Don't even bother reading if you haven't already watched last night's 'Game of Thrones' episode, 'The Mountain and the Viper,' and still plan to. If you have seen it, read on. Also, if you don't watch the show and want to understand why those of us who do feel as if we're in an abusive relationship we keep inexplicably going back to, read and mock appropriately.
Well, shit. Shit.
Game of Thrones gives its loyal, serially abused audience very few truly crowd-pleasing moments, show beats that aren't tainted by conflicting emotions, ulterior motives, anti-heroics, or the telegraphed assurance that a negative outcome is right around the corner. Put simply, the show almost never gives us hope or lets us rest easy in the knowledge that the good guy is going to win. Maybe that's why the scene two weeks ago in which Prince Oberyn Martell tells an imprisoned and seemingly doomed Tyrion Lannister that he'll fight for him in a trial by combat -- because he wants justice for his murdered sister and her children -- came as such a surprise. It was that rare stand-up-and-cheer moment we're fed so rarely by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and creator George R.R. Martin.
Martell was one of this season's best characters -- all libertine charm and exuding a sensuality made more potent by the righteous fury boiling at its center -- and there he was preparing to save the life of one of the entire show's best and most sympathetic characters, the long-suffering Tyrion. For the briefest of moments, Game of Thrones allowed us to revel in the possibility that everything would be okay. That despite Tyrion's admonition to Oberyn that if he was looking for justice he had "come to the wrong place," justice would in fact be done. And it would be good -- for him and for us.
Then came the final 60 seconds of last night's episode. Up until that moment it looked like we, and Oberyn, might still be on track for some thoroughly satisfying payback. But that dream ended with Oberyn's freshly dislodged teeth skittering across the ground, his eyes being gouged out, and the sickening crack of his head exploding as it was crushed like a walnut by the Mountain's giant hands. Oberyn was dead; Tyrion was sentenced to die; roll credits. Shit.
I get that the death of Ned Stark early on was supposed to signal to viewers that it wasn't a good idea to get attached to anyone. But at some point the constant fear that even your favorite characters -- and certainly the ones you'd normally be inclined to root for -- are as disposable as your average Star Trek red-shirt makes for tough viewing. Last season saw the wholesale slaughter of most of the remaining members of the Stark family in a scene that was genuinely one of the most sadistic and upsetting that's ever been aired on a scripted show. Again, the message, written in blood, seemed to be that not only could the audience surrogates on the show be killed off, they could be killed off by a knife stabbed into their pregnant bellies. At the time, I publicly pondered why the hell I should keep watching a show with so little regard for me.
Admittedly, most Game of Thrones fans, myself included, really have become at least somewhat desensitized to the notion that horrible things can and are going to happen to the people we care about on the show. There's also something to be said for Martin's savvy in writing a narrative that abandons traditional concepts like keeping its heroes at least somewhat safe from harm for the sake of the story and its audience. But there's still a reason the "hero's journey" continues to be the core trope in fiction: because it works. We have to have something to hold onto when we're immersing ourselves in a story and the ability to identify with characters we feel something for matters. We want to see the good guy win sometimes. We damn sure don't want to see his head obliterated by a guy who killed his sister's kids then raped their mother while covered in their blood.
There's a strong possibility that what happened last night will set into motion a new chain of events that may, for all I know, bring a larger, more definitive justice to some of Westeros's worst. But it sucks to know that any tiny momentary victory will almost certainly be offset by yet another crushing loss. I get it, no one is safe. Least of all the audience.