All season long, Game of Thrones has reflected what a cruel world Westeros has become in the wake of civil war, thanks to the largely callous nobility and politicians who rule it. Near the end of “The Mountain and the Viper,” Tyrion details his efforts as a young boy to figure out what his simple cousin got out of endlessly smashing beetles with rocks. He found no answer, but more than anything it sounds like Orson’s beetle vendetta was just a reflection of the cruel world around him. Tyron’s remembrance led directly into the gripping, harrowingly tense, and ultimately brutal and sadly cruel main showdown of the night: The Mountain versus The Red Viper, which ended with both lying flat on their backs but the latter’s head popped open like a melon.
Oberyn’s mission with the Mountain is unfortunately two-fold. He wants to kill him, as revenge for the decades-ago rape and murder of his sister and her children, but he also wants to hear his public confession. Oberyn is not only on a holy mission of vengeance, although his conviction in that regard cannot be understated. This is also pure theater—he wants the Mountain, in front of the capital’s gathered nobility, to admit that Tywin Lannister ordered the death of Elia Martell. That ends up being Oberyn’s downfall, as his refusal to strike the killing blow leaves him exposed and the Mountain does what only a titanically large man like him can do—smooshes Oberyn’s head apart. But Oberyn does get his confession! Just a shame he had to get it that way.
This all has the unfortunate side effect of condemning Tyrion to death, but we can deal with that later. “The Mountain and the Viper” promised an action-packed showdown and though it took nearly the whole episode to get to it, there’s no denying the exceptional payoff. Game of Thrones is 90 percent people talking in castles about how they plan to execute the next steps of whatever political scheme they’re running. And that stuff is great! But that other 10 percent, the big events that people still remember three seasons later, that’s what makes this show extra special. Oberyn’s mission of vengeance had been teased all year, and the Mountain’s terrifying force had been lurking even longer, since he chopped that horse’s head off in season one. Everything paid off spectacularly.
In that vein, one must devote praise to the astonishing performance given by Sansa Stark to the lords of the Vale, in which she both removed herself from under Littlefinger’s thumb and made herself invaluable to him. Sansa has gotten short shrift from some fans over the years for being a bit of a wilting flower in King’s Landing. But that’s not the Sansa story. Yes, she began the show a starry-eyed teenager who dreamed of handsome princes and knights and the like, but every year, especially this season, has been about Sansa’s education in the real world. She’s learned from Joffrey’s cruelty, from Cersei’s coldness, from Petyr’s gamesmanship, and from Olenna’s whole iron fist in velvet glove approach.
Sansa, called to testify on Lysa’s death in her alias as Petyr’s niece Alayane, reveals her identity to the lords of the Vale and spins a fabulous yarn, reinforced with half-truths, of Lysa’s jealousy and Petyr’s help in King’s Landing and a misunderstood kiss that led to suicide. It’s a fantastic performance, by both Sansa and Sophie Turner, and it plays on everything we think we know of the character. By the end of the episode, Sansa is transformed, wearing some insane Oscar dress made out of bird feathers, and feels more like an ally of Petyr’s, and less like a pawn in his game.
The other big event of “The Mountain and the Viper” was the exile of Jorah Mormont, who had been suffering in the friendzone for more than a season now and has never paid the price for his original role in Daenerys’ life—as spy for Varys and Robert Baratheon. Jorah’s service as a spy is entirely forgivable—he wanted to return home after being exiled for slave-trading, and he was really snooping on Viserys, giving up his betrayal after he realized what a natural leader Daenerys was. But still, it was a looming bit of unaddressed story that needed to be paid off. Jorah’s status in Daenerys’ court was important—he was the voice of pragmatism and compromise, a caution against her idealism—but he was also becoming a bit of a sad creep, watching his Queen eclipse their early accomplishments from the sidelines. This won’t be the last we see of him.
One interesting departure from the book was the “romantic” moment between Grey Worm and Missandei, where the castrated warrior catches sight of Daenerys’ translator bathing and his gaze lingers. Both characters (especially Grey Worm) are so marked by years of cruelty it is hard to imagine them embarking on any kind of relationship, but it has offered some necessary depth for the Unsullied, who Daenerys firmly believes should not just be thought of as robotic warrior slaves.
And speaking of cruelty, the audience was subjected to yet another Ramsay Snow/Reek adventure, as Reek was sent to recapture a Northern fortress held by his former Ironborn brothers in the guise of Theon Greyjoy. The scene went perfectly fine—Theon got a little wobbly and started mumbling “Reek”, but really, I think we get the whole Reek deal. The purpose of the sequence was instead to show how Ramsay has won legitimacy from his father and can now call himself a Bolton. Great, so now the North is going to be inherited by this psycho. I’m sure most audiences are just waiting for someone to ride in and rid the world of Boltons.
Will that be the Wildlings? The episode begins with Ygritte's raiding party knocking through the village of Mole's Town south of Castle Black, taking out the Night's Watchmen foolish enough to be there but letting poor Gilly live. Yes, it makes Ygritte seem a little less cruel than some of her counterparts (especially the scary Thenns), but I don't know if that further detail was really necessary. Ygritte remains basically irredeemable, and her inevitable showdown with Jon has to happen soon, and sparing Gilly's life isn't really going to be any reason for Jon to spare Ygritte's. Maybe there's some compromise to be found here.
But we must remember Oberyn’s head popping open. Game of Thrones is a cruel world. There’s justice, sometimes in unusual formats, but there’s also sad twists of fate we could never see coming. Next week, we’ll see which of those awaits the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch as they clash at the Wall.