Game of Thrones Recap: Season 4, Episode 8 “The Mountain and the Viper”

The third episode in a row without a rape scene and maybe the only instance ever of Game of Thrones giving a female character MORE agency than she had in the books, “The Mountain and the Viper” might turn out to be the best episode of this season, and it definitely felt more evenly paced and more consistent in tone and quality than some of the previous episodes.

Spoilers under the cut for the episode and for book-related speculation/criticism.

The episode opens in the Mole’s Town brothel for our weekly dose of contrived drama and character assassination. Also, our obligatory weekly brothel scene, although this one is very light on boobs and is actually focused on women characters. I actually sort of love the we get to see prostitutes being kind of gross here instead of prancing around and contorting themselves in order to satisfy a male gaze. Instead, an unnamed prostitute is belching out “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” (because apparently there are only two songs in all of Westeros) and then mocks her client’s manhood before going off to bully Gilly.

And then the wildlings attack. Ygritte marches through Mole’s Town slaughtering peasants, but when she finds Gilly hiding she doesn’t kill her for some reason. I’m not sure I can even express how furious the character assassination of Ygritte (and to a lesser extent ALL of the wildlings currently south of the Wall) makes me. I feel like Ygritte’s sparing of Gilly is supposed to redeem her somehow in preparation for her death, which will almost certainly occur next week, but it really doesn’t. You can’t send Ygritte on a murderous rampage and then take it all back with one ten second shot.

In the books, the wildlings head pretty much straight to Castle Black after Jon escapes from them, and their objective is to open the gates so the rest of them can pass through because they are fleeing for their lives from the zombies and shit that have woken beyond the Wall. They aren’t particularly noble, but they definitely weren’t evil, either. More importantly, the actions and strategy of the wildlings in the books made sense. In the show, the Thenns have been made into cannibals purely for shock value, and they’ve spent all of season four so far senselessly marauding south of the Wall.

I think I could deal with this, though, if it wasn’t all such an enormous disservice to Ygritte. It’s bad enough that in the books, she basically exists as a catchphrase to be fridged as a source of some of Jon Snow’s extensive and much whined-about man-pain. In the show, however, Ygritte was brought vividly to life by Rose Leslie in seasons two and three, her relationship with Jon Snow was portrayed wonderfully, and Jon’s abandonment of her at the end of last season was absolutely heartbreaking. I originally predicted that we would see Ygritte’s death by episode four of this season at the latest, and I fully expected it to be one of the saddest moments in the show to date. But instead, we’ve gotten a season of Ygritte straight up murdering innocents, which, even if the details of her actions remain unbeknownst to Jon Snow, definitely makes the audience much less sympathetic toward Ygritte. The destruction of any kind feelings the viewer may have for Ygritte means that when her death does finallycome, it will end up being entirely about Jon and his feelings to an even greater degree than the same event was in the book.

After the attack on Mole’s Town, we’re taken immediately to Castle Black to (of course) find out how the men of the Night’s Watch feel about the Mole’s Town massacre. Sam is distraught, believing that Gilly and her son are dead and blaming himself. Grenn is furious and frustrated that there isn’t anything the Night’s Watch can do but wait for the wildlings to arrive at Castle Black. Pyp and Dolorous Edd are optimistic that Gilly might have survived after all. And Jon stops moping long enough to point out that if the wildlings attacked Mole’s Town that means Castle Black is next. I wouldn’t say that I’m looking forward to next week’s episode, but it will be nice to see literally anything actually happen in the Night’s Watch storyline this season. It’s actually sort of incredible just how much screentime these guys have been given without actually moving their story along at all.

In Essos, the Unsullied are bathing in a river while Missandei and some other women are washing clothing upstream. I’m not entirely certain why Missandei is naked while washing clothes, since the other women in the frame all seem to be wearing dresses, but Grey Worm stops bathing to stare at her. When Missandei notices him, she stands, giving Grey Worm and the audience a lovely view of her body before sort of shyly covering up when she realizes that Grey Worm seems to be lusting after her.

Cut to Missandei having her hair braided by Daenerys, who doesn’t even think that the Unsullied are capable of sexual attraction. Daenerys asks if Missandei knows the extent of the cutting performed on the Unsullied, but neither woman knows. Missandei admits, somewhat sadly, to having wondered.

In Daenerys’s throne room, Missandei is approached by Grey Worm, who has come to apologize for ogling her. Missandei asks if he remembers his birth name or being cut, but he doesn’t. She says that she’s sorry for what was done to him, but Grey Worm replies that if it hadn’t happened he would never have met her.

Outside Moat Cailin, Ramsay is giving Theon a sort of pep talk before sending him in to treat with the Iron Islanders who have taken the castle. When Theon arrives, he finds the men sick and dying and demoralized, but their commander, Kenning, isn’t ready to surrender. One of the other men kills him, though, and Theon returns victorious to Ramsay, who promptly has the remaining Ironmen flayed. Alfie Allen continues to be amazing as Theon/Reek, and I think he’s at his finest as he negotiates with the Ironmen here. I know everyone likes to talk about Peter Dinklage for awards, but it will be a criminal oversight if Allen isn’t at least nominated.

At the Eyrie, Petyr Baelish is not impressing the Lords of the Vale as he tries to explain Lysa Arryn’s untimely death away as a suicide. This scene is definitely changed from the book, where the Lords of the Vale are easily mollified by Petyr as he pins Lysa’s death on the singer Marillion. Here, he’s floundering a bit. Lord Royce quite rightly points out how quickly Lady Arryn seemed to die after Petyr’s arrival, and Lady Waynwood neatly manages to prevent Littlefinger from having the opportunity to coach Sansa before they hear her testimony. Littlefinger’s face when Sansa walks meekly in is priceless, but he manages to keep it together as Sansa delivers, entirely on her own initiative, an incredible lie.

This is literally my favorite thing that has ever happened on Game of Thrones. It’s the only time I can think of where the writers have given a female character in the show more agency than she had in the books, and it’s so, so good. In one speech, Sansa reveals her identity to people who have every reason to protect her, preserves Littlefinger’s life and places him in her debt, and establishes firmly and publicly that Petyr Baelish is her uncle by marriage, which should generate a level of scrutiny that can protect her in the future from his unwanted sexual advances. And she did this all on her own, as opposed to being coached by Littlefinger as she was in the book.

After Sansa’s scene, we learn that Littlefinger now intends to take Robin Arryn on a tour of the Vale.

Back in Meereen, Ser Barristan is overseeing the removal of the crucified Masters when he’s approached by a boy with a message. It turns out to be a copy of Jorah’s pardon from King Robert in exchange for spying on Daenerys. Barristan approaches Jorah about it before taking it to Daenerys. Jorah wants to speak with Daenerys is private about it, but Barristan tells him that he’ll never be alone with her again. When Daenerys calls Jorah to the throne room, she refuses his request for privacy and makes him tell her about the pardon and about his spying. She’s so angry and hurt that she can’t even look at him as she banishes him. I’ve never been a fan of Jorah, but this scene was truly heartwrenching. We last see Jorah riding away from Meereen alone.

In the North, Ramsay has returned to his father to deliver the news about Moat Cailin. Roose takes Ramsay to the top of a hill and reminds him of the vastness of the North and Roose’s own new position as Warden of the North. Roose then tells Ramsay that he’s been legitimized, making Ramsay Roose’s heir. We leave them riding toward Winterfell.

Meanwhile, Sansa is in her room sewing when Littlefinger arrives to ask her why she saved him. She suggests that she didn’t know what the Lords of the Vale would do to her if she’d thrown him under the bus. “Better to gamble on the man you know,” he replies, then asks her if she thinks she knows him. “I know what you want,” she answers, which he seems to doubt, but the look she gives him says that she knows much more than he gives her credit for. I can’t stop being totally in love with this Sansa, and I love that she’s able to leave Littlefinger so off-balance.

Outside the Vale, Arya and the Hound are almost to their destination. Arya is unhappy that she didn’t get to at least see Joffrey die, and Sandor is obviously in some discomfort from his no doubt infected bite wound. The conversation they are having now seems much more a conversation between equals than it ever has before, and they seem quite nearly friendly as they approach the gate. When Sandor introduces them, he even, for the first time, calls Arya his traveling companion rather than his prisoner. Unfortunately, they’ve arrived too late. Arya’s explosion of rather mad laughter at the revelation of Lysa’s death three days past is both tragic and hilarious.

Back at the Eyrie, Robin is afraid of his impending journey with his “Uncle Petyr,” and Petyr “reassures” him by pointing out that people can die anywhere–at their dinner tables, in their beds, squatting over their chamber pots. He advises Robin to take charge of his life. Then everything stops because Sansa walks in, seemingly on a sunbeam and very much changed from even just our last sight of her. Gone are the puffy eyes and wan complexion. She’s dyed her hair dark and is wearing a dress apparently made of feathers and she subtly vamps down the stairs in a way that puts Melisandre to shame, giving Littlefinger a look that says that she knows exactly what he wants, at least when it comes to her.

Finally, we’re taken to King’s Landing, where Tyrion is awaiting his trial by combat. Jaime is waiting with him, listening as Tyrion expounds upon his investigation into their simple cousin Orson’s predilection for smashing beetles. I usually love Tyrion speeches, but this one just fell flat for me. I get it, I think, but it just seemed overlong and a little mean-spirited toward poor cousin Orson. The bells ring right a the end of this speech, and it’s time for Tyrion’s fate to be decided.

Oberyn is having a drink before the fight, to Tyrion’s chagrin, and when the Mountain walks out, Ellaria is alarmed at his enormous size. Oberyn is confident that he will win, though, which is a pretty great indicator that this is not going to go well for him. The fight is beautifully choreographed, and Pedro Pascal defines pathos as he becomes increasingly frantic in his efforts to extract a confession (to the rape and murder of Oberyn’s sister, Elia) from the Mountain before killing him. The Mountain’s final burst of strength and his defeat of Oberyn is less shocking than it is simply gruesome, with flying teeth and a truly sickening shot of Oberyn’s shattered head. This is definitely a scene that makes me wish that I was watching the show without having read the books first, because holy shit. Judging from reactions on the internet, poor Ellaria’s reaction was shared by many.

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