The most recent episode of Game of Thrones (4.8 The Mountain and the Viper) was very good. However, as a book reader, I have a small quibble. (Here be spoilers.)
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The trial by combat between Oberyn Martell and Ser Gregor Clegane is one of the best scenes in both the book and, now, the TV series. There are many reasons for this. Among them, the fact that there are two levels to what is happening. On one, there’s the whole issue of the murder trial itself, and all that entails for so many characters. On the other, there’s the desire that Oberyn Martell has had boiling inside him for nearly two decades to get vengeance against the people who killed his sister and her children at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. Rumours point to Gregor Clegane, who happens to be Cersei’s champion for the trial by combat, as the perpetrator of these crimes. So Oberyn puts himself forward as Tyrion’s champion in the fight to the death to get revenge for his sister. So already this was set to be a tense scene: on it hinges the outcome of two plotlines.
There’s one other thing in particular that for me makes this one of the greatest scenes in the books. Admittedly, it is a tiny detail, but it’s the cherry on the cake. Unfortunately, although the TV version of the scene is very well executed, this detail did not feature.
Let’s first run through the basic dialogue between Oberyn and Gregor during the fight, which will hopefully help you understand why this detail makes a difference.
‘Do you know who I am?’ asks Oberyn, as the duel begins. ‘Some dead man,’ replies Gregor, lunging. As they exchange blows, Oberyn explains who he is, and that he is here to avenge his sister. ‘You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children’, he says. He repeats it again and again. ‘You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.’ They exchange blows throughout, but persistently he repeats: ‘You raped her, you murdered her, you killed her children. You raped her, you murdered her, you killed her children. You raped her, you murdered her, you killed her children.’ Finally, he gets the upper hand. Gregor is on the floor, grievously wounded. But no death blow yet: Oberyn wants a confession. ‘Say her name,’ he yells. ‘Say it! Elia Martell. Say it. You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children. Elia Martell! You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children. Say her name. Say it–’ But Gregor grabs him, pulls him down, so that they are face–to–face.
Now, here it comes. In the book, here is what happens: Gregor grasps Oberyn’s head, and looks him in the eye. ‘Elia Martell,’ Gregor says. ‘I killed her screaming whelp. Then I raped her. Then I killed her, like this.’ Gregor kills Oberyn.
You might be thinking: ‘What’s the problem? I don’t see anything different from the TV show’s version of this scene.’ Well, my friend, I don’t blame you. It is a small detail, I admit, but it adds so much, I think. What I’m referring to is the use of italics on ‘then’. In other words, in the book Gregor is saying: ‘I killed her children, and after that I raped her.’ Hearing this same dialogue in the TV show, I don’t think this emphasis is made. He says that he did commit the crimes, but he is simply admitting to each of them in a different order than Oberyn said them in.
Why does this matter? Not only does Gregor – now dying and with no reason to keep silent on the matter any longer – admit to three abominable crimes, but, madly, he feels the need to correct Oberyn on the order he performed them in. Gregor is a little enigmatic, despite all the talk about him, but this moment reveals a lot: as the gossip suggests, he relishes violence itself more than any other character in the books. The fact that he remembers the order in which he committed these crimes after nearly twenty years, and the fact that, while lying on the ground potentially–mortally–wounded, he is at all bothered to correct someone on the order he performed them in, both really display this.
And there’s another reason I think this use of italics makes a difference and means that the book’s version of the scene is even greater than the TV show’s. Not only does a confession from Gregor round off Oberyn’s plotline (at least to some extent, since he’s now too dead to get any revenge), but it also rounds off the scene’s dialogue really well. For all the flourishes of the TV fight, this is essentially a scene of dialogue, just with some fighting going on too. Persistently, Oberyn repeats ‘You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children,’ over and over, throughout the scene, and to no reply until finally Gregor’s line, with the italicised ‘then’, subverts Oberyn’s words. With this line, Gregor confiscates Oberyn’s accusatory remarks from him and makes them his own, taking hold of the power in their exchange of dialogue and concluding it, something which is echoed in the fact that, concurrently, he is finally able to kill Oberyn, concluding their exchange of blows.
This is a good way to round off the dialogue in the concluding moments of this scene–within–a–scene, and combined with what it reveals so succinctly about Gregor, it is a great line.
But these things don’t come across in the TV show’s version of the scene, purely because the actor (or director, or whoever) didn’t choose to emphasise the word ‘then’ in the way that might be expected from the italics we see in the book. The scene in the show is still very good, but this lack of emphasis is a shame, because, as I hope I have demonstrated, so much is contained in that one, tiny detail. It’s amazing what italics can do sometimes.