rachel Leigh Cook walks down the steps to “Kiss Me” totally transformed from the nerd she once was. Someone on the internet needs to make that crossover happen, if they haven’t already.
- It’s probably worth noting that Hound’s bite wound is still giving him trouble. Arya remarks that the “fleabite” (as he calls it) is making him walk a lot slower and insists once again that he should have let her cauterize the wound.
- Pedro Pascal was simply outstanding as the fan-favorite Oberyn Martell. Now that his full arc has appeared on screen, I can admit just how much I loved and was devastated by this character in the books. Pascal brought him to life better than I could have ever hoped for. Truly one of the best translations of a character from text to screen. He will be sorely missed!