Well, my fellow Westerosi, we’re almost all the way through now … two more episodes to go, and as always we wonder just how much more killin’ GRRM has in store for us. So once again, here we are again–that is to say, me, and my dear friend whose house sigil is the crossed stakes under a mysterious island, the one and only Nikki Stafford–to murder and dissect another installment of Game of Thrones. And in Nikki’s case, have a small tantrum.
So, without further ado …
Christopher: This episode gave us some really lovely moments, albeit moments bookended with blood and brutality. The attack on Moletown unfolded with predictable violence and gore, with Ygritte being as ruthless as any of her fellow wildlings … until she sees Gilly hiding with Little Sam, at which point she chooses to spare the mother and her child. Would she have been so merciful without the presence of the infant? My guess is no, but it is also likely that she alone among her company would have acted in this way. One can only be relieved the infant was not discovered by one of the Thenns. ::::shudder::::
Ygritte’s moment of mercy is important on two fronts: first, it reminds us that however determined she is to revenge herself on Jon Snow, she is a basically decent person and not, unlike some of her comrades, an outright psychopath. But secondly, it also reminds us of how interconnected all these characters are. Nothing in Westeros happens in a vacuum, and everything ultimately touches everyone in some way or another—and, as we see later with Ser Jorah, past sins can still burn you. Ygritte’s act of mercy is done in ignorance of whom Gilly is, but in this moment we see the woman in love with Jon Snow saving the life of the woman Jon Snow’s best friend saved (and, let’s be fair, is in love with), along with the life of the child who bears Sam’s name. Again, would she have been so merciful had she known? Or would Gilly have found herself taken as a bargaining ship? Fortunately, we don’t have to find out.
It is a moment that does not occur in the novel. This episode’s departures have been very interesting, for reasons I’ll get to as we go. In this case, it is just a little deviation, one presumably designed to keep Ygritte sympathetic (not that hard, personally speaking—she’d have to become a lot more evil for me not to like her). But when we cut to the black brothers morosely sitting around a mess table berating themselves for their helplessness and reminding themselves that they can’t ride out to meet the wildlings, it does make you wonder: what was Sam thinking? It’s not like he didn’t know there were wildlings south of the Wall when he sent Gilly to Moletown, and it’s not as if the attack WASN’T COMPLETELY INEVITABLE. I understand his fear that Gilly was in danger from assault from the less honourable members of the Night’s Watch, but Moletown wasn’t much better—and as we saw in the first few minutes of this episode, it doesn’t appear that the women of Moletown were inclined to be kind and protect her. Considering Sam’s obvious ambivalence about sending her away, it makes no sense to have done it—except that it gives Ygritte her moment of humanity. A nice moment, to be certain, but in the end an unusually clumsy stumble on the part of the writers.
They do however redeem themselves. An unlikely romance seems to be developing among Daenerys’ people (the West Wing watcher in me wants to call them her “senior staff”). In a weirdly crocodilian moment, Grey Worm peers over the surface of the water at Missandei as she bathes. After a moment, she becomes aware that she is observed. You know how there are so many moments when this show employs gratuitous nudity? This, I would argue, is a good example of thoughtful, thematically significant nudity, and it all rests in Nathalie Emmanuel’s wonderful face acting, as she moves from innocent surprise to confident display to the sudden thought that perhaps she should be more modest. I can only speak for myself, but I found this scene far more touching than it was titillating. And the later scene in the throne room when Grey Worm apologizes in broken English (or, I suppose, broken Westrosi) is superb. It could have easily gone the other way—it could have easily been cheesy or twee or just hamfisted, but the writers got it right, and the actors played it with such dignity and subtle emotion that it made for one of the most heartwarming scenes in the series so far.
Because why shouldn’t it be? The obvious question, as tacitly assumed by Daenerys, is “how can a eunuch love a woman? how can a woman love him back?” Coming on the heels of Varys’ blithe assertion of his antipathy to desire (and Oberyn’s bafflement at such an assertion), Grey Worm and Missandei’s obvious feelings for each other continue to complicate assumptions about love, sex, and what is “necessary” to both. Why shouldn’t Grey Worm and Missandei fall in love? Both are products of an institution that systematically dehumanizes people, treats them like beasts and property, and is in and of itself fundamentally unnatural.
What did you think of that scene, Nikki?
Nikki: It’s only reading your take on it that I suddenly realized there was nudity in this episode. How remarkable is that? I watched that scene, but like you didn’t think it was the usual “woman-being-taken-from-behind-as-Baelish-speaks-in-the-foreground” sort of gratuitousness that Game of Thrones is known for. It serves the plot, and isn’t there for our benefit (despite the fact that she is, without a doubt, stunning) but suddenly shows the Unsullied as having a little more depth than we’d been led to believe. I did love Daenery’s comment, though, wondering aloud if when they castrate the Unsullied, do they take the pillar as well as the stones? Ha!
The scene where Grey Worm comes to speak to Missandei to apologize to her for looking at her was lovely. She tells him that she’s sorry he was cut, but he doesn’t see it that way: if being cut was central to him being one of the Unsullied, and therefore someone who could become Daenerys’s soldier, and therefore someone who could free the people of Meereen from their masters, and therefore someone who is at Daenerys’s side, and therefore is close enough to Missandei to see her in all her beauty… then he’s happy he was cut. Missandei seems torn. She likes Grey Worm, and he shows her respect, and you can tell she’s attracted to him, pillar and stones or no. And so she says, “I am glad you saw me,” and he replies, without any hesitation, “So am I.” Just a perfect little scene in the midst of all this war and treachery.
And… on the flip side of loveliness and light we have Ramsay and Reek. What a scene that was. Good Christ. There was actually a moment in there when I thought maybe — just maybe — Theon is actually playing Ramsay, just a tad. As in, he’s crazy, but not looney-bin batshit crazy.
I was wrong.
After Ramsay pats down his armour and reminds him “Remember what you are and what you’re not,” he tells him to bring him Lord Kenning, who is holding down the place. Theon strides into the castle grounds and it was in that instant I thought, “Reek couldn’t possibly pull this off; he’s still Theon.” And then Kenning questions that this sniveling creature before him could possibly be the son of Balon Greyjoy . . . and the veil drops and we see he really was acting. His eyes dart all over the place, he can’t look Kenning in the eye, he hands over the piece of paper without looking at him, he talks about Balon Greyjoy like he’s someone else. And at one point, if you listen closely, Kenning tells him to go back to his people and tell them he won’t deal with him, “whoever you really are” and you can hear Theon sputter and mutter “Reek” … just as Kenning’s man embeds an axe in the back of his head and takes the deal.
You know I’m not a fan of Theon, and never have been, and much of that has been simply not really liking the actor who plays him very much. (I don’t like him in the books, either… he’s a bit of a twat as a character.) At the beginning of this season you said to me that I MUST find sympathy for him now that he’s been reduced to such a deplorable state, and while I thought it was horrible that this was being done to him, I never felt my heart go out to him. Even when Yara tried to save him and realized her brother was dead, and what was left was this pathetic shell, I just shook my head at what had been done to him but that’s about it.
It was that one word that changed everything for me. The way he just said, “Reek” in that tiny little voice when Kenning asked him who he really was… he couldn’t even keep up the ruse, and almost got himself killed by making them think he really wasn’t Theon. And Alfie Allen delivers the line brilliantly, underneath the conversation, at the very moment the axe comes down, and then he jumps as if he’s been jolted out of this moment of clarity. It was the single best Theon scene in the show so far for me. Allen is brilliant (I said it!), and when he returns to Ramsay, it’s like a dog returning to his master, happy to be going home.
Ramsay, on the other hand, is victorious in this scene due to the actions of his misshapen creature, and his father does the unthinkable and makes him a Bolton. No longer a Snow, Pinocchio just became a real boy: Ramsay Bolton, son of Roose Bolton, warden of the North. This scene is significant not just because Bolton dares to do what Ned Stark never did with Jon Snow, but because Roose actually outlines just how gigantic the North really is, and that if you rule the North, you have the largest area in Westeros. Not population, mind you (he only mentions territory) but still, that’s why “King of the North” was such an important title for Robb Stark.
While it turns out Reek wasn’t acting at all, and really has become this pathetic, sniveling creature, Sansa, on the other hand, has shown herself to be a remarkable actor, much to Baelish’s delight. Just as Alfie Allen finally convinced me that he can be brilliant in this role, Sophie Turner — in a single episode — stops being one of Ned Stark’s little girls and becomes an adult, a Lady Macbeth character if ever there was one. You must have loved that scene with her and Littlefinger up against the judges.
Christopher: It was my favourite scene in this episode, and probably ranks as one of my favourite scenes in the entire series now. This is one of those moments when I should clarify the difference between how the death of Lysa played out in the novel versus how they’ve done it in the show. In the novels, there was a young musician named Marillion who had insinuated himself into Lysa’s service, and who immediately started sniffing around Sansa the moment he saw her. Thinking she was a bastard child of Littlefinger (her cover story in the book), and hence lowborn, he was bold in the advances he made on her, just shy of actually sexually assaulting her. He was present when Littlefinger shoved Lysa through the Moon Door, and he was the one on whom Littlefinger pins the murder—and in the interim between Lysa’s death and the arrival of the Lords of the Vale, has him tortured within an inch of his life until he is so broken that he willingly confesses.
Hence I was curious to see how Littlefinger dealt with Lysa’s death, what story he would come up with. And … I have to say, I found it odd that he went with so lame a story as suicide. One would imagine he would have been more shrewd. So when Sansa launches into her story, telling the Vale Lords the (almost) truth, I totally assumed this was Littlefinger’s play. Certainly, it was masterful: it gave Sansa’s account more gravitas, it depicted Littlefinger as a much-abused hero and saviour, and it left the interrogators with no leg to stand on politically, unless they wanted to ally themselves with the Lannisters.
Beautiful. Masterfully done. Which is why I was utterly gobsmacked when we discover that this wasn’t Littlefinger’s play, but Sansa’s. And in learning that, we realize just how much she has grown and how much she has learned. She reads the Vale Lords perfectly—she knows how to protect herself and how to protect Baelish, and how to, basically, make them an offer they cannot refuse. Perhaps what is most brilliant about her story was how she cleverly exploits the lords’ misgivings about Lysa. She never crosses the line into slander, but just speaks suggestively: “You knew her well, my lords, my lady,” she says. “You knew she was a troubled woman.” And then she proceeds to tell the story pretty much exactly as it happened (except for Littlefinger’s kiss, which was more than just a peck), until the very end. And breaks down in tears.
Applause for Sophie Turner—Sansa has been one of the more thankless roles on this show, but she has played it well so far. And now we see what both Sansa and Sophie have to offer. This speech was pitch-perfect, as was the cryptic look she gives Littlefinger over the old woman’s shoulder. We immediately see how well it all worked in the following scene, as the Vale Lords lose their antagonism to Littlefinger and start slagging Lysa’s memory. “You could see it in the way she raised that boy,” says Lord Royce, suddenly all pompous and authoritative on the topic, “feeding him from her own teats when he was ten years old.” Littlefinger doesn’t miss a trick: he sees his advantage and presses it, reminding them that, once upon a time, the Vale was a force to be reckoned with. Jon Arryn rode to war with Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon. “Since then,” he needles, “all the great houses of the Vale watched from the corner like a timid boy at a tavern brawl.” When Lord Royce bristles, he is quick to defuse the insult, pinning the blame on Lysa’s paranoia and fear—but the suggestion has been planted, and the lords’ honour has been pricked. “Who would you have us back?” he is asked, and he replies “Robin Arryn,” reminding them that sickly boys can grow to be powerful men (and if there is any doubt about the truth of that, look who’s talking). He says what the lords have been longing to hear for years: that it is time Robin was taken with a firm hand and taught to be a man. Whether Littlefinger will succeed is uncertain; what is certain is that he has just made himself the de facto Lord of the Vale, setting himself up as Robin’s regent.
And then! And then we discover that Sansa’s speech had been her idea, and makes possible all of Littlefinger’s subsequent maneuvering. Lady Macbeth, indeed … “Do you know me?” Littlefinger asks her. “I know what you want,” she replies, and the episode leaves what that might be somewhat ambiguous. Does Littlefinger want Sansa? Well, obviously he does—but does he mean to take her as his own, or will they plot together to secure the Vale? When she appears later as Littlefinger tutors Robin, looking more beautiful than she yet has, it is unclear whether she is dressing for Littlefinger’s benefit or Robin’s. Or possibly both—she knows what Littlefinger wants, but will she also be working her charms on Robin? Will she be playing Margaery to his Tommen?
Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Tywin Lannister has thrown a monkey wrench into Daenerys’ inner circle, sending Jorah’s royal pardon to Ser Barristan. The anguish on Jorah’s face as he reads the scroll is heartbreaking. “Let me speak with her privately,” he begs. “You’ll never be alone with her again,” Barristan replies, and so it is to be. What did you think of Jorah’s banishment, Nikki?
Nikki: When I watched the Sansa speech, for some reason I believed all along it was her doing. Perhaps it was the look on Baelish’s face. He looked genuinely shaken when she looked at him, apologized, and said she had to tell the truth. And then at the end as she was being embraced, and she looked up at him and he couldn’t even hide the “Wow, you are MUCH more than I thought you were!” look on his face, I just knew it was her doing. How strange that it never even crossed my mind it could have been Littlefinger’s plot the whole time. It makes more sense that viewers would have been led to believe that this was just one more of Littlefinger’s devious plots, or that we’re so used to Sansa being controlled by others that she would continue to be controlled by Baelish, and yet somehow I just immediately assumed this was her stepping up, taking the reins, and realizing after SO long being held captive by the Lannisters that it’s her turn to make the rules. I loved the scene of her walking down the stairs in that dress: it put her in charge, regardless of whom she was doing it for. She’s recognized that she and Littlefinger are the same: alone in the world, and using their cunning to survive.
As for Ser Jorah’s banishment, I found it frustrating as hell (not from a writing standpoint, but one of those yelling at the characters to stop what they’re doing moments). Once again Tywin is wielding power from afar by sitting at a desk and writing his horrible letters. The last bunch of letters he sent (that we saw, at least) landed at The Twins, in Walder Frey’s lap, and led to the massacre at the Red Wedding. Recently we saw the Small Council talking about Daenerys’s position and that she had two advisors: Ser Barristan and Ser Jorah. So clearly this is his way of unseating one of them, and leaving her in a vulnerable position. And she takes the bait.
“Why did The Usurper pardon you?!” she demands, and more importantly, “Did you tell them I was carrying Khal Drogo’s child?” Even though she doesn’t say it, you can tell her mind begins working overtime, wondering if the baby and Khal perhaps died because of something Jorah had leaked to her enemies.
Poor Ser Jorah. We’ve known for some time that he’d been spying (or, at least, some of us gleaned that because my husband, on the other hand, seemed utterly shocked) but that he had also changed by developing feelings and respect for Daenerys, and was now firmly on her side, in her camp. That doesn’t reverse the damage that he’s already done, but he’s far more useful to her as an ally than as an outcast. While she doesn’t always follow his advice, she certainly takes it to heart. In my notes I simply wrote, “Tywin wins again.” For all the mastery she has shown politically and on the battlefield, she’s still a child who can get caught up in emotions. She’s so hurt by his betrayal she doesn’t call for his execution or imprisonment, but banishes him from her sight. I wished she had kept him there in chains and discovered he really was trying to work for her, not against her. When she tells him not to call her Khaleesi, it hurt my heart. I loved those two together, him pining for the thing he can’t have but still loving her and protecting her every step of the way, and she resisting his advice but keeping him close because she always feels safer with him by her side. Jorah’s gone, and Barristan is getting older. Who will be her advisor once they are both gone? Argh, Daenerys. You had this. You had this. You let Tywin take it away. Argh.
Back over to the Eyrie, just as a (now bottle-fed?) bleary-eyed Robin is being led away from the nest, the Hound and Arya are making their way up to see Lysa. It’s just a short scene, but still a standout for Arya’s reaction to the ludicrous events happening around her.
Christopher: Arya’s hysterical laughter was brilliant. It was also cryptic: whether she’s laughing at the absurdity of the situation, at the Hound for failing to capitalize on his captive, or just at the series of unfortunate events her life has become. The scene is a little odd, however, given that the implicit suggestion is that they’ve been turned away and the Arya-Hound road show will continue … when in reality, having announced her identity as a surviving Stark, wouldn’t she be taken up to the Eyrie no matter what had happened to Lysa? Even the dullest dullard on sentry duty at the Bloody Gate should know that you don’t just let a scion of the North wander off. Perhaps I’m wrong and we’ll see them taken captive by the numerous guards surrounding them, but I don’t see how that happens without a massive deviation from the novels. In the books, the Hound is in fact taking Arya to the Eyrie, but they never get as close as they do in the series.
It was a brief interlude with Arya and the Hound, but we always get quality for our money with them. Their banter is both hilarious and chilling, with Arya lamenting the fact that she wasn’t present to witness Joffrey’s death. “I wanted to see the look in his eyes when he knew it was over,” she said. “Aye,” the Hound agrees, “nothing in the world beats that look.” What an adorable moment of bonding for these two as they agree on the sweetest aspect of killing. Indeed, it seems that killing has become Arya’s main form of satisfaction, enough that she cannot take pleasure in Joffrey’s death at a distance:
ARYA: I thought it would make me happy. But it doesn’t, really.
HOUND: Nothing makes you happy.
ARYA: Lots of things make me happy.
HOUND: Like what?
ARYA: Killing Polliver. Killing Rorge.
The Stark girls would make a good team now: Sansa with the plotting, Arya as the muscle. What is chilling is how she has obviously been devoting a lot of thought to the business of killing: she goes on to call out the Hound’s pride when he declares “Poison’s a woman’s weapon … men kill with steel.” Perhaps she has taken the lesson she learned a few episodes ago to heart: however skilled she becomes with a blade, she cannot overcome armour and brute force with steel. “That’s why you’ll never be a great killer,” she says disdainfully. She has learned a certain brutal pragmatism: use whatever means you have at your disposal.
Speaking of the failure of speed and skill in the face of brute force, we have come at last to this episode’s climactic scene. But before we get to the titular fight between the Mountain and the Viper, we’re treated to a fairly lengthy discussion between Jaime and Tyrion, in which Tyrion remembers his simple beetle-smashing cousin and arrives at a fairly bleak existential conclusion of life and death. The first time I watched this episode, all I could think about was the fight I knew had to happen at the end, and got impatient with Tyrion’s Jean-Paul Sartre schtick. I felt like Milhouse in the Poochie episode of The Simpsons: “When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory!?” But on re-watching, I was impressed with the writing, and with the depth of Peter Dinklage’s soliloquizing. What did you make of this scene, Nikki?
Nikki: See, because I didn’t know what was going to happen next in that battle scene, I adored this scene between Jaime and Tyrion (but if I’d known what was coming, I would have been exactly like you and Milhouse!). The whole story of his cousin Orson smashing beetles was a brilliant little side story, where we really see the camaraderie between Tyrion and Jaime as they remember their youth. It’s quite the opposite sort of memory than the one we got in the previous episode, where Oberyn talked about how Cersei had tortured Tyrion as an infant. “Laughing at another person’s misery was the only thing that made me feel like everyone else,” he says, and it’s yet another look into Tyrion’s past… one that, if I thought GRRM were actually some sort of sadistic prick, I would think was a clear indicator that Tyrion’s about to get it. But GRRM would never do that to us, right? Ahem.
The story is just left hanging, even as it adds some humour to an otherwise very dark episode. “Far too much has been written on great men,” Tyrion says, commenting on the very centralized theme of Game of Thrones: that it’s about men and women vying for power. “And not nearly enough on morons,” he adds, much to our delight. But just because his cousin was clearly brain-damaged didn’t mean that there wasn’t some purpose to his daily beetle-smashing, at least as far as young Tyrion was concerned. Tyrion had become obsessed by Orson’s actions. “I was the smartest person I knew, certainly I had the wherewithal to unravel the mysteries that lay at the heart of a moron.” He studied him daily, sitting nearby, watching the beetle carcasses just pile up and wondering, why? Why does his cousin do what he does?
And then… the scene just ends. No doubt everyone has their own theory for what Tyrion’s scene meant. Even my husband looked at me and said, “What were we supposed to take from that?!”
But no time for that now, the big fight’s starting! There’s Prince Oberyn, the Viper of Dorne, spitting in the face of the gods and saying that maybe they think it’s his time to die, to which he responds, “Not today.” There’s The Mountain, looming over the action, terrifying Ellaria, who cannot believe someone that massive is actually human. Tyrion is shaking, Oberyn is filled with confidence, the Mountain is focused on murder, and Ellaria begs him not to leave her alone in this world. He ain’t scared: he’s hellbent on revenge.
Yes, yes, yes, I know I should have learned my lesson by now. Take the convention, flip it on its head, and you can pretty much predict where GRRM is going to take the scene. Ned Stark will NOT be saved at the last minute. Main character? Bah. GRRM farts in the general direction of main characters. Arya Stark will NOT be reunited with her family at the Frey wedding. Butbutbut we’ve watched her try to be with them for so long; even if he massacres them, couldn’t she just, you know, say hello? You son of a silly person, GRRM says, your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries. Be off with you.
But I get tricked Every. Damn. Time. And this time, I knew how it was supposed to play out. Prince Oberyn has been waiting for this moment. He’s been roaming the countryside, training, with only one thing in mind: killing The Six-Fingered Man The Mountain. And when he finally gets his chance, he’s supposed to dance around him (check), he’s supposed to shock everyone that he might actually win this one (check). He’s supposed to repeat the same mantra over and over again: “My name is Prince Oberyn, Viper of Dorne. You killed my sister. Prepare to die.” (check… with paraphrasing) He’s supposed to knock him on his back (check) and he’s supposed to kill him.
I said… HE’S SUPPOSED TO KILL HIM. I’m sorry, is this thing on? He. Is. Supposed. To. Kill. Him.
See us? The viewers sitting out here in the audience? In my case, it’s my husband and I, literally on the edge of the couch, cackling and laughing and cheering on Prince Oberyn, knowing he’s the most charismatic and amazing character they’ve introduced since Brienne. We cheer as he knocks him on his back. We chuckle knowingly as Tyrion relaxes for the first time in weeks, as Jaime sits forward and smiles, realizing with shock and awe that David will indeed take down Goliath.
Until Goliath reaches out and reminds Oberyn that he’s nothing more than a beetle. That The Mountain has no mercy. And he will take David’s slingshot and smash it under his baby toe. He will take Inigo Montoya’s sword and break it in half. And then he will take his own thumbs and push them so far into Prince Oberyn’s face that he not only creates what is possibly THE most painful death I’ve seen on the show so far, but then he smashes his head like a fucking melon.
And suddenly the levity of the episode — the scenes with Arya/Hound and Tyrion/Jaime — have new meaning. Arya says that she wishes she could have seen Joffrey die, and is upset that she’s missed it. For her, his death wasn’t enough: she wanted to watch him suffer. But it’s that kind of emotional attachment that makes you lose. Oberyn needed to hear the Mountain fess up, and if he hadn’t pushed the issue and just killed him when he had the chance, he still would have been victorious, and Tyrion would be off the hook (that is, unless the Mountain was playing him the whole time, which is possible but unlikely, since that big hunk of muscle seems to just want to win quickly). Is this some sort of foreshadowing that Arya’s not as safe as I hope she is? And to return to Tyrion and Jaime: Why did Orson smash the beetle? Because he could. The Mountain holds no grudge against Tyrion or Oberyn, and held no grudge against Oberyn’s sister or children. He did what he did because he could, with no more thought in his brain than “Kuhn, Kuhn” just like Orson did.
I forgave you Ned Stark, Mr. Martin. I forgave you the Red Wedding. You made up for it with Joffrey and Lysa, after all. Those were funny deaths. But this. This.
As I said when I sent my first pass to you, Chris, I fucking hate George RR Martin today. It will pass, for it is he who has created this glorious world and I can’t wait to see what happens next, but The Mountain just crushed all hope from the show.
I can’t see how Tyrion could possibly die. Before this episode aired, my husband and I made a (very short) list of people who are the key players, and realized everyone else is just a catalyst, including everyone who has died so far. Our list was Tywin, Stannis, Daenerys, Arya, Bran, and Tyrion. But after this week, who knows. Yes, I’ll still be shocked if Tyrion really is executed after this — he’s the best character on the show — but I probably shouldn’t be.
I know this is usually the final pass on our back and forth, but I wanted to throw it back to you one last time if you had any final thoughts on this, Chris, since this was a key moment in the series.
Christopher: Well, just to lead off, let me say: I don’t know how much of that fight was done by Pedro Pascal and how much by a fight double, but wow—the Viper has some moves.
In an episode that has some notable deviations from the novels, the trial by combat unfolded almost precisely as GRRM wrote it, right down to the Mountain’s correcting the sequence of his crimes as he crushes the life out of Oberyn. And I reflected, on watching the fight, the same thing I did when I first read it in the novel: that the very lust for revenge that made Oberyn stand for Tyrion is also what causes his downfall. As you say, he can’t let it go—can’t just finish him off and be done with it, but must elicit a confession. Well … he gets the confession, and an entire audience of King’s Landing’s elite hears him say it. But it comes at the price of his life and (we assume) Tyrion’s.
The overtones of Inigo Montoya are so strong in this scene that it seems unlikely GRRM wasn’t being deliberate. Which, when you consider how it ultimately plays out, is very clever … ruthlessly, cruelly, pitilessly clever. In The Princess Bride, Inigo is gravely wounded by the Six-Fingered Man and looks about to lose, but brings himself together in what is one of the great fist-pumping moments in film. Oberyn, by contrast, is never really perturbed—there are one or two moments when the Mountain gets the upper hand, but things never look dire for him until the very end.
As I mentioned above, GRRM has a pretty clear-eyed view of what brute force can do. There was no miraculous escape for Syrio Forel, Arya might as well have been a mosquito when she stabs the Hound, and though Oberyn comes close to defeating the Mountain, all it took was a moment’s inattention. Gregor Clegane is a terrifying manifestation of brutal, unthinking violence. “Do you know who I am?” Oberyn demands. “Some dead man,” he grunts in reply, in an echo of his conversation with Cersei: “Who am I fighting?” “Does it matter?” To which he simply shakes his head. No, it does not matter. The Mountain’s role in the series has been (until now) somewhat more understated than in the novels. It is clearer in the novels that Gregor and his men are one of the weapons in Tywin Lannister’s arsenal. When he wishes to be subtle, he sends letters and wreaks havoc half a world away. When he needs to terrorize his enemies, he sends the Mountain. “Unleash Gregor Clegane and his reavers,” he says at one point in the novels, knowing full well that they will kill, rape, burn, and plunder until the countryside lives in abject terror.
What was cousin Orson doing? He was mindlessly killing, and presumably taking some perverse pleasure in the impunity with which he could do so. I don’t think the point of that story was so much Orson playing the Mountain with beetles, so much as Tyrion’s abject failure to comprehend it. Hopefully Oberyn’s spear proves to be the proverbial mule-kick that ends the Mountain’s mindless smashing.
Any last thoughts, Nikki?
Nikki: When my husband first asked me what Tyrion’s scene meant, I said I think it meant that sometimes, things just happen. Orson is pushing at beetles because, well, he’s pushing at beetles. Just as Tywin ended up in King’s Landing while Ygritte is a wildling. We want to attribute meaning to things, we want to say the gods wanted this to happen, but things just happen. Why does one person die of cancer while another one overcomes it? Why do some people feel driven by ambition while others are content with whatever will be, will be? Because they are. Sometimes you have to stop trying to find meaning in things, and know that the gods aren’t playing with us; shit happens. Oberyn could have won that fight, and The Mountain did. Orson doesn’t ask why he smashes the beetles, he just does. The real question that comes out of that scene is, why was Tyrion so obsessed with understanding why?
Maybe he can ask his gods. Because we’re being led to believe, at this point, that he’ll be meeting them soon.
But no matter how many times GRRM Joss Whedons me into sadness, I will still believe relentlessly that Tyrion’s gonna get himself out of this one. He just has to.