Game of Thrones: A Tragic Downfall?

Our roundtable on "Mockingbird," the seventh episode of the fourth season of the HBO show.


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

Orr: So long, Lysa! Have a nice trip!

This episode, “Mockingbird,” reminded me a bit of the previous one: a little slow and expository at times, especially given—and I know I’m becoming a broken record on the subject—how many Big Moments still remain to be crammed in by the end of the season. But while I found last week’s A Few Good Men-like trial of Tyrion to be a bit overlong and underwhelming (and, yes, I was clearly an outlier in this), tonight’s episode accelerated nicely into Oberyn’s valiant offer and Lysa’s fatal misstep.

So, a good episode by this season's lofty standards, I’d say, if not quite a great one. You’d mentioned earlier in the season, Spencer, how much you liked the episodes directed by Breaking Bad’s Michelle MacLaren, and I agree. I think these last two, directed by Alik Sakharov, have suffered a little by comparison: The dialogue hasn’t crackled quite as satisfyingly and the pace has been uneven. Here’s hoping that the next episode, directed by Alex Graves (who ably directed episodes two and three this season, as well as last year’s terrific “And Now His Watch Is Ended”), will be a genuine stunner. As of tonight, the promise of its title, “The Mountain and the Viper,” should be evident to everyone.

But back to this episode. We began with Jaime trying to pick up the pieces after Tyrion laid it all out there at the trial, blowing up the deal that would have commuted his death sentence to life in the Night’s Watch. It was even clearer this week than last that his demanding trial by combat was no customarily cunning scheme on Tyrion’s part, but rather a pure explosion of emotion—quite possibly cutting off his own head to spite his dad. I loved the expression of surprise and dismay on Tyrion’s face when Jaime pointed out that (duh) he’s no longer any great shakes in the champion department. Tyrion’s subsequent pitch—“Even if you lose, imagine the look on father’s face when you fall”—was not exactly what you’d call persuasive, but it did lead to a nice moment of brotherly bonding. Still, it wasn’t until Tyrion asked whether Cersei was choosing Ser Meryn Trant, famed beater of children and not much else, as her champion that it truly became clear how little he’d thought this all through.

I confess I wasn’t a big fan of the segue to a shirtless Ser Gregor Clegane, a.k.a., the Mountain, outside the city walls killing—whom exactly? And why? For starters, Clegane may be a murderous monster, but he is still a knight and, as such, ought to be wearing armor. (When we caught a glimpse of him in last week’s previews, he looked so un-Westerosian that I assumed he was Cleon, the butcher-king of Astapor.) Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s decision to introduce—or re-introduce, as we saw a bit of Ser Gregor, played by a different actor, in season one—the character as a half-naked barbarian randomly chopping people to bits seemed like yet another in a long series of ill-advised efforts to take the worst characters in the books (Joffrey, Ramsay, Karl the mutineer, etc.) and make them even worse.

That said, you could see why Contestant Number Two to be Tyrion’s champion, Bronn, wasn’t terribly eager to take on such a brute—especially if it meant giving up a Cersei-arranged lordship and castle in the bargain. This was another in a series of nice scenes giving minor characters their due, much like Pod’s similar scene with Tyrion in episode three. “I like you,” Bronn told his old friend and employer. “I just like myself more.” It was logic so airtight that even Tyrion didn’t try to poke a hole in it.

Of course, someone who’s been actively searching for an excuse to fight the Mountain is another matter altogether. Enter Prince Oberyn Nymeros Martell, the Red Viper, a warrior/poet specializing in poison and advanced sexual technique. I’ve noted before (a few times) how fantastic I find actor Pedro Pascal to be in this role, and he did not disappoint tonight in what I found to be easily the episode’s best scene. The dialogue was top-shelf (Tyrion: “Making honest feelings do dishonest work is one of Cersei’s many gifts”; Oberyn: “It is rare to meet a Lannister who shares my enthusiasm for dead Lannisters”) and both Pascal and Dinklage delivered beautifully understated performances. Oberyn’s gentle description of his childhood meeting with cruel Cersei and baby Tyrion; his central, animating desire to serve justice to the Mountain—it all added up perfectly, inevitably, to his offer to be Tyrion’s champion. (The latter’s look of bottomless relief and gratitude was a nice bookend for his crestfallen visage when talking to Jaime.) June 1 can’t come soon enough.

As for the rest of the episode….

I love the shtick that Arya and the Hound have going, but they’re in need of a bit more variety plot-wise. The whole check-out-the-postwar-chaos-of-Westeros, let’s-watch-Arya-kill-another-guy storyline seems to have pretty much run its course. Nasty bite the Hound got there, though. Hard not to get the sense that he may regret not allowing Arya to cauterize it.

Meanwhile, our other mismatched road couple, Brienne and Pod, were living the high life: feather beds, kidney pie, the whole nine yards. And whom should they stumble upon but everyone’s favorite baker of wolf-loaves—Hot Pie! Just look how much his invention has improved over the course of the past season, from a poxy maybe-quadruped:

…to the kind of artisanal delight you might find in a Parisian boulangerie:

Unless I misremember, this scene at the inn didn’t appear in the novels at all. As I think I’ve mentioned before, the Brienne-looking-for-the-Stark-girls subplot is among the weakest going forward, so it’s good to see Benioff and Weiss trying to write it into some new directions.

Over in Essos, Daenerys was sending some decidedly mixed signals to her various would-be lovers. First she got it on with Daario 2.0, then she sent him away to Yunkai. When Ser Jorah rambled in post-sexytime looking all hurt, Dany made a point of following his advice—and ensuring that the abruptly banished Daario knew she’d followed that advice. If she keeps this up, she’s going to have as difficult a time maintaining order among her paramours as among the cities of Slaver’s Bay.

Bathtime with Melisandre followed directly after Daario’s dude-ity to complete our weekly skin quota. But it also offered another potentially intriguing deviation from the novels, with the suggestion that Shireen Baratheon—and, perhaps more particularly, her royal blood—has an upcoming role to play. The bit at the Wall, by contrast, was pretty thin. Just a quick scene to remind us that Mance’s army should be arriving soon and that Ser Alliser Thorne is still a tool. (On a related note: What the hell have Ygritte, Tormund, et al. been up to all this time? We haven’t seen them since episode three. By now, the Magnar of Thenn must have eaten up half the population of the North.)

Which brings us to the Eyrie, and our first notable casualty since the Purple Wedding. I’m of somewhat mixed minds here. The defenestration of Lysa Arryn definitely qualified as a Major Event, but it felt a little rushed to me. I loved the earlier setup scene in episode five, in which Kate Dickie was utterly phenomenal, and I would have liked it if we’d had maybe one more installment of this storyline before she got the shaft. There’s a whole subplot in the books involving an amorous young singer named Marillion (he had a minor role in the first season of the show), whom Littlefinger ultimately frames for killing Lysa. It’s not important by any stretch—and obviously cuts have to be made here and there—but it could have given us an opportunity to enjoy a little more of the marvelous Ms. Dickie. And I do wonder how Littlefinger is going to explain Lysa’s fall in the absence of an obvious patsy. She tripped?

Finally, as much as I’d been looking forward to this particular twist, I found it a little campy from a visual standpoint. Last week, Spencer, you commented on the series of “shocked-just-shocked” reaction shots that followed Tyrion’s demand for a trial by combat at the end of the episode (also directed, as noted, by Alik Sakharov). Similarly, I felt that Littlefinger’s wildly theatrical shove of Lysa, followed by the shot of her tumbling backward, followed by the shot of her vanishing into the snowy distance, made for a pretty hamfisted sequence overall. (It reminded me of an ’80s-era horror movie.) How much more elegant it would have been for Petyr to have given Lysa the slightest of nudges, followed by a shot of the throne room without her in it. Oh well, a powerful scene nonetheless.

What do you think, Spencer? Am I giving “Mockingbird” too much credit, or not enough?

Kornhaber: I agree that the final plunge could have been staged differently. Thrones’ best twists have often worked so well because you didn’t really see them coming, even seconds before they happened. Here, though, you’d have had to be checking your phone instead of watching the television to be shocked when the Lady of the Eyrie became a lady tumbling from the Eyrie

But otherwise, I thought it was an extraordinary episode, featuring a number of Moment of Truth scenes in which characters revealed their actual selves (literally, in Daario’s and Melisandre’s case) to fascinating effect. The flash of honesty whose implications I keep thinking about most, even if I thought it was a little clumsy as a piece of TV, was Littlefinger’s kiss-off to his wife: “I only loved one woman, only one, my entire life—your sister.”

In falling from her perch seconds after describing the beauty of splatter, Lysa joins Joffrey and Viserys as cruelly vain Highborns whose final punishments spectacularly fit their crimes. But you can’t as comfortably cackle at this particular comeuppance. Those other villains were case studies in macho entitlement: They believed they were Great Men because they’d always been told they were Great Men, and their awful deeds came from trying to deny that in reality they were only sniveling boys. But as the second daughter of a noble family in a patriarchal society, Lysa deserves at least a little sympathy. To attain some amount of control over her own fate, and to not forever feel inferior to her sister, she clawed and schemed—and then jealously guarded whatever power she’d earned. Katie Dickie’s final switch of facial expressions, from toothy-grinned relief to horrified confusion, got at the character’s essence perfectly: twisted and intense, yes, but on a deeper level, tragic and pathetic.

Her mistake, it seems, was in believing she’d found a likeminded ally. But as a megalomaniacal male born to a minor house, Petyr Baelish hustles not to survive or even to thrive, but rather to join the ranks of Great Men. He’s a beta seeking to leap to alpha, both in the social sense and sexual one.

We can now see just how fitting it is that Littlefinger works as whoremaster. All he does is treat women as property. A sense of possession over Catelyn Stark fuels his conniving. For years he controlled Lysa, and then, when she was no longer of use, he literally threw her away—though only after revealing that he, like everyone else in her miserable life, preferred her sister. His plan to beguile Sansa, I imagine, is much the same as it was with her aunt: ensnaring her as coconspirator against mutual enemies, giving the appearance of radical honesty in explaining what he’s up to, and flattering with comparisons to his true love Lady Catelyn.

But Sansa won’t be duped, I hope. She has seen so many horrors, and now there’s another: Watching her supposed friend (who’d just made a move on her, with the creepiest compliment possible) kill his new wife, Sansa’s last known living relative. How can she ever trust this guy? Despite appearances, she’s not stupid. She builds a snow-castle Winterfell, but says she realizes she'll never see the real thing again—an image of a child who has kept her sweet, sentimental spirit alive while also becoming quite savvy.

Her sister, meanwhile, has reacted to all the horrors she’s seen by pretending to disappear entirely. I loved Arya’s poetry slam with the dying man:

“Nothing could be worse than this.”

“Maybe nothing is worse than this.”

“Nothing isn't better or worse than anything. Nothing is just nothing.”

“Who are you?”

“My name's Arya. Arya Stark.”

When was the last time that Arya said her own name out loud to anyone? Hearing that, and hearing the dying man call BS on her nihilism shtick, offered a reminder that her humanity remains intact under the calm-killer-kid demeanor—after all, if nothing really isn’t worse than anything, why wish death on so many who’ve wronged you? When The Hound, a supposedly callous warrior, rejects medical attention for emotional reasons and then shares the tale of his original humiliation/mutilation, the connection between this him and the Stark girls is clear: Trauma lasts, even if you must pretend it doesn’t.

One character who has stopped pretending is Tyrion, in open rebellion against all who mistreated him. You’re right that his combat request was impulsive, Chris, but it’s an impulse we can understand. With Oberyn’s spellbinding storytelling, we finally have a concrete sense for just how unfair the Imp’s life has been. Which, of course, makes it all the more heartbreaking—for Tyrion and for us—that the circumstances he’s struggled against for so long may finally win out.

In retrospect, of course Oberyn would come offering a torch in the dark, to right two separate injustices done by the Lannisters. But it’s to Thrones' credit that I hadn’t anticipated him stepping up as champion. When the episode opened in blackness, with a solemn conversation in a dungeon, I was reminded of the opening of Season One’s “Baelor,” and we all know how that hour ended. I shared Tyrion’s palpably rising dread as Jaime and then Bronn sensibly declined to fight; when Bronn asked what he’ll do and Tyrion said he’ll have to fight the Mountain himself, I thought that we really might be headed to a David/Goliath situation. Then again, I suppose that’s the situation even with the average-height Oberyn taking the ring—though poison-proficiency may be as good as a few extra inches.

Now my moment of truth: The alt-folk, sensitive-marauder vibe of Michiel Huisman’s Daario Naharis may have finally won me over. But that might just be because Huisman’s turning out to be such a damn swell guy over on Orphan Black. Dany, you’ve found a winner—on command, he’ll either drop trou, slaughter your enemies, or babysit your daughter while you unearth a genetic-engineering conspiracy that spans Westeros, Essos, and Torontos.

Amy, your thoughts?

Sullivan: I knew you couldn’t stay immune to Daario’s charms forever! The man’s got charisma, even if Jorah’s not impressed. It’s nice to see Daenerys turn the tables on her suitor, pouring a glass of wine not for him but for herself, settling back, and telling him: “Do what you do best.” And then, when he’s a little slow on the uptake: “Take off your clothes.” As Melisandre says in the next scene—“The flesh needs what it needs.”

(It’s also nice to see Emilia Clarke, who plays Daernerys, get to stay clothed while Michiel Huisman is the one to disrobe. After being paraded fully naked in front of the camera for most of season one, Clarke has reportedly put down her covered foot and insisted on no more nude scenes. She’s certainly in a good position to make such demands—it wouldn’t be as easy to re-cast the Khaleesi.)

And speaking of re-casting, who the heck is this Goliath disemboweling randos in Kings Landing? From the first glance we got of his face, the new Ser Gregor bore a resemblance to Robert Baratheon. Having watched the whole, gratuitously icky scene, I’m satisfied that he is not in fact the departed king’s doppelgänger, but this new actor also doesn’t look as much like the Hound as did the original. As you point out, Spencer, he will no doubt tower cartoonishly over Prince Oberyn in the trial by combat, so that’s perhaps the only relevant physical trait for the new Mountain. (Although, remember, even Ser Gregor is a twerp compared to the real giants north of the Wall that Jon futilely tried to warn the Brothers about elsewhere in this episode. That’s a frightening thought.)

Ser Gregor’s return gave the show an excuse to let the Hound share his tale of sibling abuse and to finally elicit something like sympathy from Arya. I agree that the two of them need something more to do, but I did like their scenes this week. When the Hound told the dying man that Arya was “my captive,” it struck me that their relationship hasn’t fit that mold for quite a while now. Sure, he thinks it’s possible that now-dead Aunt Lysa might pay ransom for her niece. But as he tells Arya later in the episode, “No reward’s worth this much trouble.”

“So why go on?” as Arya asks the dying man. “Habit” was the reply and habit seems to be as good an answer as any for the Hound and Arya, too. They need each other, they kind of like each other’s company, and going around the countryside killing baddies is beginning to be a habit for them. They abide by a somewhat perverted version of the dying man’s code: “You give me, I give you. It’s fair, a balance.” Everything may be unbalanced in Westeros these days, but amid the lawlessness and chaos, Arya at least is sticking to her mission. You hurt me, I hurt you. It’s fair, a balance.

By the way, did anyone else laugh when the Hound gave Arya a little killing tutorial—“That’s where the heart is; that’s how you kill a man”—and promptly demonstrated another way of killing a man when an ambusher jumped him from behind? I’d love to hear the Hound record, “50 Ways to Kill Your Mugger.”

That of course brings me to our favorite doo-wop artist, Ser Bronn of the Blackwater, now engaged to Lollys Stokeworth. There was a lot of sadness in Tyrion’s dungeon this week, but the visit from Bronn may have been the hardest. I do think, despite his occupation as a sellsword, that Bronn feels some sense of friendship for and loyalty to Tyrion. But Cersei has shrewdly given him a chance to stop fighting for a living, and probably flavored her offer with a little “or else” should he be foolish enough to turn it down.

Unfortunately, Bronn’s decision not to fight on Tyrion’s behalf, just feeds the latter’s increasingly low opinion of himself. I wrote last week about how alone Tyrion is at this point—a state he shares with his runaway wife, Sansa, even more now that Littlefinger made Aunt Lysa fly. In his dark moments, however, Tyrion believes it has always been so. His sister has hated him from the day he was born, the women who loved him were always paid to do so, and even the friendship he has enjoyed was temporary and purchased with gold.

Like every sane person, I’m pulling for Oberyn in the next episode's trial by combat. And not just because Pedro Pascal and Peter Dinklage are turning in the show’s most impressive performances these days. But even if Oberyn somehow defeats the Mountain, I’m worried about Tyrion. He’s not in a good place.

I’ll end with my favorite Game of Thrones comedy duo, Brienne and Pod. Hot Pie’s running monologue about kidney pie was awesome—“Don’t get me started on the gravy. A lot of people give up on the gravy. You cannot give up on the gravy.” But even better was Brienne’s look at Pod after Hot Pie gives them possible intel on Arya Stark’s whereabouts. Pod had just been advising her to ixnay the whole telling random strangers about the purpose of their mission. And so Brienne cannot help but turn to him with what can only be described as a cheeky smirk and a “Um, you were saying?”

Comedy gold, I tell you. And it’s worth a lot more these days in Westeros than Lannister gold.