“The Mountain and the Viper” isn’t so much a lead-up to the showdown promised by its title as a delay of game. Teasing out the main event is a staple not only of Game of Thrones, but of serialized TV in general, yet the first 35-to-40 minutes of this episode are so far removed from Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) plight that it almost comes as a surprise when the final act loops back around to him and his champion Oberyn’s (Pedro Pascal) duel with Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson).
The episode thus marks time for itself, and some of its padding is downright trivial. From the moment Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) spots an undressed Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) while bathing, a pointless diversion ensues, including Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) wondering aloud whether castration involves the taking of “the pillar and the stones.” A moment between the Unsullied and the servant would pass for sweet were it not tinged with that morbid curiosity over the specifics of Grey Worm’s mutilation.
Elsewhere, the combination of Ramsay Snow’s frivolous sadism and the character’s flat, unintimidating portrayal by Iwan Rheon continues to waste time that could be better spent anywhere else in Westeros. A scene depicting Ramsay’s father, Roose (Michael McElhatton), legitimizing his son only highlights the character’s complete emptiness when not engaged in torture. Then again, a shot of the bastard standing next to the gouged and flayed corpse of a man offered clemency seconds earlier finds Ramsay’s barbarism reduced not to offense, but unremarkable tedium, at last drained of shock value by sheer predictability.
Other storylines prove worthier of the viewer’s time. Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) deals with fallout over Lysa’s death in a beautifully lit scene that places him backlit into silhouette as a makeshift council grills him. Though the nobles take the position of cops in an interrogation scene, they never project intimidation as Baelish sits comfortably in the hot seat, prepared for their questions. The plot at the Eyrie also provides a great juxtaposition between Sansa (Sophie Turner), who at last displays an ability to play the game for her own self-preservation, and Arya (Maisie Williams), who arrives at the bottom of the Eyrie’s mountain so hardened that when she learns her aunt just died, she can only break into gales of laughter at the world’s cruel absurdity.
Clarke also gets yet another chance to make the most of Daenerys’s lethargically progressing arc. Confronted with the belated revelation that Jorah (Iain Glen) originally joined her coterie to spy on her, Daenerys angrily exiles him, and Clarke puts enough venom into her voice that she could almost pass as the episode’s “viper.” The faint scoff with which she incredulously repeats the word “love” when Jorah invokes it as self-defense is perfectly pitched between an effort to hold back bile and to choke back tears. She at last whispers “Go” so softly it’s easy to miss, hissed through unmoving lips as if she were practicing ventriloquism.
For this writer, Dany’s regal fury stands as the highlight of the episode, while the last 10 minutes suffer from stilted dialogue and weak direction. In his cell talking to Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Tyrion relates a shaggy-dog recollection of their mentally handicapped cousin, whose penchant for smashing beetles on a daily basis drove a younger Tyrion mad trying to figure out the reason for this behavior. The inability to break through to the cousin, and the final cruelty of the lad’s untimely death at the hands, or hooves, rather, of a mule, neatly summarizes the show’s fatalistic philosophy, but the series has laid out such ideas so many times by now that Tyrion’s reflection acts less as a revelation of deeper themes than him nervously stalling for time.
As for the fight itself, the intuition and ability Alex Graves showed in “The Lion and the Rose” now seems a distant memory. Oberyn fights the Mountain with speed, twirling and leaping around the giant while jabbing with a spear. This style of fighting requires a fluid, attentive action director, but Graves falls back on every cliché of the incompetent: Handheld close-ups attempt to convey Oberyn’s movement, but instead lag behind his arcing dances, and the editing looks as if it expressly covered up poor execution of choreography. Pascal said in interviews that he trained for this fight, but I hope for his sake that he simply sucked, for it would be a shame if he developed adequate skills only for the final cut to make every single lunge look like the work of an obscured stunt double. The organization of the scene is so poor that even its gruesome twist, a jolt even if you know it’s coming, loses some of its impact for the rushed tone of the sequence.
In earlier recaps I said that this has been the least event-dependent season of the series to date. But that’s not really true, as the season has front-loaded a hell of a climax, then built back up to Tyrion’s sham trial and now its equally meaningless but more violent alternative. With two episodes to go, it still has a battle between the Night’s Watch and Wildlings, as well as not one but three additional sucker punches, provided the season fully closes out the third book. This season excels in its smaller moments: the terse exchanges that speak volumes, or even the silent flourishes like the sad, knowing smile of the woman on the council weighing Littlefinger’s guilt when Sansa testifies and mentions Lysa marrying against her will on her father’s orders like so many women. The breadth given to touches like these only makes the reversion to the show’s earlier formula of aggressive event preparation in “Mockingbird” and “The Mountain and the Viper” more disappointing. Game of Thrones aspires so nakedly to literary and cinematic levels, but lately it looks too much like television.
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