Oh, my sweet summer children. You had no idea THAT was coming, did you? Even as someone who has read the books twice, last night’s Game of Thrones was difficult to watch; in some ways, I wonder if it was worse for us readers because we knew exactly what would happen and this time, we’d see it fleshed out. Gouged out. Squeezed out. But I am getting ahead of myself. Ahead, yes a… head. A ruined head. A bloody mess of a head. Too soon, oh it’s too soon to contemplate that nightmare. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
The episode commences in a Mole’s Town brothel, where Gilly is the odd woman out. She is minding her own business, doing her chores, earning her keep, when one of the sex workers says, “Little Wildling bitch. You should’ve stayed with your own kind…” And that gives us a glimpse into what her life must be like, south of the wall, alone but for her baby son. Gilly is the only one who hears the impending Wildling invasion; that’s why she’s able to hide as the slaughter takes place. Thenns, Tormund Giantsbane, and Ygritte cut their way through both brothel employees and patrons with a dark ferocity.
Ygritte is a killing machine until she sees Gilly and freezes. Despite the fact that she’s just murdered a few people, we see a brief respite from bloodshed, an instance of mercy. She stares at Gilly and the tension grows until she shushes the whimpering baby before leaving mother and child to watch blood dripping out from the floorboards above. That’s the girl Jon Snow fell in love with, the one with a rough sort of honor. Or perhaps she recognized Gilly as one of her own? Maybe Free Folk can instantly tell who is a kneeler and who is not. Either way, Gilly survives. Again.
Cut to the men of the Night’s Watch, who are recounting the massacre in Mole’s Town. Even Dolorous Edd, who is often the slight bit of comic relief that keeps us from slitting our wrists in this dark, unjust universe is more bitter than witty. The men know they are outmatched and they know that they will be the next Wildling target. Sam can’t even focus on that impending doom, he is too busy crying out of guilt over Gilly, who he presumes is dead. To console him, his brothers point out the many obstacles Gilly has survived. Surely a woman who lived to tell others about her encounter with a White Walker, a woman who survived Craster’s Keep could keep her head down (and still attached), Wildling invasion or not.
From the Wall to Meereen, where we see the unsullied bathing. Our favorite warrior Grey Worm glimpses Missandei at the other end of the river. She and the other handmaidens are also taking baths and he feels guilty for watching her, especially when she stands up and he can see her entire naked body. Missandei is still thinking about the encounter later when we see Daenerys braiding her hair(!). The Queen can wait on her servants as well! No, it’s a sign of the great affection and respect the Mother of Dragons has for her Naathi employee. The two debate whether Grey Worm was interested in Missandei before they ponder exactly how “cut” the Unsullied are.
In the next scene, Grey Worm announces, “I have come to apologize” to Missandei; the two are alone in the throne room and the electricity between them crackles and snaps. Grey Worm characterizes Missandei’s lessons in the common language as “precious” to him, much to the Naathi’s surprise; she hasn’t taught him that word. Jorah has. Missandei is emotional as she tells the Unsullied soldier how sorry she is for his loss… of parts. Grey Worm is stoically philosophical. He believes in fate. If the masters had never cut him, he’d never be Unsullied, he’d never have met Daenerys, he’d never have received his freedom…and he never would have met her. What a sacrifice he is willing to bear and feel no regret for, because it brought him to her. It’s a powerful moment, as is the dialogue that comes next. Missandei boldly, emotionally confesses that she’s glad he saw her naked. “So am I,” he agrees. The looks they exchange convey volumes.
On to my least favorite part of the episode: Theon is sent to Moat Cailin, which is infested with the Iron Born. It’s the last bit of the North that isn’t under Bolton control and Ramsey needs Reek to be Theon for just a little while, just long enough to trick his countrymen into surrendering. Theon promises them safe passage home; they end up flayed and mutilated. Should we have expected anything else? No.
Next: the Lords Declarant of the Vale are interrogating Littlefinger about Lysa Arryn’s suspicious suicide. I must say, as a book reader, I was disappointed that Lord Royce’s armor wasn’t decorated with the mystical bronze runes of the First Men he’s known for, but that’s a tiny nitpick of what was an otherwise excellent scene. They’re not buying the “suicide” story because they know how devoted (read: obsessed) Lysa was with her overly-breastfed son. They’re also not inclined to trust Lord Baelish. Lord Royce spits, “You’ve been licking Tywin Lannister’s boots so long, it’s a wonder your tongue’s not black.” Tough crowd.
“Alayne” is brought in to be questioned, since she witnessed Lady Arryn’s fall and initially, we are given the impression that she is turning on her captor; the first thing she does is declare exactly who she is, Sansa Stark, and accuse Baelish of being a persistent liar. Littlefinger isn’t sure what to think, but you see the dread travel across his face until Sansa reveals that he saved her life, more than once, and that he is the reason she’s no longer a Lannister hostage. We see Sansa transform from pawn to player in a matter of minutes and it’s breathtaking. She deserves an Oscar for the performance she’s giving the Lords of the Vale. They buy it, rapt with attention and concern; after all, her beloved, late father grew up in the Eyrie with the very men who are questioning her. As she pretends to weep, she is embraced and her face is turned towards Baelish. As her lashes rise from their pretty tears to clear-eyed cynicism, Petyr is impressed with her masterful manipulation of the situation. So are we.
Back to Meereen where wise masters are being uncrucified: Ser Barristan gets a scroll from King’s Landing with disturbing tidings. Jorah Mormont has been pardoned by King Robert for his service as a spy. Selmy lets Jorah know exactly how f***ed he is before he’s summoned to the throne room to a livid Daenerys, who can’t even bear to look at him, she feels so betrayed, disgusted, and hurt. Is there no one she can trust? She banishes him from her kingdom in the most imperious way possible, and we see a lone Jorah on horseback leaving the dusty city behind. He has been exiled by and from the woman he loves.
We are then shifted back to Westeros where Roose Bolton asks pointless questions about what Ramsey can see of the North before legitimizing the sick puppy. Congratulations, Ramsey! You’re no longer a Snow. Throw a parade.
Luckily we don’t waste much time with the bastard because we’re back to the Eyrie, where Sansa is getting some sewing done while Littlefinger confronts her to question why she helped him.
“They’d have executed you. What would they have done with me?” she replies, steel in silk.
This is not timid Sansa, of the tremulous voice and quivering lip. This is Sansa the grown-assed woman, and she lets Baelish know that she’s not naive, she knows EXACTLY what he wants from her… and shockingly, she doesn’t seem bothered by such base truths at all. Sansa is playing the Game of Thrones better than her honorable father or older brother ever did. It’s a stunning transformation that bodes well for her character. She may just survive this hell after all.
On to everyone’s favorite buddy comedy, starring Arya and the Hound. These two never disappoint, their banter is so natural and pointed. It’s honest and artless — something which can rarely be said about conversations in Westeros. The terrific twosome are on the edge of the Vale, on the edge of Arya’s salvation when they are informed of Lysa Arryn’s death.
Arya, who at this point realizes that she’s always going to be thisclose to reuniting with her family before tragedy yanks such reunions away, starts laughing maniacally. What else can she do? It’s like the Red Wedding; just when she thinks she’s safe and about to be with her own people, fate intervenes. I’d laugh like a crazed hyena at the absurdity of it all, too.
As we approach the end of the episode, we find Tyrion and Jaime reminiscing about a simple family member who used to crush beetles. I get that this conversation was supposed to indicate something else, but it was too subtle for me to grasp. Either that or my heart was racing because I knew what was coming next and I could hardly bear it.
It’s time for Tyrion’s Trial by Combat. His champion Oberyn Martell is hardly worried by the task ahead of him. He’s not wearing armor or plate and he’s drinking instead of preparing for a deadly duel. He’s so smooth and confident, his paramour Ellaria believes in him even if Tyrion is starting to doubt his champion’s priorities. Actor Pedro Pascal trained in Wushu to execute the graceful, dazzling, acrobatic fight choreography well. Showrunners Benioff and Weiss have stated that the duel is one of the best sequences that they have ever done and that’s no exaggeration. Oberyn literally and effortlessly fights circles around the lumbering Gregor Clegane. He’s showboating and that’s our first inkling that things may go awry. You want to caution him to be more careful, to act less reckless, but the Red Viper wouldn’t be a rouge reptile if he wasn’t showboating.
“I am the brother of Elia Martell, and you know why I have come to this stinking shit pile of a city? For you.” He isn’t even winded.
“I’m going to hear you confess before you die. You raped my sister, you murdered her, you killed her children.” That refrain is repeated so many times that tomorrow, there will be a thousand people who think they’re super clever for juxtaposing it with a shot of Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride. Yeah, we get it. It’s similar. Moving on.
The duel is going well; despite being lightly armored and parrying with a spear instead of a sword, Oberyn knocks the Mountain’s helmet off as he gets vengeance for his murdered sister. It’s a thrilling fight; he’s trying to exhaust his opponent and it’s working, but Oberyn’s irritation grows, his voice becomes ragged. Then he falls and as he’s on his back, you think it’s all over for the bad ass from Dorne… until he guts Clegane from below, screaming his refrain all the while. Oberyn stabs him at least three times and it’s so gratifying. Might didn’t make right. Justice is being served, but it’s not enough for the Prince of Dorne.
“You can’t die yet, you haven’t confessed.” He is relentless and he demands to know who gave the order to murder his family members. While we wonder if the Mountain will implicate his liege Lord Tywin Lannister, Oberyn triumphantly looks at Ellaria… and because he’s no longer paying attention, that’s when he gets knocked down.
The Mountain is ready to confess and he rolls on top of his opponent, shattering the Prince’s teeth with a fearsome punch before gouging out his eyes. Oberyn’s screams are heinous and just when you think this can’t possibly get any worse, somehow, The Mountain breaks his head open like it’s a melon. I wouldn’t know. I couldn’t bear to watch and judging from Twitter, I was hardly alone in that reaction. Tyrion’s champion’s brains and blood are spattered everywhere as Ellaria screams in horror, giving voice to our terror and heartbreak.
Tywin gets up immediately and pronounces that God’s will has been done. Tyrion will die for the crime of regicide. The last camera shot focuses on Tyrion’s face as he processes what just happened and what’s about to come his way… and then everything goes black, to match the throbbing ache in our chests. Oh, Oberyn. You were so close. You almost had everything you ever wanted. Why did you have to break our hearts?