Every week, I will be reviewing the latest episode of “Game of Thrones,” informed by my reading of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels. My colleague David Malitz, who is new to the story, will be recapping the show on The Post’s Style Blog.
Tonight’s episode of “Game of Thrones” ends with a sickening image: the sight of Oberyn Martel’s (Pedro Pascal) utterly ruined face giving way to Tyrion Lannister’s (Peter Dinklage) slack one as he sees death stalk towards him even as Martel’s foe, Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), collapses after a final bout of violence. In an episode with House Bolton’s flayed torso, it is saying something considerable that Oberyn’s death was the most nauseating thing we saw in “The Mountain and the Viper.”
But the utter waste of one of the last human beings in Westeros or Essos capable of being in love with life and still believing in justice was worse for me for something that came before it. The expressions of wild hope on Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Ellaria Sand’s (Indira Varma) faces at it seemed that Oberyn might have done the impossible and beaten “that,” are almost worse to remember than Oberyn’s shattered skull. “The Mountain and the Viper” may end in bloody violence, but it is a meditation on the loves that both motivate such savagery and make it so weighty.
There is a reason that the climactic trial by combat comes after a scene, nearly five minutes long, in which Jaime and Tyrion talk about something of essentially no importance to the plot whatsoever. They are reminiscing about a cousin of theirs who suffered traumatic brain injury as a child, and for the rest of his short life, got so much of his pleasure out of killing beetles.
In another episode, this might have been a metaphor for the war still raging across Westeros. In “The Mountain and the Viper,” though, it is mostly just a showcase for why two brothers who have little in common care so deeply for each other.
Tyrion’s digressions, his crude but funny impression of the other boy and his willingness to poke fun at himself and his obsessions are terribly charming. In a prison cell or in a world that saw him as repulsive, Tyrion has always been able to save himself with talk. And Jaime may have lost his hand, but he has not lost his blunt, direct style of thinking. He can cut Tyrion off a tangent without being cruel to him. In fiction, we often wish that night would never end so lovers can linger in it. Here on “Game of Thrones,” I wished darkness could have extended its protection to these brothers, so often parted from each other, achieving the truest friendship of their lives as one reaches what appears to be his end.
North at the Wall, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) feels a sharper sense of guilt when he learns that he packed off Gilly to a place that endangered first her soul, and now her body. A raid on Molestown has killed three of his brothers, and Sam, who packed Gilly off ostensibly to protect her from his brothers, but really to protect himself from her, believes that he may have been the cause of her death.
In the North as in the South, the codes that men rely on to make them decent, whether Jaime’s oath to the Kingsguard or Sam’s to the Night’s Watch, also leave them hobbled when their connections tug at them. Sometimes the most decent, loving thing you can do for another person for whom you care deeply is risky, or stupid or insulting to people with power.
Oberyn’s unkillable love for his long-dead sister is what made him take the outrageously foolish mistake that ended his life. Jaime’s inability to reconcile his love for his sister, his brother and the father who has contempt for all three of them has left him hanging around a prison cell. The flickering of Sam’s love beyond the Wall lit the fire that led him and Gilly back to safety, but it was not a strong enough brand to let him see his way to a different kind of life — one lived without the approval of his father or his brothers, but with happiness and kindness enough to survive on. All three of these loves involve abandonment, but other, more unequal ones throw down roots in this episode.
In the North, Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) naturalizes his illegitimate son Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon). But while the father may be willing to reward his son with hopes of controlling him, Ramsay harbors a deeper love for Roose and what he believes his father represents. “You honor me. I swear I will honor your name and your tradition,” Ramsay tells Roose, falling to his knees on the hill where his state is changed. But by names and traditions, Ramsay does not mean the legacy Roose Bolton hopes to build as warden of the North. Rather, Ramsay believes that his savagery has been legitimized, along with the narrative of his birth. “Traditions are important,” he told Reek (Alfie Allen) after the sack of Moat Cailan, showing him the flayed body of the man Reek helped betray. “What are we without our history?” From such dreadful misunderstandings are monstrosities born, and Roose has just raised up a nightmare.
In the Eyrie, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who has been buffeted about by the love Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) bore her mother, decides to use that love to raise herself up. Sansa’s fear and horror of the world paralyzed her in Joffrey’s court, and her physical maturation made her a target for grotesque abuses. But in the Vale, she turns the image of the former on the Lords and Ladies who helped her aunt govern, and the latter on her protector.
Lord Royce (Rupert Vansittart) and his fellow nobles will love Sansa because she is vulnerable. And Petyr cannot help but desire Sansa for herself, and for the beauty that surpasses her mother’s. It is no mistake that Sansa sews herself a mourning dress that is appropriate in its blackness, and that in its revealing cut is a declaration of her womanhood and power. Sansa may not be able to love any more, after the horrors of what she has suffered, but she is well aware that she is capable of making others love her, and she will exploit the Vale and Petyr’s desires for her as best she can.
Not all who are damaged are rendered incapable of love, though. In Essos, Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and the eunuch soldier Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) initially recognized each other as fellow survivors of the traumas of the slave trade. But while bathing in the river, Grey Worm sees Missandei as something more than the sum of what was stolen from her. She is a beautiful, desirable woman, and in his tentative gaze, concealed in part by the water of the river, Missandei recognizes herself as worthy of being wanted.
Can they love? Their queen, Danerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who has only recently rediscovered sexual pleasure, thinks purely in physical terms, pondering what lies under Grey Worm’s clothes. But Missandei seems more optimistic, even if she does not quite know how to begin an affair, particularly one that would require a particular tenderness and sensitivity. For now, the two pine and gaze. After what they’ve been through, and after what “Game of Thrones” has shown us of sex and love, Missandei and Grey Worm seem almost innocent.
And if love can arrive at unexpected times, it can also grow too late. Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) had convinced himself that his deep passion for Dany had become more important than his initial assignment to spy on her for the regime that slaughtered her family. But when Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) receives a pardon from the late King Robert Baratheon meant for Mormont, Dany finally learns the truth about the treachery of her self-protecting protector. When Mormont behaves like a penitent lover, falling to his knees and begging her forgiveness, Dany is disgusted by him. “Love? How can you say that to me?,” Dany tells Mormont, saying that if he were any other man, she would have him executed. “I do not want you in my city dead or alive,” she spits, banishing him to live with the pain of what he has done to her, just as she will have to live with the knowledge that so much of the affection she counted on was a lie.
The characters in another story deeply skeptical of fairy tale conventions could have told Dany that much of what tells you are alive or in love is the pain of both things.
Most of the characters in fractured fairy tales know at least half the truth, spoken to Missandei by Grey Worm. “If the Masters never cut me, I never am Unsullied. I never stand in the plaza of pride when Daenerys Stormborn orders us to kill the Masters,” he tells Missandei, explaining why he cannot regret the horrible violence done to him as a child. “I never am chosen to lead the Unsullied. I never meet Missandei from the Isle of Naath.” But in “Game of Thrones,” love does not bind up all our wounds, nor can it heal the faces that have been smashed beyond recognition. Even in Westeros, many of the young believe that love is the end of pain. The wise learn quickly that it is only the beginning.