Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 8–The Mountain and the Viper

“Everybody dies, sooner or later. Don’t worry about your death, worry about your life.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

With Game of Thrones off the air for a week between episodes for the first time, my first thought was of the recent internet furores regarding the show’s sometimes gratuitous use of sex and violence. I had wondered whether, in light of the controversy, the broadcast of episode 8 had been delayed to allow for some hasty re-editing to ‘sanitise’ the show. As to the sex, that might be true, but as the ep amply demonstrated, it certainly wasn’t true for the violence (of which more later).

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That said, and despite some excellent moments of high drama and Plot Importance, this didn’t come across as one of the show’s best eps. There are several possible reasons for this – the most obvious being the sheer amount of plotlines it covered meaning that none of them got much more than a cursory glance. It’s been commented that the show works best watched in a box set binge rather than weekly episodes. That’s not always true, as some individual eps (Blackwater, for instance) work very well in their own right. But the more scattershot ones like this probably do function better as part of a larger whole.

Then again, there’s also the problem of the source material. Yes, George RR Martin fans, you heard me right. I’m very much a fan of the books, but volumes four and five are massively overlong, and while they retain the sharply drawn characters, acerbic dialogue and imaginative descriptions, at times they come across as extended travelogues of Martin’s detailed world.

Volume four, A Feast for Crows, is a bit of a slog, consisting as it does of various characters tramping around the wet and muddy reaches of Westeros while barely advancing the plot. This is primarily where Arya and the Hound’s wanderings are drawn from – though those two characters are so great together that I could watch them for ages without even a hint of a plot, like a Westerosi version of Waiting for Godot. Their single scene this week was blackly funny; you can’t help but join in Arya’s triumphant laughter at the Hound’s dismayed look when he finds that his second choice for ransom also died just before he got there.

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Volume five, A Dance with Dragons, takes place concurrently with volume four like the halves of the second and third Lord of the Rings books, and is equally a slog of similar proportions; albeit with different characters and the sunnier climes of Essos for them to wander aimlessly about in. This is where we’re getting the (longer this week) explorations of Dany Targaryen’s exploits in Meereen. Emilia Clarke has developed a rather good haughty condescending mode now that Dany is an actual Queen (and self-appointed liberator of all slaves). Her cold dismissal of Iain Glen’s lovestruck Ser Jorah was a good scene; though my memory must be playing tricks, as I could have sworn she already knew about his former treachery.

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Still, it’s good that they’re mixing up the plotlines from books three, four and five, as it spreads the action far more evenly. With the show diverging ever more from the books (not a bad thing in my opinion), there’s scope to drop much of the more sedate aspects of the later stories too, while keeping the intrigue, the character and the wit.

After another bit of wrangling at Castle Black this week, it’s increasingly easy to see why Benioff and Weiss inserted their own subplot about the mutineers at Craster’s Keep; without that, all the visits to the Night’s Watch this season would have consisted of Jon Snow arguing with Alliser Thorne. There was more of that this week after the Wildling attack on Mole’s Town, but all it serves to do is keep that plot paralysed. With a massive army approaching from North of the Wall and the fearsome raiders encroaching from the south, you’d think it would feel a bit more urgent than this.

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Also invented for the show is the gruelling exploration of the plight of Theon Greyjoy, only ever referred to rather than depicted in the books. Iwan Rheon continues to chew the scenery (in a good way) as the vicious Ramsay Snow, who once again this week stood revealed as, basically, a psychotic little boy craving his father’s approval. That Roose Bolton finally granted him legitimacy and the family name should make him happy; more relevant to the plot, it establishes the Boltons as increasingly important players in the politics of the Seven Kingdoms. After all, there’s nobody else running the North right now.

Sansa Stark might be able to help out with that, in her new capacity as collaborator for Petyr Baelish. Going back to the books again, this week saw her lying to the Lords of the Vale to give Baelish an alibi, while he dropped heavy hints (in Aidan Gillen’s increasingly undisguised Irish accent) about using Robin Arryn as a pawn in his games. New for the TV show, however, was Sansa’s unexpected reinvention of herself from innocent little girl lost to cold, black-clad villainess. And yet, in the context of the show, it makes perfect sense; all Sansa’s illusions of nobility have been stripped away, and she’s taken the mantle of those who survive the ruling class of Westeros – a scheming, heartless politician. I’m sure she and Lord Baelish will be very happy.

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With all this going on, it wasn’t until the ep’s last ten minutes or so that we came to the plot from the episode title – the much-anticipated trial by combat of Tyrion Lannister. Coming to King’s Landing so late in the script was unusual, though the other plots had enough to chew on that I barely noticed until Tyrion appeared. Still, though, this lived up to the spectacle well-remembered from book three, and gave us plenty of drama and suspense as all the interested parties watched the Mountain and the Viper fight. Given the changes to the source material, the outcome was far from a foregone conclusion even for the book reader.

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Sex and violence

No actual sex (perhaps lending credence to my theory about some hasty re-editing), but it wouldn’t be Game of Thrones without at least some gratuitous nudity, preferably female. The show obliged fairly early on, with some surprising voyeurism from Grey Worm, as he watched handmaiden Missandei bathing. True to form, she showed pretty much everything; more puzzling though was why the castrated Unsullied would be interested.

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This led to some actually rather sweet scenes between them, as she asked about his mutilation – hopefully the term “pillar and stones” will become a widespread description of male genitalia from now on. Either way, these were some unexpectedly romantic scenes (given the whole ‘eunuch’ aspect), nicely played by Nathalie Emmanuel and Jacob Anderson.

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If the sex was backpedalled though, the violence more than made up for it. It started fairly early on with the Wildling raid on Mole’s Town, but really hit its stride as Theon and Ramsay retook Moat Cailin. An axe in the head for the Ironborn commander was swiftly followed by a lovingly slow pan across the flayed body of the one unwise enough to surrender.

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But things really took off with the trial by combat, as Oberyn Martell continued to work on his impressions of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, repeatedly intoning his revenge mantra, “You raped my sister! You murdered her! You killed her children!” That Pedro Pascal pulled this off without going too far into orbit was commendable; unfortunately he won’t get much chance to carry on now that the Mountain has smashed out his teeth, brutally gouged out his eyes and literally squeezed his head to a pulp. Ouch!

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A somewhat scattershot episode then, with moments of excitement and drama (the trial by combat, Missandei and Grey Worm) offset by a lot of wandering about the countryside and/or arguing pointlessly (Castle Black). It will be a shame to lose Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell, the most flamboyant new character to arrive this year, but at least he went out with style. Things aren’t looking too good for Tyrion either, what with being sentenced to death and all.

That breathtaking climax really took me by surprise after such a generally slow-paced episode, but in each season of Game of Thrones, it’s episode 9 that’s the standout – previously this has featured the execution of Ned Stark, the Battle of Blackwater and the Red Wedding. It’s episode 9 next week, and Blackwater director Neil Marshall’s back behind the camera – I’m expecting fireworks.