I was curious. Why was he smashing all those beetles? What did he get out of it?
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by: Alex Graves
Game of Thrones is so many things: Dramatic, action-packed, suspenseful, and heartbreaking, to name a few. Every now and then comes along an episode that focuses purely on being one of these attributes, and the eighth episode of season four, "The Mountain and the Viper", is all for being as heartbreaking as possible. While it doesn't come close to being a Red Wedding kind of heartbreaking, the episode sets out to take your soul and crush it into nothing more than a tiny pile of dust. Usually, this means that several lovable characters are going to get axed off in the most heinous, unfair ways imaginable, and that proves to be the case with one unlucky individual. However, "The Mountain and the Viper" seeks other unexpected ways to kill your spirits, and it all adds up to yet another fantastic entry to season four and to all the Game of Thrones library.
The heartbreak starts off small, as the wildlings invade Mole's Town. The news reaches the Wall where Sam grieves over the idea that Gilly could be dead (she isn't, and Sam finds out not long afterwards). You may or may not notice that Alex Graves relies on an elongated continuous take as we watch the people of Mole's Town eat, drink, and pleasure themselves, while Gilly walks around where she's been hiding out at. At first, I was led to believe that this was going to be a neat little way to show the wildling attack from the villagers' perspective, but Graves abruptly ends the take, and I have no idea why. Did he have a running idea about how to make the scene look better, but had a change of heart in the middle of filming? I was left disappointed that he basically gave up on making a scene that, while not very meaningful in the long run, could have been particularly memorable because of how it would have been presented. It's the only legit negative of the whole episode, and we thankfully get it out of the way early. Wasted potential is some of the worst!
Moving on then: last episode ended with the fairly significant death of Lysa Arryn, so it should be no wonder that the Vale is a pretty heartbroken place at the moment. Petyr Baelish tries to worm his way out of his interrogation for Lysa's death, claiming she committed suicide and fell out the Moon Door on her own. This is when Sansa is summoned to speak further on the matter, and instead of coming clean and admitting the truth, Sansa lies and convinces the Vale council to let Petyr go free. No other character that's lasted this long has had it as tough as Sansa: she has been beaten, insulted, nearly raped, and forced to watch her father be executed. The surprising thing about this scene is not that Sansa lies: she's lied a few times before, particularly about her feelings towards Joffrey. What's surprising is that Sansa is now using lying as a means of escape, and not just to save her own life. This is critical for her character, because she has slowly but surely grown more aware of how this game of thrones works, and that she can't always follow the legacy of her father to get what she wants and go where she wants to go. Sansa is not dishonoring her father and spitting on his grave; she is using what she has learned about how things work in Westeros and doing what must be done so that she can carry on the Stark family legacy. How can she be kind and honorable if she lets someone slit her throat? Petyrdid tell her about how everyone in the Capital is a liar.
By the way, the Hound and Arya arrive outside the Vale, where Arya breaks out into laughter upon hearing that her aunt Lysa is dead. This whole time, Arya has basically been a prisoner to the Hound. They come all this way only for the Hound to find out that now he won't get that ransom award he was hoping for. Heartbreak can be funny sometimes, I guess.
It's not all Westeros where the heartbreak is happening. D&D unleash something that's been running on low heat since season one: Jorah Mormont acting as a spy for the Crown. Ser Barristan Selmy shows Jorah a letter that is signed by Robert Baratheon, giving Jorah a royal pardon for his espionage. However, the letter winds up in the hands of Daenerys, and despite all that Jorah has done, she exiles him for his spying. I get why some people would be upset of how Jorah's spying goes without mention for almost three full seasons. There are a few whispers during season two, but not enough to make you think anything will happen. At this point, Daenerys is well established in Meereen, and there's virtually nothing left for D&D to have her do until season five kicks off, so her learning of Jorah's previously ulterior motives is about all they can do so as to not have Daenerys' story line go missing from the screen for four, five straight episodes. The heartbreak of this scene is purely for Jorah. Trust is an incredibly fragile thing in Game of Thrones, so someone of Daenerys' stature can't go without being even just a little bit cautious of her closest advisers. If there's one establishment of trust that Game of Thrones has done everything to convince us of through nearly four full seasons, it would be that of Daenerys and Jorah. He has given up virtually everything to serve Daenerys and support her as she transformed from an innocent girl to a powerful Queen. Even though it was made known long ago that Jorah had secret connections to the Crown, all of his words and actions were proof that he had changed his ways and was not going to betray Daenerys for any reason. He gave his life to her, and she banishes him. Jorah rides his horse out of Meereen and off into an uncertain future. Even when Game of Thrones doesn't kill its most likable characters, it still searches out every possible way to hurt them.
"The Mountain and the Viper" culminates with Tyrion's trial by combat, but first we're treated to a casual conversation between Tyrion and Jaime in which Tyrion goes on about how he used to watch his simple-minded cousin Orson smash beetles with a rock. This is one of those times where a Game of Thrones episode stagnates the plot (in a good way) in order to endeavor new ways to think about its central themes and ideas, kind of like what Petyr Baelish's "Chaos is a Ladder" monologue tried to do. Tyrion's story about his cousin smashing tiny beetles is applicable to so many facets of history, about how power struggles, both in Game of Thrones and in real history. Joffrey and others in this series love to hurt and kill people they deem lower than themselves, just as many kings, queens, and other historical figures have done throughout history. Tyrion is shedding light on one of the most deplorable things about human beings: the pleasure they derive from inflicting pain and suffering on others. When a person finds someone or something they consider to be less powerful than themselves, they will seek out any method to express dominance over that inferior person/animal, because it makes them feel strong and happy. It's a drug humans want to take over and over again, because the taste and smell never get old. A simple-minded boy feels dominion over a swarm of beetles, so he will smash them because that's what makes him feel superior, what makes him feel truly alive. The same logic applies to the most wicked characters in Game of Thrones: Ruling over people is one thing, but nothing feels as good as destroying your enemies and those you deem weak and inferior. A lot of juice to squeeze out of one measly conversation, but that's what makes George R.R. Martin's (and D&D's, to some extent) writing so rich.
After Jaime leaves, Tyrion goes to watch as Oberyn Martell takes on Ser Gregor. It's a thrilling fight, enhanced by rapid editing, terrific fight choreography, and a series of well-placed facial reactions to give us the full scope of what is happening and how the audience is reacting to what is unfolding. Just when it seems like Oberyn is about to win, he gets too careless with making Ser Gregor confess to killing and raping his sister Elia Martell, allowing Gregor the opening to crush Oberyn's skull and kill him. A dejected Tyrion, looking as if all life has drained out of him, stands in disbelief as Tywin arises and sentences him to death. It is the perfect final shot before cutting to black: Peter Dinklage standing mouth agape while slowly moving his eyes downward.
If grading episodes solely on how much they break your heart, "The Mountain and the Viper" is right behind "The Rains of Castamere" and "Baelor" - not counting anything during season eight- for the best episodes of the entire series. The only botched moment comes in Alex Graves' bizarre decision to scrap his continuous take that would have made the opening scene in Mole's Town stand out more. Aside from that, we've got a great learning moment from Sansa, a crushing separation of Daenerys and Jorah, and a tense finale between The Mountain and The Viper. It's one of those spectacular times where Game of Thrones limits the bloodshed, and yet finds various ways to make you realize watching this show is the equivalent of being in an abusive relationship.
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