Boy, that was a rough one. Harder for me than the Red Wedding for sure, because of the way Martin wrote it. About the only thing I can really put in the same class would be Ned Stark’s final moments, which was a different beast because I didn’t know that was coming when I watched that. In an episode that’s part of a season that’s so full of ch-ch-ch-changes (and boy, is this week full of them) from the books, part of me rages that Weiss and Benioff couldn’t change this of all things? But I know they couldn’t really – it’s too much a part of what makes Game of Thrones what it is. It’s just that sort of world.
This is an interesting episode in that the headline moment is nowhere to be seen for about two-thirds of it. Instead we get a mixed platter of mostly B-plots and less effective character arcs. Some of it was mighty important, mind you, but the scenes involving Danerys and the endlessly tiresome Ramsay/Reek storyline simply don’t hold up very well against what’s to come. It’s certainly notable that Roose Bolton has managed to manoeuver himself into such a choice position without doing much actual fighting – he’s a clever one, he is. Whether he’s clever to officially raise his bastard up as a son remains to be seen.
What else is happening up there? Even farther North Tormund and Ygritte have led their forces to Mole’s Town, where it seems as if Gilly is the only one to survive the subsequent massacre (thanks to a surprising moment of kindness from Ygritte). If it’s getting quite frustrating to watch the Night’s Watch holed up in Castle Black, their numbers shrinking and their leadership callow and incompetent, as Wildings and far worse close in on them, trust me – it was frustrating in the books, too. The best moment up here was the short scene of the original “Band of Brothers” commiserating, trying to cheep up Sam by arguing that Gilly was a survivor, and getting ready to die.
There are two other moments of considerable consequence on the undercard before the main event, taking place in Meereen and The Vale. Someone (I wonder who?) has anonymously given Ser Barristan proof that Jorah was pardoned by Robert Baratheon, which effectively proves he was a spy in Dany’s midst. I don’t especially like Jorah – this is not a good man by any definition – but I’ve never doubted that he truly did come to love Danerys, even as he was appraising Varys of her developments. And despite her harsh words I think the reason Dany gave Jorah such a comparatively light punishment (exile from her sight) was because she loves him too, though certainly not in the same way he does her.
As for The Vale, well – this is another one of those arcs where I’ll be discovering right alongside the new viewers, because there’s not a whole lot left that I recognize from ASoIaF. It’s certainly an interesting twist, seeing Sansa actively work on Petyr’s behalf – and at her own instigation too. Sophie Turner has stepped up her game more than any of the cast this year, IMO, and she’s doing stellar work here. I kind of like this Sansa – cunning, practical, a little cold. It’s not hard to see what Petyr has in mind, but is Sansa’s endgame something more than simply staying alive? I don’t blame her for choosing the devil she knows over the devil she doesn’t, especially as she knows now that she has a certain power over Littlefinger whether he likes it or not.
The other interesting twist here is seeing Arya and Sandor show up at The Vale three days after Petyr has murdered Lysa. Yes, it’s another manufactured scenario where Stark children are within shouting distance (well – not quite here, though Bran and Jon were) and have no idea. I can’t imagine Arya would be at the outer gates of the domain of one of her relations and not actually seek protection there, or that The Hound wouldn’t ask for a ransom whether Lysa was alive or not – but as I said, you’re on your own here, I have no idea what’s going to happen. All I know is I’d like to see a series where it’s just Arya and The Hound as buddy cops or something, because they’re magic together.
And I suppose I’ve avoided talking about this last bit as long as I can, because I don’t really want to. It’s heartbreaking, and it made me furious at Martin when I read it in ASoIaF. As for the mechanics of how GoT did in depicting it, I would say generally quite good. There was a new scene with Tyrion and Jaimie in his cell before the duel, reminiscing about a simple-minded cousin who liked to crush beetles all day, that I thought was fascinating and extremely sad. The duel itself felt much shorter to me than it was in the books – I pictured it as lasting 10 or 15 minutes at least on-screen, but considering the expense and brutal difficulty for the actors, I suppose that would have been too much to ask. The choreography was superb, the drama dramatic, and that moment… It was every bit as horrifying and sickening as I dreaded it would be.
I’m not fully sold on Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (Icelandic is a fascinating language) as The Mountain – I thought the first two were more menacing and he’s just huge – but it almost doesn’t matter here, because this is all about Pedro Pascal. The entire season has been, to some extent – Oberyn Martell has burst onto the scene as a huge and vibrant presence that simply wouldn’t be denied. Pascal is an amazing actor and he shows himself to be an amazing action star here, too – he’s graceful and athletic and far more elegant than most of the fighters in GoT, who tend to favor the heavy blunt instrument approach. I loved Oberyn in the books, too, but this was on another level, and that’s all down to the work Pascal did with the character.
Obviously, Oberyn’s death is a terrible thing. The Mountain is an evil sociopath, and Oberyn a thoughtful and passionate man who voraciously consumes life and values loyalty to those he loves above all else. His cause – both for Tyrion and for his sister – was just. Is there something deeper in Martin’s message here, or is he simply reminding us that in ASoIaF justice and honor are meaningless in the face of cruelty and savagery? As a reader or viewer if you allow yourself to be swept up by sentiment for those who are good and just, heartbreak always seems to follow. Yet it’s a measure of Martin’s skills as a writer – and the work HBO has done in this adaptation – that we continually fall in love with characters in this series, even knowing what we know. We want this world to be a better place than it is, because there are people who deserve to live in such a place. But at best, it seems, those people can only hope to survive – and we can only hope they have the strength to accept the injustice and cruelty that surrounds them and not be broken by it.