TV review: Game of Thrones 4.8 — “The Mountain and the Viper”

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The Mountain and the Viper” is, by far, Game of Thrones’ best episode yet this season, and, quite honestly, it earns that distinction even before arriving at its titular battle, a thrilling and emotionally draining throwdown between Oberyn Martell and Gregor Clegane to determine Tyrion’s fate. It begins earning it early on in what may be Sansa Stark’s best scene of the series thus far. Having thrown crazy Aunt Lysa out of the moon door last week, Littlefinger needs to convince the Eyrie’s reigning elders that it was suicide and not murder. They don’t seem to be buying it until Sansa shows up to tell the “truth” about what happened. One suspects that the Lannisters know the best lies contain a great deal of truth, and the story Sansa spins to get Littlefinger off the hook — revealing her true identity, breaking down as she tells the tale, subtly manipulating everyone in the room — would likely have impressed even Cersei. The time Sansa spent in King’s Landing was an awful experience to be sure, but, just like with Arya, she did not leave the city without learning a few tricks. And judging from the elaborate dress she’s wearing in her final scene, she’s plenty prepared to put them to good use.

Speaking of Arya, she and the Hound finally arrive at the end of their long journey … only to discover that Lysa had died just days prior. It’s tough to say what was better: the “you’ve got to be shitting me” look on the Hound’s face or Arya’s mad cackle upon hearing the news. I don’t know if the pair fully enter the Eyrie or not next week, but I hope they do. It would make for one heartfelt reunion between sisters and one hell of a surprise for Petyr.

And, oh, man … how great was Tyrion’s monologue about his slow cousin Orson relentlessly killing the beetles? Sure, we could dig for a deeper meaning contained within. Perhaps Tyrion was making a point about the senselessness and inevitability of murder as a whole — the carnage he has seen and the death that may be coming to him so very soon. But even ignoring any possible subtext, it’s such a brilliantly written and acted scene. Game of Thrones gets so much ink for its blood and gore and sex that it’s easy to forget that one of the biggest reasons for the show’s success is the magic it can spin with just two great characters sitting in a room talking.

Even the left-of-center storylines during this hour crackled in a way they haven’t in recent weeks. With everything else that’s going on, you’d think it would be easy for showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who wrote this episode, to choose not to spend time on the blossoming relationship between Grey Worm and Missandei — whatever form that might ultimately take. But I’m glad they did anyway, as the glimpse into the lives of two characters who are supporting characters in a supporting story proved more interesting than Daenerys’ recent struggles with how best to rule.

And Ramsay Snow — wait, make that Ramsay Bolton — solidified himself as one of the show’s best villains during that strong scene with his father, where the pair stand on a hill looking over the vastness of the North. It sometimes feels like it would be easy for the viewer to forget the importance of the North to the overall story being told. But there’s a reason Winterfell is always shown during the opening credits, despite the fact that it’s in ruins and hasn’t been seen on the show in quite a while. It’s symbolic of where this journey started and what’s at stake, and showing how close the Boltons are to ruling the whole of it makes sure the viewer never loses a rooting interest in its ultimate fate.

Despite all of this other great stuff, the episode is called “The Mountain and the Viper” for a reason, and the fight at the hour’s end concludes in gory and spectacular fashion. This is a show that loves to shatter your soul by killing off the characters who are the easiest to root for, so it wasn’t too big a shock that, after spending all season making sure we adore Oberyn, we’re treated to the gruesome site of the Mountain smashing his head like it’s a rotted pumpkin. (This after a beautifully choreographed battle between two fighters practicing extremely different styles of hand-to-hand combat.) And even more painful was the fact that Oberyn could have been the victor but was tripped up by his hubris and his obsession with not just defeating the Mountain, but having the Mountain acknowledge who is defeating him and why. Tyrion was so close to being free, but now …

Well, we’ll find out what now in an excruciating seven days. Whatever momentum the show lost during its somewhat plodding middle section this year it has recouped with a vengeance. Next Sunday’s installment is the season’s penultimate episode, which is traditionally Game of Thrones’ biggest hour. (Both the Red Wedding and the Battle of the Blackwater took place in the next-to-last episode of their respective seasons.) I can’t even begin to imagine what awaits us, but I’d wager it’s going to be something special.

Until then, a few more thoughts on “The Mountain and the Viper” …

— This show is certainly not bashful about dredging up past story arcs, like the fact that Jorah was originally working as a spy in Daenerys’ army, which is suddenly brought back to the foreground tonight. As you might guess, that’s not good news for Jorah.

— Arya is sad that she wasn’t present for Joffrey’s murder. Well, can you blame her? Imagine how pissed you’d be if it happened off-screen.

— “Better to gamble on the man you know than the strangers you don’t.” – from page 71 of Littlefinger’s Guide to Surviving Westeros.

— There really isn’t a word for cousin killing, is there?

— I’m pretty sure Oberyn’s funeral is not going to be open-casket.