‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: The Rumble in the Red Keep

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What could be more pleasant than the sight of two brothers chatting? (There are many sights that are worse. One in particular comes to mind. I’ll get to that.) As the world spun cruelly toward dawn and the fateful battle that awaited, “The Mountain and the Viper” lingered on just such a wholesome image. There were Tyrion and Jaime, grown men united by blood and injury, trading stories like insomniac kids at a sleepover, their words borne aloft by the lateness of the hour and all the shared history between them. Though I have no siblings and, thankfully, have spent precious little time in a dungeon, I recognized well the woozy intimacy of the moment. Conversations like that tend to bubble up only in those dark, desperate hours before dawn, when reality seems to slip loose from the clock and honesty starts pouring freely, like wine. This sort of thing happens whether you have pancakes waiting for you in the morning or a death sentence. It’s the way of Westeros and our world as well. There are simply certain moments when important things get said.

So I listened closely as Tyrion told his tale of Orson, the simple Lannister cousin who spent his time not planning out wars or paying off debts but sitting in a garden smashing bugs. Day after day, Orson would pick up a stone and settle into his grim task, splattering beetles by the thousand. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to Orson’s slaughter, no motive or purpose. Just the endless “kung kung kung” of a big man murdering something smaller, again and again and again.

But Tyrion, we learn, wasn’t satisfied. Though he was born to a powerful family, he couldn’t help but empathize with the littler creatures. And so his interest in his cousin morphed from mockery to curiosity to something bordering on obsession. What was the reason for this constant extermination? It was inconceivable to Tyrion that butchery on Orson’s scale could simply be the way of the world. A life was a life, whether it was protected by a suit of armor or a carapace. Surely, it deserved better. If that wasn’t possible, then at least it deserved an explanation. What, after all, was the point?

The bells rang out and the drama resumed before Tyrion could get his answer. But I think Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss got their meaning across just the same. Life in Westeros is brutish and short. (Littlefinger’s fatherly exhortation that “everybody dies sooner or later” was actually one of the more cheerful moments in the entire episode.) No matter what you do, bugs are going to get smashed. It’ll happen if you ascribe motive or, like Jaime, refuse to give a dusty fuck. It’ll happen if you try to intervene in empathy or walk away in disgust. It’ll happen if you call it justice or scream bloody murder. Orson is above it all. The garden belongs to him. Kung. Kung. Kung.

Except that wasn’t the real lesson of the story. Not exactly. A few moments later, Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper of Dorne and the closest thing to a hero King’s Landing has seen since Ned Stark’s head came down, was dancing around the collapsed Mountain. His victory apparently in hand, he was showboating for the crowd, somersaulting and taunting. Oberyn’s fatal flaw wasn’t the pre-fight drinking or the foreign swagger imported directly from Florin. It was his insistence on making his duel about something larger than Not Dying. To Gregor Clegane, Oberyn Martell wasn’t a prince or a legendary lover or the owner of several dozen rakish bathrobes. He was “some dead man,” and the Mountain quickly went about guaranteeing that fact with every overmuscled bone in his body. Oberyn, by contrast, didn’t just want to win. He wanted to win according to the script he had written, one every bit as flowery as a love poem. He would have justice for his sister, he would show up Tywin, and he would demonstrate to the Lannisters how stylishly a debt can truly be repaid.

It was all quite thrilling, for a time, with the Red Viper leaping balletically through the summery air and Alex Graves’s camera swooping vertiginously to catch him. Game of Thrones has often punched me in the heart, but it’s rarely had it fluttering so mightily in my throat. But then, just as Tyrion was getting his hopes up and Cersei was reaching for her Big Gulp of merlot, Oberyn spiked the ball at the 1-yard line. Rather than finish off the Mountain, Oberyn was just getting warmed up, demanding much more than an improbable victory. Instead, like Tyrion in the garden all those years ago, Oberyn demanded logic and an answer. And we all know what happened next. Kung. Kung. Kung.

Actually, the sound of Oberyn’s head exploding was much more terrible than that. The defanging — and defacing — of the Red Viper was among the worst things I’ve ever seen on a screen, but it was definitely the worst thing I’ve ever heard: It somehow managed to remind me both of my own mortality and of Gallagher. (Trust me when I say I’m not sure which was more unbearable.) And in that gruesome, hideous moment I realized that the real takeaway from Tyrion’s story isn’t that he’s a fool for wanting order when there is only chaos. It’s that we just might be for greedily tuning in to the Orson Hour every week and expecting the same thing.

Look, contra Ramsay Snow, I have been paying attention. I harbor no illusions of a happy ending. But even in the midst of an epic, excellent season that has provided more wit, resonance, and emotion than I had previously thought possible, I am growing slightly weary of being taught the same merciless lesson again and again. I’d like to think that Charlie Brown had some grudging respect for Lucy the first time she pulled away the football. But the fifth? What happened to dashing Prince Oberyn was gripping, horrifying television. But, unlike his skull, it was also rather hollow. Few authors could introduce such a fantastic character with such economy and skill (and fewer showrunners could do the same on television, with even more of both). But only George R.R. Martin would so sadistically run that character into the buzz saw of disappointment and plot that is Game of Thrones just to prove a point — and, I suppose, to tighten the noose a bit more around Tyrion’s neck. Like a beetle, Oberyn was born to die, and in the most gruesome, splattery way possible. And to what end? Shocking us isn’t the same thing as challenging us. A simpleton with a rock might not need to explain himself, but a writer usually does. At this point, the most radical thing Game of Thrones could do is to make the audience exhale in relief.

Or it could make us laugh. Thank all the gods, then, old and new, for Arya Stark. Her high, ironic cackle was the only antidote to the awfulness echoing from the Red Keep. It wasn’t the sound of hope, necessarily. After all, the laugh was emanating from a teenage girl who had just finished explaining how only killing people made her truly happy, and it came in response to the news that her aunt was dead. But it was the sound of humanity, something that can occasionally seem more scarce in Westeros than gold. Honestly, what other emotion is left for Arya to have? She’s been naive, furious, vengeful, hungry, trusting, and sad. (She might still be hungry. Why else fantasize about a chicken bone as a murder weapon?) Though it came in response to bad news — and suggested that more was inevitably on its way — the bright, surprising peal of Arya’s laugh was a welcome break from Game of Thrones’s increasingly familiar cycle of despair, and a much-needed reminder that there is more to most people’s existence than smashing bugs and/or fretting over what the smashing means. Before anyone else dies, it’s nice to have a chance to see them live.

I’m not quite sure that’s the word for what Sansa was doing, though it was a sight better than the credulous sleepwalking that kept her busy for the first few seasons. I suppose you could say that after years of being a prize, she has finally started playing for herself. Her performance in the Vale was award-worthy — or at least worthy of the sketchy character who benefited from it. Littlefinger usually spends his time whispering sweet nothings into Sansa’s ears, but a few bits of wisdom must have sneaked in as well: about trusting devils you know more than those you don’t, and especially bits about how the most effective lies are the ones built around a fragile germ of truth. (It should be mentioned that Sophie Turner was excellent in her bogus “confession.” The emotion was all real even if the details were not.) Sansa’s leather-bound appearance just as Robin was about to leave the nest was suitably ferocious; she’s a swan who hatched into a vulture.

gameofthrones14_117Anything is better than a rat, of course. While things heated up in the West, they broke down in the East, as Jorah’s past life as a spy came back to haunt him at the worst possible moment — when he appeared to be designing the title sequence for the very show in which he appears. It was a cruel way for things to shake out for the longest-serving member of Daenerys’s sewing circle. In Jorah’s mind, his debt to the Khaleesi had long since been repaid, his Season 1 evolution from doubt to devotion the surest sign of Daenerys’s legitimacy. But it doesn’t quite work that way in the absolutist mind of a woman who calls herself “The Unburnt” (among many, many other names). The only parts of Jorah that will ever touch his Queen now are his words: It may have been his own lecture on mercy that saved his hide here. It’s hard not to feel for the old dog, replaced as he was at his master’s side by an old man, a eunuch, and a junkie from Tremé. The only thing missing from Jorah’s lonely horse ride out of Meereen was a certain music cue.

Other things happened in the hour, too, of course. Grey Worm and Missandei continued to make eyes at each other from across a crowded stream. (Though I must admit to getting strong Luke and Leia vibes from this pair — too many mentions of Grey Worm’s pre-cut past and, lest we forget, this is Game of Thrones: The closest thing we have to a storybook romance is between a one-handed knight and his sister.) Theon Greyjoy went undercover as Theon Greyjoy and was treated with the same amount of respect as usual by his countrymen. Ramsay Snow got a promotion in name and title, as well as a brief lecture on geography, from his father. (Lest we forget this is Game of Thrones, Part 2: There was a consumptive dude who got an ax slammed into his skull from behind — and he was the luckiest of his entire crew.) And the Wildling raiding party advanced ever closer, slaughtering all the denizens of Mole’s Town’s skankiest pub for the high crime of only knowing two songs. (Seriously, she only burps “Rains of Castamere” or “The Bear and the Maiden Fair?” Talk about an on-brand party trick.) Even as the blood trickled between the floorboards, Ygritte couldn’t bring herself to doom Gilly or her baby. Game of Thrones likes to keep a loose moral ledger, but some things remain off-limits, especially for characters likely to cycle back around to the home team before too long.

Ygritte’s reckoning will possibly come as quickly as next week. The previews suggest a rarity for Game of Thrones: an entire episode devoted to a single plot. This means good things for fans of ice, the Alamo, and Jon Snow’s emo face. (It’ll be less pleasant for those desperate to learn Tyrion’s fate or to see the Stark sisters finally reunite.) It will probably also have enough action to chase away the headache still lingering from last night’s gory excess. Nothing else on television would dare show what Game of Thrones just did. But that’s a superlative meant to start arguments, not end them. Personally, I prefer the series when it pushes and provokes my brain, not when it devotes all of its remarkable resources to illustrating what happens when you crush someone else’s. Orson and his rock are plenty fascinating. But I’m much more interested in what happened to those scraggly beetles once they stopped getting swatted with such fearsome regularity. Kung. Kung. Kung.

[Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So, please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!]

[Further note: Any questions? We will answer them! Email us at askthemaester@gmail.comand come back tomorrow!]

Filed Under: TV, Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones recap, HBO

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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