The tricky thing about the whole concept of a "trial-by-combat" is that it presupposes the existence—and willful intervention—of a just god. That, to me, is a big leap of faith. I could be as innocent as a newborn baby, but if you put me in a ring with The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) I'm going to have about as much chance of winning as a newborn baby would. Unless "the gods" see fit to strike Gregor Clegane down with a thunderbolt—or, more likely, a laughter-induced choking fit—that trial is going to end in a guilty verdict, whether I'm innocent or not.
And everyone knows this. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) would have fared only slightly better against The Mountain than I would, but he almost had to try, and no one suggested for a moment that he might prevail. No one said, "If you're innocent, you have nothing to worry about, because the gods will save you." In fact, if everyone really believed this trial-by-combat crap, there would be no reason for Cersei (Lena Headey) to recruit the most fearsome warrior in the Seven Kingdoms to stand for her: in theory, she should be able to send Ser Pounce into the ring to fight for her, and leave the rest up to the gods.
So it's bullshit, and everyone knows it's bullshit, whether they admit it or not. But the funny thing about trials-by-combat so far on Game of Thrones is that they almost seem like they do work. Prior to "The Mountain and the Viper," we've witnessed two previous displays of gladiatorial jurisprudence: one between Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and Lysa Arryn's champion in "A Golden Crown," and one between the Hound (Rory McCann) and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) in "Kissed by Fire."
In the first case, the gods got it right. We knew—almost to a certainty—that Tyrion was innocent, and the trial found him innocent: one could even argue that the gods did intervene, by sending Bronn along to fight for the innocent man.
The second case was more of a grey area, but Sandor Clegane—though he did kill Arya's friend Micah—made a strong argument that he was sworn to obey his prince and therefore could not be held accountable. From our modern, civilized vantage point we can invoke the Nuremberg Principles all we like, but the fact of the matter is that, in his society, the Hound was right. The whole system is built on allegiance, and soldiers aren't allowed to disobey the orders of kings. So there, too, the gods seemed to deliver the right verdict.
So the show has flirted with the possibility that the universe might just be a fair and orderly place, at least in this regard. But in "The Mountain and the Viper," the gods get it, for the first time, unequivocally wrong. An innocent man is proven guilty through trial-by-combat, and there are only two conclusions any reasonable person could draw from that fact: either there are no gods, or else the gods couldn't give less of a shit about right and wrong.
I'm dwelling a bit on the theological point because I think it's important to this episode. ("It tells you something about the gods," Tyrion says to Jaime [Nikolaj Coster-Waldau], of this trial-by-combat thing.) I've been arguing all along that Game of Thrones is, at heart, a godless fictional universe, with no evidence of cosmic justice of any kind. (I've probably written the phrase "life isn't fair" more often than any other in these reviews.)
But "The Mountain and the Viper" subtly posits the other of the two reasonable conclusions I mentioned above: that there might be a god, or gods, but that He (or She, or They) may simply not be concerned with right and wrong. They might not care about good or evil. They might not—to borrow a phrase from Jaime—give a dusty fuck about any of us.
It's frankly a more terrifying notion than total chaos: that God may be simply capricious, or careless, or cruel; that He may be just amusing Himself; that He may simply be crushing us like the bugs we are and laughing His omnipotent ass off.
Sometimes, as we see this episode, the only thing we can do is recognize the absurdity of it all, and have a good laugh ourselves.
"The joke wore thin, though."—Jaime Lannister
Contemplating the nature of the gods is just as difficult—and ultimately just as fruitless—as contemplating the mystery of Orson Lannister. As children, Jaime and Tyrion both were amused by their brain-damaged cousin Orson, who sat in the garden, all day, every day, smashing beetles with a rock. (After all, as Tyrion says, "Laughing at another person's misery was the only thing that made me feel like everyone else.") But Tyrion was more than amused—he was also intrigued by the mystery of it all. "I was the smartest person I knew," he says. "Surely I had the wherewithal to unravel the mysteries of a moron."
"I may not have been able to speak with Orson, but I could observe him, watch him, the way men watch animals to come to a deeper understanding of their behavior. And as I watched, I became more and more sure: there was something happening there. His face was like a page of a book written in a language I didn't understand, but he wasn't mindless. He had his reasons. And I became possessed with knowing what they were. I began to spend inordinate amounts of time watching him...And when I wasn't watching him I was thinking about him...And I still couldn't figure out why he was doing it. I had to know, because it was horrible that all these beetles should be dying for no reason...It filled me with dread."
All over the world, men, women, and children are slaughtered by the score every day, Jaime points out, so "who gives a dusty fuck for a bunch of beetles?" But Tyrion was haunted by the meaningless cruelty of it to the point where he woke up screaming. We've seen throughout the series that Tyrion, for all his cynicism and sardonic wit, has always had a tender heart. Cruelty bothers him; indiscriminate violence bothers him; lack of sympathy and fairness and justice bothers him. He doesn't understand why these things exist, and that bothers him. Why is the world so cruel that we need a word for every single kind of murder?
Tyrion ends this extraordinary monologue about Orson—in which he describes spending months puzzling over the riddle through scholarly research and scientific observation—by posing to Jaime the same questions he began with: "Why did he do it? What was it all about?" Decades later, he's still no closer to solving this microcosmic mystery of the universe, just like he never understood the cruelties of Joffrey (who treated people more or less exactly as Orson treated beetles). He tried to stop Joffrey—as he once tried, and failed, to stop Orson—but his reward is to be wrongly accused of murder. Now, on the possible eve of his own death, he doesn't understand anything—least of all why all of this is happening to him.
He has picked up a beetle in his cell during this conversation, and at the end he sets it gently back down. Because why would he smash it? Why would anyone?
But what if there's nothing to understand? What if we're looking for reasons where none exist? The scene ends, significantly, with the sound of church bells, punctuating the theological metaphor, and heralding the unjust doom of Tyrion Lannister. "Why are all the gods such vicious cunts?" Tyrion once asked. "Where is the god of tits and wine?" But this episode leaves us with the troubling image of the gods as vicious, damaged children, mindlessly killing for fun, for entertainment, for absolutely no reason at all.
Smash the beetles! Conk, conk, conk.
"Remember what you are, and what you are not."—Ramsay Snow, to Theon Greyjoy
And it's a theory we've heard variations on before in Game of Thrones. What the story of Orson Lannister most reminded me of was the speech Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon) made in Season Three's "The Climb." He posed a similar riddle to Theon (Alfie Allen) as Orson posed to Tyrion: "You win the game if you figure out who I am and why I'm torturing you." Theon proposed a number of reasonable theories, which included admissions of his own sins, but in the end—just as with Orson—the answer was no answer at all. "This isn't happening to you for a reason," Ramsay said. "Well, one reason: because I enjoy it." (Conk. Conk. Conk.)
This week, he sends Reek—disguised as his former self, Theon—to negotiate the surrender of the Iron Islanders at Moat Cailin. "Do this, and he will be just and fair with you as he has been with me," Reek tells the Iron Born, and technically he's not lying. Ramsay is as just and fair with them as he was with Theon—which is to say, not at all. In the grand tradition of House Bolton, he has them all flayed. ("It's fallen out of fashion, flaying," he tells Reek. "Sad but true.")
With Joffrey dead, Ramsay Snow is probably the undisputed King of the Vicious Cunts, and the show's chief spokesperson for unfairness and indiscriminate cruelty. We've seen him mercilessly torture and mutilate Theon—physically and psychically—and we've seen him hunt women for sport, and we suspect there's probably no end to his gleeful depravity.
And, naturally, he is rewarded: in fact, Ramsay Snow gets everything he ever wanted this episode. In reward for his service, he is proclaimed a bastard no more, but the trueborn son of Roose Bolton (Ian McElhinney). And since Roose Bolton is now the Warden of the North, that makes Ramsay the heir to the largest of the Seven Kingdoms.
Ramsay tells Reek that they are going to their new home, and the final shot of them this episode is a chilling one that provides all the evidence we could ever want that there is no justice in this world: they are riding for Winterfell.
Let's let that sink in for a moment: nearly four years after we first saw our hero Eddard Stark's home—in a shot very much like this one—that home has now fallen into the hands of the man who personally killed Robb Stark and helped annihilate Ned's entire line. And Ramsay Bolton, née Snow—the most sadistic shit in Westeros—has now taken Robb's place as the heir, the new Prince of Winterfell. Tell me the gods don't have, at the very least, a very twisted and troubling sense of humor.
"You're not a child any longer."—Baelish, to Sansa
Which is why, sometimes, all you can do is laugh. The two surviving Stark girls, at least, are beginning to figure that out.
For three seasons Arya (Maisie Williams) has been passed from hand to hand, and nearly every person she's been with has promised to reunite her with her family. Yoren swore to take her to her brother at the Wall; Beric Dondarrion promised to deliver her to her grandfather at Riverrun; the Hound said he would take her to her mother and brother at The Twins. Camped across the river from Catelyn and Robb last season, Arya was nervous and anxious: she still had hope that this time she might actually be reunited with the people she loved.
But it's a year later, and Arya has accepted the way the world works. Now, the Hound is taking her to the sanctuary of her aunt's castle in the Vale. "You're her blood," the Hound assures her. "Family, honor, all that horseshit: it's all you lords and ladies ever talk about." But Arya protests that she's not a lady—and she's not: she is so far removed at this point from her life at Winterfell that one wonders if she even misses it. In the meantime, she has learned that the world is a hard and cruel place, and she seems to have decided that her only option is to become hard and cruel in return.
And so when disappointment strikes again—with the news that Lady Arryn died just three days before she and the Hound arrived at the Bloody Gate—all Arya can do is laugh. It's a glorious, funny moment, but also a terribly sad one. Another member of her family is dead, and she's shit out of luck again: what else is new? She no longer expects anything good to happen: all that's left is to be amused at the new forms the badness will take.
And Arya isn't the only Stark who has adapted to the way the world works: little Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), seemingly overnight, has grown up.
Sophie Turner has always been excellent on this show, but the character of Sansa never afforded the opportunity to demonstrate a great deal of range: Sansa was always exactly what she appeared to be, a sweet, sincere girl who always told the truth and always did what she was told. Like Arya, she's been passed from hand to hand, and suffered disappointment after disappointment, but she's stayed the same kind, open, infallibly honest, painfully naive child.
Until now. "We're all liars here," Baelish (Aidan Gillen) told her once. "And every one of us is better than you." Suddenly, however, that's not true: it's as if all the lessons of her teachers—Cersei and Baelish and Shae and Margaery and Oleanna—have sunk in all at once. Called before the Lords of the Vale to support Baelish's explanation of Lysa's death, she surprises everyone present by seizing control of the narrative. She confesses her true identity, and she admits that Baelish's story is a lie: for one long moment he thinks she has thrown him to the wolves—which she could have done—but instead she improves on his story. "Making honest feelings do dishonest work is one of her many gifts," Tyrion said recently, about Cersei, and it's a skill that Sansa now appears to have picked up. She channels the misery the Lannisters put her through, and her honest relief at being rescued, and her genuine terror at her aunt's fury, into a masterful web of lies that is absolutely convincing for being so close to the truth. The emotional outburst is an impressive bit of acting, but it's the sly, powerful look she gives Baelish afterwards—as he stares at her in wonder—that suddenly elevates Sansa's character, and Turner's performance, onto a whole new level. All of a sudden we feel that Littlefinger—the master manipulator—may be outmatched.
It's a stunning transformation, and a triumphant moment to see Sansa move from being a pawn in the game to being a player—but it's also, as it was with Arya, something of a tragedy as well. Last week we discussed how Sansa and Lysa both believed in the fairy tales of love and happiness, but that faith was never rewarded: it led Sansa into one nightmarish situation after another, and it led Lysa straight through the moon door. So now Sansa—once the sweetest, most guileless of young women—has finally lost her innocence. "You think you know me?" Baelish asks her later. "I know what you want," she says confidently. Like Baelish, she's becoming someone who knows how to manipulate, who knows how to use a person's weaknesses and desires against him. This, she has seen—again and again—is the only way to survive in a world that does not reward goodness and honesty. When she descends the staircase in a woman's gown, and sees how Baelish stares at her, her small smile at her own power speaks as loudly as her little sister's laugh: Ah, so this is the way the world works, it says. How silly of me not to realize before.
Baelish has always known how the world works, and he echoes the theme of the episode in his talk with Robin Arryn (Lino Facioli). Littlefinger has convinced the Lords of the Vale that it is time for little Robin to leave the nest and see the world, but the young Lord—having been sheltered all his life at his mother's breast—is understandably terrified he might be killed. Baelish, amusingly, doesn't even try to reassure him that the world is a safe place: in fact, he confirms, people die all the time, in any manner of nasty ways, and there's nothing to be done about it. "Everyone dies," he counsels. "Don't worry about your death, worry about your life. Take charge of your life, for as long as it lasts." The world is chaos, and chaos is a ladder, he once said: the best thing you can do is keep climbing.
"My lady was not meant for a world as brutal as ours," Baelish said earlier, of the late Lysa Arryn. Neither was Sansa Stark—but she's adapting: she's taking control of her life. Giving up on the belief that good things happen to good people is just the most important first step.
"May the Father give them such justice as they deserve." — Maester Pycelle
Which brings us to the duel between The Mountain and The Viper. By every measure of fairness—theological, legal, and narrative—this fight should go to Oberyn Martell. He is fighting to prove the innocence of a man we know to be innocent. He is fighting for a just personal cause, to avenge the brutal rape and murder of his sister, and the slaughter of her children. He is a decent, dashing figure, fighting against a loathsome monster of a man; he's even the underdog. ("The little hero always beats the big villain in all the stories,"as Littlefinger said.) And, finally, he is fighting to save the life of the guy who is the most popular and iconic character on the show. How could the gods—the Old Gods, the New Gods, or the Gods of Storytelling—possibly let him lose?
The Red Viper feels the same way. "You're going to fight that?" Ellaria (Indira Varma) asks him, alarmed, when she gets her first look at the Mountain. "I'm going to kill that," Oberyn responds. "Today is not the day I die," he says, flush with the confidence of righteousness: he is a romantic figure on a noble quest, arrogantly drunk on the fairytale narrative he's spent years writing in his own head. If there is any god, any justice, any fairness, he can't possibly lose.
But if we want to know how important the gods are in this conflict, notice the way Tywin (Charles Dance) cuts off Pycelle (Julian Glover) during the invocation: there are seven gods, but Tywin only lets the old fool mention two and a half of them before he waves him off the stage in boredom. (So much for gods.) And the narrative doesn't quite go the way it should, does it? Yes, Oberyn is supposed to win—but anyone who has ever seen a single movie or TV show knows that the Gods of Drama require him to appear to be losing first. In this fight, Oberyn is too good, right off the bat: he dominates the entire duel, dancing and vaulting around the Mountain with ease, wounding him at will, bringing his opponent crashing to the ground like the giant-slayer he believes himself to be. He is so confident, so completely in control, that he mocks his opponent, taunts him, refuses to kill him when he has the chance.
As I said, Oberyn is a figure of myth, of romance, of fairy tales—and if you've ever seen this show before you know that means he's due for a rude disillusionment. Game of Thrones belongs to the realists: it belongs to men like Bronn (Jerome Flynn), who knew better than to get in a ring with the Mountain, and who predicted exactly what could happen. ("Maybe I could take him," Bronn said last week. "Dance around him until he's so tired of hacking at me that he drops his sword. Get him off his feet, somehow. But one misstep, and I'm dead.") Oberyn dances around the Mountain, and manages to gets him off his feet—but then he starts talking: it's not enough to win, he wants to hear the script he's been composing for so long. He wants fairness, and justice. He wants answers. He wants, as Tyrion did with Orson, to know why, and what it's all about.
But there is no why. Game of Thrones belongs to the people who know that there are no gods, or that any gods who do exist do not give a dusty fuck about fairness. We can repeat the questions over and over again, desperate for it all to make sense, but there's no sense to be made. Oberyn Martell learns the hard way that the only answer we're ever going to get is the rock, coming down without warning or reason, to crush us like bugs against the ground.
Conk. Conk. Conk.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- In the interest of space (and time—since I'm already very late) I skipped over our friends at the Wall and across the Narrow Sea this week, but both find echoes with the rest of the episode. For Jorah (Iain Glen) the arbitrary rock comes down in the form of his pardon from Westeros, informing his allies that he once spied on Dany (Emilia Clarke) for King Robert. The scene where Dany banishes him for this betrayal is fantastic: both of them play it perfectly, each carefully holding feelings in check that are too large to let out. But is it justice? Is this fair? Jorah did spy on her, but to no harm, and he has dedicated his service to her ever since, and loved her with all his heart. I don't think it's a stretch to say that she became both his religion and the love of his life, and standing in that temple she is both the god who cruelly casts him out and the lover who, in defiance of the fairy tale, never loved him back.
- The scene between Dany and Jorah gets a deliberate overture, in a minor chord, when Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) meet in the same temple earlier. (Missandei is even dressed in that same light blue that Dany almost always wears.) Grey Worm, too, is guilty of spying—having quite understandably refused to look away when he saw bathing in a stream—but in this case she forgives him, a note of human grace that contrasts with the harshness of Dany and the cruelty of the gods. (Grey Worm even expresses a roundabout faith in fate, or at least a way to rationalize the senseless cruelty he has suffered most of his life: if he had not been through everything he had been through, he would never have met her. Jorah, one supposes, would say the same thing about the path that led him to Dany.)
- Meanwhile, the Wildlings continue their rampage of indiscriminate cruelty through the North—which must seem, to the innocent and clueless villagers they slaughter, exactly as random and senseless as a rock seems to a beetle. There's another brief conversation that pertains to our theme when the men of the Night's Watch discuss the three brothers who were killed while breaking their vows in a brothel. Was that justice? Does that give any meaning to it? "I didn't say it was all right," Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton) says. "I'm saying they shouldn't have been there." But in all of this darkness, too, there is one small note of human grace, when Ygritte (Rose Leslie) spares the life of her fellow wildling Gilly (Hannah Murray).
- On a lighter note, Lord Royce—who presides over the interrogation of Baelish—is played by the wonderful character actor Rupert Vansittart. He played a farting alien on Doctor Who, but to me he will always be the guy who cock-blocked Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Hearing his voice, I almost expected him to say, "Ned Stark was a good man. He was my liege lord, you know. Buggered me senseless. Still, taught me a thing or two..."
- According to Wikipedia, a British man in 2002 tried to invoke his right to a trial by combat, under medieval law, to get out of paying a £25 vehicle fine. He didn't get away with it, surprisingly, in part because British law abolished the practice in 1819. The U.S. courts, however, have never addressed the issue, and—since the U.S. retained the bulk of British Common Law as it stood in 1776, unless otherwise addressed by new laws—a U.S. citizen could in theory argue the right to a trial by combat today. (What I'm saying is, if The People's Court was like that, I'd watch.)
- In considering the parable of Orson Lannister, we should consider the troubling possibility that it also stands as a metaphor for the true god of this universe, George R.R. Martin. How many times have fans of this story yelled out in anguish at the author—after he killed one beloved character or another—Why are you doing this? I mean, we hope there's a master plan to all of it, and some far-off hope of a fair and happy ending, but what if there isn't? Maybe Martin just feels about his characters the way Orson felt about beetles.