It has been a while since I felt a need to write at length about my disappointment with Game of Thrones. By now the show has deviated enough that my expectations have sunk to quite a low level. It still manages to anger me at times—and to thrill me as well; I won’t deny that some scenes still manage to feel wonderfully right (Oberyn’s and Tyrion’s conversation in episode 7 is one such, for example)—but my relation to the show was irrevocably damaged after the House of the Undying travesty. If they could do something like that, I knew nothing was sacred.
But some foolish hopes did still remain for certain iconic scenes to be done right. The duel between Oberyn and Gregor was one such scene. Surely they could not drop the ball on that one?
As you may guess—since I am writing this and all—my answer to that question is “yes, yes they could”. But before I go on to the how’s and why’s of that, let me just dwell for a moment (okay, more than a moment - I ramble!) on my rather…complicated history with that scene.
Before A Storm of Swords came out, we already knew (I forget if it was from people with advance reader copies or from GRRM) that Oberyn was going to make an appearance. He’d already been an intriguing presence in the appendices and whatever we did hear about him now certainly did not make us any less keen on meeting him. Why? Well, that’s the magic part of a writer creating characters. Sometimes the ingredients come together just so, producing something unexpected from the author’s perspective. For the most part, you cannot set out to create that sort of character; if you do, it will come across as forced and I think we can all think of characters like that, where its clear the author was trying to say “look, he/she is so cool!” (I am sure Elio would like to insert a curse about Karsa fucking Orlong here, for example). In the case of Oberyn, things clearly clicked and he leapt off the page even before we had the book in our hands.
Unfortunately, even before we had the book in our hands, we also learned that his appearance wouldn’t be a long-term one. A board member who had access to the book prior to publication offered to share a few tidbits with Elio in private and one of the things she mentioned was that there was an amazing duel between two of Westeros most deadly fighters. If I recall correctly, we guessed who the duellists were and I just knew that wouldn’t end well for Oberyn. I believe I either asked Elio to ask her right away or I asked him to flip ahead and check once we got the book, but either way I knew before starting the book that he’d be dead by the end of it.
Lets just say that did not get me off on a good foot with the book! When it came to starting to read it, I either told Elio right away that he could read first (we just had the one copy) and I would read the Daenerys chapters whenever he put it down. Alternatively, I may have read all PoVs from the start but switched to reading just Dany as things started getting a bit tense (like when Jaime lost his hand!). Either way, Elio got to both the Red Wedding and the duel between Oberyn and Gregor ahead of me and the many gasps of shock and terror that escaped him as he was reading essentially put me off the book. Apart from finishing all the Daenerys chapters, I stopped a chapter or two before the Red Wedding.
Why? Well, I have a very vivid imagination and the type of brain that gets stuck on things that I don’t want it to get stuck on. I caught enough of those two scenes that I felt that reading them would leave me really stuck on the gruesome bits. It is a bit like when you’re afraid of heights and then you feel this pull towards the side of a bridge, even though you really don’t want to go there. My mind does the same with things I read that make me really uncomfortable. So, I tried to stay away from both the Red Wedding and the duel and the longer I stayed away, the more of a mental block did it create and I found myself unable to finish what I had left of A Storm of Swords.
In that sense, I have the show to thank for something. I decided to re-read each book before the corresponding season and when we got to season 3, I finally got around to reading past the Red Wedding. Then, for this season, I finally finished off the rest of A Storm of Swords. Indeed, as it happened, I’ve ended up reading the chapter with the duel several times as I’ve re-read it several times after watching the episode, because I couldn’t quite believe my eyes.
Because yes, they really did drop the ball.
Oh sure, the broad strokes are there and the “badass” crowd are no doubt ever so gratified by the gruesome ending. But the fight they put on TV had a very different feel than what GRRM wrote. In the books, it is a bull fight, with Oberyn harassing the beastly Gregor until the Mountain loses what little common sense he has to start with. Oberyn isn’t flipping around and doing somersaults as if he was auditioning for Cirque du Soleil; he is conserving his own strength as much as he can, striking fast and deadly like his namesake viper, looking for that opening that will decide the fight. He’s smart and tactical and when you read, you really start thinking that he has the right idea, that his plan is going to work. But Gregor, for all his stupidity, is a great fighter and the text keeps reminding you of that as well. There are moments where the danger to Oberyn becomes very real indeed, as the explosions of fury from Gregor (given their love of gore, I can’t see why we didn’t get the poor stableboy who gets chopped down by Gregor as he pursues Oberyn) come close to ending his life. There’s a real ebb and flow to the fight to the start of it, a dynamic which tosses the reader back and forth between feeling confident and fearful. As it goes on, the pace picks up and the tension grows, with Oberyn’s mantra leading the way. You may not quite realise it just then, but his cool is slipping away from him, bit by bit. The tension is also heightened by Gregor’s growing anger; he doesn’t say much, but what he does say matters for the mood of the scene, matters for making him more than just this random end level boss.
We do get some of that build-up, its true, but we don’t get nearly enough. They hyped this like nothing else before on the show. They could have given it a few more minutes. When you read the chapter, you have plenty of time to wish that it would be over soon, as the building tension starts to become too much. They didn’t capture that. They just went for flash and for gore, forgetting all about tone yet again. Unlike GRRM, they really don’t seem to appreciate that stories are about the journeys, not the end-points. They could also have had the sense to tailor the scene to something the actors could handle physically, so we didn’t have to get frenetic cutting and distance shots to hide the fact that Pedro Pascal’s stunt double did a lot of the work. All of that undermined the intensely personal, even intimate feel of the fight, which very much serves to set up the very close up and personal ending.
And I haven’t even started on how the pre-fight setup also failed to set the right tone. Not only did you have a clichéed promise from Oberyn that he won’t die (a veritable guarantee of the opposite on TV), but we also got four minutes of that utterly mind-bogglingly stupid beetle conversation between Jaime and Tyrion. Those four minutes could have been spent on Tyrion’s and Oberyn’s breakfast conversation before the fight. Having them make awesome plans for Tyrion following his aquittal would have lulled more viewers into a false sense of security and made the end even more bitter. GRRM likes to twist the knife as much as possible, not just hack wildly at you heart.
In fact, I think the shock factor of the scene in the books sometimes makes people forget just how well GRRM builds up and how expertly he toys with the conventions and with your expectations. It just struck me the other week that if you just look at the fight itself and how it unfolds, Gregor is cast in the traditional underdog hero position. He’s struggling against a more skilled opponent who is able to toy with him (and who is doing all the talking, much like the arrogant villain would—though I must hasten to add that it is not in fact about arrogance in Oberyn’s case, though a number of reviewers make this mistake based on the very template I am talking about) and in the end it looks as if he’s done for, until he manages to somehow rally himself at the last moment. If he had been the hero, the end of the fight would have been the obvious one. But he’s not, making the end a cruel perversion of our expectations instead. This is a masterfully written scene, one of GRRM’s best, and they just did not do it justice when they very well could have. We’ve gone on about this a bit during the lead-up to the fight, but they should have gone for something in the vein of the final duel of Rob Roy. That would have sold it perfectly and even if they really only had one actor to shoulder the burden of carrying that scene on Game of Thrones (it is true that the interplay between Liam Neeson and Tim Roth is a big part of the Rob Roy scene), I am quite sure Pedro Pascal would have been up to the task. I was not sold on him in the beginning (in part because we’d seen previews of the fight that made me very concerned and negatively predisposed towards his take on Oberyn, in part because they oversold the “I am such an angry badass” angle in the first two episodes), but by the end of his speech in episode 7 I was totally converted. He really, really understood the character (most crucially, he understood that there’s a lot more to Oberyn than just being a cool badass—just see this interview, for example) and that makes me even more upset that we didn’t get the duel that I had hoped for. I really, really wanted to love it. Well, love to hate it, that is. Because damn, I am still not over that death.