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The Best of This Week’s Game of Thrones Recaps: ‘The Mountain and the Viper’

This week's episode of Game of Thrones illustrated once again that life in Westeros is nasty, brutish, and short, even with an Inigo Montoya–esque monologue and some sweet dance-fight moves in your back pocket. As Vulture recapper Nina Shen Rastogi writes, "Surprise is a key part of the story’s political and ethical worldview." Along with the trial by combat, this episode saw Sansa taking control of her destiny, Tyrion and Jaime talking about Cousin Orson, and an anatomy lesson in Meereen. Your recap of the recaps:

“Having escaped the short, wrinkly arms of the Eyrie law, Littlefinger must now rid himself of the only remaining person in the castle who might be suspicious of him: Robin 'Got Milk? I Do, At A Creepily Advanced Age!' Arryn. And Baelish is certainly back in fine form. First, he calls out the Eyrie elders for their disloyalty to the Starks; then he turns the knife some more by pointing out how disgustingly corrupt the Lannisters are; and finally, he brings it home by suggesting that the Vale need not ally itself with the currently-ruling House when they already have a great future leader in their midst: Robin!” —Previously.TV 

“I remain very interested in the choice to play with romance between Grey Worm and Missandei. It feels like a conscious effort to explore the marginal figures in Daenery’s story, even in this case creating a scene of Dany braiding Missandei’s hair, a rare case in which Dany is the supporting player in a scene much more about Missandei than it is about her. That it is also a case where two racial minorities share a scene together engages in the politics of race surrounding Dany’s liberation narrative, while its investigation of the capacity for castrated men to feel love is an interesting question of sexual politics. It’s a rare relationship that doesn’t feel driven by plot in any way, content to isolate ideas and questions in a relatively stable area of the story for the purpose of posing those ideas and questions. There isn’t the same kind of exciting buildup to a conclusion as there might be in other storylines, but I like it as an added dimension, and as a space where the writers can explore ideas in and around Meereen that may not emerge in council meetings.” —Cultural Learnings

“Here, it would seem, is a significant event in the story, and that’s before we even get into the implications for Tyrion, one of the pre-eminent characters on the show. But the combat sort of came and went — stylishly shot, sure, but presented as just one of many courses in the week’s feast of intrigue. Did that work for you? The narrative nihilist in me applauded it, honestly. I liked that after all the Mountain and Viper buildup, the show devoted nearly as much screen time to Tyrion’s tale of Cousin Orson and the beetles, a sort of broad parable about a man’s tendency to crush what he can until a metaphorical mule kicks him to death. ('How many countless living crawling things smashed and dried out and returned to the dirt?' Tyrion wonders.) That’s partly because I thoroughly enjoy Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau doing the Brothers Lannister thing, and partly because I appreciate that the show gives equal weight to the little moments of humanity. But I’m curious about what others thought.” —New York Times

“A few moments later, Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper of Dorne and the closest thing to a hero King’s Landing has seen since Ned Stark’s head came down, was dancing around the collapsed Mountain. His victory apparently in hand, he was showboating for the crowd, somersaulting and taunting. Oberyn’s fatal flaw wasn’t the pre-fight drinking or the foreign swagger imported directly from Florin. It was his insistence on making his duel about something larger than Not Dying. To Gregor Clegane, Oberyn Martell wasn’t a prince or a legendary lover or the owner of several dozen rakish bathrobes. He was 'some dead man,' and the Mountain quickly went about guaranteeing that fact with every overmuscled bone in his body. Oberyn, by contrast, didn’t just want to win. He wanted to win according to the script he had written, one every bit as flowery as a love poem. He would have justice for his sister, he would show up Tywin, and he would demonstrate to the Lannisters how stylishly a debt can truly be repaid.” —Grantland

“While we’re celebrating the great talkers of Westeros, let’s hear it for Lady Sansa Stark! Her performance before the lords of The Vale was one to do Littlefinger proud–not simply because of her successful lie but because, as he would himself, she dresses it in just enough of the turth to make it believable. (And, I assume, to scare the seven hells out of Baelish until she got to the end of her story.) I’m not sure I understand her aims here better than he does–though it does seem reasonable that the Eyrie, at least, is impregnable anything seems better than to risk being handed over to the Lannisters yet again. Or maybe she’s making it up as she goes along. But after so much time whimpering and being victimized, confidence looks good on her.” —Time

“Baelish (Aiden Gillen) is under investigation by the worst Law and Order cast ever, in the Case of Lysa Arryn Who Fell In The Moon Door. It's Lord Royce (Rupert Vansittart), some aunt and some guy who doesn't talk at all. They HATE Baelish and are convinced he killed Lysa, because she would never have abandoned her son, Robin (Lino Facioli). Call the first witness to the stand! It's Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), whom Littlefinger is passing off as his simpleton niece, Elaine. Sansa takes the stand (metaphorically), and gives a virtuoso performance, crying and and apologizing to Littlefinger that she must tell the truth. She reveals her true Stark identity, appealing to Royce, a friend of the family. She tells the whole truth, nothing but the truth … except that, with tears streaming down her face, she laments the suicide of Lysa Arryn, provoked by her jealous madness, and in doing so, effectively saves Littlefinger's hide.” —The Playlist

“Last week The Hound told Arya, 'You're learning.' It could be a theme of the season for all the Stark kids: Sansa learning to lie and manipulate. Arya learning to kill people and stop hoping for anything good to happen, ever. Jon Snow learning to lead men and fight dirty. Bran learning, uh, to keep going north.” —Entertainment Weekly

It was inevitable that at some point this show would achieve the impossible and make me feel sympathy for Baelish, and so it transpired. Watching our Lord of the Wandering Accent (I’m going with the Braavosi connection as the explanation for the brogue. It’s as good a reason as any) on the back foot against the ever so noble, ever so self-righteous Lords of the Vale aroused a strange feeling that may even have been pity. Littlefinger is after all a rare thing on this show: a man of humble origins who is dismissed by lords whose own powers are simply an accident of birth. Of course he’s also a liar, schemer and multiple murderer but better the devil you know eh? That certainly seemed to be Sansa’s thinking this week as our little bird grew up and gave evidence, cleverly mixing enough truth among the lies to ensure that she and Petyr ended the episode impregnable in the Eyrie. The final shot of a black-clad Sansa, her hair newly dyed dark, descending down the stairs, suggested that the former hostage has done more than find her voice. This was a rebirth, and I’m very interested indeed to find out what Sansa does next, although if I were Baelish I’d probably be more than a little bit scared. Like her sister, Arya, this is one protégé who could soon be outstripping her teacher: let no one say that the Stark girls don’t learn fast.” —The Guardian

No, things are not looking particularly sunny for Jon Snow and his band of sexually frustrated Crows, but I will say this: the fact that they are outnumbered by a ratio of 1,000-to-one gives me confidence that they actually will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, since the alternative would be too boring. 'Oh, look, here comes that army of 100,000 we’ve been stressing about all season long. Yep, they’ve got giants with them. And, yep, we have only 102 men. Aaaaaand they killed us all in five seconds. Gee, wonder what’s happening in King’s Landing?'” —Vanity Fair

Some combination of tears and vomit would be an appropriate reaction to the gruesome final scene in 'The Mountain and the Viper.' On a show in which many righteous characters have met horrific and bloody ends, Oberyn Martell’s death at the hands — disgustingly, brutally, literally — of The Mountain feels the most disheartening. Oberyn was arguably the best character on season of Game of Thrones, someone with a proper moral compass and, let’s say, progressive social leanings. A truly modern man. A man too good for Westeros. A man whose face and brains are now splattered across the trial-by-combat ring in King’s Landing. And Oberyn came to this sick end as his killer yelled into his about-to-explode face about raping and killing his sister and her children. And this death now sets the stage for the possible death of Tyrion, the show’s one true hero. We all know GoT makes its reputation on nobody being safe and killing the ones we most love, but this one just felt gratuitous. (The guy dying by face-squeeze-brain-explosion felt gratuitous, but that kind of goes without saying.) And if somehow this happens to Tyrion next week, well … I guess we’ll just go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and see what happens next. We’ll never stop watching.” —Washington Post

“It all comes back to the Mountain and the Viper, really. For all his decadent swagger, Prince Oberyn was genuinely a man out for justice against people who committed monstrous war crimes against his innocent family. Yet it's his insistence that Gregor Clegane die as punishment for those crimes, instead of just because he's the dude who got tapped to represent the prosecution in Tyrion's trial, that gets him killed in turn. And so, an admitted rapist and murderer crushes a man's head with his hands, and in so doing insures that an innocent man will die for a crime he didn't commit. That horrifying special effect was as symbolic a spectacle as any Fourth of July fireworks display – a bright-red tribute to Game of Thrones' central contention that power is the only thing that matters, and any claims to the contrary are as hollow as a shattered skull.” —Rolling Stone

And we have to say it: Alfie Allen is really doing a lot of incredibly addled work as Reek/Theon. His mind feels constantly on the edge of breakdown, as if a single thread is all that ties him to reality. Not enough people are appreciative of it — not that it’s all that hard to overlook when you’ve got Peter Dinklage running around Peter Dinklage-ing the shit out of everything. But still: in the very least a tip of the hat is due to the young Allen, particularly the moment when everything nearly goes to shit for him at Moat Cailin. How he slowly unraveled — a twitch here, a mumbled 'Reek' there — felt captivating and heartbreakingly real. He fully embodies a man barely surviving this life.” —Nerdist

“Lords cavorting with witches. Brothers bedding sisters. Whore-loving dwarves. Game of Thrones has explored every permutation of romance. Why not a chaste one? It strikes a sort of poetic balance that on the same night that Game of Thrones fans lost their beloved bi-furious champion Oberyn Martell — as renowned for his boundless libido as his warrior skills — we would see a genuine spark of mutual, but as-yet-unfulfilled, longing between the unassuming translator Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and the eunuch Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson). But does the show have the balls to follow through and allow pure love to bloom between these two?” —Salon

"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." —The Atlantic

“Yet the brutality extends to other aspects of the episode as well. For instance, the longest lasting character pairing on the show — Jorah and Daenerys — is torn apart in this episode, when she learns from Ser Barristan that Jorah was, at one time, spying on her for the crown of Westeros, shipping his information to Varys. The scene where she dismisses him from her service is a dark and haunting one, not least of which is because of Emilia Clarke’s choice to first go up—into a range where you think she’ll begin reading him the riot act—then pull things back down in favor of a tremulous, terrifying whisper, or because of Iain Glen’s rigidly dogmatic insistence that he is a loyal man now, even if he was not (and even as he knows that will not be enough to save his place by her side). It’s also powerful because it’s dismantling the one relationship on the show that still has a rough connection to what it was in the pilot. Other character pairings have been torn asunder and reunited—Jaime and Cersei, say—but I think the longest-lasting pairing title now falls to Sam and Jon (and, don’t forget, Jon was with the Wildlings for a fair amount of this), who have been together since episode four or five. Graves, Benioff, and Weiss give the moment the proper gravity, too, with Graves’ series of unsteady close-ups that cut in tighter and tighter on the faces of the two actors (until we’re essentially focused only on Emilia Clarke’s lips moving, thanks to the play of the light) serving to underline how massive this is for both them and the show. And then we cut to Jorah riding away from the city—to an uncertain fate both for the man and for his place within the series.” —A.V. Club

“The scene between the brothers was excellent, as any Tyrion-Jaime conversation tends to be, and specifically fascinating because of the seeming randomness of the cousin story. The tale is a reminder not only that Tyrion is no saint — he mocked the poor kid just so he could feel normal for once, and still laughs now as he imitates his brain-damaged speech — but that he is a very different creature from the rest of his family for reasons that go well beyond his stature. Jaime is baffled that Tyrion would be so obsessed with the ritualistic slaughter of beetles in a world where so many humans are brutally killed each and every day, but Tyrion doesn't think like Jaime, or Cersei, or Tywin, or anyone else. To him, the beetles weren't simply a measure of his cousin's madness, but a puzzle to be unlocked — and, in the process, explaining not only something practical that young Tyrion witnessed every day, but some larger mystery of the universe into which he was born so cruelly, and from which so many of those people his brother mentions exit so violently. It means nothing, and yet the randomness of it — and the fact that Tyrion knows he will go to his grave, whether in days or in many years, not knowing the answer — feels like exactly what would be occupying his mind as he waits for his life to be decided by the skill and wisdom of other men. That he cared so much about the beetles isn't a reason Tyrion Lannister should live or die, but the show's universe is vastly more interesting with such a man in it.” —HitFix

“'The Mountain and the Viper' promised an action-packed showdown and though it took nearly the whole episode to get to it, there’s no denying the exceptional payoff. Game of Thrones is 90 percent people talking in castles about how they plan to execute the next steps of whatever political scheme they’re running. And that stuff is great! But that other 10 percent, the big events that people still remember three seasons later, that’s what makes this show extra special. Oberyn’s mission of vengeance had been teased all year, and the Mountain’s terrifying force had been lurking even longer, since he chopped that horse’s head off in season one. Everything paid off spectacularly.” —The Wire