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Review: ‘Game of Thrones’ Continues Its Critique of Heroism in Season 4 Episode 8, ‘The Mountain and the Viper’

Review: 'Game of Thrones' Continues Its Critique of Heroism in Season 4 Episode 8, 'The Mountain and the Viper'

Believe it or not, “The Mountain and the Viper” had a whole
45-minute bit before the fight between Oberyn Martell and Gregor
Clegane. But that fight, particularly its resolution, is a reminder of the
point of view “Game of Thrones” (and, naturally, “A Song of Ice and Fire”)
takes with regards to traditional literary heroism: there is no more certain
path to death. 

Ned Stark, whose very name suggests “patriarch”: slaughtered
ignominiously, under circumstances not entirely not his fault. His son Robb,
another traditional heroic archetype, was the avenging son seeking satisfaction for
the murder of his father: abruptly and even more brutally dispatched, according
to a successful plot by a petty old coward who would never dream of a
face-to-face challenge. And now, Prince Oberyn Martell, the exotic, swaggering
ladies’ (and men’s) man, immaculately dressed, as at home in the dark rooms of
political intrigue as he is in duelists’ grounds, Casanova with Inigo Montoya’s
backstory, the very model of the dashing, swashbuckling… oh, wait, the
bigger, stronger guy he arrogantly thought he could defeat with speed and
panache alone just crushed his skull with his bare hands. Whoops. Never mind.

READ MORE: ‘Game of Thrones’ Is the ‘Avatar’ of the Emmys, and That’s Okay

With the shocking — yes, “Game of Thrones” is still capable of
shocking violence (God knows what they have in store for the last season,
considering we’re only at about the halfway point in the show now) — death of
Oberyn Martell, “Game of Thrones” has become the longest-running critique of
genre heroism on record. In killing — in such humiliating fashion, no less — so
many archetypical “hero” characters, the books and show seem to be indicating
that trust in heroic saviors is the true fantasy, even more than dragons, White
Walkers, and sorcery.

Now that we’re done being cheerful, as mentioned above, some
other things did happen in the episode. We checked in with the Wildling advance
on Castle Black, and encountered a barmaid who could belch the tunes of “The
Rains of Castermere” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” much to the delight of
several soon-dead members of the Night’s Watch. Ygritte shows the audience how
you get to be a character one sort of roots for without that foretelling
immediate death by willingly participating in a raiding party whose purpose is
to kill every human being in a settlement, but sparing a woman (Gilly) with a
baby. Being a brigand with an occasional pangs of conscience is clearly a
better path to survival than anything like actual nobility (a reminder that the
only thing literarily keeping Jon Snow alive at this point is probably his
complete isolation from anything resembling actual power).

In Meereen, an unlikely romance is beginning to flower
between leader of the Unsullied Grey Worm and Danaerys’ translator Missandei,
who while she reciprocates his fondness wonders at his capacity for physical
attraction in a conversation with Danaerys, who proposes that it might come
down to whether, when Grey Worm was castrated, “the pillar” was removed along
with “the stones,” in one of the show’s rare mordantly funny moments not
involving Tyrion Lannister. The tone of this sequence is a bit rough around the
edges, perhaps due to the return of director Alex Graves, the culprit of this
season’s worst tonal misfire — the rape scene that textually made no sense as a rape
scene in “Breaker of Chains.” (It should be noted, no such missteps occur here,
so that may have been a one-time-only accident.)

Tone is less the problem than awkward editing in the scene
where Ser Jorah, finally busted for spying after four seasons, has his
acrimonious farewell with Danaerys. They both play the scene well, but the
camera’s all over the damn place and the blocking is weird. The scene
culminates in what would have been a nice shot of Jorah riding his horse out of
town, alone in the world, but rather than hold the fairly decent shot, we cut
to something less interesting. It’s a deeply unsatisfying construction of what could
have been a really great scene in the hands of a more competent director.

The check-in with Ramsay Snow this episode serves mainly to
highlight how badly the show has built his character over the course of the
show, with the needlessly protracted mystery concerning his identity not really
being one at all to book readers and his being such a one-note psychopath
alienating newcomers. He remains a poorly delineated character serving no
unique purpose in a realm where everyone who manages to not get killed is a
brutal bastard (and frequently literally), with his work in service of Roose
Bolton’s tangential efforts to solidify control of the North (finally
articulated in this episode by Bolton, who also legally de-bastardizes Ramsay,
who can now formally claim the last name of Bolton, in the show’s least
exciting twist ever) not really having anything to do with the interesting
parts of the show. But Ramsay’s continued existence means a working actor gets
to collect paychecks, so it’s not a total loss.

Speaking of acting, Sophie Turner goes supernova in “The
Mountain and the Viper.” In the aftermath of Littlefinger’s defenestration of
Lysa Arryn, her people come to the Vale to investigate. Their obvious (and
obviously warranted) suspicions surrounding Littlefinger’s role in Lysa’s death
are completely put to rest by a tour de force performance by Sansa Stark,
complete with real tears and immaculately constructed dramatic build, wherein
she uses the revelation of her true identity (Littlefinger had been passing her
off as “a niece,” and a slightly addled one at that) to obfuscate the larger
lie surrounding the murder. In kind of a silly directorial joke, while Sansa is
lying, the camera angle emphasizes the length of her nose, a la Pinocchio, and
then beats the joke into the ground, but Sophie Turner’s performance as Sansa
obliterates all the obstacles her director places in her path. Let the movement
for her Emmy nomination start here, and let her wear the black raven dress from
her last shot to the awards ceremony.

And then we’re back at the trial by combat, preceded by
another terrific (if slightly redundant) brother bonding scene between Jaime
and Tyrion, where Tyrion foreshadows the brutal dispatching of his second with
a long story full of apparent symbolic import that never reaches any
satisfactory resolution, much like life. The way “Game of Thrones” plays with
this kind of fatalism, as well as its frequent and brutal mockery of masculine
preening (something the show would probably get more credit for if not for its “why cast five nude female extras with no dialogue when 10 will do?” tendencies) would be bleak if it wasn’t so baroque as to be almost humorous.
The fourth season’s tagline “All Men Must Die” should have the phrase “brutally, with caps lock on” added to the end.

Grade: B

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