[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 4, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
“The Red Viper of Dorne, you don’t get a name like that unless you’re deadly, right?”
Tyrion poses that admittedly self-serving question to Jaime, as the two wait for the trial by combat that will decide his guilt or innocence in the eyes of the gods. And it is a good question; one that suggests the value of Tyrion’s champion could conceivably be denoted almost entirely in his title. As such, the title of the episode, ‘The Mountain and the Viper’, denotes a similar assessment in terms of what might unfold throughout the latest hour of Game of Thrones.
And yet, the long-awaited battle between Oberyn and the Mountain doesn’t even begin until the last five minutes. In fact, Tyrion and Jaime’s pre-trial by combat conversation pops up around the final ten minutes of an episode actually named for the conflict that’s about to unfold. Certainly the episode’s writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were aware that after a week off, the audience would be clamoring to see how Oberyn would fulfill his pledge to be Tyrion’s champion, and exact his revenge on the Mountain for the rape and murder of his sister, and the deaths of her children. And by naming the episode as they did, Weiss and Benioff may have suggested a chapter that was more steadfastly dedicated to the build-up toward and actual combat between the eponymous characters of the Mountain and the Viper.
Then again, this is Game of Thrones, a series that almost perversely delights in taking common fantasy themes and expectations and riding them right up to their customary turning point, before turning them inside out (which, if you’re a member of House Bolton, might be taken quite literally). In this case, the episode works to undermine expectations as much in a structural sense as it does in the mythical or storybook sense – something the series has successfully done from the beginning. Not only does the titular battle not take place until the closing moments of the episode, but the ostensible hero – i.e., Oberyn – the man seeking reprisal against a rapist and a murderer (two, if you count Tywin’s alleged ordering of such atrocities) has victory and vengeance literally swept out from under his feet, only to die in a horrific and expectedly gory manner.
Oberyn’s death is brutal and exaggerated, almost to the point of being outlandish – which is saying something on a show that can mention dragons and castration in almost the same breath. But as it has from the beginning, Game of Thrones earns its ability to step into full-on exploding head territory by remaining true to the conventions of expectation it has already established, and has continued to fortify all season long. Therefore, Oberyn’s death – and Tyrion’s subsequent sentence to a similar fate – is meant to serve a point that those who devote themselves to a single-minded mission, task, or, heaven forbid, an actual plan, are often the ones who suffer the greatest, most agonizing defeat (physically and emotionally). And in this instance, there is nothing worse than having Oberyn’s triumph snatched away from him because of his unwavering resolve to see vengeance carried out to his exact specifications.
In a sense, Tyrion’s initial question and its outcome harks back to two of the most common and resonant themes in Game of Thrones: That the worth of an individual is measured in that which cannot be taken from them, such as title, and that seeking any sort of desired outcome will almost always end in disaster. In some cases, like, say Daenerys’, a person may hold many titles and announcing them all can take what seems like days, but they tell her story, speak to her accomplishments; the titles articulate her ability to hold the station she currently holds. Then there are others that are more to the point; titles like Kingslayer and the aforementioned Red Viper of Dorne. The purpose of those titles is as pointed and cutting as the weapons the title bearers used to earn them.
And yet, as the episode demonstrates, there is change coming that threatens the usefulness of conventions such as these. The players on the board have begun to adapt. Roose repays Ramsay’s accomplishments by pulling him from the bastard leagues to wear the Team Bolton jersey. Meanwhile, Arya meets the news of her aunt’s demise just three days earlier with the kind of laughter that suggests this particular outcome was pretty much a forgone conclusion. Nearby, Sansa steps away from her role as the prototypical princess figure to display some agency in her own story – one that now features Littlefinger in a starring role. Finally, after his pardon reveals him to have been in the employ of those who sent it, Ser Jorah is cast out of Meereen, rather than executed by the woman he serves.
At this point, the subversive nature of the narrative has become the expected. But like any good story, the characters are beginning to see that instead of continuing to do what is expected of them, or as others have done (and died trying) before, they will do something unexpected, which, as Game of Thrones has proven, often leads to the most interesting results.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: