Why That Game of Thrones Fight Scene Was So Brutal to Watch

Our roundtable on "The Mountain and the Viper," the eighth episode of the fourth season of the HBO show.
Macall B. Polay/courtesy of HBO

Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Kornhaber: He raped her, he murdered her, he killed her children … but also, he gave me heart palpitations.

The episode-closing trial by combat was a seriously engrossing, ultimately horrifying, bit of television. And that wasn't even because any one element was particularly innovative or unusual. I expected poison, or magic, or some unimaginable cleverness out of Oberyn. Instead, we got a pretty archetypical (if intense and well-choreographed) David/Goliath battle, right up until the end: Sympathetic smaller guy relies on speed, wits, acrobatics, and knowledge of his large, armored rival’s vulnerable spots. Bronn basically described this kind of scene last week when he said the only way he could possibly beat the Mountain would be by dancing around him.

The real reason the fight captivated so thoroughly was the presence of what we might call Murphy’s Law: Game of Thrones Edition. By this point, viewers realize that no one's safety can be assumed, and that the worst thing that could possibly happen to our most beloved characters often will. Which means the showrunners could have send cardiac systems racing merely by showing a blank screen with the words “fight in progress” for 10 minutes. This is part of why the show is so extraordinary: If you're like me and haven't read the books, you really don't know what's next ... but you know it could be really terrible.

What's more, Oberyn’s insistent, almost hypnotic, Princess Bride­-esque chant upped the stakes: not only were two very cool characters’ lives on the line—maybe, for once, we’d also get to see some justice delivered righteously.

So when Oberyn got the Mountain on his back, I felt an incredible wave of relief. But as soon as the Red Viper started circling, insisting on a confession rather than delivering the killing blow, I felt as nervous as Jaime and Tyrion looked. And sure enough, like many a fictional action baddie before him, the elder Clegane was Not Dead Yet. But unlike many a fictional action baddie before him, he then crushed the skull the noble champion we’d been rooting for, while gloating about the crimes that champion had been trying to avenge, while dooming the other good guy to execution. Once again, this show has placed a common storytelling trope—in this case, the false end to a climactic fight—into an uncommonly grim story.

The rest of the episode, too, boasted a topsy-turvy, don’t-think-you-know-how-this-goes vibe. In Mereen, Grey Worm showed signs that he’s not actually fated to a life without love, and Daenerys punished a deep betrayal with a surprising amount of mercy. Actress Emilia Clarke clips her words so coldly that you at first don’t realize that she's letting Jorah off the hook, but the fact is that this is a woman who crucified hundreds of men she didn’t know, sparing the life of a man she thought she knew better than anyone.

At Moat Cailin, reversals piled upon reversals. Reek did an OK job resurrecting Theon, but started to revert—a bit hammily—when negotiations turned tough. Luckily for him, the shiftiness of the Ironborn is among Westeros’ few sure things; I’ve lost track of the number of times the Greyjoy guys have thrown one of their own under the axe. Unluckily for the Ironborn, another sure thing is that Ramsay Snow/Bolton will always go back on his word in the most grusome manner possible.

I loved everything Sansa did up in the Eyrie, even if some of it had the unfortunate side effect of keeping Littlefinger alive. When Petyr approaches her in her chambers, Sophie Turner radiates an assured slyness we’ve never before seen from Sansa, not bothering to look up from sewing while explaining that she lied not on Baelish’s behalf but her own. Finally, it seems, the elder Stark daughter has some swagger. Also finally, the younger Stark daughter arrives at the Bloody Gate—only to find out her aunt, for whom she and the Hound marched hundreds of miles, just died. I’m LOLing thinking about Arya’s LOLing.

The mirth evaporates, though, when I remember how the episode ended: with Tyrion's death sentence, read by his father. If Thrones is bluffing about being willing to off its most popular character, it’s bluffing well. Jaime will try to save his brother somehow, I expect. But were Peter Dinklage to exit HBO forever at 9:05 p.m. next Sunday, he’d exit after what’s probably his finest scene to date—which is saying quite a bit. The Cousin Orson monologue allowed us to see the complexity of Tyrion’s worldview. Yes, he mocks the afflicted even though he himself was, as Jaime says, “tormented from birth.” But behind that mocking is a deep well of empathy, curiosity, and humanity. To his question of what caused all that insect-killing, there’s no real answer. Only the toll of the bell.

What’s the metaphor here? The beetle-crushing cousin seemed unthinking, Tyrion says, but he actually wasn’t—he was just working off logic that no one else can discern. The same could be said of any number of brutal, seemingly indiscriminate forces that rule Thrones. This is a world of cause and effect, though the causes may be inscrutable and the effects not what you expect. That fact has bearing on Tyrion’s fate: While the worst things can happen, they don’t always. Sometimes, reprieves make sense.

For example: The Wildlings slaughter most of Moles Town as a matter of course, but Ygritte—for reasons that are, indeed, a bit inscrutable, but not hard to guess at—takes mercy on Gilly and her child. As the Crows discuss the situation, Jon and friends offer Sam some rare hope: “She might have got out.” Crazier things have happened—“She survived a White Walker, for fuck’s sake!”

That idea—miraculously beating the odds—hangs in the air as the discussion then turns to the futility of defending the Wall. It seems a little surprising that the Night’s Watch wouldn’t by this point have even a semblance of a plan for dealing with the Mance Rayder onslaught, but the facts do make it seem like there’s no possible route to victory. Then again, it seemed that way for Oberyn, and he very nearly prevailed. It seems that way for Tyrion and … ugh. I can’t think about it.

Chris, unlike me, you knew how the fight would end. How are you feeling?

Orr: Whether you knew what was coming or not, that was a genuinely brutal scene. As readers of my spoiler-y speculations are aware (for fans of the books, they’re here and here), the duel between Prince Oberyn and Ser Gregor was one of the moments that I’d most anticipated/dreaded all season. Pedro Pascal has been one of a handful of Game of Thrones performers who have all but leapt off the screen, taking a relatively minor character from the George R. R. Martin novels and imbuing him with indelible life. His finale tonight was a classic Martin-esque reversal, like Ned Stark’s evident “pardon” way back in season one.  It won’t be long before some psychologist achieves fame by identifying the Five Stages of Game of Thrones Grief: fear, relief, fear (again), depression, acceptance/re-subscription to HBO.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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