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Like the gruesome beheading outside the Sept of Baelor, the spectacular battle of Blackwater Bay, and the bloody massacre of the Red Wedding, the events of last night’s Game of Thrones was hotly anticipated by those of us lucky – or unlucky, as the case may be – to have read Geroge R. R. Martin’s books. The visual translation of the duel between Gregor Clegane and Oberyn Martell did not disappoint. It was tense and gruesome, and will have fans talking for weeks to come. We also got to see some character development from little-bird-no-longer Sansa Stark, a cruel turn of events for Jorah Mormont and a quick laugh from Arya, not to mention what’s brewing up North. The next (and last) two episodes of this season are going to be something to behold, but for now we’re going to talk about “The Mountain and the Viper.”

Let’s get right to it – be aware there will be spoilers for the TV series in here, as well as possible leakage of book events as we discuss the implications of the adaptation. You have been warned, ladies and gentlemen.

Those wildlings are jerks, aren’t they? After Sam stowed Gilly in Mole’s Town a few episodes ago, we totally knew she’d be safe there, right?? After a memorable scene with a whore berating a man not getting what song she’s burping – apparently there are only two songs in Westeros – she ends up dying when Torvald Giantsbane, Ygritte and the Thenns attack and slaughter everyone in the village. Gilly holes up in a corner, and Ygritte sees her but decides to let her go. The Night’s Watch superfriends of Pyp, Grenn, Dolorous Edd and Sam all share a bleak drink with Jon Snow anticipating their deaths and suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Gilly got away.

I am still disappointed that Mole’s Town isn’t actually comprised of holes in the ground. There’s something very evocative of a settlement that’s designed to keep its populace warm in the winter, and offer protection when the wildlings raid over the Wall. You see, the wildings climb over it pretty regularly and attack the North, that’s why it’s generally deserted close to the Wall. That’s also why the Northmen and Night’s Watch hate them so much – they are a constant danger not only to the populace but they also steal iron and livestock to make up for meager lives north of the Wall. Mole’s Town is within a day’s ride of Castle Black, and it’s almost completely supported by men in Black sneaking out to screw some ladies against their vows, so you’d think they would have a better defense system. Especially after Jon Snow has alerted them that a Wildling force is already over the Wall. Bah.

I miss Zei. In the books, Jon warns Mole’s Town that an attack is coming and the villagers abandon it to help with the defense of Castle Black and save their arse. Zei is a whore, but she says she’s good with a crossbow and knowing the Watch will need all the sharpshooters they can get, Jon sets her up on a tower. It was a great little subplot – that a whore could do more to stop the attack than a good portion of those left to defend it. I thought that’s who the odd-looking woman with the crooked teeth and bad attitude in Mole’s Town was shaping up to be, but then she turned out to be not very nice to Gilly, and get herself gutted by Ygritte. Another opportunity lost.

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Elsewhere in the very large North, Ramsay Snow sends Reek off to pretend to be Theon Greyjoy. Reek looks very nice in his armor emblazoned with a Kraken, but Ramsay makes the extremely apt analogy that sea monsters aren’t very effective on land. “They have no bones,” Snow says, with an uncanny grasp of the biology of the mollusk family. Reek doesn’t have any bones either – he just does whatever his master tells him. He’s to go to Moat Cailin, and convince the Ironborn left there from Yara’s takeover to surrender. The men there are all dying from disease and starvation because Moat Cailin is in the swamps held by the so-called “frogmen” of House Reed, Jojen and Meera’s people. They openly use poison, and guerrilla warfare tactics and have been harrying the Ironborn who have held the castle for months.

While those details are glossed over, it’s clear the Ironborn garrison is reeling. There are sick men, dead men and horse corpses littering the castle. The leader makes a show of refusing to bend to the demands of the Boltons, and Reek’s posturing as Theon starts to break down in a fit of the shivers. I’m seriously getting annoyed at Alvie Allen’s acting choices, and his whole shaking thing is really the worst part of it. He couldn’t come up with any other way to show his discomfort? It doesn’t matter, because one of the Ironborn puts an axe into the leader’s skull, and decides he’d rather go home and deal with being called a coward than die at the hands of the Boltons. Oh wait … that didn’t work out exactly as the coward planned. His face is the only part of his body Ramsay leaves the skin on.

“Got to keep up appearances,” Snow says to Reek. “Flaying’s a lost art.” I guess Ramsay is the hipster of Westeros. “I was into flaying the skin off my enemies before it was cool.”

Then in a complete reversal of The Lion King‘s imagery, the villain takes his son to the top of a hill and gives him everything. Roose Bolton and Ramsay Snow look at the land around them and the father tells him that their Kingdom is really fucking big. “Bigger than the other six kingdoms combined,” he says. Bolton then surprises everyone and legitimizes his bastard son, making him the heir of the North. You know, if none of the Starks show back up.

This scene is great for so many reasons. If you ignore the past transgressions of both these characters, and the blue and red flag with a man hanging upside down on it, this could be a heroic, triumphant moment of redemption. The bastard son, who has lived in his father’s keep for years, knowing that he’ll never be good enough to rule, knowing that the common blood from his mother will prevent him from treating with nobles on an equal footing, is finally getting his due. Ramsay Snow is now Ramsay Bolton, the heir of Winterfell. Kind of nice, right? (Forgetting the cock-slicing, of course.)

Contrast all this with the treatment of Jon Snow by Eddard Stark. Snow was raised in his father’s house. He was allowed to break bread with the Stark sons, but Catelyn Stark and even Ned to a certain degree, kept Jon at arm’s length. He was never legitimized. He was never treated with respect, just shipped up to the Wall where they send the rapers, thieves and useless dregs of society. How would this story have been different had the Starks acted like Roose Bolton on the top of that hill in the North and given Jon Snow the legitimacy he craved?

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In the Eyrie, the lady of the Vale has just met her demise, falling out of the Moon Door at the hands of Littlefinger. In last week’s podcast, Alexander Macris, Josh Vanderwall and I wondered how the show’s creators were going to explain Lysa Arryn’s death. In the books, there’s a singer, the bard Marillion, who was also in the throne room and Littlefinger pins the murder on him, but in the show he opts for calling it a suicide. That, of course, puts Littlefinger in a little more hot water, and Lord Royce, Chicken Lady and Ser Hair Piece (That’s actually Lady Anya Waynwood, and Ser Vance Corbray, all three important vassals to the Arryns) have a quick investigation into her death. Littlefinger squirms a bit when they demand to see Alayne, a.k.a. Sansa, but she surprises all the adults by delivering an amazingly convincing speech confirming the suspicions that Lysa Arryn was crazy for Coco Puffs. There’s a glance near the end between Littlefinger and Sansa that I at first interpreted as a “It worked!” moment, but it looks like Sansa did this all on her own.

Baelish goes to her chambers where she’s knitting like her Septa taught her, and he asks her why she helped him. It turns out Sansa isn’t as dumb as she’s been acting, or maybe after being the butt of so much posturing, conniving and trickery, she’s learned a thing or two about deception. She says, “If they executed you, what do you think they’d do with me?” Littlefinger says, “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know either,” Sansa replies. Although she totally does! Then her maturation goes one step farther as she acknowledges Petyr’s romantic interest in her. They share another look during a very pregnant pause.

Her figurative transformation is symbolized in a physical one in the next scene. Littlefinger discusses with Lysa’s son Robin that he wants him to tour the lands held by House Arryn, visiting the important holdings and convincing his vassals that he’s a worthy Lord. Sansa enters the throne room in magnificent fashion with the sun at her back. She has dark brown hair – not the crimson she’s had on the show all along – and is wearing a dress that could only be referred to as severe, black leather and all. Sansa is not the sweet, demure, fragile teen anymore. Alayne is a woman in command of her presence. She says to Robin, “Let’s go.”

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We only get a brief scene with the Hound and Arya. They have made it to the Bloody Gate of the Vale of Arryn, but the knight in charge there – incidentally Ser Donnel Waynwood, the son of the Chicken Lady – informs them that Lysa Arryn is dead. Arya’s laugh was perfect. The dark comedy of that situation is fitting.

But I have to take issue with Clegane just waltzing up and announcing his name with armed men all around ravine leading to the gate. There is a bounty on his head, and Arya Stark’s name is sure to demand they take her from his custody. What is his backup plan if the deal goes sour? You know, like it does? I can’t believe that Ser Donnel lets these two walk away, but he must unless the events in their storyline begin to differ significantly from the books. And they might, given that Brienne and Pod were also headed this way … We’ll find out in a week or two.

In Meeren, the bell tolls for Jorah Mormont. Ser Barristan gets a message – one that conspicuously looks like the one Tywin Lannister sent in King’s Landing in a previous episode. It’s a copy of the pardon from Robert Baratheon for Jorah’s services in spying on the Targaryens. It was all before Jorah fell in love with Daenerys, and pledged his service to her, but poor Jorah doesn’t even get the chance to explain himself. Barristan Selmy honorably tells him so as not to go behind his back, but then goes directly to the queen, who promptly banishes Jorah from the city. It’s a sad shot, seeing Jorah on a lonely horse walking away from the young woman he fell in love with a smidge too late.

The timing of his banishment is a bit different from the books, but the creators kept the fact that it was Barristan who turned him in to Daenerys. What I found missing was the fact that it was Jorah’s attitude that caused his exile, not his actions in sending information to the Usurper. Dany rightly realized that although he had informed on her, Jorah is clearly devoted to her now and it would be silly to throw away such a loyal and capable servant. She only does so reluctantly when Mormont forces her hand by publicly demanding forgiveness with more familiarity than he should. In the show, he’s clearly penitent and sorry for what he’s done. In the last episode, it was established that although she doesn’t care for him sexually, Daenerys still values his counsel. Is that all swept away now that she knows he wrote letters a few years ago? And used that knowledge to save her life with the poisoned wine? Again, the portrayal of Daenerys is terribly inconsistent to me. Is she a gifted leader? A woman deserving of the adulation her lieutenants and servants give her? Or a petulant girl who lets her emotions control her judgement? Sadly, the HBO show just shows us the latter. Why exactly are all these men and women following her again?

Also, Missandei and Grey Worm love each other, apparently. Ho hum.

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Another scene with Jaime and Tyrion steal this episode. I’ve said it before, but I absolutely love the chemistry between these two actors. They couldn’t be more different in appearance, but they are brothers on screen. It’s a wonder to behold. Tyrion’s speech about the thick-headed cousin who did nothing but kill beetles might have been a bit heavy-handed – some people just like to watch the world burn – but it made for some dramatic TV. Tyrion saves the beetle he picks up in his cell. He doesn’t kill it. That means something!

The stage is set for the duel between Oberyn Martell and Ser Gregor Clegane. There haven’t been that many scenes which matched my imagination’s view of them, but the sandy court on which the duel was held certainly did. Tyrion is clearly nervous, and he quips with Oberyn to stop drinking before the fight. Ellaria Sand, Oberyn’s paramour, also entreats her man to not leave her alone in this world. It’s almost like HBO wanted us to root for him. (There’s also a funny bit with Tywin cutting off the officious speech from Maester Pycelle.)

The Mountain enters, and again, he doesn’t look that imposing or mean, just giant and cartoony. I suppose that’s enough, as the contrast between the quick and lanky Prince of Dorne fighting with a spear and the armored husk of Clegane’s greatsword is apparent immediately. From the start, Oberyn treats this as a show. He twirls around his spear like a drum major twirls his baton and it’s all very impressive. But Clegane’s got a big fucking sword. They engage, but Oberyn has the upper hand. He dances away from the bigger man, and even if a kick or a blow gets in here or there to knock the Prince down, Oberyn is quickly on his feet. Even when his wooden spear is shattered he doesn’t panic, just grabs another from his squire – who was wiping what on that blade gingerly with a rag, I wonder?

All through the fight, Oberyn is recounting the Mountain’s crimes against his sister Elia. “You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children,” he says over and over again. His obsession with getting the oaf Clegane to admit to his crimes, for the whole fight being more of a show than a dire contest, is Oberyn’s downfall. Martell gets first blood, then cuts the Mountain’s Achilles heel, and finally jumps on him to stab him in the belly. Thinking the fight won, Oberyn plays to the crowd, and to his paramour, but a man like Clegane is still formidable even with three vicious bleeding wounds. He grabs Oberyn’s feet, gets on top of him, pushes his thumbs into the Prince’s eye sockets and bursts his skull wide open.

It is very hard to watch. The gruesomeness of Clegane popping open Oberyn’s skull like a can of beer is possibly one of the most terrible things I’ve ever seen on TV. Just watching it again in writing this review churns my stomach.

It is disgusting. And wonderful. And terrible.

Tyrion’s hopes at freedom are dashed. Tywin pronounces that he is sentenced to death. The episode ends as the silent credits roll.

Game of Thrones has perfected the gut-punching moment ending an episode. It draws on excellent source material, of course, but translating the emotions I felt reading this chapter 14 years ago to seeing it performed on my TV is not simple or automatic. It takes great skill and care to grab your insides and twist them the way this episode did.

My wife hasn’t read the books, and she is not really a fan of the fantasy genre, but she was talking about the implications of the duel and what it means. I reminded her what will be happen politically now that the Prince of Dorne has been killed in the capitol. The Martells hold Cersei’s daughter hostage after all. We’ve heard that Doran Martell and his court has been cast for season five – what does that mean for poor little Myrcella Baratheon?

We’ll talk about this and more in our Game of Thrones-cast this week. But for now, I’m going to go throw up.

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