“The Mountain & The Viper”: This Is Why You’re Nauseated

Do not read unless you've seen "Game of Thrones" episode 04x08: "The Mountain & the Viper".

Here’s a funny thing about audiovisual mediums: they can make you their bitch in worse ways than books can.

As I do every Sunday during the season, I sat down today to watch “Game of Thrones” with my sister—who has also read the books—and my parents. Things were going as they usually go: me and my sister exchange smirks every time something was foreshadowed, every time the books’ narrative were challenged, etc. Meanwhile, my dad is so deep into the story he barely talks unless he needs to ask “Who’s this? Who’s that?” and my mom has the hardest time watching, as she’s emotional about pretty much everything (she can’t watch scenes with Reek), and cannot handle violence so she covers her eyes every few minutes.

It's been like that since the season started; what was different is that this is the first time I was feeling nauseated after the episode, and in severe need for some eye-bleach.

Of course I knew about the Trial by Combat, one of the most perfectly set up and tense scenes in the entire series (if not the most). Say what you will about Martin’s pen, but that dude can climax the fuck out of a story. Most books get away with having the build up to one climactic moment, have it happen with a boom, and then the story has been resolved. Martin doesn’t do that; at least books 1 and 3 are so dense with story, they have multiple climaxes to multiple storylines.

Consider this: watching the show, you’re continuously shocked by all these events happening every week. You might have been devastated today after Oberyn’s death, as you were last year with the Red Wedding. Thing is, by now you’ve had a year to get over the Red Wedding—in the book, it happens about 200 pages before the Trial by Combat. That’s the kind of momentum “A Storm of Sword” works with.

I’m not sure if it’s because of that same momentum, which bombards you with big events, character deaths, and twists so often, that you become sort of insulated. In the show, there is a lot of time between these big events, so you perceive each as an individual entity as opposed to one big huge clusterfuck of shocks that goes on for 400 pages. That way, your brain kinda lingers on each episode for a week, forcing you to think about it for much longer than you would if you just kept reading, which distracts you from the reading itself. It’s one of the effects watching the show weekly has.

When I watched “The Last King of Scotland” back in 2007, I was pretty shocked by a scene in which the lead character comes across the corpse of Kay Amin—his lover, and the wife of notorious fucking psychopath Idi Amin. He finds her naked and gruesomely mutilated corpse on an autopsy table, her limbs chopped off and arranged upside down (her legs on her shoulders and her arms on her waist). There was something about the remorseless brutality of the reveal that really hit me hard—the character was lovely and didn’t deserve to die like that, but to have her body on such a gruesome display in a dank, dark hospital basement surrounded by crying children was just such an oppressive force on my fragile little mind.

Have in mind I’ve seen many of the so called “extreme” horror movies like the “August Underground”s and such. Not one of them has really fazed me beyond “Oh wow that’s gross” and yet the revelation of Kay’s corpse in “The Last King of Scotland” was the first time an image in fiction has made me legit nauseated. Not even the meat-hook torture later in the movie (yeah it’s family fun) had that effect.

Today I felt the same thing with Oberyn’s death in “The Mountain & the Viper”.

I had been looking forward to the scene for a while because it’s a masterfully written climax in “A Storm of Swords”. It’s two characters fighting, but Martin sets it up in a way that there is a metric fuckton at stake. We not only want the bad guy to die and the good guy to live. We want the good guy to get revenge. We want him to win also because his loss would mean Tyrion’s decapitation.

The scene is so effective because we legit have no goddamn clue who is going to win. We know sometimes (most times), the good guy might not win, but throughout the six pages that describe the fight, Martin manages to make us forget that it’s very, very possible that Oberyn will die. He’s confident. He’s great with a spear. Mostly: he fucking wins, but then he doesn’t.

For some context, this is word-for-word, how the scene is written in the book:

They wrestled in the dust and blood, the broken spear wobbling back and forth. Tyrion saw with horror that the Mountain had wrapped one huge arm around the prince, drawing him tight against his chest, like a lover.
“Elia of Dorne,” they all heard Ser Gregor say, when they were close enough to kiss. His deep voice boomed within the helm. “I killed her screaming whelp.” He thrust his free hand into Oberyn’s unprotected face, pushing steel fingers into his eyes. “Then I raped her.” He slammed his fist into the Dornishman’s mouth, making splinters of his teeth. “Then I smashed her fucking head in, like this.” As he drew back his huge fist, the blood on his gauntlet seemed to smoke in the cold dawn air. There was a sickening crunch.

Then Ellaria screams, and Tyrion pukes his breakfast. There are no further descriptions of the carnage. As you can see, the outcome is the same, but the violence is not.

When we’re reading a book, we’re visualizing the words given to us, sometimes filling in the gaps. But here’s the thing: no matter how vivid our imagination is, it will never be as vivid as an actual image being presented to us. In the book, the only idea we have of Oberyn’s head being crushed is that there was a ‘crunch’, but that could be visualized in a million different ways, especially considering that he died by getting punched by a 400 lb man wearing gauntlets. Did he hit him in the neck? The side of the head? The mouth?

Most of us have never seen a crushed head, so we don’t know exactly how to picture one, if we have to. It’s our brain doing the picture painting, and sometimes our brain’s visual vocabulary can be limited. There is no way for us to picture what the skin would look like over a destroyed cranium. We don’t really know the extent of the damage beyond gouged eyes and a broken cranium, so how can we really picture this?

And hey, if that’s what you visualized when you read the book, please seek psychological help.

Your brain can sometimes betray you, but it generally protects itself from images that will disturb you so yeah—it’s much easier for someone to disturb you than it is for you to disturb yourself, as you would do while reading the book. When watching the scene, we can’t pause to visualize things ourselves; the best thing we can do to avoid the onslaught of disturbing shit is to look away, but in here, even that won’t work too much because we can still hear the happenings, and the sounds of the scene made it all the more disturbing. Hell, in the book Oberyn doesn’t even scream; he just kinda takes it and it sucks. That’s not Martin’s fault; like I said, it’s one of my very favorite scenes in the entire series, and if he had stopped to obsessively describe the violence, it would fucking suck.

Art by Sequential Killustrations
So in the book, as told from Tyrion’s perspective, we don’t get to see Oberyn’s look of absolute horror when the Mountain grabs his head. We don’t get to see his toothless mouth screaming in pain as two monstrous thumbs turn his eyes into sludge. We certainly don’t get to hear the teeth clicking as they’re scattered across the arena. We don’t get to see the Mountain’s hands come together in a spray of blood as we understand exactly how Oberyn’s head was crushed. Best of all, we don’t get to see the disturbing aftermath of the kill.

Of course Oberyn was a much more fleshed out and likeable character in the show in part thanks to Pedro Pascal’s absolute dominion on the matter of “nailing it”, but that is the case with many, many side characters in “Game of Thrones”. No, no one likes seeing a favorite character go, and it sucks when it happens. But to go in such a pointless, easily avoidable and most of all humiliating way is part of what made it so damn disturbing—in my opinion, worse than the Red Wedding. It’s not just what it means for the story (Will Tyrion die?), but the fact that you just witnessed awfully realistic brutality happen to someone you really like, dying under the hands of the very person he was trying to get revenge on, just when he had already won! Most people I’ve talked about were more concerned about Oberyn having died the way he died, than by Tyrion’s possible execution.

The cruelty is so perfectly calculated; it's almost inspiring.

I do have to say that I was a bit disappointed by how the show neglected to include some of the best moments of the fight: a young stable boy getting his arm cut off by a stray swing of the Mountain’s sword, and then decapitated because he wouldn’t shut up; the Mountain asking “Who?” when Oberyn tells him he killed Elia of Dorne, suggesting that this fucking monster hasn’t given any thought to the most important event in Oberyn’s life. I also loved one scene in which Tyrion was so confident he would win, he says "I feel more innocent already."

I understand why it was cut, as the episode was already very dense and eventful, but I just needed to mention that it was disappointing.

So I think that explains, to me, why I was so distraught by something I knew was going to happen. Something similar happened with the Red Wedding. I knew it was going to happen, but seeing it play out was much worse. This was masterfully done, and an excellent display of talent on every part: Oberyn sold it, Alex Graves choreographed it perfectly, and Bjornsson looked sufficiently terrifying.

It’s refreshing to see that something I love so much is in such great hands. It feels weird to know that you can feel pain even when you know what’s going to happen. It makes the show much more valuable, even if sometimes it really hurts.

Art by Sequential Killustrations
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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