The world of Game of Thrones is a dangerous place, an epic fantasy realm where the trappings of the genre are stripped down to the blah blah blah…okay, that's enough to get this recap past the point where Facebook and Twitter links will spoil it for people. Now we can get to the important thing, which is HOLY SHIT THE MOUNTAIN CRUSHED THE RED VIPER'S HEAD LIKE AN OVERRIPE NECTARINE!!!
Gruesome even by the standards of today's ultraviolent Prestige TV, the climax of "The Mountain and the Viper" proves the power of gore to do more than just gross people out. Which it did — oh boy, did it ever. But when Gregor Clegane put his thumbs into Oberyn Martell's eye sockets and pushed, he crushed more than just the Prince's head and Tyrion's hopes. He crushed the idea that justice through violence is possible. He shattered eggshell surface of civilization and left it a pulp on the ground.
And the Mountain drove home the point made by Tyrion Lannister in his jail cell minutes earlier. In his final conversation with his brother Jaime before the trial by combat begins, Tyrion reminisces about his brain-damaged cousin Orson, whose one joy in the world was crushing beetles in the garden. Young Tyrion was deeply troubled both by the senseless deaths of all the insects, and his inability to understand what was in it for his cousin. "Why did he do it? What was it all about?" Tyrion asks, still troubled and baffled enough by the behavior to want to talk about it on the very day he's due to find out if he'll live or die. Jaime, a man with no shortage of experience with violence, brings Tyrion no closer to an answer before the bell tolls for his baby brother. The mystery remains unsolved; what troubles the siblings is that it may well be unsolvable.
If there's a god, "The Mountain and the Viper" suggests he's some kind of cosmic Orson, killing beetles at random for no rhyme or reason. Just ask Sam Tarly, who rescued the young wildling mother Gilly from the horrors of Craster's Keep and sent her away from the Wall to keep her safe — only to discover he'd placed her right in the path of Tormund and Styr's brutal raiders. Gilly and her son are spared because Jon Snow's ex-girlfriend, Ygritte, takes mercy on them, but as Oberyn could tell you, such mercies are rare and randomly dealt out.
Or ask the Ironborn who have the misfortune of trusting the Greyjoy formerly known as "Reek." They frag their commander for a shot at freedom, a promise made to them by Theon in the name of the Drowned God, and for that trust they're skinned alive. The architect of this crime, Ramsay Snow, is rewarded with legitimization and lordship by his traitorous father Roose Bolton, now one of the most powerful men in the Seven Kingdoms. They even get a heroically shot and scored ride over the hills into the sunset for their troubles, as if even the cinematographer and composer are obligated to bend the knee. History and TV alike are written by the winners.
Or ask the various members of the Khaleesi's court. Jorah Mormont has been Daenerys Targaryen's most loyal advisor for ages, but first he quietly betrayed her by spying on her for King Robert. Does it matter that his crime is revealed in a letter forwarded by Robert's primary backer, Tywin Lannister, or that the letters'contents are relayed to Dany by Robert's former bodyguard, Ser Barristan? No – Jorah is banished, and no amount of irony can save him. His plight echoes that of the eunuch warrior Grey Worm, who's fallen in love with Dany's translator Missandei – a love he can never consummate due to his castration, felt for a woman he'd never have met without it.
Or ask the Stark sisters, whose relationship to the moral code their murdered parents taught them grow more distant by the day. Freed from the clutches of the lethal, lying Lannisters by Littlefinger – who is every bit as lethal and even more of a liar – Sansa Stark can only find safety, even power, perhaps even happiness, by becoming a liar in turn. Meanwhile, Arya Stark is finding that both her enemies, like King Joffrey, and her potential saviors, like her aunt Lysa Arryn, can and do die quite independently of her own eye-for-an-eye brand of justice. Robbed of her last chance for safety, Arya doesn't cry – she laughs. Life may be a joke, but this way, she can at least say "I get it."
It all comes back to the Mountain and the Viper, really. For all his decadent swagger, Prince Oberyn was genuinely a man out for justice against people who committed monstrous war crimes against his innocent family. Yet it's his insistence that Gregor Clegane die as punishment for those crimes, instead of just because he's the dude who got tapped to represent the prosecution in Tyrion's trial, that gets him killed in turn. And so, an admitted rapist and murderer crushes a man's head with his hands, and in so doing insures that an innocent man will die for a crime he didn't commit. That horrifying special effect was as symbolic a spectacle as any Fourth of July fireworks display – a bright-red tribute to Game of Thrones' central contention that power is the only thing that matters, and any claims to the contrary are as hollow as a shattered skull.
Previously: Disorder in the Court