Yet another Game of Thrones episode that’s full of characters shining in ways they’ve never shone before—Sansa, Ramsay, Grey Worm and Missandei, Tyrion and of course, Oberyn—and all I can think about, despite everything that happened, is the curious shared recollection between Jaime and Tyrion about their cousin Orson killing beetles. Let’s circle back to that in a bit, though.
As many observed at the time of the show’s previous episode two long weeks ago, the title of this week’s episode, “The Mountain and the Viper,” set up a showdown between two near-legendary combatants, Gregor Clegane and Oberyn Martell. So we knew what we were in for (relatively speaking), and the series’ writers knew we knew what we were in for, and as this is Game of Thrones, they made us wait as long as possible before giving us what we came for, and delivered in style. Credit the quality of the scenes and characters featured before the trial by combat for maintaining a level of engagement in drama that could have easily been distracted by that sense of “Where’s Poochie?”
More than just drawing out our patience for as long as possible, some of the events of this episode prepared us for its eventual climax in a couple of ways. One way it set up the gruesome conclusion to this fight to the death was by serving us an appetizer of stomach-turningly violent images courtesy of House Bolton. I’ve revealed myself as a really bad book reader in the past (you guys, I genuinely forgot how the Mountain-Viper thing ended), but I do remember how the Boltons’ sigil was of a flayed man, and this made nearly no impression on me until seeing it on their banners in the series. Even then, it’s not made quite as clear how savage this Bolton family tradition is until we actually see the flayed men of Moat Cailin. So that type of imagery made for a kind of hors d’oeuvre in advance of seeing Oberyn’s skull crushed by the Mountain.
The other way the episode sets up an ending that features yet another one of our favorite characters meeting his own ending is by taking some more supporting characters’ stories and making them far more interesting than they have been up to this point. It’s as though with the endlessly entertaining Oberyn now out of the picture and the very real prospect that we may also lose the show’s singular hero, Tyrion, we’re being introduced to other potential favorites, or at least storylines that we could come to find as interesting as these other stories we’ve invested in so deeply. Oddly enough, the Ballad of Ramsay Bolton (formerly Ramsay Snow) has become one of the most surprisingly fascinating plots of this season, culminating here in a scene atop a mountain where Roose essentially plays Mufasa to Ramsay’s Simba, officially adopting him as his legitimate son. It would be a truly touching moment if these two weren’t such unequivocal villains, but that’s the kind of emotional dissonance that this show has mastered.