Book fans and show fans all agree that Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper, is one of the best characters in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. Indeed, there is no quarrel with how his character was portrayed by Pedro Pascal.
The adaptation of the rest of Oberyn’s family hasn’t gone as well. Drastic changes to the Martells were made during the adaptation, but that alone doesn’t account for the thin character development, tacked-on plot, and the feeling that there are like twenty people who live in Dorne. There are too many characters introduced in too little time with no connections made to the main plot until the last moments of last season. The writers of the show simply didn’t spend enough time with the Martells to develop them or their world, and reduced them to caricature.
The events of Sunday, which essentially wipe out the show’s version of House Martell, can be viewed in two ways. It could simply be more rushed, ham-handed storytelling. I’m optimistic that it isn’t.
Instead, I see it as an acknowledgement that the Dorne storyline from last season just didn’t work. If the endgame of the Martells in the books are the deaths of Tommen and Myrcella and the end of House Martell’s rule of Dorne than this is a faster way of getting there.
How the Martells are Different in the Books (Stop Here if you Haven’t Read all the Books Yet)
Doran Martell has two more children in the books. Arianne Martell is the heir to Dorne, and her younger brother is the bookish Quentin Martell. Both Arianne and Quentin are viewpoint characters. Trystane Martell is a boy of about eight.
Doran is one of the most manipulative and dangerous characters in the book storyline. He is often misunderstood, but it can be argued that almost everything that happens in a Song of Ice and Fire is the result of the machinations of Varys, Littlefinger, or Doran.
Ellaria Sand is the complete opposite in the books. She wants no part of any war or vengeance. The three oldest Sand Snakes are just as reckless and dangerous as they are on the show, but Doran has them locked up for inciting rebellion. When an ill-conceived plot by Arianne to crown Myrcella as queen ends in Myrcella being brutally wounded by a warrior called Darkstar, Doran has Arianne locked up too.
After letting the Sand Snakes and Arianne cool their heels, Doran summons them to his chambers. He lets them in on his master plan. He reveals that he has sent Quentin to propose to Daenerys in Meereen. He also gives a badass speech about how he knows he’s seen as soft like the grass, but that the grass also hides the viper and shields him until he is ready to strike. He gives this speech to illustrate how closely he and Oberyn worked to plot their vengeance against the Lannisters for the death of their sister.
He also angers the Sand Snakes by revealing that Cersei Lannister intends to have his son Trystane killed as he accompanies Myrcella on the way back to King’s Landing. He sends Obara Sand to track down Darkstar and bring him to justice for wounding Myrcella, Nym Sand to the Red Keep to spy on the Lannisters, and Tyene Sand to the Sept of Balor to spy on the High Sparrow.
Anyway, once the Sand Snakes are gone on their mission, Doran sends his Daughter on an even more secret errand. She is to meet up with Jon Connington, an exiled lord who claims to be the protector of Elia Martell and Rhaegar Targaryen’s son Aegon (who, he claims, actually survived the sack of King’s Landing after all).
Hold On, So in the Books Doran is a Manipulative Badass and the Sand Snakes are Offended by the Prospect of Trystane’s Murder, but on the Show He’s Weak and the Sand Snakes Murder Trystane? WTF?
Doran may be smarter in the books, but his plan won’t succeed. Quentin failed miserably in his quest. Instead of wooing Daenerys, he was roasted to death by her dragons. Arianne is probably screwed too. The writers of Game of Thrones cut her and the Aegon story completely, an ill omen for her.
Also, remember how I mentioned that the Sand Snakes are just as reckless and dangerous on the show as in the books? I don’t know if they would kill Doran, but Darkstar certainly would and we can’t discount the idea that Darkstar and Obara are working together.
The other two Sand Snakes could conceivably kill Myrcella too. Although they probably wouldn’t kill Trystane outright, their reckless actions could result in his death at the hands of the Lannisters. Either way, they’re going after Tommen at some point.
Sunday’s events are a shortcut to the end of the Martells and the deaths of Cersei’s remaining children (or death of one and attempted death of the other). However, there are two plot holes for the show to resolve here. First, the Sand Snakes are now kinslayers. Maybe that isn’t as big of a deal on the show as it is in the books, or the Sand Snakes don’t care about honor, so there are ways to explain that away.
The bigger issue is that by making Ellaria a combination of Arianne and Darkstar, you’ve given her all of the ruthlessness with none of the legitimacy. Let’s imagine that Darkstar kills Doran and usurps his power in the books. Darkstar is heir House Dayne, the second most powerful house in Dorne. The lords of Dorne could conceivably be tired of what they see as Doran’s dithering and back a coup by House Dayne.
Ellaria is a bastard with no claim to any title. She didn’t marry Oberyn and isn’t related to the Martells at all.
So What Now?
The Dorne plot from the books was clearly too complex for the show, especially when they decided to cut the Aegon storyline. However, they rushed through it last season, and rushed to clean it up this past Sunday. They have some more cleanup ahead since they’ll have to explain 1) how the Sand Snakes are so callous about kinslaying and 2) why the lords of Dorne would back a bastard woman as their new ruler. If these two aspects are explained away, and the Dornish storyline ends up having the same ultimate effect on the show (dead Myrcella, maybe dead Tommen, no more Martells), this might be fine.
There’s also a final possibility. Ellaria could prepare Dorne as a landing-place for Daenerys. Doran was trying to do this in the books, so we’ll see if this is something Ellaria can do once the legitimacy issue is put to rest.
(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe