Unexpected visitors arrive in Mole’s Town. Littlefinger’s motives are questioned. Ramsay tries to prove himself to his father. Tyrion’s fate is decided.
No episode of Game of Thrones has seen more promotion than “The Mountain and the Viper”. Ads for the episodes have followed fans across the Internet, EW and other outlets have posted numerous articles (with associated tweets and other social media posts) talking it up, and more. It’s a pivotal episode that brings to fruition the machinations to determine the fate of Tyrion Lannister, a story that’s been more than half a season in the making since Cersei Lannister first accused Tyrion of regicide over the body of her dead son in “The Lion and the Rose”.
And just as that episode ended with an accusation, this episode ends with judgment: Tyrion is condemned to death after the Mountain crushes (quite literally) the Viper. The shocking turn, the defeat-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-victory, the gore—it will surely set Twitter abuzz, and no doubt those who come to look at this review may notice that Westeros.org is groaning under the weight of traffic this episode is liable to bring.
If only it were deserved.
Because, when it comes to it, this episode is—in our estimation—the biggest letdown of the season. When you hype something up—when you declare it to contain one of the best things you’ve ever done—you must deliver to the expectations you create, and for us, it fell short. That’s the danger, of course, when one promotes and pushes the idea that this is something that’s the equivalent of a “Blackwater”. Or, even, a “The Rains of Castamere”, although it’s worth noting that that episode’s key sequence has some issues not dissimilar from those that plague this one.
Where to begin? There’s certainly material to praise here—especially in the early going. The attack on Mole’s Town, never witnessed from the books, casually captures the suddeness of violence, and the easy brutality of the the wildlings. The Thenns aren’t even the most brutal, cannibals that they are: the gusto with which Tormund Giantsbane kills is obvious, and more importantly, we get to see Ygritte’s own ruthlessness against men and women alike. The moment where she stares at Gilly and little Samwell is well-calculated, not only because of the fact that she chooses to spare them—even she has limits, and killing babies in the arms of their mothers is a line she’s not comfortable crossing—but because it takes her a few long moments ; she could very well have decided the other way.
The reaction at Castle Black is fairly straightforward, a solid enough scene, but in my mind the scenes that follow in Meereen are much more interesting. Playing up a looming romance between Grey Worm and Missandei—has any other TV series ever broached such a relationship between a eunuch and a woman?—this material works very well, fleshing out two of the characters who are always present but not often presented with their own agency, their own lives and desires beyond their wish to serve Daenerys. It seems a little odd, admittedly, that Missandei would not know the full extent of the castration practiced on the Unsullied, but we can suppose that it’s a carefully guarded secret in the continuity of the show. Jacob Anderson and Nathalie Emmanuel have excellent chemistry with one another, bringing to mind the season 1 interactions by Amrita Acharia’s Irri and Elyes Gabel’s Rakharo.
The scenes above are all inventions of the show’s producers in various ways—the attack on Mole’s Town is not witnessed by the POV characters in the books, Gilly was never there to begin with, and Missandei is far too young for such things whereas Grey Worm seems quite asexual—but they show a good dramatic sense, and highlight some of Alex Graves’s more effective direction in this episode. The inexorable advance of the wildlings through Mole’s Town, and into the brothel where the Magnar and the others cut men and women down like so much chaff, or the way Grey Worm’s head surfaces above the water and his gaze falls on Missandei.
The camera can move or be static, but it’s used to interesting effect, acting as a propulsive force or as a way to focus attention adroitly. Equally effective, in terms of writing and direction, is Reek’s taking on the role of Theon Greyjoy at Ramsay’s command to bring about Moat Cailin’s surrender. Although the full depth of the horrors of Moat Cailin aren’t really captured on the screen, at least some of it—dead bodies, dead horses, sickness and flies, mud and stench—comes through very well, giving an immediate sense of place for Reek’s deception.
Alfie Allen’s performance this season has been uniformly very strong, conveying with his eyes and body language so much of his character’s collapse as he sees nothing but misery and miserably servitude as his lot. As Kenning reminds him how far away he is from a real ironborn, the facade of Theon Greyjoy slips away, and only the fact that not all ironborn are glad to die bravely saves him. Ramsay’s duplicitousness, and Reek’s silent acceptance of the horrors that the mad bastard makes him look at, is simply icing on the cake.
And the end of his story—for this season, we suspect, since IMDB’s entry for actor Grahame Fox (who played Ralf Kenning) claims he was to appear in the finale and obviously that’s no longer the case—is especially strong as it’s a call back to the very start of the show, all the way back to our first glimpses of the castle of Winterfell as a messenger approached in “Winter is Coming”. It will certainly be interesting to see what they make of Reek’s further story next season, but a return to the Winterfell location is going to be an exciting change after not having seen the castle since the end of the second season.
The hurried departure of Jorah Mormont—long-expected though it was—works well enough, but it does feel like a shame that there have been fewer interactions between Jorah and Daenerys as the show has worn on from its beginnings. Again, there’s something about Clarke’s performance that feels a little off—notice that very strange, awkward stare into the distance in the midst of the exile scene, which doubtless was meant to convey her inability to look at the trusted supporter and advisor who had betrayed her—and for our part, the scene could have used more of Daenerys’s outrage and hurt than what we see. If there was ever a moment for Daenerys to rage, it was this one.
Iain Glen’s performance is pitch perfect, and a nod has to be given to Ian McElhinney for the way he portrays Barristan’s going to Jorah first. From his introduction to Daenerys’s retinue last season, his reticence about Mormont’s presence has been a detail that occasionally rears its head, and no more so than now… but however he feels about the man, he is a knight, and he treats him honorably. One hopes next season will reveal more about Ser Barristan, especially in regards to his past as a Kingsguard knight to Aerys Targaryen; it’s time for the past to begin coming to the fore.
There’s something more mixed, unfortunately, in the Vale of Arryn where the narrative threads from A Feast for Crows are pulled… to uneven effect. Littlefinger, of course, is diminished in this episode: he had no plan at all, it’s revealed, for how to deal with these great lords who suddenly appear to judge him. This is very uncharacteristic of the character in the novels, at least, and while the producers are free to change characters as they please, it’s easy to see how they could have given Littlefinger a plan—but one that fails—rather than his launching a murder without any notion at all of how to get out of it, which seems to exist solely to give Sansa her turn.
Building up Sansa need not diminish Littlefinger. Sophie Turner certainly makes the best of it, however, providing a strong performance that reminds us how much she’s grown as an actress since the first season of the show. Sansa’s blue-eyed gaze at Littlefinger as Lady Anya Waynwood holds her in her arms is particularly telling. The revelation of her identity to the Vale lords is a significant deviation from the novels, but it seems calculated to streamline certain aspects of it for the screen. But again, this would have been stronger had Littlefinger fumbled an actual plan of his own. Far better as a constructed scene, however, is that in her bedroom. The demure domesticity of Sansa’s embroidery as she sits on her bed is a remarkably effective tool for conveying who Sansa is.
The way the conversation with Littlefinger reveals her thought process—“better the man you know”, Petyr says, but I’d say “better the devil you know”—while allowing her to treat it as simply matter-of-fact is excellent, and helped by performances from both Turner and Gillen. Gillen (whom we’ve interviewed this season) has received a certain amount of criticism in certain quarters for his odd diction choices for the character, but here there’s something about it that actually (finally) seems to work. The grandioseness of his delivery should be there when he’s feeling vulnerable, trying to bluff his way with exaggerated confidence, and so his faltering in front of these Vale lords is the perfect place for it. And then in that quieter scene with Sansa—and this may just be my imagination—but the full effect of it is muted, as Littlefinger grapples with what Sansa did ... and what she does or doesn’t know about his desires.
It’s a shame that it then leads to one of the more ham-fisted moments of the episode when Sansa descends the steps and has literally transformed from the tarnished innocence of the past into something darker, more adult, more overtly sexual with her neckline and raven feathers and darkened hair (a detail from the novels, but its meaning has been completely turned around into one of those “Bad guys wear black” cliches). I’m not sure what the producers, hair and makeup, and costuming departments were thinking when they decided to radically alter her appearance, but I wish they had come up with something more… realistic and subtle than a sudden shift in fashion sense for no discernable reason.
This moment is prefaced, of course, with a glimpse at Arya and the Hound once more, as we’re reminded just how bloodthirsty Arya has become and then—more notably—how twisted her response in to the misfortune of her aunt’s death. The laughter is certainly off-putting. But the scene raises a host of questions, a host of questions I expect the show will not even bother delving into. With episode 9 guaranteed to be entirely focused on the Wall, it seems inevitable that when we catch up to the two characters again they’ll be trudging their way back down the high road.
But… Arya’s survival has just been revealed, and the Hound’s own presence. Wouldn’t Donnel Waynwood suggest (and then require) them to stay until little Lord Arryn or his guardian Lord Baelish (Arya’s uncle-by-marriage, now) were informed? Very odd. Perhaps we’ll be surprised and see the full consequences play out.
And then we come to the last quarter of the episode, all in King’s Landing, narrowing in on the pivotal question of Tyrion’s fate. I can understand from the perspective of the writers that the Tyrion scene in the cell was intended to show how the overwhelming weight of the fact that his fate hung in the balance, a balance that he was completely powerless to affect, would lead to his mind meandering around meaningless questions that reflect that powerlessness. But what they wrote is simply sub-par for the show. Four minutes of Orson Lannister smashing endless beetles? Really? So much more of the story, and the character, might have been served with something else; there’s a compelling conversation between Oberyn and Tyrion before the duel, for example, that would have helped a great deal to foreshadow Dorne’s role in the future, and give viewers a false sense of security that’s far more subtle than what they offered up. This Beckettian narrative of pointless obsession (which turns a bit Kafkaesque, too, with its ugly image of dead beetles as far as the eye can see) is so lugubrious that not even Peter Dinklage seems able to commit to it.
It’s not the most auspicious lead up to the final, much-promoted final battle between the Red Viper and the Mountain. And on so many levels—direction, writing, fight choreography—the inauspiciousness simply seems to herald that this is not really what we could ever have imagined would become of this scene. Fight editing so rapid as to leave parts of it incoherent because it can’t convey the distances which the combatants can cover with their weapons of choice? Choreography insisting on acrobatics and maneuvers that require crane shots to allow a stunt double to do the work, reducing the intimacy of this extremely personal conflict? And insisting, in an absurd moment of fealty to the books, to have Thor Börnsson deliver ponderous one-handed blows when it was obvious that they rarely looked swift or dangerous enough to be a threat? Direction that leaves one or the other of the men out of frame for most of the fight, rarely providing moments where there’s any connection closer than a blade vaguely passing in front of someone’s face? The cliched heartfelt promise that the protagonist will not die, very much guaranteeing that he will, indeed, die?
I don’t know where to begin to explain more fully the level of failure in conveying what for many is the most memorable fight sequence in the novels, a status it should have held for the show as well. This key, critical sequence provoked overwrought editing and choreography, losing sight of the essential story and refusing to create the atmosphere that would have best conveyed the narrative being told. In essence, it’s become very much like the show’s version of the Red Wedding. There, the mounting dread and horror leading up to the “shocking moment” disappeared. Here, the sense of growing personal conflict, and the mounting intensity of Oberyn’s thirst for revenge, dwindles enormously. It’s troubling—disturbing, even—that their instinct for this scene (which they’ve apparently eagerly awaited putting to screen for so long) is to reduce it to the worst kind of flashy, hyper-kinetic choreography and editing. It strangles the drama in the cradle. It might work for Greengrass’s Bourne films—but those fight sequences are hand-to-hand close combat in cramped spaces, the frenetic editing capturing the chaos of small, rapid movements; big movements, big ranges, the separation they fight at, required something different.
The only thing that holds up is the acting, and that’s a testament to Pedro Pascal first and foremost, as everyone else is simply a witness. Oberyn’s star burned too bright, alas, and now we’ll have to carry out without him. “The Watcher on the Walls” promises to be a spectacular episode in the vein of “Blackwater”—widely considered the single best episode of the series to date—so it has a lot to live up to. Will it manage? We certainly hope so, because two disappointments in a row at this late date would be too much to bear when the season finale is in sight.
[In the course of discussing the scene on our forum, I’ve tried to more fully articulate the issues I had with the fight through some empirical analysis of the cutting and comparison to other, comparable fight scenes. You can find that post here.]
The episode covers the following chapters: Reek II (ADwD), Alayne I and II (AFfC), parts of Daenerys V and VI (ASoS), and part of Tyrion X (ASoS).
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Other scenes of note:
Attack on Mole’s Town: The attack on Mole’s Town is never directly witnessed. Three-quarters of the inhabitants of Mole’s Town had fled to safety following warnings, many of whom found themselves at Castle Black seeking safety. Gilly and her son—and Samwell as well—are not yet present in Castle Black at this time, nor are they ever at Mole’s Town.
Reaction at Castle Black: As noted above, the attack on Mole’s Town is not directly witnessed, but the smoke from its burning is seen at the Wall. Three-quarters of the inhabitants of Mole’s Town had fled to safety following warnings, many of whom found themselves at Castle Black seeking safety. Also as noted above, Gilly and her son—and Samwell as well—are not yet present in Castle Black at this time.
Missandei and Grey Worm: As Missandei is a child in the novels, there’s no such romantic relationship. Furthermore, it is widely known in the novels that the Unsullied have the entirety of their genitals removed; it seems clear that the level of knowledged is greatly reduced in the show’s setting, and that it’s unclear whether they are merely gelded or are fully emasculated.
Roose and Ramsay: As noted in previous episodes, Roose never dispatches anyone to try and find Bran and Rickon. As to Ramsay, his legitimization takes place near the end of A Storm of Swords, and is not something his father withholds on the basis of his performance. The end of the scene with their traveling toward Winterfell appears to quickly move the story ahead—at least as far as location goes—compared to the novels.
Sansa and Littlefinger: As noted above, Sansa never independently testifies falsely to save Littlefinger—when she is brought in as Alayne to speak to the Lords Declarant, she has been coached by Littlefinger to throw the blame on the singer Marillion. The conversation shown here has no equivalent to that in the novels. Although Robin Arryn does leave the Eyrie in the novels, it’s only to take up residence in the Gates of the Moon due to the coming of Winter.
Arya and the Hound: Arya and the Hound never go to the Bloody Gate, nor learn of Lysa Arryn’s death. After having given up on taking the high road, their journey takes them back into the riverlands.
Jaime and Tyrion: As noted in previous episodes, Tyrion and Jaime have no interactions at this point in the novel. Tyrion’s questioning whether the Red Viper merits his byname is not in line with the novels, as there he is fully aware of the Red Viper’s reputation, and various stories regarding his feats of arms. Finally, no “cousin Orson” is indicate to have existed—it is an invention of the show. Tyrion’s professed joy in being able to mock the disabilities of others appears in contradiction of his statements in the novels (and in the first season) that he was in fact fond of “cripples, bastards, and broken things”.