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 GardenFollow @hollywood_com Follow @julesemm