|If this were Doctor Who, we’d call it the pizza-faced Oberyn.|
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister, 2Tywin Lannister
Dragons of Meereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
The Mockingbird, Petyr Baelish
Kraken of Moat Cailin: Theon Greyjoy
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
The Direwolves, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark
Bows of the Wall: Ygritte
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
Flowers of the Wall: Gilly
Flayed Men of Moat Cailin: Ramsay Snow
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
The Dogs, Sandor Clegane
With the Bear of Meereen, Jorah Mormont
Winterfell is abandoned and in ruins, Braavos is empty.
The episode is in eight parts. The first runs six minutes and is in two sections; it is set in and around the Wall. The first section is four minutes long; the opening image is of a thatched hut. The second section is two minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Gilly to Samwell talking about how she’s probably dead.
The second part runs five minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by hard cut, from Jon Snow drinking morosely to an underwater shot of Grey Worm, and indirectly by family, with Daenerys showing up shortly.
The third runs five minutes and is set in Moat Cailin. The transition is by hard cut, from Grey Worm to an establishing shot of the Bolton camp.
The fourth runs eight minutes and is set in the Eyrie. The transition is by hard cut, from Theon to a slow pan up Littlefinger’s coat.
The fifth runs six minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by hard cut, from Littlefinger and company in the Eyrie to the masters being (rather belatedly) removed from their crosses.
The sixth runs three minutes and is set at Moat Cailin. The transition is by image, from a wide shot of Meereen to one of the Bolton forces.
The seventh runs five minutes and is in three sections; it is set in the Eyrie. The first section is one minute long; the transition is by hard cut, from a wide shot of the Boltons riding to Sansa in her chambers. The second section is two minutes long; the transition is by family, from Sansa to Arya Stark. The third section is one minute long; the transition is by dialogue, from Arya laughing at Lyssa Arryn’s death to Robyn and Littlefinger talking about her.
The last part runs eleven minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Sansa to Tyrion. The final image is of Tyrion having landed on a snake and been sentenced to death.
As with “The Prince of Winterfell” two years prior, the decision to make the ninth episode a single location battle benefits the eighth episode, into which a number of climaxes are shifted. But with the increased number of plots in progress compared to two years ago, this means that two-and-a-half plots resolve outright in this episode, their handling comprising the majority of the episode. (The half being Jorah.) First is the runt plot of the season, Theon and the Boltons. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is the final shot of the plotline – a sea of Bolton banners marching, with Ramsay legitimized and telling Theon he needs a bath. This plot has nominally been Theon’s, by dint of the fact that he’s the higher-credited actor, the character who’s been around since the first episode, the POV character in the books, and the one who’s been anchoring it since Season Two. But its resolution here is firmly the Boltons’. The plot point is that they’ve consolidated their hold on the North, not that Theon is their psychologically broken prisoner.
This is actually handled fairly well, albeit in a way that mostly ends up being a frustrating tease of the road not taken. Ramsay’s dealings with his father and the way in which he’s clearly genuinely moved by being legitimized are actually pretty compelling, and end up making him seem like an actual character. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late, coming after the ridiculous camp of “The Laws of Gods and Men” and, you know, the entirety of Season Three. But it makes it clear that there was a way to write him whereby he’d feel like a very human villain – a Joffrey 2.0 in the sense of being more dangerous and compelling, as opposed to more ridiculous. By this point in the game it’s not going to happen and couldn’t possibly, but that doesn’t actually detract from the scene as such.
The second plot to wrap is Sansa and Littlefinger, and it’s the episode’s highlight, especially if you count the Arya/Hound interlude as part of it, which it structurally is – a brief and fleeting Stark near-miss elevated by an absolutely sublime bit of comedic delivery by Arya. (Indeed, it’s so good that essentially nobody ever points out the utter insanity of Arya and the Hound being allowed to just walk away from the Bloody Gate after identifying themselves.) But even without it, the emergence of Sansa as an actual rational and calculating agent capable of making savvy decisions is a tremendous thing, and beautifully handled in both writing and acting, with the audience being sold on the possibility that Sansa is just timidly throwing Littlefinger under the bus for a minute before realizing that, no, in fact she’s making a brilliant play. And once that’s established the subsequent details – her look up at Littlefinger while ostensibly crying on someone’s shoulder, her disaffected “I know what you want,” and her goth-as-fuck dress – all absolutely sing. These scenes are almost single-handedly the reason why her Season Five plot is so utterly dispiriting – the potential they finally display for someone who has in many regards been the show’s slowest simmering character is so satisfying that its failure to be paid off in a timely manner is genuinely agonizing. But, of course, none of that detracts from the raw brilliance of it here.
But the structural differences between “The Prince of Winterfell” and “The Mountain and the Viper” go deeper than the fact that “The Mountain and the Viper” is a season wrap for some characters – it’s also part of the previously mentioned chain of set pieces, this time the title bout between Oberyn Martell and Gregor Clegane. This is an easy set piece to overpraise, and many people have done it. It does not deserve the sort of contempt that the handling of the Red Wedding does, but it’s of a type – a gratuitous burst of fake blood and a contrived reversal of fate that does not actually do much of anything in terms of the plot, serving mostly to fail to change Tyrion’s circumstances in any tangible way. All it really accomplishes is removing all the options other than Jaime helping him escape next episode, which needed to be done, but to discover that Oberyn’s entire plot all season existed purely to have his eyes gouged out in the service of a relatively minor adjustment to the state of play is, to say the least, disappointing. To have it be an out-of-nowhere twist of fate in a mediocrely-shot fight scene with a character on his third actor that needed a shoe-horned in recap of who he was courtesy of his brother last week would be a major issue in a show that hadn’t already emphatically proclaimed that, yes, it absolutely cares more about showing someone’s eyes getting gouged out than it does about competent storytelling.
Thankfully the sequence is also used for, essentially, the last big Jaime/Tyrion scene of normal time, for which the show creates the entire story of Cousin Orson smashing the beetles. It’s a beautiful scene, with Tyrion visibly and consciously putting on a show for his brother, constructing a shaggy dog story to no real end other than that he knows it may be the last time in his life he gets to be witty for anybody. It is in many regards more interesting than his big set piece in “The Laws of Gods and Men,” a classic case of the show being far better at small moments than it actually is at its self-consciously “big” ones. It’s not enough to redeem the gratuitous mess that constitutes the episode’s main set piece. But alongside two season finale sequences and with allowances for the thrill of a shock, however poorly earned, on its first execution, it’s enough to make the episode another success in what is becoming an increasingly impressive run of them.