Just when it looks like things might start to look up for Tyrion, Gregor Clegane crushes someone's skull with his bare hands.
Oberyn Martell is dead, lying on the ground with blood pouring out of his skull and his eyes completely gouged out, leaving Jaime and Ellaria Sand in shock and Tyrion's life hanging in the balance. It's a depressingly fitting ending to a fight in which Oberyn's flipping and twirling seemed to have the leg up on Gregor's brute strength, but just when his victory and Tyrion's justice seemed to be in reach, everything came crashing down in one swift, violent motion. After all, this is Westeros, and power is what guarantees you a victory, no matter how much passion and skill you have on your side.
The outcome of the trial by combat is tragic for several reasons: in addition to losing one of the season's most entertaining characters and sentencing Tyrion to death, it also means that Oberyn has failed at avenging the death of his sister, the reason he came to King's Landing in the first place. Like Inigo Montoya on steroids, he twirled his spear around his head, taunting the Mountain into admitting his guilt and revealing that Tywin Lannister gave the orders to have Elia killed. His unfailing loyalty to his sister was Oberyn's defining and most interesting characteristic — it made him a wild card in King's Landing — but it was also his undoing. He became so caught up in justice for Elia, in forcing Gregor to confess to what he did and forcing Tywin to own up to her death that he lets his guard down for one terrible second.
Game of Thrones is a show about power and loyalty, and the consequences that come with them. For all that the show preaches the importance of honoring your promises and remaining loyal to the people you have sworn fealty to, it's been just as quick to point out the dangers of blind loyalty and trusting people without question. As the fight goes on and Oberyn's chanting becomes more and more impassioned, it seems as if he will take down the Mountain and Elia will finally be avenged, but it is precisely that all-consuming passion that distracted him long enough to allow Gregor to get back up. To have Oberyn defeated by a character who has no loyalty whatsoever, who is willing to fight for anyone who can pay him is an extra harsh blow, as the series' most devoted character destroyed by brute strength that has been sold to the highest bidder.
As if that weren't enough, the fight also effectively sends Tyrion to the gallows for a murder he didn't commit. A character who has only ever been loyal to himself, Tyrion has now been brought to his knees by putting his faith in other people. First, his love of Shae and attempts to protect her got him a trial by combat in the first place, and then, Oberyn's desire for revenge — the very thing that made him such an appealing champion in the first place, as he both understood Tyrion and wouldn't give up against the Mountain — sentences him to death.
But King's Landing isn't the only place getting a crash course in fidelty. Over in the Vale, Sansa decides to ally herself with Petyr Baelish, testifying on his behalf in front of the council and showcasing everything she's learned she first set off for the Capitol all those years ago. Petyr maintains that Lysa Arryn's death was a suicide, playing up her mental instability and using her erratic behavior to his advantage. However, he still needs Sansa to carry out the plan effectively, and she does exactly what he needs, but in such a way that it will protect her in the long run.
After admitting to the council that she's not Alayne Stone, but Sansa Stark, and thus winning favor from those who were loyal to her father and Winterfell, she peppers her lies with just enough truth so as to make them believable, a strategy that she previously used on Lysa herself. As Sansa's tearful testimony is intercut with shots of Petyr watching his ward put his advice into action, the drastic change that has just taken place is just as obvious her as it is when she swans down the stairs later in the episode. More than anyone else, Sansa's story exemplifies the message of Game of Thrones, and she's learned to play the game as well as people who have spent years manipulating and scheming their way through Westeros. If she needs to protect herself by siding with one of the least trustworthy people in the Seven Kingdoms, she'll do it, and if she needs to cry and manipulate the Small council in order to avoid the possibility of being in a dangerous situation, she'll do that too.
Meanwhile, Reek continues to prove his unfailing loyalty to Ramsay Snow, who has officially been recognized as a member of the Bolton family, and can rule the North under his father's name. His return to Moat Cailin pits him between his family and House Greyjoy, to whom he was previously faithful, and his new master. It's a difficult moment for Reek, who must pretend to be Theon but not let any of his old self creep back in, and his new identity is spotted almost immediately by his old soldiers. Alfie Allen is one of the show's unsung heroes, and his performance here is fantastic, with his confidence instantly dissolving, and the steady Theon Greyjoy gives way to shivering, snivelling Reek. And while it works out for him this time, thanks to a well-timed axe to the head, the constant push and pull between Theon and Reek seems poised to give way sometime soon, and we can't imagine it will work out well for him.
Over in Mereen, Daenerys and Ser Barristan discover that Jorah has not always been the loyal companion that he is, as a royal pardon arrives, signed by Robert Baratheon in exchange for Jorah's services. It doesn't matter to Dany how many times Jorah has protected her or the fact that he stopped spying after the crown sent assassins to kill her. He sold her secrets, and revealed that she was carrying Khal Drogo's child, and that is an offense that is unforgivable to her. The show's been holding onto his past treachery for some time now, waiting for the precise moment to let the other shoe drop, and it comes just after Jorah begins to suspect that Darrio might be replacing him in Dany's affections. If he thought he would be able to win her back before, that hope is gone now, and he rides off into the sunset alone, putting another character with shifting loyalties into play.
"The Mountain and the Viper" also manages to insert a few smaller moments about devotion and its consequences, with Sam's desire to protect Gilly coming back to bit him after the Night's Watch learns about the Wildling Raid on Mole's Town, and Sandor Clegane declaring Arya to be his "travelling companion" rather than his captive. Of course, that moment of friendship is punctuated by the news of Lysa's death, and Arya sums up all of the insanity, death and sadism of Westeros with peals of hysterical laughter.
Like every big episode this season, "The Mountain and the Viper" spends much of the episode catching us up on several different storylines before shifting all of its attention to one big moment. In this case, it works, as the Vale and King's Landing deservedly get the bulk of screentime, and the smaller changes and betrayals of the episode culminate in the big fight. Since next week's episode seems to be focusing primarily on the Wildlings' raid on the Wall, the episode leaves things in an interesting position, with the writers rushing forward some plots, leaving them with no more material from the books to draw on, and drawing out several others in order to build suspense. It's a risky choice, as it makes things a little more complicated for the writers next season, but we'll have to wait another two weeks to see if it's one that pays off.
In the meantime, though, we'll have to settle for the knowledge that even people in Westeros can quote The Princess Bride. Hopefully Hodor gets to do his Andre the Giant impression sometime soon.
Episode Grade: B,or Two Cousin Orsons Crushing Beetles in the Garden
There is something particularly unnerving about demon possession. It's the idea of something you can't see or control creeping into your body and taking up residence eventually obliterating all you once were and turning you into nothing more than a sack of meat to be manipulated. Then there's also the shrouded ritual around exorcisms: the Latin chants the flesh-sizzling crucifixes and the burning Holy Water. As it turns out exorcism isn't just the domain of Catholics.
The myths and legends of the Jews aren't nearly as well known but their creepy dybbuk goes toe-to-toe with anything other world religions come up with. There are various interpretations of what a dybbuk is or where it comes from — is it a ghost a demon a soul of a sinner? — but in any case it's looking for a body to hang out in for a while. Especially according to the solemn Hasidic Jews in The Possession an innocent young person and even better a young girl.
The central idea in The Possession is that a fancy-looking wooden box bought at a garage sale was specifically created to house a dybbuk that was tormenting its previous owner. Unfortunately it caught the eye of young Emily (Natasha Calis) a sensitive artistic girl who persuades her freshly divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and Grey's Anatomy) to buy it for her. Never mind the odd carvings on it — that would be Hebrew — or how it's created without seams so it would be difficult to open or why it's an object of fascination for a young girl; Clyde is trying really hard to please his disaffected daughters and do the typical freshly divorced parent dance of trying to please them no matter the cost.
Soon enough the creepy voices calling to Emily from the box convince her to open it up; inside are even creepier personal objects that are just harbingers of what's to come for her her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) her mom Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and even Stephanie's annoying new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde and Stephanie squabble over things like pizza for dinner and try to convince each other and themselves that Emily's increasingly odd behavior is that of a troubled adolescent. It's not of course and eventually Clyde enlists the help of the son of a Hasidic rabbi a young man named Tzadok played by the former Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu to help them perform an exorcism on Emily.
The Possession is not going to join the ranks of The Exorcist in the horror pantheon but it does do a remarkable job of making its characters intelligent and even occasionally droll and it offers up plenty of chills despite a PG-13 rating. Perhaps it's because of that rating that The Possession is so effective; the filmmakers are forced to make the benign scary. Giant moths and flying Torahs take the place of little Reagan violently masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Gagging and binging on food is also an indicator of Emily's possession — an interesting twist given the anxieties of becoming a woman a girl Emily's age would face. There is something inside her controlling her and she knows it and she is fighting it. The most impressive part of Calis's performance is how she communicates Emily's torment with a few simple tears rolling down her face as the dybbuk's control grows. The camerawork adds to the anxiety; one particularly scary scene uses ordinary glass kitchenware to great effect.
The Possession is a short 92 minutes and it does dawdle in places. It seems as though some of the scenes were juggled around to make the PG-13 cut; the moth infestation scene would have made more sense later in the movie. Some of the problems are solved too quickly or simply and yet it also takes a while for Clyde's character to get with it. Stephanie is a fairly bland character; she makes jewelry and yells at Clyde for not being present in their marriage a lot and then there's a thing with a restraining order that's pretty silly. Emily is occasionally dressed up like your typical horror movie spooky girl with shadowed eyes an over-powdered face and dark clothes; it's much more disturbing when she just looks like an ordinary though ill young girl. The scenes in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn look oddly fake and while it's hard to think of who else could have played Tzadok an observant Hasidic Jew who is also an outsider willing to take risks the others will not Matisyahu is not a very good actor. Still the filmmakers should be commended for authenticity insofar as Matisyahu has studied and lived as a Hasidic Jew.
It would be cool if Lionsgate and Ghost House Pictures were to release the R-rated version of the movie on DVD. What the filmmakers have done within the confines of a PG-13 rating is creepy enough to make me curious to see the more adult version. The Possession is no horror superstar and its name is all too forgettable in a summer full of long-gestating horror movies quickly pushed out the door. It's entertaining enough and could even find a broader audience on DVD. Jeffrey Dean Morgan can read the Old Testament to me any time.
Throughout the weekend I was talking up Game of Thrones, HBO’s bold new fantasy series based on George R.R. Martin’s novels of the same name, to anyone who’d listen to me. The story is set in a world where seven noble families are fighting for control of Westeros; Martin’s Middle-Earth, if you will. As a genre enthusiast and a proponent of all things HBO I had been anticipating the arrival of this epic, serialized saga for sometime, but my fiancée was not as impressed by the trailers and promos we’d been teased with for the last six months or so.
“It’s just like every HBO show: Sex, violence, etc.” she proclaimed, with the viewing experience to back up that statement. “But honey, this is a fantasy show on HBO,” I said. “It’s never really been done before, and you know how much I like the swords-and-sorcery stuff…” Luckily, the lady gave in and sat down with me at 9:00PM sharp last night to view the premiere of the season’s most talked about new show, and you know what? She was right. Game of Thrones, though somewhat a departure and an incredible achievement for the channel that has brought programs like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire and In Treatment, shares strands of the same DNA that runs through the majority its programming.
And there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, there are more than a few familiar characteristics found within a handful of HBO’s best titles that were noticeably present in its Game of Thrones adaptation, but seeing as the channel has produced some of the most entertaining shows of all time, it's hard to complain about likening it to other gems. Martin has created some wonderful mythology for the creative team to mine and they've already rendered an immersive world to behold, so my advice is to get on the train now before you're left behind.
Read on for a breakdown of what the pilot, “Winter Is Coming,” contained, with a few thoughts on how it compared and conformed to some of the channels other shows.
What A Cast of Characters
Almost all contemporary TV shows feature an ensemble cast, with a few focusing more heavily on a particular character (Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, HBO’s The Sopranos). With seven ruling families at its core, Game of Thrones is no different and last night’s pilot introduced us to more characters than it probably should have. Please keep in mind that I have not read Mr. Martin’s novels, so it was more difficult for me (and many viewers) to keep up with all the character introductions and their connections than it, perhaps, was for those who have.
That said, it’s quite clear whom the show's creators want us to root for and against. The episode’s central protagonist, Ned Stark (played by Sean Bean, who’s no stranger to swordplay), rules the northern kingdom of Winterfell with righteousness and caution, always preparing for the worst and hoping for the best as he presides over his people. His large family, which includes a wife and more kids than I can keep track of, all have motivations and goals of their own, from daughter Sansa who wishes to marry into royalty and live in the metropolitan capital city at King’s Landing to bastard son Jon Snow, who wants nothing more than to join his uncle Benjen Stark on the Night Watch (a group of hardened warriors who guard a massive Wall that separates civilization and the mysterious and dangerous wild.)
Of course, all the other noble clans have a host of characters to get acquainted with, giving the audience lots of options to choose from for their “favorite.” There’s the House of Baratheon, which includes the current King Robert and his treacherous wife Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady) as well as children Joffrey, Myrcella, Tommen, Renly and Stannis. Across the sea, we meet the remaining members of the Targaryen family; the lecherous, opportunistic and arrogant Viserys, who unites his line with that of the powerful, nomadic Dothraki people by marrying his young sister Daeneyrs and Khal Drogo, a warlord prince of sorts. Viserys plans to use the army of his new brother-in-law to take back the Iron Throne (which was under his family’s rule for nearly 300 years before the House of Baratheon ended their reign and killed off his clan), but something tells me he won’t be successful.
Like I said, lots of characters to meet, very little time to do so. I expect this large population to be drastically reduced in size as battles rage throughout the season (and I can imagine many characters replaced by others as we learn more about the respective family trees), but one thing is for sure: their arcs are all carefully calculated and each is as intriguing and interesting to explore as the next.
Let's Talk About Sex, Sire
Perhaps one of the most appealing elements of any premium channel program, Game of Thrones didn’t hold back on the sexual content and the pilot featured more than a few depraved acts. In fact, it was hard to find any semblance of normalcy in the coitus at hand. I’m sure that unknowing audiences were somewhat blown away by veteran actor Peter Dinklage’s introduction, which first finds him cavorting with a local prostitute, followed by four whores. Emilia Clarke, who plays the beautiful Daeneyrs, spends a great deal of screen time bare naked; first in an awkward scene with her brother, another as she’s about to be taken by her new husband Drogo against a gorgeous pink-and-purple backdrop of the narrow sea and sky, visualizing the great contrast of the beauty of the natural world and the heartbreaking situations in which its inhabitants find themselves in.
Most shocking, however, was the incestuous relationship between twins Cersei and Jamie Lannister. Hardcore, porn-like sex scenes on HBO shows are commonplace (our collective palettes have been broadened thanks to True Blood and Rome), but there was something about seeing brother and sister going at it in the hay that just left me feeling icky. However, I think that this uncomfortable sexual sequence is just the tip of the iceberg of what Game of Thrones has in store for us.
A Taste Of The Good, Old Ultra-Violence
On the flip side of the sex coin is the amount of carnage that many of HBO’s shows contain. Compared to the weekly doses of graphic violence that Oz, The Wire, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire provide, Game of Thrones was rather tame in its inaugural run. The fantastically staged and filmed opening sequence (which showed us, quite brutally, what The Night Watch is protecting Westeros from) aside, we didn’t see much bloodshed in “Winter Is Coming,” apart from a merciful beheading and the attempted murder of the inquisitive young Bran Stark. That’s not to say that, in a story centered on various families and houses battling one another, there won’t be plenty bloodshed to come, but there’s no reason to let believe that it will be any worse than what the premium channel has shown us in the past.
This is, perhaps, the greatest common factor within all of HBO’s dramatic programming. Whether it’s the New Jersey and New York mobsters fighting for their piece of the pie or Octavian and Marc Anthony clashing over control of Rome, there’s almost always opposition among the many groups of characters in any particular show. In Game of Thrones, the quest for the crown is not just a seasonal plot-point; it’s what drives the central narrative of the entire series.
As previously stated, the Stark’s, Baratheon’s, Greyjoy’s, Lannister’s, Martell’s, Targaryen’s and Tyrell’s all conspire against one another for rule of Westeros, whether they have alliances with other Houses or not. It’s this kind of strategic drama that has made past productions like Boardwalk Empire and Rome so nail-bitingly addictive and engrossing, so I expect the rocky relationships between the various characters and their clans to create some tense feuds as the story unfolds.
The Highest Order of Production Values
More than any of the aforementioned elements of an HBO show, other than AMC I can’t think of another channel that brings such high quality programming to its audience. It’s practically the definition of the brand, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” and for good reason.
“Winter Is Coming” had a perfect balance of character, story, sub-text and exposition, making it easy for new recruits to enter the world without feeling too overwhelmed by the breadth of its daunting mythology. The writing is top notch; we're introduced to characters with hints of their back-story’s without becoming dependent on the details that only those familiar with the source material are privy to. Characters are defined in their most basic terms so that viewers can understand and even relate to them emotionally while showing us where they all fit within the larger narrative. We're given just us enough information to be interested without feeling overloaded.
Visually, Game of Thrones could be the most stunning series that HBO has ever produced. We don’t often get to see so many breathtaking environments in one episode (let alone a pilot) of TV, so I was floored by the beautiful photography. From the frozen wastelands of Winterfell to the picturesque sea-side setting where Daeneyrs was married, the organic feel of the show will prove to be an amazing attraction for audiences. Quite similarly, the production design is a marvel. With a rumored seasonal budget of around $60 million, it should come as no surprise that the sets were all painstakingly particular in their construction, accentuating the differences between the various cultures and Houses of the land.
The Bottom Line
The marriage of all these physical accomplishments resulted in one of the most entertaining hours of television that I’ve seen all year, a triumph that few outlets other than HBO could achieve. I’m excited to know virtually nothing about where Game of Thrones is going in its 10 episode run this year. Just as the characters are unaware of what gruesome or glorious fate awaits them, I, too, look forward to the surprises that the story will bring as this expansive epic show leaves its mark on pop-culture. The one thing I do know is that, based on the strength of this pilot, the world is in store for a truly special program that seems to be honoring its creator’s vision while taking on a life of its own.