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Game of Thrones’ Dorne storyline is dying how it lived: unremarkably

The show never got us to care about Dorne, and now it's too late.

Few Game of Thrones fans enjoyed the presence of the Sand Snakes.
HBO

While things looked grim for Daenerys and her camp following Euron’s successful attack on her armada of Greyjoy defects in “Stormborn,” Game of Thrones Twitter (and even some writers) found a bright spot within the (literally) dark ambush, taking a moment to celebrate the dispatch of two of the Sand Snakes, who are among the show’s most heavily criticized characters.

As in the season six premiere, when Ellaria executed a coup against Oberyn Martell’s brother Doran and seized control of Dorne, we saw once again in “Stormborn” the show’s crop of Dornish characters cut down. Nymeria and Obara Sand were slain in Euron’s attack, and Ellaria and Tyene have now been presented to Cersei as the “gift” that Euron promised her in “The Queen’s Justice.”

Cersei has seemingly sealed Tyene’s fate with the same poison that Ellaria used to murder her daughter, Myrcella, and is keeping Ellaria alive to watch her daughter die in a particularly cruel and poetic flourish. While Ellaria could still conceivably be rescued, it certainly looks like the end of the line for Dorne as a major player in the Game of Thrones. So let’s look back on exactly why this promising plot line left so many viewers cold.

Note: For these purposes, we’re only going to look at the show’s treatment of Dorne, not how it compares to George R.R. Martin’s depiction of the kingdom and its characters in the books.

Dorne was left unexplored both geographically and culturally

Dorne is a vast kingdom, but the show did not take advantage of that.
Courtesy of gameofthrones.wikia.com

Those who’ve never read the books behind Thrones would be forgiven for having a mental image of Dorne that’s little more than the palace where the kingdom’s leaders reside. When Ellaria murdered Doran, she justified her betrayal by telling him that the people of Dorne despise him for his inaction after the deaths of Oberyn and Elia Martell at the hands of Gregor Clegane, but we’re never shown a single moment of Dornish resentment that validates the coup. Even just one shot of unrest beyond the palace gates would help viewers sympathize with Ellaria and cast Doran’s inaction in an entirely different light.

This moment is emblematic of the biggest issue with Game of Thrones’ handling of Dorne: It’s almost completely unexplored both geographically and culturally. Shot in Spain, Dorne had the potential to be the most exotic non-Essos location on the show: Business Insider even ran a story on the Dorne shooting locations in which the writer “realized it’s much more beautiful in real life than portrayed on the show.”

But much more damning than the lack of beautiful Dornish scenery is the lack of any sense of Dornish culture outside of how it’s experienced by the kingdom’s monarchs. Dorne is ostensibly more progressive and liberal than the rest of Westeros, but are its people really ready to be ruled by a bastard and her illegitimate daughters? What do they stand to lose or gain from the actions of its rulers? Do the Dornish people hate the Sand Snakes as much as the rest of us? These are all potentially fascinating questions that the show could have explored even slightly during season six. But it didn’t, so we don’t really know Dorne, and likely never will.

Game of Thrones spent considerable time and effort exploring the geography and the culture of cities that were essential to Daenerys’s storyline, like Meereen and Qarth. Yet the beauty of Dorne was for the most part discussed but never seen. For all the discussion of Dornish wine, the show could have at least shown us a vineyard.

The Dornish characters always felt separate from the show

Ellaria
Throughtout the show, Dornish characters like Ellaria Sand should have had more opportunity to interact with key figures.
HBO

Part of the ostensible appeal of Dorne was that it felt like an entirely different world while still being in Westeros. But the Dornish characters spent so much time dealing with self-contained matters that were of little consequence to the rest of the Thrones universe. Game of Thrones fans have no problem obsessing over small characters if they feel they can be important to the plot — just look at the fervor around the potential return of Gendry — but the show did a poor job of making Dorne feel like it could be more than a supplier of soldiers in the war for the Iron Throne.

For the majority of their existence on the show, the Dornish characters have been sequestered away from the show’s main action, making the Dorne scenes feel like they dragged even more because they seemed immaterial to the characters we’re most passionate about.

Say what you will about Oberyn Martell and the tremendous amount of time spent on his sexual preferences in season four, but he was at least given opportunities to engage with the show’s most crucial figures. The scene where he offers to be the champion for Tyrion’s trial is stirring, and added some emotional heft to his gruesome death (which is still burned in the minds of many fans). Similarly, Olenna Tyrell’s meeting with Ellaria, where the Queen of Thorns dressed down the Sand Snakes, was a welcome moment in which Game of Thrones’ sharpest wit had the show’s most irritating characters in her sights.

By merging the Dorne storyline with Daenerys’ conquest of Westeros in season seven, Thrones finally appeared to be making an attempt to bring Ellaria and the Sand Snakes into the fold. Seeing Ellaria in the Dragonstone map room this season, strategizing with Daenerys, Tyrion, Olenna, Varys, Grey Worm, and Missandei, has made her motivations finally feel more of a piece with Thrones’ main plot, and made the Dornish plot seem like less of a somewhat scenic sideshow.

Ellaria’s (and Olenna’s) motive of pure revenge created real, important conflict with the politically motivated moves of Varys and Tyrion, and add depth to Daenerys’ struggle over what kind of ruler she wants to be. Ellaria wasn’t given much opportunity to spar with Cersei in “The Queen’s Justice” since she was chained and gagged for most of the episode, and after watching Tyene die, she might now be too broken to engage in a verbal battle with the Lannister leader.

Ultimately, Ellaria and the Sand Snakes were only given a few brief season seven appearances to meaningfully contribute to this story before Euron’s attack. And since it seems highly unlikely that Ellaria will ever be reunited with the rest of the Daenerys faction, their ascension into Game of Thrones’ main storyline feels like a case of too little, too late.

Dorne validates some of the show’s biggest criticisms

The Dournish coup was bloody but thin on justification.
HBO

Early criticisms of Game of Thrones focused on the show’s grisly violence and penchant for sexposition, and as the show has found its footing and developed a larger audience, it’s gotten somewhat better about showing the ramifications of bloodshed and cutting down on the gratuitous sex. But those criticisms still hold for some of the show’s elements, most notably the Dorne storyline.

The Dornish characters are meant to seem more alive and less calculating than the characters in King’s Landing, but often the reason for their passion is poorly articulated or omitted entirely. Their actions (including the cringeworthy “foreign invasion” scene in “Stormborn”) have always seemed conceived as a means to shoehorn the suggestion of more violence and sex into the show, in ways that have never quite felt essential to the bigger plot points.

As Vulture’s Nate Jones wrote in April 2016, “The whole [Dornish] plot line suffers from a lack of context: The only thing that matters is what’s happening onscreen at that exact moment.” Jones notes that Ellaria and the Sand Sakes’ desire for vengeance against Cersei despite her not having a direct role in the death of Elia and Oberyn is thin, as is their power play in season six. The lack of broader context for the Dornish characters’ actions makes them seem motivated less by recognizable human emotion and more by a desire to incite further violence, on the part of both the characters and the show.

Ellaria, at least, gets to expand on her personal motivation in “Stormborn” when she tells Tyrion she killed Myrcella because “[s]he was a Lannister. There are no innocent Lannisters,” which is still a bit thin but is at least an understandable logic for someone wracked by grief. But that isn’t true of the Sand Snakes, whose desire for vengeance feels like a perfunctory echo of Ellaria’s, and as such lacks teeth. In the Sand Snakes’ final scene before Euron boards Yara’s ship, they’re shown bickering about who will get to kill the Mountain and Cersei, but there’s no anger or passion in their argument, and their squabbling makes it seem like the characters aren’t half as fond of each other as they are of killing.

Tyene’s fate in “The Queen’s Justice” does at least seem to have resonated more than Euron’s quick dispatch of her sisters in “Stormborn.” Twitter reactions were more somber, with some even hoping that Bronn comes to her rescue the way she did for him in season five. That’s a step in the right direction, and there’s still slim hope for something compelling to happen with Ellaria, a more intriguing (albeit still relatively thinly drawn) character. But even with the events of “The Queen’s Justice,” odds are good that the end of the Dornish plot line is all but here, and that it’ll wind up being remembered as little more than a missed opportunity.