This review includes details up to and including Game of Thrones season four, episode eight, “The Mountain and The Viper.” It does not include book spoilers, but does include a book reader sobbing softly over the death of his favorite character.
Why does the simple man keep smashing the bugs? That’s the question asked in the unpredictably jovial and lighthearted scene between brothers Jaime and Tyrion Lannister right before the latter’s fate is decided. Because perhaps it’s his purpose, the show seems to answer several minutes later as it executes an excruciating scene with shock value rivaled only by the much famed Red Wedding. Some men smash because it’s what they know, others live with much greater purpose.
Prince Oberyn Martell lived with a much greater purpose… and look where it got him.
Earlier in the episode we see Littlefinger, recently absolved of murder of Lysa (thanks to a Rise of the Phoenix-like moment of gameswomanship from Sansa), telling Lord Robin that he must not worry so much about death. That going out and living life is the most important thing he can do.
This message is not lost on this episode’s big finale, as we see a fan favorite like Oberyn Martell crushed under the weight of by far the largest man in the history of men. As any book reader might tell you, the show has done a wonderful job of fleshing out the short-lived tenure of the Prince of Dorne. It showed us a man who has lived of his own accord, by his own rules, but with passion and love. Sure, he did a lot of loving and was burdened with an overwhelming and perhaps fatal level of confidence. But Oberyn was a great character. And for once, Game of Thrones gives us a death that
while horrific and brutal and stunning was achieved on the hero’s own terms. He went to King’s Landing for a confession, to call out the killer of his beloved sister. It worked. What happened next was horrible, but it worked.
Normally this is where we’d dig into the rest of the episode, but it’s quite hard this week. That ending was so brutal. Perhaps more viscerally brutal than anything we’ve seen on the show thus far. We all might need time to recover, even those who knew it was coming. So let’s get a little bit of the other stuff out of the way and we’ll come back to the titular fight:
- The Grey Worm and Missandei stuff seems like a ruse to get Nathalie Emmanuel out of her clothes. I’m not sure I see where the narrative currency exists in the eunuch commander having a lady interest, but we’ll see how it plays out.
- The scene in which Ser Jorah’s treachery is revealed and he is ultimately expelled by Dany is heartbreaking. Flat out heartbreaking.
- The image of the man flayed at Moat Cailin
the work of Ramsay Snow Bolton is nasty, perhaps to prep the audience for what comes later.
- The orchestration and camera work in the opening scene, the Wildling raid on Mole’s Town, is exceptional. From the death in the well reflection to the money shots of Ygritte’s sinister rampage. She’s still pretty pissed off about Jon Snow, I guess.
- Hey look, it’s Winterfell. Did you ever think we’d make it back there?
- Something about the Sansa arc in this episode will be overlooked because of the violence and heartbreak, but it feels so important when you think about it. Welcome to the Game, Lady Stark.
- The Arya burst of laughter and the Tyrion/Jaime scene gave the episode some balance. You need some levity to go with all that carnage. But if we pay close attention, there’s some wisdom in the conversation The Hound and Arya have as they walk up to the Bloody Gate. Men kill with steel, women kill with poison, is the point The Hound makes. Arya seems to know that this is what makes him a simple, blunt instrument, just as she observes the overwhelming absurdity of her aunt being dead. The show asks us: who is the one who really sees the world as it is now, Arya or The Hound?
“You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.”
Back to Oberyn for a moment, as I feel the need to speak at length about my favorite character from the books as we sit quaintly in the wake of his epic demise. Throughout my reading of the books (no spoilers, I promise), the prevailing thoughts I had around The Red Viper’s existence went something like this:
- This guy is the most engaging character George R.R. Martin has ever written.
- This guy is far too great a character to last very long.
His end, while abrupt, is a fitting way to go out. He goes down swinging in search of justice for the person he loved most, his sister. He goes down talking and shit-talking the most intimidating mass of humanity ever known. He goes down believing in his purpose. He receives, if such a thing is possible, the most honorable hero’s death this show has to offer. And he got his head ‘sploded all over the sun-drenched pavement. It’s a rough world, that of Westeros.
Some might consider this episode’s finish to be cruelty inflicted upon the audience. The twisting of the dagger first inserted when the Freys murdered most of the Starks at a wedding. It’s a hard thing to watch, but it is a fitting and somewhat glorious end to a character that was too much of a badass to last very long. And it shows us what we’ve been learning all along from Game of Thrones, that nothing is fair and clean. Every noble venture ends with a mess.
What matters, as always, is how the death of Oberyn reverberates through the story lines of everyone around him. And all the awards the proverbial “they” must now shower upon Pedro Pascal.