Season 4 of Game of Thrones introduces viewers to the Martells and the people of Dorne, but there's more to the Dornish than their Red Viper, Prince Oberyn Martell.
The gruesome end of Sunday’s Game of Thrones may have been one of the worst for uninitiated viewers; Oberyn Martell’s sudden and violent death comes as one of the cruelest so far, ranking very close if not as high as the infamous Red Wedding from last season. Probably one of the reasons that Oberyn’s death is such a hard pill to swallow is how the character enters the story, and the expectations the viewer has based on typical story conventions.
Though his time on screen lasted only eight episodes, Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martell quickly became a fan favorite – Here is a suave, handsome newcomer to King’s Landing who carries himself with a deliberate confidence, and is one of the few characters at this point in the series to have a transparent moral compass. He explains in his first episode exactly why he’s in King’s Landing, and what he intends to accomplish.
In most television shows the hero survives. Game of Thrones fans know better than to trust that cliche, but in our guts we still believe that goodness will prevail no matter how many times we see our favorite characters unjustly cut down by the villain. On top of that, Oberyn is one of the newest characters to be introduced in the show. It’s unusual for a story to introduce someone once the plot is under way, just to remove them from the equation so quickly. Whether or not you look that closely into the mechanics of the show, it feels contradictory to bring someone as likeable and good as Oberyn Martell into the fold just to kill him in front of our eyes.
Say what you want about George R.R. Martin – He’s cruel. He’s sadistic. He feeds off our sadness. The joke has been run into the ground: Martin enjoys killing heroes. But killing characters senselessly is just plain bad writing, and Martin may be evil but he is far from a bad writer. Oberyn’s death doesn’t happen just because GRRM drinks human tears for sustenance. There is a whole history to the Martells and Dorne, and while the Red Viper was being violently murdered something very important happened that may have gotten lost in the shuffle.
While the Dornish have been absent from the show until this current season, the Martells have been a major part of Westeros’ history leading all the way up to current affairs.
Long before the events that set the present-day plot of Game of Thrones in motion, Oberyn’s mother actually planned to marry his sister Elia to Jaime Lannister. However when she took the children to Casterly Rock to meet the Lannisters, Tywin’s wife Joanna had just recently passed away giving birth to the Imp, Tyrion. Devastated and wracked with grief, Tywin was unreceptive to the Martells. When they made the offer of marriage to Tywin he rejected them, proposing Elia marry Tyrion instead. The Martells took the proposal as an insult and left. Note: This is when Oberyn first met Tyrion, which he recounts to him in one of the show’s best monologues.
Eventually Elia was arranged to marry Prince Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenarys’s oldest brother) and they had two children, Rhaenys and Aegon. They had a happy marriage for a time, until Rhaegar set his eyes on Lyanna Stark, sister of Eddard Stark and the love of a younger, more willful Robert Baratheon. Rhaegar was immediately taken with Lyanna, and through circumstances that remain unclear, he either kidnapped her by force or the two ran off together. Regardless, Lyanna’s capture sparked Robert’s Rebellion, the war that would eventually seat Robert Baratheon on the Iron Throne and see the end of Targaryen rule.
Near the end of the rebellion the Lannisters, who had until then kept themselves out of the war, marched to King’s Landing appearing as allies set to defend the Targaryens. However when The Mad King Aerys opened the gates to the Lannister army, Tywin immediately commanded his soldiers to sack the city under Robert’s name. As a show of support to the Baratheons, Tywin issued an order to his Captain, Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, instructing him to kill the Targaryen children. Gregor did so, brutally murdering the two boys, and he went on to rape and kill Elia as well.
When news of Elia and her children’s brutish murder reached the South, Dorne became enraged. Oberyn immediately vowed revenge, pleading for House Martell to side with Viserys Targaryen in Essos for retribution. However his older brother Doran, as acting Lord of Sunspear, refused claiming Dorne was not strong enough to take Westeros to war.
The Dornish would remain dormant, away from the War of Five Kings, until Doran’s attendance at King Joffrey’s wedding was requested. Hot-headed Prince Oberyn was quick to take Doran’s place and seek his vengeance from the man who killed his sister and nephews. The rest we have seen unfold this season.
If anything is evident based on what we’ve seen from Oberyn, The Dornish people are proud, decent and dangerous, and they highly value their justice. The duel with Gregor Clegane may have ended in Oberyn’s death, but there is still a nation behind him that has not forgotten the death of Elia Martell. And just as The Mountain crushed the life out Oberyn Martell a stadium full of people heard him confess to the rape and murder of Dorne’s Princess and her children.
Images: HBO, MGM