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 / HBO

Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher 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.

That said, I confess that, much like last week, I thought the Big Finish was a little rushed.  A couple of episodes ago, we spent nearly half an episode on Tyrion’s trial, leading up to the kicker that… he demanded trail by combat(!), though we didn’t know by whom or under what circumstances. By contrast, last week Kate Dickie’s Lysa Arryn (so magnificent in episode five) was sent packing with barely a “don’t let the Moon Door hit you on the way out,” and tonight Oberyn made his dramatic but also somewhat hasty departure. You’re right, Spencer, that there’s no real “twist” to the Oberyn-Gregor duel either onscreen or on the page, but in the novel the drumbeat of the former’s mantra built more slowly and methodically as he danced around the Mountain, trying to find a seam in his impenetrable armor. If this sounds like a book-reader’s quibble, well, it is. But as great as tonight’s climax was, I think it could have been greater still.

Relatedly, I continue to have concerns about the overall pacing and balance of the various storylines. Ramsay and Theon’s taking of Moat Cailin may have gone by relatively quickly, for instance, but it was imported from a couple of books ahead. And this is in addition to showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’s decision to add scenes involving Ramsay that don’t appear in the books at all (e.g.,  Yara’s wildly unsuccessful—and wildly unnecessary—rescue of Theon). Meanwhile, we’ve barely seen Rose Leslie’s wonderful Ygritte in forever. Our last encounter with her was way back in episode three, when she lodged an arrow through the throat of an innocent Northern villager. Tonight, we saw her make molesmeat out of a number of Moles Towners, before inexplicably (at least to my eye) sparing Gilly and her baby. We get it: she’s a badass—and also, perhaps, a Woman Scorned. But if she’s had a single line of dialogue since episode two, I can’t recall it. (And, no, tonight’s Hardy-Boys-esque owl hoots to announce the wildling attack don’t count.) Pushing Ygritte’s character to the margins in order to make room for more scenes with the Bastard of Bolton seems a decidedly poor exercise in narrative time management.

All right, I’m done with my requisite weekly belly-aching. I agree with you entirely about Sansa Stark’s belated maturation. As I mentioned last time around, in the books Littlefinger had an exceedingly suitable patsy—a lovestruck singer named Marillion—on whom to pin Lysa Arryn’s Fly-Me-Through-The-Moon-Door exit. Tonight’s initial “suicide” defense, by contrast, seemed pretty feeble. (Ser Royce and the other judges of the Vale appeared to agree.) But it was a nice setup to Sansa—finally!—showing some sign that she understood that the Game exists, even if she’s still a novice player. (I feel obligated to point out that almost everything bad that has ever happened on the show can be traced back to her confiding in Cersei in season one, because she was upset that her dad was going to send her back to Winterfell instead of letting her marry her dreamboat Joffrey.) In any case, better late than never.

I especially enjoyed the exchange in which Sansa knowingly told Littlefinger, “I know what you want,” only to have him reply, “Do you?” And indeed, super-creepy vibes aside, he does want something from her other than, well, her—at least for now. Her metamorphosis into femme-fatale consort for her cousin Robin may have been a bit abrupt, but it at least suggests a new phase for her character. (And kudos to Benioff and Weiss for tossing in the sneakily foreshadowing line about people dying while “squatting on their chamber pots.” No giveaway there, as everyone, high or low, North or South, East or West, must alike attend the call of nature.)

Which brings me to what I agree was easily the most amusing moment of the episode: Arya and the Hound reach the Bloody Gate of the Vale of Arryn, only to discover that—burn!—Lysa Arryn, the latest in a long line of relatives to whom the Hound had hoped to ransom his young captive, just made a HALO jump without a chute. The uncontainable laughter that burst forth from Arya was the show’s most self-aware moment since Lady Olenna complained about how much time she’d spent strolling through the gardens of King’s Landing.

In contrast to Sansa’s semi-sudden evolution, Daenerys seems stuck in pretty much the same loops, spending almost as much time ruling over her male suitors and quasi-suitors as she does ruling over Slaver’s Bay. Her discovery that Ser Jorah had been spying on her for Varys back in the day—and his subsequent banishment—has been a long time coming. But at least Jorah didn’t have to deal with Daario 2.0 (himself sent off to reconquer Yunkai) smirking behind his back as he rode away.

Speaking of amorous entanglements in Essos, I’m not sure what to think of the budding romance between Grey Worm and Missandei. Just a few episodes ago, our least sullied of the Unsullied seemed moderately fixated on Daenerys—remember the sword-holding competition with Daario back in episode three? Now, despite his “cutting,” Grey Worm has developed explicitly non-platonic affections for yet another pretty lady. If the showrunners want to squeeze in a little extraneous nudity—and history argues pretty decisively that they do—you’d think there’d be easier ways to do so than by proposing an all-too-conventional fantasy life for a eunuch. “I’m glad you saw me,” Missandei tells him. “So am I,” replies Grey Worm, channeling the sentiments of HBO’s entire adolescent male viewership. I’m willing to withhold judgment on this for now, but it has the feeling of another sexualized storyline—like last season’s Sex God Pod—that may not be going anywhere.

And like you, I thought the “Orson” story between Tyrion and Jaime (another Benioff and Weiss addition) was truly superb, one of the handful of times—last season’s “chaos is a ladder” speech was another—when they’ve taken an idea implicit in Martin’s novels and substantially enriched it. I particularly liked that after the wonderful, taking-its-time setup, the scene didn’t explicitly spell out its moral, but left it open-ended.

As, on some level, it had to. “[Orson’s] face was like a page of a book written in a language I didn’t understand,” Tyrion explains. “But he wasn’t mindless, he had his reasons…. I had to know, because it was horrible that all these beetles should be dying for no reason.” What is this, if not the eternal question of why God allows suffering? It’s a question that has particular resonance in this brutal fictional universe—Orson = God = George R. R. Martin?—and more resonance still for a motherless dwarf, detested by his father, buffeted by circumstance, and now facing death for a crime he did not commit. It is hardly a coincidence that, gently lifting up an insect himself, Tyrion expresses sympathy for the “shattered little bodies” of the beetles crushed by his cousin. What is Tyrion at this moment, if not yet another helpless victim, hoping not to be crushed by the thumb of an incomprehensible yet all-powerful force?

Amy, I know you’ve been trapped north of the Wall thanks to the depradations “policy all customers need to meet” of Alaska Airlines. But whenever you make your way back to King’s Landing, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Mountains and Vipers, cousins and beetles, and any other sundry examples of brutal squashing that may come to mind.

Amy Sullivan's entry to come to return next week.