Published on June 4th, 2014 | by Bean0
Game of Thrones Review – Season 4 Episode 8 – “The Mountain and the Viper”
WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!
If this week’s review seems overly-preoccupied with the last few minutes of “The Mountain and the Viper” it is not for lack of exciting events elsewhere in the realm. But more on them later. First, let us start at the end. Oberyn Martell, the Red ‘Viper’ of the title, has made a big splash this season, from his initial Lannister attack in Littlefinger’s brothel to his final messy end at the hands of the man who massacred his family. Between entrance and exit were many moments of smug self-assurance and pontificating upon the nature of things, some insights more useful than others. There were even moments of seeming heroism, such as last episode’s champion speech. Sadly, there was little in the way of honest self-reflection or humility in the Prince’s repertoire of musings, and all his time spent leaning against furniture, arms folded in glorious defiance of his surrounding enemies were, alas, all for nothing in the end.
And so we are confronted with the bloody consequences of a man meeting a Mountain. Martell, despite repeated protestations to the contrary, was ill-adapted for revenge; he made no bones of being a passionate man, and was ruled by his desires as no other character in our story has been before. Unfortunately, his primary obsession was too close to his heart; justice for the brutal fate of his family. As we all know, revenge is a dish best served cold, and Oberyn’s blood ran hot. This is so obvious a recipe for disaster, I’m almost disappointed that GRRM walked him into that glaring trap. What might have been a triumphant win for the ‘side of good’ ends in a pyrrhic victory, and a small-print reading of events by Tywin that lands Tyrion back in shit creek. It all feels a bit too glumly rote. In typical GoT fashion though, it was still thoroughly gripping, in a macabre sort of way.
Certainly I wasn’t expecting Oberyn to be head-mushed; that’s a new category for Thrones, an already exceedingly violent show. Given that violence is central to much of the narrative, it is understandable that both the story and the show require new ways to mete out the never-ending punishment. But let’s just take a moment over the method, since the difficult one-upmanship GoT has cornered itself into means the fact of a character’s death is fairly inconsequential these days; it is the means of their demise that carries the weight.
The Bible, Shakespeare and Joss Whedon have all made use of the dreadful violation of one man putting out another’s eyes. However, what gives these examples gravitas is the survival of the smitten; they are forever altered and bear witness, as it were, to the terrible cruelty of their oppressors. Alas, Thrones makes the mistake of taking it that one, gory, ‘Look-Ma’-No-Eyes’ step too far, and by demolishing Oberyn so utterly, they ultimately make more of the Mountain’s strength than the horror of the act. It would seem size does matter, even when lying flat on your back.
Of course, this is all really just the window dressing for the more interesting subplot of how the Lannister’s respond to brutality. Tyrion spends the scene prior to the battle explaining how incomprehensible bloodlust has always been to him. During this scene Jaime points out that the world is a vicious place, and prioritises the murder of man above beast, a line Tyrion cannot draw; he’s a lover not a fighter. This disparity is shown even more baldly during combat, as Jaime starts to enjoy the Mountain’s losing streak. This might seem reasonable, given Clegane’s history of slaughtering innocents, but the truth is Jaime is a fighter at heart, and whilst he enjoys sticking it to Dad, he also admires the skills of the Viper, and part of him is drawn inexorably into the dance of death. His reaction to Oberyn’s annihilation comes not from a place of empathy, but is expressed rather as a kind of battle-weary disappointment.
The diametrical responses to Oberyn’s defeat from the remaining two Lannister siblings is at the heart of their shared story. Tyrion feels it like a physical blow, aghast and appalled, even as his own fate is decided. But Cersei? Oh, dearie me. Lena Headey’s mesmeric and nuanced performance as this twisted sister has had me making excuses for Cersei long enough; she’s a loving mother, a devoted…um…yeah, thaaat’s all I got. As the Queen Regent’s expression sours from lemon-sucking impotence during Clegane’s downturn, to a worse kind of rancid delight as Martell’s head explodes, (yes, it explodes) we find a creature truly built for vengeance. I thought she might even do a little happy-dance. The loss of life is irrelevant; apart from the pure joy of winning that is inevitable in such a seasoned player, all the murder and mayhem move Cersei not a jot. She has built her sub-life around avenging her mother’s ‘murder’ at the hands of baby Tyrion, let alone her brother’s later ‘crimes’ against Joffrey – this feat of ferocity has simply assured his downfall, and that is all that matters.
So the Prince of Dorn was merely a pawn in the narrative flow, too soon sacrificed for us to feel the force his death could have borne were we more attached to him. A wasted opportunity perhaps, but another stark lesson in the ‘you win or you die’ school of hard knocks that is Westerosi justice. You cannot hope to achieve your vengeful ends if you prance about, getting carried away in the hubris of your righteous desires.
Perspective is a point worth considering when trying to decide if a character is bloodthirsty, damaged or just doing what they believe must be done. Much of the episode seems to be concerned with this distinction; from Littlefinger, whose ruthless social climbing knows no bounds, through Ramsay Bolton (nee Snow) who performs acts of violence with the same fascinated glee as a boy pulling wings off a fly, to Ygritte, a plundering warrior on a mission. Both Baelish and Bolton make significant steps toward ascension in this episode, the former securing his position of power in the Vale as mentor/puppeteer to Robyn Arryn, whilst the shadow of his own youth looms in lines like “sickly little boys sometimes become powerful men”. Bolton finally achieves the respect and recognition of his father, and with it his name and rights, by proving himself a worthy Bolton, i.e, good at carnage and underhand dealings.
Ygritte’s journey is still in progress, and the pillaging of Mole’s Town with her fellow Wildlings and their cannibal subset, just a pitstop that shows the disconnect remaining between her instincts and her better judgement. The attack is a dizzyingly shot sequence of slaughter that retains its tension and chaos by obscuring and implying much of its bloodshed. The reflection in a darkened well of a throat-slitting or the blood dripping through floorboards in the background of a scene create more atmosphere than all the blatant beheadings of recent seasons. In the attack, Ygritte kills two women in seconds, but chooses to spare the lives of Gilly and baby Sam, implying the moral complexities developed since her relations with Jon Snow have not all disappeared, no matter how hardened she is.
So, what do we do when our trustworthy characters display bloodlust? Arya, a character much better suited than Martell to the pay-back game, deals her fatal blows with a similar calculated precision to Ygritte these days, and as she grows yet more callous, is under no illusion that these deaths bring her a happiness of sorts. The way she guffaws, giggles and cackles in the Hound’s face as they learn of her Aunt Lysa’s death is both disarming and alarming; whilst she is certainly reacting honestly to the absurdity of it all, and reveling in Sandor’s foiled plan, she is so inured to death a nd trauma at this stage, that it causes her genuine, unabashed merriment.
What separates Cersei and Arya then? Is it “the woman that passes the sentence, swings the sword” argument, the Stark code of honour to doling out death. Arya surely sees herself as judge, jury and executioner to the names on her list, yet she admits she strives to be a “great killer”. She has seen the failure of life to be fair, so she slices off her own pound of flesh, makes her own justice. But what does that really buy you, in the way of narrative karma?
It is an oft-cited actor adage that “Nobody thinks they’re the villain”, meaning the key to playing one well lies in understanding their motivation as a human, not a being made of pure evil. The ability to view events from their unique perspective is important to viewers too. We champion Arya, while we revile Cersei – one has the “good” badge, while the other wears the black hat. But surely Arya is simply Assassin Cersei-in-waiting? Not a popular point of view, I bet, since Arya is one of our “heroic” avengers, but Cersei was driven off-kilter by grief at a similarly young age and the only difference is she never wielded the weapon, merely her position, influence and ability to intimidate. I hope this conundrum continues to unravel itself in unexpected ways; can Cersei redeem herself? Will Arya become all she despises?
So much happens in “The Mountain and the Viper”; it is a microcosm of this action-packed fourth season. Even the elder Stark daughter seems to be developing a character arc, albeit in concerning directions of her own. Her fictional embellishments to the story of her Aunt’s demise show a new knack for turning her innocence to her advantage, or at least to the advantage of the devil she knows. I have expressed repeated frustrations with the character in past reviews (not with Sophie Turner, mind you, who continues to imbue the impossibly daft girl with genuine emotional depth) and while Sansa does seem to be attempting to redirect her fate, her coy smiles and vampy makeover send conflicted motivational messages.
Is she developing a misplaced sense of trust in her ‘saviour’ Littlefinger? Her reading of the line “He saved me” is complex; does she begin to believe this? Or is she attempting to convince herself that she has the knight in shining armour she so longs for? I still hold out hope that she is actually beginning to learn to project the appearance of one alliance whilst concealing another, an ability she must start to master if she is ever to escape the clutches of manipulative men. The image re-haul smacks of playing dress-up; a Littlefinger construction, casting Sansa in the role of a grown woman, and in her mother’s image to boot. But is she doing this to bide her time, or out of a desire to please her captor? Hey, maybe I have it all wrong, and she’s finally stepping up…Hair dye can be empowering.
Meanwhile, in Meereen, one bond is made as another is broken. Daenerys and Missandei ponder the desires of Grey Worm and his fellow mutilated Unsullied, and the different cultural responses to nudity within their world. Is this a comment on the show’s incessant use of it, or on the Western sexualisation, control and distortion of the female form under the male gaze? Or is it an honest reflection upon the remaining natural urges of the abused populace, in this world or that. These are all subtler possibilities that passed me by upon initial viewing, as my reaction was “oh gods, not more boobs”. A bit of shame really; GoT has become the boy that cried wolf in this respect, as this is possibly one of the few times that nudity caused a valid and relevant discussion, and not simply been gratuitous kit-off box-ticking. Whatever the reasoning, Grey Worm and Missandei are closer for their encounter, and their characters grow deeper as a result.
Daenerys also finds new reserves of resolution, as she finally learns of Ser Jorah’s early betrayal of her. The scene between them, with it’s surfeit of now more trusted servants, is a sorrowful one, and holds all the painful disappointment of being told off by a respected Headteacher. Except he’s also in love with her, and he’s not being admonished so much as banished from her service on pain of death. Iain Glen is suitably chastened and hollowed by the turn of events, contributing a heartbreaking sense of grief, but Emilia Clarke does the real heavy lifting. We have seen the Khaleesi in merciless mode before, but this treachery from her closest ally carves a hole in her, and her disgust and rage bring out a fittingly serpent-like quality in the Queen. Her final dismissal of Jorah is chilling and his lingering last glimpse of her face tragic. This is her graduation then; a loss that galvanizes. A lesson House Martell are, sadly, busy learning all over again.
Review by Nina Clark
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