Last night's Game of Thrones was like a marathon of rug-pulling. Time after time, we saw the truth revealed — only to have it turned on its side somehow. There were so many slippery moments where the truth became the biggest lie, it was only fitting when we saw a confession turn deadly. Spoilers ahead...
There are a bunch of moments in "The Mountain and the Viper" where a long-hidden truth gets used as a weapon or twisted around. Sansa Stark reveals her true identity to the Lords of the Vale. Her sister Arya's true name is also revealed to the guards at the Vale. Tywin Lannister uses the truth about Jorah as a weapon against Daenerys. And Reek impersonates Theon Greyjoy.
It all leads up to the moment where Prince Oberyn ("The Red Viper") fights Gregor Clegane ("The Mountain"). And Prince Oberyn doesn't just want to kill the Mountain — he wants a confession from him. Winning the fight is not enough for Prince Oberyn, and that's what costs Oberyn his life. He gets his confession, but it comes with a demonstration of just what the Mountain did to Oberyn's sister.
A moment of naked gazing
In the middle of all this truth-telling, one of the episode's frame-stories involves Grey Worm watching Missandei bathing. Grey Worm and Missandei have been getting closer this season, in one of the more intriguing additions to the books.
She's been teaching Grey Worm the common tongue, and they've bonded over being stolen from their homes and turned into possessions instead of people. The difference is that Grey Worm can't remember his home, or his original name.
When Grey Worm stares at Missandei's naked body, it's a pretty fascinating moment of wordless sexual negotiation. After she sees him looking, he looks away at first — then he gives up pretending, and stares straight at her. Then she slowly covers herself up. But is she uncomfortable with any objectification, after the way she's been treated as a piece of property, or is she only weirded out because she thinks Grey Worm can't do anything about it? Is the gaze only unwelcome because it introduces painful ambiguity?
When Missandei talks to Daenerys, the Khaleesi reminds her that the Dothraki are basically exhibitionists, and it's all good. And Daenerys believes the Unsullied don't even care what's under a woman's clothes, because sexual desire has been removed along with the relevant physical parts. But Missandei responds that she believes Grey Worm was "interested." And this turns into them wondering what exactly Grey Worm has under his clothes.
And then Missandei finally talks to Grey Worm, who says the lessons she's been teaching him are "precious" — a word he learned not from Missandei, but from another inveterate starer, Jorah. She once again wants to know if Grey Worm remembers who he was before, as if she can only accept being desired by someone who is connected to his true identity, the whole man he might have been if he wasn't a victim.
But Grey Worm once again refuses to claim any lost identity — and thus, refuses to see himself as a victim. All of the bad things that happened to him have brought him to the place of pride and leadership he's in now. Just as he refused to choose a name other than Grey Worm when Daenerys asked him to, because Grey Wormw as the name he had when he was freed, he refuses to see the loss of his original name as a tragedy. Grey Worm's lost "original" name and his mutilation are intertwined in the conversation with Missandei, because he claims not to remember either of them.
It's only after Grey Worm rejects the idea of victimhood, and thus implicitly denies that he is irreparably damaged, that Missandei decides that she's glad he saw her naked. He's settled on a version of the truth that allows him to function, which seems to be a major thread in last night's episode.
What is dead may never live
The added focus on Grey Worm this season has provided a fascinating contrast to Theon Greyjoy — both of them castrated, both of them embracing new names and new identities. But where Grey Worm refuses even to speculate about who he once was, Theon is forced to impersonate himself in this episode.
Before sending Theon on his vital mission, Ramsay Snow makes sure he knows that he's Reek "forever." Says Ramsay, "Until you're rotting in the ground. Remember what you are and what you're not."
And here's one of the major rug-pullings of the episode — because you think at first that there's no way Theon is going to pull this stunt off. He's a quivering wreck who can barely say his old name without drooling. Ramsay Snow needs Theon to pretend to be his old proud self, to convince his fellow Ironborn to abandon the strategically important castle of Moat Cailin, so Ramsay can impress his father, Roose Bolton.
When Theon finally rides up to Moat Cailin and tries to get a surrender out of Kenning, the commander of the sick and bedraggled garrison, he gets blood spat in his quivering face. Theon tells Kenning a version of events that's very close to the truth — Roose Bolton's people captured him after the siege of Winterfell, he's been imprisoned, he's there to ask for their surrender — but Kenning can see that Theon is a shell of his former self.
But just as Kenning is ripping Theon to shreds and Theon is actually confessing that his real name is Reek, Kenning gets an axe in the head — in a mirror of the way Theon got whacked in the back of the head just as he was giving a defiant speech at Winterfell. And just like that, the Ironborn surrender based on the promise of safe passage and fair treatment. (Which turns out to be mass flaying instead. Oops.)
And Ramsay's reward for being so successful at turning Theon into Reek that he could transform him back into Theon without changing his inner Reek-ness? Is to get a name change of his own. Ramsay is no longer Ramsay Snow, a bastard son, but Ramsay Bolton, the legitimate son and heir to Roose Bolton, who's replaced Ned Stark as Warden of the North.
Of course, as Roose Bolton gives Ramsay the wonderful news, he's also showing off the vastness of the territory they now control — which is great, because they control a region bigger than the other six kingdoms combined. But it's also terrible, because they're trying to control a region bigger than the other six kingdoms combined. (A point that seems lost on Ramsay.) And the Stark boys are still out there, but the Boltons have decided not to worry about that for now.
It's fascinating that Ramsay gets a family name as a reward for stripping Theon of his own — but Ramsay also offers another explanation for what's happened. The kraken, the Greyjoy crest, is strong in the ocean, but collapses on land because it has no bones. The Ironborn should have stayed on the water. But also, you're only strong as long as you're in your element.
The Stark Girls
Both Arya and Sansa Stark have their true identities revealed at the Vale in last night's episode — but Arya's truth falls on deaf ears, while Sansa tells a version of the truth that leaves out certain key facts.
Arya and the Hound already arrived at the Twins just in time to see the Red Wedding — and now they arrive at the Vale just a few days too late to be welcomed by Arya's aunt Lysa Arryn. Who just died the other day. And Arya doesn't realize her long lost sister is up there.) Arya has the worst possible reaction to learning that they've just missed Aunt Lysa: she bursts out laughing maniacally, making her claim to be Arya Stark seem less and less credible.
(And meanwhile, the bite that the Hound got from Biter is getting infected, and he's walking slower. It's not looking good for the Hound, who now has noplace to go with Arya.)
As for Sansa, she does the most surprising thing possible — she gets sly. Littlefinger is trying to slime his way out of having murdered Lysa Arryn, claiming she committed suicide. Lord Royce, Lady Waynwood and Lord Corbray are suspicious of Littlefinger's arrival, his marriage to Lysa and her death all happening in such quick succession. So they want to question the witness, Sansa — whom Littlefinger is passing off as his niece, Alayne.
Instead of trying to back up Littlefinger's story, Sansa tells a version of the truth, including her name. It helps that she met Lord Royce before (his son joined the Night's Watch; Ser Waymar Royce was the clueless dipshit who died at the start of the very first episode) and she includes the real story of how Joffrey and Cersei abused her, before Littlefinger helped her escape.
The only lies are that Littlefinger's only deceptions have been aimed at protecting Sansa, that Littlefinger's kiss was chaste, and that Lysa killed herself. Like Theon's story, it's close enough to the truth to make an excellent lie. And they buy it — allowing Littlefinger to convince them that the Vale should be proud and tough again, starting with having young Lord Robyn come out of his shell and tour the castles.
Soon enough, Sansa is dressing like Mia Sara at the end of Legend, and fancying herself a real schemer. Littlefinger seems genuinely surprised that she decided to save his neck, and asks her why — she responds that if the Lords of the Vale executed Littlefinger, she wasn't sure what would happen to her. But that implies that she actually knows Littlefinger, something he casts doubt on. Sansa responds that she knows what Littlefinger wants — and at that, he just gives her an enigmatic "you sweet summer child" look.
A few episodes ago, Littlefinger told her what he wants: "everything." But that's almost the same as saying you want nothing, because nobody can have everything — where would you put it? So no, she doesn't really know what Littlefinger wants, maybe because he doesn't entirely know, either.
Ygritte and Gilly
The other scene where two people gaze at each other without saying a word happens at the brothel in Mole's Town, the tiny village near Castle Black where Samwell left Craster's daughter Gilly and her son.
The Wildlings attack Mole's Town, and slaughter pretty much everyone — including three members of the Night's Watch who are visiting the brothel. Only Gilly hears them coming, because she recognizes a Wildling signal, but nobody listens to her because she's just an interloper who's brought her noisy baby and woke up all the sex workers.
Gilly finds a hiding place, but she's discovered by Ygritte, who stares at her and sees the baby, then puts her finger to her lips because Styr, the Magnar of Thenn probably likes to eat babies. Then Ygritte leaves Gilly, the lone survivor.
When Jon and Samwell hear about the massacre, Samwell is convinced Gilly is dead. But their friends point out that Gilly survived Craster and an attack by a white walker, so she might have survived this, too. In any case, they've got bigger problems. There are just over 100 crows left, against an army of 100,000 — and the attack on Mole's Town means the Wildlings south of the wall know that Mance Rayder's army is close now.
Jorah's Royal Pardon
The final case of the truth being used for devious purposes happens courtesy of Tywin Lannister, who instructed Varys to get a message into the ex-slaver city Meereen a few episodes back. Last night, we saw that message being delivered, to Ser Barristan Selmy.
First Barristan and then Daenerys see the royal pardon that King Robert gave Jorah in exchange for spying on Daenerys — which was a long time ago. And receiving that pardon made Jorah realize Daenerys was about to be assassinated, which spurred him to save her life. And he's been loyal ever since then. But that doesn't change the fact that he was a spy, and gave her enemies intel, including the fact that she was pregnant with Drogo's child (thus making her a bigger potential threat at the time.)
Jorah's treachery means he loses the right to call Daenerys "Khaleesi," a term that pretty much only he uses at this point. He protests that he's not just fought for her and killed for her, he's loved her. But Daenerys doesn't want to hear about love, and she says that out of consideration for Jorah's long service, she won't have him beheaded. He's banished from Meereen and from her presence. When he loses the right to call her Khaleesi, he's actually losing his own identity.
Prince Oberyn's crucial tactical error
So this episode is jam-packed with scenes where people are revealed but forbidden, and where the truth is revealed but it's only a version of the truth. And the implication seems to be that now that everything is falling apart, people win by revealing the partial truth but seeming to reveal the whole truth.
So why does Prince Oberyn lose? Maybe because he can't help giving away the whole truth. Prince Oberyn's task in this trial by combat is supposedly to save Tyrion by defeating the nearly unbeatable Gregor Clegane, the Mountain. His not-terribly-ulterior motive is to get revenge on Gregor for raping his sister and murdering her and her children. And at first, Oberyn's desire for revenge works in his favor. He seems to catch the Mountain off guard, as much with his talk of the Mountain's crimes as with his fancy footwork and spear-play. Oberyn takes some hits and loses a spear, but he keeps dancing and accusing, and it damages the Mountain's calm.
There's a moment where you really think Oberyn has won — he's speared the Mountain a few times, and the Mountain is down. He's gotten his revenge and taunted his enemies (including Tywin) about the crimes they committed. But Oberyn still doesn't have a confession from the Mountain, and he finally reveals the full extent of his grief and rage. Forgetting that revenge is a dish best served cold, he loses control of the anger that he's been using as an exquisitely balanced weapon until this point — and that's when the Mountain grabs his head and pulps it the way he did Oberyn's sister's.
Oberyn gets his confession at last, but probably not the way he wanted it.
Before the trial by combat, we get a weird scene where Tyrion reminisces to Jaime about their cousin Orson Lannister, who had been dropped on his head as a baby and liked to crush beetles with a rock all day. Tyrion kind of liked laughing at Orson, because he wasn't on the receiving end for once, but then he became obsessed with figuring out why this "moron" was so determined to crush beetles.
And the big explanation? There isn't any. Sometimes acts of mayhem are just random. Sometimes people like the Mountain just do horrible things for no reason. It's like Sansa thinking she's figured out what Littlefinger wants: maybe he's just crushing beetles.
Some photos and GIFs via WICnet