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.