Thursday, July 18, 2024

What on Planetos Happened with Dorne?

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It has never been a secret that I think that the fifth season of Game of Thrones was a creative failure on almost every level. I’ve spent the last year explaining why in detail, so I won’t overburden this piece with that. However, most critics don’t seem to agree with me. To the mainstream media, the season was a resounding success.

Except for one part.

If there is one thing that unites book snobs and show stans, it’s the season 5 Dornish plotline. We all agree: Dorne was a disaster.

The characters were ridiculously cliched. The Sand Snakes, Oberyn Martell’s three bastard daughters, were obviously meant to launch off of that character’s breakout success and popularity. Unfortunately, the people behind Game of Thrones, David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D), apparently didn’t understands what it was about that character that made him popular. Instead of focusing on his intelligence, grief, and need for justice, they focused on…how sexy and violent he was. Then they threw in his long-term girlfriend Ellaria Sand, and made her more or less identical.

The result was four women who belong more in a cheap early-eighties Conan knock-off than in a series with the (rather mystifying at this point) reputation for it nuanced complexity and rounded characters. They stood around in skimpy outfits monologuing about revenge; they had quirky individualized weapons; they flashed their boobs more or less at random; they slapped each other and called each other “whores.”

They are basically stereotypes of hysterical, hyper-sexualized women of colour, who overreact to events and create a mess for the rational men to sort out.

The plot that these characters were involved in was just as unsuccessful, and just as poorly conceptualized.

Apparently, Dorne wasn’t going to feature in season 5 at all, until someone (Bryan Cogman) got the brilliant idea to centre that plot line around Jaime and Bronn’s mission to rescue Myrcella. Unfortunately, they never seemed to consider the almost inevitable implication of this; that it would turn Dorne into what the late, great Edward Said called a “narrative of incident”: a purposely exoticized place, perfect for our white male heroes to have an adventure in. A place that exists only to the “othered”.

“We were so happy to be able to include it. We didn’t know if it would fit, to be honest—because of budgeting, scheduling and story reasons. There were a lot of ways we had to cram it in. But it’s such an important place. Of all the places in Westeros you’d ever want to live, the Dornish seem to have figured out the right approach to life. It’s the one most aligned with what our approach to life would be if we weren’t making this show. It’s our Brazil—we dream of Dorne and the way they do things down there.” —Dan Weiss

This is obvious in how the plot played out; our experience with the Dornish characters was only ever contextualized by how it affected Jaime and the Lannister position in the larger plot. The Sand Snakes and and Ellaria were only ever a danger to them, until they were momentarily not, so Ellaria could help Jaime to his realization that he should embrace his love for his sister and daughter. And then they’re a danger again because the plot demanded it, and we were treated to the sight of a bisexual woman of colour murdering an innocent white girl with a kiss.

The authors of sensationalist Victorian adventure novels would be proud.

The plot itself was ridiculously contrived (the Sand Snakes and Jaime decide to go for Myrcella at the same time? In broad daylight? Really?) and then it fizzled out in a disappointing soup of anticlimax. (It turns out Jaime could have written Doran a polite letter to sort this all out. Who would have thought?)

The supporting characters, Prince Doran, Trystane, Areo Hotah, and Myrcella, were hardly worthy of the term “character”. None of them received any development, or did a single thing of any consequence to the plot.

Shockingly, the tale of star-crossed lovers failed to compel anyone.

Yes, that was a real Facebook ad.

The episode that aired last night, “The Red Woman” proved that this trend is likely to continue, well… forever.

To tell the truth, it’s a little difficult to know where to begin with explaining why the two brief Dornish scenes we saw were the two final nails in the coffin of anyone’s ability to take this plotline (and by extension, this show) seriously.

We begin with (the previously wheelchair-bound) Prince Doran having a lovely chat with Ellaria Sand and her daughter, Tyene. He reminisces about his brother and his adventures, and the viewers are reminded about all the people Oberyn and sex with, and all the men he killed. Doran seems to regret that he wasn’t more like him.

Ellaria doesn’t approve of bisexual erasure!

The trio then gets the news that Princess Myrcella is dead. And this is where the lack of basic narrative logic begins.

Where did this raven come from? From King’s Landing, where the previous sequence took place? This makes little sense: we saw Myrcella die in the final episode of the previous season, and it was within minutes of saying goodbye to Doran, while Ellaria and the Sand Snakes were watching from the dock.

So are we supposed to presume that this scene takes place right after that event, and that this message is from the ship that’s still in sight of the shore? A ship that Jaime then just decides should continue on its journey, with Doran’s son and heir aboard, rather than immediately going back to shore and asking what the hell happened? Or are we supposed to assume that Jaime continued the journey without demanding an explanation for his daughter’s death? Doran’s son is with him, so it’s not like he doesn’t have leverage. Really, neither possible explanation is less stupid than the other.

^And yes, Trystane is on the same ship as Jaime. Here are the establishing shots of the King’s Landing scene, and Trystane’s scene, respectively.

I ask as well because the timeline for the episode in general is a mess. There are sections that, by necessity, need to be happening immediately after their previous scenes from last year (at the Wall for instance), but others that need to take place weeks or even months after, like Jaime’s return to King’s Landing. (Dorne is far away, guys… travelling by ship takes time.)

Tyene’s magically longer hair suggests at least some time passing in the Dornish theatre, but this might be a purely practical matter, because actors have hair and it grows, so I will let that one pass.

In any case, this news is the signal for Ellaria and Tyene to begin the massacre of the remaining members of House Martell. First Tyene stabs Areo Hotah, Doran’s loyal bodyguard in the back. Doran is barely given a chance to react before Ellaria stabs him too, monologuing about how he is too weak to rule. She goes so far as to say that he is “not a Dornishman.”

Presumably because all “true” Dornishmen are as fixated on revenge and violence as she is. Which, let me say this kindly… is not an accurate reflection of the source material. And it will certainly do nothing to reassure those concerned with the orientalist implications of this plotline.

And while this happens, there are about half of dozen Martell guards who just stand there while their prince is murdered. Oh, those crazy Dornish!

Then we have the aforementioned establishing shot that clearly shows that Prince Trystane was indeed on the same ship as Jaime.  Why Trystane wasn’t held to any kind of account for Myrcella’s death is a very good question that the narrative ignores. Along with why he didn’t disembark with Jaime.

Two more of the Sand Snakes, Obara and Nymeria, suddenly pop up into his cabin and the questions begin again.

How did they get there? The last time we saw them was on the dock as well. Did they swim to the ship before it get too far from shore and then stow away for however long it took to get to King’s Landing? Were they offical passengers on this trip? Did they travel to King’s Landing some other way and then swim to the ship after they got there?

Again, none of these explanations are less illogical than the others.

The Sand Snakes tell Trystane that they’re there to kill him, and tell him to chose which one will do the deed.

At least some one feels that way.

After some hemming and hawing he choses Nymeria, but Obara stabs him through the face with a spear anyway. Then Nymeria calls her sister “a greedy bitch.”

This is unlikely to reassure those of us concerned with this show pattern of depicting women as inherently catty and unable to interact positively.

And it should be noted that kinslaying, that is, the killing of close relatives, is the greatest sin in Westerosi society. Even clear villains in the series temper their actions to avoid breaking this taboo. But I suppose this goes to show that the Dornish characters (the ones that are still alive, anyway) are clear villains themselves.

To be fair, this was clear last season, where the narrative wanted us to sympathise with Trystane and Doran because they were pro-Lannister. And the Lannisters are just as clearly the narratives favoured protagonists. In Game Of Thrones, those against the good guys, are capable of every evil.

So the Martells are all dead. And I suppose Ellaria is ruling Dorne now. Doran had no other children or family, so it’s not like there are other candidates. And apparently these women thought that the best way to revenge the murder of Oberyn and his family, was to kill members of his family.


But another thing that is clear to me is that the showrunners had no idea what direction they were going to take this story at the end of season 5. The complete confusion over the physical location of the Sand Snakes should rather prove that. As does the brazen way in which they unceremoniously killed off the princes. They clearly had no idea what to do with them at all.

And that makes the plotline in season 5, and it’s ultimate meaninglessness, even less forgivable than it might previously have been. Not that it was, even in the eyes of show apologists.

Seriously Doran, not now!

The complete banality of this theatre is something that should be laid entirely at D&D’s feet. Even before they admitted that the show was diverging from the source material to such an extent that season 6 would not spoil the unpublished volumes in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, the Dorne we saw on our screens had nothing whatever to do with the Dorne of Martin’s creation.

For that reason, I’m not sure how appropriate it is to even talk about “adaptational issues.” But the changes and omissions that they made are rather illuminating where their priorities as adaptors and story tellers are concerned.

The Dornish plot in the two most recent volumes of the series is the story of Princess Arianne Martell, Prince Doran’s eldest child and heir. (Unlike in the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, Dornish women inherit before their younger brothers. This is something the Dornish are fiercely proud of and will fight to maintain.)

There is a good deal of politicking, but at its essence, the story is a family tragedy. It’s about two people who love each other, but misunderstand each other because of a character failing that they both share. The possible war with the Lannisters that looms over Dorne is not as important as the “war” in Arianne’s mind as she tries to secure not only her political birthright, but also her personal “birthright” to her father’s trust and love.

And yes, all that said, there is still a kind of awesome and dramatic reveal that Doran has been working at the downfall of the Lannisters since his sister was killed during Robert’s Rebellion, and moving into the most recent novel, it’s quite clear that Doran and Arianne need each other on both a political and personal level as they further plans for Dorne. But the overarching “point” of Dorne is most definitely the Shakespearean family drama, and how it poetically unfolds such that it reveals a perfect parallel between Arianne Martell and her father.

It’s difficult to view D&D’s decision to alter this plotline so drastically (to the point where the central character doesn’t exist in this continuity) in anything like a flattering light. The book’s Dornish plot is complicated. It’s full of characters whose motivations aren’t straight-forward and whose actions are morally ambiguous. And, to be fair, Arianne would have been a difficult character even for writers of higher caliber than Benioff and Weiss to tackle. She tends to keep her thoughts to herself (something they have struggled with when adapting Sansa, for example) and say things she doesn’t mean. Arianne is also a “good” person who does “bad” things, and this show has always had huge problems with moral ambiguity. I would have perfect respect for anyone doing an adaptation who said that they were cutting out the Dorne plot because they simply didn’t have the time or resources to do it properly.

But they didn’t choose to cut it, they chose to take the most superficial aspects of Martin’s setting and interpret them in the most shallow, sexist, and racist way possible. And it clear to me after watching last night’s episode, they have learned nothing from last year’s failure.

And I will never again give any credence to the notion that this show is planned more than a season ahead of time, no matter what they claim.

To be honest, before this episode aired I fully expected to never see Dorne again on Game of Thrones. And I’m truly at a loss to explain why they would continue to bring forward such clearly failed characters. It certainly can’t be a wish to adhere to the source material.

No, honey.

But there doesn’t seem to be any question that they thought we would love their version of Dorne, and the Sand Snakes in particular. The marketing around them was intense leading up to season 5. In light of this, I can’t help but wonder, given their proudly stated ability to not let criticism or feedback keep them from telling the story they “want” to tell, if they still think this is going great.

Though the rather conspicuous absence of any Dornish content in the first trailer suggests that at least someone noticed the problem, however.

I can’t even imagine the path forward from here. They’ve certainly cut off any path that might lead to a similar outcome to the source material. The plot involving Jaime and Myrcella has clearly played out its full course, but I have to assume that they will seek to involve the Dornish characters in the overall plot.

Scour the internet as you like, and you will find remarkably few spoilers for this season regarding this plotline. Possibly because no one cares enough to post them. I do recall some vague reference to Olenna showing up in the Water Gardens, but this was so vague I couldn’t even find the source again. And forgive me for not trying too hard.

Perhaps the reason there’s been no spoilers is that this is all we’re getting; now that the white men are done their adventuring, Dorne needs to be quickly expelled from the narrative. It was certainly an effective way to go about doing that. And one that sticks to the racist stereotypes of all Dornishmen being violent. Of course those guards didn’t care that their prince was stabbed!

Yet if we do see Dorne again, some alliance with anti-Lannister forces seems the likeliest option to me. I suppose Princess(?) Ellaria will be negotiating with Daenerys or the Tyrells sometime soon.

Seven Save Us All.

Images courtesy of HBO

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