Well, talk about a pretty literal title, eh? And the episode delivers on the title’s promise even though it keeps us waiting for quite some time (and more on that later). After the last few weeks of setup, we finally arrive at Tyrion’s trial by combat with Oberyn stepping in for him against the Mountain. It is hands down Game of Thrones’ best one-on-one action sequence to date and perhaps comes in third of overall action sequences, trailing just the Red Wedding and the explosion of the ships in Blackwater Bay.
Duels are exciting by nature. Think back to the Star Wars films and all the duel’s contained within it. Luke versus Darth Vader, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan versus Darth Maul, all of these duels are the climax of the films. Even further back we have the films of Errol Flynn that end with him sword-fighting the villain. Current FX drama Justified likes to indulge in its duels, too, albeit ones with guns and knives. Raylan Givens is always down for some action.
So it’s not surprising the duel between the Mountain and Oberyn is exciting, but it’s surprising just how brutal it ended, even for a book reader like me. Credit has to go to Alex Graves for such perfect filming. Oberyn’s twirls and dance-like moves are a wonder to behold and it is completely believable that he’ll beat the Mountain. The Mountain has strength, but Oberyn has style, damn it. He’s confident (Pedro Pascal was fantastic) and even knowing what would happen I still put my trust in him. So as I watched those beautiful wide shots of the duel I smiled each time Oberyn stabbed at the Mountain, hitting him.
Unfortunately, Oberyn’s quest for revenge overtook him.
It was all there in Tyrion’s speech about his simple cousin killing the beetles. The pointlessness of violence and how we go around and around, killing and killing with no real results, yet we still feel the urge to do it, as if it will solve something, as if this time we’ll get it right. The show plays into this because by this point we’re trained to expect our heroes to lose, but this time, this time we think Oberyn will make it out alive and allow Tyrion a victory.
The fact that the battle is personal for Oberyn is what gives him the drive to bring down the Mountain. His anger over the rape and murder of his sister is not only palpable, it’s actually spoken by him multiple times as he demands the Mountain admit to his misdeeds. When he has the Mountain down and out he revels in the takedown too much, taunting him, telling him to admit what he did. This allows the Mountain to make a list ditch attempt and before long Oberyn is dead, his head crushed (that crunch was gruesome).
Game of Thrones has long been telling us that violence rarely works out the way we want it to. Robb Stark’s war ended badly, as did Stannis’. Daenarys’ overthrowing of cities has ended up being a lot more difficult than she thought because she didn’t quite take into account just how hard ruling would be. Oberyn’s quest is just as he’s saving both an innocent man and calling out the Lannister’s for their past crimes, but he takes too much time enjoying the Mountain’s pain that the universe of Westeros appears to judge him for it, taking away his happiness as punishment for his glee.
As great as the last two scenes were, I can’t help but feel it would’ve played even better if the structure mimicked that of episode 2 of this season, “The Lion and the Rose.” The episode once again hopped around a lot and we didn’t get to King’s Landing until the last fifteen minutes. It was a spectacular fifteen minutes, yes, but one that felt like it had nothing to do with what came before. In great hours of Game of Thrones, like “The Laws of God and Men,” the hour feels epic, linked even if the scenes are all over the map (literally). But occasionally we get ones like last week where the episode just feels scattered, never quite catching on. That feeling dominates the first half of “The Mountain and the Viper” and the constant start and halt of the narrative was particularly noticeable. This doesn’t mean individual scenes weren’t good, Jorah’s dismissal was heartbreaking, but the scenes with Gilly and Ramsay didn’t take off, feeling like obligatory check-ins as opposed to anything with a narrative drive.
But I don’t want to sound like I’m down on the episode. The final sequence was brilliance, utter brilliance and I can’t wait to see the concluding two chapters of this season.
Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.